Saturday, 28 January 2017


In many ways, the new year feels depressingly familiar. The themes that dominated 2016 of death and chaos continue to grind their way across the world, scattering reason before them. Tribalism, blind patriotism and the march of nationalism are the background beat to the news reports we read, watch or listen to. What's different is that with the ascension of Donald Trump to the White House the world feels infinitely more dangerous, not least because someone who appears to have all the self-control of a five year in a cookie shop has now taken power. His first week in power has been a salutary lesson in the speed at which change can happen in the modern world and there's little doubt that many of the Executive Orders ( he signed this week had been prepared in advance, probably as long ago as his election victory if not before. He has an agenda and he intends to stick with it, for good or for ill.

From the perspective of a Gen Xer most of what he's doing feels like the juddering movements of a dinosaur, trying desperately to cling to a discredited ideology, making half-hearted motions towards another way, which unfortunately is equally discredited. As someone who thought that nuclear war was something long dead, as small scale warfare is cheaper, easier, and bypasses all those pesky armies and defences it is sobering to see someone ordering fresh missiles. As someone who thought that feminism was at least partly embedded into 'the system' it takes me aback to see what Trump is signing in regards to women's rights. The Standing Rock issue (which I'm not sure is getting enough airplay outside the USA) has been thrown into motion again, which will be bad for the environment and for Native American rights. In the same way I boggle at his ignorance over environmental issues and cringe, in a rare personal note, at his obscene love of gold. At present, the only thing I feel we can really say is that his Presidency will be a gift to the legal profession.

If we step back and look at this from the perspective of philosophy, then Hegel's theory of dialectic development centred around the concepts of thesis, antithesis and synthesis, seems to apply. Hegel believed that History (with a capital H) did not run in a smooth line but instead exists as a series of lurches from one extreme to another, colonising opposing ends of the political spectrum. We can certainly see it in America's sudden desire to detach itself from rest of the world, Britain's longing for an imagined past when the Green and Pleasant Land was solely concerned with what happened within its own borders (the culmination of the poison we call nostalgia), or the fears of swamping from outside forces in the form of migrants from other nations. If we consider it purely from the perspective of economics and global politics we can see how it has happened, globalisation has hollowed out the first world, especially the anglosphere, because the governments of countries like the UK and the USA felt that their people wanted cheaper goods, and arguably listened to 'clever' men who said that it would be better to move jobs and production to other parts of the globe. But nothing came back to replace those jobs and, as the administrations in those countries were wary of meddling in the market - holding it to be self-correcting they did very little to foster new industries to take the place of what had left. Compare the fate of the UK's fishermen to what happened in Sweden where they were helped by government intervention to retrain as telecommunications specialists, fostering the mobile phone industry in that nation*. In mainland Europe, which as far as I know has stronger internal markets and is less dependent on imports as a result, the issue seems to be one of identity and the fear of countries losing something of their natures as a result of displacement (something that is also true of the UK, we can see that in the fears over immigration, especially in parts of the country that have yet to have many non-white people moving into them). Coupled with a lack of investment for the last nine or so years, services have run down and as a result hospitals and schools are stretched. Having bought the idea that austerity is necessary, even though a) once you look at the figures the British government is consistently missing its spending targets and b) the only way to help economies recover is to spend and built - so let's take a moment to applaud at least part of Trump's programme of works even if I do wish he was going to leave the National Parks alone and the 'magic money tree'  idea seems to be coming into effect again with little thought as to how protectionist and anti-technological innovation policies will affect imports of things like cars.

In other areas, this appeal to Hegelian dialectics feels downright insulting. How can gay marriage or equal rights for minorities be considered an extreme? For that matter how can the Fortress Europe, America, and Britain stance much of the West has taken to immigration be taken as an extreme unless we see it as extremely insulting to people fleeing Western caused poverty, climate change and wars? If we take it to be so, does that mean that at any time we see significant advances in the quality of life of people who are not white, straight men we can expect a backlash? How far does that go? Should we expect teddies to be thrown out of prams when we point out that grabbing pussies is wrong, or that gay people have the right to life, or that murdering a transwoman is still a crime?  It feels as if these things are in the centre ground and that shifting away to a position where heterosexual, white male hegemony is not only the norm but everyone else is made to suffer is a hideous aberration. While I appreciate Alain do Botton's philosophical theory, on the ground this is going to hurt and there are going to be horrific consequences as the nature of the state mutates into a new form.

This is the issue that bothers me, and I hope it will not be something that gets swept to one side. The Women's March we saw on the 21st suggests that it won't but at the same time marches only look good on TV, I'm far from convinced of the effect they have on legislators.

The question then is, what do we do to resist the blandishments of a movement that, to borrow Alain de Botton's words, seems to think that the answer to the 'extreme' of the last thirty years or so is to wind the clock back to the 1950s or even earlier? Let us begin by saying that direct, violent, action is not going to work. Even if it would be extremely satisfying to reenact V for Vendetta we must remember that as Philip K Dick put it "To fight the Empire is to be infected by its derangement" and "Whoever defeats the Empire becomes the Empire; it proliferates like a virus... thereby it becomes its enemies".** Violent disruption will only beget more violence and in the case of victory it will recreate the conditions it was fighting against (to reference de Botton's video again, see the USSR, the French Revolution, arguably even the Commonwealth period of British history). The problem is that this catches us on a cleft stick. If marches are useless, except to make a point and to populate Police databases of potential troublemakers and violence is self-defeating if we seek to resist, and to evolve the argument, then what can we do?

I feel a little strange here, because the more obvious signs of things changing are in the USA, while I'm a Brit. Despite the rise in violence towards ethnic minorities in the UK my country is managing to resist the sort of muscular rightwing rhetoric that a lot of Americans favour, the last threats to abortion where defeated and to my knowledge there is no appetite to legislate punitively against legal abortions. Similarly, gay equality, such as it is, seems safe and the arguments against sexual reassignment surgery are dwindling (at least it's a trend now, not an abomination in the sight of a fictional deity). However, these elements do exist in my country, there is a danger that someone will see the merits of striking out against minorities. All that sort of lurch to the nastier part of the Right requires is uncertainty, lack of food and purpose and someone will decide to adopt some useful idiots.

Some might say that Anonymous have the right idea, except that their video warning to the UK government a few years ago never seemed to render any results, or if they did they were hushed up by state machinery and never trickled out into the public domain. That is not to say they did not find anything, but that as the Panama Papers and the investigation into paedophilia in the British state showed last year, the current hegemony has become adept at distraction and deflection from issues that would threaten the current order. There is an argument that we need better hackers, I guess, but I'm not sure that's the answer.

We can talk to our representatives, to the parties they belong to. We can make sure they understand that their survival at Westminster or Capitol Hill, or wherever, depends on doing what we ask. Or we can debate with them, trying to win them over to our cause. Of course, many will ignore us, choosing to favour their careers or the party over their constituents. If that happens, don't forget it, vote for someone else, raise their lack of representation at another time, like during a Hustings.

One thing I hope we'll see is the rebirth of serious investigative journalism on both sides of the Atlantic. With the press corp exiled from the White House, and Trump's reaction to a question from a British journalist at the press conference he held with Theresa May, the need to dig into what's hidden and expose it to the world has gained a new urgency. While 'fake news' will become the rallying cry of those in power, as they try to shift attention elsewhere (and they will distract and deflect as best they can) a strong press can work wonders.

Beyond that, I guess we have to go back to basics. We have to talk to people, educate them (hard to do, the myths and legends of politics are harder to slay than dragons), argue openly and passionately for what we believe while keeping our heads If style. We must listen, and not turn away people who have different beliefs and we must be kind because all of us are human.

This may be a useful link to positive activism: If you know of other good sites, please post them below, to start building a resource for anyone who needs it.

*Many thanks to Adrian Middleton for mentioning this on Facebook.
** I found these quotes in Grant Morrison's magnus opus Invisibles, I'm not Dick scholar.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Is It Just Me?

The news stories about Rolf Harris, along with a myriad of other celebrities and their improper behaviour towards children, coupled with the revelations about what's been going on in football, where coaches have also been abusive towards minors, have left me spinning my wheels a bit, as I hate that sort of thing (obviously). I feel similarly about dick pics and men shouting abuse at women in the street. In fact, there are a lot of things we men do in this area that I don't get at all, and which I think are downright skeevy and unpleasant.

More to the point, I just don't comprehend what makes men do this sort of thing. Not at all. It's as if I'm sitting on an island looking at a huge continent of people talking and acting in a way that not only seems alien, but reprehensible.

It may be that I fall too much into the School of Life's 'nice man' category - there are certainly things that resonate with me in the video I've posted below, but I doubt a lot of XYs will feel the same way. It feels as if the internet has enabled more men to act dickishly about sex and to use it as a weapon, a way to intimidate and control people. At least I assume that's what motivates them, I can't imagine a situation where you'd send someone a picture of your bits otherwise, to be honest (I mean I know that men are sex-obsessed and that a large number think that unless we have it off regularly then we'll die or something, but come on that doesn't mean you show yourself to random strangers or proposition anyone with a pulse).

That doesn't address the likes of Harris though or explain how Trump became President of the USA even after the revelations about his 'grabbing pussy' came to light (though it has been suggested that women voted for Trump because what he said was simply the reality of their lives, there was nothing outrageous about it for them; it was just normal life) but I do think the two things are linked. The more horrific men's actions online become, the more likely we are to see them in the material world. Being online is no excuse, even if it's entirely understandable that our brains don't grasp the idea of the internet actually being a public space; it's on a machine in our house or our hand so we can look at it as something private and intimate, whereas it's actually just another city albeit one composed of websites and phone wires. What we do here is public, so perhaps we should behave as we would out in public. Would we flash someone in our local park? If not, why is it okay to send a picture of your bits to a girl?

It does feel as if there is a problem around the issue of men and sex which grows right out of the culture of masculinity that dominates our society. For every dick pic there's someone saying that men are always up for it (we aren't, by the way), and a host of men agreeing with them because to deny it would be to look 'unmanly'. I don't think it's helped by the way that promiscuous men are praised, or by the way women who explore their bodies are 'brave' and 'exciting' but somehow men are meant to be satisfied with the basics. There's a stark contrast in how we treat the sexes when it comes to this subject, and the fact that society seems keen to brush it under the carpet (unless money can be made from exploiting sex) scarcely helps. A social change and more education would be a huge boon here but they're both long term things, and I think we need a fix now. No woman should be bothered by men's sexual desires unless they welcome them (enthusiastically),  No child should ever be subjected to sex at all until they're ready, genuinely ready, preferably with someone their own age.

What we can do is start taking a stand. Don't send that sort of skeevy stuff to anyone (I'm sure you don't actually as I doubt my blog attracts that sort of person) and if your friends start talking in a fashion that way, shut them down. I mean, be gentle about it but don't let them degrade women. This isn't much but it's something; if we started treating people as we wanted to be treated that would be a good thing, right?

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Death: Some Thoughts

Let me tell you a story.

Once there was a lady called Margaret Vobe, she was a kind woman, one of those women who always worries about people, who does their best to make everyone happy. She lived down the road from me as a child, a kindly old lady who was always there with a kind word and a cake if you needed it, or with rhubarb crumble. Then, one day, when she was very old, she contracted Alzheimer's. The change in her character was noticeable almost immediately. She became confused, withdrawn and difficult to predict. On good days you could still see the woman she was, and sometimes in her confusion, she would say things that were amusing - 'there's a cow on the bed', for example. But those were rare and it was more common for her to be... lost, really. And as the disease worked its course, it became more apparent how lost she was and eventually she was nothing more than a little bundle of bones, in a room with a TV.

She was also my Grandmother, so I got to see how it affected my Mum when there were phone calls at four in the morning because Granny thought her own Mum was lying dead in the hallway, or when she ran away from the home she went to because my Grampy needed a break. I saw the impact it on him, the way it hollowed him out as well.

Perhaps it's because of this, that I fail to see death as a horrible, terrible thing. Even with the famous people who died last year (and the many who died who weren't famous - and I'm talking normal deaths here, not things like Aleppo or the multitudes who died in the Mediterranean trying to get to Europe from Africa and the Middle East), I remain of the opinion that death is a good thing, a necessary thing in most cases. It can be tragic, especially if a life is cut short in or before its prime but for many people, it represents an end to pain either for themselves or for their loved ones, We should never forget that, and even in our grief we should never forget how debilitating diseases can be, or that death is part of nature, not an opt-in system.

This, at the start of 2017, is what concerns me. There's no denying that last year was a real annus horriblis for people dying, but we're at a point where a lot of famous people are dying, or have reached the age where they are going to have strokes or heart attacks and will run a greater chance of dying as a result. In fact, we may be heading into a dramatic period where a lot of people die and we, the lucky ones, will have to live through it as best we can. That doesn't mean we should be happy about things like this, but rather that we need to reassess our relationship with death.

Ever since the First World War death has been something of a dicey subject. The Victorians embraced it, to an extent, because it was ever present. In the East End, the average life expectancy was 19 years, infant mortality was high, no matter what your class was. There was a culture around death, memento mori, photographs of the dead (as seen in the film The Others). This reaches back through history, a reminder that we are all mortal.

In the last century that changed, we started to push death away as much as we could. Technology allowed us to live longer, it saved more children; as families grew smaller thanks to contraception, the necessities of urban living children and the growth of 'childhood' as an idea, children stopped being mini adults, or workers and became something else. As a result, their status changed, and today most parents would put the lives of their children before that of their spouse (as Fay Weldon said, in her youth, you would save your partner first because you could always have more children*).

We've had about a hundred years of that attitude and now, as we live longer and the things we die of become more complex, I don't think it works as well and I think it's tipped over into being unhealthy, especially when I see how upset people are that someone who's nearly 100 has died. Especially when the famous die. Admittedly at that point, I find myself wondering what we are mourning, after all, we don't know the person who's died. We have an image of them, yes, but that image has been carefully constructed by publicists and by speeches, books, movies and other art forms. And if all we ever knew them for was their work, we haven't really lost anything at all; those works are still there waiting for us to enjoy them. It's just now we might see them a little differently, might feel that absence. But that's life, you change and grow all the time and you can't dictate the way that happens. It seems awfully selfish in some ways to mourn so publicly, to clutter up social media with how sad we are in these circumstances. We are spared the messy jobs of clearing up the person's life, which must be that much harder when your loved one was in the public eye so much. Even if they managed to keep things secret in life, will someone go through the bins or the bags you sent to the charity shop, and discover something that they wouldn't want to be known? Will that colour their legacy (if for instance a dead singer was discovered to be a rubber fetishist, or a tabletop roleplayer or something that society is a little wary of because it breaks the narrative of what a good person is)?

I worry that what we mourn is ourselves, our passing and the process of getting older. Youth has become so fetishised and nobody wants to grow up. The passing of people who were key to our childhoods does reflect the passing of time, that everything, ultimately, must pass over to whatever happens next (if that's anything at all).

I'm not saying, not to mourn, not to grieve, just be self-aware enough to know what you're mourning. And don't just leave it there. If you're genuinely touched by someone's passing, convert it into action. Donate money to a charity that person would have supported, or to fund research into how they died, or to support people who also suffer from that medical complaint (and take a leaf out of George Michael's book and don't make a song and dance about it, true charity doesn't need Macmillan coffee mornings or garish pins, the act is enough by itself). Consider why they were important to you and try to step into their shoes. Sure, you might not have pull of Carrie Fisher, but you could write about the issues you've been affected by and increase understanding of them, or talk about gay rights, or whatever it is that made you look at the person who has passed and feel inspired by them.

That in part is why I'm writing this blog piece. If I have to choose a hill to die on, so to speak (outside of things like the environment, which I do think is important), it's this. My Grandmother's passing affected me deeply simply because I've always felt she was dead before she stopped breathing. Everything that made her, her, had gone and only a shell remained. It made me realise that life, or its semblance, can be more devastating than the short sharp shock of someone being snatched away. In the case of David Bowie's family, I only hope that the 18 months they lived through with David's cancer gave them enough time to say goodbye, though I suspect they will always find one more thing they wish they'd said.  I imagine the same is true for all the other families out there who have lived with something like cancer, or Alzheimer's.

In the meantime all I can say is memento mori - remember you are mortal and make your life count for something.

*Sadly I can't find the article.