Here Chris Hedges offer the kind of angrily coruscating analysis of power which would see you dismissed as a ‘trot’ in mainstream political circles in the UK. In fitting with neoliberalism’s reduction of politicians to a manager class, it has become de rigueur to present yourself as being reasonable and concerned with matters of realpolitik, as if this is not in itself shot through with ideology. I was surrounded by such attitudes at university, prematurely middle-aged youngsters speaking of ‘tough choices’ and viewing power as something to aspire to rather than an almost-endless series of relationships, often hidden from plain sight, which governed the world around them. The past year has, of course, brought a series of scandals which has offered us a small glimpse into many of these relationships – yet many of the politically-engaged keep parroting the same lines, shoving their fingers in their ears and labelling anyone who seeks to expose, understand and even destroy these relationships as an extremist.

The American election which Hedges writes about offered yet another example of how degraded our politics has become. Some would call it ‘post-ideological’, I’m sure. I wrote previously about how in many quarters it became little more than a contest between the one commonly-viewed to be the ‘good guy’ and the one commonly-viewed to be the ‘bad guy’. What was perhaps more shocking than this was how power became reduced to a checklist of utter banalities, separate from any real-life impact. I saw several columns in support of Obama which did acknowledge his use of torture, his complete disregard for the rule of law and civil liberties (to name but two of Hedges’ concerns.) Yet they were presented as marks in a column looking at his good and bad points, counter-balanced by his positive words about gay people, his rhetoric about ‘ordinary Americans’. Of course we all must do this to a degree – but if we have dearly held principles, there would also surely come a time where we drew a line in the sand and said “No more. Not in my name.” We have become so brutalised and desensitised that ‘he kills thousands of people with no explanation, justification or oversight, but I like his tax policies’ is viewed as the argument of reasonable people while those who focus on the former are tarred as puritanical radicals, demanding the world from their well-meaning elected representatives.

I wrote frequently during the Summer about how efforts to discuss the Olympics and, to a lesser extent, the Jubilee celebrations as political events were greatly frowned upon. You were again liable to be viewed as a bitter crank, overly critical for the sake of it. Yet we should always be critical of the narratives which govern our worlds, in the sense of questioning them and how they serve power. Instead, this critical approach so maligned in ‘the political sphere’ (as if anything can possibly be outside of this) is diverted to the sphere of entertainment, where critical thought has become scathing skepticism and knee-jerk cynicism. We consume our entertainment while believing ourselves to be ‘above’ it, from X Factor and 50 Shades of Gray to Twilight and reality tv shows. We believe we understand how these things work, how they seek to manipulate us and play with our expectations. We share endless Youtube clips to engage with our peers in laughing at them, tearing them apart, asserting our dominance over a culture which we instinctively refuse to view with any sincerity.

This form of critical thinking is largely empty and perhaps even damaging. Fundamentally, there are no principles involved here – we don’t ridicule because these things offend our sense of what culture should be, rather they exist solely so that we may ridicule them. So we have an enormously odd arrangement where a critical approach to entertainment (albeit a corrosive, empty one) is celebrated while one which speaks of politics and power is beyond the pale. It’s notable that one of these approaches leads absolutely nowhere while the other threatens to ‘radicalise’ people.

Of course, so-called radicalisation is only part of a path and a critical approach to power which stops at your front door is arguably one which is as much about flattering egos as choosing the ‘good guy’ is. This is another common criticism of ‘trots’ – that they are either inactive, or engage in actions which have little effect, merely in order to feel right rather than engage in often-difficult and laborious reform. To the extent that our politics has increasingly become an extension of our egos rather than our principles, this is probably accurate to some degree. The crucial point however is that it’s accurate to some degree for people of every political hue, with countless people engaged in ‘mainstream’ politics doing/achieving little yet enjoying a smug superiority because they have hooked their wagon to something larger and frequently unchallenged (and the fixation on reformism is undoubtedly one of the manifestations of real politik.)

Personally, I think that the true challenge with your politics is how you live it day to day, not how it manifests itself on marches, protests and so forth. This isn’t for a second to deny the importance of the latter. Yet they offer platforms for political action, opportunities to be part of something bigger. As incredibly important as that is, it’s far more difficult to articulate your principles and attempt to live a life true to them in your office each day, or with your family, or with your peers. Because it is here that you again and again will encounter the dominant sense that any significant deviation from commonly-accepted interpretations (ways of interpreting, even) is bitter, angry, sad, smug, superior and countless other aspersions. It’s here that you are personally challenged. Of course, it’s important to guard against the temptation to fragment the world into those who understand and those who do not. It’s so easy to see yourself as a true believer and this offers only a self-gratifying cul de sac as ultimately pointless as the idea of the ‘trot’. Engaging with people, especially those who challenge your views, is the only way to prevent this.

Hedges’ piece undoubtedly reads as pessimistic and would be portrayed by some as nihilistic. Given its source, it’s debatable whether it will reach anyone who isn’t already sympathetic to its argument. This will be enough for many to dismiss it as the self-gratifying ramblings of a bitter man (much like my much less well-written blog!) Yet those who instinctively feel that urge would do well to question why it is so, especially when it is so rarely the approach taken to opinion pieces which parrot more conventional views. It is clear that Hedges has been on an intellectual journey regarding his beliefs, his principles, his identity even, and this rigorous questioning of the things we hold dear can only be healthy.

Death of the liberal class

‘The Newsroom’ – “What men really want is not knowledge but certainty.”

There is a famous quote from Bertrand Russell which has become so ubiquitous that it has arguably slipped into the realm of cliché: “What men really want is not knowledge but certainty.” The quote is invariably wheeled out in a religious context in order to criticise believers as unthinking. It is undeniable, however, that it has a much broader application – one which encompasses our entire lives. We all want to believe that we are seekers of the truth, however messy and unpalatable that truth may be. Yet it could be said that in reality, most of us simply want to belong; to feel comfortable in our own skin. Feeling ‘right’ is a big part of that and so in actuality we want to be told that our beliefs are correct, unconsciously surrounding ourselves with people and outlets which flatter us. Furthermore, no-one wants to believe that they are mediocre – feeling right is nothing special if the vast majority of people believe the same things. So we buy into ‘hordes at the gates’ narratives. Take a cursory look at our culture – left and right,  Charlie Brooker and Melanie Phillips, Labour and Tory, Democrat and Republican, Gay and Straight, Atheist and Christian, liberal West and backwards Middle East – it grows ever more polarised and dependent on the idea that one group of people know the ‘truth’ while everyone else is a drooling, bigoted, fanatical idiot. No matter what we believe individually, we of course always believe ourselves to be in the enlightened group, scorning dehumanised opponents who are simultaneously scorning an imaginary version of us.

Russell’s quote popped into my head while watching the pilot of ‘The Newsroom’, the much-anticipated new show from Aaron Sorkin. There are even allusions to Russell’s theme, with the righteous Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) arguing that it’s impossible for any news show to broadcast the ‘facts’ as people nowadays pick and choose their own ‘facts’ from many different sources. It’s one of the show’s superficial concessions to appearing ‘complex’, along with dialogue which condemns both Democrats and Republicans and an early, pivotal monologue which waxes lyrical on the decline of America as a ‘Great Nation’.

On paper, ‘The Newsroom’ should be catnip for me (and I did rush home to watch it.) I have generally loved Sorkin’s self-consciously theatrical screen work, where uncommonly beautiful people deliver unreasonably eloquent dialogue, taking on grand themes as they walk purposefully down corridors on absurdly eventful Tuesday afternoons. Certainly, some of the themes laid out in ‘The Newsroom’ are ones I have much affinity for/sympathy with: characters speak about television (and broader culture) aspiring to more than ‘gossip and voyeurism’; there is a noble belief in the power and responsibility held by the ‘Fourth Estate’ in a democracy; there is indignant dismissal of the idea that moral relativity and human failings mean that we should shy away from addressing morality and didactic (self-)improvement. These are all things I have written about before, so their being addressed on a major new show should thrill me. Unfortunately, the pilot was such a mess (and advance word from the critics seems to unanimously agree that the show gets worse) that I can’t envisage it doing anything other than harming these themes.

It is, of course, nothing new for Sorkin to tackle such themes – it’s part of why he’s so loved by certain audiences. ‘The West Wing’ presented an idyllic liberal White House during the ‘lame duck’ years of the Clinton administration and the succeeding liberal nightmare that was the Bush presidency. It was as much wish fulfilment as ‘The Newsroom’ aims to be. Yet even looking only at the pilots, the differences are clear. Instantly, the premise of ‘The West Wing’ lends itself to grand oratory, life-and-death issues and a righteous, lofty protagonist (it’s far less jarring to be presented with a President delivering hectoring monologues to his staff than a modern –day news anchor). It’s fundamentally important that ‘The West Wing’ initially focused on the ‘little people’ – the staff around the President. In fact, the President is barely in the opening episode (and the story goes that the original intention was for him to never be seen on screen). In ‘The Newsroom’, however, we are led into the show by the hectoring protagonist, Will. We are told that he has built a hugely successful career by being inoffensive and neutral – yet we see literally 1 minute of this persona before he is directing an ‘explosive’ and controversial lecture (which self-consciously nods towards the truth-telling anchor of ‘Network’) at a college student. He is ‘The Smartest Guy in the Room’ and he knows it. Undoubtedly, a liberal-minded audience is meant to swoon at his grand narrative on America’s decline – but it’s nonsense. He paints such an idealised picture of a bygone era that it’s impossible to see him as anything other than a bitter crank; the fact that he does this by almost reducing a young female to tears renders him instantly unsympathetic.

Sorkin’s previous series, ‘Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip’, had a very similar opening: a middle-aged protagonist lets the mask slip and delivers a coruscating monologue which insults his audience. In both cases, the characters are little more than ciphers for Sorkin; crucially, however, the outburst in ‘Studio 60…’ leads to the character being fired. He only appears in the pilot and his actions act as a catalyst for the rest of the series – Sorkin gets his point across but we aren’t asked to stick with the guy who just told everyone they were idiots.

Indeed, the inevitable comparisons with Sorkin’s previous work is another obvious problem. “The Newsroom” has Sorkin tropes stamped all over it, from ‘The Smartest Guy in the Room’ to the ‘walk-and-talks’ to the slightly crazy but hugely gifted ex-girlfriend. It’s all so readily identifiable that at times it lapses into self-parody. This is particularly the case as this show puts ‘the message’ above all else – literally every few minutes, a character we’ve just been introduced to makes some indignant speech or grand statement which any remotely sophisticated viewer can recognise as being in Sorkin’s voice. At times these speeches are excruciating, as when the slightly crazy but hugely gifted ex-girlfriend argues that an educated electorate is integral to a functioning democracy (and that is pretty much the exact sentence which leaves her mouth) and insists she would rather ‘make a great programme for 1000 people than a mediocre one for 1,000,000’. Sure, Sorkin’s dialogue has never been naturalistic but it’s nonetheless a stretch to believe in character after character who acts as a sketchily-drawn outline for Sorkin himself. The lack of subtlety is such that it feels less like a drama than a lecture and, even if you are sympathetic to some of the arguments presented, you find yourself worn down by just how disingenuous and smug everything is.

This failure serves to highlight what the intention is, which takes us back to Russell. It’s difficult to imagine that the show has any other purpose at this point than to convince Sorkin and his audience that they are the true believers besieged by hordes of idiots. No-one is going to be provoked by ‘The Newsroom’; no opinions will be changed, no minds will be blown. Anyone who watches ‘The Real Housewives of…’ who tunes in is not going to contemplate the morality and wider implications of that show – instead they’re going to think Will/Sorkin is a sneering wanker. The show is so blunt that it couldn’t even claim to be sneaking up on viewers, using entertainment to provoke debate – its opinion is clear and that opinion is the entire point of the show. The entertainment is secondary and that is the death-knell for a television drama.

As a post-script, I couldn’t help but contrast ‘The Newsroom’ with another show I’m currently watching, ‘Breaking Bad’. I’m halfway through the second season of this and it couldn’t be more different. The characters are at the core of everything – and what characters they are. Deeply flawed, sometimes morally repugnant yet always recognisable to us, not least for their very human motivations – the show deals entirely in moral shades of grey. It’s impossible to fully sympathise with the protagonist and his choices, yet also difficult not to like him. As a result, the show does creep up on you with shocking moments, bleak decisions and painful circumstances which cause you to question ideas of right and wrong, good and bad. I won’t write more about it at the moment since I’ve got 2 seasons to catch up on, but if you’ve not seen it I wholeheartedly recommend that you watch.

An interesting, eloquent piece which delves deeper into some themes I touched on in my blog yesterday. You can hear already the inevitable, tedious cries of ‘snobbery!’ which greet any claim that we are capable of great things; greater, certainly, than ‘The Only Way is Essex’ and Perez Hilton. Such pap has become synonymous with ‘popular culture’ and criticising it is seen as an attack on people – particularly the working-class. I’ve long argued that this argument shows far more contempt for both popular culture and the working-class than the criticisms themselves. Indeed, there is a strong, proud tradition of intellectualism amongst the working-class – the conflation of being ‘ordinary’ with ‘lowest common denominator’ is a pernicious fantasy. It is a rarely challenged one, with the aforementioned charge of ‘snobbery’ being wheeled out frequently, yet the fantasy is openly exposed when figures like Gordon Brown attempt to appear ‘ordinary’ by speaking about ‘X Factor’ and we rightly respond with ridicule and cynicism.

The common thread of Fox’s assertions – that we are increasingly unwilling to engage in demanding intellectual effort (I’d go further than this and say that we are increasingly scornful of anything and anyone which expects this) struck a chord with me as I am currently slogging my way through a difficult book. It’s only 200 pages long but it has taken me weeks to read 50 pages. This isn’t because it’s tedious or terrible but rather because every page is packed with people, ideas and history which I am completely unfamiliar with. The desire to find out more about them sends me off on lengthy internet tangents. If I’m being honest, however, this isn’t why it’s so difficult. Rather, it’s because it makes me feel very ignorant and stupid. I’m squarely confronted with how little I know, how quaint and mediocre much of my thinking is. The temptation to toss it aside and take comfort in some lighter reading is very strong, not least as it would cause me to cringe less at my blog posts which seem absurdly naive and banal afterwards.

Reading ‘Dumbing Down’ brought this experience to mind instantly and caused me to think about its root cause. It struck me that it’s because we largely consume culture in order to flatter our own egos. As with so much of modern life, the things we read, the music we listen to, even the conversations we have – they are extensions of ourselves and we process them by thinking about what they say about us rather than what they say about the world. Even when we flatter ourselves into thinking that we are being ‘objective’ and reading alternate viewpoints, they tend to be prosaically oppositional within a strict, narrow continuum. Truly challenging ideas, those which violently confront our core assumptions and beliefs, threaten to chip away at (or even fundamentally alter) our closely-guarded sense of self. Changing this (improving it, if you want to call it that?) requires dedication, effort and an ego which can accept both being completely wrong and also holding previously contradictory, even unacceptable views. More than this, it necessitates a powerful and eager curiosity which values discovery over personal gain.

Why do I say this? Well, the extension of ourselves, specifically our egos, into everything we touch goes far beyond the culture we consume. It seems quite fundamental to the way we relate to each other. It’s a basic concept of psychology that we are drawn to others whom we believe are similar to ourselves; however, while this would traditionally be taken as meaning that we have a strong sense of self and associate with like-minded individuals, it currently commonly seems to mean that we are fearful of expressing any strident identity. Sure, we have brought brushstrokes which we cling to – ‘liberal’, ‘light-hearted’, ‘intelligent’ etc – but the ego is so paramount that people adopt personas in order to be validated rather than forge friendships based on an honest, messy relationship between two distinct personalities. The relationship therefore is one of mutual gratification where each acts as a mirror, reflecting the person the other wishes to see. It’s arguable then that a truly rewarding relationship with another person requires, as with culture, intellectual effort and an acceptance that it will not always take you to comfortable or affirming places.

Effort can often feel like a slog – that’s why it’s so easy to get stuck where we feel comfortable. Guarding against this is constant, requiring an unshakeable conviction that pushing our minds, ourselves, to places where we feel exposed and where our egos are shaken is the only guarantor against a living death. I make no grand claims to be any better at this than anyone else but I’ll finish that book and celebrate that it will perhaps make me that tiny bit less ignorant.

Dumbing Down

Recycle, regurgitate, remember

I was going to write about nostalgia, irony and the PWL concert/Steps/S Club 7 etc reunions but why reinvent the wheel? Much of what I was thinking is expressed in this chat with @wotyougot (in italics). Of course there’s much more to be said, not least getting into acts like Pulp and Suede doing the same nostalgia circuit without producing new material but, perhaps, without the same painful undermining of what they are as they do so. (I have no problem with people loving PWL etc, incidentally, I just wish people could engage with that love sincerely and not in a ‘lol this is all a bit naff and embarrassing’ way.)

Just seen the PWL concert. The line-up is made up of acts you appreciate  hearing  (once every few years) via a Now compilation. Not spending a day, seeing live, in Hyde Park. 

This re-hashing the past needs to stop – Too many trying to capitalise from nostalgia.

Indeed, the PWL concert is actually quite hateful I think. It’s one of those things I’m always banging on about, the hateful attitude to pop that develops as opposition to the ‘real music’ rock thing, which leads to people semi-ironically celebrating such ephemeral (and in some cases downright terrible) acts.

What I find funny is that because it’s entirely about nostalgia and celebrating trash, no-one will  complain about it or they’d be told ‘don’t take it so seriously babes’. Yet folk will happily complain about Madonna the week after cos she’s still taking her work seriously.

Last night  I was thinking about how much our present is based on putting a price tag on nostalgia and exploiting the past. They’ve just announced a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film re-boost. Urgh. I was obsessed with that show as a teen and welcomed the three movies that followed and a few years ago the animated one, but that’s enough. To bring it back now, and apparently it’s themed around the idea that they’re actually aliens and mutants, is just wrong. Why not set up a new film based on a similar premise and have some confidence in a new idea rather than exploiting a brand of the past and using nostalgia as the selling point?

I understand the hypocrisy I may display considering the joy I share about a new SATC film, but even there I can see they’ve gone too far and simply want them to do a SATC3 cause, even though I appreciated the second one, I don’t want that to be the end of that. 

To do a PWL concert is just stupid. And spot on there with peeps saying ‘serious babes’ etc. 

How about we start celebrating the future and new ideas please !

It’s been happening for a while ie pointless remakes of films like ‘Halloween’ and ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ and ‘Arthur’. I was talking to Rob about ‘Short Circuit’ the other day and then I thought how weird it was that they haven’t remade it yet! There’s a lot of thought out there about how culture recycles and regurgitates itself more and more as it hurtles towards a cliff edge and this is inextricably linked to the cynical, sarcastic, superficial mode of engagement that most people have with culture (and with each other!)

When I looked at FB this morning I saw the usual sarcastic, ‘humorous’ comments about everything and anything that’s happening in pop culture and I felt a flash of anger that this is what we’re doing to ourselves. Do you notice how striking it is nowadays when you see someone expressing a sincere, deep love for something and not undermining it/their love for it as soon as they’ve expressed the sentiment? 

I think a new TMNT film would be fine – they’re characters in the same way as Dracula or werewolves or whatever – but do something interesting with them, relevant to 2012. Don’t do yet another bloody ‘reboot’. That’s what was good about the animated film a few years ago. I find the new ‘Spiderman’ film so depressing – rebooting a franchise only a few years after the last film?! And there’s talk of them rebooting Batman already as ‘The Dark Knight’ is the final Christian Bale film. So idiotic and entirely about money. Credit the audience with the intelligence to not need to be told an ‘origin’ story yet again.

The Human Centipede 2

I keep reading a lot about the ‘rights’ of individuals to watch whatever they want. Where does this ‘right’ come from? It certainly isn’t a ‘right’ recognised in the European Convention on Human Rights, which states:

1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This Article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises. 

2. The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and im-partiality of the judiciary

This being a serious, grown-up document which recognise that there are always competing rights and responsibilities. Such as the responsibility of a filmmaker to acknowledge that the work they create contributes to our culture, and our culture is hugely powerful in shaping our values and our societal mores. Such as the right of everyone to fight against a culture where the brutalisation of women is presented as entertainment for men, as if this has absolutely no effect beyond entertaining the viewer. We don’t need research to look into the effect of culture on people – everyone has at some point been profoundly affected by art. We are moved, elated, inspired, angered, outraged…why then is it such a leap to believe that something with no purpose other than to present sexual brutalisation as entertainment can degrade a viewer?

The BBFC isn’t a perfect body and no-one would argue that it is. But I think only a complete fool would argue for its abolition or for its powers to be reduced. Allowing a free-for-all isn’t a mark of civilisation. Recognising competing rights and responsibilities, and the compelling power of culture to shape us all, is what is civilised.