Brave Man: Rejecting ‘Allyship’.

No-one would have predicted that a Will Young video would inspire comment pieces at all, let alone in 2015. Yet Brave Man inspired two Guardian pieces in one day due to its depiction of a trans man, played by a trans male actor. As these pieces note, reaction to the video was mixed and it led to a (small) reignition of debate around the concept of ‘allies’ (the subject of Owen Jones’ column.) As a result, Paris Lees took to Twitter to praise some ‘trans allies’:

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This list was illuminating for all of the wrong reasons. Aside from overwhelmingly being made up of celebrities and ‘the commentariat’ (which I’ll come back to later), it implicitly suggested a particular definition of ‘trans’. It did not, for example, suggest that any trans people could be harmed by Islamophobia (see Cathy Newman’s lying about being ‘ushered out’ of a mosque), racism (Grace Dent’s appalling take on teenagers who join ISIS, suitably deconstructed here) or the use of AIDS and ‘tranny’ as casual punchlines. The inclusion of the managing editor of The Sun, renowned for its bigotry and extreme right-wing views, was particularly breathtaking but perhaps unsurprising as Lees writes for it. What the list seemed to represent, then, was less ‘allies of all trans people’ than ‘allies of trans people like Paris Lees and Paris Lees’. Indeed, Owen Jones was included in the list and returned the favour by liberally quoting Lees in his column defending allies:

Paris Lees is passionate about winning trans allies through the impressive awareness raising project All About Trans, and is irritated when there’s “a big backlash against anyone who tries to be an ally”. They should be given space to grow and educate themselves, she believes. But she puts the anger of many trans activists in an important context: “I don’t know of any trans people not deeply damaged by discrimination, and so there’s lots of angry people out there.” An ally will get it wrong and upset those they want to support. But the reaction surely is to listen and understand an anger that erupts from a toxic mixture of prejudice and marginalisation.

Jones is savvy enough to anticipate the pitfalls of defending the concept of ‘allyship’ in his opening paragraph, suggesting you may get accused of ‘drowning out’ minority voices or ‘making it about you’. Yet of course this is what the column does, with its lengthiest paragraph being about Jones’ previous experience of writing about trans rights. Someone who identifies as an ‘ally’ to trans people writing in defence of ‘trans allies’ can’t help but seem somewhat self-indulgent, especially when you’ve been criticised for e.g. sitting on a panel called ‘How To Be Happy And Transgender‘. Even Jack Monroe’s column is angled as a defence of the video from those criticising it.

Yet if someone trying to be an ally should, as Paris Lees suggests, ‘be given space to grow and educate themselves’, why approach criticism largely originating from other trans people as unwarranted and unhelpful? The framing of ‘ally’ here is quite a typical one: it suggests that people deserve props for ‘trying’ and for ‘speaking out’. This implies that there is some place we arrive at where we are ‘enlightened’, whether that be with regards to gender, sexuality, race, disability or whatever. There is no such place. Whomever we are, we are always engaged in an everyday battle to overcome the mental barriers of what bell hooks calls white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. We cannot escape this and, as hooks’ term underlines, we particular cannot escape the myriad of ways in which these oppressions interact and intersect

The concept of ‘allies’ largely negates this idea of constant struggle, replacing it with the risible notion that you deserve praise for ‘trying’ not to be racist or transphobic or sexist or homophobic. For me it lessens the complex humanity of those at the sharp end of these kinds of oppression and positions them as abstract groupings. They are presented as learning tools, as chances to show how ‘good’ you are (note Lees’ ‘who’ve gone out of their way to be friends to trans people’ as if it’s a project) and at its most cynical, as marketing opportunities. It’s notable that, in the LGBT world at least, the term is most commonly applied to the kind of people Paris Lees listed: celebrities and those in positions of some power. Take this recent Gay Times tweet:
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“A straight ally in every sense.” What does this even mean? It seems to boil down to ‘he says he thinks homophobia is bad, loves his gay fans and poses in his pants with a rainbow painted on his torso’. It’s absolutely nothing to do with oppression and everything to do with boosting his profile. In the process of celebrating this drivel, we are complicit in being patronised and erasing the many differences within our communities. Attitude gives an award called ‘Honorary Gay’ to straight people (who, if recent recipient Lorraine Kelly is anything to go by, merely say nice things about gays) while many lap up the self-serving ‘charity’ of Ben ‘gays love grooming’ Cohen or the Warwick Rowers with their UKIP supporting ‘leader’. It’s a neat bait and switch: having benefited (in varying degrees) from white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, ‘allies’ then elevate themselves again by feigning to oppose aspects of it in the most weak manner imaginable. Yet we see ‘allyship’ actually serving to reinforce aspects of this by policing the kind of ‘minority’ we’re supposed to (aspire to) be – e.g. as a gay man ‘allyship’ tells me that I am supposed to fit into white supremacist capitalist patriarchy as far as possible rather than challenge it. “Look, this rich and successful white man thinks gays should be able to get married – and you complain?!

Indeed, as we see in the columns about Brave Man, anyone who responds to ‘allyship’ with strong criticism quickly finds the limits of how much their voice is truly valued. They will inevitably be accused of being ‘cynical’, ‘ungrateful’, ‘unreasonable’, ‘angry’. The responses to Bahar Mustafa and the consent lessons at Warwick are prominent examples of people feeling attacked by having forms of oppression raised because they think they’re on the right side already. Celebrating ‘allyship’ does not lend itself to self-reflection or accepting criticism but instead places individual ego at the centre of social justice. When I wrote about the absurdity of Ben Cohen appearing on Newsnight to discuss homophobia, I was attacked by Antony Cotton (no  less) who seemed to think I should be grateful for Cohen’s ‘activism’. Any criticism is accepted entirely on the terms of the ‘ally’ and supporters.

The question at the heart of all this, then, is inevitably ‘ally to whom?’ To return to Paris Lees’ tweets as an example, many trans people are clearly excluded by those she deems as ‘allies’ (particularly trans poc). When Jones writes that “trans people are basically where gay people were in the 1980s” it doesn’t seem to occur to him that many queer people are still there in many ways. The recent OUTstanding list of business ‘allies’, meanwhile, includes such luminaries as the union-busting, tax-avoiding Richard Branson and a veritable horde of execs at morally dubious firms. These people are certainly not my allies by any stretch of the imagination yet, in ally discourse, I am supposed to celebrate them because they have LGBT networks, have diversity targets or enable people to put rainbows on their Facebook celebrating ‘equal marriage’ (which was only ‘equal’ for some).

Only a robust, intersectional approach which recognises our full humanity can counter this. Of course representation matters but to suggest, as Owen Jones does, that ‘solidarity’ = ‘building coalitions’ = “allies” is wrong. We have to reject the idea that ‘trying’ is worth either our gratitude or our celebration. We try because we are human and because we care about other humans, not because it’s an ostentatiously ‘good’ thing to do. We should always be able to criticise and always open to criticism. We should not be complicit in our own reduction: do not celebrate being patronised by celebrities, do not rejoice when media companies worth hundreds of millions ‘amplify our voices’ without paying us, do not award executives who make positive noises on equality while enabling industrial scale tax avoidance and helping arm dictators. The kind of ‘allyship’ which has entered the mainstream bears little relation to anything of true value. Rather it brings a host of problems and few benefits. I am not an ally.

This is as neat an illustration of my previous blog as could be. Without wishing to repeat myself, a few brief points about it:

  • As is already typical of this issue, it’s a column written by a Westerner which features absolutely no voices from within Russia. It seems a no-brainer to me that any boycotts (or indeed other action) should not only be informed, but meaningfully led by, activists in Russia. If people in other countries had decided to boycott the UK when it introduced Section 28, without actually speaking to anyone in the country, we would have found them utterly absurd. It’s an illustration of our Western arrogance that we feel completely justified leading on action in a country most of us have never set foot in.
  • An ignorance which is aptly illustrated by a series of links to reported events which we still known next to nothing about. The ‘Neo-Nazi skinheads torturing gay kids’ thing is reported on the website of a ‘human rights’ organisation which pretty much no-one had heard of last week. Its ‘base’ appears to be a PO Box in America. It provides almost no actual evidence for its claims and we have no reason to treat it as a credible source. Yet the story has still been reported worldwide. This isn’t to deny that it may be happening but we surely have an obligation to properly look into it rather than indignantly posting some links while demanding our boycotts which it’s clear some Russian activists think are utterly pointless?
  • She also posts the Buzzfeed link which everyone has been sharing. A link where you can see some harrowing photos surrounded by links such as “Your Favorite Celebs Decked Out In Lisa Frank”, “20 Signs that Jennifer Lawrence is Your Spirit Animal” and “27 Occasions That Definitely Call For Cake”. It’s cheap and tawdry. Buzzfeed could easily have a) written more than 50 words about the issue and b) linked to further reading. They don’t do either because they want to keep people’s attention and they don’t want to drive traffic away from the site. The fact that the story was apparently their most read of the week explains why they’re doing so many (facile) follow-ups. Seriously, what is this shit?
  • Thinking that the IOC actually cares a jot about human rights suggests at best a staggering naivete and at worst an incredulous stupidity. As I previously wrote, the IOC has history both of lending credence to repressive regimes and of demanding authoritarian crackdowns in ‘democratic’ countries which are hosting the games.
  • Indeed, it’s somewhat ironic that this author brings up the Nazi comparison and the Jews given that almost no countries boycotted the Olympics when they were held in Nazi Germany in 1936. The UK has never boycotted the Olympics, even during the US-led boycott of the Soviet Union in 1980.
  • The point she makes however, that everyone would boycott the Olympics if Russia was persecuting Jews, is a bit of an odd one given that Russia (and indeed previous host cities like China) have a track record of oppression which long pre-dates…last month. The clear implication that the Russian authorities could continue to harass, attack, jail and murder its opponents, feed and use far-right nationalism and racism, crack down on basic human rights and engage in brutal crackdowns as long as no-one was subject to any of this solely because of their sexuality is embarrassing, if not blatantly offensive.
  • Twenty-first century queers aren’t going to wait quietly for a diplomatic solution while each month more of us are tortured and more of us are murdered.” You’re right, not drinking vodka and calling for Olympic boycotts is far more appealing and productive. Yet in the next paragraph she pretty much attributes the end of apartheid to the actions of world governments.
  • Which is in itself obviously hugely problematic, completely ignoring the long and often violent struggle which took place on the ground within South Africa. It certainly became an international movement but it was not one which was imposed on South Africans from the West. Plus, Russia clearly isn’t South Africa and its dominance of the EU’s oil and gas supplies is enormously relevant here.
  • In short, this is the kind of indignant and ill-informed response which unfortunately seems to be driving this whole thing.

Shame on the IOC, NBC and foreign governments for turning a blind eye on Russia’s LGBT hate campaign

Did the fact that Dobbs and McGlowan were speaking nonsense make any difference to the majority of those listening to them? Probably not. Their regular listeners may well be too ignorant to know that this surreal episode has no basis in reality. Their ignorance will cause them not to fact-check Dobbs’s and McGlowan’s remarks. They might very well rationalize away countervailing facts if they happen to come across them. And, by doing so, keep everything comfortably simple, which counts for more than the messy, often complicated truth.

Although written primarily about the United States, this piece does briefly touch on the pervasive myth that ‘Europeans’ are far more capable of critical thinking than their neighbours across the ocean. I’ve worked in enough offices and participated in enough knuckle-chewingly frustrating discussions about politics to think that it is indeed a myth. Overwhelmingly people seem to invest in popular and acceptable views – as Davidson notes:

The truth is that people who are consistently active as critical thinkers are not going to be popular, either with the government or their neighbors.

The piece struck for two reasons. The first was that I’d written the other day about the minor storm of outrage surrounding Jeremy Irons/gay marriage and how it seemed to suggest (once again) that self-righteous certitude was far more appealing and dominant than the urge to actually think about the issue. This is something which I’ve written about quite a lot, usually with the tag of ‘liberal identity’ because I come at it from my personal context. I recognise myself in many of these responses. I understand the potency of feeling that you are in the gang of goodies. I also understand how quickly that is removed if you start to ask awkward questions which threaten this sensibility, something Sara Ahmed wrote about as “The Politics of Good Feeling”. Of course it’s easy to replace this ‘liberal identity’ with an individual belief that you personally are one of the only ones who sees ‘the truth’ or whatever, which is only swapping one form of egotism for another. Critical thinking is difficult and uncomfortable largely because it requires accepting that you are wrong about a lot of things a lot of the time.

This takes me onto the second reason why this piece resonated with me this morning. Yesterday I had discussions, both on Twitter and IN REAL LIFE, inspired by this column about how assaulting goths and emos is a BAD THING (I’ll leave aside the ‘hate crime’ issue but you can read further thoughts on that here). I originally tweeted that I was amazed that anyone would think people needed a column to tell them that they shouldn’t assault others. The responses I received were interesting – especially as they were similar to responses I’ve had about a myriad of issues, from ‘It Gets Better’ to Johann Hari’s plagiarism. The argument rests on two pillars. The first typically involves an appeal to an imagined isolated person – usually young – who needs to be assured that they aren’t alone. The second appeals to an imagined perpetrator (here of assault) who needs to learn that what they do/think is unacceptable. 

I’ve heard this line of reasoning so many times now that every time it’s wheeled out it rings alarm bells in my head. It is of course ludicrous to suggest that someone is going to read a newspaper column and decide that they will stop assaulting people – this is usually met with agreement and the assertion that it’s the culture that is important. These columns play an important role in creating a culture where ‘negative’ behaviour is seen as unacceptable. Now, no-one would dispute that the media plays an important role in shaping culture. I would argue, however, that it’s the daily drip of ‘news’ stories, how they are presented, how they are framed, how they are chosen, which play a far more powerful role in shaping attitudes than the clearly demarcated opinion on display in comment pieces. It could even be argued that comment pieces without an accompanying urge (and ability) to think about the wider media are harmful – acting as a ‘pressure valve’, as Ulrike Meinhof put it.

We can follow that logic very well if we focus on the assault piece. It’s imagined that this will play a role in making assault ‘unacceptable’. Ultimately, this rests on the idea that the imagined assaulter needs to be educated out of his (it’s almost always his) behaviour, an idea that is woefully and offensively simplistic. People don’t wake up and decide that they are going to be the kind of person who attacks others on the street. We can’t and must not dispense with individual responsibility but that comes as part of a long, complex line of circumstances and influences which shape a person – what they consider to be acceptable, what they consider to be possible, what they consider to be normal. Anyone who has ever worked in social work will quickly appreciate how impossibly difficult it can seem to address violent and/or destructive behaviour – and will laugh with despair at the suggestion that columns are going to do anything whatsoever to address the problem.

If they did, of course, then that would be great. Yet the appeal is indeed invariably to other people and the effect that the column will have on them – it is never about ourselves. This is the crux of the matter – if we aren’t encouraged to think critically about society, about power, about ourselves, generally, we certainly aren’t inspired to do so in newspaper columns. They are overwhelmingly about parroting our own views back at us and (subtly) assuring us of our superiority over these imagined others – whether that be violent thugs for Guardian readers or welfare claimants for Daily Mail readers. This is why people were so protective of Johann Hari when his lies and slurs were exposed – he told them what they wanted to hear and they didn’t really care where it came from as a result. Columns appear to us as solutions to problems which we conjure after the fact (I’ve learned to substitute ‘Must read!’ with ‘This is what I also think!’ online).

We all do this and more and more, we feel that we’re accomplishing something by reading and sharing such pieces, even if we can’t remember the last time a column (or Question Time) actually caused us to pause and reflect on what we think and why we think it. Davidson touches on a fundamental explanation as to why so much of our time spent online is about perpetuating what we already think and flattering our own ego:

In effect, a closely adhered to ideology becomes a mental locality with limits and borders just as real as those of geography. In fact, if we consider nationalism a pervasive modern ideology, there is a direct connection between the boundaries induced in the mind and those on the ground. Furthermore, it does not matter if the ideology is politically left or right, or for that matter, whether it is secular or religious. One’s critical abilities will be suppressed in favor of standardized, formulaic answers provided by the ideology.

Just so work done within a bureaucratic setting. Bureaucracies position the worker within closely supervised departments where success equates with doing a specific job according to specific rules. Within this limited world one learns not to think outside the box, and so, except as applied to one’s task, critical thinking is discouraged and one’s worldview comes to conform to that of the bureaucracy. That is why bureaucrats are so often referred to as cogs in a machine.

Who could say that they don’t recognise this in their own lives? With regards to the first point, ideology, I could return to the issue of gay marriage and whether people actually devote any time to thinking about it rather than thinking ‘what should I as a liberal person think?’ Certain views and certain issues become identified with left/right stances and become totemic, used as standard bearers for your identity.

The second point is even more important. As Davidson argues, critical thinking is discouraged in our daily lives – I’d go further than just our workplaces though and argue that it is discouraged in most of our daily interactions and relationships. No-one likes to be challenged, especially not when the internet provides the means for 24/7 validation. I’m coming to think of this as being absolutely crucial to many of the issues we speak and write about. I’m coming to think that actually speaking to the people in your workplace is far more constructive, powerful and rewarding than 100 e-petitions. It’s certainly far more difficult – I’m sure many can identify with the clammy sense of dread which descends when your colleages, acquaintances, even friends start discussing something and sharing views which you think are ignorant and/or offensive. Whether we participate in these and put ourselves out there with our different views or whether we retreat to Twitter and write a pithy comment seems pretty instructive to me. It’s a microcosm of the assault issue, really – just as dealing with that requires complex, difficult and draining interaction between people, so does the process of learning and changing opinions (and if our thinking is to be truly ‘critical’, that must include our own).

The Decline of Critical Thinking

Another Games is Possible

A couple of days ago the liberal sorts on Twitter worked themselves into a lather over this Guardian column about a mother’s reasoning for sending her child to private school. Given the credentials of many leading the charge, the author would have provoked less ire had her reasoning been that she wanted to give her child the greatest possible chance of a writing gig for a British broadsheet, but that’s besides the point. What really seemed to rile people was the way the author presented left-wing principles as some convenient, ill-thought out folly which quickly crumble when faced with ‘reality’. This is a slur as old as the hills – a variation on ‘a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged’ – but the addition of the wellbeing of children and the implication that anyone really looking out for their offspring would go private was predictably toxic. The response was swift and it was brutal.

This piece on the Olympics, however, has provoked no angry response. Yet it is another variation on the same theme. The author half-heartedly tosses off his reasons for hating the games:

The outrageous corporate sponsorship deals, the exclusivist ticketing model, the broken promises of community engagement, the lack of investment in youth sporting provision, the ground to air missiles on tower blocks, Seb Coe’s smug half-smile

before noting that he’s ‘caught the Olympic bug’ due to watching a ‘brilliant documentary’ about an Olympic athlete. His previous complaints are recast as ‘grumbling’, suggesting they were trivial reasons for a negativity which has been washed away by the inspiring tale of athletic achievement. Again, left-wing principles are portrayed as a silly distraction. The most extraordinary sentence in the column is:

For the first time, I thought about the Games in a vein outside of politics. This was about the Olympic dream in all its battered and worn reality.

Well, indeed. ‘Politics’ being concerned with power, principles and relationships, looking at anything ‘in a vein outside’ of this would tend to remove any tendency towards critical thought. I’m sure Guantanamo Bay seems quite nice when thought about ‘in a vein outside of politics’. After all, the US government tells us that it’s about keeping everyone safe – it’s not about politics, it’s about basic safety!

Aside from the author’s shaky hold on his own principles and mind, the big problem with this piece is that it conflates the current Olympics with the ‘Olympic dream’. You can read about the ‘Olympic principles’ here – suffice to say that the current corporate mega-event is far, far removed from any sense of ‘equality’ or ‘respect’. Private concerns override all else, with even the laws of the country being subservient to corporate interests. We have indeed come a long way from the 1896 Olympics, when the first regulation agreed by the IOC enshrined amateurism into the event.

This extraordinary puff piece makes the same error of being unable to separate the organisation of the Olympics from the athletic achievement displayed in them. I have heard no-one being critical of the latter, yet everyone who seems remotely inspired by this achievement seems unable to separate the two and becomes defensive about the entire event. Of course, this idea that critics are attacking athletic achievement perfectly serves those elites who wish to portray dissenting voices as spiteful moaners.

Yet another Olympics is possible. I’m about halfway through this book which is very good at examining how the Olympics strayed so far from its original principles. I did not realise that corporate sponsorship only entered the Games in 1984 when it was held in Reagan’s America – the neoliberalisation of the Games perfectly illustrating the lie that they are ‘apolitical’. The book also examines the truth behind the propaganda usually wheeled out in support of the Olympics – economic regeneration, employment, a sporting legacy, increased tourism, community engagement – each is examined and each is found to be at best wanting, at worst utterly false. Studies looking at previous Olympic Games and previous sporting mega-events have found that, without exception, they lead to the displacement of the poor (and other ‘undesirables’) from the host cities and increased living costs for those who remain. They even found that jobs were displaced from the Olympic areas once the Games left town. We are already seeing these effects in London, to go along with the militirization of our streets, the weakening of our civil liberties (including, astonishingly, efforts to prevent anti-Olympics speeches at a Counter-Olympics protest in Tower Hamlets), the privatisation of public space (at public expense) and a complete betrayal of the promised ‘legacies’ for the host boroughs.

In short, it’s difficult to conceive of how anyone who identifies as ‘left-wing’, certainly anyone who identifies as ‘socialist’, could not oppose these Games. Yet you find these very people loudly cheerleading the event and repeating the lies fed to them by the Government and the IOC without question. Why? Because, as noted above, they cannot separate their excitement for the sporting events from the ‘Olympics themselves. Their principles become embarrassing distractions from ‘getting behind’ their team. I’ve seen an increasing tendency for people to combat criticism of the event by referring to the ‘enthusiasm’ of those turning out to see the torch procession, a great irony given the event’s origins as a propaganda tool for the Nazis. It’s also not without irony that the global torch procession was scrapped after the countless protests against the Chinese last time around. It is propaganda, pure and simple, and ‘politics’ or indeed any kind of critical thought is not welcome. This is carried through into our national media which, sure, prints a scattering of op-ed columns criticising the Games and articles criticising transport arrangements, but on the whole unquestioningly pushes the narrative of a ‘country united’. Of course many are going are going to ‘give in’ and catch the ‘Olympic bug’ when faced with such a barrage; when told repeatedly that their criticisms are ‘grumblings’ and they are witnessing a ‘once in a lifetime event’. Anyone using this ‘enthusiasm’ as a defence for the Games needs to learn about ‘manufactured consent’. The very transformation of London into a ‘state of exception’ itself creates a sense of an extraordinary event, building excitement on the basis of retracting democratic and civil liberties.

As an aside, I walked through Stoke Newington last Saturday while the torch procession passed through the area and the turn-out was truly pitiful. I wasn’t surprised that the evening news didn’t show images of smatterings of people drinking cider outside a chicken shop. I attended a barbeque at a house on the torch procession route and, of the 30 or so people gathered, approximately 5 went out to see it.

What surprised me was how eloquent and informed people were in their anti-Olympic sentiment. In being surprised I suppose I had allowed myself to be partially seduced by the idea that people were just ‘grumbling’ but this convinced me that it’s not the case.

By all means I expect many with anti-Olympic feeling to be inspired by the sporting achievements. I certainly expect them to be inspired by the Opening Ceremony – it is, after all, the entire point of that event. Yet we mustn’t lose sight of the alienating, harmful effects of the current Olympic model and allow ourselves to become cheerleaders for the transfer of wealth and power to private bodies and individuals. Another Games is possible. Believing this is not ‘grumbling’, it is holding onto important principles and beliefs and those ready to swiftly abandon these in order to cheer on athletes are the ones who should be defending themselves.

I observed in my recent blog about Cheryl Cole that the logical conclusion of the arguments usually wheeled out to defend her role in pop was music originating with computers, with pop fans rooting for their brand of choice. This column in The Guardian is quite timely, then, in taking that possibility and using it to ask what ‘art’ is. Many would argue that it is merely an aesthetic, and largely an individualistic one at that – if I like something, it is art. This is, in fact, the view of many Cheryl fans who have moved a step beyond attempting to justify her as a popstar – when Lucy Jones of The Telegraph criticised Cheryl yesterday, she received several replies pointing out that Cheryl ‘brought pleasure’ to many people and that was all that mattered. On a very fundamental level it’s almost impossible to argue against this – people have different tastes and ideas and woe betide anyone who is seen to be attempting to impose their own onto others. If we step away from pop music, however, I think this argument is far less persuasive. In the ‘high art’ forms, such as literature or fine art, there are readily accepted contexts in which works are judged. We are able to recognise and discuss technique, form, an evolving yet nonetheless fixed history. Indeed, without this context the study and teaching of these forms would be impossible. It is a context which has been forged by human creativity and effort – sometimes affected by technology, certainly, but not replaced by it. We could program a computer to faithfully replicate many of these techniques etc but however satisfying the result, the machine would not, could not, move the form on. Here, then, it seems obvious that ‘art’ requires a human hand.

I will never forget the trauma that was studying Shakespeare at university, where we would spend hours poring over specific paragraphs and unpicking the depths contained within them. I could never quite believe that one artist could have been so skilled, so astoundingly talented. Aside from the poetry of Shakespeare’s verse and prose (and how dismissive that seems!), his plays are packed with references and allusions to history, religion, mythology, other literature and the culture and politics of the period. This requires both intention and insight, which instantly puts the work beyond the reach of any computer. They are also bursting with a humanity (and understanding thereof) which even the most advanced computer could never hope to replicate. So, while judging Shakespeare on the level of ‘do I like it or not? Does it bring me pleasure?’ may answer the question of individual taste, it doesn’t begin to answer the question of whether Shakespeare is art as it doesn’t appreciate that which separates it from random scribbling.

Even with intertextuality, post-structuralism, Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ or Adorno’s negation of aestheticism itself, we rely on these contexts and histories created by humans, even if to react against them (and in doing so, expand and progress the form). All of these things have become part of critical theory and part of our interpretation of art (however much some of the individuals behind them may have despised this development). The same could be said of Punk rock – it reacted against the dominant ideas of popular music at the time and created something new, yet for all of its radicalism it is now seen as influential as the context it kicked against.

Popular music certainly has its own history, its own context. The major difference with the more ‘traditional’ art forms is perhaps that it’s a fairly brief one, with mass-produced recorded music only arising and dominating in the 20th century. The notions of authorship and artistry which we appeal to when speaking about pop music tend to be those which, varyingly depending on your tastes, only hark back as far as Motown and/or The Beatles. The former is held up as the banner for ‘it’s not important who write the songs’ and ‘the star is key’; the latter are obviously archetypes of creative self-determination in pop. In their way, the Sex Pistols were an important crossroads as the perfect blend between the two, having their own Berry Gordy in Malcolm McLaren and playing ‘characters’, yet writing their own songs and playing instruments (albeit in a self-consciously rudimentary fashion.)

Yet the tensions between the two concepts of pop have never really abated; many still pick their side, mocking ‘manufactured music’ or ridiculing ‘authenticity’. What is lost here are the deeper commonalities : both undoubtedly treated pop music as an art form, and there is far more going on in the best of both ‘worlds’ than ‘does the listener find this catchy?

Ironically, it was another meeting of these ‘worlds’ which perhaps ushered in an era where this was obscured: Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’, while undoubtedly a brilliant piece of work, was the ‘Jaws’ of the music industry, ushering in the era of the blockbuster. Many of the arguments we hear today – justification by appealing to record sales/popularity, the dominance of love for an artist’s persona over their work, the fetishism of an artist who retreats from their work and becomes the product themselves – can arguably be traced back to this massive breakpoint. Its aftermath certainly calcified attitudes of ‘manufactured vs authenticity’, which is perhaps surprising as most of the pop artists which came after were certainly self-determining. Yet this was also the period where the star, the character, became a visual product and commerce really became an unavoidable part of pop. This spectacle was so removed from what had come before that it paradoxically calcified the tribe mentality.

We’ll probably never stop asking what art is. What’s remarkable about pop music today is that so few seem to care. As The Guardian blog illustrates, it’s a conversation which never dies with certain forms. I suppose Instragram is its own ‘I like it vs how it was made’ argument…but that’s another story.

Evolutionary music doesn’t mean the death of the creator

The Guardian’s whole ‘open journalism’ narrative seems to be pushing the potentially quite insidious idea of readers contributing more and more unpaid work to the ‘brand’. You get the sense that The Guardian looks enviously at the Huffington Post, where the unpaid efforts of countless bloggers has turned a nice profit for Ms Huffington. Yet if you spend any length of time looking at Huffington Post articles, the sub-editing is generally appalling and there is a very real sense of a giant echo chamber where pieces are published largely in order to appeal to self-identifying liberal clicktivists. There are arguments that The Guardian has already gone far down this route (most notably in ‘Comment is Free’), but this piece floats the idea that:

…eventually the “Guardian reader” is going to turn into a “Guardian member”. Call it what you like – a community, club or network. Not only will they sign up for the paper or the app, they could contribute directly to content creation. One speculative idea floated by the editor, Alan Rusbridger, was that volunteers might come in to the newsroom to help moderate reader comments on the Comment is free section of the website. Someone in that session immediately offered his services.

This is a masterclass in PR, floating the exciting idea that you too could be fortunate enough to be involved in the creation of The Guardian. Behind the fluffy, friendly prose however, this is surely suggesting that the Guardian work towards the creation of an unpaid army of workers? Given that the appeal is presumably the status and experience, this doesn’t sound particularly different to the unpaid internships which (rightly) so horrify your average Guardian reader. There are very real implications for paid journalists and broader employees of print media which are completely nudged out of the picture. There are also very real implications for quality and breadth, as it seems reasonable to believe that ‘volunteers’ for these roles would be a very self-selecting group (of the kind who attend a Guardian Open Weekend, in fact).

It seems bizarre to me that the response to the changing media landscape would be for a long-established newspaper to attempt moves toward a blogging model. This seems doomed to fail as The Guardian could only ever compete uneasily in this field. The obvious response here would be to speak of the expertise, authority and talent which people expect and respect in ‘traditional’ media. However, Harigate and the fall-out suggests that this is much overstated and there is a large, willing audience out there for people repeating their prejudices back to them. Indeed, this is something we’re all good at spotting in the right-wing press. So perhaps moves in this direction would be fruitful, attracting traffic while driving down costs.

One thing which I found amusing in this piece is the inclusion of ‘smug’ in the list of terms used to describe The Guardian. Amusing because I have absolutely no doubt that if people used this term about individual pieces/writers, there would be a large body of opinion that instantly dismissed them as ‘a troll’. If ‘Open Journalism’ is to mean anything then The Guardian has to get a lot better at engaging with fierce critics. At the moment it is very much a closed shop, where columnists can pour vitriol freely (as long as it’s at an acceptable target) while affecting mock outrage whenever one of their own is challenged. The self-regarding dialogue between many of these writers is something to behold and it’s completely antithetical to the idea that ‘Guardian members’ could ever possibly be serious contributers. Because, just as it skates over the negative implications of ‘Open Journalism’, this piece pretends that The Guardian is not part of a hierarchy and seeks to negate the privileged position enjoyed by its writers. The line:

One woman emphasised how she really liked the angry and fractious debates in the readers’ comments on Comment is free. The last thing she wanted was Guardian journalists interfering to tone down a good online scrap.

is remarkable because the comments below Comment is Free are clearly held in much contempt by many at The Guardian. Indeed, it’s a regular feature of following a few of them that they will mockingly link to comments.

The sense that ‘Open Journalism’ would, in reality, mean cheap/free labour by those who “toe the line” dictated by the paid writers is overwhelming.

In the digital future, the Guardian must turn its readers into a resource