10 Years in London

I’ll tell you the reason you couldn’t get home,
Cause there’s nowhere you’ve been and it’s nowhere you’re going,
Home is only a feeling you get in your mind,
From the people you love and you travel beside

Today marks exactly 10 years since I climbed into a white van with three friends and embarked on the long drive to London. One of my most vivid memories of that morning is of my final moments in the flat I shared with my brother in Bridgeton. Looking into the rooms for what felt like one final time (I would of course return for visits) and closing the doors behind me, it felt like the final episode of an American sitcom. “Sorry, we’re closed.”

It was definitely the end of something. I had no idea what was about to begin.

Today lends itself to reflection and taking stock. I’ve already written about my move in the context of one of its primary soundtracks, Confessions on a Dance Floor. As I describe there, my first year or so in London was tough. From the vantage point of a decade later I can look back with some affection at the loneliness which threatened to devour me yet I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. Still, things got better. The terror went away and some great people came into my life to steal me from loneliness. Life happened, as it always must. One of the (many) things I had yet to learn back then was that I wasn’t losing a home in Glasgow but rather gaining one in London. A week ago I visited Glasgow for my 36th birthday and I remarked to my boyfriend that it never felt jarring going back; there is never a moment of ‘ok, I’m in Glasgow now’. It just feels like I’m in another part of my home, as effortless as if I’ve just walked from my living room into my bedroom. I know enough about the world to know that I’m very fortunate to be able to say that.

I am getting older now. 36 obviously isn’t old but it’s not an age you can ever imagine being when you’re 14, 20, even 25. When you’re younger there’s always a sense that you’re at the beginning of something; now I understand that life doesn’t work like that. There isn’t some point where you suddenly feel, “ah, this is it! Life is beginning!” Instead you just realise that life has been happening all along – this is what you have, for better or worse. Who you are right now is who you are, not some prototype version of something better. You better make the most of it.

If I’d never imagined being 36, I may have had some vague notion that when I was older I’d be a rock star or a famous writer or the Prime Minister. While there is nothing wrong with these aspirations, I am instead aware of far more mundane achievements which all seemed unimaginable at some point. I am gay, out to my family, friends, work and living with my boyfriend. In Glasgow I had a ‘family lunch’ which included my partner, his brother and his brother’s boyfriend and it didn’t feel in the slightest bit strange or awkward.

To the teenager who used to lie awake in bed and pray to God to make me ‘normal’, that feels like being a rock star.

There have been times in life when I couldn’t imagine having a circle of friends whom I loved, a job which didn’t fill me with dread every day or any money to do things which I enjoy. Things which seem quite small, really, yet are so, so big. I made what felt like an earth-shattering move to London and ten years later I find myself living a pretty average life, finding happiness in lying beside my boyfriend in bed and reading a book. The little things… there’s nothing bigger, is there?

Life is never movie perfect. Sadness, dissatisfaction, boredom and yearning are all things you will always feel to some degree. I think part of adulthood is accepting that and not trying to fight it; not trying to ward off the compromises which inevitably come but facing them head on. I understand that even living a mundane life is a privilege many don’t have and often that’s because of circumstances which are well beyond individual choices. Perhaps I am being trite but while we should never settle for misery,  we should also never fail to appreciate what we may have while we still might have it.

Life moves on and I have no idea where I’ll be in ten years’ time. I always find myself morbidly fascinated by stories of people who tragically die relatively young: I think that, surely, they weren’t so different from anyone else? They were just ordinary people taking each day and then suddenly they were gone. The vast majority won’t be remembered by anyone other than those around them whom they loved and were loved by, if they had anyone at all. So I return again to the little things and the prosaic joy of a rainy Sunday.

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(This image is from the brilliant Strike Magazine, which I strongly encourage you to buy. I think it’s from Tilley and Del the Piggie)

Today is my boyfriend’s birthday and I’m off work. We’re going to walk up Primrose Hill and then meet some friends in a pub. Tomorrow, fittingly, there is an all-day Madonna party in Soho. I’ll get drunk, dance and come home to slump on the sofa. I couldn’t think of a better way to mark my decade in London.

Goodbye and thank you, David.

David Bowie

In this age of grand illusion

You walked into my life

Out of my dreams

I have a broken heart today. The last time I woke up to a bunch of messages about David Bowie it was January 2013 and he had just made his surprise return with Where Are We Now? I spent my initial half-awake moments thinking he had died; instead he had been reborn. The Fantastic Voyage had set sail once again and it proved as thrilling as it ever had been.

Now the journey has turned to erosion and, even though he died just after his 69th birthday, David Bowie will never get old. He will forever be a young hippy with curly hair, floating round his tin can; he will always be an ethereal, beautiful alien, casting an arch glance at the freakiest show; he will stand eternally in light, plaintively telling us that we can be heroes. Just for one day.

Just turn on with me and you’re not alone

Let’s turn on with me and you’re not alone

Let’s turn on and be not alone

Gimme your hands cause you’re wonderful

I have a broken heart today. Social media is full of people telling their own stories of how David Bowie made it okay. And as trite as it sounds, he really did. He made it okay to be different. He made it okay to be queer. He made it okay to be an awkward, bookish kid at a Catholic school in Hamilton, trying to figure out why he liked looking at boys when he’d been told again and again that only freaks and perverts felt like that. I feel sorry for those who can’t comprehend why people would weep for someone they’ve never met because it means they never found anything like the indescribable connection which so many had with Bowie. He not only saved us, he showed us a way to live. As much as I cried this morning for the end of Bowie’s journey, for no more mornings waking up to new music and shaking with excitement, my tears were of course also about that kid I used to be. It was fitting that the first song which came on when I put Bowie on shuffle this morning was As The World Falls Down:

As the pain sweeps through,

Makes no sense for you.

Every thrill is gone.

Wasn’t too much fun at all,

But I’ll be there for you

As the world falls down.

I have a broken heart today. However we found him, so many of us scrambling through the jungle of our teenage wildlife grabbed onto Bowie like he was a ladder out of there and, whatever his missteps, he never let us down. It was Bowie (and Madonna and the Manics, two artists clearly enormously influenced by him) who pulsed through my veins when I wore badly-applied mascara, feather boas and cheap plastic tiaras out to nightclubs in Glasgow (my face was indeed a mess). Even today, as a 35 year old man, I find enormous comfort in, and take strength from, his music. You can easily spot the fellow travellers who found a flattering mirror for their awkwardness in Bowie, just as you can quickly recognise those who only namecheck him because it’s the done thing to do. The latter group may be somewhat bemused by today’s reaction; for the rest of us, things will never be the same again.

I can’t answer why

Just go with me

I’m-a take you home

I have a broken heart today. I cannot imagine my life without David Bowie. I cannot imagine myself. We are the dead. Yet as the starman himself finally disappears, a vanishing deity as foretold in The Next Day, we can think of how fortunate we have been to have had him and how much better he has made this place. We will always have that and David Bowie will live on in millions of hot tramps who owe so, so much to him.

Goodbye and thank you, David. I will always love you, more than anyone could ever know.

And it Feels like Home – 25 Years of Like A Prayer

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“Did this actually make you think or are you just trying to be cool?’

My first high school English teacher didn’t much care for my essay about Madonna’s Like A Prayer, returning it to me with the (barely) implicit message that I would write it again. I’d written about how, at the tail-end of my Catholic primary education, Madonna’s album (and particularly the furore around its first single) had opened up a small but ultimately invaluable space for me to start thinking about my relationship with religion. This had been previously been unthinkable for me; more than that, it had seemed terrifying. It felt intrinsically wrong. That the music so resonated with me is unsurprising when you read Madonna’s thoughts at the time:

“I have a great sense of guilt and sin from Catholicism that has definitely permeated my everyday life, whether I want it to or not. And when I do something wrong… if I don’t let someone know that I have wronged, I’m always afraid that I’m going to be punished. And that’s something you’re raised to believe as a Catholic.”

She spoke of the deeply-ingrained but nonetheless taught sense that “If you enjoy something, it must be wrong.” It was ironic, then, that prior to the school discos and end-of-term days where we could bring music into the classroom, we would be given the firm instruction “NO MADONNA”.  This had the obvious effect of making Madonna seem infinitely cooler – even dangerous. And how often can you say that about pop music?

There has been nothing quite like the controversy which erupted around Like A Prayer, either before or since. The single was premiered in an innocuous Pepsi commercial, the product of a then-unprecedented $5 million tie-in deal.

The day after, the now-legendary music video was released. There was instant and widespread uproar, with accusations of blasphemy meeting barely-hidden racism regarding Madonna’s use of a ‘black Jesus’ (the video actually depicts Saint Martin de Porres). The Pope himself condemned the video and the Vatican later censured the whole album. Pepsi quickly ditched the campaign and Madonna kept the money, managing the quite incredible feat of appearing subversive while filling her bustier with multinational dollars.

We tend to believe that boundaries keep being pushed and we become less and less easy to shock. Yet if anything, the Like A Prayer tornado seems less likely to happen in 2014. Pop is more fragmented now, yes. Yet it also seems to carry less cultural weight and have less heady aspirations. The instant response to this in some quarters will be to point out that I’m just older. Sure. But we live in age where even self-confessed pop fans argue for the ‘right’ of pop to be meaningless, frothy background noise, thinking that this is fighting the good fight against elitism. Big artistic statements are so rare that Lady Gaga can hinge an entire career on the mere appearance of offering something beyond the interchangeable pop which dominates, with most of the big pop stars singing variations offered by the same few song-writing teams. Indeed, it’s notable that many listeners of contemporary Madonna long affectionately for the days when she would largely write an entire album with one or two other people (and relatively obscure people at that) – they may not realise it but they’re buying completely into notions of creativity and authenticity (in the spark between writers) which they would probably profess to scorn.

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Going back to 1989, there was little overlap in the collaborators between the dominant artists of the era. Prince’s Batman was created by a total of three writers and one producer. Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 – three writers and four producers. Even Kylie’s Enjoy Yourself is entirely driven by Stock Aitken and Waterman, with one cover version. Madonna’s Like A Prayer unashamedly revelled in its ‘rockist’ take on pop, drawing on inspirations like Simon and Garfunkel, Sly and the Family Stone, The Beatles and Stax Records. Madonna spoke of her love for Tom Waits in interviews of the period, while the album cover is a clear evocation of Sticky Fingers by The Rolling Stones. This was no trite attempt to ‘elevate’ pop by name-dropping so-called serious artists – it was a refusal to countenance that pop wasn’t just as worthy and creative in the first place. If this seems overly worthy, the scenting of the album sleeve with patchouli oil surely provided a cheeky wink at the misunderstood blurred line between artifice and authenticity?

At the time this line was personified by Prince, so it’s unsurprising that Madonna wanted to work with him. What’s perhaps more surprising for some is that Prince equally wanted to work with her (Madonna laughed about how little respect she was afforded as an artist with a wry ““You mean they don’t realize I’m a songwriter as well as a slut?”) The two had gotten together in 1987 to figure out a collaboration: Prince wanted Madonna to star in Graffiti Bridge only for her to dismiss the script as ‘a piece of shit’ (she was right). A co-written musical was mooted and then abandoned. In the end, the two created some impromptu demos, with Madonna describing how they:

“…sat down and just started fooling around. We had a lot of fun. What happened is that he played the drums and I played the synthesizer and we came up with the original melody line; I just, off the top of my head, started singing lyrics into the microphone.”

Oh, to have been in that room. The result, Love Song, was largely finished off via a tape being sent back and forth (very 20th century) and it is perhaps the most low-key and left-field duet between two pop superstars that there has ever been. Some see it as the weak point of Like A Prayer – I think it’s a febrile treasure. The Purple One also pops up on Keep It Together and Act of Contrition, as well as the 12” version of Like A Prayer.

Prince aside, Madonna again worked with the two men who had largely guided 1986’s mammoth-selling True Blue album: Patrick Leonard and Stephen Bray.  Having collaborated with both for years by this point, there was an easy and magical chemistry. Things moved quickly, with Leonard later saying:

“Everything is very quick. We wrote ‘Like A Prayer’, ‘Spanish Eyes’, ‘Til Death Do Us Part’, ‘Dear Jessie’, ‘Promise to Try’ and ‘Cherish’ in a two week period. I was working on another album at the time so she’d just come in on Saturdays or days off. Nothing took more than 4 hours ever.”

Bray summed up the mood which drove the writing forward with such speed: “It’s behind the scenes, definitely, in Madonna’s psyche.” Her relationship with Sean Penn had very publically disintegrated during the album’s genesis, with Madonna finally filing for divorce following a prolonged violent assault by Penn. Speaking about writing her most personal record to date, Madonna said:

“In the past I wrote a lot of songs like that, but I felt they were too honest or too frightening or too scary and I decided not to record them. It just seemed like the time was right at this point. Because this was what was coming out of me. “

‘Express yourself so you can respect yourself’ was no throwaway line – it’s a fundamental tenet of the record. The result may have been atypical of pop at the time but it was the continuation of a trend Madonna had both pushed and ridden. True Blue’s Live To Tell was the obvious precursor, while Janet Jackson’s Control (also released in 1986) had attracted much attention for its very public rejection of her father Joseph’s influence (and indeed Janet too would push deeper with the themes of Rhythm Nation 1814). You can nonetheless imagine that it was still shocking to hear a pop superstar of Madonna’s calibre singing about an abusive partner, a dead mother and a dysfunctional family.

It’s not noted enough how central the theme of family is to Like A Prayer, despite it being writ large on the record. It is dedicated to her mother, who provides the inspiration for the naked emotion of Promise To Try. Her father is the subject of Oh Father (funnily enough) while on Keep It Together she addresses her five siblings. Til Death Do Us Part of course addresses her former husband while the psychedelic  joy of Dear Jessie is aimed at Pat Leonard’s daughter Jessie whom Madonna had apparently gotten drunk on champagne in 1987. If much of the family on display here is messy and messed up it’s clear that Madonna views it as central to life: “don’t forget that your family is gold”, she sings on Keep It Together, positing them as the key to remembering the essential core of yourself.

It was a self I was still finding, let alone coming to terms with, in 1989 and the following years. Like A Prayer more than any other record not only accompanied me on that journey but helped me to discover myself. It didn’t explode my world wide open but rather, as I said at the start, created a small space where the seeds for what became defining questions about my life were planted. I haven’t even touched on my burgeoning sexuality and how Madonna at the time was by far the most prominent advocate of gay rights (Like A Prayer featured an educational insert about AIDS while the song Spanish Eyes has been said to be about the disease). I’m sure I picked up on that connection, somewhere, but truth be told it was buried deep within me at that stage; I had to get out from under the whole Catholic sinner thing before I could even begin to visit those places. Happily, Madonna would be there for that part too.

So happy 25th anniversary to Like A Prayer, a pop album which remains unparalleled in my humble opinion. More than any other it shows what pop can really be and why it demands to be taken seriously rather than defended as irrelevant fluff. It’s a record which continues to matter while containing some mercurial, evergreen singles –  it remains a watershed moment in pop. Its DNA can be found when Christina Aguilera announces herself as a ‘serious artist’ by getting personal on Stripped; when Rihanna turns the travails of her private life into brilliant music on Rated R and (of course) when Lady Gaga pays ‘homage’ to one of its most famous singles. We now don’t bat an eyelid when, on her most recent album MDNA, Madonna sings of her second failing marriage on songs like I Fucked Up and Falling Free (it’s surely no accident that her second divorce album picks up where the first one ends, with a recitation of the Act of Contrition?)

Was I ‘trying to be cool’ when I wrote that essay back then? Probably. I certainly felt cool liking the record at the time but by God, it really did make me think and it made me feel. Rolling Stone famously called the album ‘as close to art as pop music gets’. It may have been intended as a great compliment but fuck that. Like A Prayer is art – great art, at that. And when I listen to it now? It feels like home.

On being ‘Opinionated’ and ‘Contrary’

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A few weeks ago I read and was struck by a Counterpunch blog by Missy Comley Beattie called ‘I’m Obnoxious’. I was struck by it because I recognised myself as someone too “incompetent to do anything except express frustration with such intensity I’ve become un-fun”. I too have had the internal discussion, telling myself to just let it go for once, just shut up.

The piece has been in my mind again over the past couple of weeks owing to a couple of chats I’ve had with friends and some interactions I’ve seen online. The chats seemed to stem from my recent blog about e-petitions which really riled some people: a friend who shared it on his Facebook was told “shame on you!” for doing so. Many seemed to take the piece as a bad-natured attack on the good intentions of people who perhaps weren’t particularly engaged with the world – the line of reasoning that e-petitions ‘raise awareness’ was certainly the most common rejoinder. The fact that I explicitly didn’t attack e-petitions as a concept in themselves but rather the way in which they are most commonly used was completely lost but, I wondered, was that due to my tone?

Following from this, the chats with some friends were strange and uncomfortable. I was told that it wasn’t ‘my place’ to ‘correct people’, that it seemed like I had a chip on my shoulder, that I was too contrary, too opinionated. I had to ‘respect’ that people had different experiences and journeys and learned in different ways. The natural instinct when faced with this is, of course, to become defensive and shut down, which I was conscious of and tried to avoid (I failed). I’ve thought a lot since about what was said, however, because it really gets to the core of a lot of the things I’ve been writing about for the past couple of years.

I’ve written, for example, about relationships being spaces where “we seek to see our own version of our identity reflected back at us”, a kind of narcissism where we make no effort to develop empathy. Make no mistake, empathy clearly isn’t necessarily something that comes naturally to us – it’s something we practice and it’s arguably in decline. It’s easy to go from this to speaking about the rightward drift of politics in the Western world but here I’m interested in how this manifests in small, daily ways. Empathy isn’t just about feeling compassion for those less fortunate than yourself, it’s also respecting others as equals. I don’t even mean people in Uganda or Russia here, though clearly that’s relevant – I just mean the people you interact with on a daily basis. Part of that respect is surely feeling able to debate and challenge in the understanding that each has something to offer?

Now, believe me, I completely understand and still fall victim to the impulse to want to ‘win’ a debate when challenged. Indeed a big part of the reason why I’ve written about this stuff so much is that I recognise myself from a few years ago as one of those people who had the ‘right’ opinions and enjoyed the approval of peers for frequently voicing them. Yet as soon as I started moving away from this (kicked off by the Johann Hari plagiarism business and the responses to the London riots) the response was furious and fascinating. Terry Pratchett once wrote that:

People like to be told what they already know.  Remember that.  They get uncomfortable when you tell them new things.  New things…well, new things aren’t what they expect.  They like to know that, say, a dog will bite a man.  That is what dogs do.  They don’t want to know that a man bites a dog, because the world is not supposed to happen like that.

That sounds arrogant, I know, but I don’t take ‘new things’ to mean that you are blowing the mind of the sheeple with your FACTS. Rather it just means having thoughts and opinions which go against the dominant and expected – and in the past few years, I’ve seen time and time again that many people really do not like it when this happens. Hence my interest when I discovered Sara Ahmed’s concept of ‘bad feeling‘ where anyone ‘out of line with an affective community’ is pathologised and alienated. The problem becomes them rather than anything they are saying.

Of course, tone is relevant and it’s all too easy to come across as arrogant and superior. On the other hand, however, we feel little concern for this when arguing about popular culture. We’ll happily insult each other’s taste in music, films, books and argue to the bitter end about them. We as a culture have little problem with mocking and belittling celebrities whom we perceive to be there ‘for us’.  Yet this is all done with a safe, ironic distance where we don’t really think what we’re saying is important. Once we’re onto ‘serious’ topics like politics, this goes out the window.

Instead it is replaced with a very odd dynamic where we feel absolutely entitled to our opinions and to enjoy the approval and validation which can come from expressing them, but are unwilling to have them seriously challenged. This is particularly noticeable on social media where people will write indignant statuses about Vladmir Putin or whatever, rack up the ‘likes’ ‘retweets’ and approving comments, and woe betide anyone who breaks the consensus. It’s perceived to be better to keep quiet than to challenge any of these opinions, as they are almost viewed as being the essential ‘core’ of the person expressing them. This is even true if the opinion contains flatly incorrect statements. The response to having these challenged is never ‘perhaps I should read more about this’, it’s always ‘this person is a dick for pointing this out’. This has been one of the core impulses at the bottom of the ‘rows’ over intersectionality, with the challenged frequently resorting to claiming that they are being ‘bullied’. The idea is that the people challenging them don’t really care about the issue at hand but instead just want to prove their superiority.

Social media is obviously a particular example because so much social context is missing that it’s a lot easier for an exchange to become adversarial. Yet the ‘real life’ contexts where we feel able to debate these things shrink ever further, as avoiding ‘serious’ subjects becomes expected of you not only at work but increasingly in social interactions. So many of us vent on social media – and that is surely why it matters that we feel able to challenge, debate, even argue? Is it really the end of the world if that happens? If we can try to remove our ego from the equation as much as possible, this seems to be one of the only ways we are ever going to progress in our understanding of the world. As we progress, we then think of different ways of expressing ourselves. We don’t have to have strident opinions on everything – instead we can seek out informed opinions on those things we know little about. For all the talk of me being opinionated etc, I do my utmost to avoid spouting off about things I know nothing about. You won’t have found me telling everyone what I think about the situation in Ukraine over the past few weeks, for example. Instead I’ve just been reading as much about it as I can. This urge to speak about everything is one of my big problems with the commentariat and also where much of my ‘contrariness’ comes from. I write because it helps me think things through (and yes, I largely enjoy sharing that work with people afterwards) so I tend to see no point in writing variations on dominant themes, even though this would be a much easier way to an audience. There are enough people out there writing good things on issues they know far more about than I do so, in the end, my blog is always a personal one. My tone is perhaps more belligerent than necessary a lot of the time but I think that’s partly a response to my experiences described above, where people really have responded with fury to me changing my mind about certain things. Perhaps you do internalise this and make it a part of your identity to head it off. I’ve lost friends over it and am well aware that I’m perceived by many to be a bit of an over-opinionated bitter dick. But I’m trying. I don’t want to ever reach a position where I feel that I know everything and don’t need to keep pushing myself forward. However bad it may sometimes feel, I want to keep being challenged and keep being reminded that I am not my opinions which, in the end, really don’t matter all that much. So I apologise if I know you and you ever feel like I’m being superior with you.  Akala put it best in the brilliant Find No Enemy:

It may sound like I’m bitter but in fact, truth be told, I am quite the opposite
I wake everyday and am overwhelmed
Just to be alive and be like no one else
And the sheer weight of the thought of space
Is enough to keep my little ego in place
All that we chase and try to replace all along it was right in our face
The only way we can ever change anything
Is to look in the mirror and find no enemy

This is quite something. The veterans of WW1 are gone now and in the next couple of decades we’re going to lose those from WW2. Years of textbooks, documentaries, period films and television shows conspire to make this seem not only like ancient history but another world entirely. Yet men and women like Harry Smith were ordinary people forced to become extraordinary by circumstance and as his words show, their fundamental concerns differed little from those of us born generations later. Crucially, they did something about it and created a system which, while imperfect, has benefited everyone who came after them yet is now under sustained attack – not only from politicians but from our own self-absorption and disinterest. It must have been difficult to develop much of an ego when you were submerged in death and destruction and it’s little wonder that a generation took stock afterwards. There is no great event that has forced us to do likewise (or seems likely to in the near future); little pressure to think about the kind of world we want to live in and, most importantly, the kind of person we want to be in it. Most of us who have had supportive families, who had a decent education, who have jobs which allow us a reasonably comfortable lives, are enormously fortunate yet we fixate on the ways in which we can feel oppressed and unlucky rather than asking why everyone can’t enjoy these simple benefits. This is not a trite ‘let’s all love’ observation but a question that is fundamentally political (few questions aren’t). We have the luxury of not having to think in any profound or uncomfortable sense but looking at the words of someone like Harry, who not only thought but acted and made a better world a reality, makes me feel profoundly ashamed. In her speech marking Thatcher’s passing Glenda Jackson noted that “We were told that everything I had been taught to regard as a vice—and I still regard them as vices—was, in fact, under Thatcherism, a virtue”. It’s difficult not to recognise this in the world around us today. Humility, compassion, reflection, solidarity all seem little regarded and sometimes even viewed as weaknesses. Instead we’re meant to fixate on how we are perceived, how we succeed, how we can be superior, how we can appear certain and confident and sassy and self-righteous. And one day we’ll look around and the people who connect us to a time when things were different, when a better world was forged from the remains of epic misery, will be gone. Perhaps on that day we’ll post some funny pictures of cats on our Facebook pages.

New Left Project | Articles |Is This What We Fought For?

I LOVE ME

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When did narcissism actually become a thing? Obviously self-love has always been with us but in polite circles it was considered crass, arrogant and embarrassing. Now it seems widely encouraged and rewarded. If you’re an attractive person, posting endless photos of yourself on your social media account seems certain to garner a large following; writing pithy statements about how ‘amazing’ you are is greeted with glee. People find endless ways to let everyone else know that they’re doing something REALLY GREAT. Even setting up your own ‘fan’ page for your blog or filtered photography is seen as a-ok.

Social media is an area which inspires much comment but is still relatively new in the field of academia. The smattering of research out there, however, suggests that people are indeed becoming more narcissistic and less able to empathise with others. The use of social media not only as validation for the self but as an actual driver for it is something I’ve been thinking about for quite a while and it only seems to be getting worse. It now seems beyond the pale for anyone to be critical of people’s sickly conceitedness – as the poster child for this sings, “there’s nothing wrong with loving who you are”. ‘Born This Way’ is not  an urge towards self-reflection, a recognition that you have worth and responsibility. Instead it suggests that who you are right now is who you are meant to be and that is ‘perfect’. It both encourages and perfectly reflects the view that any criticism of yourself or your endeavours is both hateful and not worth paying attention to. But in reality, we’re not perfect – not at all. We all have massive and unattractive flaws; many of the most narcissistic people seem aware of that deep down and use social media to obscure the aspects they don’t like, remaking themselves through the digital eyes of others.

The first article on research linked to above notes that:

Narcissists had an inflated sense of self, lacked empathy, were vain and materialistic and had an overblown sense of entitlement. 

Sound familiar? A cursory glance at your social media will probably inspire recognition of those words. More than that, it seems to be spreading ever more widely in our society and is at the root of so much. The entire, awful genre of reality television relies on it. Our modern obsession with VERY LOUDLY BEING ATHEIST is a perfect illustration of it, as is the fetishisation of ‘creativity’. This latter trend does not dwell on the transformative power of art, its ability to offer new perspectives on not only the wider world but also ourselves. No, it instead fixates on a facile, ostentatious ‘creativity’ which demands praise and validation, usually for minimal effort. We have to be seen to be photographers, writers, actors, whatever. A large part of this is the sense of entitlement mentioned above – no-one wants to think that they are ‘average’. Combine this with the lack of any sense of wider responsibility and you end up with the pervasive notion that work seen as ordinary and mundane is not worth bothering with – certainly not worth vesting any sense of your identity in. I may work in an office but I am a big deal on Instagram! To question and/or criticise this is to be negative, bitter, cynical – we must not challenge the ‘dreams of a life’ which we have constructed for ourselves. Entire social circles are founded upon this simple truth and the willingness of everyone concerned to act as a blank mirror for each other. Indeed, the song currently at number one presents this vision of a deep and pure love:

It’s like you’re my mirror
My mirror staring back at me
I couldn’t get any bigger
With anyone else beside of me

An anthem for our times! Love is not to be found in someone radically different from yourself, someone who may cause you to question aspects of your personality and even inspire an urge to change! No, love is validation and validation is love.

Listening to Morrissey’s You Are The Quarry yesterday the following lyrics jumped out at me:

Why did you stick me in 
Self-deprecating bones and skin
Do you hate me? do you hate me? 
Do you hate me? do you hate me? 
Do you hate me?

I think it’s a sentiment which anyone who has felt held back by a lack of confidence can identify with, particularly when it seems that arrogant certitude is the way to get ahead. Yet elsewhere on the album we find Morrissey singing “even I, sick and depraved, a traveller to the grave, I would never be you” to a figure of authority and of certainty. This surely is a nod to the ultimately redeeming power of a humility and modesty which can seem crippling? In this recognition of our worse aspects, this sense that we are so imperfect in so many ways, we are almost forced into an empathy and awareness which prevents us from an arrogant, preening self-love. We can always be and do better. Indeed, we must. It is in this state that we find the urge towards the transformative, engaged creativity which is not about validating our sense of self but actively seeking discomfort: as the great Paul Robeson famously noted:

The artist must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice.

Does that sound too narcissistic, too much like a sense of superiority over others? To borrow another quote, humility is ‘thinking of yourself less’ – we fundamentally know if we are doing things for the approval of others if we take a moment to think about it. We ‘begin by being’ rather than appearing to be.

I’ve written about Chelsea Manning a couple of times, chiefly in relation to how writers and activists who obsess over any hint of slight against gay people take little-to-zero interest in her because her situation involves actual power and politics as opposed to narcissistic posturing. This week someone managed to sneak out an audio recording of Manning’s one-hour statement wherein she explains what she did and why. It should be listened to widely.

It should be listened to widely because it’s a compelling and surprisingly moving testament to real courage. Manning had nothing to gain from her actions and everything to lose yet, as she makes clear, she had learned of shocking things and “no one wanted to do anything about it”. So she wanted to alert the public to what was being done in their name and, hopefully, affect change:

In attempting to conduct counter-terrorism or CT and counter-insurgency COIN operations we became obsessed with capturing and killing human targets on lists and not being suspicious of and avoiding cooperation with our Host Nation partners, and ignoring the second and third order effects of accomplishing short-term goals and missions. I believe that if the general public, especially the American public, had access to the information contained within the CIDNE-I and CIDNE-A tables this could spark a domestic debate on the role of the military and our foreign policy in general as [missed word] as it related to Iraq and Afghanistan.

I also believed the detailed analysis of the data over a long period of time by different sectors of society might cause society to reevaluate the need or even the desire to even to engage in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations that ignore the complex dynamics of the people living in the effected environment everyday.

It should be listened to because this kind of bravery, motivated by a deep and engaged sense of social responsibility, should shame us in this individualistic culture where we all rush to shove our inconsequential opinions at each other and seem incapable of taking any time to reflect, to think, to examine what’s going on around us. Why think about how our ‘liberalism’ manifests itself, both in our daily lives and in government, when we can send out more pithy dismissals of religion or remind each other how superior we are to conservatives? A friend commented on Twitter yesterday that “the social justice challenge of (thinking about your own relationship to the world and others) is very upsetting to one’s sense of self when you’re faced with it”. Because how can you not find yourself wanting? How can you not feel inadequate and ashamed? Manning clearly struggled with these things herself and bravely made the leap. How many of us would have the courage and character to do even 1/100th of what she has done? Almost none of us will have jobs similar to hers but in our jobs and in our daily lives we will encounter things which we think are wrong. How we respond to them is everything. Manning’s own act has led to unquantifiable change, from exposing war crimes to igniting some of the sparks which led to the Arab Spring.

It should be listened to because it humanises Manning and should shame us that we have turned a blind eye to his persecution while sanctifying those responsible. Thinking about Manning and what her plight says about our societies is difficult and uncomfortable – there is little opportunity for self-aggrandisement there. Believing that President Obama is a left-wing archetype of liberalism, stymied by evil Republicans, requires zero reflection and allows us to continue the delusion that we are the ‘good guys’. And so a single photo of Obama pulling a face will be seen more widely than anything Manning has done (or that is being done to Manning).

I had a little disagreement last night with someone who advanced the usual line about Pope Ratzinger being a ‘former Nazi’ and saying that he should have allowed himself to be gassed rather than be complicit in Nazi Germany. That’s what they would have done, they said, sitting at a keyboard 70 years later. How brave we like to think we are; how exceptional and how good. Yet as the book ‘Alone in Berlin’ made me realise, our morality is not independent of the social circumstances around us and, more, it is not typically manifested in grand and obvious stands of good versus evil. Instead it is found in the tiny choices we make and actions we take in everyday life. That is how a creed like Nazism comes to dominate – by tiny degrees of ignorance, inaction and acquiescence. It’s how we allow workers in awful sweatshops to continue making most of our clothes or gadgets, why we countenance acts we normally like to think we’d loudly oppose if they come from quarters which we have vested our own identity in, why we equate being ‘good’ with being quiet and disengaged. Manning’s actions explode these myths wide open. She did a ‘good’ thing and is paying a terrible price for it; we do nothing and get drunk on our own righteousness.

I listened to Manning’s statement in bed last night and felt wretchedly ashamed. I do not have an ounce of her courage. We all owe her a debt of gratitude and she should be celebrated from the rooftops as a hero.

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