Thursday, 31 May 2012

Charlatan of the Week

I've just had some very entertaining junk mail from George Rowley, who can be contacted at if you'd like to engage him in conversation.
Bit matey for a complete stranger. But we'll let it pass.
My name is George and I would like to introduce you to my work at Mindsways. I have been working with people, businesses and organisations around how they can benefit from applying mind magic and psychological artistry to their delivery. My aim is to introduce something new and fresh into your existing mix of ideas. This is about you learning and doing something different. 
George, it's rather presumptuous of you to assume that I'm a) interested and b) unfamiliar with 'new and fresh' ideas. The use of 'magic' and 'psychological artistry' makes me think of those very sinister people who use Neurolinguistic Programming to control their staff or supposedly get into women's undergarments. What, by the way, is 'delivery'? Are you a midwife?
Albert Einstein once said "Out of the mysterious we discover the undiscovered". What do you think? How does this translate into your thinking and delivery? 
Did he really say that? I can't find any evidence of this at all. But if we're going to bandy purported Einstein quotes, I have one for you:
Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the universe.
 But let's press on.
I am currently running and delivering a programme called "Sleight of Mind Set" (SMS). This programme is all about enabling you to learn, appreciate and apply mind magic and psychological artistry to what you do. 
But you don't know what I do. And quite frankly, when I need communications advice, I turn to Thomas of Chobham, who knew quite a lot about public speaking. Your approach seems unethical and rather sinister. Though Goebbels would like it. Moving on:
This programme is good for anyone looking for something different and to stimulate new styles of thinking. The feedback has definitely been that it has satisfied the thirst for new ideas whilst ticking all of the edutrainment boxes. 
Oh George. Edutrainment? For this, you deserve to swing from a lamp-post. You come across as a cross between the 'chilled-out entertainer' from The Office and a sweaty, sad shill. You should join our pedagogy department! Or the Scientologists. They both prefer pseudo-science and propaganda to hard work.

And he goes interminably on to the extent that even I'm bored. Begone, sir!

Slaving away?

OK, students, here's a chance to boast or fess up. This is a chart from a report of students' claimed private study hours per week.

Here at The Hegemon, we assume that every hour in class should be accompanied by several hours' individual study, though of course we understand that our intake - lots of working students, parents etc - has a lot more going on than the 'traditional' student body. A few students probably get this much done, and a lot don't. Some might work regularly, some might cram sometimes. I know for a fact that many calculate what's possible - only reading texts they tend to write about, for instance. Understandable, though missing the wider educational point. I'm moderately well-educated because I read widely and make unexpected links and have a literary 'hinterland' as well as a focal point.

I can't honestly say I worked that hard as an undergraduate. I did an English degree, with education and philosophy minors. I went to all my lectures, because there were so few it would have felt rude not to (except the ones in which the lecturer handed out his text and then read from it, without deviation). It was warmer too! On the other hand, because virtually my only hobby was reading, much of what I thought was leisure was probably beneficial for work.

Certainly my academic life wasn't structured in any way. Assessment was by annual exams: my tutors wanted the occasional essay, but not very often and they had no impact on my degree. No dissertation or group work either - ideal for a fundamentally idle but enthusiastic chap such as myself. I honestly don't know how I'd have coped with the regular, significant work my students have to do.

So: how much study do you put in? Enough? Not enough? Are our expectations too high or too low?

"There may or may not have been trees"

Good morning everybody. The big event of the day of course is Jeremy Hunt's appearance at the Leveson Inquiry. He's only been up for half an hour so far and all my suspicions about the vacuity of rich Tories and the debasement of the public sphere have been confirmed.

Take the event from which the title of this post is derived: Hunt attended a party at which Rupert Murdoch was present, at a time when he was meant to be judging whether News International should be allowed to take over BSkyB. Spotting some journalists, he hid behind some trees to avoid being seen. Imagine: a Minister of the Crown, lurking behind the shrubs in case the press ask him quite proper questions about his behaviour. If this was Yes Minister, the scene would be deleted as too ridiculous. Right now he's explaining that despite being formally told he couldn't meet News International, it's 'entirely appropriate' to have the same conversations on a mobile phone. There's a man who steadfastly prefers to see trees where the rest of us see woods.

Hunt's general tenor is that of a man unshakeable in his conviction that Murdoch, Michel, Brooks et al should never be impeded, but bright enough to realise that not everybody shares his view. The records unearth a series of previously unacknowledged meetings with News Corp, unminuted but - Hunt finally admits - concerning the Sky bid, which Hunt's texts candidly proclaim he supported. The general impression is that not only does a politico-corporate elite exist, but that Hunt then and now sees this as entirely proper. There's a sense of 'now it is our turn to eat' (in the Kenyan formulation) about this government's behaviour.

They're so confident that they resent any scrutiny, hence Hunt's and Gove's use of private gmail/hotmail accounts to conduct government business, in the belief (mistaken, I hope: it's going through the courts) that such media are outside Freedom of Information rules. The last two years has seen macro-policies designed to enrich the Tories' core supporters - finance, the rich - and day-to-day corruption, such as Gove channelling money without tender to a 'charity' which helps Tories set up so-called 'free schools'. Millionaires get tax cuts, disabled children have their benefits cut.

From the testimony so far, it's hard to see how a man like Hunt has become so rich in business and so powerful in politics. The answer, of course, is that those skills - primarily ratlike cunning - and those required to be a government minister aren't the same. People like Hunt have spent decades schmoozing some people and knifing others in the back, then find themselves unable to acquire the attributes of a servant of the people: humility, judiciousness, impartiality. It was the same with the New Labour clique: having spent twenty years trashing their intellectual and ideological heritage, they found themselves tied hand and foot to their new friends in the City, and playing a self-destructive game of hardball with the press. Result: a cowardly neoliberal warmongering administration too scared to do anything other than bow to the received wisdom of a rightwing Establishment.

(Oh yes, and he uses the phrase 'going forward', referred to himself in the third person and uses 'we' when he's making things up. So he's clearly a worm).

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Is it 'cos he is Asian?

As you know, I've become increasingly concerned with the safety of Paul Uppal MP, who has been missing in action for about a month, judging by his website and Twitter feed.

Good news! He's hard at work writing a report for David Cameron on how to win the election by connecting with ethnic minority voters!

This might seem a little odd coming from a man who once sneeringly referred to the 'race relations circus' when a racist Tory friend of his lost his job, but never underestimate Paul's willingness to change his opinions for the sake of preferment.

Here's what he said, on a blog which mysteriously disappeared when he got elected (shame a highly-educated MP doesn't know what to do with an apostrophe either):
… the McCarthyistic mouth foaming utterances of the race relations industry, which through accusation alone can slay political careers and stifle well intentioned and principled debate. I say this because I have seen with my very own eyes the modus operandi of this circus, employing individuals to perpetuate this climate of political correctness. In reality this industry/business does dreadful damage to Britain’s race relations. It seems more concerned with securing it’s own funding streams and non jobs for it’s membership of zealots. The cost of this is all is so much more than financial, as we lose decent people and gag those who point to the emperor’s new clothes.

Never mind, either, that the Tories have always been disdainful of 'identity politics': when votes are in question, they'll do anything.

Sadly for Lazy Paul, I think he'll find that a) 'ethnic minority' voters are likely to share the same concerns as non-minority citizens: finding a job, keeping a job, decent schools and healthcare, and an honest government working for the good of all. Presumably the Tories have given up on these, and are trying to find ways to stereotype ethnic minorities as somehow sharing Tory values.

In case you're from an ethnic minority and find yourself tempted to vote Tory, remember this racist (and illiterate) Tory poster. One candidate in the Smethwick 1964 by-election replaced 'coloured' with the N-word in his speeches.

And let's not forget the Conservative Students' popular t-shirt and sticker campaign, which echoed Margaret Thatcher's claim that Mandela was simply a terrorist:

No doubt the Conservatives have improved, but there aren't many ethnic minority MPs, and most of those are in constituencies with large ethnic minority populations: it's almost as though white Tories won't vote for non-white candidates. Hence Derek Taylor and Warsi getting places in the House of Lords rather than achieving election. Then of course there's the Monday Club, the hysterical language used to demonise immigrants, refugees and Romany/Travellers, the Nazi songs sung at Tory stag dos and Tory student parties, and countless examples of golf-club bigotry. Let's not even mention the Tory fury at criticism of the police when Stephen Lawrence was murdered. Boris Johnson described the Metropolitan Police as the 'victims', which seems a little bit odd. But then, he did refer to black people as 'grinning picanninnies' with 'watermelon smiles' (his defence: he was 'quoted out of context', which is what Hitler would have said at Nuremberg). And of course there's the curious Tory decision to leave the mainstream European Conservative grouping and join in with the Polish, Hungarian and other Holocaust deniers. But you don't have to believe me: Conservative Party MP Priti Patel told the Financial Times that 'racist attitudes do persist within the party… there is a lot of bigotry around'.  

Paul: if you want ethnic minority people to vote for you, how about this:

1. Fix the economy
2. Stop punishing the poor.
3. Tackle institutional racism
4. Stop bombing their ancestral homes on a whim. 
5. Explain why - and then fix - the massive imbalance in non-white unemployment, educational achievement and presence in politics, business and the arts. 

But of course Paul and his boss aren't interested in policy. It's about marketing. 

Songs for Julian

Assange and his friends are so self-righteous that I'm driven to make fun of him. So here are a few Swedish songs for him:

Abba, 'Why Did It Have To Be Me?':

Abba, 'Under Attack':

Abba, 'So Long':

Abba, 'The King Has Lost His Crown':

Abba, 'Free As A Bumble Bee':

Abba, 'Disillusion:

There are plenty of other Abba tracks which sound appropriate. But I'll finish with a Blur song, 'Pressure on Julian':

Adieu, Assange

So, 5 judges have decided that Julian Assange can be deported to Sweden to be questioned (not charged) on suspicion of sexual assault. Two judges disagreed, and apparently Assange's lawyers are appealing on the grounds that the decision was made on the basis of arguments not aired in court.

From the Wikileaks press releases, tweets and followers, you'd think that Assange was being sent to a CIA black site for immediate torture and execution, rather than to one of the world's most civilised states for questioning. This is utterly disappointing: I've long been a supporter of Wikileaks' mission, but the organisation has become an unreflective propaganda machine for one particular individual: this morning they're tweeting the two judges' dissent without mentioning the majority judgement, and they spend a good deal of their time organising 'rallies for Assange', with no acknowledgement that the complainants' stories deserve investigation.

Things like this don't help:
Assange: 613 days Grand Jury, 533 days bank blockade, 530 days house arrest. Charges? None. 
Assange isn't Mandela or Dreyfus and Sweden isn't North Korea. He's been living in a massive mansion with all mod cons, whereas most people accused of sexual assaults get a shared cell in a rundown prison. I have no doubt that the US and its allies are all over Assange's life and records, but presenting him as a martyr to CIA-supported feminists is not progressive. A dignified stance would be to profess innocence and faith in the Swedish legal system, and have your day in court. Wikileaks should stick to its core purpose and resist becoming a vehicle for one man's messianic tendencies. I hope he's innocent - but turning every event into a grand conspiracy reduces the chances of Wikileaks being taken seriously when it uncovers (as it frequently does) real conspiracies.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

On the psychiatrist's couch…

I've just had a session with an external consultant (two of my favourite words) as part of the School's programme of extending 'coaching' (slogan: 'To turn experience to Wisdom') opportunities to staff. I told the consultant that I'm active online, so she'll assume that I'll be blogging this process, won't she?

Being the end-product of a thousand years of suspicious, repressed Catholic Irish bog-trotters, the ingrained response to any question is to respond with another question. For instance, to me, the correct response to 'where do you see yourself down the line?' is 'why do you want to know?'. I stopped going to Confession and don't particularly feel the need to replace a slavering priest with a professional nosey-parker at this stage. If I've got anything to confess, dear readers, it will be to you. I've already told you that I like Tiffany's 'I Think We're Alone Now', but that's quite enough of this soul-bearing. I'm not Woody Allen, you know.

Talking of Tiffany:

However, despite my cheerful cynicism - and the horror at discovering that 'consultant' actually means 'occupational psychologist' (I'm not mad: my personality is a rational response to the rest of you), I can see some advantages to this set of fortnightly encounters. I could assume that she is acting for her paymasters and use her to communicate my slightly truculent views on the institution while running the risk that this is some kind of liquidation selection exercise (she says not); I could assume that everything's on the level and talk openly and frankly about my 'career' (sorry, there's no way it deserves to lose the quotation marks), professional life, aspirations and limitations, or I can think of each session as real Live-blogging: she's got to sit there and listen to my opinions for an hour.

The first session was terrifying enough, alright: invited to describe myself and my future, I found myself doing the classic humanities thing of querying the terms of the question. She did quickly work out that I like a good sardonic rant, so she knows her onions. We discussed my current job, where the joys and frustrations are and whether I blog and tweet too much (not that I needed a professional to confirm what you've all been telling me). I've been invited to keep a running journal of my activity to identify where the pressure points are too - although this time of year isn't exactly representative. We discussed my lack of academic confidence (my contribution to openness) and agreed to think of ways to talk about this.

I have one very major reservation about this. The deployment of a psychologist implies that management believes every obstacle in the institution is personal, the fault of the individual rather than structural or managerial. I think this is ideologically loaded and deeply sinister.

Despite myself - and the invitation to write a poem, draw a picture or make some jewellery reflecting my psychological state - I'm actually tempted to break the habit of a lifetime and be emotionally open, free from reserve, facetiousness and cynicism. You know I can do it. Don't you?

Anyone else done this stuff?

Lessons for academics from history

Here's Daniel Defoe, on why academics should be excluded from his proposed Society for reforming the English language:
The Work of this Society shou'd be to encourage Polite Learning, to polish and refine the English Tongue, and advance the so much neglected Faculty of Correct Language…
Into this Society should be admitted none but Persons Eminent for Learning, and yet none, or very few, shoe Business or Trade was Learning: For I may be allow'd, I suppose, to say, We have seen many great Scholars, meer Learnèd Men, and Graduates in the last Degree of Study, whose English has been far from Polite, full of Stiffness and Affectation, hard Words, and long unusual Coupling of Syllables and Sentences, which sound harsh and untuneable to the Ear, and shock the Reader, both in Expression and Understanding'. 
Now I'm with those who say that languages are sprawling beasts which can't and shouldn't be tamed, but I can't help agreeing with Defoe here: some academic writers are needlessly convoluted as a performance of academia - it's particularly painful when students feel they have to mimic this to show that they're 'proper' members of the community.

One of the guiltiest parties is, alas, one of my inspirations, Judith Butler, author of Gender Trouble. In the introduction to the tenth anniversary to the work, she takes up the critique of her particularly dense style:
…neither grammar nor style are particularly neutral. Learning the rules that govern intelligible speech is an inculcation into normalised language, where the price of not conforming is the loss of intelligibility itself… there is nothing radical about common sense. It would be a mistake to think that received grammar is the best vehicle for expressing radical views, given the constraints that grammar imposes upon thought, indeed upon the thinkable itself. But formulations that twist grammar… produce more work for their readers, and sometimes their readers are offended… does their complaint emerge from a consumer expectation of intellectual life? Is there, perhaps, a value to be derived from such experiences of linguistic difficulty? If gender itself is naturalised through grammatical norms, as Monique Wittig has argued, then the alteration of gender at the most fundamental epistemic level will be conducted, in part, through contesting the grammar in which gender is given.
The demand for lucidity forgets the ruses that motor the ostensibly "clear" view… Who devises the protocols of "clarity" and whose interests do they serve? What is foreclosed by the insistence on parochial standards of transparency… What does "transparency" keep obscure?
Hmm. For someone who believes that it is her mission to fundamentally alter grammar at an 'epistemic level' in pursuit of breaking down binary oppositions, Butler expresses herself rather well while remaining within the bounds of intelligibility in this introduction. Her point is that grammar is an exercise of power and exclusion, and that it should be ruptured - and yet there's a rather distasteful attack on the reader encoded here, one which labels all those within the inherited linguistic tradition as lazy consumerists who should be excluded if they can't be bothered to think carefully enough. Difficult ideas certainly require technical and subtle language - but I feel here that Butler's position is rather defensive. I don't think that intelligibility is so much of a constraint as Butler asserts - languages are flexible machines capable of intelligibly bearing a wider range of meaning than she appears to believe.

Obviously I'm not operating at the intellectual or public level Butler habitually works at, but I do think we have a responsibility to our readers and audiences - mostly undergraduate students - in my case. A new student isn't stupid, merely uninducted into the academic community as yet. As Butler points out, inducting someone into a community, linguistic or otherwise, is an exercise of power: they accept our paradigms to contribute, but at the same time, they have an opportunity to shape the paradigms to some extent. I don't, frankly, see how Butler expects to radically alter grammar and the social structures they reflect by making herself so formidably unintelligible. After all, she too grew up in these linguistic structures and - however unwillingly - bears the traces.

When I'm teaching, I raise the intellectual temperature gradually. I identify the points of interest/contention/complication and attempt to explain why they're important. At each step of the way, I try to get students to think their way around these points (this is the most important element of the educational process) and we gradually complicate the issues by raising further arguments. At no stage do I announce that any student who doesn't get it is a lazy, passive consumerist.

Monday, 28 May 2012

Piss off, Portas

Those of you based in the UK may have seen lots of headlines about The Dark Place and 11 other cities winning £100,000 each to 'revitalise' their central districts, a competition overseen by the ubiquitous Mary Portas, one of those individuals who has turned self-confidence into national prominence.

Local bigwigs are orgasmic about this, which I think is utterly foolish. £100,000 is a nugatory sum to spend when the challenge is this big. It won't make the slightest bit of difference. Instead, the government has spent £1.2m to a) draw attention to the fact that most of Britain's urban areas are identically depressing and b) to further this woman's career.

The simple fact is that there are two ways to solve this city's problems. The first is to repair this country's damaged economy. That might sound glib and facile, but I mean it, and you certainly won't hear my useless multimillionaire MP Paul Uppal (last website update: 1 month, last Tweet: 17 days) making this point. Conservative and conservative Labour governments decided to pursue an economy based on rock-bottom wages for the vast majority, with the proceeds of financial speculation temporarily filling the gap in government funds. That's come to a crashing halt and the population is too poor to carry on spending.

If you believe in consumerism - and I don't - then the answer is easy: pay people more. Divert some of the billions which accrue to directors and shareholders (FTSE CEOs earn an average £2.7m) and thence offshore, to the workers. They'll buy new shoes and wallpaper and Katie Price 'novels' and ice-creams and bicycles.

Secondly, this competition is a symptom of our urban failure, rather than a solution. The language is of consumption, while the planet burns. What this town needs is a mixed economy, like an Italian city centre. Not just a place to shop (the appalling Paul Uppal prefers to talk about shoppers who should be privileged rather than citizens) but a place to chat, flirt, sunbathe, vote, argue, preach, proselytise, sing and dance, read and rally. City centres should be microcosms of their communities: we need to reflect the messiness and irrationality of the population. If the kids want to skateboard and the old people want to sit and watch the world go by, they should be free to do so.

Sadly, The Dark Place has opted for the sterility of the monoculture.
 But most of the money will be used for a Dragon's Den-style project to support entrepreneurs while solving one of the city's biggest problems. Wolverhampton has the fifth highest level of empty shops in the country, and so new businesses will be given grants to move into abandoned buildings to trade and showcase their work.
This is ridiculous. Cities are more complicated than piss-poor TV entertainment. We all know what 'entrepreneurs' want: subsidies and higher profits, achieved by blackmailing local government, importing shoddy tat and depressing wages. Who are these 'entrepreneurs'? What qualifies them for the term? Who judges them? Why not 'support' local citizens - perhaps some of these abandoned buildings could be turned into Citizens' Advice Centres, trades union offices, child-care centres, art galleries or educational establishments (we used to have a city-centre 'HE Shop': long since closed).

Local power has been put into the hands of 'City Centre Company' known as WV One (sadly and rather covertly supported by my employer, the local university, though perhaps it will provide a non-consumerist voice), rather than retained by local government in the interests of all.
WV One works with partners in a co-ordinated and proactive way across the city to attract new investment, shopping and leisure facilities and to encourage continued improvement in the city's environment, safety and access. 
As far as I can see, there has been no debate about this. The result is that the city's future will be narrowly focussed on consumerism, and by corporate consumerism at that. The city is virtually dead in terms of independent shops: there's no baker, no cheese shop, no independent book shop, no wine and beer outlets, no independent shoe shops and very few independent clothes shops.

The result of course is that shoppers' money flows out of the town to Swiss and Cayman accounts.  The physical results are two-fold: appalling architecture and a population discouraged from doing anything other than shop in the city centre. If WV One and its counterparts in other cities get their way, any non-consumerist behaviour will result in exclusion from space which once seemed public but turn out to be private.

This is already under way here. Under the deeply Orwellian headline: BID Will Put Businesses In Charge, WV One announces that local democracy has been abandoned. I thought - perhaps naively - that I was in charge, in some small way, by casting my vote for a council. But no.

A Wolverhampton-educated woman has been appointed to lead the establishment of a Business Improvement District (BID) that will put local businesses in charge of improving the city centre trading environment.
University of Wolverhampton law graduate Michelle Baker has joined WV One as BID Director with a brief to help city centre companies decide if this is the right approach for Wolverhampton.

Thanks Michelle, but a) there are almost no 'local businesses', just national and international chains, and b) how about us, the inhabitants. The paucity of Michelle's thinking is cruelly exposed:
“A BID can stimulate economic growth and a positive sense of place but for businesses, the real benefits are on the bottom line.  With the support of city centre companies, a BID in Wolverhampton could provide a quality shopping and social experience in the city centre with increased footfall and consumer spend and reduced crime levels.  It would stimulate the economy, improve on the existing appeal and market the city centre as a destination of choice.”  
These could be additional security measures, more events, city centre hosts or rangers and better marketing to attract footfall.”
They just can't think further than corporate profits - not that this kind of announcement is brought to the attention of the general public, who would, I suspect, think of themselves as more than pound notes with footfalls.

We need to beware of these weasel words: what does she mean by a 'social experience'? We know that Uppal and Co. want to sweep the streets clean of beggars, religious loonies, political groups and charity collectors - just like Albert Speer in Germania. 'Additional security measures' = private security guards with no responsibility to the general public, just to their employers, no duty to prevent crime, simply the task of getting rid of inconvenient or annoying people. As to these 'city centre hosts or rangers': how are they any better than 'charity muggers'? Either they're salesmen for tacky promotions or they're another force used to sweep the streets clean of intransigent non-enthusiasts. (Read all about this and similar schemes in Anna Minton's excellent Ground Control).

This city is full of weird and wonderful people, with interesting and exciting ideas. Many of them work for the council, so it's strange that that organisation is so keen to pass on its responsibilities to these unelected, partisan and unaccountable bodies. There's little sign in the city centre of citizens' priorities, ideas or activities - nor will there be if Portas and her friends get their way. The mantra - despite 4 years of evidence to the contrary - is 'private good, public bad'. I reject this. Citizens are brilliant, and its time we stopped accepting that we're the lead weight on the economic and social balloon. That's why I'm such a big fan of UK Uncut - the real Big Society.

At least Michelle and her friends are honest in this headline: this is a coup. The question is, what are you and I going to do about it?

Update: Uppal's risen from his regeneration tank to 'welcome' the bid. Thus proving that while he doesn't believe disabled children deserve state benefits, private business does. So he is a socialist of sorts… redistributing our taxes from the poor to the rich. (Oh yes, could somebody show him how to deploy an apostrophe?). 

Fame is a fickle master

I just read this interesting piece in the New Yorker which has some fun with an early-twentieth century Guardian poll about which authors will remain popular in the future, and with early-bestseller lists.

The basic result is that popularity and longevity don't necessarily go together: don't forget that Dickens was outsold by several authors of whom nobody out there has every heard, such as Mrs. Craik. Others, such as her fellow Stoke native Arnold Bennett, have lingered on in academia while fading in the public consciousness. Bennett's an interesting author: a pro to-Modernist who had the misfortune to be named in a review by Virginia Woolf as a symbol of the old guard.
 Mr. Bennett “has to admit that he has been concerning himself unduly with inessentials, that he has been worrying himself to achieve infantile realism
because he cannot adapt to impressionism and modernism, which she later says appeared 'on or about December 1910' after Roger Fry's Post-Impressionist exhibition. You can read the whole wonderful essay, Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown here.

Woolf won this one: here's an Ngram of references to both authors (Woolf in red, Bennett in blue) throughout the twentieth-century:

Predicting future popularity is a mug's game, though I suspect children's books have a longer shelf-life than the average mass market adult novel - because parents and grandparents buy children the books they themselves loved, and because children feel nostalgic for books read to them. I know there are novels I hope live on, and plenty I hope don't - such as Jonathan Franzen's pseudo-literature. I have high hopes for Iain Sinclair, who I think will be seen as this century's Proust or Joyce: pulling traditional forms apart to create something suited for a confused and confusing age. In drama, again it's hard to tell - we tend to forget that Shakespeare was surrounded by equally if not more popular colleagues. Eugene O'Neill, Mark Ravenhill and Caryl Churchill will surely carry on, as will Beckett (now long dead of course) and Pinter. Further than that, who can tell?

Commodity fiction tends not to survive: Louise Bagshawe (now Mensch's) rubbish will be wholly forgotten in twenty years, though the very best in the genre may linger on. Likewise crime and related fiction: because they reflect contemporary society so well, a select few will become the object of nostalgia, as Christie, Sayers and a few others do for the pre-war era, while the rest will be forgotten. I don't think misery memoirs will be much-read either, unless on university courses (which are what confer longevity on most texts).

What's interesting is the career of the big beasts: those (mostly men) lauded as the high points of contemporary literature. I think Pynchon will survive, and probably Roth and Updike. Angela Carter and Atwood too. Some Delillo and Auster, early McEwan. I'm hoping Amis will be quickly forgotten, and Thorpe will prosper. Hensher I can't tell. Poetry? Even harder to tell, as it's so far removed from the reading public. I bet Geoffrey Hill doesn't survive, but R S Thomas and a lot of the Irish poets will. Carol Ann Duffy might make it, but surely nobody's going to read Andrew Motion in ten years' time, let alone a hundred.

The problem is that what seems important to critics and reviewers right now is unlikely to be what seems significant to future generations. What we think of as the Victorian or Medieval period would be outlandish to people from those eras. The broad outlines of a culture can't be glimpsed from the inside (and probably not from the outside): the Victorians' vision of the Medieval is very different from our version, and the next age's version will be different yet. Criteria for judgement change too, which is why only fools and bloggers make predictions.

Sadly, I think a lot of the SF I read is unlikely to be reprinted, though of course the permanent availability of all texts electronically means that some texts which however good might have faded into obscurity will survive - especially small print-run texts from marginal publishers. If they're clever.

OK, comments are open: tell me who you think will and won't make it, and who deserves to (not the same thing at all).

Boiling over

… and not just because it's unseasonably warm.

Today is Tony Blair's turn to give evidence to the Leveson Inquiry. Perspicacious as Mr Leveson and Mr Jay are, I hold out no hope at all of honest or clear answers from the former Prime Minister. Tony Blair is an enigma, one of the most unpleasant and dangerous public figures of recent years.

I have no doubt that if he'd seen an opportunity in the Liberal or Conservative parties in the early 80s, he'd have joined them. Ideologically, he is the ultimate zipless politician, to adapt Erica Jong's phrase. His ideology stretches as far as allowing the rich and powerful - in business and in politics (and since he left office, himself) - untrammelled freedom. Never has it been truly said of anyone that Blair never met a rich man he didn't like. As last week's revelation that he believed middle incomes to be £50-60k per year and preferred his intuition to facts showed, he is not any kind of democrat.

His politics is entirely personal: he appealed to the public to trust his intuition; to trust him because he was 'a pretty straight kind of guy' and to replace social justice with verbless aspirations: 'equality of opportunity', 'education, education, education', 'your NHS safe in our hands': slogans which assumed that every citizen was a pushy confident bourgeois, and which opened up the public sector we voted for to the depredations of free market capital.

Blair's appeal was a kind of Teflon postmodernity: being a 'nice guy' replaced gritty political hard work; shiny corporations were automatically better than tired public services; financial speculation was better than hard work; dissenters would be punished with ASBOs and benefit cuts (at home) and bombed into submission (abroad). A general disposition towards social progressivism (such as being 'cool' with homosexuality, something I of course favour) replaced a serious social determination to rebuild Britain's social structures in favour of equality - hence the massively widened social and economic gap between the rich and poor, and the indifference towards life's losers.

Nick Cohen, a formerly leftwing war-hawk, famously supported Blair's wars on the basis that democracy is a universal right which can and should be imposed by force of arms. His Observer column this week, 'Blair's Moral Decline and Fall Is Now Complete', Cohen finally admits that Blair's massively profitable (and 'tax-efficient', as they say) work on behalf of Kazakhstan's foul dictatorship is the end of Blair's moral superiority.

Nick: what kept you? I always distrusted Blair's hard-right moralism, which seemed calculated to please The Sun (and let's not even go into Blair's craven regard for Murdoch). More specifically, I and anyone with a brain saw the Iraq war not as a democratic necessity to liberate that country's oppressed citizens, but as the reflex action of a man who knows which way the wind blows. Cohen quotes Blair to demonstrate why the Prime Minister had his support:
Blair: "There is global struggle in which we need a policy based on democracy, on freedom and on justice…" 

Blair replied in admirably plain language. His commitment to democracy and human rights was absolute. Moreover, it was universal: if free elections are good enough for Britain, they are good enough for Iran and no weasel words about theocrats having their "own" version of democracy can be allowed to pass uncontested.

By necessity, Blair was also an internationalist, because, as he said in his Chicago speech of 1999, which was by some measure his finest: "We are all internationalists now, whether we like it or not… we cannot turn our backs on conflicts and the violation of human rights within other countries if we want still to be secure." 
Fine words. But a highly-paid political columnist really should have a little more nous. Blair's commitment to 'democracy and human rights' is not and never was 'absolute'. Next to Iraq is Saudi Arabia. This is the country which forbids women to appear in public without a male relative. Women can't drive or vote. Some men have recently been given the chance to vote for a pointless assembly. Religious belief is harshly policed. There are no rights pertaining to democracy: no political campaigns, no freedom of speech, no freedom of assembly, no union rights. Torture is the state's major tool to maintain the status quo.

By any standards, Saudi Arabia was worse than Iraq and approached the condition of North Korea. I was personally inspired by Tony Blair's commitment to universal democracy and human rights. So I wrote to my New Labour MP, Rob Marris, asking him to let me know when the invasion of Saudi Arabia was scheduled, explaining my concerns about the country and my hopes for a democratic future. His reply consisted of two lines, the salient words being 'totally different', though he failed to explain why.

I know why. Saudi Arabia has a lot of oil. We depend on it. In return, they buy a lot of British weapons (mainly for show, but partly to use against their citizens), and they don't get too upset about western support for Israel, despite their obsessive anti-Semitism. Democracy is for our enemies - many of whom were our friends when their human rights abuses were less important than their preference for NATO bribes over Soviet Union ones: Saddam Hussein is a case in point.

This is Blair's 'absolute' commitment to democracy: it disappears when money and geo-politics appear, both in office and out. None of this should be a surprise. Nobody's shocked when a Tory enunciates the brutality of realpolitik. The point about Blair is that he moved the political debate away from substance towards appearance: his carefully-constructed persona was that of the modern, cool guy at ease with celebrity culture and lifestyle politics, but his few political instincts were as hard-right as any Tory. Global hegemony and casino capitalism formed the bedrock of his beliefs - anything else was negotiable. The origins and purpose of his party were embarrassing relics, quickly discarded. As he repeatedly demonstrated, 'newness' was the only signifier which mattered to him - he would constantly attack 'the forces of conservatism', by which he meant the civil service, his own party members and those they represented - not on any serious structural level, but because they were in the way of his autocratic sense that he should be able to ordain a new order without discussion, consultation or objection. Democracy at home was, to him, a drag on wealth creation and political leadership: his massive self-belief led him to assume that his every instinct (as in the average wage anecdote) was correct and any alternative view was simply obstructive for the sake of it. This is why - as his testimony at Leveson admirably demonstrates - his linguistic discourse consists of 'look' and 'y'know': he cannot and never could take scrutiny: such quirks are signs of his frustration at being questioned on anything.

Cosying up to the Murdochs of this world wasn't a burden: it was a pleasure for him, because the only people who mattered were life's winners, however they got there.

Friday, 25 May 2012

The sun shines on the just and unjust alike

The sun's shining and I've blogged about politics and things a lot today. I think Leveson's driving me mad. Though I am looking forward to the boxed set of The Leveson Inquiry (PG: contains scenes of violent sarcasm). I loved Borgen, and this is even drier and more sarcastic (though rather imbalanced on the male side).

So here are some quick cheap musical thrills.

Have a good weekend, everybody.

Where did it all go wrong for Labour and Tony Blair?

As you can probably imagine, I suspected knew that Tony Blair was a wrong 'un from the start: as shadow Home Secretary he pandered to the most reactionary instincts of the Daily Mail partly because he's a reactionary, but mostly because he thought it would win him votes, which is much more cynical.

Then there's the war, about which we don't need to say much. But the salient point for today's discussion is his oft-repeated demand that we all 'trust' him, because he relied on God and his conscience - as though sincerity is the same as good judgement.

Why mention this now? Because we're presented with another example of this non-rationalist, character-based politics. Here's Ed Balls, in the Independent:

I had a couple of conversations with Tony Blair where he would say he was worried that [a measure] would hit people with middle incomes and I would say: ‘What do you think middle incomes are?’ and he would say: ‘£50-60,000.’ I said [that the] middle income for a family is actually £26-27,000, and for an individual it is £18,000, and Tony would say: ‘Oh, the statistics must be wrong.’

Of course we all know that Blair, like Cameron (who would also get this wrong), is of the 1% culturally as well as financially, but this is a very revealing response: rather than accept the facts, or inquire into them, he just decides that they're wrong. Having rarely if ever met anyone poor or working class, he just cannot believe that they exist, or views their problems as whinging, because they're rich. Smash Hits used to ask pop stars how much a pint of milk costs, to see how far from reality they'd strayed: Blair would fail miserably.

There's a long tradition of this: a Bush spokesman once mocked journalist Ron Suskind (great article, by the way) for living in a 'reality-based community':
The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." ... "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
The background to this is the theory of cognitive dissonance, described in 1957 by Leon Festinger as the strategies we use to cope with reality not fitting our beliefs. Infiltrating a millennial cult, Festinger observed their reaction to the end of the world not arriving on the predicted day. Rather than admit that the moment hadn't come because that would cause intolerable mental distress, the group found alternative explanations, such as the claim that their devotion had prevented the apocalypse, or that a minor error in calculation meant that the actual end of the world was actually just coming… repeatedly. (There's a wickedly funny novel satirising Festinger: Alison Lurie's Imaginary Friends).

This is what we get with Tony Blair. He has a world view, in which everybody's rich and shouldn't complain. When presented with the evidence, he dismisses that, rather than undergo the difficulty of cognitive dissonance. The result is an increasingly unequal and brutalised society.

The man needed a psychiatrist, not the validation of his party and the electorate.

New media, same old hegemony

TED, as you may know, is a purveyor of controversial, ground-breaking, free-thinking ideas promoted by the finest, most untrammelled minds of our times. They're delivered to very exclusive audiences of the mega-rich and powerful, then released over the web for those of us who move in less exalted circles. 
TED is a nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading.
Our mission: Spreading ideas. 
We believe passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and ultimately, the world. So we're building here a clearinghouse that offers free knowledge and inspiration from the world's most inspired thinkers, and also a community of curious souls to engage with ideas and each other. 

Here's an interesting TED talk that - almost uniquely as far as I can tell - was not deemed an Idea Worth Spreading. In fact they declined to make the video available - only bootlegs are available. 

See the accompanying slides here. No. 8 is good: as millionaires' taxes plummet, unemployment rises - despite the plutocrats' claims that freedom from taxes creates jobs. No 10 demonstrates that while wages have dropped considerably, unemployment has risen - despite Tory Chancellor Lamont's claim that unemployment is 'a price worth paying'. Capitalists say that minimum wages prevent people being employed - but actually it inserts a floor which keeps a bit of cash in the economy. 

Why ever not? The format's right: a billionaire enthusiastically outlining his big idea for fixing the economy. Exactly the kind of thing TED usually likes. 

Not this time. Because Nick Hanauer is a RENEGADE! He's a billionaire who dared tell TED's sugar-daddies that billionaires don't create jobs. Even more devastatingly, he makes the simple (and to me very familiar argument) that high wages = healthy economy. But don't take my word for it. Henry Ford was a very rightwing and rapacious capitalist - but he realised that for American workers to afford his cars, they had to be paid well. Modern capitalism, as you'll all know because it's happening to all of us - operates on the basis of relentless cutting wages to inflate profit margins. Money that would have gone into wage packets and thence into the economy is diverted to a tiny group of managers and shareholders. 

It's really simple: a bit more money in millions of pockets helps the economy a lot more than a lot more money in a few pockets. Even Tory Simon Jenkins agrees: he says it may be time for 'helicopter money': time-limited vouchers sent to everyone in the country rather than pumping £325bn into the banks' coffers. I agree with him. I'd stipulate that it could only be spent on goods made at home, to stimulate manufacturing. I'd treat myself to a fine tailor-made suit, thus supporting apprentices and craft skills. Or a selection of the smelliest cheeses known to humanity, as long as none of them were made by Alex James who should be hung from the nearest lamp-post by the Cotswolds peasantry. 

They keep it offshore away from the tax man, or invest it in property: nothing that helps the economy. The idea is that if we don't cut wages ('brutally', to quote Google's disgusting CEO), jobs will go to China or elsewhere - states which are happy to essentially enslave their workers. That's how capitalism works: it encourages us to see fellow workers in other countries as competitors to be undercut in a race to the bottom. But the Chinese government doesn't agree. As export demand slumps, it's realising that domestic demand is the only thing which can fill the gap - and that requires decent wages. 

Clearly TED's mission is to think the unthinkable… until its sponsors' ideological hegemony is challenged. TED really is just a rich man's plaything with little to add other than tired old technodeterminism. A genuinely open debate welcomes controversy. A fake one shuts it down. This, friends, is a small example of what happens when hegemony is challenged. 

New tech, same old tyrants.

Oh, Canada!

The UK's student protests seemed like a big deal at the time: some minor disorder, a lot of police brutality and the usual panoply of outrage from politicians and rightwing media commentators. From the coverage, you'd have thought it was 1968 all over again. 

However, we have the French - or rather, French Canadians - to thank for another reminder of how to do protest properly. Nobody pays any attention to Canada even though it's huge and very interesting (Marge Simpson: 'it's so clean and sterile - I'm home!'). Quebec's students are very unhappy about their student fees being raised from (by UK standards) not very much to a bit more than not very much. But being French, they have a righteous sense of principle allied to a firm belief that the first thing to do in any situation is to get out onto the streets. And they're right. 

The initial cause has fed into a general sense of social outrage. The Canadian Conservative government is one of the most unpleasant, self-righteous, reactionary and undemocratic the first world has seen more generations: Prime Minister Harper has taken George Bush as a role model and perhaps gone even further. The cuddly Canada of peacekeepers, William Shatner, Due South, Degrassi Junior High and Anne of Green Gables has been replaced by a vicious corporate puppet which seems to actively enjoy poisoning the planet through tar sands oil (Canada cancelled its Kyoto commitments a while back) while using its newfound muscle to welcome in the Corporate Century without any regard for its citizens (and yes, Canadian voters are responsible for this insanity). 

The Quebecois students have protested so loudly and effectively for so long (103 days so far) that the government has introduced a Draconian set of anti-protest measures which only start with techniques familiar here (kettling, mass arrests etc) and end with an assault on democracy in the form of Loi/Bill 78. The university year has been cancelled! In response, large sections of the Canadian population, whether or not they agree with the fees issue, have flooded the streets and taken up novel ways to mark dissent, such as banging pots and pans ('casserole en cours) every night. 

[Law 78] imposes severe restrictions on the right to protest. Any group of 50 or more protesters must submit plans to police eight hours ahead of time; they can be denied the right to proceed. Picket lines at universities and colleges are forbidden, and illegal protests are punishable by fines from $5,000 to $125,000 for individuals and unions – as well as by the seizure of union dues and the dissolution of their associations.
In other words, the government has decided to smash the student movement by force.

I'm stunned by most of this - and surely it isn't constitutional. A blanket ban on university picket lines means that - for example - university cleaners facing wage cuts couldn't picket at their place of work, whereas staff at any other organisation can carry on as usual. Giving the police the right to ban any protest will of course be used over and over again whenever anyone wants to protest: powers once given are always applied widely and permanently.

Rather amusingly, when the police demanded a protest route map in advance, the students provided one - and the march's chosen course was… interesting. 

Culturally, there's an interesting feature to this movement: it's massively dominated by the French-speaking student bodies - they seem to be far readier to protest than Anglophones, perhaps because French gives them access to the traditions and tools of Mai 1968, and perhaps because being a linguistic minority in an anglophone-dominated country is an inherently more political position than being in the majority. There's a lesson there for the UK too: Welsh students used to be very active in the 1960s-1970s as the language and devolution campaigns accelerated - time for them to recover that fighting spirit. 

Additionally, Quebec is a special case because it's a European-style social democratic state within a country rapidly and forcibly being converted into a cutting edge free-market fundamentalist one. Yes, the rest of the world is realising that our economic and social woes are the result of capitalist fundamentalism, but Canada's previous social-democratic policies and the tide of oil money have cushioned the Canucks from the multiple blows the rest of us have received. If Canada's corporate government manages to smash Quebec, that's the end of social justice in North America. 

Canada: more interesting than you think, eh?

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Goods in…

A typical pile of bourgeois liberal merchandise in the post today.

Firstly, the new Steve Bell/Guardian Diamond Jubilee Mug, made in Stoke:

Also, a book which may or may not be of literary merit but will provide another perspective on the endless war poetry dissertations I mark: Poetry of the Taliban. I don't think I've ever read any Austro-Hungarian or Axis poetry from those wars, so I'll be interested to get a sense of the Taliban's perspectives, despite finding their religious and cultural attitudes abhorrent. I've also taken delivery of the new New Welsh Review, and a lot of wet indie music: the new Saint Etienne album (yah boo sucks to Ben and friends), the new Beach House LP, some remastered Everything But The Girl albums and some Quickspace. Lo-fi heaven!

'Nuncle, give me an egg'

I don't usually mention my family online, mostly because they're such appalling gargoyles that you'd think I made them up. But today, an exception, as my third sister (I'm one of six, four of them girls) has spawned offspring, the first of my generation to do so. Apparently that's not enough though, and my sister-in-law is having a child in August too. Let's hope that will be an end to all this procreation.

Anyway, the appearance of smaller version of my siblings and their beloveds means that I'm an uncle, even though nobody asked me to sign a consent form or anything. The question is, what sort of uncle to be? Obviously there are some basic characteristics: cool, relaxed, friendly, generous, but surely there's more to it? The ultimate prize of course would to be the uncle about which people shrug and sigh when I'm mentioned at family gatherings to which I'm not invited.

Of the role models available to me, the family tends towards 'eccentric'. There's the nearly-priest turned Tory councillor who campaigns for bigger nuclear weapons. There's the one who has a massive violent dog and keeps finding his dead mother's sports cars buried in the garden. They and the 'normal' ones and those misguided enough to marry into the clan are all, to be fair, lovely people who add to life's rich tapestry. Indeed, one of them who occasionally reads this journal opened the conversation with me at my sister's wedding with 'I'd like to abolish the NHS', which made me laugh a lot and was a damn sight more entertaining than the 'doesn't she look lovely?' phatic conversations.

So, unclehood (uncledom?). I don't need to lavish cash and gifts on this one: he's already far richer than I'll ever be. As far as I can see, the options are 'embarrassing', 'distant' and 'funny'. The thinking so far is that I'll appear at random moments bearing weird books, extreme opinions and Gorky's Zygotic Mynci albums. Later on, I'll supplement these things with jazz cigarettes and gin. I know this is the right thing to do because the first alcoholic drink I had was gin and tonic, provided over lunch in copious quantities by an aunt, an hour before a university interview. It went swimmingly.

Being a bookish type, my other option for uncle role models is by turning to literature. Thankfully, the Guardian has listed the ten best wicked uncles: Hamlet's ambitious Uncle Claudius appeals, but the effort involved is far too much. If the children are annoying, I'll follow Ebenezer from Kidnapped, and sell them into slavery (i.e. to a major supermarket's 'work experience' scheme). Then there's always Uncle Vernon (and several of the Black family) from the Harry Potter series. Or Scrooge McDuck (I assume that he has Huey, Dewey and Louie after their parents ended up à l'orange. In real life, there's also Richard III, though I'm not sure my nieces and nephews will actually stand in the way of my ascent to power and therefore probably won't require murdering in the Tower. Actually, I'm hoping they'll be nice, cool kids. And of course the sorry tale of Emperor Tiberius, who murdered his popular nephew Germanicus. Rather stupidly, he then adopted Germanicus's young son. His name was Caligula, who promptly murdered Tiberius and then embarked on a reign of terror. What a role model.

Your suggestions of uncle role models?

Prepare the tumbrils

This is Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google. You may have heard of the company.

In this interview, he reveals two interesting things. The first is that despite the business's motto being 'Don't Be Evil', he's simply an old-fashioned vicious capitalist bastard - check the joy with which he espouses 'brutal' structural changes to European economies, particularly slashing wages. 

The second is his smug - and entirely correct - assumption that CEOs should be treated as oracles who should never be questioned. The interviewer raises Google's sponsorship of 100 science teachers under the Teach First scheme, which provides highly-qualified new graduates to schools for low wages. Schmidt describes it as Google doing their bit. 

This is a direct lie. According to a Conservative MP, Google made £700m profit on £2.15bn sales in the UK in the last financial year. It paid no taxes at all

Taxes pay for schools, and schoolteachers and healthcare and defence and transport and libraries and social workers and clean air and pensions and all the other things that Google's customers and employees need. 

Teach First personnel earn between £17,500 and £21,000 (for London-based staff). So Google are handing over between £1.75m and £2.1m. If Google paid corporation tax at the full rate of 24% (i.e. 16% less than individuals earning over £42,000), it would pay £168m in tax. 

So rather than Google 'doing its bit', it is in fact saving £166 million which could be spent providing schools with science teachers and other public goods. 

Which means that Mr Schmidt is a lying barefaced thief who thinks that dropping a few coins in the begging bowl is somehow a form of corporate social responsibility. 

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Why Ben's Wrong, or, How I Learned To Love St Etienne

I was chatting to Benjamin and @Pangalactic this morning about summery music: he's listening to Dodgy, the kind of wet hippy hack music he normally teases me for liking. So I suggested St Etienne instead. Big mistake:
St. Etienne are in my top ten worst bands. Soulless, joyless, dinner table dance by numbers.
So naturally I responded by reaching for critical theory and adding New Order to the list. Because I'm kind of pompous that way.
I've always seen them as a meta-critique of soulless dance. Hence their cover of Only Love Can Break Your Heart. 
Like New Order. Using the techniques of those cultures to both critique and improve on them.

Again, a red rag to a bull.
I hate New Order too. No soul. No joy. You react intellectually to music, I react emotionally.
and from @pangalactic:
unfortunately their meta-critique of soulless dance produced the same utter rubbish
(That bit's wrong: I react emotionally and intellectually to music). So we had a discussion about whether being boring is ever intellectually or artistically justified. I pointed out that Henry James is deliberately boring quite a lot: very long sentences which leave the reader struggling for comprehension and a break, as a way of reproducing the ways we really think and speak, rather than in beautifully-constructed aperçus.

All in all, a very enjoyable morning's teasing. But I've thought about this before, and I'm right (surprisingly). As far as I understand them, St Etienne's musical style communicates a deadpan detachment from emotional commitment. It's not accidental: I think it's a critique of a society predicated on surface and simulation, as Baudrillard puts it. I think you have to get hold of this, and then realise that there is symbolic exchange (i.e. meaningful emotional content) in their songs, but it's harder to detect because their core subject is the alienation inherent in urban consumerist capitalist culture. Which is why one of their earliest songs was a cover of Neil Young's 'Only Love Can Break Your Heart', which is either a satire of hippy solipsism or a lament for the damaging effects of narcissism.

St Etienne's dance-oriented cover updates these sentiments for the E generation, in which a starter drug provided emotional experiences otherwise denied a generation atomised by capitalism.

They're not alone. The genius of bands like the Stereolab (Franco-British marxist dance), Pet Shop Boys (particularly focussed on gay culture and suburban isolation), Kraftwerk (post-war German techno-fascism and the new state as a 'machine for living in') and New Order is that, like St. Etienne, they reproduce the limitations of postmodernist alienation while suggesting that hidden within it are the seeds of emotional and artistic recovery.

They've all learned from the minimalist classical composers that authenticity and organic art is no longer possible, but also no longer important: symbolic exchange is still available, but in the gaps, if you listen hard enough - just like in real life, and unlike the production-line pop which wears its heart on its sleeve without the slightest trace of sincerity. They're having it both ways: using the tools of shiny postmodern pop both to critique and reconstitute it aesthetically.

The unbelievable in pursuit of the unbearable

I don't know about you, but I'm getting pretty sick of the sterile, pointless farce that masquerades as political debate these days. Last night I watched Newsnight, that bastion of 'well, he thinks you're an idiot: what have you got to say about that?' discourse, and I think I finally, after many many years, reached the end of my tolerance.

If you're in the UK, you can watch it here. You'll see Chloe Smith, the Conservative MP for Norwich North, and Rachel Reeves, MP for Leeds West and Shadow Chief Secretary to the Secretary. The subject was IMF boss Christine Lagarde's speech about the British economy.

The first depressing element of the exchange was the suspicion that both parties and the show had put up young female politicians to make it look like they're representative of the parties, and to make economics somehow more approachable. The Tories are more to blame for this one, I feel, as Reeves is actually in an economic role, whereas Smith is just a backbencher. Then, the presenter pointed out that Smith refused to debate with her Labour counterpart - she simply demanded a pulpit from which to pronounce her interpretation without challenge.

But the worse aspect of the whole sterile encounter was the robotic determination of both parties to parrot ready-cooked lines. If you watched the speech, you'd have noticed that Lagarde had some supportive things to say about the government, and some very critical things to say.

If you only listened to Rachel Reeves, you'd think that Lagarde had turned up, kicked Osborne in his gentleman's area while mocking his innumeracy and economic insanity. Conversely, if you listened to Chloe Smith alone, you'd have left with the impression that Lagarde had slipped Osborne some tongue, then pinned the Grand Order of Economic Genius medal to his chest while begging for his autograph.

In sum, it was a pointless exercise in spin. Neither politician could afford to state the obvious: that the speech was ambivalent about both their ideas and politics is more complicated than 'he said/she said'. Instead, they just repeated the pre-cooked lines until the 8 minutes were over. Smith announced that we'd all be living on the Big Rock Candy Mountain by next Thursday, while Reeves announced that Labour opposed the 50p tax rate cut while repeatedly avoiding the question of whether Labour would reinstate it.

Personally, I view Chloe Smith as a Tory seat-warmer and quite like Rachel Reeves as an effective communicator and sharper mind - but they're both prime examples of how intelligence and personality are subjugated to political discourse as the greasy pole is climbed. Lagarde is yet another example: once a vaguely liberal-left critic of global finance, now she's it's international shill.

What a waste of their time and mine.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

All hail Adrian Beecroft

You may have heard of the Beecroft Report. It's a very thin, unsubstantiated paper on employment rights and business efficiency written for the Prime Minister by a private equity speculator who has contributed precisely zero to the economy, the culture or the country.

Beecroft's big idea to solve the worst depression in a hundred years is… (drum roll) … make it easier to sack workers. Never mind that that scumbag Blair used to boast that British employees are the least protected in the western world (sorry, 'most flexible') and that the crash was caused by people like Beecroft: the economy can only be fixed by sacking people on a whim.

But let's not rush to judgement. Mr. Beecroft has this to say:
A proportion of employees, secure in the knowledge that their employer will be reluctant to dismiss them, work at a level well below their true capacity: they coast along
He's right. Or rather, he's right if you apply this piercing aperçu to some very small groups of employees:

1. Bankers and allied trades
2. Politicians

Have any of them taken responsibility? Been sacked? Gone to prison?


But Beecroft's determined to make sure that checkout operators, litter-pickers and fast-food servers have dragged us all down and need to have their gold-plated zero-hours contracts stripped away to liberate the wealth-creating genius of the corporate world.

Let me give you a couple of examples of these molly-coddled layabouts. I have a friend who was summarily fired a couple of days ago. Her crime? Paying for 2 tins of dog food while working on the till at a major supermarket. Receipted, recorded, done in front of managers. Another works at Pizza Hut. Their particular brand of evil works like this: all the staff are on zero-hours contracts: they're employed but don't have set hours. So they can't work anywhere else, in case they're called in. They go to work, but if there aren't enough customers, they have to sit around in case things get busy. But they're not paid for waiting around - they're compelled to be 'at work' but not paid for being they're because they're not actually working.

Lazy bastards. They've had it too easy for too long.

How education works

My colleague @MsEmentor found this on @SeanFail's Twitter page - apparently it's English Lit GCSE day, and the peons are rebelling against close reading:

Obviously there are occasions on which even I find myself exclaiming 'FFS' or worse, when faced with a particularly adventurous interpretation, but on the whole, this amusing graphic is utterly wrong. It's like this:

It doesn't matter what the author thinks

He or she may be dead, and is certainly not present at your reading. You have a complicated and rich cultural context which isn't the same as the author's, and so you'll interpret things differently. Good authors know this, and are fine with it. Bad ones work extra hard to make sure you see things his or her way. It doesn't work, because bullied readers rebel or give up. 

A decent teacher wouldn't talk about what the author meant - they'd talk about the possible interpretations of the words on the page. 

I hope I've successfully ruined the joke now. Further reading: 'The Death of the Author' (Roland Barthes) and Susan Suleiman's Authoritarian Fictions