This House: Comedy, Tragedy or Farce?

It’s the all-singing, all-dancing play about British politics in 1974 (well, there’s a little bit of singing and dancing but not much). The Labour government can barely keep it together and the Tories are about to turn to that infamous Iron Lady. Behind the scenes at Westminster the Whips are doing their best to keep their parties in shape and to keep their MPs voting for the right side. It’s harder than it sounds given that some MPs think it more important to fake their own deaths, to actually die, to stand by their principles and/to to defect to the other side. What ensues is simultaneously funny, tragic and farcical as history plays itself out and the Labour Party, the last bastion of the working classes, crumbles from within and without. It’s also far too close to home what with faffing over an EU referendum, Scottish devolution and austerity. I laughed but I also cried. Now, I could go on to write a review of the play but I basically wouldn’t be saying anything the guardian hasn’t already said, it really is great.

Instead, I want to briefly reference an interview with the writer of the play, James Graham. He says that “theatre is a democratic space. You still have to bring people together collectively into a room, you lock the doors, you turn the lights down and you thrash it out live, there and then.” I think this is a wonderfully idealistic view of what theatre can do but I think the irony is that if the theatre is a democratic space it’s got more in common with the sort of farcical democracy we witness in This House rather than any ideal version where we actually have equality. Firstly, you have to pay to get into the theatre, which immediately prioritises the space for the rich. Much like Britain with its private education, increasingly private healthcare and astronomical public transport fares. Not to mention the wealthy politicians who can afford houses and flats in London making it much easier to access the Houses of Parliament. The poor barely scrape by and settle for limited view seating if they’re lucky enough to get in. And, yes, our democracy is like being locked in a room as any vain attempt to escape – say by voting for the Lib Dems or Greens – is met by the Yale lock of the two-party system. And just like at the theatre we are forced to silently watch as those on stage, the politicians, play their own games at the expense of the nation. We’re the ones who get thrashed. Meanwhile, the script is off-limits to the audience apart from once in every five years when we’re tricked into believing we can edit it. And our rounds of applause are reserved for two specific moments, the interval and the end – not much wiggle room there.

I think Graham has a laudable view of the theatre as a genuine tool for change-making within society. But, in our time of relentless consumerism, I fear that theatre is gobbled up as greedily as television and cinema. We’re often going in to escape, not to deeply engage with our inner values, and will come out with much the same view of the world with which we went in. However, I do believe theatre can contribute to culture change but as the phrase suggests it is going to take more than one very good play to change the culture. It’s going to take lots of plays asides many other forms of cultural interaction. As Graham says “we should be getting together like we used to and talking about things.” I couldn’t agree more but I’m not sure that is necessarily going to happen in the imposed silence of a theatre’s auditorium.

I’m Voting For Trump Because…

I’m voting for Trump because over the last few decades I have seen my local community decimated. After the factory closed down there weren’t that many jobs going around and more and more folk got into money troubles. People got in debt, people got depressed and some people started taking drugs. I was told America was the land of the great but I ain’t seeing much greatness around. I voted for Obama because he promised change but there’s been jack all change over the past few years. If anything, things are getting worse and I don’t trust Hillary Clinton, she’s part of the elite just like all the others. America needs to sort things out again and I just want a decent job.

I’m voting for Trump because I’ve been a proud Republican my whole life and I believe in the free market. It worked for me. I set up my own business back in the 80s and now I’m a millionaire. Ronald Reagan was a godsend, freeing the market and letting business take the stage. I’ve put my kids through top college educations and now one is an actress, another is a banker and one’s run off to join a hippy circus (we tend not to invite her over for Christmas, she doesn’t eat Turkey). Trump’s controversial, of course, but he’s a Republican and that’s where my heart lies. God bless America. I’m voting for Trump because I don’t like blacks and Jews. I’ve never had much respect for women and I hate those Femi-nazis who get all angry and red in the face. Women need to know when to speak and when to shut up. I mean, a black president is bad enough but now they want a woman president. I do not condone this and nor does Trump, that’s why he’s my man and he’s got my vote. I’m voting for Trump because I was going to vote for Bernie and I do not trust Hillary Clinton. I’m voting for Trump because it’s high time America had a revolution. I’m voting for Trump because Muslims should be banned. I’m voting for Trump because I’m a passionate Muslim businessman and I quite like the guy.

These may or may not be some of the reasons why people are voting for Donald Trump but having watched this Jeremy Paxman film and read this article I know not all of the above sentiments are too far off the mark. And the point I’m trying to make is just as there’s no such thing as an ‘average Brexit voter’ so there is no such thing as an ‘average Trump voter’. There are so many different reasons for why people are voting Trump and whilst some may be contradictory, confused or misguided and others just are bigoted, racist and sexist there are many that are concerned, earnest and hopeful. However, one thing I thing I think might be true across the spectrum of Trump voters is that they don’t want to be patronised. It’s all well and good for Paxman to call Trump voters “mad” to their face and to emphasise just how much of a loon Trump is but for every cutting and sarky ‘Trump voters are morons’ type comment there is someone getting insulted on the receiving end. This sarcastic and condescending tone just adds fuel to an anti-establishment fire that is already burning strong. Of course, many would want to contest that Trump is actually a genuine leader of such an anti-establishment movement (just as Farage clearly wasn’t) but that requires a more nuanced conversation not just labelling someone moronic. It’s not that all Trump voters are deplorable it’s that the system that routinely ignores and scapegoats them is deplorable.

And, yes, I am well aware of the sort of person Trump is – he’s bigoted, he condones and trivialises sexual assault and he’s an arch hypocrite. And, of course, I am not voting for him because I’m not a US citizen but I did think that title was more attention grabbing than ‘The Bourgeoise Left-Wing Metropolitan Elite Need To Brush Up On Their Empathy Skills’. But there’s far more to the American election than a single vote happening tomorrow. The divisions we see boiling to the surface are symptomatic of a vicious and unfair class war that has been waging for decades, which many of us benefit from without thinking much of those who miss out. This will continue to be the case regardless of who becomes the next president. Until we get to the bottom of this mess and learn how to listen to each other we’re going to keep seeing the same feuds play themselves out over and over again.  To be continued…

Adam Curtis’ HyperNormalisation: Over-Hyped

If, like me, you just spent two hours and forty-six minutes watching HyperNormalisation, the new Adam Curtis film on BBC iPlayer, who might be despairing at the state of the world. Terrified that the world is run by either nefarious villains who arbitrarily play the system and court paradox with the aim of confusing and alienating the populous (e.g. Trump and Putin) or ardent capitalists who pretend to have values whilst selling out to the highest bidder (e.g. Reagan, Blair, Bush etc). Terrified also of the monsters that thrive in the wake of these superpowers such as terrorists unafraid of killing civilians in a bid to create chaos. Meanwhile, the rest of us, powerless and paranoid, decide to retreat into a world of cyberspace where nothing is real, no one is really listening but we are being watched by nasty megacorporations who just want to sell us more crap. Yup, it’s a horrible world according to HyperNormalisation and even those who attempt to fight it – Occupy, the Arab Spring – end up dead, defeated or defecting to the baddies. But I’m not one for relentless pessimism and I kind of felt much of this has been said before.

Take Guy Debord, one of many 20th century French philosophers with a difficult surname to pronounce. He wrote a book called The Society of the Spectacle (1967) and it focuses on how social life has become increasingly self-reflexive. He wrote that “all that once was directly lived has become mere representation” and what I understand him meaning by this is that we spend far more time looking at representations of the world rather than at the world itself. For example, rather than go for a walk outside we play a computer game about going for a walk outside. Life becomes increasingly virtual as we watch endless TV, surf the web and monitor our online profiles, all the while losing touch with what’s authentic. We get lost in a world of representations, spectacles and signs, and lose our ability to figure out what’s real (the hyperactivity of the world becomes normalised). In HyperNormalisation Curtis picks up on this theme and explores how increasingly surreal politics have become. For example, Western superpowers create convenient supervillian baddies (aka scapegoats) in the Middle East to justify their continued wars waged to maintain the capitalist military industrial complex rather than actually deal with the genuine complexities of a globalised world. I see this as forming part of the larger postmodern critique of modernism – i.e. that those grand narratives so beloved of the US and UK such as Progress, Civilisation, Enlightenment and Happy Endings are a bunch of bullshit facades used to sugarcoat vicious and corrupt political systems that make a bunch of people rich.

However, the problem, and this is one of the problems I think Curtis’ film suffers from, is that the postmodern critique can only go so far. It takes the premises of modernism (i.e. those big narratives), finds them very wanting and then flips them on their heads. But once you’ve flipped a shoddy grand narrative on its head there’s not a lot you can do with it other than get cut amongst the broken pieces. And that’s what HyperNormalisation is – a lot of broken pieces fused together to form their own grand narrative that itself is much too simplistic and keeps reiterating the point that we’re doomed and there’s no alternative. It does this by juxtaposing endless clips from pop culture with pictures of mass destruction and dead bodies. It’s shocking, desensitising and a product of the very HyperNormalised world it tries to critique. Like the conniving politicians who try to bamboozle us into submission with paradoxical messages the film leaves us confused, devastated and gasping for air without offering any hope.

But I call bullshit to a hopeless future. Whilst money and banks are referenced there’s scant economics in this film – namely the economics of consumer capitalism and how it fuels so much of the conflict charted in the film. There’s also little time spent on examining alternatives – steady-state economies, sustainability, gift economies and the like. And whilst Curtis looks at various forms of terrorism and the West’s grand narratives as important systems of belief he doesn’t look at other more peaceful ones, for instance, CND, Quakerism and environmentalism. In essence, Curtis just contributes to the agenda of doom, despair and nihilism that has ravaged so much of our culture and caused the death of so many. He’s a documentarian of apocalypse and whilst he’s certainly created a spectacle that is at times informative and entertatining it’s also incredibly overwhelming and anxiety inducing. It floods us with highly selective information without providing any tips on how to use this information. Now here’s a picture of a banana with a condom on it because, hey, everything’s postmodern these days and doesn’t need to make sense…

https://i2.wp.com/i.imgur.com/Z4ekJ7h.jpg

Operation Breentry

Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

The Red Queen, Alice In Wonderland

If we can put people on the moon, if we can build a world-wide web, if we can invent the Hoover, then we might as well try to keep Britain in the EU. We are caught in a unique period of time and history: the leading parties have no plan for the future and faith in our country and economy is wavering yet the catalyst at the heart of it – the Brexit vote – has not been rendered fact. It is still just a story. It’s a powerful one that many people have accepted and has already had adverse social, political and economic impact but it’s still a story that can be challenged. It’s time for Operation Breentry.

What’s Breentry? It is a movement to stop Britain leaving the EU. It involves emailing MPs asking them to reject the result of the referendum. There’s another initiative to call for a second Referendum and the Parliamentary Petition for that has over 4 million signatures. Meanwhile, people are demonstrating in the street to Remain in the EU and other European leaders like Angela Merkel are advising us to think twice. Unfortunately, many people are already resigned to letting Brexit happen and/or think Breentry could/should never happen. I want to challenge these beliefs.

It’s anti-democratic: To annul a referendum certainly appears anti-democratic but that surely requires living in a functioning democracy. But we don’t. The Leave campaign was anti-democratic – it lied with regards spending on the NHS, it lied with regards limiting immigration (the deals we might do with the EU would involve maintaining freedom of movement anyway) and it was only campaigning against something, it had no plans for after winning. However, even taking the Leave-Remain decision at face value is wrong because the calling for the Referendum itself was anti-democratic. David Cameron, who had entered into Parliament with a slim majority, called it to appease his right-wing back benchers so he could become PM. That is power politics at its worst especially when so many of the electorate did not even vote him in. Remember, our head of state isn’t elected, our House of Lords isn’t elected, our mainstream media is privatised and has a clear agenda and we only vote once very five years. So, yes, Britain is an aspiring democracy but it hasn’t got there yet. All is still to be striven for.

It’s too late: No it’s not. Article 50 has not been signed. We can still petition all MPs and leaders of all parties (the Tories included) to not make one of the worst decisions in recent British history. Furthermore, even if Article 50 were signed we could still challenge it. Or perhaps this isn’t about being late or early at all, if we were on time we would have trialled all war criminals, transcended growth-based consumer capitalism, ended all wars and avoided climate change. Let’s just be pragmatic and do what we can in the time we’ve got.

It would lead to violence and civil war: Breentry would certainly anger voters who wanted to Leave but their actual vote to Leave has acted as a rallying call to violent racists and xenophobes. Police have registered a fivefold increase in race-hate complaints since Brexit. Immigrants have been verbally abused, attacked and fire bombed in the past few days. This proves again how misled and misguided many Leave voters were, that they actually believed Britain might become some free-standing, all-white nation surrounded by high walls. That was never what the Leave vote was offering even if the likes of Nigel Farage might have encouraged it. If people do threaten violence in response to Breentry and we don’t act as a consequence then we are negotiating with terrorists, kowtowing to criminals and appeasing racists. We categorically cannot let the bullies win. As for civil war, well, currently the Tory and Labour parties seem to be hellbent on ripping themselves apart as the vote has unleashed a whole wave of vitriol and back stabbing from the parties. Meanwhile, the Referendum has split families and friends, as people fall out with each other in bitter arguments. And every economic forecast looks bleak. Perhaps we’ve always been at war in Britain, certainly a class war, and the Referendum just proves what has always been true. Hence why we must do all we can on all fronts to heal the many deep wounds in our country rather than stick the knives in further.

The Tories will negotiate a good deal outside the EU: No they won’t. The Tory party is swift revealing it’s inability to steer a post-Brexit course. Gove stabbed Johnson in the back and does not have a plan for a Brexit future despite co-leading the Leave campaign. Theresa May is notoriously anti-immigration and yet might have to be the one negotiating a deal with the EU that involves keeping freedom of movement – that’s like asking a racist to argue for multiculturalism. Meanwhile, Liam Fox is anti-EU (and anti-gay marriage, he said it’s ‘absurd’ and ‘social engineering’). Angela Leadsom loves Europe apparently but says, “What I hate is the EU and the way it is destroying such a fabulous continent” – good luck negotiating with the likes of Angela Merkel and Jean-Claude Juncker then (she also abstained from voting on gay marriage, she believed it didn’t have a mandate). The irony is that the one pro-Remain candidate, Stephen Crabb, will lose support because of that stance, although he only adopted it out of loyalty to David Cameron even though he’s largely anti-EU. He also opposed gay marriage but apparently is OK with it now, phew. None of these people have the country’s best interests at heart or the intelligence to guide this country into recovery. They’re also all pro-austerity, an economic decision that will grind this country down even further and exacerbate the unrest we’re witnessing. I thought the Tories were supposed to oppose Labour but turns out they oppose themselves as well.

Labour could negotiate a deal instead: No it couldn’t. There’s almost more infighting there than in the Tory party. Corbyn is being relentlessly stabbed in the back by Blairite MPs even though he has a huge amount of grassroots support. He was also anti-EU and decidedly quiet on calling for Remain. If he miraculously became PM (which would be no bad thing as he’d challenge austerity and enrich the welfare state) would he really have the best interests of the UK at heart when dealing with EU bureaucrats? Perhaps he’ll wake up to the Breentry call and take us back, although he’ll have a vicious, untrustworthy party behind him that is just waiting for his political demise. I thought Labour was supposed to oppose the Tories but turns out they oppose themselves as well.

The UK is strong, we’ll get what we want in the end, we’ll “take back control”: No we won’t. Nicola Sturgeon is calling for a second Scottish referendum. Leanne Woods, leader of Plaid Cymru, is calling for Welsh independence, “redesigning the current UK is the only option.” There are calls to unite Ireland and even for London to go independent. Turns out it’s not just political parties that don’t get on, countries don’t either. Add to this deepening austerity, companies threatening to leave/leaving the UK, the loss of our triple A credit rating, a rise in racist violence and I’m struggling to see how the UK stays united. That selfish little world of capitalist consumerism and middle-England-ism is imploding and is trying to take its neighbours down with it. This isn’t new – this has been an ongoing problem for decades, Brexit has just exposed it more starkly. Breentry would just be the first step in trying to patch back together the social fabric of the UK.

But migrants are a problem, we need less of them: No. That is taking Tory and Leave propaganda at face value, as well as various Labour views. Stirring up racial hatred and anti-immigration sentiments are a timeless tactic used to distract attention from underlying economic issues which include rising inequality (how come so many people can’t afford their rent whilst so many others have multiple houses around the world) and austerity (we keep forgetting that it was the 2008 financial crash that brought the global economy to its knees not a “bunch of migrants” nor over-generous Labour government spending on the economy, remember, Osborne’s deficit has been so much higher than that of Brown’s). If we scapegoat and abuse migrants and people whose skin isn’t white enough we will set this country back decades and fall into the same bigoted trap of history. We are better than this and we can learn our lesson.

What if we’d voted Remain and the Leave campaign wanted to challenge it: Then they’d have every right to and could use the same arguments that I have. Except many of the Leave camp voted out of protest on the proviso that Britain would take back sovereignty and control, but that was a lie. They voted to get more money spent on the NHS, that was a lie. They voted for less migrants, that was a lie (plus, I don’t negotiate with racists). But even if this scenario were true the state of our country would still be to play for. We’d still be realising, all too late, that whilst political statements seem like irrefutable truths they are in fact stories and agendas that can be challenged, whoever’s side your on. The game is afoot (and always has been but for too long we’ve let others, including elitist, old-Etonians, play it for us).

The EU won’t get any better: I agree that the EU is a problematic institution. The economic bullying of countries like Germany and France against Greece is outrageous. I know my grandparents didn’t risk their lives against the Nazis just so economic powerhouses could drive other countries into recession. However, I do know they risked their lives to stop war on the continent and that worked, for now. With the rise of the extreme right and this includes the neo-Nazis we risk undoing their good work and whilst we might not have a war with trenches and obvious beginning/end points we will witness the rise of extremist terrorism in Europe directed at groups including Muslims, Jews, the Romani, queers and any other convenient scapegoats. The EU, problematic as it is, is a supra-national organisation built to enhance unity and promote peace but this won’t happen by magic and we must challenge and change it from within to ensure peace reigns. My grandparents fought the Nazis, I think I can fight corrupt EU politics. And the latter is itself a victim of globalised, growth-obsessed, consumer capitalism (that’s the real fight, see rest of blog for thoughts on that).

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There is another way and it’s called Breentry. Email your MP and ask them to vote out the Referendum, sign the petition to call for another one, wear a safety-pin to show support with the immigrant population, challenge hate crime, hug your friends, let yourself cry, howl in anger at the moon, smile at strangers and talk, talk, talk. We must dare to be political and we must dare to call for change. A positive post on Breenty and a possible future will come next but this one is getting far too long. Please do challenge me, this is just my opinion, but please let’s keep talking about this. May the force of Lady Gaga be with you – she’s right, we are on the edge but we don’t have to fall.

And news just in, this hilarious facebook post that sums the situation up perfectly!