The “Glass-cow Effect” and Seeing Ourselves as Others See Us

As you may have seen by now, two eager American teenagers are coming to save Glasgow from itself later this summer. Yesterday, a three minute video started doing the rounds on Facebook, in which our bright young paternalists pitch for crowdfunding to come and “turn the situation around in the city”, which we’re told is blighted by child poverty, industrial wasteland, and something called the “Glass-cow effect”.

Inevitably, the video sparked much howling among Facebook users and the kind of online derision not seen since the last time someone perceived to be an outsider said they were coming to peform a cultural experiment in the city – that being January’s infamous “Glasgow Effect” art project.

“We have a vibrant healthy amazing city, we just hosted the Commonwealth Games” protested comedian Janey Godley yesterday, while a spokesperson for Glasgow City Council intervened to say that “If they make it to Glasgow they’ll find a city that looks very different to the one in their video.”.

The image the video portrays is, it would be fair to say, at odds with the one that Glasgow’s officials and marketing bosses like to project to the world. Glasgow is a confident, bold and prosperous place – a city of “regeneration routes”, creative quarters, MTV Award shows and the hippest street in Britain. It’s Miles Better. Scotland With Style. It is anything but a charity case, in other words. Cue most of the outrage over the video seeming to centre on the idea of people from another country daring to look at Glasgow in a negative light.

Cheesy American Christians with their bad generic soundtrack and condescening tone are not exactly difficult to mock either, and the selection of photos and the dubious map which sees “Glasgow” covering about half of Scotland are pretty er, “selective”. The project website has much more great content too, promising its budding young missionaries the opportunity to “revitalise” the city through courage, faith and a “traditional Gaelic ceilidh”. Yet the photos in the video are the same stock images used without fail by our own news outlets when covering domestic poverty. What the video actually say about the city – that one in three children grow up in poverty and that it has serious issues with disused land (covering 12% of the city at the last count), stress and alienation – is hard to dispute. Whether Christian courage and faith is the answer to this is probably more debatable.


However, is what these kids from Florida are up to really any worse than what Scottish teenagers do every year in their parachuting in to countries with “real” poverty – i.e. where non-white people live – to build schools, dig foundations and pose for Tinder profile pics? Remove “Glasgow” and stick in “Malawi” and the video could’ve been produced by any secondary school in Scotland.

It sharply brings in to focus what an embarassment our one-dimensional conceptions of charity and tackling inequality actually are. It is, of course, ludicrous to suggest that two American teenagers coming over for a few weeks in June is going to “turn around” decades of post-industrial decline, poor health and structural inequality, as they suggest it will. Much the same can be said for any overseas volunteering, gap-yah style self indulgence.

Glasgow is a divided city. Much of the mockery of the video has suggested that poverty is a foreign concept; it’s what we go to fix elsewhere rather than the other way round. Municipal rebranding strategies aside, denying the existence of poverty doesn’t seem particularly helpful to anyone. Others have rebounded that the United States is hardly a country without huge levels of deprivation itself – as though the thought of extreme poverty in Scotland has ever stopped us from packing our school kids off to parts of sub-Saharan Africa that they have little cultural understanding of.

I’ve been reading a book of ex-slaves’ accounts of self-liberation during the American Civil War recently, and one of things that has stuck with me has been various snippets using a quote from a Byron poem, “Who would be free themselves must strike the blow”. In other words, social and economic inequality – in any country – will not be solved by paternalism, crowdfunding your holiday or nauseating Youtube videos. It might not always be glamorous but ground up efforts, self-organisation and actually trying to challenge the structures of social and economic oppression are more likely to make a difference in the long run. So fuck paternalism.


Further reading:

Will the Barras Survive Regeneration?

Is the East End of Glasgow the NEW West End of Glasgow?

The Glasgow Effect, Funding the Arts and Pissing On Your Chips


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3 responses to “The “Glass-cow Effect” and Seeing Ourselves as Others See Us

  1. If I ever come across anyone from round here talking about going off to Kenya or wherever to Make A Difference With the Power of Whiteness I’m going to show them this video like, ‘THIS IS WHAT YOU SOUND LIKE. STOP IT.’

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