Who Said That Girls Can’t Do Economics? Discordia, a review

OK, so it’s not Thursday, it’s Friday. But you know what? It’s 5 hours behind Europe in Canada.  And it’s been Daylight Savings Time, which is totally an excuse. Anyway, it’s my blog, so quit your complaining! Here’s another review, this time of a beautiful new ebook. Do read on:

Discordia is a direct challenge to the British media’s conservative coverage of anti-austerity protests in Greece. Political commentator Laurie Penny and illustrator Molly Crabapple take us to the streets of Athens and show how the Greek people are affected by the cuts largely condoned by Britain.

In Spring 2012, British commentator Laurie Penny and New York artist Molly Crabapple set off on a 6-day journey of journalistic discovery. Their mission: to discover what the hell is happening in Athens and to experience the anti-austerity activism first-hand. What came out of that adventure is Discordia, an ebook that mixes personal experience with astute political commentary. The stories of Athens’ locals emerge alongside Penny’s convincing characterisation of a depressed Britain. The crisis of one nation reveals the hidden attitudes of another. All of this is washed over with Crabapple’s gothic sketches depicting the harrowing and uplifting beauty of Greece in crisis. Discordia tells a distressing tale that is also an energizing call to action.

Apathy, that feeling of powerlessness; a feeling so pervasive in Britain it hangs over London like a fog. It keeps our eyes on station floors, brown bleeding between the tiles like stale urine in public toilets. It forces our brains shut on the tube and glazes our eyes in front of our computer screens. ‘Eurozone unemployment jumps to new high,’ ‘Greece sees suicide surge,’ ‘Greek society sees free fall.’ Information washes over our heads. We see only our feet trudging along the wet concrete as we walk to the bus. This is pretty much the definition of apathy. The feeling that what you learn is exactly the same as what you expected and it’s awful. So you don’t do anything about it. It won’t change anything, so what’s the point?

In a digital world in which the glut of information leaves us heavy with despair, Laurie Penny’s writing is a refreshing call to action. She wants you to care, to join in her fight. For her, journalism has a political role. She argues that, what she calls the ‘mainstream media,’ “are complicit in creating that special blend of anxiety and inertia that has calcified dissent across Europe and America since the first uprisings in 2011.” London, New York, Egypt, Greece. Wednesday’s anti-austerity strikes in Madrid, Lisbon and Rome. Rebellions against governmental economic mismanagement are happening all over the world. And, still, we feel powerless.

“The depression has left the British middle class with an identity crisis”

Discordia questions the role the rest of Europe and the US have to play in the Greek crisis.It tries to do what Penny argues mainstream media doesn’t and hold the powers-that-be “to account.” Released as an e-book on Amazon and Google Books, Penny and Crabapple’s tome is part of the new generation of publishing. Penny came to fame through her personal blog into the world of Twitter, Facebook and a million-and-one blogs like mine. The new media aren’t inherently left-wing or anti-authoritarian, but their potential for spreading diverse content quickly, cheaply and easily provides them with a lot of political potential. Now, I’m not going to go all utopian on your asses. I do question how much of a new audience this media reaches versus how much it preaches to the young, lefty choir. But the potential for different messages to be heard is encouraging. As Penny writes, “in the hands of anyone on the other side of a protest line, a camera phone is a weapon as powerful as any club.” New and social media can, sometimes, be used to emphasise social responsibility.

An anti-fascist rally sees racist violence

British reportage of Greece’s crisis speaks to a fear that we, the Brits, will have to pay for another’s mess. Discordia argues that the use of moralising rhetoric to depict Greece’s crisis places unfair blame on Europe’s poorer citizens; an ‘It’s Greece’s crisis and Greece has to pay’ mentality. As Penny writes, “Greece is the beggar of Europe, and these days, beggars have to be made examples of.” This moral rhetoric ignores that it’s not Greece’s mismanaging bigwigs who will pick up this debt. It’s the country’s working and middle class.

Penny links middle-class disappointment to British political apathy. Our feeling that the future’s gone to shit and there’s nothing we can do about it. “The crisis is affecting us, affecting people of the middle class, like me. It’s not only an economic crisis, it’s also a political crisis, a crisis in all parts of life.” The depression is, well, depressing and it’s left the British middle class with an identity crisis. Middle-class Brits in our twenties and early thirties, like me, were told we could have everything and we feel like we have ended up with nothing. Britain’s political conservatism can, in part, be attributed to the shock the recession has given our national self-confidence. Too depressed to extend a helping hand to others, it feels like the anti-cut activism of the past couple of years has died down into grudging acceptance of a bad lot.

The shock of being unemployed. The disappointment of a generation. As a middle-class, educated woman, unemployment is news to me. My artistic deviance from my destiny as a doctor or lawyer was supposed to be channelled into publishing or the media. I wasn’t supposed to be underemployed for 3 years, on anti-depressants and struggling to make my way in a world suddenly hostile to middle-class youth, with all our expectations. Between the time my friends graduated in 2004 and I finished my MA in 2009, the world had changed radically. Now, to have good prospects, you need a degree from Oxbridge or an influential contact. Anyone who’s not one of the lucky few is fucked. For working-class people, this harsh reality might not be news. Maybe it’s something they expected. But for people of my class and age, it is new. Because we were told we could have everything and that has turned out to be a lie.

A stray dog on Athens’ central Syntagma Square, where protests are often held

It’s no wonder that we have come to expect disappointment. Instead of protesting the police brutality in Greece, we watch it unfold with a numb sense of inevitability. We frown, sigh and scroll down. Get off the tube and hurry home to watch the telly. “Now they don’t wait to go inside to hit you, because they have nothing to hide from the world outside Greece.” A Greek protestor describes police brutality.

“Greece is the beggar of Europe, and these days, beggars have to be made examples of.” – Laurie Penny

The fascist party, Golden Dawn, is gaining considerable power in Greece. It’s estimated that 50% of the Greek police force voted for the party. The daily murders of immigrants in Athens are continuing unchallenged by the police. At an anti-fascist rally Penny describes a young Pakistani man who has been bludgeoned by a group of Golden Dawn members. She films as he lies bleeding on the cobblestones, his friends pressing cloth to his head, trying to stop the flow of blood. Such examples of violence show what the ethnic minorities of Greece have to lose. What people fear, even in England, will happen to them at the hands of the police if they make a fuss. But the ethnic minorities of Greece don’t have a choice. Their quality of life has already been threatened. They have to protest the daily murders. We don’t. The lack of political energy in Britain smacks of the awful dead apathy of having given up.

Happier times in Athens: Crabapple and Penny in a local bar

Penny’s compelling words are brought to life by Molly Crabapple’s rich illustrations. Crabapple’s sketches bring out the beauty that is always present, even in the poorest, most desperate places. The intricate richness of her Victorian-inspired sketches make me think of Dickens’ London, covered in grime and fog. Grey and stinking and full of despair. She transports this Anglophile atmosphere to the streets of recession Athens and breathes life into Penny’s words. The effect of their combined art is, surprisingly, hopeful as well as dark.

You could, if you really wanted, dismiss this review and Discordia itself as the whingeing last cry of a disillusioned class as we fall off the perch of entitlement and land smack on our asses in the middle of a depression. But that would be too simple. It would ignore the fact that this apathy pervades all of British society, not just the middle-class. It would also ignore the fact that political apathy is deliberately cultivated by the powers-that-be to keep us uppity, left-wing intellectuals in our (silenced) place. Penny and Crabapple’s ebook depicts the disappointment and anger of Generation Y’s middle class and creates a compelling call to action. After all, who knows what would happen if we were all like Laurie Penny and Molly Crabapple?

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