You gotta have friends

The Adbusters piece I shared earlier, with its description of relationships as “transitory counterpoints to the anomie induced by a culture of individualism”, was neatly timed. The nature of ‘friendship’ is something that has occupied my mind for a while and I’d had a few conversations about it this weekend. What does it mean to be a ‘friend’? Looking around, there is much anecdotal evidence that many modern friendships are not borne out of any compelling relationship between two people, any curiosity concerning another person’s inner life. Instead, they are extensions of the self – shallow, convenient arrangements wherein we seek to see our own version of our identity reflected back at us. Of course the observation that we tend to gravitate towards people with similar opinions and attitudes is nothing new; what is perhaps novel is the effect of social media which has undoubtedly increased the speed of social interactions. Arguably, it has lessened the depth of emotion and empathy involved. For all the wonder of social media and the opportunities it affords, it seems very easy for it to become a giant echo chamber. Contemplation and dialogue are not encouraged in the race to quickly express an opinion. Interestingly, however, we seem less and less willing to a) have our opinions or, more, our conceptual identity challenged or b) challenge the same in others.

A huge part of this is a modern emphasis on an insipid individualist ‘positivity’ wherein we are encouraged to ‘support’ others. This typically means supporting their own concept of self rather than critically engaging with them. Banal praise is the order of the day. Criticism is seen as negative and there are few worse crimes than to be viewed as such. Indeed, the only criticism which even begins to be acceptable is ‘constructive’ – it must not be too forceful, too disruptive or fail to demonstrate respect for aforementioned ‘self’. Online, those engaging in this increasingly lumped in with ‘trolls’ who hurl mindless abuse. In the ‘real world’, we bristle with indignation when our friends strongly disagree with us – it almost feels like they are moving their tanks onto our lawn. We all want to ‘belong’ and as we all grow less tolerant of being challenged, social groups can be in danger of becoming metaphorical circle jerks. This pervades much of our society, from our politics to our media. Indeed, it often manifests itself in avoiding sincerity altogether and instead communicating in dripping irony and sarcasm.

Morrissey famously sang that we “hate it when our friends become successful”. A negativity regarding the personal achievements of those close to us can come easily and lazily. Yet it comes from the same place as the counterpoint empty positivity – a desire to protect our ego and our core sense of who we are. It seems that there is so much to be lost in this mindset. So many opportunities to see ourselves in different ways, examine our beliefs and our actions, subtly alter who we think we are. In attempting to move beyond an individualism which values nothing higher than our own self-belief and self-worth, we can find enduring relationships based in a mutual respect and a deep understanding that being ‘wrong’ is not a terrible thing, not a personal attack and is even something to celebrate. Those relationships are the ones which endure. It’s a lesson I am learning, I hope.

We’ve already become completely different people several times over…

You know that thing Benedict Anderson says about identity? Well, he’s about like, say, a baby picture. So you pick up this picture, this two-dimensional image and you say, “That’s me!” Well, to connect this baby in this weird little image with yourself, living and breathing in the present, you have to make up a story like, “This was me when I was a year old, and later I had long hair, and then we moved to Riverdale, and now here I am.” So it takes a story that’s actually a fiction to make you and the baby in the picture identical to create your identity.  And the funny thing is, our cells are completely regenerating every seven years. We’ve already become completely different people several times over and yet we remain quintessentially ourselves”

The above quote is from the brilliant film ‘Waking Life’ (if you’ve not seen it, make a point of doing so). The thing about the seven-year regeneration is, apparently, something of a myth(I only got around to checking it this weekend after being questioned about its veracity!) but the general point is a fascinating one. It came back to me on Saturday because an old friend, someone I was very close to in Glasgow, came to visit. It was the first time I had seen her in years and it was, I suppose, to be expected that it would inspire reflection on how we (and our relationships) change with time.

This is something that has been on my mind in the past year anyway – for probably the first time, I have been acutely aware of getting older and (more grandiosely) of being part of a generation that is not what most people now have in mind when they refer to the ‘young’. Whereas once I felt an almost innate relationship to the pop music in the charts or popular tv shows, now I find these things increasingly jarring and feel acutely aware that they’re no longer aimed at me. It’s an odd feeling but also an oddly comforting one. Life moves on and, as much as I still passionately love music (for example), I grow less and less interested in the chart positions that meant so much to me 10 years ago, less concerned with what my listening habits ‘say’ about me to others. Yet I still think about these things in a way in which I can’t imagine my parents doing.

I wrote last year that, when my last grandparent died, I had this overwhelming sense of a generation passing. My dad made a comment about how my parents were now the older generation – meaning that my brother and I were now the ‘middle’ generation, the ones with ageing parents and who might be expected to have children. Indeed, when my parents were the age I am now (32), they had already had two children (as had so many of their generation). It’s a very curious thing to think about because children obviously bring heavy responsibility. It’s been much observed that my own generation is having children later and later in life and instead has an extended ‘youth’. So many of us still share our interests with people a decade younger than us – even more, our behaviour. It’s very common for my generation to still go out every weekend, to still get drunk regularly, to still go clubbing, to still take drugs and chat about the latest Rihanna video while doing it. Heck, it’s fairly common for people aged 42 to still do this in many circles. It’s been very strange, then, to be hit with the sensation of tentative fumbling towards traditional ‘adulthood’.

My friend and I chatted about our current situations – we both live with a partner we’ve been seeing for about 4 years and are both increasingly content to spend our time with them. It struck me that last year, when I had to help with the marathon for work, it had seemed like a massive deal that I couldn’t go out on the Saturday night. Now it wasn’t something that particularly bothered me because I’ve spent so many Saturdays in the past year sitting indoors with my fiancé (though, just to emphasise the feeling of ‘transition’, I still ended up in a local pub!) Going to the wedding of a partners’ friend, having both of our parents visit and stay, attending work events for each other – they’re things which I honestly never spent any time thinking about when I was 22 and now, when I find myself doing them, I sometimes think about how alien I would seem to my younger self. It manifests itself in wider relationships too. We chatted about how our social circles have become smaller and it’s a good thing. I have become far more tolerant of opinions that I would have thought were unconscionable until very recently (perhaps most notably, I no longer think that voting Tory necessarily means you are the devil incarnate.)  It could be said to be the dreaded ‘creeping conservatism’ – I would certainly have thought so at one point. Yet in the discussions around the new book, ‘The Righteous Mind’, I’ve noted the observation/theory that ‘conservatives’ tend to care about the same things as those on the left, but also care about things like authority and loyalty. However much I might still disagree with many of their opinions, my once-certain belief that many on the right were wicked seems increasingly at odds with my perceptions of the world and, most shockingly of all, I think that I have much to learn from many of these people.

The sense of a narrative in life, of getting from one point to another, was incredibly strong when I visited the Jeremy Deller exhibition a few weeks ago. One of the installations was a reproduction of ‘Uses of Literacy’, a piece using the fan art of Manic Street Preachers obsessives. It was like looking into a mirror which magically showed me at age 21. I used to dress up in a tiara and feather boa, write terrible poetry and revel in my alienation. There seemed to be something wonderful in being able to recognise myself in the Deller pieces, feel tremendous affection for the person I was then but also feel that I wouldn’t swap it for my life now. There is always the danger in writing such ‘I’-centric pieces that it comes across as quite smug, so I apologise if that’s the case. It’s certainly not meant to be – my point is not that my life is ‘better’ than anyone else’s, but rather that, for the first time in my life, I recognise where I’ve come from but also recognise that I am always going somewhere else. The kid I was in Glasgow is gone and, sure enough, the man I am now will become someone else. Feeling relaxed about that seems like an enormous blessing.

‘Alone in Berlin’ and ‘Decency’

‘Decency’ is a word (and concept) at the centre of the outstanding novel, ‘Alone in Berlin’, which I finished last night. Based on real events, it is about an ordinary couple living in Nazi Germany who, upon discovering that their son has been killed in the war, embark on their own tiny campaign of defiance against the Third Reich. The campaign is almost comical in its insignificance – they write postcards denouncing Hitler and the Nazis and drop them in stairwells to be found by passers-by.  Yet it is a campaign which costs them their lives. We are left in no doubt that their actions were almost entirely ineffectual as propaganda. Instead, however, we are invited to see the campaign as a metaphysical victory. The couple are, like the sower in Matthew’s parable, sowing good seeds amongst the weeds. Once they refuse to acquiesce to the cruelty around them they reclaim their humanity and stand as testament to the enormous power of integrity and, yes, decency. Despite the small scale of their actions we are left in no doubt that they are giants amongst the petty, cowardly cruelty of the Nazis around them.

Much is made in the novel of how apolitical the couple were prior to being notified of their son’s death. ‘Politics’ is seen as something separate to their lives and they ‘keep their heads down’. I found myself thinking about this throughout. We all know the phrase ‘the banality of evil’ but Nazi Germany is such a ubiquitous signifier for it that I think we still believe it was a ‘special case’. Yet the stark truth is that the mass mania of Nazism took hold amongst human beings not much different to ourselves and the significance of the tacit acquiescence of many who ‘kept their heads down’ is enormous. As proud as Britain can rightly be for standing against Nazi Germany, it’s impossible to believe that as a society we are immune from ‘the banality of evil’. You need only look at how swiftly we as a population have unquestioningly accepted the inevitability of ‘austerity’ to see how easily we can be manipulated. In the pursuit of this austerity we are encouraged to dehumanise and denounce those around us who, we are told, are getting more than their fair share and (more often than not) by duplicitous means. At every turn we are encouraged to place our own material needs before all else – why should we who struggle pay for benefits of people who don’t work, pay for the university education of kids who’ll only mess about, pay for the pensions of workers when we’ll live our old age in penury? Whether we think it is inevitable, justified and/or morally right, we allow our society to be cruel.

This dehumanisation goes further and deeper, of course. Since 9/11 we are repeatedly reminded of our ‘enemies’, reduced to one-note caricatures of brutal barbarians. As a society we have a mass indifference to torture taking place in our name. We are encouraged to believe (and it seems largely accept) that it is an abomination for our ‘enemies’ to have human rights…even to be viewed as humans (instead they are ‘terrorists’, non-people). Those who speak out against our cruelty are troublemakers, a fey elite concerned only with their own voices.

On a macro-level, then, our decency is at least questionable. Yet how is our decency as a society dictated? As we see with the couple in ‘Alone in Berlin’, once we reduce this question to a personal level our own role becomes clearer. If we try to live decent, compassionate lives then we are contributing, in however tiny a way, to the decency of our society. Now, when talk turns to personal morality and personal responsibility, two things tend to happen – firstly, it is pointed out that humans are flawed and hypocritical and a perfect life is impossible; secondly, attention is drawn to the flaws of whomever raised the issue and they are seen as smug hypocrites. As night follows day, this happens. Yet no-one, surely, would ever argue that we can live morally perfect lives? This does not mean that the question of personal morality and responsibility is to be completely dismissed. We can always find excuses for our behaviour and narratives which allow us to feel comfortable with our choices but I think we also ultimately know, deep down, if we are being ‘decent’ or not. Keeping our heads down and tacitly acquiescing to everything around us  isn’t a dramatic thing, it’s something we do every day in the choices we make at work, with our friends, with the strangers we come into contact with. And we fail – we fail again and again and will keep doing so until the day we die. Yet we must try, we must reach for that basic decency and integrity which is inside of all of us but is compromised and hidden by our frailty, cowardice, ignorance and greed. Accepting that we are hypocrites and that we can never get remotely close to perfection, we must hold onto the sense that we as individuals are responsible for the world around us and try to live as we would like the world to be.

‘We Were Here’

Last night we watched ‘We Were Here’, a documentary about the arrival of AIDS in San Francisco and the devastation it caused for the next 30 years. It’s impossible not to be moved by it. There is a real sense that the interviewees who lived through the epidemic are survivors of something unspeakable – the analogy of war is used several times throughout. I found myself thinking that these people were remarkable but was reminded of something I have often thought about in the past, namely about how events can conspire to force people into being ‘remarkable’. One of the interviewees notes that people were amazed that he could endure not only his own illness but the deaths of his partner and close friends in quick succession. As he observes, however, what else could he possibly do? He wanted to live. He had to. I suppose when more and more people you care about are disappearing each day the opportunities for self-pity are rare.

I was taken back to how I felt when I read Edmund White’s ‘The Farewell Symphony’, which covers the same ground. It’s the final book in a trilogy and a sense of dread slowly crept up on me as I progressed further into it. I knew AIDS was going to arrive and destroy the world of the characters I had loved for the previous few weeks. Even armed with this knowledge, however, its arrival knocked the breath from me. In a matter of pages, beloved characters have contracted a mystery illness and died and many of their friends have also fallen. There is a very real sense of a generation being wiped out. It was a hugely powerful novel that stayed with me for a long time. The cruelty of the disease was almost impossible to comprehend.

When I think about this period, I have a very strong sense of existing on a continuum of gay people. Being part of a ‘gay community’. I think we easily forget that this community was forged in adversity. It had to exist. Gay people were hated, they were attacked and then they were left to die. Closing ranks was about survival and it was the only possible response. As we now know, it led to great things. Events conspired to make many remarkable and, hell, some of them were probably remarkable already. To be a happy gay person today is to follow in the footsteps of many who fought bitter battles and to whom we should be forever thankful.

I think this response is a natural one for gay people to have when learning about this past. A correct one, even. What I’ve noticed, however, is that it can lead to a sense of nostalgia for the community that undoubtedly existed back then and a desire to re-affirm this in the present day. Around the time when ‘Milk’ was in cinemas, I saw many gay people expressing their desire to be more ‘politically involved’ (which meant gay activism) and this undoubtedly played a role in the attempts to formulate ‘gay’ responses to events in East London. Perhaps there is a sense that this is part of the continuum, part of the greater fight for equality. Undoubtedly there is a desire for belonging and to be a part of something noble, something greater than oneself.

The fact is, however, that the world has moved on. To be gay in 2012 bears absolutely no relation to what it meant in 1976. That isn’t to say that everything is fine for everybody (and clearly there are places where there is still a long way to go) but today the efforts to push a ‘gay response’ to anything which is seen to affect gay people are invariably counter-productive. We take the history and strip it of its context, leaving what tend to be overwhelmingly privileged white men claiming a sense of victimhood and seeking to exclude anyone who does not fit into/buy into this narrative. It’s about exclusion. I’ve written at length about the ‘homophobia’ controversies in East London but suffice to say that it was clear that agendas were being pushed and this historical notion of gay people under siege was exploited. There was no sense of any other politics, any other power relation, any other identity, other than a very specifically subordinate ‘gay’ one.

This extends into our responses to the wider world. I wrote previously about how a few positive words about homosexuality from Obama/Clinton served to completely obscure the human rights record of that administration and the grotesque National Defence Authorization Act. Wider political issues, ones that affect us as human beings and not as homosexuals, become (at best) of secondary importance. Everything must fit into the narrative that we are a community under siege.

Even amongst people who push this agenda, there seems to be little reflection anymore of what this ‘community’ actually means. At one point in ‘We Were Here’ one of the interviewees notes that he could see the gay community splintering into countless sub-cultures and he didn’t feel that he belonged to any of them. This was just before the arrival of AIDS, which pushed everyone back together. In the years since, these sub-cultures have been commodified and sold back to us and, again, they are now arguably as much about who doesn’t belong as anything else. There are specific gay identities, each with their own traits, uniforms and belief sets. They invariably involve two things: what you consume and who you sleep with. As such, the gay community is both hopelessly reduced and greatly splintered.  The wars which forced everyone together have largely been won and this has afforded the ‘freedom’ to be gay in a myriad of different ways. It’s like an identity menu, and if you don’t like any of the choices then things are going to be that bit more difficult for you.

So, there is no over-arching ‘gay community’ these days in any meaningful sense. It exists as a marketing group, yes. It exists as concurrent pockets of people who use the term to refer to their own ‘groups’. It exists as a neo-liberal identity where individualism is all and consideration of our interacting and intersecting identities, and how these relate to the world, is obscured. This is what many interpret as following in the footsteps of the generation that fought for the right to be gay and was ravaged by AIDS. Yet these people by and large wanted to be treated equally and to be treated with respect. They were forced into ghettoisation, they didn’t actively seek it out. For me, honouring the previous fights means looking outward and taking a place in society as a human being.  Actively claiming victimhood is a grave dishonour to those who came before. We respect them by being happily gay and acknowledging what this means (and what still needs to be done) but also by understanding that this is but one aspect of our being (and not necessarily the most interesting one). In 2012, ‘We Were Here’ should be a rallying cry for a recognition of our common humanity and the struggles that affect us all, not an inspiration to rush back to our boxes.

Impossible Dreams

Last weekend I had a chat with a friend about growing up. Specifically about the moment when you accept that, in all likelihood, your life is going to be pretty average. You’re not going to be famous. You’re not going to hugely wealthy. You’ll make no more or less contribution to the wider world than countless other people. You’ll be one life amongst billions, forgotten in a few generations.

For some, it’s quite a big deal having this realisation. If you’ve somehow been convinced for much of your life that you’re going to be famous and/or wildly successful and/or will change the world, it could be a huge blow to your whole identity to face up to a rather more obscure and low-key life. That’s a very obvious example and it could (probably will?) be a lot more subtle than that. You could have spent decades chasing status amongst and the approval of your peers only to realise that this is always going to be just ahead of you, just beyond your grasp. We all want to feel important, after all. 

During this chat I mentioned a very interesting article which I read a couple of weeks ago. Its basic point (or at least what I took from it) was that only two or three generations ago, the problem with the class system was that it made most dreams seem out of reach for the vast majority of people. Yet, it argued, what was now the case was that the class system had adapted to present different dreams as being within the reach of everybody. Dreams which didn’t threaten the system, dreams which didn’t actually further social mobility in any meaningful way. ‘The Apprentice’, ‘The X Factor’, ‘The Only Way is Essex’ and countless other reality shows present images of ‘betterment’ which don’t rely on self-improvement, education and personal toil (personal as in not done for the benefit of your peers). Instead they push ‘being yourself’, even if the ‘yourself’ in question does not possess any particularly admirable qualities or character. They push a sense that the dreams they dangle could happen to anyone within a matter of weeks, if you just have the right temperament and are ‘entertaining’ enough. They push entitlement, competition and the idea that other people are obstacles or tools on your way to success – no more, no less. The qualities they elevate and enforce are a neoliberal dream of individualism and solipsism – you can make it if you just try hard enough, that’s the only force that matters and any curiosity about the wider world is foolish. Do not question how power operates. Do not question what you are told is ‘natural’. Do not question what is ‘accepted’.

I thought of all this when I saw that Vice Magazine thing about Dalston. However caricatured the characters in it were, they merely represented a wider attitude which Vice Magazine is very much a part of. This is the fetishism of ‘creativity’. In common with the above shows, stemming from the same place as them (and now reinforced by them) they present creativity as an almost supernatural quality which is possessed by a blessed view and exists in a way which can be easily seen and understood by the mere mortals around them. This is the more mundane yet ingenious version of the non-threatening ‘dream’ that is dangled in front of us. It is perhaps even more mundane than the dream of chasing wealth because at least, in the unlikely event that you become wealthy, you become a powerful player in the system (albeit one unlikely to wish to change it). ‘Success’ in being ‘a creative’ tends to be measured in a far more limited and localised way. So people scramble to be photographers, to be writers, to be actors, to be film makers, to be artists, to be creatives and so many of them don’t really have any idea why just as, 20 years ago, so many would chase money just because it was the done thing. The idea that creativity resides in every single person, that creativity can be an intensely private thing and still have value, the idea that self-improvement is perhaps the most powerful form of creativity possible – this has all been lost.

This isn’t to argue that people shouldn’t chase dreams, not at all. In growing up, however, there is huge value to be found in questioning the dreams which hang heavily in the air; value to be found in thinking about what is truly valuable both in terms of our own lives and in how we perceive others. Even if you are pursuing something that you really love, there is value and enormous freedom to be found in accepting (if indeed you must) that you are not going to be a ‘success’ at it in terms of how most judge success. Whether you are famous/wealthy/renowned or otherwise, your life is creative and your life can always be a success.

One of the people who inspired the conversation I mentioned at the start is indeed chasing one of those traditional dreams. But they’re getting older now. They have a family and the responsibilities that come with that. The ‘X Factor’ interpretation of this would be that, even if the dream has to be put on hold because of these responsibilities, you should keep chasing it and never give up. I think the grown up (and only possible happy) interpretation of that is to think how fortunate your life is that you can do something you love and have people who love you, even if you have to balance it with some things you have to do which you don’t enjoy as much as the other stuff but do nonetheless because of dignity, love, pride and a desire to always keep trying to do better. Isn’t that creative? Isn’t that, ultimately, a success?

Generations

On my way to work this morning I found myself quite unexpectedly moved by Radiohead’s tribute to Harry Patch. Suddenly the enormity of his passing hit me. Not only the last man to witness the trenches (words that come so easily and seem so meaningless) but the last British man born in the 1800s. There remain only seven British women alive who were born in the 19th century. It doesn’t seem that events come with more magnitude than the passing of an entire generation into the history books.

Two things struck me when reading about Harry’s life. The first was that he outlived the three significant partners he had in his lifetime, and also outlived his own children. I cannot even begin to comprehend what that must be like. To have everyone you have known and loved in your life leave you. I think of the people close to me and imagine a time when they will be nothing but memories; imagine a time when I will be nothing but memories. What will remain? What lasts of us? Questions that seem to underpin the very nature of our beings and which, in our attempts to answer them, lead us towards better lives.

Secondly I was struck by how his ordinary life was made extraordinary by world events. Yet not extraordinary for entire generations who lived through world wars; wars which seem to belong to an alien, distant past despite the most recent being only being 60 years ago. How rapidly the world has moved on, how much it has changed and how different our lives must be compared to then. Yet surely the very essence of being human remains the same? Surely these people felt just as we would feel if we were sent off to war? I hesitate to say it because it is so trite, but truly we are a blessed generation with so much to be thankful for. Reading Harry’s obituary the war looms large – there is no event that will take our lives and make them extraordinary. Only we can do that, in ways however small, and like no generation before we have the freedom and the capacity to make positive choices.

RIP Harry.