Category Archives: Maunderings
Polemics and tirades.
There have been a few articles to pop up over the past month or so, mushroom-like, all focussing on the faddish popularity of ‘Instapoetry.’
Not really a user of the ‘gram myself, I only know about this situation second-hand, but coverage of its main stars and personalities has kept me at least current with the situation. For a while, I was trying to figure out a way of covering both the developing situation and doing service to the film in my recent review of Paterson. I ultimately decided to separate the two out into distinct articles – the subject matter of each has significant overlap, but I figured it would do them both a disservice to yoke them together, not to mention making a rather unwieldy piece itself.
Three articles, then – this one, published in a poetry journal decrying the lack of craft exhibited by this new breed, this one, hosted on the left-wing kulturkritik and variety site, ‘the Baffler,’ which echoes several points from the first while also adding a critique of Instagram itself, and this last one, poking fun at the malcontents and dark, misogynist underbelly of the scene.
Without having much skin in the game, I’m generally in agreement with much of what is presented in those first two articles – by no means am I a well-versed consumer of Instapoetry, but what little I have seen is fairly trite. The big names of the genre – Rupi Kaur, Hollie McNish, R.M. Drake, etc. – are moving vast numbers of units and making bank on banalities. Critics who up until a few years ago derided just this sort of cynical, thin gruel are now hypocritically bigging it up, knowing that there’s gold in that trough. The painstakingly-manicured image sold by Instagram (“the nicest place online”), built into its very architecture, is both escapist and harmful. Profiting from the usurpation of the spot-light, presenting oneself as the spokesperson for a whole block of society to the exclusion of other, more disenfranchised voices is loathsome behaviour. All these things need to be exposed and upbraided.
But I do think the articles, particularly the first, go too far in places.
The author of the first piece is a poet herself, and, while I’m certainly not possessed of the anti-expert, populist fervour so prevalent these days, it is somewhat difficult to smell no hint of sour grapes here. To her credit, she sticks more to critiquing the (lack of) craft than the remuneration, but it is a bit close to the knuckle. The effort to bracket poetry under the definition of that which ‘has typically been to rid language of cliché,’ seems like a bit of a reach, and this retroactive defining hooks into a larger, discipline-level issue.
Perhaps because of its materials, its less-easily-commoditised nature, poetry as a form has done a rather poor job these last 150 years at popularising itself, and that has to be laid at the feet of the poets. I’m a big proponent of the democratisation of the arts, and certainly have a vested interest, low-born scum that I am, but the way it’s been handled thus far is woefully insufficient. As was ever going to be the case, profit-motive being the key factor that it is. More to the point, though, the opening up of the various practices of art, the increasing of accessibility, has taken the wrong route. Rather than raising the populace up (the time- and materials-intensive method) we’re seeing, as is the case with so much Instapoetry, the debasement of the form. Art is everywhere being lowered to mere object, fit only for immediate, unreflective consumption.
Within poetry itself, I’m not opposed to the shift away from regimented rhyme form or scansion. These were themselves relative late-comers, artificially grafted onto English-language works during the Renaissance and a wide rift from the previous, Anglo-Saxon alliterative. But by allowing for free-form, rhythmically unbound “verse” to be considered poetry, there is the obvious risk that any old doggerel could make a stand against genuinely well-crafted work on equal footing. By not spending the time to educate the public properly, it’s unreasonable to expect the average person to have the tools to discern good from bad. Then again, the belief that poetry in particular is suffering from this might be wide of the mark – it’s not as if music education is especially wide-spread, and any recognition or conception of the “superiority” of “classical” music as against modern pop might just be down to the form (orchestra, performance hall, old) rather than an understanding of the intricacies of composition. And it is certainly not the case that all music called ‘classical’ is superior to everything referred to as ‘pop’ – far from it, in fact. There needs to be something altogether more thorough.
This is where the situation overlaps with Paterson, dealing as it does with a non-professional poet. The film is built on whimsy, as so much of Jarmusch’s work is. The idea of a bus-driving poet is a bit stilted, doesn’t sit comfortably with standard assumptions – something so effete as poetry is not the usual passion of your red-blooded man. Given the sheer number of people living in America, I suppose the odds are that something akin to a Paterson does exist, but I get the feeling that that’d be a rarity.
There are a few scenes of Paterson at work in his basement, where he has put together a small library and writing area. The house he lives in with his wife is, while not austere, indicative of their class position, and so it is a statement of his intent that Paterson has put this space together. In another of the film’s unexplored little details, we see a framed photo of the protagonist in military uniform. It’s not stated directly, but with so many in America joining the army in lieu of pursuing higher education (as if it were a choice), it’s reasonable to think that the character is entirely self-educated when it comes to appreciation for and interaction with the arts. Paterson is a very unusual man, then, but does he have to be? Is it possible to conceive of a world where more are given the tools to do this for themselves? It doesn’t seem so far-fetched.
There is a place for entry-level art in our world, as it exists. Something needs to be approachable enough that the unschooled individual bites and takes hold. The real shame of it is that the lowest rung is often, perhaps because of this mass-appeal, the most rewarded, whether it be Rupi Kaur or Metallica or what have you. Insta-poetry is still relatively novel, but it’s been around long enough that one would hope to see the widespread popularity of the form benefitting older, established (worthier?), examples of poetry. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. As far as units sold and money earned are concerned, the trite banalities continue to dominate the market, sucking up ever-more of publisher’s attention and effort. This mirrors a situation playing out in film – the argument goes that the big ‘tent-pole’ productions, the brainless, formulaic moneymakers, are a necessary evil if we are to see more interesting, experimental work produced by larger firms with sizeable budgets. Unfortunately, this is simply untrue – the companies, by their very structure, are risk averse, and demonstrably go for the safer bet of the reboot or cliché rather than taking a chance on something new almost every time. The culture of the quarterly return is incompatible with artistic endeavour.
Returning to the craft for a moment, I think there is an important point made in the first article, a quote from a critic named, ironically enough, Paterson – “Serious poets, I should say, don’t start off amateurs, but apprentices – just like any other vocation.” There is something to be said for intentionality, the approach to an activity that shapes the way it is performed. You can certainly machete your way into virgin jungle, carving your own path and achieving your own goals, but it then becomes rather disingenuous to claim for yourself an existing mantle. There are things that must be learned, methods that must be acknowledged, even if they are ultimately set aside. You can’t break the rules without knowing them first.
Can elitism and snobbery be pulled apart? I suspect so – as the article points out, nobody thinks it’s snobbish to expect our doctors or our engineers to have achieved a high degree of excellence. Why is it bad that our poets (or our musicians) should be held to that? A large part of the problem, I think, is the reactionary, fawning attitude towards ‘talent,’ a holdover from the Romantic period with its Byronic heroes and myths of causa sui masterpieces (you’re on blast, Coleridge). Bach, inarguably one of the finest composers, looked upon himself as an artisan, and approached music as a craftsperson, recognising that his success came from hard graft and not because he was possessed of some special genius. This isn’t a bad example to follow.
That the most celebrated artists are currently held up as something distinct, their successes stemming from some inborn quality rather than a recognition of the work that they do, is pernicious and obviously offensive. Plus, just like our tent-pole narrative, it’s just not true. If the language we use in discussing our artists can be stripped of this obscurantism, I suspect we can have a recognition of quality without seeming to close off the heights of success. But this would also require that overhaul in education – the ladder to achievement must at least be indicated, if not necessarily supplied directly.
The proposed changes to the culture of poetry, and art more widely, would likely ameliorate much of what is covered in the third article. The behaviour described, that of ‘lit-bros’ complaining of some manner of conspiracy or cabal, inevitably made up of women, keeping them from material success in the same way as so many other Insta-poets, really finds its roots in the general culture of misogyny that chokes our society and would ultimately have to be solved at that level. However, if we had a more transparent approach towards what it means to be a ‘good poet,’ this avenue of grievance would be closed to them, and the toxic developments from it – the emboldening of other reprehensible channels – would be stymied. It would be difficult to build a case against some shadowy, gynocentric editorial board (incidentally, also ‘imaginary’ – far and away the majority of such boards are heavily stacked towards the white and male) when the argument stalls on the obvious lack of quality in the materials. Or so we hope. Delusion runs deep.
Obviously, all this is unlikely to come about amidst society’s fixation on homo economicus. With liberal education under full-scale assault, the very idea that human life has worth beyond the role it plays in the GDP constantly undercut, it seems a bit rich to be calling for an overhaul in arts instruction, especially in such a nebulous manner as the above. But, how else do we push back against the rising econometric tide? If we had genuine control over our society, wresting control of life away from the insanity of the Invisible Hand, it would be a simple thing to implement. As is, this will likely have to be a bottom-up effort, a struggle of inches and feet. If it is genuinely accomplished, though, it may be that small changes won there, in the aesthetic world, make the larger victory in the wider world more feasible. Changed minds open up different worlds of possibility.
Caught this article over at the grauniad during lunch today – new research which, while the responsible researchers don’t commit outright, might point to the source of cocoliztli, the plague that swept through the Aztec empire killing perhaps 80% of the population. At the time this started, 1545, smallpox had already rolled through two decades previous and taken out between 5 and 8 million. Cocoliztli, though, was a different kettle of fish –
people started coming down with high fevers, headaches and bleeding from the eyes, mouth and nose. Death generally followed in three or four days…(w)ithin five years as many as 15 million people…were wiped out.
A second outbreak, several decades later, took out half the remaining population.
But what was it?
Well, the good folks at Tübingen (or Tuebingen, according to the graun) have found evidence that the disease was a form of enteric fever – a typhoid-like disease caused by the salmonella enterica bacterium. Salmonella enterica, we know, was present in Medieval Europe.
Like most people my age of a particular bent, I’ve read the drek of Jared Diamond, and am current with the ideas of virgin soil epidemics and the Columbian Exchange, but, reading the article, I was struck by the asymmetry of contagion. Sure, syphilis ain’t fun, and it’s caused any number of deaths here in Europe over the centuries, but it doesn’t hold a candle to smallpox, malaria, measles, or – as seems to be the case – enteric fever.
It doesn’t take much reflection to figure out why Europe was such a lethal influence on the New World – the cross-contamination between Europe, Asia, and Africa goes back thousands of years: the Black Death coming in from Mongolia, smallpox running rampant on the heels of Roman conquerors, and on back into the mists of pre-history. As soon as wide-spread trade started up, microbial disease was hitching a ride. And, those it didn’t kill, it left hardened to the pathogenic menace of the Old World. Seemingly, that strength extended in many ways to the New.
That said, I was kind of surprised that there wasn’t something lying in wait for the early European rapists and slavers that rocked up on Hispaniola, something even more noxious than syphilis. Perhaps it merely betrays my lack of epidemiological knowledge, but it seems at least plausible that there could have been something totally unknown to the Eurasian/African experience in the Americas, that would have been as effective as those diseases listed above were on the immunologically-unprepared natives. Sure, yellow fever was a major issue for white settlers, but even that was brought over – if from Africa, rather than Europe-proper.
Can you imagine how differently things would have played out? It’s unlikely there would have been the full-scale colonial invasion, east to west, if the first few ships brought back some horrendously infectious disease. But, neither is it likely that word of strange men from across the sea wouldn’t have gotten around. The Aztec were equipped with as sharp a sense of Imperialism as anything going in Europe – would they have sat on their haunches, knowing foreign lands were available for the taking?
Perhaps, sitting here in Britain, we’d all be speaking Nahautl today.
There has been a growing amount of coverage on the fringe group of people claiming the Earth is, in fact, flat.
bOINGbOING have been having fun at their expense for a while, and Neil deGrasse Tyson rather infamously clashed with the rapper B.o.B. on the subject, leading to…whatever this is. Following the first Flat Earth International Conference, the BBC have gotten in on the act.
What with the current state of international politics and some of the more choice world-leaders at the moment, it’s clear that mass-delusion is the flavour of the day, but, really? Following the lead of Feyerabend and Kuhn, I’m no big fan of Scientism, but even I draw the line at some point. What is going on with these folks?
I came across an article recently, which may have been courtesy of 3QuarksDaily, which could shed some light. Unfortunately, my google-fu is proving unusually weak, and I can’t for the life of me find the piece in question. What I recall of it was roughly thus – Religion, so the argument went, is not really an irrational position to take for those who are born into it. There seems to be foible of our cognitive architecture that makes it difficult for us to question the coherent narrative we are provided with – e.g., if we are raised in a community where everyone we know, everyone we trust, says that a) the sun will rise tomorrow b) water is wet and c) the son of an obstreperous sky-god was born human and resurrected himself from death for our sins 2000-odd years ago, it all sort of hangs together. Each premise, the way we’ve come to them and the authority with which they’ve been invested provides mutual support for the next. While, consciously, we might realise that some of these things don’t sync up, the fact that we exist in a community that is at peace with the contradictions prevents us from feeling the fractious nature ourselves. Or so the argument goes.
Now, something like faith in Science(tm) can be a bit of an ask – as most of the arguments from your mates in the Flat Earth crowd go, the idea that the Earth is an oblate spheroid of immense proportion is, well, contrary to common sense. Shit looks flat, right? But then, what about the fact that we’ve all been raised in a society that is steeped in truSt and respect for the our good priests the Scientists? Shouldn’t that, according to the argument, bridge the gap?
That’s aside from one of the more redeemable aspects of science, that, assuming you have the materials and finances, you should be able to replicate any experiments under your own steam (putting aside the cascading issue of non-reproducibility amongst all streams of science…). And oh the experiments you can do. I’m not exactly “overly-proficient” when it comes to maths, but I can appreciate that the proof of the world’s roundness is pretty standard geometry – which is why it was figured out 2500 years ago.
Beyond the fairly basic maths, there’s also the various other proofs – satellites, circumnavigation going back hundreds of years, literal photos of the planet from space. GRAVITY. How do you look at all these and deny them? What alternative story do you tell?
A story of epicycles within epicycles, that’s what. The assumption of a world-wide conspiracy which would require the involvement of millions for generations beggars rational belief. The alternative idea, a disc ringed by walls of ice preventing everything dropping off the edge, has just got be beyond anyone’s willing preference. Also, in case you were curious, the sun has a diameter of 32 miles and is located – approximately – 3000 miles above the surface of Earth. So that’s a thing.
As much fun as it is to poke fun at these people, I do have to reiterate my complete confusion behind the whole thing. I suspect there are a fair few people involved simply for the lolz, but it can’t be the whole of them, can it? What’s the appeal? How do you sustain the contradictions?
Hopefully the intrepid explorer that is Mad Mike Hughes will be able to provide answers on these questions and more, using nothing but his home-made, steam powered rocket. To fly. To space. To see the Flat Earth. This Saturday.
Repeat celebrity deaths this week, yoked one to the another by more than just the end of the life, but, in some ways, the defining aspect of it. I’m talking, of course, of David Cassidy and Charles Manson, and the year 1969. For Manson, ’69 saw the infamous murders he would later be imprisoned for masterminding. For Cassidy, this is the year he got his start on the Partridge family, launching him into the hearts of thousands if not millions of young women across the globe. Together, they are a Janus figure – Manson the twisted, long-suppressed thanatos of the era, Cassidy the commercialised, sugary optimism. Fitting, then, that they should shuffle off together.
Does this signal a tide-shift, then? With these mobile archetypes finally gone, can society slough off the fetters of a long-past era? I doubt it.
All my life, Western culture has been dominated by a nostalgia for that period, 1965-75, and it has warped the production of just about everything around its own, particular focus. It makes a certain sort of sense – this was a period where the economy had been on an upward trajectory for some time, the people coming of age here more materially wealthy, collectively, than any the species had seen. The economic turmoil in the late 70’s, multiple crises in the 80’s and 90’s, not to even start into the morass that has been the first decades of the 21st century, only makes that time look all the lovelier in the child-like gaze of memory.
Nostalgia isn’t new, of course – even the ancients had a conception of it – but there was, is, something new about the duration and monetisation of nostalgia for this time. It’s uncontroversial that every generation will look back on their formative years as something special, but it seems like that period in the 60s/70s has been distinct thus far – the first time we’ve this mass media apparatus – the technical ability to keep near-perfect records, coupled with the commercial impulse to reproduce the simulacra, again and again and again. The cohort that ushered it in are still with us, if starting to look a bit ragged, and more importantly, still call the shots from the heights to which they’ve climbed. Not for nothing are millenials disempowered and cash-poor. These are the fruits born of that twisted tree: Eagles international tour 2018, with James Taylor supporting. For this year. And next. And forevermore.
The cultural landscape produced by this autonomic reproduction is no doubt what led to the outsize impact of the Great Celebrity Cull of 2016. Statistically, last year was in line with the usual expiration of famous people, but, because we are now into the period where Baby Boomers will drop off with greater regularity, and the fact that the last 3 decades have been spent deifying this slice of the population, these deaths packed a heavier punch. There was a collective feeling of personal loss, because, in a real way, the individual celebrities had been woven into the fabric of our lives. This will continue.
Growing up, I didn’t really have a sense of how dense this agglomeration had become – the fish doesn’t see the water in which it swims, of course – and it is only since my own childhood has been hooked up, in a much lesser degree, to the industrialised nostalgia machine that I’ve taken notice. Taken notice I have, though. I remember, maybe a couple months back, going in to the local Fopp (a subsidiary of HMV, for you none British-types; cynically triangulated towards a more indie, art-house crowd than the flagship shop, though similarly struggling economically) and taking a moment to soak up the space. The ‘new’ release wall was riddled with the latest offerings from legacy acts, slumming to pay their alimony. Stacks of Kerouac and Hunter S. could be seen beyond that, acid crisp in new edition. Oh, for sure there was something genuinely fresh buried underneath the detritus, like some sort of fungal growth feeding off the rot, but like a pig you had to sift to find it. Clammy, near-lifeless hands hanging on doggedly to the throat of the consumer was the impression.
And, to whom does our own nostalgia really play to? We of the 80’s delude ourselves, saying the like of Stranger Things is for us – but is it really aimed at the people who emerged from it, or is it a sop to those who lived it the first time through? It straddles a weird spot for me, between myself and my parents, but it’s only by way of the life-long inculcation of their media, their stories, their situation, that I derive as much pleasure from it as I do.
So, with the accelerating removal of the physical embodiments of this era, shuffling about in their well-tanned agedness, are we likely to see new vistas open before us? I don’t hold my breath. The machine has been brought up to speed, and it’s too late to change course now. Too many people of my own age have been reared on this stuff to warrant an abrupt course change, or, heavens forfend, an actual shut down. There’s money to be made, and what’s the real difference anyway between a mostly-dead and an actually-dead Keith Richards?
Jung and the Shadows of Essentialism
Following the statement I made previously – that of working through concerns I’d been chewing on a while – I am reminded of something that struck me when I was reading a primer on Jung and his psychoanalytic program (Jung: A Very Short Introduction, by Anthony Stevens). This will, I suspect, sync up with larger issues I’d been intending to articulate for a while – perhaps to be covered in a subsequent post.
It was, true to its name, just a short work, and what with the limitations on depth I wouldn’t take it to speak accurately for Jung or his positions in a nuanced manner. So, this isn’t so much an issue with him or his stance, but rather that of the author’s interpretation (unless of course it is an accurate portrayal, which would be…unfortunate). I’d be happy to learn that I’ve got the wrong end of the stick on this one, and for this to become a springboard for further dialogue. I don’t have the book itself in front of me, so I’m afraid I’m working off notes I took at the time of reading and my memory – hopefully this doesn’t result in too uncharitable a presentation of the position.
So, your man Anthony there has spent a good portion of the work, up to this point, hedging his bets on Jung’s more radical propositions, arguing the weaker case for the archetype thesis (that which states that there is a collective unconscious in all of us, which is populated by figures of distinct characteristics. The way that we come to terms with these figures, the way that they express themselves through us, so the argument goes, bears heavily on our own psychological health and well-being throughout life) saying that this proposition is best understood not in the fully fleshed–out sense of actual, volitional individuals acting under their power in a mystical space beyond that of the physical (how would we gain access to this? Where is the proof of it? Is there any way to verify it as one thing and not another? …No?) but rather as something similar to the concept of ethology found in biology.
Ethology, a relatively new sub-discipline, examines the behaviour traits of animals in their natural environment, trying to gain insight into what motivates certain actions on a repetitive level. Some of these things can be explained by knowledge passed down by parents, or the result of external stimulus from the environment around them, but there are other behaviours that seem to be innate, which we do see quite a bit of. Where do they come from? The answer, seemingly, is in the composition of the animal – its genetics, its evolved nature fitting into the environment. Our author argues that archetypes, and the collective unconscious, should be understood along the same lines. That the archetypes themselves are nudges towards certain traits, that the collective unconscious is best understood as the architecture of our minds as they have been built up over evolutionary time. It’s not a terrible way of rendering an abstract description of a psychology in material terms, harmonising the theory with what we are beginning to learn about the biology, while cutting out a lot of the woo. So far so good.
But then, we come to a brief comment on sexuality:
“The specious idea that gender differences are due entirely to culture, and have nothing to do with biological or archetypal predispositions, still enjoys wide currency in our society, yet it rests on the discredited tabula rasa theory of human development and is at variance with the overwhelming mass of anthropological and scientific evidence.”
You what, mate?
I’m no big fan of orthodoxies, be they academic or otherwise, but this is just such nonsense.
The hand wave of ‘mass of anthropological and scientific evidence,’ without actually mentioning where one might look for any of this, is risible. Especially since said “mass” points in entirely the other direction! What ought we to make, then, of the two spirit descriptor amongst North American Natives, or the Hijra of India and Southeast Asia? What do we make of the wealth of anthropological and sociological evidence demonstrating the link between patriarchal societies and the conception of a binary gender? Not only is gender a social construct, but even biological sex is being shown to be much more fuzzy than a simple male/female divide with the occasional, quickly surgically-reassigned hermaphrodite thrown in for jollies. Also, in what way does any of this require “a tabula rasa theory of human development”? Who even does that? If this is being invoked in the Lockean sense, this is a gross misapplication – that was only ever meant as an explanation of epistemic acquisition, not personality or identity, and even then it was defined by pre-existing, innate rules. Phah!
I can appreciate the desire for a definitive, bold stance, one that carves out a position in a radical way and acts to draw attention (infamy?) to the subject, but this seems like such a weird hill to choose to die on. More strange is the about face, initially arguing for a rapprochement between theory and evidence, pruning away the eccentricities, gently, gently, and then to cite said theory in such a bold, declarative manner – for such a completely specious position. It struck me as deleterious to the initial effort, and, with the suddenness of its appearance, rather out of sync with the general tenor of the work itself. I can see that this move might be necessary to support some of the later arguments regarding the duality of the human self, but pinning them on outmoded conceptions of gender, and doing so in such an impudent manner, only serves to expose the poverty of the theory itself.
I’ll not give up on Jung as yet – I’ve a copy of the Red Book sitting on the shelf that I’ve been meaning to get through – but this did set off some alarms for me. With any luck, this is merely the prejudice of Stevens showing through, and not something inherent in Jung’s architectonic.
It’s been a good long while since I’ve written anything (that I’ve posted here, at any rate).
I’d been meaning to get back to posting regularly, in various forms, for a while now. Chances are the next few pieces, of whatever type, will feature stuff I’ve been chewing on these last few months.
This one, however, might as well cover some ground since last I posted.
Without further ado – Trump
I freely admit, I misjudged the situation in America in the run-up to the election. I was caught flat-footed on this as much as I was by Brexit. As evidenced in some of my previous posts, I was hardly rooting for a Clinton victory, but it was what I expected and what I was preparing for.
It might sound rather precious for me, a Canadian living in Britain, to say I was ‘preparing’ for anything to do with an American election, or even to believe that I’m warranted an opinion. On the other hand, though the States might not be my country, it is still the major imperial power of the day and that causes me concern enough to write this.
It’s no secret that Trump has been Bad News for Americans, and Mexicans, and Canadians, and the World, in very tangible ways. The emboldening of toxic, right-wing elements within the electorate has lead directly to the deaths of many. The policy positions, those few he has been successful in enacting, have posed even greater threats. I’m still not convinced the man himself is an out-and-out fascist. A bigot, a misogynist, a criminal, certainly. But, with the sloughing off of the most extreme elements of his coterie (Richard Spencer, Steve Bannon, etc.) it seems clear that we are dealing with a more standard Right-winger we are lead to believe – which is, I should say, certainly bad enough.
The Democrats and their cheer-leaders have been offensively unapologetic regarding the -abject- failure of the Clinton campaign. HRC is now, of course, setting out on a book tour denying any fault at all of her own in the rise of Trump, doubling down on the hubris that played a large role in how deeply unpopular her candidacy was. There is no doubting that there is a gross tendency of misogyny in America, perhaps the worst example of it in the West, but this doesn’t, as many claim, explain in full the results of last November. The belated and poorly executed Democrat resistance to Trump, only now really getting up to speed, is just so pathetic, and is indicative of these deeper issues. I mean, I could go for nuance here, or link to detailed commentary on the Dem’s conduct over the last year, but this comic from the Nib more than gets the point across:
I don’t know that many, if any, Democratic officials have said it on record themselves, but the amount of rhetoric from the luvvies in Hollywood, talking heads of the liberal/centrist media, the hoi poloi of Facebook/Twitter, all declaiming Trump as a fascist and what all else is nigh on rendering the concept meaningless. Trump isn’t effective enough to be a fascist. If he were, he’d be a great deal more organised, a great deal more thorough in subverting the fabric of American democracy (such as it is) and a great deal more direct in his methods. Trump is a shambolic megalomaniac, who has ridden to power on the seething hatred and cynicism of various parts of the American electorate, and that is enough.
I’ve actually sat on this piece a half a month now, and the unfolding of this most spectacular of presidencies has forced me to change up my tack. Back then, I had just read a puff piece on Martin Amis which actually prompted me to write this – he’s recently released a collection of essays – and in the article Amis mentions his relationship with Christopher Hitchens. In particular, he talks about Hitchens’ propping up of American Imperialism in his last years, and this jogged the memory of those times. I was struck by the similarities in the run-up to the Iraq war, the lies that were told, the grandstanding, the lot of it, to our own times. I was, if only for a day or so, possessed of a belief that the world might actually be headed towards WWIII.
However, the news cycle has moved on – Trump has shown yet again how much of a travesty he is for his own people, using his trip to hurricane-devastated Puerto Rico to actively insult the residents of that colony; Trump has decided he’s tired of a far-East nuclear stand-off, and is trying to shred what seemed like a done deal with Iran – why one front when you can fight two? There was coverage of various angles following Trump’s diatribe at the UN, and one in particular struck me – Trump’s rhetoric is bred out of the one thing he half-way understands, that of machismo business conduct. Most of what he says about NK is likely, in fact, aimed at China. Setting the initial point far higher than what he wants at the end of the day, Trump is seeking to bring China to the bargaining table. We might yet bumble into war in Southeast Asia, but I no longer think that that is the direct intent of Trump and his administration. Most tellingly, the American military has made no obvious preparations for a large-scale adventure, and they’re the ones who’ll have to do all the heavy lifting.
I had, before I believed as I now do, intended to close this piece by coming round, half-way, to an endorsement of the liberal tactics mentioned above – this effort to paint Trump as, somehow, even worse than he is. He isn’t a Nazi, but, if making him out to be is effective in removing him from power more quickly than is telling the truth, perhaps it’s an acceptable fudge. Truth and the blind pursuit of it, especially after the training in Philosophy, has been something of a hang-up for me. However, more and more, this academically-manufactured foible is giving way to recognition that the truth is instrumental, and, more-often-than-not, completely side-lined in ‘civil’ discourse. The zeitgeist is laser-focused on ‘fake news’ at the moment, but this has always been the case – human beings are limitedly rational, and the heuristics we’ve developed to get on in an informationally-incomplete life sideline considerations of 100% accuracy. The unswerving pursuance thereof is a fetish for the secure and self-satisfied.
But, as I said, that was before. I’m still loosening up my miserly, pedant’s grip on the Truth, one finger at a time, but this doesn’t strike me as one of those moments to let slip the knowing lie. The truth has great power – it is in large part why Corbyn has found such success – and the abuse of it will inevitably result in trouble down the line (the current, recognised hollowness of the Dems is a case in point). Obviously, if we’re staring down nuclear war, onus should be put on current concerns, possible futures be damned. But, this isn’t the current project. If we right-thinking people do want to be rid of Trump, we need to root out his cause, for he is, ultimately, just a symptom. We will not do this by lying about the thing. As much as Cheeto Benito is an hilarious moniker.
There. Done. Back. Apologies for the meandering nature of the above. Next will be more succinct.
Comment on the American Election
Does Hillary Clinton face enormous amounts of misogynistic abuse? Without doubt.
Is this a major issue? You betcha.
The rhetoric that has been lobbed at Clinton in this election cycle, and back in 2008 as well, by both the left and the right is reprehensible in the extreme and needs to be countered in every instance. It is damaging to women everywhere, working to preclude eligibility to the highest office in America, and by extension, one of the most powerful positions in the world, purely on the basis of gender. Attacking Clinton on this level has rippling effects that reach far beyond this single presidential race.
This is not to say, though, that Hillary Clinton merits the Presidency. Her attackers may couch their positions in sexist rhetoric, and their aims are betrayed by this, but attacked she deserves to be.
What are the crimes of Donald Trump? Unscrupulous business practices, likely tax evasion, the whipping up of racial animus the likes of which haven’t been seen in a generation. These things have palpable, real consequences – hundreds of lives worsened or ruined, scores of individuals suffering physical assaults, businesses that people looked to for their livelihoods ripped apart. Donald Trump, while not a fascist in the ways we have known before, is a reckless, dangerous cretin, and to allow him access to the powers associated with the Presidency would be a grave mistake. What we have seen of him thus far, his blundering unpredictability, should give us pause.
How does Hillary Clinton stack up in comparison? The prospect of a Trump presidency is one that is all the more frightening for its mystery – we don’t know what he’d be able to achieve, how much damage he would be able to inflict. On the other hand, we know exactly what will come of an HRC presidency. She’s held enough high offices, been close enough to the power structure of the US now, for decades, to allay any questions one might still have.
Hillary Clinton is a murderous, corrupt, racist neo-con, and a presidency with her at the helm will be a continuation of the current murderous, corrupt, racist regime we’ve had for decades.
The damage that Donald Trump has been able to inflict upon the world pales to insignificance when compared with that of Hillary Clinton. When Secretary of State in 2009, Clinton supported the vicious military coup that toppled the democratically elected government of Honduras, legitimating the violence and internationally-maligned illegal conduct of the actors. In the wake of this, violence against LGBTQ people has spiked, the economy has tanked, and organised crime has seized control of ever more of the country. Hillary Clinton has been hawkish for her entire political career – her opposition to regime change in Haiti in ’94 came not because she was averse to needless death but because the effort was ‘too disorganised.’ She voted for the war in Iraq in 2002, quibbling over her motivations only after the whole thing came apart at the seams. At the time, she vocalised her support for that most-American of policies, gunboat diplomacy: “I believe in coercive diplomacy.” Despite paying lip-service to not involving America in Pakistani engagements , the drone-strikes that have killed thousands of civilians since 2008, all reservations evapourated upon being confirmed Secretary of State. She was a proponent of the surge of troops in Afghanistan under Obama and was for regime change in Libya. In Syria, she has been a supporter of dumping ever-more weapons into the ring, supposedly to aid the ‘moderate’ militias, in truth untraceable once they touch ground. It is plausible that a Clinton Presidency will raise tensions with Russia to the point of disaster.
Racism, particularly against blacks, has been woven into the cloth of America from its start. That said, it was the policy choices of the Clinton administration in the 90’s that set the scene for the current rash of institutionalised violence playing out now – with 102 unarmed black people murdered by police in 2015, and, at last count, 36 this year. Adding those that were armed with anything deemed a ‘weapon’ causes both numbers to multiply steeply. The heightening of the racist war on drugs, the implementation of the fundamentally flawed 1994 crime bill, the scapegoating of urban ghettos and those forced to live in them as source of all of society’s ills – these actions have brought America to where it is today. And Hillary Clinton, with her talk of young, black “super-predators” vocally supported it the whole time. While it was Trump that took ‘the Birther Movement’ to it’s farcical extremes through Obama’s two terms, but it was her campaign in 2008 that sowed the seeds of distrust, questioning Obama’s status as an America. We saw the same tactic used this primary season, with the Democratic National Committee – which we know to have been in cahoots with Clinton’s team due to leaked emails – actively triangulating to undercut Bernie Sanders on grounds of his Jewishness and his atheism. Clinton has shown again and again that she is shameless in her use of racist rhetoric to achieve her aims.
Trump, with his “small loan of a million to get on his feet,” his multiple bankruptcies, his dozens of failed businesses, exemplifies what it means to be part of the moneyed elite. His conduct, the fact that he is not held to account, is symptomatic of the state of American capitalism in the 21st century. It is Hilary Clinton, though, who is complicit in the creation of this situation. Clinton has been the tool of Wall-Street for decades, participating in the repealing of the Glass-Steagal Act in 1999 that lead directly to the financial crisis and world-wide economic recession of 2008. She has opposed efforts to reinstate it and has said that she will not do so if elected president.
In what has quickly become the take-away soundbite from Monday’s Presidential Debate, Clinton reeled off a list of her undoubtedly impressive accomplishments when questioned by Trump on her stamina. It is true, she is possessed of a strong fortitude, especially when we recognise that she has risen to her position in a system stacked against her as a woman from the start. But as we can see from the sample above, it is just these accomplishments that preclude her from deserving the Presidency. Or would do, if it were not the case that, in this day and age, the division of the American people, the grovelling abetment of the moneyed, the callous interventions into other nations’ governments is exactly what the President is meant to do.
Hillary Clinton, scion to war-criminal Henry Kissinger, canny fixer for Wall Street, inveterate racist, would, in any other pairing, be without doubt the villain. It is a sorry state of affairs that she looks the lesser of two evils.
In the continuing accretion of dolor following the Brexit Referendum, I’ve been reminded of something I read in the weeks leading up that might shed some light on the result. The result of both the referendum, and the shaping of society that has gotten us to this point, that is. Of all things, it was a puff piece on the actor Miriam Margolyes (Professor Sprout, for you Potterites). A short, Q&A style article, it spent the majority of its length ribbing received wisdom and PC shibboleths, but never to a truly threatening degree, which has become Margolyes’ trademark of late.
Amongst the various questions about her youth, her co-stars, her views on Western cultural practices and Middle-Eastern geo-politics, she referred to her class roots, saying ‘…my mother was uneducated and felt inferior. She was determined that I would go to university. She’d say, “I want you to be able to talk to anybody about anything” – and I can.’ Because I’ve a wide masochistic streak, I proceeded, upon completion, to read the first few comments “below the line.” Amidst the swathes of drek and sprinklings of misogyny, one commenter stated (well couched in sexist piffle) that ‘…the notion that only those who attend uni can debate and discuss any subject is not only inaccurate, but patronising to the vast number of working-class men who win any kind of argument with these individuals, even though they think they have an advantage over us because we’re not “educated”. Being vociferous and having the temerity to never back down or capitulate is a sign of a good orator, and Miriam hasn’t displayed these attributes, merely that she believes in social cleansing.’
I’m willing to give Margolyes the benefit of the doubt on this one, not in small degree because I would tend to agree with her, and assume that that is not what she meant, but our andro-centric commenter does have a bit of a point. At the very least, his invective taps into the sea of feeling that has driven us to these dark times, the frustrations of a large section of society made to feel lesser.
Earlier this week, I attended a pro-EU rally here in Cambridge. Weather was miserable, and the audio equipment was suffering, but the assembled local grandees were able to struggle through and pass along their message of condolence, of renewed effort, and all the rest. Everyone to speak was quite emphatic in saying that not all Brexiters were racists, not all were xenophobes. All the more jarring, then, the echo-chamber affirmation of disdain following the denunciation of prime-ministerial hopeful Michael Gove’s now-notorious line – “people have had enough of Experts!” Oh, yes, silly Gove and his distrust of experts, and silly Brexiters for being so gullible as to follow him. Because, of course, there is only ever one proper way to read things, statements only ever mean what they say on the surface, and Michael Gove and his ilk invariably deny the facticity of reality. That’s definitely what’s going on here. Let’s all have a good, self-congratulatory chuckle for knowing better than those clods, that facts are facts and that there are people who know them. Quite right.
Wait. What’s that you say? It’s not the facts people may have been tired of, but the hectoring, dismissive way they are so often delivered? Preposterous! People that know best know best after all! Leave everything to the professional professionals, and don’t worry your head about things you can’t understand anyways!
More seriously, you can see the overlap between the two issues without an overwhelming amount of effort, I think. The tacit assumption that those who haven’t been through the ivory-bound gates of the academy are precluded all knowledge, whether it be conversational or economic, is likely a bit overdone, but, as is often the case, it’s the way in which these subjects are presented that is at issue. The locking-out of people from the conversation, and the tone-deafness of the infrequent missives to these penned herds, have long been a problem, and it’s no surprise that it’s started to rankle.
As I said a moment ago, I would tend to agree with Margolyes – education is one of the few goods-in-itself, and I hope I’d be one of the last people one the list of anti-intellectuals. However (and I recognise that an off-the-cuff remark in a >500 word article isn’t likely to show nuance), I fear that the spirit of what she was saying about Universities, the ideal of them, doesn’t match the reality. Probably never has, unless for a very small slice. The blithe assumption that it does and that this is an effective way of cutting up society is, understandably, offensive. The idea, though, that University education ought to provide one with a richer, more vibrant life, a tool-set to explore deep interests and an exposure to the broader world, coupled with the universal access to these boons, now, there is something to strive for.
In his closing comments to the Oxford Student Union a year or so ago, Stephen Fry (another embattled anti-PC’er) quoted from Wilde’s De Profundis, the letter the poet wrote to his sometime paramour (and downfall) Lord Alfred Douglas, saying ‘That you failed to get a degree at Oxford is perfectly understandable. Many great minds have failed to get a degree. What is not forgivable is that you failed to acquire what is sometimes called the Oxford Manner, which I take to mean the ability to play gracefully with ideas.’ So, we see that this conception of what Universities are for is not a new one, or rather, not one of the last half-century. While there are plenty of worthwhile careers built out of it, this is what a proper education in the Humanities is meant, or should be meant, to instill, the zest for life. The technical sciences, the professional courses, while they might have more obvious and immediate economic benefits, can only be augmented by the addition of this. Too much of the modern University, with its bloated bureaucracy and its efficiencies schemes and its slashed budgets, is aimed only at producing something quantifiable, and it is diminished by this in a fundamental manner.
Many of the people I’ve known who best exemplify the Oxford Manner, the ‘ability to play gracefully with ideas,’ the possession of a boundless curiosity about the world, have never had a lick of post-secondary. Conversely, I am acquainted with many people who have attended top-tier universities and are dumb as a stump, doubly uninterested and uninteresting. So, clearly a University education is not always necessary for these gains, nor does it always work. That said, it takes a very particular type of person to seek out such knowledge, to take on that mode, for themselves. Much more likely is it that, given the opportunity and the skillset to make good on it, people will take this on once shown how. While you may not be able to make a horse drink having brought it to water, it’ll certainly do better there than in the desert. We must expand education in our society, obviously for the concomitant economic benefits, but also to make of our society a collection of better humans, more involved with the world, more engaged with their lives and better able to take part in their communities. We cannot continue to shut the door on these opportunities and laugh at those locked out. We cannot continue to fob off on the economically disenfranchised the barest of educations, ‘streamlining’ them into becoming living tools for business’ gain and little else. We are beginning to see the unrest that this causes, the deserved distrust and anger that generations of this foolhardiness brings about.
Perhaps Brexit shouldn’t have come as a surprise, but hopefully it will provide the wake-up we so clearly need.
And so, here we are, in the Brave, New, Post-Brexit World. But not really – despite the slim majority (52%) on the side of the Leave vote, article 50 – the clause of 2007’s Lisbon Treaty that covers the exit of a member state from the EU – has not been triggered. And may never be so. Cameron, in a clever, if thoroughly spineless, move refused to act immediately on the results of the referendum, saying instead that he was stepping down and would allow the next Prime Minister to move the situation forward. Meanwhile, over in the Leave quarter, we’ve seen more back-pedalling. Nigel Farage has distanced himself from any firm statement on the allocation of that £350 million weekly delivered to the EU, not of course that he has the authority to do anything with it, but the suggestion that this might be redirected to the NHS played no small role in deciding the minds of many. Iain Duncan Smith, much closer to the levers of power, has also downplayed that particular “promise.” On the xenophobic side of the Brexit coin, the Conservative MEP that headed up the Leave campaign Daniel Hannan has admitted that, even with an exit from the bloc, they will not be able to stem migration. A gormless, squirming Boris Johnson has as much as said that he didn’t expect to win. All in all, a pretty pathetic showing from the Victorious.
And that is merely a portion of what’s going on with the Tories and UKIP. In the country more generally, we’ve seen a continually declining exchange rate for stirling – at a 12% drop last I checked, it represents the most abrupt depreciation for the currency ever, and the lowest rate in 35 years. £125 billion was wiped off the FTSE 100 within 5 hours Friday morning, with continuing damage to the FTSE 250. At close on Friday, markets worldwide saw the loss of approximately $2 trillion, which has only increased in the new week. Last night, the country lost its Triple-A credit rating with Standard and Poor (the last major credit agency to rate them so, others having reduced their rating in response to austerity measures in previous years – though they too reduced their already slashed values). In Scotland, which voted almost unanimously (by area) for Remain, Nicola Sturgeon has begun the drumbeat of Independence once more, whereas Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland have called for a uniting with the Republic, and Plaid Cymru, in Wales, is calling for their own national referendum. The PLP Blairites have, in their wisdom, taken this time to stage a (failing) leadership coup. The arch-quisling Hillary Benn was sacked over the weekend for initiating it, and that rational move has set off a cascade of resignations from the shadow cabinet – 35 at last count.
I was, rightly, criticised for passing over the subject of migration in my last piece. To be fair, I didn’t intend to offer a comprehensive gloss of the situation, rather a background for my more academic concerns, but it has proven to be such a pivotal issue in the whole farrago that to not mention it was a glaring omission. As if we needed proof that, for many, this is the key issue of the referendum, we’ve seen a disgusting uptick in racist rhetoric and action since the results came in Friday. There have been instances of cars and homes leafleted with anti-polish slogans; groups of non-ethnic English verbally harassed up and down the country, even just outside Cambridge; there have been Muslims told “you’re next.” Reports are still trickling in from the weekend of multiple acts of vandalism, windows smashed and exteriors vandalised. Huffpo have an ongoing collection of reports, and it is troublingly long. People, people who have lived here for generations, are afraid in their own country. Although it occurred before the referendum was actually held, I would be remiss not to mention the murder of the Labour MP Jo Cox by a white supremacist – Jo Cox who headed the all-party group Friends of Syria, focussing on Syrian refugee response. ANTIFA brigades are suddenly looking a lot less LARP-like.
This is something I struggle with in discussing these matters in conversation, choosing the level at which to frame them. Often times, I will, while holding to one level in the back of my mind, say something that accords with another, and later on foul myself up on the contradiction between the two. More to the point, the question – what of the rights of migrants? – has many answers, depending on how the question is framed. At the most normative level, the level of “what should the world be like,” the question is easily answered – acknowledging the illusory nature of borders and illegitimacy of existing power structures, digging into what ought to be available for people, yes, it is easy to say that there should be free movement of people and that they should be extended the protection and rights accorded to all humans vis a vis their humanity. Unfortunately, and this is particularly important when trying to convince someone sceptical of such a position, normativity is not sufficient.
In the world realpolitik, basic human rights, never mind those that are self-evident or supposedly God-given, get short shrift. As ever, freedom issues from the barrel of a gun and force rules the day. The legalese is good for little else than assigning blame once the damage is done, and arguing from a position of how-the-world-ought-to-be when your interlocutor holds to this is unlikely to get you anywhere fast. Thankfully, we haven’t (yet) sunk to that depth. However, there are still the circumstances on the ground to be considered when we ask the question.
In answer to this, then, at least on the level of ‘the hard-nosed, disillusioned realist,’ we must recourse to law. What law protects the rights of European migrants in the UK? Obviously, that of the EU. A set of laws that, if ever the Tories choose to take the plunge, will be rescinded. In this instance, what laws would the migrants have? None, other than those ensured by the UN and whatever invariably-odious writ the Government draughts to replace the European Charter of Fundamental Rights. It’s a safe bet that the rights – economic and otherwise – granted to foreigners in this yet-to-come piece of legislation will be sparse. It is, or will be, a fait accompli, and to have a conversation about it, framed with those parameters, is to accept this. What of the rights of migrants? The rhetorical question presents itself – What rights?
So, as rudimentary as the above all is, it does go some way to illustrating my trouble with the question. But, for we who hold to ideas of a better future, isn’t it our job to push against the ‘facts on the ground,’ to push against the way things happen to be, until they align more closely with they way they ought to be? It is ours then to make the case for why the laws need to be changed, to strive to realign the balance of powers such that we have the weight on our side, the weight enough to actually matter in the realms of realpolitik. Assurances have come from the like of Boris Johnson, saying that the status of EU migrants already present in the country will no change – but, looking at even just his track record of the last few days, you’d be a fool to think he won’t change with the wind. We need to push back against the racism, the scapegoating, the lies, and, in some ways most disheartening, the silence on the part of those who should know better (Lexit campaign, I’m looking at you).
All those are nice and stirring words, but that is about the sum of it without an actual, achievable, plan. Well and good to say that, after the Revolution, everyone will be treated justly and graciously, but it won’t be slogans alone that get us there. Demonstrations, and I stress that they are useful in some, limited, respects, don’t stop wars. We need to grapple with the situation, and that is one of parliamentary democracy. There is still hope for a Labour party run in a social democratic way – far from ideal, but this is about damage control now. There are accusations that Corbyn and his team didn’t do nearly enough for the Remain campaign, and even that they actively scuttled efforts amongst the Labour wing. The fact remains, two thirds of Labour voters, despite the obvious incentives of voting out (generational disenfranchisement, economic punishment by elites, continuing disposable status under the status quo – not all reasons for Brexit were racist) voted remain. Comparing this with 46% of Tory voters who voted to stay in the EU, it seems farfetched to say that Brexit was Corbyn’s fault, that he didn’t deliver (as if the votes of an electorate are some packaged object to be shuttled back and forth) the Labour constituents.
There is likely to be a leadership race within the Labour party, and, as far as the rights of migrants go, never mind a whole host of other issues, our best bet is to re-elect Jeremy Corbyn. But then we must hold his feet to the fire – it is not enough to simply elect and assume the job is done, we must hold him to his promises. Whatever his past malfeasances, large or slight, unfortunately, there’s no one else in the Labour party who is a better candidate.