No Matter

Untitled The above is from Patrick Wintour’s breathless eulogy to the Tories’ ‘brilliant strategy’ of painting the SNP as dastardly puppet-masters pulling Ed Miliband’s strings. ‘No matter’ that it’s almost entirely based on falsehoods. ‘No matter’ that it’s an irrelevant spectacle. ‘No matter’. ‘No matter’. ‘That’s politics’, many will say. They wouldn’t be wrong. Yet there’s never been an election in my lifetime where the narrative of ‘broken politics’ and ‘failed democracy’ has been as strong as in this one, so you would expect/hope that the twilight world of unreality where most mainstream politics takes place would be under unprecedented scrutiny. Certainly there are some eloquently making the case that our current obsession with the deficit and ‘austerity’ is based largely on misinformation but this has had little effect on our politics. “But what about the Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru’, some will cry? Even their ‘anti-austerity’ politics doesn’t push the envelope too far –the Greens in 2010 promised to “halve the deficit by 2013” and now promise to ‘end the current account deficit’ (albeit not as a main priority) while the SNP manifesto promises to enshrine deficit reduction in law:

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Indeed, while independent analysis of the SNP and Labour plans for dealing with the deficit suggest the difference could be ‘relatively modest’, we have a situation where the two parties must perform a dance of exaggerated differences in order to appease their respective audiences. The Conservatives and Lib Dems, meanwhile, are able to push the narrative of ‘economic recovery’ relatively unchallenged with questions as to the nature of the ‘recovery’, the underlying state of the economy, the role of consumer debt and housing or the impact of austerity left largely unasked. Few in the UK will have read about how the coalition pulled back on its austerity agenda and how this impacted the economy. Many of us on the left are used to chatting about the pervasive right-wing myths which play such a large role in our political discourse, not least with regards to welfare and immigration. We gnash our teeth and wail at the pervasive, destructive influence these myths hold over our politics. We’re less willing, however, to examine the shortcomings of those we view as being on our ‘side’, something I’ve documented with regards to the left’s approach to nationalism and ‘The 45’ and evident in the need to portray The Greens et al as embodying a ‘real’, frustrated left-wing politics which we need only vote for to unleash. This week Richard Seymour wrote of the ‘anti-racist’ politics of The Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru, a claim which doesn’t stand up to any close scrutiny: Untitled This is politics as comic book, where bad things happen because of bad people and all we need is to get the goodies, our goodies, into office. This is the logic which lies behind the fixation, led by the left, on getting people to vote or the notion that PR will fix ‘democracy’. It’s the logic which lies behind the idea that ‘Scotland’ is inherently more progressive than ‘Westminster’. It’s the logic which lies behind the notion that if we can only defeat UKIP the battle re: racism is won. We think we can change things cos we’re inherently better than those other folk and in the process blind ourselves to the fact that we can’t reduce politics to such a facile level (something made clear in this great piece on the allure of UKIP in Grimsby). Politics is obviously a lot bigger than politicians, than parliament and than elections. This is why I have previously argued that we can afford to be less puritanical about who we vote for. The dispiriting spectacle of the election campaign and the discourse around it, from both left and right, is based on fighting moral phantoms. We pick our teams and go forth from that position, processing information accordingly. Nicola Sturgeon is villain or hero, identical immigration controls are terrible or great, the ‘need’ to tackle the deficit is indefensible  or revolutionary, all depending on who is presenting to which audience. Structural considerations and any attempt to understand the relations of power are almost entirely absent. The idea, for example, that democracy serves a minority not because of our voting system but because of capitalism is one which you will only hear on the fringes of ‘acceptable’ politics. Yet it seems to me that it’s only by beginning down the road of such an analysis that we can begin to break out of this cycle of voting followed by disappointment and cynicism; it’s only with such analysis that we can begin to even seriously discuss the existential question of climate change and our future on this planet. God knows it’s more comforting not to do this; to keep picking our side, keep believing we’re the ‘goodies’ and keep wading through bullshit, whether that be cheerleading for our party or sitting at our keyboards bemoaning the futility of voting. These battles seem so much smaller, so much easier to win, so much less threatening to our identities. ‘No matter’ is a mantra for doing the same shit over and over and over. Aren’t we tired of live-tweeting Question Time and validating all of this? It matters. We matter. I don’t pretend to have the answers but we all need to start asking the questions and fight our way out of this shit.

Tickling the Tummy of Nationalism

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The boyfriend was watching The Voice the other night (yes, I know) and I caught a section where they were discussing one of the contestants who happened to be Scottish. Now, I say ‘happened to be’ but the presenters and judges mentioned it so much that you would have thought it was the most interesting and remarkable thing in the world. It’s pretty standard for these kinds of shows – Scotland is one of the ‘regions’ to be patted on the head and patronised with affection and ‘pick up the phone, Scotland!’ pleas, as if the Scottish people are a homogeneous bloc of simple folk thrilled to simply see ‘one of their own’ on the television.

The troubling thing is, it has a degree of traction. Some people are always going to like having their tummies tickled and if ‘Scottishness’ is an integral part of your identity, you might respond to this guff (and anyone who’s regularly watched shows like The Voice and X Factor will be familiar with terrible acts progressing quite far by pushing the ‘regional’ vote to its limit). The patronising ‘look at how great we are to these little people’ attitude of the ‘metropolitan’ media endures because it finds a willing audience.

This trend isn’t confined to rubbish talent shows. Days before the Scottish independence referendum vote I wrote about how much of the left in the rest of the UK had been ‘utterly clueless’ in their analyses of the debate, eagerly buying into every myth of Scottish exceptionalism and failing to seriously question the pro-independence movement in any way whatsoever. They were, in effect, tickling the tummies of those who believed that Scotland was better and largely doing so in order to demonstrate how progressive they were themselves. Of course, despite Billy Bragg’s ‘best’ efforts, few progressives are happy to be identified as nationalists, a word which is loaded with connotations of parochialism and small-mindedness. An inordinate amount of time was spent on tortured arguments as to why Scottish independence wasn’t a nationalist cause, closely tied to the ‘Green Yes’ and Radical Independence Campaign movements. This wasn’t about nation, flags or parochialism – it was about unleashing the magical progressive forces of Scotland and in the process setting free the rest of the UK. Solidarity brothers and sisters!

From the vantage point of 6 months later, it’s pretty remarkable how swiftly this rhetoric has fallen apart. This from ‘socialist’ Tommy Sheridan, urging support for the SNP, seems fairly typical:

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To say the SNP have been the main beneficiaries of the surge in nationalism-which-isn’t-nationalism since September would be an understatement. We can see the spike in their support, coinciding with the referendum, here – notice that the ‘others’ line remains flat during that period:

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Recent Westminster polls have the Scottish Greens polling around 3% – around the same as UKIP which, we are repeatedly told, is an ‘irrelevance’ in Scotland. The other parties involved in RIC like the Scottish Socialists don’t even figure. It’s true there has been a small increase in Green support in Holyrood polls over the past couple of years but an average of 9.6% in 2015 so far compared to 7.8% in 2014 isn’t earth-shattering considering the centrality of the Greens to the ‘it’s not nationalist’ argument for independence. I’m personally aware of a few people who were staunchly of the ‘Green Yes’ variety who are now planning on voting SNP; Vonny Moyes in this hilarious piece tries vainly to explain why Green and socialist voters opting for the SNP has nothing to do with nationalism…still.

The myths of Scottish exceptionalism are stronger than ever and have in fact been fed by the referendum – look at Moyes’ breathtaking assertion that Scots are now ‘fact-checking’ and (by implication) more informed than the rest of the UK, something which doesn’t bear a moment’s scrutiny and is based on nothing more than nationalists talking to themselves. These myths are feeding, and fed by, support for the SNP who have been reframed from a bog-standard centre party to something comparable to Syriza – witness Monbiot somewhat amazingly stating that support for the ‘lower corporation tax’ SNP is a sign of the end of neoliberalism. The narrative settled quickly – Labour are the ‘Red Tories’, evil allies of the Tories while the SNP are Our Only Hope.

You would think this would present a delicate tightrope for the SNP to walk. It is, after all, difficult to present yourself as a radical left-wing party when your main appeal is to Scotland’s middle-classes (see this excellent piece on how the SNP’s student finance policies hit the poor hardest) and you have supporters like Brian Souter to keep on board. It’s difficult to attack Labour for standing with the Tories on Better Together when you governed informally with the latter and frequently voted with them at Westminster. You would surely think that your radical credentials would be questioned when you not only want to reduce corporation tax but state that you would vote against any Labour proposals to raise taxes on the rich. Even Nicola Sturgeon’s vague noises on opposing austerity aren’t as hugely different from Labour’s plans as the rhetoric would have you believe.

Yet the SNP hasn’t found itself challenged whatsoever. Indeed, when the oil price collapse happened and government data on Scotland’s economy revealed a deficit bigger than rUK, they presented it as an argument as to why Scotland should be ‘masters of its own destiny’ without batting an eyelid that throughout the referendum campaign they argued that Scotland’s finances were healthier than those of the UK. It seems the SNP can say and do whatever it likes at the moment and face practically zero scrutiny – you can be certain that if Cameron or Miliband were doing premature victory laps like Salmond and Sturgeon currently are, they would be crucified for it.

As with the referendum, the response of much of the left is instructive as to what’s going on here. We are seeing countless think pieces which, rather than scrutinising the SNP, present them as offering a bloody nose to Westminster and even as synonymous with ‘Scotland’. This latter point is crucial as it’s something the SNP have been trying to do for a long time and, with the referendum, they seem to have succeeded to a large extent: witness the tweet at the top where, atop a mass flag-waving rally, a vote for the SNP is presented as a ‘vote for your country’. SNP success is uncritically presented as a ‘stronger voice for Scotland’ as if ‘Scotland’ is some unified whole with zero conflict or class division. We can note here that Scotland has gone so far down the nationalist rabbit hole that the other parties are dancing to this tune: witness this painful backdrop at a recent Scottish Labour event:

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The lack of scrutiny of the SNP (who are, lest we forget, the government responsible for most matters of daily interest in Scotland) is a symptom of a surge in nationalism which has turned politics on its head. The claims of UK-wide solidarity which the Scottish left made repeatedly during the referendum campaign are all but dead: a plurality of SNP voters would rather a Tory government than a Labour one if it meant more SNP MPs, a position shared by 34% of all voters in Scotland (with 21% not knowing). For all the talk of Green and Plaid Cymru alliances, there is no sense here of a UK-wide left, of shared goals (including of a Labour Party fit for purpose) which can be pursued wherever in the UK you may live. Instead the SNP are viewed as noble defenders of ‘Scotland’ against the evils of ‘Westmonster’, a narrative laid bare in the increasingly hysterical front pages of The National.

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The SNP’s rhetoric has been pitch-perfect in engorging Scottish nationalism while inflaming the English equivalent. Salmond knows exactly what he’s doing with assertions that he’ll ‘write Labour’s budget’ and there has been a concomitant rise in the rhetoric of English nationalism, with David Cameron and right-wing columnists playing up the ‘SNP wagging the Labour dog’ theme.

Of course, if it seems a no-brainer why many would have an issue with a party whose sole reason for existing is to break up the UK governing that same UK, no-one has told the Guardian left. They keep tickling the tummies, the myths keep growing and no-one must mention ‘nationalism’. In the process divisions grow ever wider and the left grows ever more insular. We’re going to be stuck here for a while.

Jesus vs Judas: Why We Care About Alan Turing more than Chelsea Manning

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The subject of Chelsea Manning is something I’ve returned to many times. Her selfless bravery is something we should all aspire to, even if we shamefully understand that we could never endure the treatment she has received as a result of her actions. Yet Chelsea hasn’t been broken and even from her cell she speaks out against the evil in our midst. She is a living example of moral courage and strong character; she is also testament to a brutal system which continues to persecute those though oppose it using whatever means possible.

If you’ve read any of my previous writing on Chelsea you’ll probably know that I’ve found it fascinating, and not a little disgusting, that much of the mainstream LGBT community and media have largely ignored her. Groups like Queer+ Friends of Chelsea Manning are very much in the minority, with none of the big LGBT charities, organisations or magazines seeking to highlight her cause in any major way. Indeed, they’ve been more likely to actively support her erasure, as with the San Fran Pride furore which only resulted in the eventual honouring of Chelsea due to the campaigning of queers who would be labelled ‘radical’.

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This response to Chelsea is particularly striking to me when contrasted with that afforded to Alan Turing, the brilliant gay mathematician and scientist who is widely credited as playing a pivotal role in World War 2 by breaking the German Enigma codes. Turing has recently been played by Benedict Cumberbatch in a Hollywood film, was given a ‘Posthumour Icon Award’ by Attitude Magazine (above) and is the totemic figurehead of a campaign to have the historical convictions of gay men for indecency quashed.

While few would deny that Turing was a remarkable individual, and a wronged one, I can’t help wondering why he is such an attractively ubiquitous prospect against the currently existing oppression faced by Manning. I think there are a combination of factors at play but there are two I’d surmise are crucial: Turing ‘fought the Nazis’ and Turing is dead.

The Nazis remain the ultimate reference for evil in our society, as evidenced by the many recent comparisons of ISIS to them. They’ve become less a historical reality than a grotesque caricature of villainy, a comparison point against which we can all feel morally superior. I’ve argued before that this is a facile, dangerous approach but it is nonetheless one which dominates. In being viewed as centrally important to the defeat of the Nazis, then, Turing is viewed not only as heroic but almost as saintly. Just look at that Attitude headline above: ‘The Gay Man Who Saved The World’. It is befitting a Saint that he is seen to have been persecuted not for anything he did but for ‘who he was’ – he is a Jesus-figure, an innocent betrayed by those he saved.

It’s not difficult to see where his death fits into this tragic narrative: Turing is more appealing symbol than flesh and blood person. It’s no coincidence that the recent Cumberbatch film largely elided the reality of his sexuality and instead used it to further frame him as tragic– we can’t have Jesus sullied by lust, desire and the distinctly unsaintly mix of bodily fluids which are so associated with gay sex. Turing is and must remain an innocent untainted by sex or even agency – an idealised victim who died for our sins.

If the successful campaign to have Turing pardoned has the air of asking Pontious Pilate to admit he got it a bit wrong, its extension to encompass deceased gay men convicted of indecent behaviour seeks to symbolically cleanse all of our sins. This government introduced legislation in 2012 allowing living gay men people to have their convictions quashed; the fact that extending this to the deceased has only become a cause célèbre post-Cumberbatch raises fascinating questions as to its motives and messages. It’s an uncontroversial, easy take on ‘social justice’. Fewof the victims are around to make things awkward; some of them might say that they don’t want or need a pardon from the homophobic authorities which persecuted them; some may point out that a ‘pardon’ suggests they did something worth pardoning in the first place. Most importantly, the crimes are seen to be in the past – there is literally zero discomfort for us alive today, who can basque in our moral superiority without having to consider, for example, how authority or indeed wider society treat LGBT people now. Only last week, for example, the Albert Kennedy Trust released a report suggesting that around a quarter of homeless youth are LGBT.

And so to Chelsea Manning. There can be no denying that Chelsea’s sexuality and gender status has been used against her. It of course shouldn’t be the case that we as LGBT people need only concern ourselves with injustices concerning others ‘like ourselves’ but as this is largely how the modern movement works, we must ask why Manning’s case is ignored. Well, for a start Manning didn’t fight an evil as obvious as the Nazis. No, instead Manning raised her voice to oppose evils perpetrated by our own governments, today. Manning highlighted our own hypocrisies and she challenged our own authorities. This is not behaviour which lends itself to a society and LGBT movement obsessed with pointing the finger at ‘acceptable’ evils (Russia, Uganda, ISIS) while believing ourselves to be morally superior. Manning’s actions are disruptive to the idea that we are the goodies in a great battle between light and dark and thus get in the way of our ability to feed good about ourselves.

Worse, even when locked up Manning won’t go away. She keeps holding a mirror up to our society, forcing us to wallow in our own vomit. Who’s responsible? We fucking are. Our response to Manning’s revelations and to our treatment of Manning offers us no comfort, no opportunities for smug righteousness. It’s no surprise, then, that we would rather eagerly pursue a campaign to pardon the innocent dead than one to free the persecuted living. Even in 2015 you have to be the right kind of victim and that is one which serves the notion that we as a society are the best we have ever been and, indeed, the best the world has ever seen. However right it may be, the pardoning of historic indecency offences is allowed to become a dominant demand because it threatens nothing and no-one. Rather it allows the system which still today oppresses queer people of colour, poor queer people, non-binary queer people, sex worker queer people, queer victims of imperialism and, indeed, Chelsea Manning, to claim that it is now accommodating and tolerant. All this once again demonstrates is that much modern LGBT politics is about securing a place at the table for comfortable white people, no matter how rotten the table may be. Even in 2015 you have to be the right kind of victim and that is one which serves the notion that we as a society are the best we have ever been and, indeed, the best the world has ever seen.

Rebel Heart

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Madonna is a 56 year old woman. It’s important to mention this fact at the beginning because it’s the dominant prism through which her career (and indeed her life) is viewed these days. After the already infamous wardrobe malfunction at the BRIT Awards, social media was awash with terrible jokes and easy slights all premised on her being a frail elderly woman while her refusal to ‘cover up’ inevitably leads to demands that she ‘puts it away’. She is called a ‘cougar’ (a woman I was discussing Madonna with the other day disparagingly called her ‘cougaresque’ before stating with no hint of irony that she was ‘opposed’ to the ageism she faces) and mocked for her efforts to appear ‘young’ while photos where she ‘looks her age’ regularly form sneering tabloid stories. She is labelled ‘vampiric’ for daring to work with younger, on-trend producers and even ostensibly positive articles about her invariably buy into the notion that she is desperately clinging onto youth and/or relevance.

‘Desperate’ is not an adjective you will often hear thrown at legendary male musicians. When Prince, also 56, returned last year with a band made up of younger women and singing songs you could easily imagine someone half his age performing, he was met with unbridled praise. Yet the sexism behind this double standard operates in ways more subtle than the ‘mere’ fact that men face far fewer constraints on who they are expected to be as they age. If we look at Kate Bush, for example, we see a 56 year old female who is massively respected and praised; if we look at Joni Mitchell or Stevie Nicks, we see artists 10 years older who are similarly admired. The opprobrium Madonna faces, then, is not solely because she is an ageing woman but rather because she is an ageing woman making contemporary pop/dance music.

1983, when Madonna released her debut album, was “an era where disco was anathema to the mainstream pop, and she had a huge role in popularizing dance music as a popular music again”. Madonna’s roots lay in a music scene which belonged to the queers, the blacks, the latinos, the drag queens and yes, the women. The infamous ‘Disco Sucks!’ movement typifies the sexist, racist and homophobic opposition which this music met with and it was in this context Madonna released a debut where she solely wrote 5 of the 8 tracks. As Michael Rosenblatt (A&R of Sire Records at the time) puts it, even Warner Bros dismissed her as “just a little dance girl.”

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It seems fair to say that Madonna has faced variations on this attitude in her career since, whether it be accusations that she slept her way to success, assertions that her ‘real talent’ is marketing and self-promotion or the attribution of her successes to the men she has collaborated with. It’s not an accident that her most respected albums, Like A Prayer and Ray of Light, are the ones where she most ostentatiously seemed like a musical auteur while, for example, the high concept brilliance of Erotica or the cleverness of MDNA as her second divorce album were generally lost in the midst of dance beats, Sex books and Super Bowls. Over the years ‘rockism’ has, of course, been chipped away and Madonna has won a begrudging respect from many. In the past decade or so, however, she’s faced another set of prejudices under the guise of ‘poptimism’, an approach which sees the rejection of ‘authenticity’ and the ‘rock canon’ as its liberating raison d’être. This is fine up to a point but (as I’ve written about many times before) it has led to orthodoxies as facile and constraining as rockism at its worst: a fetishising of and supplication to youth; a hyper-sensitive rejection of sincerity and earnestness; a deep suspicion of ‘traditional’ markers of musical talent (ie the endless whining over guitars) and an irreverence which frequently tips over into petulance. It’s this approach which led us to the absurdity of a pop album where the ‘artist’ doesn’t necessarily even sing entire verses attributed to her: poptimism has, ironically, a contempt for pop music at its core.

Madonna, on the other hand, has always taken pop music seriously and approached it sincerely. How could she not? Disco and its aftermath wasn’t about empty, half-understood post-modernist; rather it was about life. A celebration, yes, but at its most basic level it was about the survival and defiance of those the mainstream rejected. Madonna came to music knowing that it mattered and knowing that her self-expression as a pop artist was one of the most powerful statements she could ever make. Her famous statement that she wanted ‘to rule the world’ was not (just) hubris but a statement of intent that she could make things better – not for nothing does her debut single command ‘Everybody’ to “dance and sing, get up and do your thing”.

In 2015, then, we have rockist relics forever suspicious of Madonna making pop music and poptimists who can’t understand why she should warrant any respect or even attention unless she’s delivering instant gratification. She’s at least double the age of your average pop singer on the charts yet hasn’t ‘toned it down’ and gone the route expected of her  (witness the contrasting responses to Annie Lennox’s ‘graceful’ ageing at the Grammys vs Madonna’s ass-baring.) She is quite unique in being a middle-aged female pop artist who refuses to go quietly into the night or become her own tribute act, a move which I’m certain would quickly gratify her to many detractors who want little more than nostalgia from their ageing musicians.

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This latter approach was exactly the one taken David Bowie in 2002 with Heathen (when he was 55), and by Bob Dylan in 1997 with Time Out of Mind (when he was 57). Both, of course, tick a lot more of the boxes warranting ‘respect’ than Madonna but by recording albums which harked back to their heydays, firmly met expectations of what they should be doing and nodded towards the fact of their ageing, they were greeted by an avalanche of acclaim. Madonna’s not an idiot. Coming from the commercial disappointment of MDNA (though two million sales these days is nothing to be sniffed at) and facing an uphill battle to ever have a hit single again, she surely knows that if she were to reunite with, say, Pat Leonard, dye her hair black, put on some conservative clothes and sing some ballads about how awful it was getting old before knocking around singing Like A Prayer, she’d have a much easier time of it. Yet Rebel Heart is, in its way, as much a restatement of values as Time Out of Mind or Heather were. It is also just as much about ageing.

Ever since Madonna stridently sang “Unlike the others I’d do anything, I’m not the same, I have no shame” on Burning Up, she’s done a good line in ‘nothing’s gonna stop me!” songs. Yet given Madonna’s current position there’s something poignant in hearing her sing ‘Now that it’s over/I’m gonna carry on’ over a throwback 90s house track in Rebel Heart’s opener Living For Love. The proposed concept of Rebel Heart, abandoned after leakageddon, was apparently a double-album comprised of two ‘sides’: rebel and heart. This isn’t particularly different from the stated theme of Hard Candy, which was to juxtapose Madonna’s toughness with her ‘soft centre’ and, like HC, Rebel Heart is an album which looks backwards a lot. Yet while Hard Candy sonically revisited the r&b-inflected pop of Madonna’s early years (her debut was allegedly the template), Rebel Heart is possibly the most musically diverse album she’s ever released. It’s also one very much about taking stock and moving onwards into an uncertain future.

The album is littered with obvious references to Madonna’s past – the Vogue sample on Holy Water, the Justify My Love lyrics on Best Night, the cavalcade of song titles which make up Veni Vidi Vici; the title track’s moving reflection on her life; it’s also packed with allusions to Madonna’s status as an ageing pop icon. On electro-folk tour de force Devil Prey she sings “Holding on, but I’m getting weaker/watch me disappear.” Ghosttown, a Ryan Tedder-esque anthem which is probably the album’s best chance of a hit, depicts a barren post-apocalyptic world and finds Madonna musing that “Everything’s bound to break sooner or later.” In the gorgeous Joan of Arc she sings “Even when the world turns its back on me/There could be a war, but I’m not going down.” Album closer (standard version) Wash All Over Me is an elegiac ballad which seems self-explanatory given what I’ve written above:

In a world that’s changing
I’m a stranger in a strange land
There’s a contradiction
And I’m stuck here in between
Life is like a desert
An oasis to confuse me
So I walk this razor’s edge
Will I stand or will I fall?
…If this is the end then let it come
Let it come
Let it rain
…Gonna watch the sun going down
I’m not gonna run from all this sadness

I remember reading a review of Bedtime Stories in Q Magazine which ended by posing the question “Is it too soon to say that it was fun while it lasted?” Now, over 20 years later, Madonna seems to be posing the question to herself. The most fascinating song in this regard is, ironically, one which seems to have been removed from the track listing at the last minute: Queen is an astounding dirge quite unlike anything she’s ever recorded before and finds the Queen of Pop addressing indirectly addressing her listeners:

We’re at the end of days
For heaven’s sake
The queen’s been slain
She’ll never rule again
…Black parade, motorcade
Destiny sings farewell, church bells
Is anyone listening?
…Who will take her place?
Its written on everyone’s face
The truth is slowly dawning
I hear tomorrow calling
Some things can’t be replaced
The realization of a new generation
On the eve of imitation
All gone, overthrown

She is, in effect, saying ‘you fuckers will miss me when I’m gone’. In fact, ‘some things can’t be replaced’ could fairly be described as the over-arching theme of the album or, to put it another way – Bitch I’m Madonna. The ‘rebel’ songs are less concerned with considering Madonna’s demise (metaphorical or otherwise) than with reminding us that she can do thrilling pop in her sleep. Given her origins and the more subtle versions of ‘Disco Sucks!’ which she’s faced throughout her career, it’s quite apropos that it’s the adventurous, brash and fun electronic pop of Bitch I’m Madonna, Unapologetic Bitch and Holy Water which have been vexing the straight white male critics. Indeed, the fact that Madonna had to point out that the latter song, with lyrics like “Kiss it better, kiss it better (don’t it taste like holy water)”, was meant to be funny speaks volumes about how some perceive her. The heart songs let us know that she’s perfectly self-aware regarding her age and her position – the rebel songs tell us she’s not our bitch, don’t hang our shit on her. She’ll be singing songs like S.E.X. (featuring a ‘lesson in sexology’ which includes “chopsticks, underwear, barber soap, dental chair, fish nets, satin sheets, garter belt, raw meat” – it’s like she felt sorry for the Daily Mail) as long as people keep telling her to stop and tossing off the kind of mercurial melodies found in Hold Tight and Inside Out while her detractors scramble around blowing up photos of her hands. As she puts it in Borrowed Time, she wants to ‘live each moment like our time is only borrowed’.

Taken in one go the ‘Super Deluxe’ version is certainly too long (23 songs, if Queen is indeed missing) but this largely seems to reflect a) the changed nature of ‘albums’ in an mp3/Spotify world and b) the need to get fans to buy multiple copies to shore up Madonna’s commercial fortunes. Presumably because the leaks meant that the songs finished at the time were rush-released, the pacing is a bit off too. Nonetheless this is certainly Madonna’s best album since Confessions On A Dance Floor and, as her public appearances have underlined, she seems more engaged in the music than she has done in a while.

For all the reasons discussed above, Madonna isn’t going to be respected as the preternaturally brilliant talent she is any time soon. The criticism isn’t going to stop being about the same superficial things it’s always about (as opposed to serious discussion of her sometimes problematic and sometimes plain godawful politics.)We’ll do this all again in a few years when she’s 60 and pissing even more people off by showing her ass but, by God, she’s right about one thing:

We’ll miss her when she’s gone.

Cars For All The Gays!

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I’ve written a lot in the past few years on how gay identity has been commodified as it has concomitantly become ‘respectable’ and divorced from the wider social justice movement which was once integral to it. As I wrote here:

With each progression of ‘the gays’ into a target market the concept has become more and more banal, more removed from the complicated taint of meaningful politics and messy humanity, more homogeneous and more offensive. We become a bunch of fabulous creatures who want nothing more than to be patronised. Patted on the head and told that we deserve to be treated like everyone else – not because of any crazy concepts like human rights, of course, but rather because gays are amazing and deserve good stuff. We’re now at the stage where any 2013 edition of ‘Marketing 101’ would have to feature an early section called ‘Patronise the gays’.

I’ve also written about how  “flattering the victimhood” of the “right kind” of queer (the white, cisgender, middle-class kind) has become its own industry. All of these strands come together in the quite staggering case of Ellen Degeneres and a company called ‘Shutterfly’ gifting $10,000 to two ‘Youtube star’ model twin brothers because they filmed a coming out video ‘for their dad’.

There is no aspect of this that doesn’t cause me to shake my head in disbelief despite myself. These two professional models apparently moved to LA to ‘try and make it’, which in itself already suggests they’re not exactly on the poverty line. Prior to their appearance on Ellen they had Instagram and Youtube accounts which were already very popular (by the usual standards of these things), no doubt due to their almost exclusive focus on the pretty faces of these two men rather than their profound thoughts. I find it difficult, then, to find their ‘coming out’ video as anything other than them attempting to commodify their sexuality in order to boost their profile. This isn’t particularly ‘out there’ for two guys who are already commodities in a myriad of ways but it speaks to that peculiarly 21st century blend of marketing, liberalism and ‘othering’ which typifies ‘The Gay Angle’. In this instance we have another element – confessional social media. It wasn’t enough for these men to tell their dad that they were gay – it had to be filmed, shared with millions of people and it had to be presented as an inspirational story. The packaging is so clichéd that I find it impossible to believe that the twins (or at least their management) weren’t aware of the increasing tendency for ‘coming out’ Youtube videos to go viral, just as any celebrity or public figure who comes out instantly becomes a heroic figure (as long as they’re easy to patronise and don’t make anyone uncomfortable). They’re the ‘right kind’ of queer making the right noises: these handsome professional models, living in LA and by their own account out to almost everyone in their lives are still victims. It’s tragic! Oh society, won’t someone think of the models in LA?!

Of course I can’t particularly berate these guys for doing what they can to get attention, especially when they clearly understand the cynical, dynamic power of ‘coming out’ (if packaged in the right way) far more than most of the media does. It was predictable that there would be a rush to congratulate them, to reward them, to confer ‘bravery’ upon them. It was somewhat less predictable that they’d be catapulted to The Ellen Show where they’d have money thrown at them by a stationery company. It’s almost a perfect storm of ‘gay as commodity’. The twins market themselves as appealing, brave gay victims. People rush to pat them on the head. Then talk shows and companies want in on the action, to be associated with this ‘model gay’ (pun intended).

On Twitter the user @PayItForward87 pointed out the absurdity of ‘helping’ the twins, contrasting their position with the rates of homeless LGBT youth and disproportionate rates of violence faced by queer people of colour and transgender people.

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It’s true, of course – that $10,000 could have made a real difference. Yet this neglects the fact that the Youtube video would never have gone viral, and the twins would never have ended up on Ellen, if it had included issues of race, poverty, homelessness and violence against transgender people. These issues are viewed as political. They’re viewed as messy, not least because they break down the neat distinctions between the ‘nice brave gay’ and the ‘nice tolerant liberal’ and instead implicate all of us. The twins feed into a homogenous conception of ‘gay identity’ which is stripped of all political content or context – indeed, they’re viewed in essentialist terms as being pre-political identities, almost new born babies in terms of their place in the world. We can be certain that if even these articulate middle-class white models had built their Youtube following by speaking about ‘radical’ politics, their coming out would not have reached far.

It’s incumbent on all of us, then, who do not wish to be packaged, patronised and apolitical to recognise this shit for what it is and to reject it. A vision of Oprah Winfrey shouting ‘You’re gay, YOU GET A CAR! You’re gay, YOU GET A CAR! CARS FOR ALL THE GAYS!’ doesn’t seem particularly outlandish right now. And while it might be nice to get a free car, that is a profound degradation of our humanity and a deeply counter-productive attitude which cements us, as queers, as people to be tolerated as long as we behave ourselves, allow ourselves to be patronised and act grateful for it. We are not marketing opportunities.

We Get What We Can However We Can Get It

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As we edge towards the 2015 General Election or, to give it its proper name, The Worst Election of All Time, we’ll be seeing a lot of boilerplate columns, articles and opinion pieces. You know the ones: a lot of partisan opining on how the deficit is on the right track/doesn’t really matter, about how the Tories are getting people back to work/are building a low-wage precariat economy, about how the Tories/Labour can/cannot be trusted with the NHS. Not all of it will be without merit, of course, but it will be largely predictable.

It’s already clear that one of the boilerplate pieces we’ll be seeing a lot of is on Labour and the Green Party. There’s a lot of undignified mud-slinging going on in both directions but here I want to focus on the ‘ignore the scaremongering, vote Green!’ angle as I’ve seen it quite a lot in recent days – always with a sneering tone which suggests that anyone on the left who disagrees with this stance is a craven Labour stooge.

I’ll focus mainly on Ian Sinclair’s Open Democracy piece as it covers the most ground. Its subheading asks “will it ever be acceptable to vote for a lefty party that isn’t Labour?” Well, that’s easy. Yes, it is. I do it every single year. I’ve voted for Labour only a handful of times in my life and only once at a General Election, in 2010. I did that despite considering myself far to the left of Brown’s Labour government and having many issues with it. I did that because I knew that it would be a tight election and I knew that a Tory government would be a disaster, especially in the immediate aftermath of a financial crash. Others, of course, disagreed and thought that those on the left should vote Liberal Democrat – including figures like George Monbiot, who is now recommending we vote Green – and we all know how that turned out (I’ll return to this later). So the issue here isn’t that left-wing people are arguing ‘never vote for any party but Labour’ (I don’t think anyone but the most slavishly loyal Labour Party hack would argue that) but that they’re arguing ‘this is clearly going to be a very tight election and only Labour or the Tories are going to ‘win’’. This is clear from the daily polls which have Labour/Tories neck and neck but around 20 points ahead of the nearest challenger. The Greens are not going to form the government. As it stands, they’re almost certain to not even win more than one seat. They won’t be kingmakers (and there won’t be a Lab/Green/SNP coalition – the only reason the SNP are floating this is because they know that arrangement will inflame both English and Scottish nationalism, serving no-one other than themselves).

No-one on the left who’s been paying attention could possibly deny that the coalition has done enormous damage to the country. This piece argues that it’s gone ‘further than Thatcher’ in its attack on the vestiges of the post-war settlement and the welfare state. The usual response to this from ‘vote Green’ advocates is ‘Labour were right wing/embrace austerity too!” Well, yes…but do the ‘they’re all the same’ advocates really think that the past five years would have unfurled in the same brutal way under Gordon Brown or Ed Miliband (I know there’s existential points about the relationship of parties to capital etc and I’ll return to that)? I don’t think many would deny that there would have been very real differences in the lives of a great many people. Sinclair mentions Owen Jones’ invoking of the Bedroom Tax as a concrete harmful policy which will be removed by a Labour government, dismissing it because the Greens are picking up support “because of their emphasis on social and economic justice and their opposition to the bedroom tax.” Well that’s great – where does that emphasis get us with one or two MPs? Absolutely nowhere. He also inevitably cries ‘IRAQ!’ Again, great – I marched against the war too. I just don’t see how the Green Party are going to go back in time and stop it.

The point about the Bedroom Tax is important in illustrating that, even within the ‘pro-austerity consensus’, there are important and material differences. The IFS analysis of the three main parties’ stated spending plans for 2015 onwards states that:

The spending cuts required by Labour and the Liberal Democrats to achieve their stated borrowing targets would be significantly smaller than those required by the Conservatives.

and identifies the different plans as one of the “key dividing lines” between the parties. None of this is ‘anti-austerity’ in any sense but the crucial point is that there is no scenario in the 2015 election where ‘anti-austerity’ wins the election. None. As such, we have to be about ameliorating the impact on people’s lives as much as possible.

This doesn’t mean that you suddenly wholeheartedly endorse Labour and everything it does. It doesn’t mean you have to stop supporting the Greens. It doesn’t mean you can’t fight against the Labour right with every fibre of your body. It’s notable that the decline of the two-party system hasn’t been accompanied by a corresponding decoupling of personal identity from parties. We still on the whole think of them in the same way we think of football teams, picking one and ‘supporting’ it. A lot of minority party votes seem to be in protest to the main parties – a ‘not in my name’ mentality. I think this is completely wrong-headed. I think you can vote for a party on the understanding that it might win power in this election and prevent something worse, while still being opposed to what that party stands for. It’s lesser-evilism, yes, but that becomes less of an issue when your politics extends beyond voting and you don’t then feel the need to defend ‘your’ party. Hell, even a lot of people who *do* identify with a party still fight against it. Another characteristic of all this is a failure to consider *why* the two-party system has endured. It’s not just because of the voting system – the fact that parties are broad churches. As much as we may think/be told otherwise, ‘Labour’ or ‘Tory’ has never been a neat signifier and it’s clear that even the Greens and SNP bridge the left/right divide.

Indeed, it’s mandatory that we create movements which are able to influence parties and, perhaps more importantly, wider opinion. It’s an inconvenient truth ignored by everyone from ‘radical’ pro-independence campaigners to ‘vote Green’ advocates that the bulk of the population holds reactionary views on welfare and immigration, is convinced by ‘deficit reduction’ as an important target and doesn’t feel particularly inclined towards what we call ‘the far-left’ (even taking into account support for nationalisation, higher taxes on the wealthy etc). We’re told that if enough of us vote Green then they’ll win – but that relies on the assumption that people merely don’t vote Green because they either don’t know about them or don’t think they can win, which is a BIG assumption and does nothing to parse the reactionary side of ‘the electorate’. The response usually comes “well of course they have those views, that’s what they get from the media and the main parties’.” True. It’s not going to change any time soon and it’s incumbent on all of us to change that rather than pushing the myth that the 7-11% who currently support the Greens are somehow ready to storm the barricades and transform the culture overnight. This ties to the important point of why left-wing parties have moved right in the UK and beyond. The ‘vote Green’ argument would have us believe that it’s simply because the politicians in question are dicks and we have to just keep going til we find the ‘right’ one (see Monbiot with his jump from Green to Plaid Cymru to Lib Dem to Green). Once we begin to understand the importance of the context (the global capitalism system, the UK state, societal pressures) and the break this puts on radicalism (this book is good on that in terms of the Bennites) then our politics begins to shift and we become a bit less precious about what we’re ‘endorsing’ with our vote.

Sinclair suggests that critics of ‘vote Green’ should look to Labour’s growth at the beginning of the 20th Century. It’s absurd enough, having to go back over 100 years to try and illustrate why we should vote a certain way now, but even on its own terms the comparison falls flat. Indeed, it illustrates the importance of context. The Labour Party grew out of trade unionism and socialist movements representing the growing number of ‘urban proletariat’ who had, quite crucially, only recently been granted the vote (and this was still before of universal suffrage). Its breakthrough in supplanting the Liberal Party as one of the two main parties, with a surge in 1918 and a breakthrough in 1922, corresponded with extension of the franchise and is impossible to separate from the small matter of World War One. Comparisons with the Greens in 2015 are utterly useless, especially in an age of instant opinion polling where we can see that, even in elections fought under PR, the Greens are a minority interest (and I think a reform to the voting system should be a BIG priority for the left).

So no, the argument isn’t ‘never vote for any party except Labour’. The argument is ‘get the best outcome we can get in elections and keep fighting for what we believe through whatever means necessary’. You can still be a Green. You can be a radical anarchist opposed to representative democracy. It doesn’t matter. We get what we can, however we can get it.

The ‘Respectable’ Queer

One of the things which previously inspired me to write on why I thought ‘gay art’ was at a dead end was seeing a ‘film’ by someone called Antonio Da Silva.  This consisted of 14 minutes of naked men speaking about themselves and wanking. The thoughts I articulated in that blog struck me again today when an article about Da Silva’s latest popped up on my Facebook. I must confess I haven’t watched the full 13 minutes but it seems to consist of naked men speaking about themselves and wanking. This may have passed me by without further comment but something caused me to pause:

“All my films have been self-funded, your donation will help me to continue producing films that aim to be artistic as well as sexually explicit. People who donate will be contacted to watch unreleased footage once it is ready. I am grateful for your contribution.”

This quote from Da Silva appears above a plea for donations and a series of gifs depicting the men in the film masturbating. The ‘appeal’ is pretty obvious (and it’s not the art) but the assertion that his films ‘aim to be artistic as well as sexually explicit’ reminded me of a series of adverts I’ve seen for this increasingly popular night in East London which describes itself as “a literary salon featuring unclothed men”. I was also reminded of the ‘Red Hot’ photography series which has been a perennial feature in the press, both queer and beyond, since it debuted. The statement on the Red Hot website that the series has raised thousands for anti-bullying charities then reminded me of the Warwick Rowers and Ben Cohen, both of whom have also monetised ‘classy’ sexual images with an added charity sheen.

There is clearly big money to be made in facilitating respectable wanks. I remain of the opinion that that vast majority of this stuff is terrible (and deeply cynical) yet with the very recent arrival of gay marriage in Scotland and today’s images of gay marriages in Florida, I started thinking about a wider context for this ‘art’ which I hadn’t previously considered. Gay marriage is the culmination of the rise and subsequent dominance of ‘respectability politics’ in the queer community, something I’ve written about many times before – it’s easy, then, to draw clear links between this and the rise of LGBT art as ‘porn-with-meaning’. I don’t use the word ‘porn’ pejoratively here but rather to muse that many of the above examples are risible attempts to intellectualise the very basic and very human urge to be aroused and to get laid, comparable to how respectability politics tries to downplay the ‘deviant’ aspects of queer identity (both sexual and political) and make it more ‘acceptable’ to a wider audience. In this way the decline of radicalism which has characterised queer politics over the past 30 years can be seen to have fed into our mainstream LGBT media, obsessed with facile bullshit and castrated schoolboy giggling over celebrity nudity, and aforementioned queer art. I wrote in my blog on newsworthy microaggressions that they “flatter the self-expression of those who control or have easy access to the media” – something which I think is of key importance here. The desire is not only to appear a certain way to others but to have that reflected back and so feel that way too – the drive to respectability is about self-love as much as anything else. Of course as a basic principle this is fine but when projected through the prism of an LGBT world which overwhelmingly reflects the interests of those of a certain class and certain colour (and certain gender to an extent) it becomes detached from any reflective political power and ends up as a brutal narcissism. As James Baldwin described the ‘gay world’ in the quote which ended that piece: “It’s a very hermetically sealed world with very unattractive features, including racism.”

We can see this even in some self-conscious attempts to remember and/or reclaim the radicalism of the past. Depictions of the struggle against HIV are enormously whitewashed and even much modern activism fails to reflect or even acknowledge that worldwide incidences of the disease are overwhelmingly and disproportionately found in Sub-Saharan Africa (almost 70% of cases vs less than 7% in Western Europe/North America). Even the film Pride, which movingly depicts the solidarity displayed between LGSM and the striking miners in 1984/5, contains pretty much zero people of colour and while it depicts gay men in fetish gear (for example) it manages to completely desexualise them.

The depiction of class in Pride is also interesting. The miners’ strike is only ostensibly the heart of the film – really it’s a liberal message of tolerance and mutual respect. The collapse of the strike may have destroyed communities for decades to come but the film’s emotional climax is the arrival and support of the miners at Gay Pride in London. The closing captions tell us that the National Union of Miners were then instrumental in making the Labour Party adopt a gay rights platform – the film concludes with the working-class defeated but having helped to bestow respectability upon the queers.

It’s easy, then, to see how the current LGBT media, as brain-dead as it is, could applaud the film and bypass any issues it raises about critical thinking and wider solidarity: in the end it can be a film about the path to respectability and, read that way, it pushes the same buttons as the dominant LGBT politics and art. Indeed, I saw the film praised by quite a few gay viewers whom I’d not long before witnessed viciously slating the RMT for their latest tube strike. Irony is not dead.

In this sense the film offers an unthreatening flirtation with radical politics, just as the examples of ‘art’ I mentioned at the beginning offer an unthreatening flirtation with the aggressive potential lurking in sexual ‘deviance’. We can draw further links from this, with the furores around the threatened closures of Madame JoJos and the Joiners Arms speaking to a contained and commodified radicalism which is about little beyond its own reflection. The rise of club nights which offer ‘crucial edginess’ as mentioned in the Joiners piece also clearly fit into this: they offer caricatures of rebellion which can be left behind at the door as you return to respectability. The latest advert for Sink the Pink is a pretty perfect illustration of this:
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Classist, condescending and sexist, this betrays the reactionary vacuum which lies behind the respectability politics so dominant in the LGBT world. It is from this vacuum that racist and orientalist ideas about the world beyond white Western Europe/North America flow and it is into it that true solidarity vanishes.

While I obviously had issues with Pride I don’t wish to condemn it out of hand: it was far better than I could ever have expected it to be and it had small but important touches which disrupted the dominant narrative as described above. One of these came to fruition at the emotional climax I wrote about. Prior to the mining community arriving in their droves, we are shown a Gay Pride organiser telling the members of LGSM that they can’t join the main parade with their ‘political’ banners because people just want a ‘celebration’. It’s only the force of numbers of the miners and LGSM that forces the organiser, due to sheer practical concerns, to back down. To me, that organiser can represent the current LGBT movement, apolitical and obsessed with respectability, and the film’s most truly radical message of solidarity for a current LGBT audience is not to say that we should seek to ape the politics of 1984 or ‘all get along’ but to remind us that even now we can join with others in a common cause and effect change not only out there but in our own reactionary and ‘respectable’ community.