Saturday, 13 October 2018

The Great Orange Pastiche, Donnish Spats, Interspecies Descent, Terror Law and Asset-Stripped Justice

Saturday morning with a new edition of the LRB, a pot of coffee and no dog-walking duties: pure comfort.

My work for the week is complete, my folders organised for a couple of hours’ work on Monday, so that I am ready for teaching on Tuesday. I can forget work for two days. Amanda is meeting a friend to walk Tia, so I have settled in my office chair, logged in to the Naxos muxic library with my Isle of Wight Library card, and have enjoyed an hour and a half of reading.

Click the cover to go to the edition”s web page

As often happens, although nothing leapt out at me from the cover of the current edition of the review, every article I’ve read so far has been engaging. The opener is a review of Bob Woodward’s recent book on the chaos of Trump’s presidency, Fear: Trump in the Whitehouse. It is difficult to know what there is to be said about Trump’s reign of confusion and hatred that has not already become cliché. Even Woodward’s book has been so widely reviewed, trumpeted and quoted in the month since its publication that I feel I have already read it. David Runciman, in reviewing it, picks on the idea of office politics; the bickering of the mundanely selfish, and observes the extent to which the current American administration has demeaned the role of government in the United States.

Sure…all workplaces contain their share of plots and vendettas, backstabbers and arse-lickers, people on the way up and all the ones they’ve trampled on to get there. But actual politics is about more than that: the power it brings extends well beyond the immediate working environment…

Except, he concludes, in the reign of the great orange pastiche, it doesn’t. Trump does not understand the forces he is supposed to participate in and does not care. His only tools of government are extemporised pronouncement, self-acclamation and hiring-and-firing. He has reduced government to something less, but we are all, Runciman included, struggling to find the correct image to explain the mess.

I had a strong sense that Trump reminded me of someone I had seen regularly on TV, but it wasn’t TV’s Donald Trump. Then I got it. The working environment this White House brings to mind is a reality show that displays a deeper level of truth by being entirely unreal. Woodward’s book reads more than anything like a mockumentary, and the person Trump most resembles is David Brent from The Office. He has the grating inadequacy, the knee-jerk nastiness, the comical self-delusion. But he also has something of the pathos.


The letters pages of the LRB are a slow-burn enthusiasm. I used to skip them, feeling that any pleasure they offered was of the voyeuristic, petty sort experienced by venturing below the line on online news websites. However, they are curated by the editors and are, as a result, always relevant to a regular reader of the publication.

That is not to say that a taste for pettiness goes long unrewarded. This issue, there is a further development –  a reply to a reply – in the delightful feud between Rhodri Lewis, author of Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness, and Michael Dobson, who wrote an eviscerating review of that book in the LRB of September 13th. The editors of the paper are wise; they let these academic spats blossom for just long enough for both sides to get a few digs in and then draw a veil over them, so I suspect Dobson’s current letter will be the final say. He has used it well. Taste the vinegar:

Lewis closes by observing that ‘on two or perhaps three occasions I have been seated in close proximity to Dobson at the theatre,’ and he is generous enough to speculate that my apparent obliviousness of his presence may have been feigned out of politeness. I am sorry to have to report that my obliviousness was merely genuine. However, now that I have read Lewis’s letter and his book and seen his image on a dust jacket, it will be possible for me to ignore him in future every bit as politely as he could wish.

Or, to put it another way: “That’s you, that is.”

Pleasurable as this is, there are several serious letters in this issue that extend the topics of recent articles without descending into vitriol, erudite as that vitriol is. In particular, I was interested in the letter from Steve Balogh about the article Neanderthals, Denisovans and Modern Humans, by Steven Mithen from 13th September, which reviewed Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the new science of the human past, by David Reich. The original review had made an impact on me because of the force with which it made the case that racial distinctions between humans are scientifically meaningless, and the stress that modern genetic researchers are laying on this argument. Biology has a dark history of -sometimes deliberate; sometimes incidental- racist interpretation. Now, even well-intentioned work such as Reich’s is laid open to examination in moral and social, as well as scientific lights:

Earlier this year, Buzzfeed published an open letter signed by 67 scientists and scholars in the social sciences, law and humanities about Reich’s treatment of race…The signatories recognise ‘the existence of geographically based genetic variations in our species’, but argue that ‘such variation is not consistent with biological definitions of race.’ Their position is not that human populations ‘have no biological attributes in common’, but that ‘the meaning and significance of the groups is produced through social interventions.’

The article left me with a view of a much more varied and sunny history of human and proto-human interraction, in which the boundaries of species definition are less sharp than we might imagine: an analogue to the answers we all wish racial absolutists would learn about racial definitions. However, this, according to Balogh, might be a misinterpretation. I quote his letter in full:

Steven Mithen steps carefully around the issue of the fecundity of the offspring produced by couplings between ancestral hominin species (LRB, 13 September). The initial sequencing of Neanderthal DNA was of mitochondrial DNA, which is passed only from mother to daughter. It proved to be entirely distinct from that of Homo sapiens: there is today no one on earth whose mitochondria comes from a female Neanderthal ancestor. This means that interbreeding produced fertile offspring only through mating between Neanderthal males and Sapiens females. Subsequent analysis of autosomal DNA showed that the Neanderthal Y chromosome went extinct as well. This means that of the hybrids, only the females were fertile.

The implications are clear: relations between the two populations must have been difficult.

Nevertheless, the developments in DNA archeology are rapid and fascinating. It is an area of study with which I want to keep up. We are a long way from truly understanding what it is to be human, and this new technology has a lot to teach us and a potential for misuse of which we need to beware.


It’s all about race, and its underlying impulse, hierarchicalism. All the mess of Trump’s misrule, and the broader darkness of capitalist inequality, come back to the separation of humanity into groups enjoying legitimacy and dominance and others excluded from that illusory social fortress. Two very different articles highlight this. The first is an account by Thomas Laqueur of a tour of Montgomery, Alabama, focussed upon the new Legacy Museum, a project of the Equal Justice Initiative. The second is a short, coldly angry article by Francis FitzGibbon about the destructive effect of austerity-led misrule over the U.K. justice system, of which, more later.

The Legacy Museum catalogues the scale of the horror of slavery, both when it was the basis of the U.S. economy in a legal framework, and in its reinvention as an extralegal economic structure, skirting the boundaries of slavery’s abolition. I recommend clicking on the link in the previous paragraph. On its home page, there is this:

The Story: Slavery Evolved.  To justify the brutal, dehumanizing institution of slavery in America, its advocates created a myth of racial difference. Stereotypes and false characterizations of black people were created to defend their permanent enslavement as “most necessary to the well-being of the negro” – an act of kindness that reinforced white supremacy. The formal abolition of slavery did nothing to overcome the harmful ideas created to defend it, and so slavery did not end: it evolved.

Lynchings served as the enforcement arm of a parallel state in the U.S., and, in a way, they still do, although that parallel state now has one of its most enthusiastic denizens in charge of the greater nation. The sheer scale of the terror is dizzying: 150 deaths in a particular incident (more people than died on Kristellnacht), three a week through the 1890s and one a week or more for decade after decade, and well into the civil rights era. But it is the deliberateness of this sustained failure to concede the wrongness of one racial identity’s power over another that repeatedly shocked me throughout Laqeur’s article:

Lynching – charivari at its most violent, a murderous popular enforcement of majority community values – has nowhere else in the world been employed for as long or as often as in the United States. There are incidences of it in some Central American countries with weak governments; it is now on the rise in India. But it is indigenous here. Before the Civil War whites were the primary victims, especially but not exclusively in the relatively lawless west. After it, close to 75 per cent of lynchings were in the deep South; more than 90 per cent of the victims were black…But the story of African Americans constitutes a special case. No other post-slave society turned to terror lynching to maintain white racial dominance.

And they were horrible murders, as well: the atavistic desire to make the outsider suffer and to revel in his, or her, suffering.

In a 1909 article called ‘Lynching, Our National Crime’, Ida B. Wells identified another, unassimilable strangeness: ‘No other nation, civilised or savage, burns its criminals,’ she writes. ‘Only under that Stars and Stripes is the human holocaust possible.’ Europe had not seen public burnings since the Spanish Inquisition and the burning of heretics after the Reformation. Racial terror was more than instrumental: the hundreds of carnivalesque burnings and hangings were ritually constitutive of the white South, a holocaust in its Old Testament sense. Lynchings were sometimes responses to primitive fears of the sort we usually connect to the early modern European witchcraft trials and medieval pogroms: Charlotte Harris was lynched in Rockingham County, Virginia ‘after a white man’s barn burned down’; three people were lynched because the white family for whom they were working claimed to have been poisoned; seven black people were lynched near Screamer, Alabama for drinking from a white person’s well.

There was always a pretext for the random murder of black people, then as now; often spurious sexual accusations, but, among the many other lies, rejection of a business offer or trying to vote seem to pierce the crazed patina of pseudo-moral outrage of the murderers, just as traffic stops by modern, poorly-trained and heavily armed police forces make us see through the lying generalisations about black American criminality. We should not believe, however, that these pretences were (or are) anything other than rationales for power, because the murderers didn’t (and don’t). They knew (and know) what they were (and are) doing.

The so-called Wilmington Insurrection was, in fact, a coup; whites, furious at the victory of a mixed-race coalition in a local election, started a rampage. At least thirty blacks – the EJI puts the number at sixty – were murdered. ‘North Carolina is a white man’s state and white men will rule it,’ the local paper announced. ‘No other party will ever dare to attempt to establish negro rule here.’

The rape pretext, like all the others, can be linked to slavery: a metonym for the white fear of blacks in revolt. In her 1911 memoirs, Rebecca Latimer Felton, a leading Southern advocate of women’s rights but an inveterate racist, made the link blindingly obvious: ‘Southern fathers and husbands’, she wrote, remembered the fear of slave insurrections during the Civil War, and were ‘desperate as to remedies’. ‘It is the secret of lynching instead of a legal remedy. It was “born in the blood and bred in the bone”, and a resultant of domestic slavery in the Southern states.’

The other aspect of this terror-dominance is the misuse of formal legal structures to embed inequality. While the U.S. has seen a steady decline in overall crime over several generations, the imprisonment of black men has become its own holocaust. Neither is this a new phenomenon.

The museum shows how the Black Codes passed by Southern states after the end of the Civil War to restrict the occupations, movements and wages of former slaves led to the rise of incarceration of blacks for petty crimes, partly as a result of their inability to pay fines for small infractions. It also documents the advent of black convict leasing, when prisoners were hired out to provide labour to private companies. It is not hard to see the present in that past, and some of the continuities are almost parodic. The notorious 19th-century Louisiana State Penitentiary is known as Angola after the sugar plantation on the same site which was worked by slaves before the Civil War; after the war it remained a sugar plantation but was worked instead by black convict labour. Those not needed on the plantation were hired out elsewhere. But unlike expensive privately owned slaves whose lives mattered, leased convicts were disposable. In bad years the death rate among leased prisoners was roughly equivalent to that in the labour camp part of Auschwitz.


The final article I read this morning, and the one that made me put down the LRB and decide to spend another morning blogging, was a Short Cuts piece by Francis FitzGibbon on the deliberate, catastrophic dismantling of public justice funding in the U.K. When I stopped working (as a teacher) in the criminal justice system, in 2013, the prison system was at something of a high point. Much was wrong with it still, of course, and the creeping privatisation bode ill for the future. However, the generation of prison officers whose attitudes had been formed in the anarchy and violence of the 1980s (known within the service as ‘the dinosaurs’) had, by and large, been removed, or been sidelined, to be replaced by educated, professionalised officers of commitment and understanding. Suicide, self-harm, violence towards officers and other prisoners, and even reoffending across all types of crime were as low as they had ever been. While Disney had made an expression of interest in the next round of privatisations, and G4s and Serco were defying their incompetence to hoover up more and more of the funds available to prisons, the New Labour government, for all its varied and manifest failings, had managed to keep a lid on the U.S. style marketisation of prisons in this country, albeit a shaky one.

Today, five years later, we are in a state that is probably as bad as the worst period of the eighties, although, with the collapse of principled journalism, you would hardly know it. Prison unrest and assaults against staff; suicide rates that indicate it is becoming a tolerated norm for prisons to suffer regular self-slayings; staffing levels that make the delivery of even basic safety, let alone meaningful activity serving towards rehabilitation a wistful memory: the horror mounts up, virtually ignored by society at large.

Unusually, though, in this political and social disaster, there is a clear culprit. I have been amazed by the continuing power of a particular Tory Minister: Chris Grayling. He is a base, incompetent ideologue, with his eyes firmly set upon the dismantlement of a working U.K. FitzGibbon, focussing upon the effects his criminal uselessness have had upon the courts system, more than on prisons, has this to say about his tenure as ‘Justice Minister’.

Criminal justice has long been a sandpit for policy-makers, with the political imperative being always to appear ‘tough on crime’. It would be unfair to blame one man for the present state of affairs, but for casual ineptitude no cabinet minister comes close to Chris Grayling, lord chancellor and justice secretary between 2012 and 2015…Prison budgets have been cut by about 30 per cent. Grayling stopped prisoners receiving books. He cut the numbers of prison officers. He hived a large part of the probation service off to private companies, several of which have performed poorly and have had to be saved from going bust by the taxpayer. His legacy is the violence and anarchy that reigns in many prisons today.

I have long loathed Grayling. I find it hard to believe that he was not taking bribes or, at least, working in partnership with organisations in whose interests it is to asset-strip the justice system, on the promise of later favours. Otherwise, why, for fuck’s sake? Why?


Trump, interspecies rape amongst early proto-humans, lynchings, political corruption: all these horrors make it sound as though I have had an uncomfortable and angry morning. Nothing could be further from the truth. In a time when the BBC bases most of its news on the press releases of American corporate lobbying companies and The Guardian is lost in a trap of protecting its writers’ London property interests against all political good sense, reading the London Review of Books gives me a slight reassurance that, on many issues, I am on track, at least in general terms. I am outside the LRB’s social and economic class: the subscription is barely within my means now that my hours at work have been cut, but the recognition that I am not alone in my preoccupations is an important pleasure for me.

 

 

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

A Polemic About Social Media And Political Campaigning

Preamble

A month or so back, a friend of mine who suffers from long-term, severe mental illness was attacked by a group of boys on her estate. They took photographs of that attack and posted them on social media.

They are pretty much immune from prosecution, thanks to the ‘viral’ response to their post. Granted, they are now pariahs in their close-knit community, and their ugly, stupid act will follow them into their adulthood, cropping up whenever they attempt to make any public progress in their lives. If you believe in mob-justice, then justice might be said to have been done. The state, however, because of the illegal publication of their identities on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, is powerless to take action against them. It can only attempt to protect them from the self-aggrandizing vigilantiism to which they have opened themselves by their use of social media and their grotesque immaturity. The legitimate, accountable, democratically-authorised legal system has been short-circuited by a foreign-owned capitalist monopoly that uses the everyday indignities of humanity as grist to its algorithms and regards legal and democratic structures as barriers to wealth creation and the self-actualisation of the cleverest, luckiest and most ammoral elite in history.

I saw my friend last weekend. She is terrified. She is not engaging with the community which piously leapt to her defense after years of treating her as a local embarrassment, and she thinks the police are trying to victimise her: their inability to give her a clear course of legal remedy for her ordeal has confused the issue beyond her ability to engage with it. She is also mesmerised by her Facebook feed, which seems to be confirming her long-standing belief that the world is purposed towards her destruction. Horribly, I think that her fear that the hatred towards the boys will swing back to her may be justified. That is the nature of restless, self-righteous, technologically-enabled groupthink.

The rule of law is a mainstay of democracy. Facebook undermines that rule. It is inherently anti-democratic.

A Short History of Social Media and Political Campaigning

The 2015 Labour Leadership Poll was a triumph for people who sought to manipulate social media in the service of meaningful political change: what Jeremy Corbyn called, “…a thirst for something more communal, more participative.”[1]

By the 2017 general election, however, the political promise of the medium had begun to be diminished by forces other than the well-directed groundswell of public feeling that had empowered the Elect Corbyn for Leader movement. I am not an unquestioning fan of Momentum, but I think that the campaign to elect Corbyn as leader was a model of how to use social media to a positive purpose. What they achieved in ‘15 was to break the ‘echo chamber’ or bubbling effect of Facebook and Twitter’s algorithms, by pulling in unsympathetic friends of sympathisers, and engaging them in debate and exposing them to sincere voices of political hope.[2] By the time of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and by 2017, the social media companies had realised that this was a loophole in their control of users’ media consumption and had adjusted.

Before Facebook became a publicly quoted company, focussed on advertising spend, it had been chasing engagement over content control, powering for growth, and there was a certain freedom of expression allowed to its users. By 2016, it was chasing the control of what its users were seeing to a far greater extent, refining their offering to advertisers and data-purchasers and trying to present a soothing, ‘mimetic’ (ie, reflective, flattering) experience to users which would make viewing Facebook a comfortable and reinforcing experience to which people would return without worry.[3] That is why they bubble you. It’s not a service. It’s a mechanism of control.

Furthermore, the sophistication of the JeremyForLeader campaign, alongside the Occupy movment and the lessons learned from The Arab Spring movements, had caught the attention of other forces, both within the U.K. and outside it. Academic studies translated to media management policies[4] which were adopted by right-wing forces[5] and foreign intelligence services[6] to undermine the impact of organised popular campaigns. Populism swings in many directions.

In short, the glory days are over for democrats who use social media. An open technology -the internet- that was designed to release knowledge, communication and democratic access from the establishment gatekeepers who had directed public debate since at least the 1850s[7], has been co-opted by a new capitalist, plutocratic, neo-liberal elite, to bind its customers into a tower of Babel, in which coherent exchange of ideas is anathema, labelled as TL:DNR.

The Limits of ‘Privacy’ Settings

Know this: a private Facebook group is not private. It is exclusive, in that the labour put into it is restricted to those who choose to sign up to it. This means that it serves as a mechanism of exclusion of those people who, for whatever reason, choose to not participate in social media. However, that ad hominen rant against a comrade to which you succumbed during the Owen Smith leadership challenge is available to the right level of advertiser, if they’re searching for dirt on the Labour Party during an election campaign.

And that situation assumes that you’re wise enough to restrict your rants to a ‘private’ group, and to not share your breathless prose in a moment of vainglory to your main feed. Or that all the members of the group have the best wishes of the party at heart. Or that the administrators have kept up with the constant changes to Facebooks privacy rules, and that the group is still actually set to ‘private’, rather than just ‘closed’. Or that no one is taking screenshots for malicious purposes.

But you know that, really. How else do the rumours of ‘green infiltrators’ get started?

Unless you delete your account -not just a single comment, but your whole account- and forego logging back into it for two weeks after you have deleted it, everything you have ever uploaded, written, sniped or ‘shared’, is sitting in a folder on Facebook’s servers, available to the highest bidder, and linked to you. Have you ever enjoyed watching someone try to backtrack on an opinion they expressed five years ago in a drunken moment? It could be you. Only the safety of the crowd protects you.

The Great Con

There is a rather mischievous argument doing the rounds in internet freedom circles that claims China actually has more politically effective internet access than the free West. I consider that nonsense: Chinese citizens have definitely scored real successes in changing government policy through internet activism, but they’ve been pretty well educated in staying away from economic, central government and foreign affairs topics. However, the state is not the only enemy of freedom, and in the West, it is not even the most powerful.

As John Lanchester puts it:

Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens…Your eyes are directed towards the place where they are most valuable for Facebook.[8]

The sight of large chunks of a socialist party beavering away, providing free labour to create content for a few American monopolist corporations fills me with despair. It is as if the Chartists had had their discussions about citizens’ rights in the tearoom of the House of Lords. In the light of what we know about how Facebook played (or, as they claim, were played, during) the last American presidential election, we should understand that they have worked out how to neutralise justice movements’ energy and commitment. They want to keep you happy, yes; that is why there are cat videos, but angry people click as well, and division is incredibly easy to sow, if you know where to lay the seeds, and you own the field.

Know this also: social media, particularly Facebook, is as much a product of manipulative psychological theory as it is a product of technology. Zuckerberg actually pursued a dual degree at Harvard: Computing and Psychology. The mechanisms written into Facebook behavioural algorithms are rooted in the theories of conditioned response which underpin the most nakedly dishonest branches of marketing, propoganda and behavioural control. The desire for a ‘like’ or a notification of any kind on a social media app or browser window, is the same conditioned twitch seeking content-free reward as is used by the designers of gambling machines. It is the behaviour of the rat that has been trained to associate a button with pleasure and will starve to death seeking the signifier of that pleasure, even when the actual reward has been removed from the process.

Von Clausewitz said that armies lose when they try to re-fight the last war. The limited, almost-victory of the 2017 election was successful, as far as it went, not because of social media, but because Labour concentrated on what mattered: having control of its content and being clear about what it stood for. The brief flowering of commercial social media as a medium of democratic liberation is over. We need to create our own fields.

We need a CLP Facebook feed, but it should be treated as a shop window, only being populated with content approved by the CLP, in a professional manner: another method among many to spread our Labour ideals to the public. It should be curated, nurtured and controlled.

We do not need a public kvetching arena, which is what our ‘private’ Facebook group is.

Get off Facebook. Start creating our own discussion groups on secure media that we own: Diaspora is a good first step, but a Rocket chat server would be more instinctive for most users and would be easy to set up, and cheap to run, and we would own it in a way we would not own a Facebook page. It would also be free of the pressure to keep up, to keep chasing the approval of an algorithm. It would remove the competitive fury inherent in social media slavery, and it would allow us to discuss again, instead of constantly arguing.

Bibliography

Nunns, Alex, The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path To Power (1st ed), OR Books, New York & London, 2016,

Lanchester, John, You Are The Product, London Review Of Books, Vol 39 No. 16, Aug. 2017.  https://www.lrb.co.uk/v39/n16/john-lanchester/you-are-the-product

Miller, Patrick R., et al. “Talking Politics on Facebook: Network Centrality and Political Discussion Practices in Social Media.” Political Research Quarterly, vol. 68, no. 2, 2015, pp. 377–391. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24371839.

Schroeder, Ralph, Digital media and the rise of right-wing populism Social Theory after the Internet: Media, Technology, and Globalization UCL Press. (2018) https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt20krxdr.6

Allcott, Hunt, and Matthew Gentzkow. “Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election.” The Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol. 31, no. 2, 2017, pp. 211–235. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/44235006

 

Endnotes

  1. Cited in Nunns, Alex, The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path To Power, (1st ed) OR Books, New York & London, 2016, p143
  2. Nunns, p251
  3. Lanchester, John, You Are The Product, London Review Of Books, Vol 39 No. 16, Aug. 2017.
  4. Miller, Patrick R., et al. “Talking Politics on Facebook: Network Centrality and Political Discussion Practices in Social Media.” Political Research Quarterly, vol. 68, no. 2, 2015, pp. 377–391. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24371839.
  5. Schroeder, Ralph, Digital media and the rise of right-wing populism Social Theory after the Internet: Media, Technology, and Globalization UCL Press. (2018) https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt20krxdr.6
  6. Allcott, Hunt, and Matthew Gentzkow. “Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election.” The Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol. 31, no. 2, 2017, pp. 211–235. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/44235006.
  7. Alcott & Geentzkow
  8. Lanchester,

 

Wednesday, 1 August 2018

Reality, Content and the Death of Meaning.

Besides half an episode of the first series of Big Brother, which I switched off in cringing irritation, I have never watched a reality TV programme. Like Nando’s, homeopathy and Chris Ryan books, reality TV seems like an experience which belongs on a list of exceptions to the ‘don’t knock ’till you’ve tried it’ rule.

I just put “try anything once except…” into DuckDuckGo and discovered that it was Sir Thomas Beecham who said he drew the line at incest and folk-dancing. It reminded me how dull I am.

Nevertheless, it is a familiar world. On tired evenings, I like watching The Big Bang Theory on E4, and it is usually sandwiched between extended trailers for the bizarre sexualisation of a tropical beach or Spanish villa, with steroid-queen English boys smirking at siliconed English girls in an atmosphere of mutual loathing, humiliation and hypocritical endearments.

Worse than that incidental exposure to the wretched form is the ‘serious’ criticism that tries to elevate ‘reality’ to a meaningful topic of discussion, rather than the intellectual and moral scab-picking it really is. Oddly juxtaposed with stories about the menopause and FGM, reality TV as a ‘guilty pleasure’ is a stand-by on Woman’s Hour, as predictable as the choice of Book of the Week. Roland Barthes, I suppose, can be used to justify this attention to a form that is so static, so lacking in any sense of revelatory epiphany that even he, I suspect, would have given a Gallic pfft to this stymied vortex of attention-seeking and not-quite-rape. Semiology, seeking to find enlightenment in the dignifying of popular forms, is rendered into a simulacrum of a non-representation by an art that is only artifice: form without even the ambition of meaning.

It is a measure of my trust in the writer John Lanchester that I even started his story in the current issue of the LRB, ‘Love Island’. Such is my disinterest in the topic, that I almost decided to pass over it, even though I am usually delighted to see that he has an article in the Review. His essay on the lasting impact of the great financial crash in an issue a month or so back finally convinced me that we really are living through the death of capitalism. A review last year, You Are The Product, about the confidence trick that is social media, gave me a summary of all the fury I feel towards the corporate monopolisation of the internet and the ruination of this wonderful technology. Over the past couple of years, I have read articles and reviews by him on Brexit, Bitcoin and Nabakov, and they have all been the sort of reading that leaves me feeling empowered by a clearer vision than I can manage on my own.

I really, really recommend Love Island. Buy the edition of the LRB or read it online. It is a short story that has echoes of several science fiction stories that are buried in my collection of old anthologies, never to be rediscovered, but it is beautifully constructed and perfectly paced. He has done what I could never bring myself to do: look at the reality TV form closely and see it through the eyes of the participants: the people for whom the ritual is an elite rite of passage into the gleaming uplands of celebrity and vindication. Not individually stupid, they have buried themselves in stupidity for the sake of validating their devotion to the surface-trapped onanism of our culture. They do it to themselves and they pursue the promise that one, every other year or so, will rise out of the murk to make a career that echoes that of the most wretched of fame’s sub-tribes; the presenter.

There’s a strange further quirk to this story. In the same edition, David Thompson has a (subscriber only) article on binge-watching a drama series about Berlin in the 1930s. His experience has some of the pointlessness of watching an entire series of reality TV, as he highlights the hallucinogenic quality of view-on-demand, multi-layered narrative television drama that, to allow for follow-on series, (excuse me: seasons) never comes to anything but conditional climaxes. However, the particular topic of the series he discusses, the decadence of a doomed culture dancing towards apocalypse, came to have a far more contemporary value, once I had read Lanchester’s story about lost souls, pretending to be happy, pretending to be pursuing love, in a sun-drenched prison, isolated from any redeeming dialectic of meaning.

Monday, 12 December 2016

Welcome to the Rich Elite’s Excuses.

A recent article in the Guardian, entitled Welcome to the Age of Anger.

In their struggle to explain “The New Irrationalism”, the hierarchically-conditioned press are blaming the poor: saying that the victims are not fit to have a say; that their votes are invalid as they deviate from the narrow consensus the elite feel it is their privilege to define. The Guardian demonstrates that a liberal voice within the elite is an illiberal force when it comes to economic and political justice.

This article is just one of a wave in the British press, ‘post-brexit’, as they’re so fond of saying, and now, Post-Trump, too. For them, some sort of natural order has been undermined and enfeebled by these two events, as if, before them, everything was basically okay. The implication that underlies so much of the ‘liberal’ media in the UK, as well, is that any position that challenges the capitalist status quo is a part of this ‘wave’ of ‘irrationality’.

I am no fan of Trump, despite the fact that I hate Clinton’s free market subservience, and I voted Remain, even though I loath Europe’s anti-democratic capitalist agenda. I would never vote for the far right, even when the alternatives are insipid crypto-rightists who have used their positions of privilege to smother real democratic alternatives within the system. Outside the cosy in-crowd of the narrowing section of society whose interests are served by the closed political consensus of this country, a lot of us have kind of woken up to the absurd ‘choice’ we’re offered of voting for different shades of Tory. The one issue that matters is that we bear the cost of capitalism’s failure and the burden of recompensing the owners who engineered that failure for their speculative ‘losses’.

A year and a half ago, the leadership campaign of Jeremy Corbyn offered a glimmer of hope for all of those people who had felt that the controlling classes of Britain had forgotten us. The Guardian’s response was, for me, the end of the relationship: it behaved as though Stalin was at the gates.

It tied together with something I’d felt during the 2015 election campaign, watching a BBC satirical programme; Mock the Week. They studiously ignored politics, making in jokes about how clever they were for half an hour, except for a segment when they all laid into Ed Milliband, the then Labour leader, for about three minutes, with a venom that recalled Lord of the Flies. It was ugly, it was apolitical, it was personal, and it verged on genuinely anti-semitic (not the fake anti-semitism that has been used to undermine the Labour Party since the election). I realised, as I watched in fury, that I was seeing a group of showbiz millionaires doing their damnedest to avoid the risk of having to pay their fair share of tax, and scared shitless that something might undermine their property holdings. Most of the panel were of no real interest to me: that long-haired Irish tosser who claims to be a comedian and announces he’s an atheist at every chance, as if that makes him deep; the ugly, smart alec Irish clown who hosts it; neither of them are of any interest to me, but one of the panel was Hugh Dennis, whom I had always liked. It occurred to me then, that he, like most London property owners, had a lot to lose from a fair taxation regime, and a properly funded HMRC, and all he was doing on that programme was protecting his interests. Since Jeremy Corbyn’s election, he has played a valiant part in the BBC’s mission to undermine political and economic reform within the party. Parasite.

Suddenly, I felt excluded from the popular, apparently irreverent, anti-establishment voices in the national media, and it immediately became clear that the mainstream media are far more homogeneous than we pretend to belive. When you’re tied up with it, watching, reading, judging, comparing, it looks liked a varied conversation, but when it has alienated you, and you feel as though you are watching from the outside, it’s all a group of similar people, with similar interests, pushing a centralised agenda.

I read the Guardian for years, and identified with it, like a Strictly fan identifying with ‘the stars’. I felt as though it embodied the values to which I subscribed, and that it was written by my kind of people. Of course, they were richer, they lived in London and owned property there, and they went to gigs and the theatre without having to make a weekend away out of it, and they enjoyed decent public transport links and the political debate revolved around their needs so, in fact, I had very little in common with them. Stupidly, though, I was an emotional subscriber to the false community they sell: I felt a deluded link to the world they portrayed, in the same way a working American who votes for tax cuts for the rich feels that he is making a long term investment in his own future, by preparing for the day when he’s a millionaire.

In reality, of course, I had no link with the lives of Guardian writers, or any London journalist who has managed to cling on to their position within the political/cultural/commercial elite. Economically, the London property market which maintains their acquiescence with the political and business rules of the broadly right wing (they call it ‘ moderate’, ‘centrist’, or ‘centre-left’, but it’s right wing capitalist) elitist ‘consensus’. After the 2010 election, I found it less and less easy to read London journalism, or listen to Radio 4, the other national bastion of my middle class self satisfaction. My anger grew along with my realisation that I’d been left behind by the ‘consensus’ that was represented as a modest norm in these organs, but is, in fact, a level of economic and political privilege which is now unattainable for the majority of the population, including me.

I had become disillusioned with politics, with my media sources, with even my national identity, while wishing only to belong. To an extent, my work and the people with whom it put me into contact had undermined the illusion of inclusion. I worked with offenders of many different levels of criminality, but one thing the overwhelming majority of them shared was that they were not rich: they were from the most excluded of the excluded layers of society. Believing in the rule of law, as I do, I could not escape the realisation that the law is being used to define people’s place in society as much as to mediate their behaviour. For a great many of the men who I met while working in a prison, poverty, educational deprivation and skin colour were the determiners of imprisonment: not criminal intent.

–Don’t get me wrong-I met a great many utter bastards there as well, and I still believe in the need for law and the enforcement of law. I also saw more decent, professional, serious work by prison officers than corrupt, lazy, oppressive behaviour, although I saw some of that. However,  I realised that the theorists who say that law will always be driven by dominant ideologies were right, and I also realised that the dominant ideology in our society is a malign and bullying one: a psycho’s power-dream, rather than a liberal, self-critical one.–

I understand that the European Referendum result and the Republican electoral win in the U.S. seem shocking and alienating to the comfortably off. However, for a lot of us, they felt like an expected next step: as if they were only extensions of the embedded, accepted irrationalism that saw electoral wins for Osborne’s Conservatives in the 2000 and 2015 general elections. Why would anyone hate us so much that they would vote for a government that was trying to impoverish and marginalise us? How could the Guardian be so relaxed about it?

They could be relaxed, of course, because, even if they disapproved in principle of the coalition and its crack pipe successor, and the orgy of UKIP-in-disguise into which it has collapsed, their interests are still largely unthreatened by the political drift of this country, and they saw some benefits in its rightward drift. The key interests of the metropolitan liberal media are their property ownership and the access to ‘decent’ (ie, homogeneously middle-class, preferably white majority, though don’t ever mention that) schools. Thanks to unitary metropolitan authorities, mayorships and ring-fenced metropolitan funding, they were also spared the bulk of the austerity measures that George ‘Drako’ Osborne and his Pansy Parkinson, Cameron, forced (and which their odious, squabbling, profiteering usurpers continue to force) onto the wider population through the decimation of local authority financial independence. They were a bit miffed about the libraries, in principle, given the happy childhood memories they felt they should evoke, but, let’s face it, with Amazon Prime delivering within London in less time than it takes to make a Nespresso, it’s not enough to get worked up about, is it?

But my learners need that library, to give their children half a chance to do better out of the disrupted and diminished state education than they did, and they need the SureStart centres and the NHS clinics and, thanks to the reasonable, moderate, centre left/right metropolitan elite’s consensus, they also need food banks, the CAB and a degree in hoop jumping just to get their children to school and keep them fed.

To be fair to Pankaj Mishra, he’s not really arguing that the cosy certainty of the liberal west has been ruined by the poor; not explicitly, anyway. He’s saying that Enlightenment thought has failed to get a grip because of its inherent failures. In fact, I agree with much of  his critique of rationalism, particularly where it is allied to the irrationality of capitalism. It is, however, a bit of a stretch to present as an attack on collective human sanity the mild, shaky sense of discomfort of a metropolitan elite that pretends it is motivated by dispassionate, scientific good sense while fattening itself on the profits of war, poverty and deceit.

You can’t be rational about an hallucination: not while you’re experiencing it, and that is what capitalism is-a mass self-delusion: a lethal addiction. In several places, his essay puts me in mind of Cosmopolis, by Stephen Toulmin; a book which helped to frame some of my frustration with the world. It is not that rationalism is a bad thing, in principle: it’s just bad rationalism that I have a problem with, and any rationalism which forces the mechanistic reductionism of Descartes upon a non-mechanistic human experience is very bad rationalism, in that it irrationally misrepresents what it is to be human.

However, the background; the lie that any political choice made by the rest of the population that doesn’t reflect the considered wisdom of the privileged cultural gatekeepers must be a form of societal sickness divorced from the innocent goodness embodied in the journalism of Polly Toynbee and Jonathan Freedland-that pisses me off.  They know that fully two thirds of the population of Britain have been turned into load bearers of the privileges of the elite they pretend to be outside, but are really clinging onto and perpetuating. They know that the political structures that support the majority of British citizens are being divided up as loot by the politicians they prop up and represent as ‘the rational, moderate middle’. They know that the child molesters in power are getting away with it again by sabotaging the attempt to apply democratic legal systems to the investigation of their evil. It is not a sickness to be angry about this ongoing lie: about the continuing diminution of the circumstances of our lives while they come up with ever-more elaborate reasons why our anger is not worthy of consideration, except as some kind of social symptom, to be considered in their beard-stroking self-admiration.

 

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Change is Gonna Come, But Whose Version?

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An article by R.W. Johnson on voter disaffection with corrupt politics-as-usual, and its consequences for those who dream of a return to its illusory certainties.

One fact that has to be assimilated by both Labour and the Democrats is this: when Bill and Hillary arrived in Washington in 1992 they had little money. Now, despite remaining notionally in public service throughout, they are worth many millions of dollars. Tony and Cherie Blair were not obscenely wealthy when they arrived in power in 1997. Today they are worth more than $75 million. Consider the working-class voters whom the Clintons or the Blairs exhorted to vote for them in the 1990s: they are probably worse off now than they were then. In effect the Clintons and Blairs surfed on their grievances and inequities, making themselves rich and leaving their voters in the dust. This hasn’t gone unnoticed, which is one reason the old politics is no longer working.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

The Annual Forced Obligation

One of the unanticipated pleasures of middle-age is the discovery that, if I do not seek, I will stumble upon what I need to make sense of what is troubling me. After thirty years of reading, I have enough of a reservoir of referents that I am able to drift up textual tributaries for no other reason than to be open to their possibilities, and I am constantly surprised by how often I collide with timely observations.

I have had such an experience this morning. In an LRB review of a new biography of Roland Barthes, Michael Wood says this:

Late in life he notoriously said language was fascist – ‘because fascism is not the prevention of speech but the forced obligation to speak.’

‘The forced obligation to speak.’ It is a wonderful description of a form of social pressure of which I am annoyingly aware at the moment.

Today is the first Sunday after 11th November; ‘Remembrance Sunday’; a day of secular reverence for war. It is marketed as ‘remembering the fallen’, but excludes, in any honest way, the recognition of the slaughter of non-combatants: 70% of ‘the fallen’ in wars since 1918. It is a celebration of militarism, homo-erotically focussed upon the ‘sacrifice’ of the belligerents in war, and, more narrowly, the beligerents who talk like us, look like us, or, second best, defer to us.

I have not worn a paper and plastic poppy for at least ten years, nor put coins in the collecting tins of the old people in bemedalled blazers, often wearing their berets to assert their authenticity,  who sit by supermarket doors for the two weeks leading up to this festival.  Apparently, the medals and berets are important these days, as there is quite a large clique of people who have not ‘served’, but who have adopted the trappings of ‘veteran’ status, in order to be a part of this newly-ennobled class:  the unexamined ‘heroes’ of tabloid myth.

My non-participant status is not a casual or trivial thing for me. My father, who was a regular soldier (not a conscript) for nine years in the 1950s and ’60s, was a British Legion (the charity which organises the collections and produces the poppies) volunteer and collector throughout my childhood. Although he regards the wearing of medals and uniform knick-knacks as vulgar, for decades, he took his place in Tesco’s draughty doorway, and went door-to-door in his community, and was a secretary for a British Legion branch. For his generation, who grew up knowing the damaged and broken human remnants of the first world war, the sense of mourning, rather than celebration, that was embodied by the Poppy appeal was a very immediate and true thing. His grandmother, Winifred Levy, had a barometer with a glass cracked when a bomb from a Zeppelin fell near her East end home. My mother’s father, Capt. William King Churchouse MC, a village doctor, ran a field hospital throughout the first world war, and never recovered from the experience. He died when my mother was fourteen. You can see the London Gazette’s record of his demobilisation in 1923 here, in the right hand column, under the records for the Royal Army Medical Corps.

As a small child during the second world war, my mother watched the bombing of Coventry from a hillside in her village; she has described to me the shuddering of the sky as the flashes of explosion after explosion tore the city apart. I remember the sense of awe I felt, growing up unthreatened (as I then thought) by war, imagining the awareness of the closeness of horror on an overwhelming scale.

That awe was renewed when, working in Southampton around the turn of the millennium, I learnt of the horrors of the Southampton blitz. I was appalled to learn about a direct hit upon a public shelter, and that some bomb sites could not be dug out, but were treated as graves. The fact that the city art gallery is a replacement for the original building that was destroyed by another direct hit during a visit by a group of school children, nearly all of whom died, buried beneath the wrecked building, is enough to inspire deep sorrow.

But, my parents are almost eighty, and the first world war was twenty years over when they were born: they were young children when the second world war ended. The first is now history; the second in that curious sense of the past where we know of it more through a previous generation’s obsession than through any real relationship with the events. Still, though, we worship the participants, smoothing out the stories, interpreting them, not as events in their own right, but as mirrors in which we distort our constructions of the current world.

I can remember that the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the second world war, in 1995, was supposed to signal an end to national obsession with that conflict. I seem to remember the Queen saying as much, but, six years later, we were dragged into a state of perpetual war by our ‘allies’ and, since then, the mythological weight of the two world wars has been levered into service to justify a new wave of militarism: not the marginalised fetishism of the sad men who adopt a false past of military adventure to fill out unfulfilled lives; not just the ever-present Parolles of pub cliché, but the entire state, has revived the exultation of war; the unquestioning adulation of soldiers; the stifling, narrowing language of two-dimensional celebration. And, of course, the war industry, which is already a subsidised golden cow, is loving it.

This was amplified by a new, hardcore manifestation of military ‘charity’: the ‘Help for Heroes’ movement which, while it comes complete with moving story of its founders’ motivations, has manifested, as far as I can see, as a PR organisation for the war industry, campaigning for deification of the military and diverting a huge amount of charitable giving into Ministry of Defence coffers. It is linked closely with the Murdoch Corporation – they are inseparable really, although the Daily Telegraph has the true-believer ardour of the ‘me too’ participant – and its public pronouncements are usually fronted by retired procurement-whore generals making vague generalisations about sacrifice and service. In truth, as numerous scandals have revealed, it has been more concerned with political lobbying and the manipulation of popular perception of warfare than with assisting its client base. Any criticism has been fiercely crushed: the BBC was slapped down for daring to question its expenditure and the rest of the British journalism community seems to have just fallen into line. At a time when government policy has vilified and brutalised disabled people as a whole, ex-soldiers who have been left disabled by their misadventures are an untouchable aristocracy, at least in the media, although a surprising number of stories continue to crop up about them being unable to access practical help when they face difficulties. It’s almost as if all that money, diverted from real charity, was going into someone else’s pockets.

Every year there is some ‘scandal’ about the non-wearing of poppies. Usually it has to do with someone not wearing one on the BBC; it’s a time-honoured dirge. This year, the war worshippers took it to an international level, with a frankly embarrassing constructed ‘row’ about armbands in a football tournament. I won’t rehearse the whole sordid spectacle, but it is worth reading the BBC article and clicking on the links: it has all the hallmarks of a classic tabloid moral panic, including a bandwagon-jumping MP, football players and The Sun talking bollocks about a foreign institution.

These moral panics are aimed, of course, at trying to overlay objection to militarism with a taint of immorality. Anti-war is anti-‘hero’. The great problem faced by anyone who wants to profit from war is persuading a country to pay for it, and the moral reversal implicit in the substitution of ‘hero’ for ‘active war participant’ goes a long way to clouding over the objections that reasonable voices might raise to the funding of genocidal foreign adventurism.

Still, there are voices who plug on against the military worship, but they are scattered and marginalised and, often, they are apologetic, as if they know that they are speaking against the tenor of the mob. They are still able to speak about it, though. But to not wear a poppy: that is a difficult position. This year, I have not had the awful “Where’s your poppy?” question, although I have had in the past, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel the pressure: the forced obligation of the Barthes quote.

 

 

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Angela Carter Biography Reviewed

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I was, I remember, utterly floored by The Passion of New Eve: a man called Evelyn, who is given a forced sex change. A cosmetic surgeon called Mother, ‘her head … as big and as black as Marx’s head in Highgate Cemetery’, and ‘breasted’ with two rows of nipples, ‘like a sow’. A reclusive, Garbo-like screen goddess called Tristessa, who turns out to be a man … It was all too much for me and I thought I hadn’t made head nor tail of it. I read it again a couple of weeks ago and it was as though the figures had been sitting in my head for decades, but I hadn’t been looking properly. One shake and they beautifully resolved themselves, with the silliness and clarity of a dream.

A nice description of remembered reading. I’m not a fan of Carter: I’ve only read The Bloody Chamber because it was a set text on a course, and it didn’t grip me. Jenny Turner’s review of a biography by Edmund Gordon has made me think the problem might be mine, rather than the author’s, and given me several titles to put on my reading list. The Sadeian Woman sounds particularly interesting.