A Cry in the Dark: Parliament Square at the Bush Theatre

Esther Smith as Kat in James Fritz’s Parliament Square, a co-production between the Bush Theatre and the Royal Exchange Theatre. Photo courtesy of The Other Richard.

After several conversations with my theatre friends raving about Four Minutes Twelve Seconds and Ross and Rachel, a new James Fritz play was a cause for excitement. I came to Parliament Square expecting acutely observed class dynamics, fresh takes on political hot topics and bold staging decisions. The play was all of those things, but it was also one of the most uncomfortable theatrical experiences I’ve been through. Parts made me nauseous; throughout I felt compassion, horror and uncertainty tugging at my insides.

We open to Kat (Esther Smith) squabbling with her inner Voice (Lois Chimimba), who happens to be a ballsy Scottish woman. So far, so off-the-wall. Kat rises early, leaves her family and catches an early train to London. Bit by bit we learn what Kat is planning. Though the dialogue still sparkles with humour, an unbearable tension starts to build. Kat has decided that the only way to take a stand against the current political climate is to douse herself in petrol and set herself alight in Parliament Square. Things suddenly get very, very serious.

“Everyone who sees this is going to be changed and they’re going to see that when we don’t like what’s going on we can get out of our chairs and do something about it,” recite Kat and the Voice. It has unnerving echoes of Howard Beale’s call to arms in Network – “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” Like the slogan Beale shouts across the airwaves, there’s something hollow and insubstantial about it. It’s not something worth dying for. Fritz may have taken inspiration from the 140 people who have set themselves on fire in Tibet since 2009 to protest against oppressive Chinese rule, the youngest of which was just 15. In the context of the play, Kat’s need for the world to take notice of her invites us to infer more selfish motives. Does Kat desire change, fame or both?

Director Jude Christian makes the most of Fritz’s unusual staging decisions; the way he handles the self-immolation is all the more horrendous for its minimalism. Each of the three acts has a radically different sense of time and space, shifting gear and expanding the narrative. Every staging decision seems perfectly calculated to produce an emotional response, be it euphoria, claustrophobia or hopelessness. Christian’s stagecraft is innovative without being showy, never overshadowing the human drama.

Like the restlessly inventive staging, the writing refuses to settle on one perspective. In the first act Kat’s husband Tommy (Damola Adelaja) comes across as boorish and slightly thick. Her mother (Joanne Howarth) phones her to fuss over a barbecue that’s laughably trivial in comparison to Kat’s mission. Both of these characters become the moral centre of the play in the second act. Then, just when you think Fritz is condemning Kat’s actions, the third act comes and throws everything into confusion.

My only gripe is that, despite the play’s many twists in turns, I could see the end coming around halfway through. The plotting is almost too perfect, some might say mechanical. You can feel Fritz agonising over the central ethical dilemma, occasionally using characters as mouthpieces in a for-or-against tussle between taking a stand and accepting your own insignificance.

The political forces Kat struggles against also remain vague and nebulous. I felt like punching the air when Kat’s mother told her: “The world is a terrible place. But guess what? It always has been.” A few weeks ago I read how millennials were choosing not to bring children into a world that was “so f***ed up” and I remember wondering if the present day was really any worse than the genocides and nuclear stand-offs of the 20th century. Does Fritz want us to see Kat as a whiny millennial unable to see the bigger picture? It’s impossible to say.

Though there is a strong theoretical strand to Parliament Square, Fritz’s greatest achievement is to maintain a human perspective throughout. The relationships between the characters always felt very real and the relentlessly funny dialogue in the face of a very grim subject matter was astonishing. I left feeling shaken and changed. The play is definitely not for the faint-hearted, but it’s equally something you’re not likely to forget in a hurry. Like Kat’s political statement/stunt, it’s a horrific cry in the dark, unsayable and unknowable, screaming for us to look up from our cosy personal lives and take notice.

Parliament Square is at the Bush Theatre until January 6. Tickets are available from £10.




Again and Again

This work seeks truth through the methodical manipulation of a set number of variables and explores the anxieties created by subtle shifts in presentations of the same pieces of information. This process yields a deliberate but limited context for understanding, rendered in a dense collection of multi-layered cells. The accompanying video component (https://vimeo.com/214831225) puts these cells into motion, further blurring understanding while simultaneously putting another element into “real time.” The video is intended to be played on a loop as a nod to internet meme format. The installation is currently on display at art museum The Delaware Contemporary as part of their annual juried exhibition, running 2 June to 8 August. See more at http://sarahkaizar.com/work/installation.html.

 

 

 




Trump in B&W

A humanitarian at heart, native New Yorker, Amy Gilvary’s innovative artistic vision coincides with her social inclination to spread love, kindness and acceptance through creativity. Her works are highly symbolic images of the power of words, particularly the contemporary artist’s role as cultural innovator and change-maker. To commemorate his hundredth day in office, her recent VoicePix: Trump in Black and White is a collection of one hundred of the many, many statements he made pre- and post-election. This is the POTUS’s actual voice taken from speeches, debates, interviews, rallies and press conferences. So in a sense he created this art and would tell you it’s the very, very best piece here.

The sources of this art, Trump’s words, are presented below in a .

1) Nobody has more respect for women than I do. Nobody. 2) I tend to like beautiful women more than unattractive women. 3) There has to be some form of punishment [for a woman who gets an abortion]. 4) And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the [bleeped out]. 5) ’Cause I like kids. I mean I won’t do anything to take care of them. 6) I don’t wanna sound too much like a chauvinist but when I come home and dinner’s not ready, I go through the roof! 7) I was the one that really broke the glass ceiling on behalf of women. 8) I never went bankrupt. 9) Well, you know what? I’m worth five billion dollars, plus, by a lot. 10) Nobody’s stronger than me. 11) I’m gonna get the bathing suits to be smaller and the heels to be higher. 12) There’s nobody bigger or better at the Military than I am. 13) I think you better hold onto your girlfriend, Rosie, because if you lose her, you’ll never be able to get another one. 14) There’s nobody that will take care of women’s health issues better than I will. 15) I know words. I have the best words. 16) There’s nobody bigger or better at the military than I am. 17) My primary consultant is Myself. 18) I don’t know anything about what you’re even talking about with uh … white supremacy. 19) Nobody loves the Bible more than I do. 20) Putting a wife to work is a very dangerous thing. 21) With the terrorists, you have to take out their families. 22) It’s all fake news. It didn’t happen. 23) Nobody builds walls better than me. 24) I’ve received many environmental awards. Many, many environmental awards for the work I do. 25) I get the biggest crowds. I get the biggest standing ovations. 26) I think it’s [Climate Change] is a big scam. 27) I love The First Amendment. Nobody loves it better than me. Nobody. 28) Nobody’s better to people with disabilities than me. 29) I’m worth many, many billions of dollars. 30) The reporters because they’re a very dishonest lot. 31) I could be the most presidential person ever. Other than possibly the Great Abe Lincoln, alright? 32) Donald Trump has always been very, very successful. 33) I’m the tough guy! 34) There’s nobody that’s done so much for equality as I have. 35) Number one, I’m not stupid, okay? I can tell you that. Right now. Just the opposite. 36) I went to The Warton School of Finance. It’s like one of the hardest schools in the world to get into. 37) There’s nobody more pro-Israel than I am. 38) Of course it’s very hard for them to attack me on looks because I’m so good looking. 39) I would’ve won the popular vote if I was campaigning for the popular vote. 40) My big win in NY – it was a landslide! It’s been like, unprecedented. 41) Some people won’t vote for me because I’m wealthy. 42) I’d like to punch him in the face I tell ya. 43) I have a great temperament. My temperament is very good, very calm. 44) I’m gonna bomb the shit out of ’em. 45) There’s nobody more conservative than me. 46) There’s nobody that understands the horror of Nuclear better than me! 47) Look, I have to do what I have to do. I’m not going to be politically correct. 48) Andrew Jackson- who a lot of people compare the campaign of Trump with. 49) I’m going to take care of everybody. 50) I’m talking with myself number one because I have a very good brain. 51) At least he’s [Putin] a good leader. You know, unlike what we have in this country. 52) He [Obama] likes me. Because I can feel it. You know, that’s what I do in life – it’s called like “I understand.” 53) Putin of Russia – he said “Trump is a genius. He’ll be the next leader.” 54) The wall just got ten feet taller. Believe me. 55) Nobody knows more about trade than me. 56) Let me be unpresidential just for a little while longer. 57) I’m afraid the election’s going to be rigged. I have to be honest. 58) The only thing she’s [Hillary’s] got going, is the Women’s card. 59) I will totally accept the results of this great and historic presidential election – if I win. 60) I’d think my side was rigged. 61) I’m very Pro-life. 62) I’m very Pro-Choice. 63) Well I am not a hypocrite and I haven’t been treated properly. 64) Nobody knows the game better than I do. 65) You [CNN] are Fake News. 66) Written by a nice reporter. Now the poor guy— You gotta see this guy. [mocking disability] “Ah! I don’t remember.” 67) Nobody knows politicians better than I do. 68) I have to give like, my credentials all the time. 69) We won with the poorly educated. I love the poorly educated. 70) I have a great grasp of numbers. 71) There are millions of [illegal] votes in my opinion. 72) I’m best on terrorism; best on the economy; best on trade. 73) Nobody knows more about taxes than I do. 74) Well we were very close. We were just probably anywhere from 10–15 votes short. Could’ve even been closer than that. 75) I know more about ISIS than the generals do. Believe me. 76) I have five million people between Facebook and Twitter! 77) He [McCain] is a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured, okay? 78) Nobody knows more about debt than I do. 79) I’m a unifier. I’m very much a unifier. 80) There’s no rally like a Trump rally! 81) It could be 30 [million people] and it could be five. Nobody knows what the number is. 82) Nobody’s ever had crowds like Trump has had. 83) Jeb Bush has to like the Mexican illegals because of his wife. 84) I don’t have a racist bone in my body. 85) I love the Mexican people. They’re fantastic. 86) I have great relationships with Mexico. 87) I will build a better wall and I’ll build it for cheaper and Mexico will pay! 88) They [Mexico] are not our friend. 89) Nobody in the history of this country has ever known so much about infrastructure than Donald Trump. 90) That wall will cost us nothing. 91) Nobody knows the system better than me. 92) An impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful southern border wall. 93) I will have Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words. 94) What I’m doing is good for the U.S. It’s also going to be good for Mexico. 95) There’s no ladder going over that! [the wall] There’s no way to get down. Maybe a rope. 96) I never said “repeal it [Obamacare] and replace it within 64 days”. 97) It seems that both sides like Trump and that’s good. 98) Look, I did some things in fun. I’ve said it as an entertainer. 99) And if I see I’m not doing well, then I’ll say “Bye-bye” and I’ll go back to building buildings. I’m not a masochist. 100) Sadly, the American dream is DEAD.

 




Kings Of The Ballot Box – What Democracies And Monarchies Have In Common

Photo Credit: iamsdawson Flickr via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: iamsdawson Flickr via Compfight cc

One of the strangest aspects of life in a democracy is how the people in charge of it – the voters – are portrayed. “The Voice of the People” is invoked in almost mystical terms, a sacred thing that must never be doubted. The most recent example of this was last year – the vote that gave us Trump. (For the sake of sanity, let’s just leave Brexit out of it.) This was a seriously bad decision for reasons that ought to be obvious now, and will surely be even more obvious as the fallout gathers pace. But what was telling was how this was portrayed. Time and again, on social media, on TV and radio, the newspapers, the Web and in politics, the vote was accepted, almost unanimously, as beyond reproach. The “voice of the people” had to be honoured, regardless of the outcome.
2016, as said, was not a good year for democracy. This year could be worse. It may bring us a Le Pen French Presidency. It could grant power to malevolent far-right turnip Geert Wilders. Chancellor Merkel could be driven out of office as a thinly-veiled far right makes hay from the refugee crisis. All around us, the world roils. Far from putting a stop to Putin and his schemes, democracy has proven unable to resist his influence and his minions. Does this mean that democracy is dead? No, but as Frank Zappa might have said, right now it does smell funny. What it does instead is unveil a strange and unusual truth – that Democracy and Monarchy share the same problem. Put simply, both systems fall apart if the people in charge are idiots. In a Monarchy, of course, the person in charge is the Monarch. If they are competent, the system carries on and the country benefits. If, however, the Monarch is corrupt, incompetent or vile, the country suffers and the system fails. Often, the collapse is total. And yet, this is also the problem with democracies. The only difference is that instead of one person in charge, it is many – the electorate. If we have a wise, sane and well-informed electorate, the country does well. But if that electorate is corrupt, ignorant or vile, the country suffers and the system fails. Often, the collapse is total.
It may seem a stretch at this point to draw parallels between, say, Tsar Nicholas II or Louis XVI and the masses who put an idiot like Trump into power. But the comparison does in fact make a great deal of sense. The only difference is, voters have to be born at the right time and place in vast numbers, whereas a Monarch only needs to do this once. Kings also come to power through back-room manoeuvres and revolution. But electorates also regularly overthrow the old order, and, as gerrymandering and vote suppression show, the stitch-ups in a democracy are every bit as shameless as intrigue at court.
Sometimes it goes even further. The masses of angry mourners for Princess Diana in 1997 are a classic example. Not ones to grieve in a dignified manner, they took a very dim view of the Queen’s refusal to publicly mourn with them. After much arm twisting, she dutifully came out, gave the most inane eulogy ever and then came back in again. The public, having got its own way, shut up and all was well for the status quo. But far from threatening the concept of Monarchy, it strengthened it in the long run. After all, Diana was, by marriage, herself a royal. Her celebrity and mystique in the eyes of the public all stemmed directly from this. Monarchy was not threatened so much as made to remember that it had to follow the “popular” will. Nearly twenty years later, and the Queen is still on the throne, buoyed up by plenty of public support.
What this showed, of course, is that monarchy and democracy can go together very well. Indeed, the relationship is often symbiotic. Denmark, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, Japan, Spain, Britain itself… As far as monarchy goes, democracy does a great job of keeping it afloat. Regardless of rhetoric or dogma, you can learn a great deal about what a system really is by the company it keeps.
At the heart of both systems, of course, is a toxic mix of bull feathers and sentimentality. Kings and Queens are viewed in the most cloying and sycophantic ways, fawned over and seen as God’s appointed Monarch. If you don’t think this is the case nowadays, think of the 2011 marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton. Or, when it finally happens, the Queen’s funeral. The humbug and starry-eyed mass adulation is just a royal birth away.
Yet a similar giddy and cultish air hangs around democracy too. Despite the spot-it-from-orbit stupidity of voting for Trump, the whole notion of “the people have spoken” is still portrayed as sacrosanct, something that must be accepted. If voting proves anything, it is how autocratic democracy really is. “The Will of the People” has to be “respected” (and “respect” is the most passive aggressive word in the dictionary). Those who try to stand in its way are “enemies of the people”, latter day heretics, remoaners… To challenge a vote is to challenge the Gods.
Even in democracies where there is no Monarch, this bizarre cultish reverence can still be seen. The Office of President is spoken of in hushed tones. Constitutions, even as they are ignored or Tipp-Ex’d over, are seen as sacred texts. Even inaugurations and official handovers have strange ritualistic qualities to them, like religious rites anointing a Caesar in all but name… Democracy is not a threat to Monarchy. Indeed, it pines in its absence.
Complicating things further, of course, is the flow of human history. Autocracies of one sort or another always fail in the long run because the people much prefer to oppress themselves than be oppressed. A more successful system must, therefore, be far more insidious. And the ones that do this best are democracies and monarchies, or a mixture of both. History shows a successful monarchy can last a very long time. Modern democracy, though it has taken longer to develop, is also successful, in that only a blitzkrieg or a column of Russian tanks can bring it down.
Fittingly, then, the earliest fusion of quasi-democracy and monarchy, the Papacy, shows no sign of faltering. People like to be bossed about, but they also like to boss others about too. Monarchy, which is popular, and democracy, which is populist, both meet such squalid human needs. But they also do it in a way that keeps most people more or less happy.
And given the choice between being good or happy, most people choose to be happy. Which brings us to a rather dark and sinister place. If mankind will only be free when the last king is throttled with the entrails of the last priest (or is it the other way around?), perhaps a similar fate needs to befall the last elector too? In the end, tyrants come in many forms, and there is no difference between a cruel and wicked king and cruel and wicked voters. But the real point is this – we should not put any system or man on a pedestal. In the long run, they will always end up pissing on us. (Literally, in Trump’s case.) “The Will of the People” and “The Will of the King” should only ever have qualified privilege. Sometimes, people can be awful, and why be ruled by the awful? Of course, the voters can always prove me wrong – but only in the same way a good king can.



Politics: Israel and Palestine: The Narrative of Peace is Becoming Impossible

 The pages of history show that the likelihood of compromise grows exponentially over time, as if the rhythm of the years going by has a small but cumulative mellowing effect on the feelings of men. Emotions run high at the onset of war, a deep-rooted sense of impending change and restlessness fills the air, suffocating dissenting opinions in a time of heightened jingoism. Uncertainty is never quite welcomed by the public, but it provides a kind of excitement which is missing from the mundane order of normal life. After long periods of peace, the arrival of war is popular precisely because it is irregular, and so it breaks the dullness of everyday banality. The suffering inflicted during the previous war has usually been, by this point, largely forgotten by the public consciousness.

This thrill does not last long; in most cases it evaporates almost as soon as the body-bags begin to pile up. The underlying restlessness, finally given a voice by the coming of conflict, stays for a while longer, but as years and decades pass, the initial feelings fade to a point where few remember the grievances and emotions of their fathers and grandfathers. It is best to win conventional wars quickly, for long wars between nations have a way of becoming irritating and blinding. The public tires of chauvinistic tropes once it becomes apparent – as it always does despite these patterns repeating themselves – that wars are rarely winnable, seldom respectable, and never economical. Eventually, the people begin to consider the price they must pay in blood to be too high. In most case, this is inevitable.

The conflict between Israel and Palestine is the great exception to this law of diminishing passion. The initial feelings of resentment and humiliation have been passed down through generations, nullifying the moderating influence of time. But even as the violence rages just as intensely as it always has, it is important to note that there was, at one point, an end in sight. It came about by the recognition, from the leadership of both nations, that this was an unwinnable war. The Jews were never going to be driven into the sea, the Arabs were never going to relinquish their claim to the West Bank and Gaza no matter how many settlements Israel built on those lands. There was, to put it bluntly, a stalemate. It seemed then, in 1994, that rationality would prevail after decades of futility. The PLO renounced terrorism, Israel recognised the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people (implicitly recognising the existence of a distinct Palestinian people), Jordan terminated its claim to the West Bank, and it became common to hear in the hallways of western power that the existence of two states was not just a possibility, but a realisable aspiration. At this time, it was not controversial to say that there is enough land in the Holy Land for two nations, coexisting peacefully, and that such an easily solvable and relatively minor land dispute was taking up far too much of the international community’s time. The world’s message to both sides was clear; the framework is there, now get on with it.

If only it were that simple. Within a few months of signing the Oslo Peace Accords, and with peace finally a distant, but very real, possibility, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was murdered by an Israeli nationalist. The reasons given for this act of unnecessary brutality are the same reasons peace is now seemingly unattainable. Jewish extremists, counting Rabin’s assassin among their number, believe that the Palestinian West Bank is theirs by biblical right. Religious dogma has everywhere a corrupting influence, and nowhere is this clearer than Israel. Messianic Jewish settlers, armed with the knowledge that Yahweh gave that land to them, and more importantly, to them alone, have earnestly begun the task of colonising Palestine. Few countries consider these settlements to be legal under international law, but the fact that this has changed nothing only shows the irrelevance of most countries. The United States is the only state which has the power to force Israel into restraining the eager successors of Europe’s colonial legacy, but the US has been hesitant to put such a policy into practice. Israeli society is divided between those who actively support the settlements, acting as apologists for the worst aspects of expansionism, and the opposition, who lack the political will to challenge such reactionary politics. As a result, Jewish fundamentalists hold a veto over the peace process, and it is a veto they will continue to use.

As for the Palestinians, what can be said that has not been said before? Political incompetence has given way to religious extremism, a broadly secular nationalist movement has been replaced by an ethno-religious one, while a legitimate, albeit problematic, resistance has been undermined by the nihilism and wastefulness of such tactics as suicide bombing. The blame for this shift lies almost entirely with the PLO, who for the longest time managed to establish themselves as the dictators of a non-existent state; an impressive, but downright depressing, feat of political cunning. The truth is that, after signing a peace treaty with Israel, the PLO failed almost completely to force its implementation. This, coupled with their notorious corruption, inevitably led to extremist parties gaining ground. After all, much like the rest of the world, Palestinians care about the provision of basic public services just as much as national liberation, and Hamas, like all tyrants, do not hesitate to promise that under their rule the trains will run on time. Hamas has the PLO in a stranglehold, but only because the PLO offered its neck.

The result is a stalemate, with (relative) moderates on both sides unable to hold back the tide of extremism. Instead, the Israeli moderates have been neutered and confined to the political abyss, while the PLO is too busy attempting to grab what it can while it still can to provide a meaningful alternative to Hamas. Primal bigotry has always been an active ingredient in the propaganda of both sides, but rarely before has it been so officially and violently endorsed. There was a time, not that long ago, when one could travel to Palestine and hear militants speak of how Jews and Arabs were brothers, and that the real enemy was the bourgeoisie of both nations. That kind of Marxist jargon might not have been entirely accurate, but the emphasising of commonality was respectable. Yet if one were to travel to Gaza today to hear the fighters of Hamas lecture on ideology, one is forced to imagine a scenario wherein notions of brotherhood and solidarity do not feature prominently, having been replaced by recycled conspiracy theories about world Jewry and world domination.

The bigoted denizens of ancient dogmas came to power because of severe ineffectiveness on the part of moderates, but the persistence of reactionary hatred is due to the dogma itself. Religion plants the seeds that negligence waters so religiously. Messianic settlers and Islamists have three things in common; both claim the entirety of the contested land as their own, and both base their claims, and how they view each other, on the ramblings of ancient texts. The third and most important similarity is perhaps the scariest; the gains of both sets of reactionaries have now reached a point of irreversibility, at least for some time. On both sides, the parties of God now run the show, and it is shaping up to be the most tragic of comedies. Sister faiths and twin nations fighting over a patch of land promised to both by a capricious, unknowable entity which each sect worships and regards as its own; a script worthy of the Bard himself.

History may tell us that time ripens the seeds of peace and burns the harvests of hate, but it also shows us that when religion intertwines with politics, especially the politics of nationalism, blood flows and mothers cry. Nothing but evil has ever come from the marriage of those two ideas, but in the Holy Land today the wedding bells are chiming.




Politics: After The Eighth

 I checked my phone at 7:00 pm on election night, and everything felt fine. Trump had just won the electoral votes for Kentucky, which was anticipated, and the unwavering meter on the New York Times website still forecast a 68% surety of his defeat. I was on the verge of tears, sure, but that’s just because after almost six years of college, precipitantly girding myself to weep has become my Pavlovian reaction to drinking tequila. Being myself a very nasty, white, pussy-wielding, and (these days) Brooklyn-based woman, I was starting off the evening getting tipsy at a bar with my friend. Politically, however, I felt placated; secure. And I took the shot.

Nothing of import had yet transpired, but I know that I wasn’t the only person operating under the assumption that Hillary Rodham Clinton was going to win the election. Here is why:

Much of my personal political consciousness’s development both on- and offline has involved seeking out and then engaging with voices to which I have related—white voices—that have transformed for me my own feelings of incredulity and powerlessness into something articulate and therefore empowering; and so while the cocoon in which I live my day-to-day life taught me the importance of accountable activism and social justice, it also shielded me from having to imagine that the outcome of the election would render the Trump campaign anything less than decimated.

 

“I want a dyke for president. I want a person with aids for president and I want a fag for vice president and I want someone with no health insurance and I want someone who grew up in a place where the earth is so saturated with toxic waste that they didn’t have a choice about getting leukaemia. I want a president that had an abortion at sixteen and I want a candidate who isn’t the lesser of two evils and I want a president who lost their last lover to aids, who still sees that in their eyes every time they lay down to rest, who held their lover in their arms and knew they were dying.” — I Want A Dyke For President, Zoe Leonard.

 

“Lia. He won.” That is the text message I woke up to at 5:30 am on November 9. My response—and that of every white person with whom I associate—was disbelief. (All my white “friends” who chose to continue associating leisurely with the man who sexually assaulted me on my year abroad—because he was funny, because he was generous, because he did not seem like a threat—sure came out of the woodworks to lament our new President’s pussy-grabbing platform. Where was your righteous disavowal then, when my sexual assaulter’s existence was not your burden?)

 

DISBELIEF: noun

the inability or refusal to believe or to accept something as true.

amazement; astonishment

 

But ask any marginalized person, any black person—and they’ve known better for a long time. Of course they have. They all turned up to do their part to prevent this, on November 8 and every single other day. As for us? Rich whites, poor whites, white men, white women, urban whites, rural whites, degree-educated and non-educated white folks turned up in droves for Trump; my demographic voted for Trump. By the time the polls closed on Tuesday, tens of millions of Americans voted for a man whose platform openly pursued racist, sexist, anti-environment and xenophobic policies.

Sure: the Democratic National Committee’s decision to prioritize an establishment politician’s political agenda over endorsing an actual, progressive candidate—over defeating an overtly illegitimate candidate, and clear enemy of reason—did not help. In an election season so heavily rife with populism, this strategy proved itself massively ineffective. Hillary did ultimately win the popular vote, but the thing about believing in democracy and free and fair elections is that in spite of those numbers, she lost. We now have to acknowledge the results of the race.

We do not, however, have to accept him. We do not have to capitulate.

I am a cis, white, queer woman and my partner is a cis, white, straight man. And while Trump’s agenda seeks to eliminate my right to participate fully in the political and cultural life of my country, I know that I have benefitted from and will continue to be privy to many systems that so many of my loved ones and the people in this country I fight for are not.

I am listening to you. I will fight for you. You are heard, you are seen, you are loved.

 

“I want a president with no air-conditioning, a president who has stood on line at the clinic, at the DMV, at the welfare office and has been unemployed and layed off and sexually harassed and gay-bashed and deported. I want someone who has spent the night in the tombs and had a cross burned on their lawn and survived rape. I want someone who has been in love and been hurt, who respects sex, who has made mistakes and learned from them. I want a black woman for president. I want someone with bad teeth and an attitude, someone who has eaten that nasty hospital food, someone who crossdresses and has done drugs and been in therapy.” — I Want A Dyke For President, Zoe Leonard.

 

Everybody has, at some point or other in life, woken up with disappointment, or pain, or fear— but for all the queer bodies, the women, the undocumented, the Muslim, the non-cis, disabled, and non-white folks who went to sleep on election night and then rose, somehow even more at risk on November 9 in America—who cannot afford to sit back and wallow, or forgo ablution—who have known this for so long, and have been screaming it, unheard, for so long: I will do my best to do my part for you.

The outcome of this election has spurred me to reflect on my own complicity in putting Trump in the White House; the echo chamber of opinions in which we encase ourselves too often enables—invites—us to externalize systems of oppression, rather than confront how we may and often do maintain them. Seeking out positivity and tenderness can be an important step in the process of healing, but I also will hold myself accountable to the pain around me. I will do my best to shake those who look like me out of the complacency and comfortability white privilege and agency affords.

This is a wake-up call. These coming four years will define who we are; let us prove ourselves to be compassionate, empathetic people, but let us save our love. Save it for those people who are already with us, and more importantly for the people our president-elect is going to hurt. I am struggling trying to figure out how to save it for those we care about—and need—but do not agree with us yet. I will grapple with that problem alone.

In the wake of November 8, I have found solace and hope in seeing so many around me not only demonstrating a willingness to examine their own actions as sources of marginalization, but resolving, and taking the initiative, to change them. I look forward to the material progress that the heightened self-awareness the outcome of this election has engendered. Now let’s get to work.

 

“I want someone who has committed civil disobedience. And I want to know why this isn’t possible. I want to know why we started learning somewhere down the line that a president is always a clown: always a john and never a hooker. Always a boss and never a worker, always a liar, always a thief and never caught.” — I Want A Dyke For President, Zoe Leonard.




Don’t Be Afraid

In President-Elect Donald Trump’s first interview since being elected, he said to the country: “don’t be afraid.”

 

It’s important to note that Trump said this not ten minutes after explaining that his pro-choice agenda would fill the Supreme Court seats and cause women to flee to other states in order to get contraception, appropriate health care and legal abortions. He said this after confirming that yes, indeed, he wants to build a wall between the United States and Mexico but he’ll accept “some fencing” in certain areas.

 

“I’m going to bring this country together again,” Trump says but what he means is – he’s taking the country back to its roots – its racist, homophobic, xenophobic, sexist roots. The now infamous photograph of Trump standing in a golden elevator with UKIP Leader Nigel Farage speaks volumes – not just for the obvious class divide but the hypocrite that Trump is.

 

His plans of a wall and abortion rights are just two examples of a Republican run White House, led by a man who sits comfortably in his seat, in Trump Tower, telling people to never fear. If this weren’t already Orwellian enough, social media (the big brother eye) played such a huge part of this presidential campaign – it is now flooded with fear.

 

Trump protesters litter the streets. Trump supporters harass and attack Latinos, Muslims, Mexicans, gay men and women, African Americans – those made to feel like the minority, unwanted and not part of this “great America” that Trump will create. The American people are divided from a bitter and ugly campaign between two opposite people, representing the divides. Those left with a fragile and broken Democratic Party are fearful.

 

In his first interview as President Elect, Trump sat with his four older children and wife, Melania. When asked about the fear, Donald Trump Jr called it “totally unfounded”. Trump then went on to blame the press for causing the fear, for “spreading lies” that ignited the fear.

 

The thing is: people are afraid, Mr Trump. Of you. Of your homophobic Vice President. Of your rhetoric, of your attitude, of your morals. They’re terrified that making America great again means war, means breaking up families, and imprisoning innocent people. They’re terrified and disgusted that a man who speaks of women as pigs sits in the highest and, by some people, most respected position in all of America. How can the young women of America respect their President, their government and the order they demand when the very person leading them is a hypocrite, a man who not just hides from scandal but openly ignores it, openly lies?

 

Trump is a storyteller. His story is he’s done nothing wrong, he’s a good guy and he’s had a hard time in the press, he’s built himself from nothing, he’s someone to be admired. And now he sits in the White House where he can tell people to not be afraid. He’s going to make his country great again with the help of white supremacists and Wall Street lobbyists.

 

There’s one thing I agree with Trump about and that is to not be afraid. Because to give fear to a brute like Trump is to give him even more power. To fear is to shrink. Even as America – and the country – is deflated from the ugly decisions made, has broken by a great divide, it illuminates that while Trump sits at the President’s desk, and the protesters march the streets, the people’s voices, however small or quiet, can never be unheard.

 




Believe Me

rtx1v7he-1024x743Donald Trump said, “We will be doing very much better with Mexico on trade deals, believe me,” and Hillary Clinton remained composed, presidential. This was during the final 2016 Presidential debate, when two completely opposite figures battled it out. What struck me was not the general theatrics of the whole thing but Trump’s phrase, the words ‘believe me’.

 

There’s the obvious hypocrisy. Donal Trump is a liar. There was a fantastic article written by the New York Times, listing each lie Trump told during the second presidential debate. He lies about his past actions, he lies about things he said fifteen minutes prior, he contradicts himself, he’s a hypocrite, a sexist, a racist, a brute. But it’s not just Trump that got me thinking about belief – it was politics as a whole. Here, men and women stand up and proclaim reasons for them to be trusted, for us to believe in them. It’s we that vote. We that put these people in their positions but do we really believe them? Can we ever really believe in them?

 

We like to think we have control because it’s us that elects the politicians but it’s taking the lock off the lion’s cage. Our vote heightens these people, elevates them. They are in positions of power where our voices become quieter, distant. Trump is running on the fact that he is out of the establishment, he’s just a businessman – a multibillion businessman – wanting to fix his country. Clinton, he proclaims, is part of the establishment – she’s out of touch. He’s right about one thing – the establishment is out of touch. This is not to say if I were American I would vote for Trump, I’d rather see a Clinton administration than the alternate but the establishment, the politicians so far out from their people. Politicians in the UK, sit in great halls and scream and jeer at one another, mock publicly, laugh off the stage, humiliate not just themselves but us. They show what money and power can create – the ignorance, entitlement and privilege of it – as well as the vast barrier between them and us.

 

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Would you believe the word of a stranger if he or she told you your loyalty would create great change? If they stood and needed your dedication and help to become your leader so they could speak on your behalf, would you believe them? Would you believe the word of the stranger if they demanded money – we’ll call them taxes – from your purse to go into the big bank for them to decide who it can help best? Would you believe them if they said they pay taxes too, more, because they’re now better off?

 

Lies are a key part of politics. You have to go with the crowd sometimes, you have to keep the most people happy. When you’re running for a cabinet position lies can come a bit more easily. It’s easy to make promises you know you can’t keep, it’s also easier to not call them lies then, they were simply mistakes.

 

One only need to cast their mind back to the 23rd June referendum vote, when 51.9% of the UK voted to leave the European Union. Among the Leave campaigners were Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson who promised £350 million to go to the NHS. This was the biggest lie of the Brexit campaign, arguably one of the biggest lies spread and encouraged in British political history.

 

We know it’s a lie, from the reports of Theresa May’s budget, no further money actually going to the NHS and that no Leave politician will comment on what actually happened to the pledge to the British people. They ask us to believe them and of the 51.9% I’m sure some of those people didn’t buy it and voted for other reasons but what the build-up to the vote showed me was that the country was in a state of confusion. Everyone around me was arguing about it, questioning things. The news was full of lies disguised as promises, the world seemed to be blowing up, we needed to have control – that’s what leaving offered, they said, control.

 

I guess it’s true – we shouldn’t trust strangers.

 

*

 

What, then, do we believe in? Or rather – what can we do when there is no-one to believe in?

 

Because with belief comes trust. Somebody asking you to believe them is also asking you to trust them. You can be a fool – or look like a fool – if you follow a liar in blind loyalty. Nobody wants to look foolish. And yet we put our trust in people who time and time again disappoint us, who go against their own words and promises.

 

Hypocrisy is a fact of life, as are lies. Everyone lies and everybody can be a hypocrite but not everybody wants to be that voice – the person standing up representing everyone else. Most people want to just be part of the crowd where their lies, secrets and hypocrisies are not easily seen. The fact of the matter is politicians are heavily scrutinised and judged because there’s a sense of ownership – we put them there and we deserve to know what’s going on. Because they want their power, wealth, sense of dominance, place in the hierarchy, to be that one per cent. It all comes with a price. Both for them and for us.

 

There are figures like Trump who challenge the establishment. Part of me thinks that Trump is doing it to truly mock the establishment – even if he doesn’t win, he’s made enough people believe him and they will be left angry and frustrated with a President Clinton. He’s given the white-collar conservative attitudes a voice where the second amendment is not just a constitutional right but at the heart of the American Dream. There’s an American truth no Presidential campaign will say if they want to win: the second amendment is a farce. Scrap it. Lock up the guns. Save your children.

 

Sometimes they’d have us believe that in order to win you have to tell a few lies, make a few half-thought-out promises and let a few people down. But when they win that’s when they’ll really make that difference they’ve been talking about, they’ve asked for your vote and trust and loyalty, they’ve asked you to believe them.

 

So do you?

 

Believe?




What about the Ecocidal Lunatics?

“Ecocide – The destruction of the natural environment, especially when deliberate.” Oxford Dictionary of English.

The Beginning of the End

Once upon a time in 18th Century Britain an extraordinary progression in intellectual activity developed, pushing forward the industrial revolution and a significant emphasis on the scientific method, liberty, limited government, reason and free enterprise, which in turn gave rise to the American Revolution, the Bill of Rights, the Monetary System, conformity, plastic, credit cards, stocks, shares and greenhouse gases. Furthermore with the decline of Mercantilism in Britain in the late 18th century and an acceptance of free trade, the desire and ever-growing greed to further build individual wealth grew.

At this time Scottish economist and moral philosopher Adam Smith had succeeded in spreading a largely liberal economic model around the globe; The Scottish Enlightenment, this laissez-faire economic system was characterised by open markets, barrier free domestic and international trade. A gateway to inequality. Considering his influence Adam Smith was still troubled by the lingering effect imposing government regulations had on an individual’s prosperity. Eventually he went on to theorise and subsequently pave the way for one of the most bizarre delusions in the history of human thought. The monopoly economy, or in other words; Capitalism.

 

The Morality of Money

In part we owe the free market, intrinsic obsolescence, ecocide & derivatives to Adam Smith. His magnus opus: An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, more often referred to as The Wealth of Nations, was first published in 1776. Smith covers the areas of economics & politics within the realms of moral philosophy. The book reflects upon economics at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, pushing broad topics such as the division of labour, human nature, free markets, productivity, moral values and moral justice. Labourer, slave, stock owner and master, Smith saw a way for individual wealth to grow faster. He anticipated and advocated the evolutionary development of economics in its most destructive form and thus helped it flourish.

It is not, however, difficult to foresee which of the two parties must, upon all ordinary occasions, have the advantage in the dispute, and force the other into a compliance with their terms. The masters, being fewer in number, can combine much more easily; and the law, besides, authorizes, or at least does not prohibit their combinations, while it prohibits those of the workmen … In the long run the workman may be as necessary to his master as his master is to him; but the necessity is not so immediate.’ (Smith, 1776:8).

Now it’s important to understand, that a cyclical consumption system like the one described above by Smith, albeit in 18th Century Britain, cannot stop, or the entire economic structure would fall apart. The money would not come to the employer, therefore the employer would not be able to afford to pay his employee, then both the employer and the employee would not be able to preserve or eternise the cycle of being a consumer, and therefore contribute to the fictional commodities that promise to produce well being and happiness for all humanity.

In this reality money is pursued for the sake of money, nothing else. In fact, pretty much everything else is entirely disregarded. All is well in the world, so long as the system is making money. In consequence, there is an unfathomable amount of waste produced by intrinsic obsolescence; we actually design products to need replacing. The thing is there currently is no profit in peace, in saving lives, in equality, in justice, environmental awareness and sustainable living. Problems create profit and so we are producing absolutely nothing at all and ‘profiting’ from it.

 

Let us pause for a moment

The definition of economy: To manage frugally in the expenditure or consumption of money, materials & minerals etc. Management with a view to productivity, the efficient, sparing, or concise use of something. (Mixture of Dictionary sources). The principles of economy outlined above are contradicted by our utter insanity and ludicrous lack of efficiency.

In a world where the entire concept of value in money = the value of products sold rather than the value of money actually owned, we are in serious trouble. In a world where the entire concept of money = a made up bedtime story gone awol, we are in serious serious trouble. We are our own demise; creative geniuses, deluded master minds, immaculate liars, impeccable storytellers and we have told the very thing that will ruin us and in telling, believed it. Beliefs are ingrained in us, even before the dawn of the cognitive revolution we have enjoyed believing in higher powers, physical powers and love. Money encombases all three. It is the perfect, perfect story.

Just think for a moment about the amount of garbage this encourages us to accumulate, throw in the trash and forget about. Eventually the money sequence stops producing anything of value at all and instead rather exploits anything necessary to fuel its production. News flash, this is currently happening and your junk does not rot in landfill, it is likely to be at least 60% non-biodegradable and discarded of irresponsibly. Our ineffective landfill sites make the Disney animation Wall-E (2008) seem pretty plausible, but I assume Wall-E would look more like an apple product.

Yes, the planet got destroyed but for a beautiful moment in time we created a lot of value for shareholders” Tom Taro, The New Yorker.

 

What’s Next?

We are in a situation now where tracking money sequences is more important than creating peace on earth, basic food resource and sanitary standards for every man, woman and child. We are governed by the stock market, which as I am sure you are aware does not produce anything real but rather just trades money itself. Buying and selling debt for profit, thus fueling the need for the wasteful consumption of products, property and minerals.

This is absolute f***ing lunacy. Many of the major market economists rationale today, rarely leaves the money sequence. The universal welfare of species, universal human resources, or any type of life prosperity and progress, that promotes a thriving future for all, does not exist anywhere in their whole senseless doctrine. Almost 65% of the world is bankrupt, whatever that actually means, bankrupt. The money never existed in the first place, it was printed by the bank and the bank is a fictitious super lord that governs all the money because humans love making up stories.

You remember when you believed in Father Christmas? You believed genuinely with every inch of your being, that one man and eight reindeer delivered gifts to every child on planet earth in one night?

 

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I am currently reading Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens. Towards the beginning of the 414 pager in a chapter titled The Tree of Knowledge Harari talks about the cognitive revolution and the impact Homo Sapiens cognitive ability has had on our future as a species on this planet. We owe our accelerated progress and decline to our cognitive developments.

This arena is extraordinarily large, allowing Sapiens to play an astounding variety of games. Thanks to their ability to invent fiction, Sapiens create more and more complex games, which each generation develops and elaborates further’ (Harari, 2011;39). So, the monetary system, the marketing system, bankruptcy, commodities, fashion, marriage, religion, war, wage slaves, financial trading, loans and gross domestic product are all powerful, powerful stories.

A particularly financially profitable tale, is one called debt. This is the idea that you can borrow a value of money that does not exist until you borrow it. So as soon as you have borrowed it, you pretty much have no way of paying it back ever, because you never had it in the first place. In addition to this you’ll get a growing flow of interest on top of that debt, so now you owe more money you don’t have. More importantly you owe money that doesn’t actually exist in the physical reality anyway.

 

Ok. But what is money?

A fantastical game we invented, a game that is causing the well-being of billions of people, other species and entire ecosystems to be compromised. In the 21st century money is essentially data, numbers on a screen. In its physical form money is a means of exchange or trade in the form of printable coins, banknotes and even bank cards. Money could purchase any physical product creation you could likely think of right now, if you have enough, but it will seldom get you fresh drinking water and health care in a debt plagued, politically corrupt country.

In the year 1500, there were about 500 million Homo Sapiens in the entire world. Today there are over 7 billion. The total value of goods and services produced by humankind in the year 1500 is estimated at $250 billion, in today’s dollars. Nowadays the value of a year of human production is close to $60 trillion. In 1500, humanity consumed about 13 trillion calories of energy per day. Today, we consume 1,500 trillion calories a day. (Take a second look at those figures – human population has increased fourteen-fold, production 240-fold, and energy consumption 115-fold.)’ (Harari, 2011:247).

Long story short, Harari could be seen to suggest that we are totally f**ked. The trouble is, the only way to really eliminate waste is to eliminate money and people, and let’s be honest that ain’t gonna happen any time soon. Most certainly not whilst we live in a world where men in suits make decisions aimed at promoting their own ideas of wealth & success, to better benefit themselves.

Benjamin Franklin once said; there are only two things certain in life: death and taxes. He was right. But hunger, poverty, ecocide and reproduction are also certain, so long as taxes are certain. John Locke and Gandhi both wrote that they would not abide by the law if it was against their conscience & the well-being of others. Albeit with very different agendas and overall political views both men used the power of free-will to their advantage. And so should you and I.

A man can no more justly make use of another’s necessity to force him to become his vassal by withholding that relief God required him to afford to the wants of his brother, than he that has more strength can seize upon a weaker, master him to his obedience, and, with a dagger at his throat, offer him death or slavery.’ John Locke, 1689.

I shall no longer accept the role of a slave. I shall not obey orders as such, but shall disobey them when they are in conflict with my conscience’ Mahatma Gandhi, 1921.

Where am I going with this?

The End of the Beginning

This is so much bigger than all of us, it’s monstrously bigger than the bigots controlling it and it won’t be long before it all comes crumbling down. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men, they won’t be able to put it back together again. There will be no such thing, as a wealthy man or king. Everyone will be equal with nothing but blood and fire. Yikes, sounds awful.

Capitalism, the genius idea formed by men with a philosophical view lacking in empathy and common sense is not sustainable and we all know it. We have the voice and the power to change it, but we need to progress past the benighted consciousness we call reality today. Don’t get scared now, I’m not suggesting you dress up in a cloak and dance around a fire chanting. For lack of better words myself I will leave you with a paradox of Jean-Paul Sartre’s.

Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. It is up to you to give [life] a meaning’. Sartre, 1946.

All the great political, moral, economical, peaceful, disruptive, immoral, influential philosophers, thinkers and leaders, I have mentioned in this post, had a voice powerful enough to change the course of history, for better or worse. Their passionate expressions of civil disobedience, their antagonism of popular belief, social structures and politics are all too lacking in today’s world of a mass lemming society ignorance syndrome. The meaning of life? I don’t know. But there is no meaning or valuable outcome from violence or destruction, from the annihilation of our own species and in taking everything down with us. Are we too brainwashed, too indoctrinated, too conditioned & too ignorant to stop this madness? Or do we just not care?




The Education Bubble

021112fThere is something happening in universities that no one is talking about. The coalition government’s Higher Education reforms of 2012 introduced a new system under which universities would no longer have their teaching underwritten by government grants, but would instead derive the majority of their funding from their students’ tuition fees, accordingly increased in 2012 from £3,000 to £9,000. A main aim of this reform was that increasing competition for students would give institutions stronger incentives to focus on improving quality of their degree courses, because if they were unable to attract enough students, their funding would decrease and they eventually succumb to bankruptcy and closure. Last year, market discipline was introduced at the bottom of the market via a new, uncapped student recruitment policy. Universities were able to recruit an unlimited amount of students, leaving less applicants in a position where they would need to take up a place on the least ‘competitive’ degree courses.

Degree courses which were the least competitive (those that represented the worst value for money for their graduates in terms of employment prospects, institutional reputation and student satisfaction) could be expected to do one of two things. Either they would increase their competitiveness by driving up the quality of the course; improve the standard of teaching, increase the ratio of staff to students, and try to improve the employability of their graduates – or alternatively the university would admit defeat and close the courses struggling to recruit, leaving the Higher Education marketplace leaner and better.

In many uncompetitive institutions that, thanks to uncapped recruitment, are now having their traditional applicants poached from universities higher up the pecking order though, neither of these things are happening. Why? Because there’s a secret third option for failing degree programmes, and its one that no one is talking about. When faced with closure and job losses for academics and support staff, many failing degree courses at the bottom of the league tables are instead opting to recruit large numbers of students that, by their own standards, are unsuitable for Higher Education.

To take a quick example, for six of the nine lowest-ranked Business and Management courses in England and Wales of a recent independent league table, the majority of students who enrolled on them between 2013 – 2015 were accepted with entry grades that fell below their official entry requirements, and out of the remaining three lowest ranked courses, around a third of students enrolled had been accepted with lower qualifications than the institution said they required.

Importantly, it is at this time of year, during the last gasps of the Clearing period, when the most unethical recruitment practices take place. Course leaders, terrified that they are weeks away from losing their jobs due to their courses becoming financially unviable for the university, are reluctantly ushered into clearing call centres and handed data lists that the institution has purchased directly from UCAS. They are then tasked with cold-calling to UCAS applicants who have never shown an interest in that particular university but who are currently without offers, and the academic will offer them places on their degree programmes, over the telephone there and then.

The Browne Review of 2010 that initiated the Higher Education reforms stated ‘Students are best placed to make the judgement about what they want to get from participating in higher education.’ But how easy is it for young people to make an informed, discerning judgment, when it is those universities with the worst outcomes for graduates that are the most aggressive in pursuing them?

Try to imagine how it might feel to be an 18yr old presented with the above situation. You’ve just found out you’ve performed very poorly in your A-levels and have consequently been rejected from all of your university choices. Suddenly, just when you’re at your most depressed and vulnerable, a Lecturer takes the trouble to call you and tells you that actually, you’re a perfect candidate for Higher Education! There are very limited places left on their highly exclusive course and usually the entry requirements are much higher, but you’re such a good fit, they can make an exception for you – they’ll even throw in a £1,000 bursary to sweeten the deal. You take a closer look at the university’s website and are encouraged to see that they’re not joking – usually the entry requirements for the course you’re interested in are much higher. Perhaps you don’t have too many people you can ask for advice, you might well be the first person in your family to try to access Higher Education.

So what? You might be thinking as you read this. A level grades aren’t everything, plenty of people underperform at A level, take a place at a less esteemed university and go on to achieve great things.

Unfortunately, the outcomes for many of these institutions who recruit huge numbers of students without suitable qualifications tell a different story. The dropout rate among some universities was as high as 32.5% in 2015. Publicly, these institutions continue to wring their hands over these high levels of attrition, citing factors like inadequate financial support for students. This may be true, but what they are not addressing is that academics and admissions staff, faced with the closure of their courses and staring down the barrel of the redundancy gun, will often resort to recruiting students whom they know are disproportionately likely to drop out. Why do universities allow such indiscriminate recruiting?  It all comes down to money. For that university with a drop-out rate of 32.5% and approximately 11,700 undergraduates, assuming that each student drops out after only one term of study and thus pays only £3,000 in tuition fees, this adds up to £11 million in annual revenue for the university. With such financial incentives it’s not hard to understand why the majority of students on some of the lowest ranked degree courses in universities have entry grades well below what they should be – the university doesn’t care whether they stay or not – they just want a one-shot cash injection before these students drop out. One Academic at an institution I recruited for even said as much in a Senior Management Team meeting, openly despairing of the fact that there was a deliberate, unspoken policy of accepting unsuitable students on to his degree courses to get all or part of their first-year tuition fees, before kicking them out part way through their studies due to lack of attainment of lack of attendance. His remarks went unchallenged by colleagues.

For the students that do make it past the first year on these undiscriminating degree courses, they are often in for a shock when they try to gain those all-important employability skills, namely gaining work experience while they study. For many, when the time comes to apply for a placement year or summer internships, they find that their low A level grades preclude any possibility of undertaking work experience with the multi-national companies that their course’s marketing spiel made reference to. I once witnessed a dejected Course Leader in a Senior Management Team meeting remarking on this. ‘Ah!’ replied one of his colleagues ‘but we only said they would have the chance to do an internship, we never promised them anything.’ In actual fact their pre-entry qualifications had given them no chance at all. The meeting moved swiftly on.

Looking at graduate employment outcomes for the nine lowest ranked Business and Management courses (arguably a subject whose students highly value employment prospects) in England and Wales, we can see that the majority of students (50.2%) of those that are in work six months after graduating, are not in graduate-level jobs (UNISTATS website), compared to just 6.5% of graduates from the nine top ranked Business and Management courses. The average graduate salary for those from the lowest ranked courses is £18,000 – well below the average salary across graduates from all institutions in the UK after taking a similar course (£24,000) and far less than the £27,000 graduate salary that those from the nine top ranked courses enjoy. The only outcome that is uniform among these degree courses is the level of debt that students can expect to amass during their studies – the Business and Management courses with the best and the worst graduate outcomes all charge at least £9,000 in tuition fees per year.

The leaders of degree courses with the most flouted entry requirements and the worst graduate outcomes often argue that their mission is to open up Higher Education provision to those with a background of disadvantaged socio-economic status, who have not previously been able to enjoy its benefits. But at what point does provision become exploitation? A degree course for whom the majority of its students are not able to access graduate-level jobs upon completion, and with which many of its students are unsatisfied, but nonetheless burdens them with up to £50,000 worth of debt, is still failing to provide these benefits. Instead, many of those from disadvantaged backgrounds are being provided with what Andrew McGettigan, in his book The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education refers to as ‘sub-prime degrees’ – similar to the phenomenon of ‘sub-prime mortgages’ being offered in the United States before the financial crisis, in that like the mortgages, these degrees are sold to communities that are relatively unfamiliar with the product, saddling huge numbers of people from the least advantaged sections of society with massive debts and little else to show for it. Perhaps this explains why, in a recent survey, more than a third of recent graduates said that they regretted their decision to go to university and half said that they could have landed their current jobs without a degree.

So where is the State in all of this? Within this new marketization, if the universities are to play the role of the service provider, the student that of the informed customer, and the government takes the part of the regulator, why aren’t institutions and degree courses with atrocious graduate employment outcomes, low levels of student satisfaction and sky-high tuition fees being held accountable by the State to the students they are supposed to be ‘serving.’ Students today have all the responsibilities of a consumer but absolutely none of the rights. If I buy a brand new car for £50,000 to take me on an important journey, and it breaks down half way there and can’t get me to my destination, then I as a consumer would have some recourse to complaint – I could rely on government legislation to uphold my statutory rights. So where is the legal protection for students who will spend the same amount of money on a university degree, and find that the journey they were promised it would take them on hasn’t materialised? Is it crass to equate higher education with buying a car? Absolutely. But this is the transactional territory that the government itself has dragged the sector onto, it is they themselves that said that the ultimate measure of quality for degree courses would be student satisfaction, that the value of a bachelor degree was to be judged in terms of its ‘employment returns’ and that the reforms would make the universities ‘accountable to the students they serve.’ So where is the recourse for action for those young people who have been failed by their institution, who have come out of courses that they were unethically persuaded to sign up for in the first place, burdened with £50,000 of debt, and who find that they are still deemed unqualified by employers to access graduate-level jobs?

Under the current reforms, it is only the students themselves and the taxpayer, not the universities, that are held accountable for poor standards of higher education provision. Students who are unable to find graduate-level jobs will be held accountable for the pointless debts they have racked up for thirty years after they graduate – during which time many will find that the monthly repayments they make will not even be enough to cover the interest accrued on the outstanding balance. The tax-payer will also pay for the financial fall-out from these sub-standard degrees, in that graduates are required to pay back their loans broadly according to how much benefit they have received from their degree, indicated by the size of their subsequent salary. If the enhanced employment outcomes that a degree was meant to provide don’t materialise, then the loan will not be repaid. After thirty years, any outstanding debt will be written off and it will be the tax-payer alone that shoulders the failure of Higher Education to deliver according to the government’s own measure of quality. Accounts published from the Department of Business, Skills and Innovation (BIS) in July 2014 reported that although student and graduate borrowers owed £54 billion to the government, it expected to receive only £33 billion in repayments, and for new loans issued in 2014-2015, BIS expects to lose forty pence on every pound loaned. In an era when part of the last Chancellor’s ‘fiscal mandate’ was to see national debt fall as a percentage of GDP – it is now thought that the new higher education funding system will add more than £100 billion to the National Debt before the mid-2030s. At that point, the Office for Budget Responsibility thinks, the borrowing to create student loans could constitute one fifth of National Debt. This doesn’t sound like the sustainable financial future for Higher Education that we were told these reforms wold achieve.

So what needs to be done? At the very least, universities should stop lying about the qualifications needed to gain entry on to their degree course. If the majority of those enrolled for a particular degree of study fall well below the stated entry requirements, than those entry requirements need to be called out for what they are – utterly fictitious and merely a cheap trick to deliberately misguide prospective applicants about the standard of education on offer. Take them off the website and replace them with the genuine, median qualifications of the current cohort. At least this way students can make a more informed decision about what is really being offered to them.

In the long-term though, what is really needed is better state regulation of degree courses, so that there is accountability assigned to those that charge the maximum tuition fees and boast low teaching quality, poor staff to student ratios and abysmal graduate prospects. If the government is going to allow young people to amass such large debts before the age of 21, they should at least safeguard them by providing some quality assurance as to what universities must provide in return for such massive borrowings.

Finally, it is time we opened our eyes to the uncomfortable truth that just because record-numbers of students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are gaining access to Higher Education, it does not follow that there is anything close to parity in the quality of education on offer to these sections of society and that which is available to those from more privileged groups with better A level grades. Equally, those who were in favour of the recent reforms should stop pretending that the marketization of Higher Education in Britain, without any regulation of degree courses, will significantly reduce the State’s financing of Higher Education in the future. Because in the unregulated Wild West of Higher Education provision, it is both students and the Taxpayer that suffer.




Bernie Sanders’s Empathy Revolution

 As Bernie Sanders bowed out of his bid to become the next president of the US, he vowed that ‘the political revolution will continue.’ But what is the revolution that Sanders and his 12 million supporters are calling for?

‘Real change,’ says Sanders in the Washington Post. ‘An economic and political system that works for all of us.’ Opponents have branded him a socialist, but what Sanders is actually calling for is an empathy revolution: a revolution in our capacity to walk in another’s shoes for a mile. This would require us to sympathize as much with the black mother in Flint trying to provide safe drinking water to her child as with the Syrian teenager stranded on a boat in the Mediterranean. Sanders’s revolution recognizes that change begins with our ability to understand and share the feelings of others.

Philosopher Roman Krznaric argues that empathy has historically been critical in the struggle for social and political transformation. The success of the campaign to abolish slavery in 18th-century Britain depended on campaigners creating empathy through public talks, testimonies, and posters. The ability to imagine ‘what it might be like to be a slave’ preceded outrage at the institution of slavery. Outrage fuelled protests, petitions and the first free trade boycott of slave-produced sugar.

Donald Trump’s quest to build a wall to stem Mexican migration or ban Muslims from entering the US reflects most fundamentally his failure to empathize. His lack of empathy may be one of his biggest problems. But how do we create empathy? It is relatively easy to sympathize with others we identify with on the basis of ethnicity, race, religion or class, but what about people who are very different?

Stories are one powerful tool for fostering empathy. The artist’s or poet’s mission is a democratizing one, as Walt Whitman said. It is a mission to provide imagination, sympathy and voice to the despised, to participate through sympathy in the ‘degradation of the degraded’.

When the former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper instituted policies to cut social spending, Booker-prize winning novelist Yann Martel sent him books. Every two weeks for four years, Martel sent the Prime Minister a new book to help him discover something of the world around him. From Nigerian author Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart to Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Harper received over a hundred books along with a letter.

“Books are a way of making you understand the other, the geographic other, the historic other, the sexual other, the racial other,” said Martel. Research supports his claim that reading literary fiction can increase empathy. Psychologists Emanuele Caetano and David Comer Kidd at the New School for Social Research in New York have shown that reading literary fiction enhances the ability to detect and understand other people’s emotions. Works of the imagination may be effective in fostering empathy precisely because they are not governed by norms of rational argument that lack the sense of immediacy and urgency that a story provides.

Moved by the plight of Oklahoma migrants during the Great Depression, in 1939 John Steinbeck published his

Pulitzer-prize winning masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck tells the story of the Joads, who lose their tenant farm in Oklahoma and are forced to take to the road in search of employment in California. The novel depicts the poignant courage and humor of the Joads, and the countless other landless migrants they encounter along the way, people who share the indignity of the Joads’ poverty, and their hopes of a new social order. Through our exposure to the characters that walk through its pages, our intimacy with their longings, fears and the thoughts they hold most sacred, we come to understand our shared humanity and suffering.

Eleanor Roosevelt called The Grapes of Wrath ‘an unforgettable reading experience.’ She praised it for its coarseness and beauty, the ‘horrors of the picture, so well- drawn.’ Reading the novel moved her to visit the migrants’ camps in California.

At the time of the Great Depression, the 99% suffered crushing poverty, loss of property, and displacement from their homes.

Eminent economists like Paul Krugman have said that our situation in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis is a ‘Third Depression’. Now, as in the 1930s, the collapse of the financial markets and restructuring of the labor force have brought profits to some and hardship for many. Steinbeck’s novel is as relevant today as it was when he wrote it.

Even though Sanders did not win the Democratic nomination, books like The Grapes of Wrath can keep the empathy revolution alive.

And perhaps someone should send a copy to Trump.




Feats, Times & Life: June News Round-Up

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‘No f**ks to be given,’ pledges Obama

Barack Obama has insisted the noticeably increased lack of fucks given is going to continue to be a thing as he nears the end of his presidency.

“At times like this, I think of all those who were determined to make me a one-term President,” he remarked. “I can assure you and the American people that I give less of a fuck than Big Sean and I don’t fuck with you. I give less of a fuck than Eminem in ’97. Whaddup, Detroit.

“Did you see me up in Cuba not giving a fuck? Did you see me not giving a fuck what the In campaign thinks about me opposing Brexit? You see Harriet Tubman is gonna be on a twenty? I did that! You see me beat-boxing up in Vietnam? POTUS beat-boxing in fucking Vietnam! You ever thought you’d see that happen?

“You see me telling Hillary that real shit at the White House Correspondents Dinner? You think I’d have got away with that during primary season in ’08? Best of all, I’m the President that removed ‘negro’ and ‘oriental’ from official language. They were really mad about that one.”

At press time, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest confirmed that, in time-honoured fashion, if President Obama had a pocketful of fucks he wouldn’t give you one.

Lightweight swears to never fall asleep on Tube/public transport again

Self-proclaimed lightweight Matthew Evans has sworn up and down to anyone who will listen that he will never fall asleep while drunk and tired on public transport ever again.

“You know how people say ‘never say never?’ Well I’m saying ‘never’. It’s just happened too many times. It doesn’t matter if it’s a night bus or the last Tube. I think I’m fine, I think to myself: ‘Oh, I’ll be home in the warm in about twenty minutes.’ And then the next thing I know I’m at the end of the line with either an irate driver or bemused cleaner staring at me.

“That moment when I suddenly jolt awake and realise I’ve gone and done it again is just horrible. It’s also actually really dangerous. You never know what could happen. I’m always thankful when I realise that I still have my wallet, keys and phone. In that order.

“I had a few of those really strong craft beers the other night. That was a good idea wasn’t it? I had to get carried out of there and put in a cab. Luckily I was with old friends. Can you imagine if that was a first date or something?

“You should’ve seen me after last year’s Christmas party. I woke up on the DLR at about 2 in the morning, and walked around Greenwich for about half an hour before I found a stupidly expensive cab. Not happening again.”

Man who was bullied at school denies scary dog makes him feel more masculine

Jerry Thomas, owner of three pitbulls and two rottweilers, has angrily denied that the principal purpose of his dogs is to make him feel more of a real man should he accidentally run into any of the many tormentors who bullied him at school.

“I really don’t know where people get this shit from,” he replied curtly while struggling to hold onto all five leashes at the local park. “I’m not trying to be intimidating when I let them go up to people and jump around and bark and stuff. Just because I know it makes them feel nervous it doesn’t mean that I’m using them as some sort of masculinity prop.

“But I tell you something. If someone breaks into my house they’re going to have a hard time taking something. Even if they down one of the dogs, there’s four more of them ready to bite a burglar’s balls off.”

Jerry’s girlfriend Marsha is having none of it.

“He always waits until right up to the last possible second before calling them off. I’d probably understand if it was the actual bullies – when he feeds them he pretends the food is the former bullies. Up until recently, Tyson, the youngest pitbull, thought ‘steak’ was called ‘Marlon Bunce’ – but it’s just random people trying to enjoy the nice weather.”

At press time Jerry was said to be walking through Clapham Common with Redman and Method Man’s Big Dogs playing at full volume in his headphones.

Die-hard Top Gear fans disappointed by lack of xenophobia

TNFODHTGF, The National Federation of Die Hard Top Gear Fans, are to lodge an official complaint with the BBC following the new version of the show presented by Chris Evans and former Friends star Matt LeBlanc.

“There’s been a lot of fuss since the first couple broadcasts but if you ask me everybody’s kind of missing the point,” TNFODHTGF spokesperson Billy Bulldog said. “Obviously I like cars and that. Especially vintage cars. But I also liked hearing Clarkson saying the kind of things that you really shouldn’t every now and again. Or the kind of things the politically correct brigade try to stop us from saying. Let them try.

“It doesn’t have to be loads and loads of barbs all the time. Just a reassuring comment every now and again to remind us the British are the absolute best. I’ll be happy with that.

“Chris Evans? Are you fucking serious. Gingers are practically black as far as I’m concerned. And the Yank? Don’t get me fucking started with the Yank! We invented cars first, mate. Don’t talk to me about Henry Ford, he must have nicked the idea off someone British.

“What’s that you say? Karl Benz? A German!! Do you want a fucking fight?”

Man who popped into pub for quick pint ecstatic to find girlfriend’s workmates there

After deciding to pop into his local for a quick one insurance broker Jack Norman was ecstatic to run into June, a colleague of his girlfriend Yazmeen.

“When I claimed I’d just come in for a quick one it may have looked like I was just making excuses,” recalled Jack. “But I really was planning on just having one quick one before a quiet night.”

“When I saw him at the bar I felt obliged to ask him to join us.” June explained. “I had to say something to fill the awkward silence that threatened to swallow us both up after we’d exchanged initial pleasantries.”

At this point, Jack felt as though he was trapped.

“I couldn’t really say no. It’s not that she’s not really nice and everything. She’s one of the few people Yazmeen actually gets on with. But instead of a quiet, refreshing pint I had to make small talk with all of these strangers. There were seven of them as well! Worst of all, after being introduced to some of them I recognised their names as people Yazmeen hates.

“The next time I decide to go there I’m gonna case the joint and look in the main window before I go in. It’s either that or some elaborate disguise. I have the decency to work in an area far from home. I can’t believe my lady can’t show the same courtesy.”

It’d be much better if Harry Redknapp was manager, English fans admit to each other

While no one in the national press will ever admit it, as Euro 2016 fast approaches, a growing number of England fans are realising they’d fancy the national teams chances of actually winning the damn thing much more if Harry Redknapp was manager.

“It’s not that Roy Hodgson isn’t an incredibly cultured, multi-lingual, well-travelled and seemingly very decent gentleman,” football fan Troy Bloindem explained diplomatically. “It’s just that he doesn’t have that spark Harry has.

“And while everyone has an opinion on the final 23 I really have to say that taking Rashford instead of Jermain Defoe is a bit silly. Rashford has had a great breakthrough season and is a real prospect. But Jermain Defoe just helped save Sunderland from relegation! If we’re losing 2-1 in the quarter final, would you want Batman or Robin to come off the bench?”

Troy’s friend Carrie agreed.

“Let’s be real, Hodgson is pretty much indicative of the FA’s need for someone who won’t rock the boat. He’s a safe pair of hands. But do safe pairs of hands win tournaments? Do you think Roy Hodgson puts the fear of God into the German, Spanish or Belgian manager? I just can’t see any of them being scared of sharing a touchline with him.

“Look at how shit we were in The World Cup. Wouldn’t it be great to see Harry leaning out of a car window, or even looking out of a coach window? Or doing something, anything, in an official capacity for England? I might even prefer Gary Neville.

“Don’t get me wrong, Roy has tried to change and I’ll get behind him. Obviously I want him to do well. I’m just scared we might need someone with a bit more oomph. Hope I’m proved wrong.”




Decoding the Demagogues: Reading as Disobedience

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These are times of a politics of the either – or. Either you’re with Donald Trump, reveling in the epiphany that, once all complexities of 21st century reality are glossed over and ethical scruples are forgotten, you can swim with the most wonderful wave of certainty and unity – or you’re not a protestor, but a “professional agitator” to be blamed for any acts of violence committed against you. Either you’re with the UKIP inheritors of the commonwealth, or you’re welcoming jihadists into Europe, as Nigel Farage recently suggested speaking in the European Parliament. Populists bordering on the demagogical, politicians across the Western world have re-discovered the performative power of the speech act, which, as we know since Searle and Austin, can be used to construct realities under the guise of describing facts. This is a powerful move. Refusing to differentiate can engender an equally un-differentiated anger. Words are sites of exclusion and belonging, and this is precisely what populists turn to their advantage.  Calling the camps at Calais ‘jungle’ is uncannily close to a colonial rhetoric of wilderness versus civilization. If spun further, this implies a warped logic whereby orderly nations need to protect themselves if they do not want to be swallowed up by the demands of people who, allegedly anarchically, want to be treated with the dignity guaranteed them in one of the most fundamental international conventions, the Human Rights Convention. UKIP’s Paul Nuttall’s call to re-label ‘refugees’ as ‘migrants’ is a similar move to construct a reality more suited to right-wing populist politics by rhetorical means. Words matter, and in this case such a re-definition would rid the West of the inconvenient need to act responsibly, humanely and in accordance with international asylum and refugee conventions.

Resisting these politics therefore entails a work of decoding. The aestheticization of politics into a luring spectacle plays into the hands of the likes of Donald Trump, yet a political aesthetic of critical reading, in turn, can help break through this sheen of rhetorical gesture.  This is a challenge, because it becomes necessary to resist the tantalizing simplicity of these worldviews.  It raises the question of how can we speak from a position of crisis in the face of a world in upheaval, without losing anchorage.

In her book “Through Other Continents. American Literature across Deep Time” (Princeton University Press: 2006) Wai Chee Dimock observes an interesting phenomenon. While staying at Walden Pond, author Henry David Thoreau bathes his intellect in the cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat-Geeta. This sacred text of the Hindu religion traces a dispute between Krishna and Arjuna about the nature and justification of war, provoking Thoreau to consider whether the shedding of blood can ever be vindicated. This is a fascinating transnational dialogue in itself, in which philosophical ideas cross historical and national boundaries, and Hindu scripture reverberates in 19th century American thought. Yet it is more than that. This reading experience will later lead Thoreau to articulate a critique of war as de-humanizing power in “Resistance to Civil Government” (1849), and Dimock makes the argument that this essay, in turn, influenced Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi.

What Dimock describes is essentially a dialogue between critical minds, re-developing theories of disobedience via experiences of active reading. This threaded, transnational pattern is global civil society at work in readers who are both skeptical and inspired, responsive and innovative. In consequence, reading itself becomes an act of creative resistance.  Civil reading is disobedient reading, and as such it is an attitude that is fundamentally democratic and can be transposed into the contemporary context of political populism. Where Trump’s stark rhetoric inhibits dialogue, it insists on the right and responsibility to respond critically and individually. This might also be a way to re-think the public sphere from one defined by fear and vindictiveness, towards one of transnational critical debate.

I would like to conclude with another act of reading. In his 1918 “Dadaist Manifesto” in the wake of World War I, Tristan Tzara decries the classified “drawers of the brain” into which society compartmentalizes the knowledge of life. Without wanting to advocate the Dadaist’s nihilism in this context, I believe that such an awareness of our own cognitive drawers is a starting point for formulating our individual disobedient readings of political discourse. It is exactly those categories which we use to understand the world, of ‘us’ versus ‘them’, of security versus threat, of rights versus exploitation, which populist discourse threatens to appropriate to its own advantage. It is time to reclaim this power of definition.

 

 




Poetry/Politics? Political Poetry? Continuing the Debate

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In Western thought, literature has often been separated from politics. Plato founded this tradition when he famously banished the poet from the city with the resounding words, “Not pleasure and pain, but law and reason shall rule in our state.” According to Plato the poet is, at best, politically ignorant and untried–he imagines asking Homer “tell us which state has been better governed because of you?–and at worst, a spurious manipulator of emotions threatening the polis. Much, much later, in the 19th century, the Aesthetics would also separate art and politics, but for diametrically opposed reasons: rather than wishing to protect the polis from the irrational or morally degenerate artist, they wished to protect the artist, to free him from the shackles, compromises and conventions of social-political responsibility. ‘Art for art’s sake’ became the well-known aphorism of their movement, a war cry for the free pursuit of the beautiful and conceptual that echoed and continues to echo in the avant-garde movements of the twentieth century.

One of the most famous contestations to the separation of literature and politics–and critique of the modernist desire to rise above the fray of history–is articulated by French philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Sartre (photo above). In the late 1940s, after witnessing the spread of fascism and two World Wars, Sartre publishes What is Literature? Described by Susan Sontag as “the most intelligent version of the theory of literature’s obligation to be socially committed,” Sartre not only argues that every act of writing is political, but champions literature’s ability to awaken the critical faculties and social consciousness of its readers. In his discussion of littérature engagée, or ‘committed literature,’ he posits that good literature engages the free individuality of the reader, urging them towards self-reflection and change.

Interestingly, as demanding of literature as he might be, Sartre absolves one form of literary production from political commitment on the basis of its relationship to language: poetry. According to Sartre, poetry’s use of language is a-social, a-referential, self-enclosed and even inhuman, completely different from the “essentially, utilitarian” nature of prose that treats words as “loaded pistols” to fire into the world. Sartre says the poet turns language “inside out,” making words themselves, rather than the world, the objects of contemplation. In the 1930s, partly trying to protect the ideological purity of poetry, partly commenting on its nature, W.H. Auden pithily says, “poetry makes nothing happen.”

And yet, poetry continues to rendezvous with politics. Three movements or ‘genres’ of poetry–bearing in mind these are inorganic classificatory systems– that put social commitment at the heart of their aesthetic work are the American Language poets, “poetry of witness” and Documentary Poetics. The Language Poets were a group of avant-garde, theoretically sophisticated poets in the 1960s and 70s who were interested in how poetry might be used to explore the political ramifications of language. “Poetry of witness,” a term coined by the poet Carolyn Forché, describes poetry written in exile, war or imprisonment. Forché argues the witness poet defies the comfortable categories of political/private, social/individual by re-integrating the individual voice back into the social. And Documentary Poetics is what poet Mark Nowak describes as poetry aspiring to “a more objective third person documentarian tendency.” To give a sense of what Documentary Poetics is in practice, in his collage-montage work Coal Mountain Elementary he combines the culled language of miners and mine rescue crews with photographs to both educate and testify to their experience. Widely varying in their ambitions, processes and products, these movements are a few examples that nonethless ask us to reconsider: Why use poetry? Could there be something about poetic form that actually makes it a powerful tool for social change?

If anything connects these three different movements in their use of poetry, it’s paradoxically what they don’t share. Or rather, they share the flexibility of poetry. A form that is a non-form. Poetry can be contentedly free and deviated from normal speech unlike prose, which generally still has to respect a certain degree of convention. Sartre argues in What is Literature? that even prose works that defy these normal patterns of speech are not changing the nature of prose, but simply adopting poetic pretensions. The poetic and the prosaic could be construed as modalities of greater or lesser verbal freedom.

To summarize the political implications of freed, poetic speech, I turn to Juan Goytisolo, Spain’s arguably greatest living writer, who says: ‘the negation of an intellectually oppressive system necessarily begins with the negation of its semantic structure.’ In Goytisolo’s own novel Reivindicación del conde don Julián–which could perhaps more accurately be described as a prose-poem–he battles the oppressive system of Francoism by breaking down language into disconnected fragments separated by colons. He parodies, de-contextualizes and juxtaposes different registers of speech to expose the ideology hiding behind the naturalized rhetoric of the regime.  His tactic is similar to the work of the Language Poets not only in that it looks to dredge up the political consequences of language, but in how it alters the relationship, inevitably a political one, between reader and writer. If poetry is freed language, the poetic encounter is also a freed reading experience. The reader isn’t directed as she is in prose. Without becoming too enamored of postmodern fetish concepts like ‘ambiguity,’ ‘possibility’ and ‘open-endedness,’ the reader has to make her way herself with her own judgment as guide.

I love Sartre’s enthusiasm and idealism, but I find his exclusion of poetry from politics hasty. Certainly poetry doesn’t need to be committed,  but it can be.  In an age which thinks all speech is politically, socially or ideologically implicated in some form, turning our attention to the density and opacity of language that only pretends to be translucent could be one of the greatest political acts of all, a way of giving the reader tools for their own political freedom.  At the very least, what the resurgence of poetry of witness and Documentary Poetics tells us is that the politics/poetry debate initiated by Plato is far from over.




Why Doesn’t Popular Music Feel Political Anymore?

Photo Credit: Lorena Cupcake via Flickr
Photo Credit: Lorena Cupcake via Flickr

One of the first albums I bought with my hard earned cleaning pocket money around the age of seven was Britney Spears’ self-titled album ‘Britney.’ She was everywhere, her unique voice was cool, and she had music videos – what an icon! Or so I thought. My mum warned me that Britney wasn’t a good role model to the aspiring singer I was then, “She encourages the degradation of women and negativity towards women.” With ignorance and a hint of defiance I listened to, danced to and learnt all of Britney’s lyrics in my room, happily singing them to anyone with ears outside of my room, much to my mum’s horror. Little did I recognise or understand the atrocious sexual and provocative content I was singing. ‘I’m A Slave 4 U’ shamefully places highly in my most-lyrics-remembered Britney songs. The title says it all really. So why did I think of her as some magical human? Was it because of the content of her songs? No, I hadn’t a clue what she was singing. It was the powerful effect of advertising, money.

It was through my parents’ music collections and insistence that there existed music other than pop that I found powerful female artists such as Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone. The fusion of gospel’s soulful, jazzy tones with the upcoming R&B and pop sounds was delicious, more entrancing than the whinging-sounding music that was being played on the radio. And they were singing about actual issues, they strove for something in their music. Aretha’s feminist hit ‘Think’ resonated with many in 1968, topping the charts. The personal feel these women gave to all of their records was far more entrancing, musical and strong than the pop music I was listening to at the time. Today’s popular music rarely has a personal connection. Between the beat and the catchy choruses there is little space for personality, let alone any wit, questions or comment.

Thinking about popular songs I grew up to that strived to change something, sadly one of the only songs that pops into the forefront of my mind is ‘Where Is The Love?’ by The Black Eyed Peas, raising issues of race, terrorism and violence, to name a few. The rare songs that do outwardly and obviously aim to challenge societal conventions or pave the way to change receive much praise and recognition, but only until the next cool song is released. How far does the change go beyond praise? Do we know or care how ‘Where Is The Love?’ for example affected our society? Or did we just enjoy the music because everyone else did? Were we personally drawn to it?

It’s baffling that we are still listening to songs with inflammatory, degrading language that encourages the debasement of others. Thanks to technology, predominately the share feature on Facebook, people are more aware of and sometimes quick to comment on the negative content in songs. It was exciting to see outrage in people in 2013 when Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ was banned in university clubs due to it’s sexist content, however a lot of the time the content is overlooked. As long as the track has a ‘sick beat’ people aren’t bothered about the lyrics. Because of online sharing, we are quick to jump on the bandwagon and admonish certain celebrities for their comments both in their music and public life. Kanye West is one of the few who dares make strong political statements, whether people agree with him or not, and receives daily abuse because of his outward political stance. Meghan Trainor has been slammed for her song ‘All About That Bass’ because it has been interpreted to be suggesting skinny girls aren’t beautiful, as well as for her song ‘Dear Future Husband’ because it appears to be idolising the 1950’s repressed housewife, despite her claims that she satirises the lyrics of the song with the video. Is this why often artists steer clear from political and social messages? Does their need to be liked, as well as to make money, take precedence over their lyrics and music?

Women like Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin were outwardly progressive, advocating civil and feminist rights. It is recognised in today’s music that women still don’t have equal rights, however it doesn’t seem to be in the forefront of music, it doesn’t appear as much as it should do. One group that stands out as political recently is Russian punk rock protest group Pussy Riot. Because of their provocative unauthorised performances supporting feminism, LGBT rights and opposing Putin, they have been violently mistreated and reprimanded. Did they top the charts? Are they widely renown? No.

While the rise in the sexuality of music is the feature of many online comments, it must be noted that some women are promoting female sexuality through their music. Beyoncé’s most recent self-titled album has strong sexual connotations beside feminist comments. She has claimed the obvious sexuality in her music is an attempt to provoke conversation about the double standard that exists between the genders, wishing to relay and re-enforce the fact that women are sexual beings, not objects void of sexuality. Yet despite this, it is often her appearance that is commented on by men and women, not her music. The strive for equality is often undermined by other artists. Britney is now back in full swing, with her new song ‘Pretty Girls’ advocating that ‘pretty girls…do what we want, get what we want.’ Even ‘wipe the floor with all the boys.’ Great Britney, power to women. But inverting hierarchy doesn’t create equality.

The charts seem to be polluted by club hits that are merely beats with some singing lightly sprinkled on top. It’s a rarity to find songs that have strong lyrics, a repetitive melody and musically decent accompaniment listed highly in the charts. Music appears to always be a background for something else, dancing, cooking, running. We rarely sit and listen to music to enjoy the lyrics and the composition of it. Instead lyrics don’t seem to matter, they are secondary to the melody and beat. Music is ever changing and ever lasting, it is a historical tool, reminding us what troubles and issues each generation faced. For me, popular music today feels as though it lacks soul, it tells us nothing about today’s society. Or perhaps this lull in political music tells us too much about our society. Money runs the music business. If it won’t make money, it won’t be produced. It is a sign that we are becoming apolitical, spoon-fed by social media and advertising. What will music be comprised of in ten years time? Will we be dancing to cereal and car-manufacturers’ jingles? I hope not.




What if writers and politicians swapped places?

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At first glance the work of a politician and the work of a writer appear very different. Politicians are public, their lives are fast, their speeches many, their days spent leaping from the National Health Service to the situation with GCSEs.
Writers are private, their lives slow, their words squeezed out between cups of tea and moments of despair. Yet, with an election looming, let us imagine if, for the sake of this article or an episode of reality TV, the politician and the writer switched places.

This would be a world where chain-smoking, coffee-drinking eccentrics, used to going for days without speaking to anyone, suddenly found themselves under a constant spot-light, responsible for the government of a whole country as opposed to the form of a single book, while novels, plays and poetry were churned out by permanently smiling orators who were always desperate to shake your hand. It would be a world where the big decisions about public services were taken by people who needed hours if not years to sit and think, people who would think nothing of deleting everything and starting again, people rarely, if ever, content with what they produced.
It would also be a world where novels were rushed out to fulfil a sound-bite, where every poem would be directed towards some urgent purpose, and where no one would ever put their hand up and say: “You know that last book I wrote really wasn’t all that good.”
In TV interviews we would watch on as the writer-turned-politician agonised over answers and ended up responding to a crisis in the NHS with a whimsical tale from their own childhood whose relevance would soon be forgotten. Meanwhile, at literary festivals, the politician-turned-writer would stand proudly on the stage until a short man from the back who brought his own sandwiches asked a question that not a single aide had predicted.
Early in the morning the new politicians would be rudely awakened and told that the problem with the railways that had dominated the last week should be forgotten because the issue was education now. The new writers would no doubt weep over their cereal as they were forced to consider one single idea for years at a time. Yet, what would the writer learn from their experience as a politician and what would the politician perhaps learn from their time as a writer?

The world of this job-swap is clearly built on a very artificial understanding of the roles of politicians and writers, which are evidently nowhere near as solid in their construction as has been suggested here. Not least there is the evidence that suggests that the two worlds are already interchangeable. Indeed, the career paths of many politicians would appear already well-suited to the transition to writer. So long as you consider PPE at Oxford to be more in line with an arts education than a scientific one, then the overwhelming majority of both the cabinet and the shadow cabinet studied the arts and humanities at university.
More specifically, the Conservative party chief whip, Michael Gove, read English at Oxford before entering a career in journalism, surely first steps on a career ladder that could just as easily see him bashing out crime novels in Suffolk.
As it is he is the author of a 1995 biography of Michael Portillo (entitled, somewhat ironically, Michael Portillo: The Future of the Right) as well as being the assumed author of the 2013 tome on education, Everything I Know About Teaching (a sensitive work spread over 90 blank pages that are still available in paperback. It’s Amazon reviews alone are worth reading in order to gain a glimpse of the esteem with which the former secretary of state for education is held by the teaching profession).
In the Labour party, meanwhile, there is the shadow secretary of state for health, Andy Burnham, who also read English at Oxford, alongside the shadow secretary of state for education, Tristram Hunt, who had a full on career as a historian before entering politics. On top of this there have been novels by Iain Duncan-Smith, Chris Mullan, Edwina Currie and Anne Widdicombe, as well as biographies by William Hague and Boris Johnson.
Even the smaller parties are not immune to the pull of literature, Caroline Lucas’s recent work Parliament and the Fight for Change, standing alongside a PhD in literature, and even Nigel Farage found time between pints to squeeze out The Purple Revolution. Glancing into the past, John Major has written a celebrated book about the history of cricket, Disraeli has Sybil, and, as well as the war, Winston Churchill won a Nobel Prize for literature. From this evidence the job swap might run very smoothly, the politicians seamlessly dropping into a parallel career as a writer that in a sense they are already well qualified for, but what of the writer who suddenly finds that they must take on the role of politician.
If you were to take the definition of a writer at its most blunt, it would perhaps be as the creator of narrative. Narrative, defined by the OED as “an account of a series of events, facts, etc., given in order and with the establishing of connections between them; a narration, a story, an account,” sits at the heart of the writer’s world, irrespective of form or function. Yet, the definition of narrative would also appear close to the world of the politician, especially at an election, when voters must elect representatives based on the account of events and the order of facts that competing politicians present us with. To the writer turned politician the election might thus appear disconcertingly similar to the world they were meant to have left behind in their garret, with the production of narratives for public consumption still at the centre of what they do, even if now they write manifestos rather than novels. In many ways an election is a little like entering a bookshop and being asked to read everything on the shelves before choosing which one to buy, or, more realistically, glancing up and down at a few books before picking one based on the cover or because we’ve heard of the author somewhere before. Perhaps, then, the job swap would run alarmingly smoothly because, underneath the superficial differences politicians are well-qualified to act as writers and writers already do very much the same thing as politicians anyway. Yet if the job swap continued maybe the writer might begin to feel differently.
Among the many things that a writer must learn to do is work out what they are saying. When writing a novel hours are indeed spent playing with plot and setting, days on characterisation, weeks on sentences, months on names, but these exercises in style only ever amount to anything when pulled beneath the mantle of narrative. Sure, writers are perhaps lucky in that, unlike politicians, their narratives can be totally made up. But if literature is to function in this world it must always have something to say to this world. If it has nothing to say, if it has no narrative, then all the made up place names and events will simply read as nonsense. It is perhaps at this central point of narrative, the point where all the tricks of text and linguistic slight of hand comes together on some firm sense of story that the parallels between the politician and the writer begin to fray, because arguably one of the hardest things about the current crop of politicians is that, in spite of their arts education and literary credentials, it can be hard to figure out what their narratives are actually about.
By way of an example let us turn to one of the more hotly debated aspects of this election campaign: immigration. First, the Conservatives, who believe that “Immigration brings real benefits to Britain – to our economy, our culture and our national life. We will always be a party that is open, outward-looking and welcoming to people from all around the world.” Yet in the very next sentence they go on to explain that “Immigration must be controlled. When immigration is out of control, it puts pressure on schools, hospitals and transport; and it can cause social pressures if communities find it hard to integrate.” In the space of two sentences the Conservatives claim to be a party that will always welcome people from all around the world and then demand that immigration must be controlled.

In the same way Labour explain that, “Our economy and society benefit from the talent and investment of people who come here,” before making it clear that “low-skilled migration has been too high and needs to come down.” We find politicians saying two things: one, that immigration is necessary, beneficial and to be celebrated; two, that immigration is pernicious and harmful. It sounds as if these sentences are aimed at two different perspectives. In all likelihood they are. But the result is a narrative that is fractured and confused. One that the job-swapping writer-turned-politician might well be troubled by. So desperate has the politicians become to have a message that resonates with everyone they have decided to try to speak to everyone. Rather than offering one coherent narrative they would rather offer multiple, conflicting narratives. Let us imagine then, how a writer might react if faced with the job of producing a politician’s narrative.

Maurice Blanchot states of writers that, “An author who is writing specifically for a public is not really writing: it is the public that is writing, and for this reason the public can no longer be a reader: reading only appears to exist, actually it is nothing.” For Blanchot those writers who write simply what they believe others want to read, don’t end up writing at all. Moreover, their audience, the readers – the voter even – doesn’t even read: “reading only appears to exist, actually it is nothing.” Yet to the writer-turned-politician it might appear as if the writing that is actually nothing has infected the narratives of politics. If novels were written in the way politicians write manifestos we might find ourselves reading a novel where the main character was a vampire because a lot of people like vampires and set in Dublin because even after all these years people still really like James Joyce.
There might be a sadomasochistic aspect to the character’s personality taken from the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey, and most of the character’s schooling would have to take place in an isolated boarding school where spells and potions have replaced maths and history. It would be a strange book, and while no doubt there are some books written like this, for Blanchot at least, it wouldn’t really be a book at all, in fact it would be a book that was incapable of even being read. “This,” he writes, “is why works created to be read our meaningless: no one reads them. This is why it is dangerous to write for other people, in order to evoke the speech of others and reveal them to themselves: the fact is that other people do not want to hear their own voices; they want to hear someone else’s voice, a voice that is real, profound, troubling like truth.”

It is here, then, that an attempt to pretend that the roles of the politician writer are somehow synonymous, breaks down. Perhaps in the past, the narratives offered by politics were closer to the narratives of fiction: Margaret Thatcher’s belligerence is possibly analogous with the novels of Ayn Rand; Tony Benn’s commitment to the work of George Orwell. But try to find narrative equivalents in the current crop of politicians and you struggle. In spite of their education and training our politicians appear to be like writers who have spent hours in the workshop honing their sound-bites, but nowhere near enough time working out what it is they actually want to say. Arguably, rather than being too literary, our politics isn’t literary enough. Or perhaps it has attached itself to only half of literature, worrying too much about language and forgetting about narrative.

Perhaps at the end of the job-swap the writer might leave the politician a note, detailing advice they had gleaned from the experience. In this note they might, as many writers have done, recall the words of Rilke and the advice he offers to a young poet, struggling with his work. “You are looking outwards,” explains Rilke, “and that, above all, is what you should not be doing at this time. There is no-one who can advise or who can aid you: no-one. There is only one way. You must go inside yourself.” Maybe a politician who listened to Rilke might work out what it is they want to say, allowing the humble voter to have a reaction to a narrative in much the same way as a reader has a reaction to a book.




Scratch a Liberal by Richard Tyrone-Jones

They say, ‘Scratch a liberal, you’ll find a fascist’.
But scratch a fascist, you’ll find a communist;
scratch a communist, you’ll find an anarchist;
scratch an anarchist, you’ll find a feudalist;
scratch a feudalist, you’ll find a Roman Republican;
scratch a Roman Republican, you’ll find a democrat,
though he will be incredibly tiny.

Richard Tyrone-Jones is a London-based poet and performer. He hosts and co-organises Utter! in Camden and Dalston. He can be contacted via www.myspace.com/richardtyronejones.