Friday, 5 February 2016

Stand up, but refuse to be counted

It's been quite a week. First teaching week of the year so I've covered the entire origins of the Renaissance in one class and the emergence of individualism in another ('deep', according to one hopefully thrilled student).

Highlight of the week was a visiting lecture by Prof Thomas Docherty of Warwick University. He's written multiple essential books on literature and literary theory, but he's also developed a line of inquiry into the nature of modern higher education and what he sees as the contemporary academic's complicity with unethical educational structures and even illegal modes of accounting. He also has a personal interest: having become a thorn in the side of Warwick University's management (that place has been at the forefront of grasping neoliberalism since its foundation) he found himself suspended for a year on trumped up charges of subversion, including 'inappropriate sighing' and 'ironic' body language before winning the case at a cost of an enormous amount of money and damage to his health.

Thomas's presentation examined the gap which has developed between the educator's ethical responsibility to humanity and students/colleagues in particular, and the newish discourse of accountability which he feels has replaced the former. Starting with a discussion of the Accountant of Auschwitz's disavowal of moral responsibility and drawing on Arendt and the work of John McMurray, Docherty called for a visceral, spontaneous engagement with the world rather than the cold and distancing practice of accounting (which includes 'outcomes', NSS satisfaction rates and the whole panoply of data which he sees as replacing true responsiveness). Action, he says, is replaced by linguistic evasiveness. HE, he feels, has become a part of the neoliberal machine which atomises society into competing individuals by encouraging them to behave as profit-seeking units. Academics aren't 'desk murderers' as Arendt put it, but the neoliberal university puts us in a similar structural position to the Accountant: able to repudiate our moral or ethical responsibility to our fellows and exhorted to focus on the same qualities which assisted the death camps: the prioritisation of efficiency, management and output. As Thomas was a pains to stress, he's not likening academia to the death camps, but he is saying that our infinitely more mundane settings promote the same forms of complicity in dehumanising relations. At this institution the Personnel department became Human Resources, a sinister move that horrifies me still but maybe I've read too many semiotics books. Wait until they rename it OfSoylent.

Essentially Thomas's argument is that HEI's have become self-perpetuating bureaucracies (not the good sense of bureaucracy in which systems provide equality of access rather than corruption and privilege) in which the removal of inconvenient individuals is seen as a necessity. See, for example, the American university head who ordered his staff to get rid of students by putting a (metaphorical) 'Glock to their heads' (he also described them as 'bunnies' who should be 'drowned') to preserve the institution's funding stream.

It's become a matter of distancing by discourse. The language of management which has infected education insulates the individual from the effects of their decisions. I know of a secondary school which has a photograph wall of every student next to their predicted GCSE grades, which are for some of them 5 years away: the practice encourages the reduction of a complex human to an achievable outcome. The same school, by the way, used to give hungry pupils breakfast. Now breakfast is restricted to those deemed to be on track to achieving their predictions. Docherty's point is that whether it's a university, hospital, school or social services department, accounting has replaced the much messier, complex, difficult and more important priority of being ethically responsible (to the individual student/patient/client but also to wider society). The dominance of economic accountability, he says, is a form of corruption in the technical and moral senses – one of his examples was the TRAC scheme for determining the unit value of academics' time, which explicitly and deliberately discounts any work done above the notional contracted hours, thus undercounting our labour by as much as 60%. Tough on us, you might say, but it's a wider problem: at a time when lawyers are scandalously over-billing for work on an hourly rate, we're allowing governments to claim that education is cheap and should be cheaper (though not for the children of the rich and powerful: Oxford and Cambridge get extra money for their special methods).

The big question about all this is what your average academic can do. Thomas was singled out because he's fearless, and because punishing prominent people encourages everyone else to shut up. However, many institutions, particularly the famous ones, are rapidly casualising their workforce. Young people are on temporary contracts and expected to be 'shovel-ready' in the terrible jargon of industry: a book out before they start their first jobs, no holiday pay or pension contributions, no space in which to become good teachers and researchers. Thomas says we should start saying 'no' (shades of Bartleby the scrivener), but the wider context of neoliberal capitalism means that an ethical stance is a vote for unemployment. The student loan company, your children and the mortgage company are apparently reluctant to take principled refusals to collaborate with injustice in lieu of payment or breakfast.

One audience member offered a strong challenge to Docherty's discourse. The refusal to engage in the kind of metrics swamping academics is as nothing compared to the daily lives of millions of fellow citizens, or of academics being locked up or murdered across the world. Closer to home, refusing to address employability, for instance, is a betrayal of students from widening participation institutions such as mine, who lack the capital – and social capital – taken for granted by elite institutions' intakes. In our case, providing students with this kind of thing is an act of social justice and counselling refusal is, he said, 'bourgeois seminar anarchism…good philosophy but bad socialism'. Docherty took this well: the rhetoric of widening participation is, he said, an accounting form of what should be an ethics of responsibility, because it perpetuates the fiction that individual failings in the student can be remedied by individual training in how to conform to the demands of the market. He also described the 'student experience' (a common phrase round here) as a concept designed to prevent students having experiences. I can understand this: there's remarkably little room for spontaneity and friction on campus these days. Under the guise of customer management we've managed to convey the impression that decent coffee and meeting deadlines are far better than demonstrating against or challenging authority – the transformation of Students' Unions into de facto arms of the marketing department is a sinister disgrace. This is the challenge: within institutions which have developed a panoply of policies, mission statements and procedures to look ethical, how is the average citizen meant to develop a truly ethical – and therefore uncomfortable – position, as another member of the audience asked. We have a simulation of ethics which suits everybody on a daily basis, but should scare the hell out of us.

Lots to address there, and I haven't thought it all through myself fully, but I do regard the demands of 'employers' with some suspicion. They're always demanding 'skills' but don't really seem to know what they mean (and experience Docherty had when he challenged an employer-body spokesperson). I suspect that what they often mean is obedience and conformity of thought, whereas what I want from a graduating student is critical independence and new ways of thinking: a challenge to orthodoxy rather than resignation. At the same time, my students are through no fault of their own struggling against a culture that views them en masse as too provincial, common, brown and primitive to deserve consideration on their considerable merits and every time one of them gets a well-paid job I see it as a victory however much I'd rather they storm the barricades and create a new Eden. I'm a middle-class child of privilege, so it's very easy, some might say, to ask them to deny themselves my privileges and act on my principles.

So ended one of the most stimulating public lectures we've had in a while - challenging material and robust challenges from the floor. Plenty more coming up: watch @plashingvole for more details.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Out and about

The end of last week was both sad and joyful: it mainly consisted of self-anaesthetising myself at a party to mark the departure of one of my many bosses, who is off to extend his reign of terror to the staff and students of Oxford Brookes University. They are very lucky people. I applied to fill his shoes (and my boots) but wisdom prevailed and one of my friends got it to general rejoicing. I shall remain an humble droid, the Wall-E of the English and Cultural Studies departments. This delightful CIA document shall be my Bible in the years ahead, though I fear that the higher echelons of management have mining the same seam for aeons.

Anyway, I rose the morning after the party with a clear memory of the night before, which is better than some colleagues, but a slight headache and a guilty sense that it was much later than I planned to be up and out. Having done the majority of my marking and attended more meetings than any human should, I needed to blow away the cobwebs with a decent bike ride. The rain eased off as I got off the train at Wellington and headed (as I thought) to Ludlow. Sadly between the electronic map in my phone and the hastily jotted list of villages in my pocket conspired against me and I discovered that my route took me up every hill in Shropshire – some of them twice as I retraced my steps. 

Despite the pain, it was glorious. The sun was out, Shropshire's rolling hills looked beautiful and the back roads were empty as I headed very, very slowly around the Wrekin 

to Little Wenlock, Dawley (wrong way), Buildwas, Much Wenlock, 

Brockton, Aston Munslow and all sorts of tiny villages the length of the county. It was cold, sunny and deserted - absolutely perfect for a fat git hauling his weary bones across the landscape. Nobody needs to see me in head-to-toe lycra (yes, I may be a MAMIL but I'm not a full pro kit wanker because I don't want to be mistaken for an habitual, professional drugs cheat).

I finally creaked into Ludlow three hours later and scarfed two chocolate bars down before getting on a train home because I'm not a proper cyclist and couldn't face the return journey at all, let alone in the dark. A day's recovery later and I was off walking in the Pennines with my friends: we scrambled up to a cluster of the very biggest inland wind turbines they make – deeply uncanny as well as majestic. Despite being way off the ground, when the blades come towards you it's hard not to flinch. The sound is wonderful too: a deep hum overlaid with a slicing noise as they cut through the air. 
And now here I am, back at my desk with more marking and admin to do than your average junior employee at Das Schloss… Woe is me. Still, at least my Hungarian colleague has brought me some fine paprika to snort. That should keep me awake during meetings…

Oh yes, I also read Llewellyn Powys's Ebony and Ivory: very much the minor one amongst the three Powys brothers who were writers – he was one of eleven –  I would suggest (I have yet to read his sister Philippa's novel or see his sister Gertrude's art), and Jonathan Coe's new novel Number 11, which has many good moments but doesn't quite hang together. 

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Spring Intermission

I have no opinions this week.

Instead I have a pile of marking, a new nephew in New Zealand, lots of Module Specification Templates to write, new lectures to contract (The Duchess of Malfi, The Tempest, The Sorrows of Young Werther and many more) two chapters to get into publishable shape and more to start on, some external examining work to read and a PhD to examine. Oh, and 7 meetings in the next few days. I also have this terrible pain down all the diodes on my left side.

While I get on with all that, some incidental music from recent purchases.

Séan O'Sé's still going - I saw him singing An Poc Ar Buile at Puck Fair only last year.

Monday, 11 January 2016

Heil and Farewell

“It is one thing to write as poet and another to write as a historian: the poet can recount or sing about things not as they were, but as they should have been, and the historian must write about them not as they should have been, but as they were, without adding or subtracting anything from the truth.” 
- Cervantes

This morning David Bowie died, of cancer, aged 69. As you can imagine, the airwaves and social media are full of emotion, from sadness to shock. I'm saddened too, though human mortality is not as much of a surprise to me as it clearly is to many people. Being born in 1975, I'm too young (not a phrase I'll be able to use much in future) to have experienced Bowie's work in its original context. I suspect my first exposure to him was either his role in Labyrinth or his duet with Mick Jagger, Let's Dance. I recall the former with some affection, the latter with none. Some years later I bought and liked Low and Heroes, enjoyed the film The Man Who Fell To Earth and liked scattered songs from his other work. I also read about his pioneering embrace of financial instruments when he sold off futures in his royalties in the form of Bowie Bonds. I loved, by the way, Philip Glass's reworking of Low and Heroes into symphonies.

So in musical terms I'm an interested bystander. Bowie wasn't ever important to me in the same way Joni Mitchell, Tindersticks, Gorky's or Ligeti were, but I'm an admirer. However, I'm also an academic, and one of the uncomfortable things academics do is remember everything and point them out. So this morning I recalled the dark side of Bowie, particularly this and similar statements he made. 

My direct source for this is Standpoint magazine (not one I like but it's not given to make things up) and the same interview is cited in conservative historian Dominic Sandbrook's Seasons in the Sun – the interview is with Cameron Crowe in (apparently) Playboy in September 1976, following up comments in a similar vein he made to the NME a year earlier. Here's the full interview

Occasionally I teach literature or art by people who held deeply unpleasant opinions: Eliot, Larkin, Eric Gill to name but three. I do think that we should be capable of appreciating the art separately to the attitudes. Bad people have made good art. Good people have made good art. Good people have made bad art and bad people have made bad art – and that's before we even get close to defining 'good' and 'bad' in artistic and moral terms. However, I don't think that the attitudes should be forgotten or overlooked. With Bowie, everyone from the Prime Minister to the Archbishop of Canterbury (perhaps Eton had a copy in the prefects'  Beatings Chamber) was quoted without reference to Bowie's mid-seventies stance. It's not as if nobody noticed at the time - newspaper articles were written when he turned up in London dressed in black, riding in a black vintage Mercedes drop head and 'waving' (as he later put it) in a suspiciously stiff-armed manner:

Bowie isn't the first celebrity to flirt with – or even plunge deep into fascism or racist politics. Nothing Bowie has said or done compares with Eric Clapton's speech from the stage in Birmingham (also in 1976, clearly a peak year for pop racism), while a few years ago the editor of GQ magazine was fired for printing something facetious about Nazi uniforms being stylish

So, this morning I posted the Bowie quote on Twitter. A lot of people didn't know he'd said it. Some were shocked. Some were angry that I'd posted it. Some contextualised it within the cultural and political conditions of the time and noted that a minority of artists have either employed fascist imagery to shock, or have dabbled in fascism more substantially (Lemmy, I recall, collected Nazi weaponry, uniforms and so on). Some made the point that the work and the attitudes should be separated. Many took the attitude that you shouldn't be held responsible for things you say when you're on drugs. 

Here's a taste: I've removed the authors' names because I don't believe in publicly shaming people: I'll deal with the arguments instead. The drugs ones first:

I don't think this argument washes. Lots of people take large amounts of drugs. Very few of them make substantial and internally coherent arguments in favour of fascism across the course of at least a year. Is cocaine a gateway drug to fascism, or is fascism the natural habitat of people who like cocaine? Secondly, I'm not entirely convinced by any argument that uses the copious intake of illegal substances as a defence. Bowie was not spiked. Nobody forced him to repeatedly take loads of mind-altering substances. Nor do I see anybody claiming that it was just the drugs which produced the great music – so if he gets the credit for the songs, he gets to take the blame for the Nazism. I tend to go along with the interlocutor who put it like this: 

Likewise, I hugely admired John Peel for many reasons but I don't think that 'it was legal in Texas' is sufficient justification for him marrying a 15-year old girl. 'Legal in Texas' is no defence of anything. 

A couple of people made very interesting comments about the role of celebrity in our lives: that they're such public property that the uncomfortable details are washed away. A kind of cognitive dissonance. I think this is understandable and probably true. It's an extension of the 'death of the author' argument. The celebrity-as-text is transformed by the reader's purposes and cultural context and made anew.

This also links to the tweet listed above in the 'drugs' section that promotes Bowie as a 'provocateur'. I can see the argument – nobody more than Bowie operated on the basis that his entire visible existence was a performance of some sort, and perhaps his utterances should be understood in this way.

However, I do have a problem with this. If Bowie's point is that dressing in a Nazi-esque fashion, appropriating Nazi salutes and calling for an extreme right-wing dictatorship is simply a performance, it requires us to put aside the specifics of Nazism and fascism. Concentrating on the style or the attitudes demands that we put aside the mass extermination of Jews, homosexuals, Gypsies, the intellectually-impaired, trades unionists and other ethnic, religious and political groups. It asks us to put aside the occupations and slaughter, the ghettos and the gas chambers. Bowie didn't just make provocative statements, including some about Hitler: he moved to Berlin which as well as having a vibrant artistic scene, was a divided, occupied city whose government, judiciary and media spheres still harboured lots of former high-ranking Nazis hurriedly rehabilitated as the Cold War took hold, while the general population consisted of many former Nazis and their victims. Call me old-fashioned, but I'd think twice about turning up in Cambodia wearing a Pol Pot t-shirt and explaining that he had style, or that I was just being 'provocative'.

 I enjoyed the robust exchange of ideas that Twitter enabled this morning. People gave me context and supplementary information. They provided context and new ways to approach the facts – some calmly, some passionately. Excellent – this is what it's for. The only really sour note was this one:

The sender blocked me. Again, normal practice on Twitter, and I'm big enough and old enough to be able to take it. What really rankles is that this was an academic. Rather than discussing the substance, like academics do as the core of our existence, she decided that intemperance and blocking was the way to deal with uncomfortable facts. A shame: I like following people with whom I disagree.

The header to this post includes a Tweet about letting the dust settle – a dry, amused and amusing point which deserves serious thought. When is the right time to introduce inconvenient elements? Should the Bowie fans be left to fill social media with uncritical assessments for a few days while their grief is fresh? (As an aside: thank heavens Twitter didn't exist in 1997. I'd have been lynched for my opinions on Diana). I think it's a judgement call. Everybody's talking about Bowie so I felt the time was right to introduce other aspects to the conversation. That may be insensitive but I don't think it's 'vile'. Perhaps we need a more grown-up culture in which we don't idolise those we admire, nor pillory those who err in our eyes. 

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

The year has closed with a particularly sickening thud.

Well, here I am, in the deserted building on December 23rd. I like it when there's nobody here (this also happens in the depths of summer). I can stock up on stationery, chocolates, whiteboard markers, pornography and alcohol by ransacking my colleagues' desks. The canteen's quiet and I can practice my different handwriting styles ready to fill in a whole load of Module Evaluation Questionnaires.•

Shakespeare finger puppet from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

How's the year been? For me, mixed (as ever). I've been to a record number of funerals, none of which were for people I actually wished dead (the list is available on application: if you suspect you're on it, you probably are), made some good new friends and caught up with old ones.

Culturally, it's been great. I've seen a lot of good plays, most of them at the New Victoria Theatre in Stoke-on-Trent, a couple at the RSC in Stratford and one at the Globe in London. I also saw Stephen Greenblatt launch his new Shakespeare, which was a little bit disappointing, and did some photography from the top of the Shard.

In music, I was surprisingly smitten by the new Joanna Newsome album, Sally Beamish's Viola Concerto, New Order's 'Music Complete', Bridget St. John, Euros Childs's 'Sweetheart', the Spectralate album 'The Students' Companion', Biber's Rosary Sonatas, Gwen's 'Y Dydd Olaf' (named after an interesting Welsh SF novel), John Lawrence's 'Songs from the Precipice', Meilir's 'Arabella' and was a little disappointed with the latest Low album, although I think they're one of the best bands in the world taking everything they've done into account.

The old album I bought and fell utterly in love with was Young Marble Giants' 'Colossal Youth'. Many thanks to David Byrne for playing that on 6Music one rainy Sunday afternoon. I bought Esenvalds's 'Northern Lights' and was simultaneously entranced by it while getting very suspicious of the easy-listening tendencies associated with 'mystic minimalism'. C Duncan's 'Architect' and Jocelyn Pook's 'Untold Things' also struck a chord with me.

Live, I loved seeing my old friends The Nightingales a few more times: their latest album is also wonderful.The other great gig of the year was Andris Nelsons' last concert as conductor of the CBSO: he's been wonderful and the last concert was just an outpouring of emotion from him, the orchestra and a crowd which knew how lucky it was to have had him for a few years. Another high point was a reading by Liz Berry, the poet.

In terms of books, having moved house 13 months ago I bought and moved around many, many more books than I've read. Shelving them took/is taking more thought than their contents. There a still several boxes taped up and plenty of piles on floors. It turns out that I should have bought a bigger house. Still, I made some shallow aesthetic choices, like shelving all the original Penguins together, which was mentally troubling. Yes, they're a series and a few shelves of orange and white spines looks lovely, but it means separating works by the same author. The same goes for the output of people who wrote poetry and prose. Argh! I've also been moving books around – carrying a backpack stuffed with them from home to work and work to home. Anything 'work' is going to the office, anything 'non-work' is going home, though the borders are porous as my main subject is English literature. Plus there are space issues in both places as my long-suffering office-mates will gladly tell you. I discovered along the way that I own at least six versions of Tristan despite having only done one year of Arthurian studies back in 1994. Paths not taken and all that…

I've read a funny lot of books this year. Going to the Association for Welsh Writing in English conference (which I co-organised this time) meant acquiring a whole new list of must-reads: Nicholas Royle's Veering was particularly interesting, and Andy Webb even persuaded me to go back to Empson's Some Versions of Pastoral. I also got caught up in the Caradoc Evans's centennial, contributing to a BBC Wales documentary in January and presenting a paper at a special conference in January. This meant reading that Irish cause celebre, Brinsley MacNamara's The Valley of the Squinting Windows – which reminds me that I need to write up the paper for publication. If you haven't read it or Evan's My People, you're in for an infuriating treat. Less controversial was Jon Day's Cyclogeography, his compelling memoir of being a bicycle courier. As a fat cyclist who has spent most of this year injured (RSI, Achilles' injury) and not being able to go fencing, cycling or swimming, at least reading his book let me be out on the road vicariously. I also absolutely loved James Hannah's The A to Z of You and Me. I hesitated to read it at first for the same reason I hesitate to say too much about it here: because James is a friend and I worried it wouldn't be up to the standard I expected of him. As it turns out, there was no need for alarm and I think I'd be recommending it to people even if I had no idea who the author was. It will make you laugh and it may well make you cry. The other book that made me roar with laughter – in public – was Paul Murray's The Mark and the Void, his tricksy melding of an Irish banking crash tale with the story of a blocked novelist. The satirical elements are so dark too that they put the non-fictional coverage of Ireland's recession in the shade. Literature seems to have become an Irish colony once again: Anne Enright's The Green Road is brilliant, Eimear McBride told me to read Spill Simmer Falter Wither and she was right. Kevin Barry's Beatlebone is waiting for me, while Thomas Morris's We Don't Know What We're Doing is a stunning collection by a Welsh writer based in Dublin who is also part of the Stinging Fly press, which is a leading light in the new Irish literary revival.

Sadly an awful lot of my reading this year has been rather less enthralling, though interesting in its own way. One of my research projects at the moment is about politicians' writing. I've built a database of (hopefully) all the politicians who've written fiction, poetry or drama – please let me know if you come across any I may have missed: I have only a few in Welsh and none in Irish – and the plan is a couple of journal articles and a book over the next few years. The Times Higher and the Times (the latter behind a paywall) both ran articles about it and my colleague and I won an AHRC-sponsored gig at the Cheltenham Literature Festival which seemed to go down well, but the hard work is only just beginning. Of the several hundred novels, most are parliamentary thrillers, with espionage and murder mysteries coming up behind. There's very little poetry since politics became professionalised, and almost no drama – and virtually no Liberals or Liberal Democrats write. Amongst the working hypotheses at the moment are a sense that thrillers act as the political subconscious of the legislators' class, and that they are bored and disillusioned by quotidian democracy. Norman Tebbit's novel was a particular low point, though Iain Duncan Smith's effort is certainly down there. Boris Johnson's Seventy Two Virgins is (predictably) more fluent but in a sense more disturbing: a comedy about suicide bombers might be expected to be tasteless, but there's a concurrent strand of unconscious racism throughout the text. Over the Christmas break I'll be taking Nadine Dorries, Roy Hattersley and Michael Spicer to bed with me. Now there's a coalition we can all get behind!  I've also been working on contemporary Welsh working-class fiction with my Coleg Cymraeg counterpart Lisa Sheppard - there are some amazing works in both languages appearing at the moment. I've also got plans to force an Alison Bielski revival somehow, and look at David Jones's time in Ireland, which never gets mentioned in the critical work. The other thing I really should do is write something on Jilly Cooper's Riders series: I teach it every year and it goes down consistently well, but there's no critical work on it.

I am looking forward to reading Mary-Anne Constantine's debut novel Star-Shot though. Trying to work my way through the unread orange-and-white Penguins I was pleasantly surprised by Chesterton's oddity The Napoleon of Notting Hill in which a man from that place is unexpectedly made ruler and promptly starts wars simply to manufacture civic pride. That certainly wouldn't happen now… I'm also loving Hasek's The Good Soldier Svejk, about a simple chap who simple accepts the cruelties and insanities a war-mongering world throws at him, his innocence throwing their megalomania into sharp relief. Wish I'd read it years ago. I've also started reading Margery Allingham's Campion novels - more for my 1930s interest than for the detective format, but they're fascinating, and slightly odd. Terry Pratchett's death was very sad: I've long loved him not just for the angry liberal humanism that shaped his novels, but for his deftness of touch and the love (of life, for people) that spilled from the page. I was pleased that his last novel was a Tiffany Aching one: she's the chalk-bred witch whose strength reminded me so much of PJ Harvey's bleak, wonderful album White Chalk.

In the SF world, I was addicted to Peter Higgins' Wolfhound Century series, set in a strangely altered version of the USSR (and before I forget, it's not SF but is Russia-set: Wiliam Owen Roberts's Petrograd was translated into English from Welsh and is just stunning - Paris is available in Welsh but there's no translation yet). Paul Kingsnorth's The Wake was also a magnificent re-situation of the dying Anglo-Saxon world as a linguistically-alienating dystopia.

Anyway, I'd better stop going on about books - I've read so many good ones this year, and bought so many, many more. It's time to talk about the major event of the year: Labour's defeat and the Tories' election victory. So many feelings, amongst them ones I'm not proud of, such as a flash of misanthropy. Despite having the most reactionary, vile and rightwing press in the world, I hoped the British electorate would see through a government promoting the policies which led to the recession, was openly planning to reward the businesses and classes which caused the crash, and was going to take the opportunity to strip the state of all the social protections and worthy activities a century of neo-democracy has achieved. They didn't. The result taught me several things, amongst them that social media does not reflect the state of the nation, and that I have absolutely no insight into how the Great British Public thinks. As a Labour member, I have no regrets about voting for Ed Miliband to become leader, and I wish he hadn't resigned. In the subsequent election I voted for Jeremy Corbyn because I believe many of the same things he believes. I expected him and his team to be more competent and much more aggressive so I'm disappointed on those aspects, but at least at the next election there can be no doubts or claims that all politicians are the same. It'll be a clear choice between serious socialism and the most vicious neoliberalism, conducted amongst the ruins of the post-1945 settlement. The cynicism and triumphalism we're now seeing reminds me of Mugabe's Zimbabwe. Reports of the Prime Minister partying with Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks once more shows you exactly what they think of us.

First up, of course, is another war. A couple of years ago the Tories were telling anyone who'd listen that Ed Miliband was supporting terrorism by refusing to vote in favour of bombing Bashar Al-Assad. Now Jeremy Corbyn's apparently supporting terrorism by refusing to bomb Assad's enemies. Nobody, apparently, thinks that the British in particular have done plenty of damage to these countries over the past century or so and might usefully engage in a period of quiet contemplation for a while. Instead, we're going to drop democracy from 35,000ft again and buy a whole new generation of holocaust missiles…in the name of peace, British values and Punching Above Our Weight. I'd just like us to stop thinking about the world's problems as reducible to punching people.

Finally: work. I'm enjoying my research. Teaching is absolutely brilliant at the moment: all the year groups are engaged, intelligent and composed of interesting and likeable students. It's a sheer pleasure to walk into a classroom at the moment. On the down side, I'm losing one of the best heads of school we've ever had and I'll miss him a lot. Other aspects aren't so great: Faculty leadership has been unremittingly hostile to the humanities this year and I've had to fight a series of losing – and depressingly personalised – battles over basic things for students and colleagues, and not only in my roles as governor and union representative. There have been times when the good things have been overwhelmed by the bad and going to work has been less than joyful. I could always go somewhere else of course…except that I can't: I can't even get an interview these days.

I'm sure that there's plenty more to mention, but I'm tired and I need to go home and do some ironing. Enjoy your Christmas wherever and whoever you are, and I'll be back in January. As always, thanks to friends, colleagues, loved ones, readers and Twitter interlocutors for a) knowing so much and b) knowing the right thing to say.

•Note to Jo Johnson: this is satire. It never happens. All Higher Education metrics are entirely legitimate and statistically sound – just like the claims you made about teaching standards. Nobody would dream of questioning them. In point of fact I once received an MEQ which read simply 'nice arse'. Which was (once) true but wasn't particularly salient. But it's still better than the one my friend got in LA: 'fuck off back to Britain you Limey bitch'.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Star Wars and Me

There is no Star Wars and me really. Coming from a large rural family which viewed VCRs as an instrument of the devil, being inside and warm as sinful, and growing up before multi-channel TV, opportunities to see the films were very limited (in other childhood woe, we queued to see ET for hours until my dad got bored and made us go home, so I didn't see that until I was in my 20s). A few of my friends had Star Wars toys but I was always a reader and with six kids in the house, our toys tended to be more generic anyway. I did become a devotee of Star Trek however: being primarily a decades-old TV series it was cheap to air and easier to schedule. I gather that Trek is somehow seen as less cool than Star Wars but that's OK: as well as being enjoyably camp in some ways it introduced me to concepts such as human rights, discussion about intervention, just wars and all sorts of philosophical discussions. Given the time in which it was made and the space afforded by multiple series in episodic form on TV rather than cinema, it was always going to have the political edge over a few films which had to compete for the movie-goers' buck. Perhaps that's why the Trek films were less successful: they tried to recreate the intelligence and depth of the series rather than adapting to the demands of the blockbuster. I tend to see Star Trek as mainstream America painfully wrestling with its imperial conscience in a time of simultaneous paranoia and optimism: you can see these upstanding semi-military types coming to terms with the hippy movement for example, or moving from a pro-Vietnam War (A Private Little War) stance to an anti-War one (The Omega Glory), and its construction of the Federation Utopia is very revealing. Perhaps that's why I've written about Trek and Doctor Who rather than Star Wars.

A Private Little War: Kirk agrees to supply weapons to maintain the balance of power
The Omega Glory: a civilisation ruined by ceaseless pursuit of ideological battles

By contrast, I always saw Star Wars as a product of late-1970s American wounded imperialism. The first film appeared in 1977- not long after the deep wound of losing the Vietnam War and only a year after the Bicentennial Independence celebrations, it seems to this partially-informed commentator that it was an attempt to recreate the feeling that the American people were the freedom-loving rebels rather than the Evil Empire (to nick Reagan's later appropriation of the movies' terminology): apart from Vietnam and the middle East as usual, the US spent the 70s and 80s aiding the torture and murder of thousands in military dictatorships across South America. Like Jaws which came out not long before, the movies tried to imply that decent American values were being threatened by implacable evil, but I imagine that any Vietcong seeing Star Wars would have cheered on the Rebel Alliance. Mind you, perhaps Lucas was quietly critiquing US foreign policy: after all, it was 'a long long time ago' that the Americans were the freedom fighters against the evil British Empire. There is another interpretation available which might chime with our times more easily: Luke as the naive young man from a desert plant looking for any kind of adventure, when along comes a robed gent and a good line in mystical patter about destiny who recruits him to their band of religiously-inspired terrorists…

The first Star Wars movie I saw was The Phantom Menace, having been dragged along from Bangor to Rhyl one very rainy day (one of the worst places on earth) by obsessive fans desperate to see the latest instalment in their beloved series. Despite being adults, some of them appeared to still own various bits of plastic tat that they'd carted around since their toddler years and were transported back to their childhoods by the prospect of seeing an actual new instalment. Perhaps this infantilisation explains why we went to McDonald's on the way to stuff our faces with baby food.

Snobbery aside, it was one of the worst cinematic experiences of my life. Lacking any emotional investment in its universe, I saw a nonsensical plot, objectionable characters and facile attitudes, all rendered on a computer to look no more sophisticated than the PC game I was then playing obsessively, Civilization II. It was so awful that I couldn't even bring myself to tease my heartbroken friends. We emerged from the fleapit cinema into the cold and damp, and just stood there in silence until someone stammered out a few disappointed words. They weren't even angry, just shocked by the lazy, cynical, greedy appropriation of a world they thought belonged to them as much as to George Lucas.

After that, I didn't make any effort to watch the originals, despite everyone telling me they're 'so much better except for the one with the Ewoks'. I've caught large chunks of them while idly flicking through the multi-channel hell, and I think I've watched all of the middle one now, but my main exposure is through catching the Family Guy parodies, which at least give me an insight into the devotion people have for the originals. That doesn't seem to have changed. My boss went to a midnight screening last night, and another friend saw it at 9 a.m. this morning. the phenomenon is fascinating and demonstrates some of the arguments cultural studies and reception studies thinkers have been having for decades. I can imagine Adorno and the Frankfurt School dismissing Star Wars and most Hollywood products as machine-generated propaganda, social and cultural disinformation pumped into the cortexes of passive victims. However, my friends are happy to dismiss the elements of the films they don't like: 'that's just George Lucas, ignore those bits' they say, and no doubt they'll discount the Disney influence in the new ones, demonstrating Barthes's point about the Death of the Author. With a text this widescreen and an audience so huge and intelligent, the author's intentions and concerns are set aside in favour of the individual audience member's interpretations and the emotional personal contexts they bring to the experience. In that sense, it doesn't really matter whether the films are any good in cinematic terms, because they serve a whole range of uses beyond that.

Which is all a complicated way of saying that I should stop being such a snob and wish my Star Wars-loving friends a good weekend in the endless queues.

Friday, 11 December 2015

I Come Not To Praise Boris, But To Bury Him

A while ago I read a children's novel from the height of Empire called Behind the Mountains by Wray Hunt, a Victorian/Edwardian novelist who turned out yards of this stuff: imperialist, patriotic tales of derring-do by upstanding young white chaps. In this novel, the setting is the borderlands between Afghanistan and India (as was) and our heroes are two English teenagers whose aeroplane has been downed because the gentle but unreliable Hindu servant has forgotten to fuel it properly, marooning them amongst the 'hook-nosed savage' Muslim Afghans. The rest of the plot is as you'd expect: our heroes outthink and outfight their racial inferiors in a range of adventures and win through in the end. Huzzah for White Chaps and the Empire on which the sun never sets (this was 1930).

Having read it as an historical curiosity which captured perfectly the imperialist mindset at its most bumptious, I set it aside and thought of it again very rarely. And then in the course of my research into politicians' creative writing, I read Boris Johnson's 2004 comic thriller about suicide bombers, Seventy-Two Virgins. The tone and much of the language is very much that of Behind the Mountains, and I strongly suspect that it's the kind of stuff on which Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson was raised. You can spot the Muslims (and therefore the bad guys, and gal) by their 'hook noses' and 'dark brown eyes', phrases which recur throughout the book. They are both evil and stupid, while their personalities are formed of the simplest stuff, despite Country Life describing Johnson as 'brilliant at characterisation'. What motivates jihad? It is never their 'official' cause, be that Palestine or Islam. It is…'something to do with sex, or at least with self-esteem'.

It's an interesting novel at least. It features as one of the heroes a bumbling young bicycling Tory MP called Roger Barlow who exists in a state of marital conflict who worries that the tabloids are about to expose him. Some terrorists, one of whom is radicalised in Wolverhampton as the consequence of his illegitimacy (conceived by a Jewish kerb-crawler looking for 'a bit of black' and a prostitute), his adoption by awful petty-bourgeois yam-yams (Boris spent a short time working on Wolverhampton's Express and Star newspaper and fondly imagines he knows the place and its dialect) and general inadequacy, take the US President hostage in Westminster Hall as he addresses the assembled great and good.  

There are farcical elements, but it's largely a manoeuvre designed to promote the argument that people who believe very strongly in anything are brittle and dangerous, whereas bumbling anti-ideological Toryism of the kind Roger espouses is far more humane than either what he calls 'Islamofascism' or even American Neoconservatism. For most of the novel the Americans are viewed as trigger-happy blowhards in need of softening by common-sense Brits, though the hereditary and elected ruling classes are presented as etiolated, tired and inadequate: they need a bit of Yank Resolve to stiffen them up. However, by the end the reader is encouraged to choose sides in a stark fashion. Faced with the prospect of Terrorist Victory, even the French Ambassador makes a stirring speech in which he explains that despite the US being an Empire, it's not evil and the French embrace of McDonald's demonstrates that underneath we know they're the good guys. It's a bit like the end of Team America: World Police without the ideological complexity (not entirely SFW by the way).

Along the way Johnson has predictable pops at the usual suspects: Nigerians are oversexed traffic wardens of royal origins whose relatives make their money from online scams; builders are all illegal immigrants, journalists are shifty, the BBC is cynical, lefty and massively overstaffed, while parliamentary democracy is an exhausted talking shop. The police are lazy and thick, while the paramedic service is obsessed with 'elf and safety' to save anyone. The voters are awful whining provincials with terrible taste, while all protestors are unwashed hate-filled arseholes without an ounce of true principle in them. Multiculturalism is damned as a failure, while mass higher education is a 'Stalinist' exercise populated entirely by smarmy male tweed-and-cord-wearing intellectual snobs (OK, guilty as charged) and the Welsh language is a 'weird creole' (one of the hilarious aspects is that one of the bombers attends Llangollen University under a false identity and becomes known as Jones the Bomb). The lesson I think we can draw from all this is that Boris always kicks downwards. His mission is to make the powerful comprehensible to right-thinking people, while laughing at the brown, the regional, the bourgeois, the principled and the disenfranchised.

Is it well-written? Unfolding the action over four hours is fairly effective, though there are some pointless interventions including a scene of Henry VIII playing real tennis in Westminster Hall, but on the whole it's not much cop. He drops in the occasional literary reference such as a line of Marvell's poetry, but he's not capable of characterisation despite occasional efforts: Roger's glamorous neocon American assistant refers to 'hunnish practices' and invokes Molesworth which seem rather too English public-school for her. There's also a sub-plot which is explicitly stolen from PG Wodehouse's The Code of the Woosters: the secret of Roger's tabloid shame is not that he's betrayed his wife (the novel is a Boris fantasy, remember) but that he has invested in a lingerie shop called Eulalie's which it transpires is a front for a brothel. Compare this with the Wodehouse novel in which the fascist leader of the Blackshorts Roderick Spode is cut down to size by Wooster threatening to reveal that he is the co-owner of a lingerie emporium called…Eulalie's!

It's a deliberate reference rather than plagiarism, but it's indicative of Johnson's primary obsession. While there's plenty of discussion about liberalism versus ideological rigidity and the exhaustion of the political classes, what Seventy Two Virgins comes down to is a tale of masculine crisis. The terrorist's hatred of the West is sexual fear and inadequacy: "chippy, pathetic, pretentious, envious Islamic nutcase…vote for America". Roger tells them. The British are barely or not at all heterosexual, which is why they're so useless. The Americans are over-sexed and it leads to their single-minded pursuit of violent solutions to everything. Tellingly, when Roger Barlow survives the hostage scenario he promises that he will reform his life and become a better man. What this means is slightly underwhelming. He will resist win his Oedipal battle with his toddler son. He will see off the 'vicious wheedling' ethnic journalist woman. He will 'clean up the puddles on the bathroom floor…make stuff to eat…and perhaps…roll up [his] sleeves and wear some gay pinafore'. What a sacrifice! There are, it seems, no positive decisions he can make: his perfect man is one who picks up his own towels.

For a novel which promotes itself as transgressive - a comedy about suicide bombers in which the President of the USA is taken hostage in Parliament – Seventy Two Virgins is quite a failure. There are two many points at which Boris pulls back. Nobody swears beyond 'bloody', for instance, and women are absolutely not allowed to commit acts of violence, even to save the day. Despite his gibes about useless politicians, Boris won't even allow himself the joy of demolishing Parliament: instead he arranges it so that the suicide bomber explodes in the toilets, 5kg of high explosive 'Jackson Pollocking' his 'blood and brains' over the Gents' but doing 'remarkably little damage'. 

In the end, Seventy Two Virgins is little more than the sniggering of a little boy who is still thrilled by 'down there', despite the occasional glimpse of a political idea. He feels that 'muddling through' is better than being a fanatic, but that when the chips are down, American might should be trusted and respected. But it's basically about willies. However, in a week during which Boris Johnson is widely praised for countering Donald Trump's rubbish about Muslims, his novel suggests that our own oddly-coiffured joke politician has some disturbing impulses in that direction of his own.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

If in doubt, bomb something? Or, What A Difference A Year Makes…

Way back in February 2011, Vogue ran a grovelling interview and photoshoot of Asma Al-Assad entitled A Rose in the Desert, which went out of its way to praise her 'wildly democratic' family and enlightened views (as well as her exquisite taste in designer clothes), pausing only to gently chide her country for not being as secular as Vogue might like (Vogue has a theological position: who knew?) while describing the murderous regime's state as 'the safest in the middle east'.

The first impression of Asma al-Assad is movement—a determined swath cut through space with a flash of red soles. Dark-brown eyes, wavy chin-length brown hair, long neck, an energetic grace. No watch, no jewelry apart from Chanel agates around her neck, not even a wedding ring, but fingernails lacquered a dark blue-green. She’s breezy, conspiratorial, and fun. Her accent is English but not plummy. Despite what must be a killer IQ, she sometimes uses urban shorthand: “I was, like. . . .”

The article has – amazingly – vanished without trace from that magazine's history (insert gag about make-up remover), but you can read a summary here and the whole thing here. Astonishingly, it turns out that a PR agency was paid lots of money to arrange the Vogue article. And there was me thinking that we could at least rely on the fashion press to uphold basic journalistic standards of integrity and incorruptibility…I'm not sure I can take many more of these disappointments.

The 35-year-old first lady’s central mission is to change the mind-set of six million Syrians under eighteen, encourage them to engage in what she calls “active citizenship.” “It’s about everyone taking shared responsibility in moving this country forward, about empowerment in a civil society. We all have a stake in this country; it will be what we make it.”

Well, I guess you could say that she achieved her goal: one way or another, millions of young compatriots are very actively engaged, often at the point of a gun. Things didn't work out quite so well for Asma and her husband Bashar. As well as being the other half of a seriously well-dressed woman, he was hereditary President of Syria, and for various complicated reasons connected with trying to look vaguely in favour of the Arab Spring at least when it turned on our enemies, the West decided to support the various rebel groups calling for (it appeared) freedom and democracy. Supporters of the aforesaid fighters for freedom and democracy included utopian, freedom-loving countries such as Saudi Arabia, so there was no doubt at all that this was a principled war of liberation. Anyway, it was about time for another little war in the area. Those countries have had it too easy for too long and besides, the West has spent a lot of money on desert camouflage in recent decades and we need to get full use out of it. Alright, some of those bearded Johnnies in the queue for guns and cash sounded a bit earnest about the old prayers-and-beheadings, but it was nothing that couldn't be sorted out by placating them with planeloads of hard currency and heavy weaponry. And in any case, we'd lined up Turkey and those lovely Kurds to help out. We know they've had their differences now and then but that nice Mr Erdogan could be relied on to do the decent thing in a tight spot, rather than take the chance to fix an election, murder his own Kurds and bomb the blazes out of our Syrian Kurdish pals. Couldn't he?

So there we were in August 2013, all set for another spot of dictator-biffing, having triumphantly brought about a soporific peace from Afghanistan to Iraq, when those damned conchie traitors in the Labour Party and their allies in the Conservatives conspired to vote against the government's plan to bomb Syria. Hard words were bandied around about Mr Miliband. 'Playing politics'. 'Giving succour' to a brutal dictator. Paddy Ashdown said he was 'sad' and 'a little ashamed' by Parliament's decision not to bomb Assad's forces.

And yet today, we have another chance. Parliament is voting today whether or not to bomb Syria. Hard words are once more being applied to the leader of the Labour Party. For opposing the bombing, Mr Cameron described Jeremy Corbyn (and any doubtful Conservatives by implication) as 'terrorist-sympathising'. That's right: bombing Assad's enemies now isn't giving succour to a dictator, while opposing Assad is 'terrorist sympathising'. What a difference a year or two makes…

There's one crucial difference: this time we're going to be bombing the rebels in support of Bashar Al-Assad's regime. That's right, the brutal one that uses chemical weapons, barrel bombs and torture on its freedom-loving people. Mr Cameron and his friends have suddenly discovered – only a few decades late – that not all the enemies of Western-backed dictatorships are members of the WI or the Liberal Democrats. Coming around very late to the policies of vultures like Henry Kissinger and Henry Jackson, he's decided that we're actually in favour of brutally repressive dictatorships because they keep the lid on millenarian fundamentalists who take the weapons we give them and use them on the streets of our capitals.

It's all rather Orwellian. In the space of two years the same Prime Minister has gone from wanting to bomb Assad to support the rebels, to wanting to bomb the rebels in support of Assad. The Russian role has moved from being reckless interventionism to principled foresight, and the Turks' genocidal treatment of the Kurds has quietly been forgotten about (this, at least, is continuity cynicism). In 1984, George Orwell wrote of the condition of unending war conducted between the great power blocs. I don't think he meant it literally, but history has a funny sense of humour and 'we have always been at war with Eastasia' has come true. In the novel, enemies become allies and allies become enemies over the course of Hate Week: the two years its taken to turn Assad from enemy to friend and Isis and co from friend to enemy isn't much less shocking. While we're at it, here's another ironic snipped from 1984 which you may find thought-provoking.
If he were allowed contact with foreigners he would discover that they are creatures similar to himself and that most of what he has been told about them is lies. The sealed world in which he lives would be broken, and the fear, hatred, and self-righteousness on which his morale depends might evaporate. It is therefore realized on all sides that however ofter Persia, or Egypt, or Java, or Ceylon may change hands, the main frontiers must never be crossed by anything except bombs.
 So here we are. Multiple murders in Belgium, Paris and less recently the UK have contributed to the feeling that we must Do Something. Or as Steve Bell put it:

Obviously I have it easy: I'm not my MP, wondering how to vote this time, nor a minister or security official. It's tempting, surveying recent history, to put my head in my hands and reply to 'what would you do?' with 'I wouldn't start from here'. It's the telescoped nature of this volte-face that really gets to me: two years from 'brutal dictator who must go' to 'essential bulwark against terrorism'. 

However, that's a more philosophical perspective. What about the 'something must be done' argument? Those in favour of bombing say that attacking ISIS isn't like the meaningless 'war on terror' because ISIS is effectively a state: it has territory, supply lines, administrators, an economy and so on.  I don't really buy it. For starters, Afghanistan is a country of sorts, and allied pacification seemed to involve an awful lot of bombing wedding parties, cattle-herders and other 'collateral damage' alongside driving out the Taliban. ISIS territory is packed with captive populations who didn't meet the requirements for genocide (i.e. being in a different ethnic and sectarian category to ISIS) but who aren't supporters. I saw the British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon explaining that British weapons can actually distinguish between terrrorists and innocent people and RAF bombing hasn't killed a single Iraqi civilian over the past years campaign and just wanted to weep at the cynicism fuelling that kind of blatant untruth. Let's not forget that the British police couldn't distinguish from a Brazilian man who was late for work and an Islamic terrorist with a bomb from a couple of yards away, let alone from 35000 feet or 3000 miles away.

I think the argument that bombing ISIS is a good plan fails for the obvious reason demonstrated by Iraq and Afghanistan – that repressing enemies requires long-term occupation alongside nation-building of a kind that we certainly haven't mastered – but also because the Brussels bombings can't be stopped by crushing head office. While ISIS has an administration in Raqqa and no doubt helps operatives commit crimes across the globe, defeating it in Syria/Iraq doesn't defeat the ideas and techniques which lead to bombings on the street. I tend to agree with the argument that ISIS is eagerly awaiting the drones and bombers. It will confirm to its supporters everywhere that they're fighting the war they want to fight: one to the death between its own religious purists and the West/Christians/enemies of its version of Islam. Bombing ISIS will simply encourage more disaffected people in the miserable slums to which they've been confined that an existential and theological confrontation is to be welcomed, and the result will be more, not fewer, atrocities. While not every bomber will be familiar with the very specific doctrines ISIS espouse, they will concur with the argument that the answer applied by the West to every outrage is to bomb brown people. 

I would take a different, perhaps harder tack. I would separate dealing with violence at home from global politics. Rather than bombing Syrians for the crimes of Belgians, French and British people, and tacitly elevating the perpetrators to the status of combatants, I would relentlessly pursue them through the criminal law. Very very sadly (I'm not sure yet) I'd be tempted to do nothing about ISIS where it is. We've tried bombing people into peace, freedom and democracy, and it hasn't worked. We've a long and shameful history of supporting brutal torture states: Israel and Egypt are only the most recent examples of the West deciding that stability is more important than human rights, so perhaps ISIS should be the next beneficiary of this familiar rejection of universal values. The problem here, though, is that al-Sisi wants to be left alone to murder his opponents while Netanyahu will be satisfied with crushing the Palestinians and taking their lands: they have specific, limited aims, whereas ISIS is expansionist, fuelled by the theological drive to impose their version of religion on everyone. Much like capitalism, actually. 

So in the end, I don't have an answer and don't know what to do. But I do know that bombing for the sake of it is no answer either. 

Monday, 23 November 2015

So you #standwithparis…?

One of the interesting things about social media is that it's so emotionally open. Anyone can turn up, express a depth of emotion – positive, negative, baffled – which will be echoed widely, with no entry or exit costs. It's become a means of easily identifying oneself with a cause or stance without consequences.

For instance, here's the Twitter avatar of a company called Accusoft, whose promoted tweet turned up on my timeline a day or so after the attacks in Paris.

I forget quite which one it was, but here are a couple more. Their avatar remains a tricolour with their corporate logo stamped on top (the symbolism is quite clear to me, but not perhaps to them), but the action of feeding promoted tweets into a timeline shortly after a mass murder, complete with appropriated flag didn't convey solidarity to me: it conveyed the opportunist appropriation of grief to sell products. 

Here's one of their tweets which purports to be a little more reflective, but it's so bland as to be meaningless, and immediately subverted by the stream reverting to promotional stock-photography type:

Does this really mean anything? Is it simply a PR office telling the boss that they need to look caring? Will it encourage these corporations to start paying taxes to improve security (yes, that is a trick question)?

However, this isn't one of my normal anti-corporate rants. These organisations are lazy and cynical, but so are an awful lot of people, many of them friends of mine. Try a search for #IStandWith on Twitter and you'll get tens of thousands of examples, ranging from people 'standing with' rescued dogs to the city of Paris. Many of them are good caring people expressing themselves in public as best they can. Here's a selection (which all appeared together just like this) ranging from the helpful to the banal to the sinister.

Once we've agreed that these sentiments are honestly and deeply felt, we have to ask whether they're any more meaningful than Accusoft's appropriation of grief. In short: are there consequences to 'standing with' anything or anyone? The point of 'standing with' is, as far as I can tell, to associate oneself with the oppressed and sharing their struggle. The image I have in my head is of civil rights activists joining Rosa Parks or the school children being bussed in Alabama, and sharing the beatings and abused meted out by the police. I'm also reminded of the late Simon Hoggart's political maxim that any speech which proclaims the speaker's unwavering devotion to motherhood, apple pie, happy children, clouds or freedom is just so much humbug because it's impossible to imagine anyone seriously opposing such things.

Because social media allows us to publicly endorse popular opinions without consequences, 'standing with' becomes little more than a form of smug self-indulgence. ISIS is unlikely to be keeping a list of people who stand with Paris, whereas Rosa Parks was arrested and her friends harassed and beaten. People: stop metaphorically #standingwith things. All you'll get is the emotional reinforcement of your personally-curated echo chamber, the lowest common denominator of community empathy rather than any meaningful form of political or emotional engagement. The same thing can be said for #jesuiswhatever and the other variations: they are in Baudrillardian terms simulations of unity without meaningful symbolic exchange. It's like going to a rugby match and shouting in pain when a player is tackled. I don't mean that those expressing the sentiment aren't genuinely pained by what's happened to our fellow human beings: I am horrified and moved too. But that's not quite the same as claiming to 'stand with' those who were directly or indirectly affected. It is in fact a denial of the reality of their suffering by inserting one's own distanced feelings into the situation by loudly and publicly associating oneself with an unjustifiable claim to be a participant. If I were a Parisian, or a loved one of the deceased, I'd be revolted by the armchair bravery of those claiming to be standing with me from behind their keyboard.

Yes I know this sounds harsh and unempathetic and dismissive of other peoples' feelings, but I do think that the facility by which these memes circulate promotes the sense that we've done something by expressing the shallowest sentiments. Life is hard and complicated and requires complicated responses, not emotional spasms.