Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Best Albums of 2017



So here it is - my annual January countdown of my favourite albums of the previous year (2017 in this case, obviously!). Don't complain - it's just my personal opinion about what new albums I've enjoyed most from the previous year. As things grow on me, or I get fed up of them, things may change, but here's the list as it stands today:

 20. Motionless In White - Graveyard Shift
 19. The Acacia Strain - Gravebloom
 18. Oceano - Revelation
 17. Procul Harum - Novum
 16. Thy Art Is Murder - Dear Desolation
 15. Manran - An Da La - The Two Days
 14. While She Sleeps - You Are We
 13. Hawkwind - Into The Woods
 12. Motorpsycho - The Tower
 11. Caligula's Horse - In Contact
 10. Loathe - The Cold Sun
 9. Cara Dillon - Wanderer
 8. Mastodon - Emperor of Sand
 7. Ne Obliviscaris - Urn
 6. Uneven Structure - La Partition
 5. Sikth - The Future In Whose Eyes?
 4. August Burns Red - Phantom Anthem
 3. The Contortionist - Clairvoyant
 2. Northlane - Mesmer
 1. Ayreon - The Source

And here's a spotify list with a song from each album:
https://open.spotify.com/user/towardsthesoundofgunfire/playlist/2DrS5Po8T9ortqOZmpQTvc


Sunday, 31 December 2017

Are we now in the endgame of a 'Period of History'?



We live in 'interesting' times - I'm sure you've noticed! The politics of the Western World seems to have taken some pretty big leaps of late, and it's showing no signs of stopping. History often gets divided up into different 'periods' or 'cycles' - times where things seem to be moving in one direction, defined and punctuated by changes of direction. The fascinating thing, of course, is that you never know exactly where you are within or between such 'periods' while you're actually living through it - such definitions come much later. Different historians will have different opinions on the 'periods', what really happened and why, what the start and end points were and why, and so on. In some ways it's just a matter of administrative convenience for historians themselves to have such definitions in order to limit their particular studies (or just a shorthand to make vague points to each other), and I'm certainly not about to claim any great insight into such things. These are just a few vague thoughts of my own about the longer term picture of where we have been and where we may going.

So let's start by going back a bit - to the general period known as the 'Industrial Revolution'. Of course, within that there are many different things going on, and many different little 'sub-periods' where particular trends were developing. Any 'period' can be seen an any number of ways, obviously - did the 'English Civil War period' end at Worcester in 1651, or in London in 1660 (or perhaps 1688), or at Culloden in 1746? Depends how you want to look at it, of course. You can speculate about the 'Industrial Revolution'  really beginning in the 'Agricultural Revolution', and exactly where and why its precise end came, but for my purposes here, I'm just going to think of it in terms of some of the great social and political changes. In short, Britain went from being a largely agricultural and rural society to being a largely industrial and urban society. Within that process came another - the gradual development, from small beginnings, of ideas like 'Human Rights' and 'Workers Rights', and even 'Equality'.

Obviously you can't look at those things in isolation - there were many movements and circumstances that brought these things about, and there were many differences across Europe and the Wider World, in technology, philosophy, politics and even art. All these things were tied together, influencing one another in various ways. It's also important to understand that, though there may appear to be definite changes between the period and the periods before and after, they didn't happen overnight, and as they were happening nobody knew what the future would really bring -in no way could someone at the time have looked at a single event or moment and said 'here endeth...', and in no way could we make any such a definitive statement now. I think we can speculate about a few aspects, though.

So where did the 'Industrial Revolution' period end - well I don't think it unreasonable to look at a fairly commonly used punctuation point of the First World War, and the great social changes brought about by what could, perhaps, be defined as the ultimate expression of the 'industrialism' that had developed - Industrial Warfare, on a truly industrial scale of mechanised slaughter. Of course, there were other factors - the 'old order' of established aristocratic power and money had been under threat from 'new money' industrial ideas for a while, and the awakening of ideas about human beings being worthy of consideration as human beings were already bringing about changes in government thinking with 'People's Budgets' and the like (and expanding the electorate was always going to make those kinds of things irreversible). The war itself, and all of its human and financial costs, brought the whole thing pretty spectacularly crashing down in many ways in quite a short period, though, even though what happened socially and politically as a result may well have been almost inevitable anyway.

Much has been written by many about the great changes that happened next socially, alongside the continuance of 'total war' into the next great global conflict just decades later - I'm not about to go into detail about all that here. At what point did that next 'post Industrial Revolution' period really stop, though? Looking back I think there's a natural tendency to see the two World Wars as convenient bookends of a 'period', with the social changes of the 1960's (Note: Would that be the 'long 1960s' or the 'short 1960s'? Aargh!) being the start of a whole new phase. In a sense that's fair enough, but in the further future will historians be commonly using that, or will they say more commonly that we are now really still within that same 'period', and still really fighting those same kind of battles around 'rights' and 'society', in much the same way (socially and politically) as we have been for the last century.

You could say that the 20th century, and the early part of the 21st, in much of the developed world at least, has (socially) been very much about the development and implementation of the idea of 'Human Rights'. By that I mean those in more senior positions throughout society going from seeing people as mere 'minions' and 'fodder' towards seeing them (or being forced to see them, perhaps) as 'of equal worth' as human beings even if they are currently 'lower' positions within society. It's gone from the very basic 'they still need and deserve money if they're sick, or they'll die' kind of moral argument to the details of ideas like paid parental leave, holiday pay, health and safety rules, and so. Alongside that has, increasingly over the 'period', developed the idea of 'people' meaning 'everyone', rather than 'straight white men from respectable backgrounds'. Now it would be foolish to claim that that idea is now universal, even in the most developed nations, but it's very much what society has been pushing towards. Importantly for where we are now, it's the kind of idea that many of those who are now 'young adults' have effectively grown up with as both a universal principle that should apply and a virtue for all to aspire to.

Alongside that has come something of a move away from the kind of 'nationalism' that developed in the nineteenth century in Europe. Really, you could perhaps argue that that long, slow process really began in the Great War - the futility of war between nations, for little more than supposed 'national glory' (and even 'purity'), certainly became apparent to some involved quite quickly. Unfortunately, it was inevitably somewhat stunted in the early part of the twentieth century by the wars themselves, and the (sometimes understandable) need to push 'patriotism' among the public as part of the required motivational process to actually win those wars. After the guns had stopped firing, both in 1918 and 1945/6, a gradual move towards greater international cooperation began (clearly post 1918 it wasn't exactly overwhelming in its success by any measure, but it did happen). This has accelerate with technology, and the ever increasing ability to quickly and easily communicate with the world and move around the world. People in every part of society are now far more 'international' than they ever were, and our younger adults have again grown up in this world - a 'world' (at least in their proximity) where those old barriers of isolated nationality and borders are really beginning to be seen as something strange and unwelcome, and from the past.

What we have is a growing new generation across the Western World, who are mostly accustomed to thinking, in effect, of 'all humanity as one' in a much more instinctive way than ever before in human history (although in a sense you could also say that it is partly a rolling back of those stricter nineteenth century ideas of 'nationalism'). Many will have visited different countries (often several of them), and even more will be aware of what's going on there through both 24 hour rolling news and the personal contact of social media, and instinctively aware of various 'cultural' aspects of many nations through television. The increasingly free movement of people (not just through EU rules, but simply through transport technology and cultural readiness to travel) has not only brought them personal contact with people of from many nations (not just European), but also regular contact with their culture through food and so on. Younger generations have really not known any different. To put it simply, for the new generation, many foreign countries, at least within the sphere of the Western World, are almost no longer 'foreign' at all. Certainly not in the way that they once quite recently were, and that generational difference is key to what is happening now (as we know from voting demographic statistics).

This growing 'internationalism' is something that some will argue is inevitable with communication and travel technology, and what they would also probably suggest is inevitable from that in the sense of the 'globalisation' of trade. On the other hand, some others seem to be fighting against it, trying to bring back those nineteenth century ideas of nationalism, national pride, and 'hard' national borders. This is a process that's been gradually growing since the beginning of the twentieth century, and the battle against it is the same - in a way we can see the worst of what that opposition did between the wars in Germany, but let's not pretend that it was in any way unique. It often wasn't just a fight for 'national pride' and 'national purity' either, but a fight against rights and freedoms of the individual. An irony, perhaps, is that it manifested itself most notably in opposition to what some might see as the ultimate expression of 'rights for all', Communism, just at the same time as practical Communism as a system was proving itself to be anything but that anyway.

None of this 'nationalistic' stuff has really ever gone away, and neither has the idea of 'individual selfishness' that essentially underpins the desire to rail against people being considered 'equal' and worthy of 'human rights' - they've been 'defeated in battle' several times, and been gradually rolled back within society, but they've still been hanging around there in the background. Indeed, I think it's fair to say that most of us have been somewhat complacent about their apparent diminishing to a tiny little rump of scattered 'radicals'. Each time they have raised their head over the last century, there has been, I suspect, a genuine desire to bring them to an end among some, but not among enough of society for it to actually happen once and for all. Today, though, I think we might really be in the final battle - the endgame in this 'period' of our history.

Before going any further, I think it's vital to remind ourselves that the generational differences are in no way 'universal' - they are 'statistical trends', but there are people of all ages on all 'sides'. I think those trends are themselves significant, though - what happens in terms of major shifts within society is very much a 'numbers game', and right at this moment in history we are at a critical point of reasonably balanced numbers that could lead us in either direction. There's nothing to be complacent about at all here - if this is indeed the endgame for the period we have been in for the last century or so, the fact that the numbers seem to be trending in one particular direction at the moment among the next generation certainly doesn't mean that they must stay that way.

What we have seen through the new rise of the nationalism agenda, notably (but not solely) with Brexit, is something of a generational divide (not in any way universal, I repeat), and either current generation could yet 'win' in the end. The reasons for that are complicated - education may be one factor, with often an increased emphasis in more recent times on things like 'assessing evidence' and 'critical thinking', as opposed to the usually more 'shut up, listen and repeat' approaches of the past. Some might call that 'indoctrination', I guess (it's a term some throw around about why so many relative 'youngsters' disagree with them), while others may call it a kind of 'enlightenment' in giving people the tools to think for themselves rather than simply accepting what they are told at face value. It may be significant that those in power suddenly seem so keen on 'traditional values' in education, though, and at this point there is still time for them to change our future direction by teaching a yet younger generation to accept their 'wisdom' without question.

It's not just that, though, and that might not even be the most significant issue. Statistically, this is the first generation in a very long time to have never really experienced war first hand. There have been a few distant conflicts, but we've not been 'at war' with another 'nation' for a long time. The defensive and 'patriotic' mindset that 'national' war inevitably creates is well beyond the experience of the new generations. While for the generation most likely to be supporting the likes of Brexit (and Trump, as another example of the same kind of thing, and supporters of one often seem to be supporters of the other) it was something very recent, and something they grew up with as a shadow looming over them - a close shadow that they personally reacted to 'first hand'. For most people under the age of 40 or so it's something that happened a couple of generations or so. It is interesting that, as I understand it, the generation who actually fought in the last war tended to be rather pro-EU, for example - it is their children's generation that perhaps grew up with the 'idea' of war between nations, and its hangover of all those 'patriotic' films and so on, but not so much of the direct experience of the reality of it who are mostly falling on the side of nationalism now.

That same kind of age divide (yet again I say not universal - it's really important to remember that individuals are not just 'statistics') coincides with not only the post war internationalist political consensus that has brought us the EU, but with the technological advancements that have brought different peoples so much closer in such a practical, everyday way. In order to defeat that trend, those who favour a return to the deeply nation-based thinking of the past have to overcome the fact that it really isn't the experience of most younger people. We can see the attempts to do that all around us, and at least some of it has been imported to the UK from the US. The revering of militarism, the use of political terminology, the increase in 'flag-waving' - these are all things that had largely disappeared from the UK, really before my generation of the now middle-aged came along.

We grew up seeing the poppy, for example, as a symbol of remembrance, sorrow, and, by virtue of the futility of war, of peace. Now, though, there has been a strong push by the nationalistic forces to see it as a symbol of 'national pride', and of 'patriotism' and of 'victory'. And it is working - you can see it in the very different way that 'society' as a whole seems to treat such things. It's no accident that this push has come at the same time as Brexit, and at the same time as a lurch towards nationalism (on the right and left of politics, to an extent - there's little of the old language of 'international brotherhood' being heard at the forefront of the modern 'socialist' movement now, and much more about the 'legitimate concerns on immigration' and the like). There is a concerted push towards nationalism (and associated ideas of universal Equality and 'Human Rights' being a negative thing) happening, and we're kidding ourselves if we think that it isn't working, for the moment at least. They are trying to win over the population, or at least the vast majority of it, in order to reverse the internationalist trend, and they have been succeeding.

So who are the 'they' behind this - the ones who have been coordinating the campaign and driving it forwards? That's a question well worth asking, I think. It's not just about those who have been persuaded, of course, but about those who are persuading them. In some cases, they are the same old suspects who have been trying to do the same for the last century - those groups who hailed certain European regimes as they rose and pushed us towards the last global war. In some cases, it is those who see that the inevitable consequence of ever closer international cooperation is the loss of their ability to control their own little 'pond' for their own personal benefit, while also losing their ability to use differences between different international jurisdictions to make money without having to pay their tax dues to anyone.

They like, of course, to spread the accusation of the 'Liberal Elite' alongside the accusations of 'unpatriotic' and 'traitors' and so on, but the reality is quite different. It is not the more recent relatively 'Liberal' forces that are the 'elite' - it is the rise of those forces that threatens the personal positions of power, influence and wealth of the real 'elite'. Their move to create a 'nationalist coup' across the western world is driven by nothing more than a fear of losing their own position of privileged. In a sense, this goes back to the very beginnings of this 'period of history' - the time when the 'old order' apparently collapsed. Understanding that is key to understanding what is happening now. Yes, the old aristocratic structure of power and position did 'collapse', but that doesn't mean it disappeared altogether - it just changed from 'birth' to 'wealth' as the last remnants of 'old money' and the cream of the 'new money' that had helped bring about their downfall effectively joined forces to preserve their wealth and power.

It's important to note that they didn't entirely succeed - while they maintained much of their wealth and continued to exert a certain amount of control and influence, they were no longer able to control actual governments in quite the same way. They could no longer guarantee governments that would help them preserve their considerable wealth and income against taxation by and for 'the people', for example, and had to become far more aggressive about hiding it elsewhere (and now the end of that is apparent on the horizon for them). They could be challenged, and you could perhaps say that the story of the rise of rights, equality and internationalism over the last hundred years has been the story of that challenge - the challenge of the people, through democracy and increasingly across borders, against the iron fist of the 'elite' who have kept hanging on. That challenge hasn't been entirely successful either, of course. Yet. Maybe this is the moment where it might be, and maybe that is why they are driving those forces of nationalism so hard now.

We can't pretend that the forces of democracy, in their attempts at fighting off that old 'elite', have been entirely successful in bringing people with them, or in treating people with the kind of 'Human Rights' and 'Equality' respect that they should have done. One of the things that has opened the door is the very real feeling that this brave new international world has 'left people behind' that while some have been given the opportunity to embrace this new world of international travel and communication, others have found themselves watching from the sidelines as they see their own world left to crumble around them. Is it any wonder that they think that maybe this new international world isn't really the great thing that they have been told, or that these universal 'Human Rights' and 'Equalities' are really happening at their expense, or even that they think fondly back to a time when things were simpler for them in terms of knowing who 'the enemy' was? We who oppose the forces of nationalism have to recognise and address this, without condemning those who have been drawn in by the alluring promises offered by the forces of nationalism. We have to understand that it is our own failure to move everyone forward with us that has opened the door for those who now seek to undo what we have spent the last century moving towards.

This might well be their very last chance, though, and that is why I think this may be the endgame of the period we have been living through over the last century. Fail to change the recent direction of travel completely now, when the generational balance is as good for them as it ever would be if things go on as they have been, and their ideas of nationalistic divisions between the people of this planet might be on a gradual, terminal downward spiral. This might well really be their last hurrah - if they lose this time, there may well not be enough people who share their instincts to ever seriously challenge the direction of human progress again (or at least not for many decades to come - circumstances can always change, especially with something like climate change, and all that could mean for things like food production, looming on the horizon). And if they don't succeed, and their ideas are finally dismissed from being taken seriously, the change in direction of society could be a decisive turn towards true internationalism and true equality in a way that humanity is yet to experience - we could be on the cusp of a genuinely a new period of history.

Things could go either way from here, though, especially in view of the fact that the power is now in the hands of the forces of nationalism in several internationally critical countries (most notably the UK and USA, but there are others). The next period of history could be one of increased internationalism, cooperation, rights and equalities spreading around the world, or it could be one of increased nationalism, entrenchment, separation, suspicion, and perhaps ultimately large scale war. Everyone will have their own view of which is better and what the positive and negative effects on society and the world might be, of course, as I have mine, but the tipping point between them does seem in many ways to be upon us in our immediate future, and what we do now could set the direction we travel as a society for the next hundred years or more. These social and political battles that we are engaged in today could very well be that important to the future for generations to come, and that is obviously why it is so vitally important for us to win them, and win them decisively.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

What can we learn from Doctor Who and Adolf Hitler?






Sorry about that picture - the stuff of nightmares indeed! This kind of follows on from yesterdays post about 'heroes'. One of the things I was saying in there was that we need to be careful about 'dehumanising' politicians either as 'heroes' or villains'. This post is about those people, and politicians in particular, who carefully construct a 'persona' in order to do just that for themselves.

Let's start with Adolf Hitler - a very well known and obvious example of this. What was seen on news reels and in speeches was not 'Adolph Hitler' the man at all - it was a very, very carefully constructed persona. A deliberate image designed specifically for effect, and something he spent many hours in the mirror practising. The jerky movements, the poses, the little moustache, the hair, the voice, the costumes - all were artificially constructed, and constructed for a purpose. It was intended to make him seem just that bit 'otherworldly', as if he wasn't quite the same as any other human being, and didn't come from quite the same world as ordinary people. It didn't matter that it was at times a little bit comical - whether he knew that and intended it or not I don't know, but the point was to mark himself out as being 'not of this earth'. Something new and different. Slightly alien. If that eccentricity of character made people chuckle a little under their breath it not only worked just the same, but actually allowed a route into their minds for him to be viewed with a kind of 'affection' rather than as a threat.

So where does Doctor Who come in? Well, that character has been built with the same effect in mind. Of course in his case he is actually an alien, but the point of his quirky costumes and occasionally slightly non-human behaviour is to remind us of that. It's a dramatic ruse, and a very effective one - we may see his frailties from time to time, and he may make us laugh with some of his eccentricity, but in seeing him as 'otherworldly' it's easy for us to accept by implication that he is just that little bit 'superhuman'. Of course, such a character has to come with flaws too, and the Doctor is no exception - he can be unthinking and callous, he can lack normal human empathy, and he is capable of doing what ordinary people wouldn't in order to serve the greater good. We accept that, because we know he is slightly 'superhuman' - we expect him to not always behave as others would, and that's all part of his charm.

There are many other fictional examples - television detectives very often play on the same kind of idea. Their almost inhuman reasoning and discovery powers are easier for us to 'believe' (in the sense of theatrical 'suspension of disbelief, of course) because they come as part of an almost inhuman complete package. Take Colombo as an example, or even Gregory House. Perhaps the best known detective to employ this is the Sherlock Holmes character - always constructed in that way as written, but even more so in the recent Sherlock TV series - he is human, but not quite. He has otherworldly 'powers' and methods to see what 'ordinary people' couldn't possibly imagine from the evidence that's presented. That allows us to ignore the normal emotional effects of the character 'flaws' that have been built in to enhance that 'otherworldliness' - we wouldn't normally be cheering on a self-centred, self-serving drug addict, but in a case like his it's part of his 'heroic charm'. It's a more subtle and believable approach to drama than the simple Super Hero in his flowing cape, mysterious mask and outside-worn underwear, but the effect is much the same on the way we are drawn to view the character. They seem somehow 'above and beyond' ordinary humanity, and that is quite deliberate. It's what makes them dramatic 'heroes' as opposed to simply being 'characters'.

That's all well and good in a fictional character, but when it comes to real people it becomes a something to be concerned about. The 'constructed persona' in politics can be very effective in manipulating people to support someone as if they were almost a 'superhero' - to believe that a person has a greater understanding and insight than us 'mere mortals'. The otherworldly, almost superhuman mystique constructed as a character around a politician can allow them to rise rapidly in a way that other politicians can't, and/or to do and say things that we would normally dismiss. Adolf Hitler was able to do what he did because he drew the adoration of supporters by appearing 'otherworldly' - a 'national superhero'. Any flaws people saw in him just became part of that persona, and anything he said that they wouldn't have agreed with before became acceptable precisely because he was unconsciously assumed to have a greater understanding and vision than an ordinary person possibly could. As much as we should dismiss him as a perpetrator of evil, we have to recognise his cleverness in constructing such a character for himself in the minds of so many of the German people. We have to recognise it, and we have to understand it, so that we can spot anyone else who is trying to do the same sort of thing in future.

Of course, the superhuman persona idea in politics is not at all new. It's something that rulers, especially hereditary rulers, have been doing for a very long time. To put it bluntly, being 'God's anointed' really isn't believable if it's obvious that God is willing to anoint just anyone - they have to be 'special', and rulers have used propaganda to attribute a wide variety of 'special' attributes to themselves. There are obvious contemporary examples, too - take a look at certain troublesome dictators in the Far East, and how they constantly have their people told that they can play a round of golf in less shots than there are holes, or that they don't use the toilet like other human beings have to. From the outside it seems so obvious - it seems so silly that anyone would ever accept that, but the fact is that they do. It's a little different on the inside of a world where all media is controlled, and used to repeat the same messages to people from the day they are born. Of course, hereditary rulers have that at their disposal, but those seeking power have to be a little more subtle in order to be believable. It's the same basic approach, but toned down just enough that people can accept them as being human even though they are somehow slightly more than human. A fine line to tread, and also an approach with risks - such people can fall out of favour with all but their most irrationally fervent supporters even more quickly than they get themselves into it when their careful construct starts to fall apart. Once you see through the smoke and mirrors, you will always know that they were smoke and mirrors from the start (and you'll probably find it hard to understand how you were ever taken in by it all).

Now I'm not talking here about simple 'spin' or 'media training' - those are an inevitable part of politics, because politics requires people to be popular enough to get elected. Those at the higher levels of politics will always need to enhance their image, soften their rough edges, and handle public appearances and media interview situations well. They will have media training, and may employ image consultants, and so on. Many at the lower levels of politics will inevitably have to think along similar lines in a way, although I suspect many have less training and image consultancy than many people think. There really isn't a secret factory turning out 'politicians' as slick creatures of image perfection! That's not what I'm talking about here - the kind of stuff done by the likes of Blair and Thatcher were simple enhancements to make the public like or accept them more as human beings, rather than almost entirely false constructs to make them seem 'otherworldly' or 'superhuman'. Whether you liked them or not, and whether the spin was a little over-slick or not, you always pretty much knew what Thatcher and Blair were really about. They were trying to present themselves in the best light rather than trying to hide their real selves behind a constructed persona. It was a slight modification to attract, rather than a complete construction to distract, and those are very different things.

So let's think about how you would construct such an otherworldly persona for political purposes. You need to be 'quirky' in the way you speak, the way you act and the way you look. You need to mark yourself out as 'different', and so by implication 'special'. You need to be putting things in ways that other people wouldn't think to put them. Being slightly amusing isn't a bad thing - if your 'oddity' is a slightly amusing kind of 'oddity', then it attracts people to you all the more. It disarms their normal cynical defences. It can even distract them from what you are really doing and saying, just because it's you who is saying it, you are saying it in a strange way, and they know that 'that's just the way you are'. You need to look 'different' - you need to wear clothes that are a little away from the run of the mill current fashions (old fashioned works well, but just plain odd or ill-matching is also effective). Perhaps some kind of wild and funny hairstyle, too - something that marks you out as someone who doesn't really need to care about appearance in the way that ordinary folk inevitably would. You don't want the slick tailored suit of a Tony Blair. Quite the opposite - you want to appear memorably not quite the same as anyone else would ever dream of looking, especially if they were wanting to present themselves as worthy of election to high public office.

Is this starting to ring any bells yet? Why do you think someone like Donald Trump keeps that ludicrous trademark hairstyle of his - he knows full well that it's completely ridiculous in fashion terms, and that it should really make him a laughing stock. He's now in political office, of course, but these kind of techniques can work in the cut-throat world of top business too - they might distract others from issues like multiple bankruptcies and failed ventures, and very wealthy backgrounds that haven't actually got much wealthier through great business success despite the endless claims of business genius. He looks strange. He speaks strange. He's really not quite like anybody else on the planet. It almost feels like he's 'not of this world'. For some it's quite easy to see through, in the sense that it's clear that he's really talking simplistic nonsense, but he isn't trying to speak to those people. The simplistic and almost child-like language is very deliberately aimed at a specific target audience, and for them the fact that he is saying what others won't in a way that others don't is almost magical, when it's combined with his slightly otherworldly image. For those who aren't quite in that target demographic, it can still be slightly appealing, or at least mostly inoffensive, because 'that's just him', and he's 'a little different'. It's very clever, and it's very devious - we certainly shouldn't ever underestimate those with such a carefully constructed persona.

And what about here in the UK? Are there any politicians that come to mind who seem harmlessly eccentric but somehow not quite like other people? Any who have appealed even to natural political opponents on some level because of their apparent 'goofiness' and affable but somewhat eccentric charm, perhaps? Any who seem to get their names mentioned in contexts and at levels that you would never normally imagine someone so apparently daft or odd to reach? Any who seem to be attracting passionate support as almost messiah-like figures because they just don't seem quite like any other 'normal' politician in the way they speak, look or act? Anyone who, when you think about it, might just be 'getting away with it' despite their apparent lack of the usual kind of competence that we'd expect from our politicians? Three names spring immediately to my mind: Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg. Have a think about those characters. A really good think. Do they seem real to you, or are they deliberate constructions? Are their apparently otherworldly eccentricities allowing them to distract attention from what they are really all about as politicians? I'll leave you to decide that for yourselves.

I must say a word here about Jeremy Corbyn, since I've mentioned the messiah-like adoration, and that certainly appears to be an issue attributable to his hardcore support. We have to be careful to distinguish between those who construct a useful false persona, and those for whom a potentially false persona is constructed by others in order to spread his message. I certainly don't think that you can say that Jeremy Corbyn pretends to be something that he isn't in the same way, or has used those techniques of creating and impression of otherworldliness to get where he is. Indeed, where he is now is something of a surprise given where he has been for most of his political career - a perpetual backbench rebel with an undeniable talent for rabble-rousing in the political rally scenario.

He's never hidden himself in that way, but there do seem to have been some attempts to raise an otherworldly mystique about him since his election to the leadership of his party. For example, almost as soon as he was elected there were a string of social media posts about how he never claimed expenses while other MPS claimed hundreds of thousands. Whoever created these must have known that they weren't true - the figures came from IPSA, but didn't compare like with like. The other MP's figures were drawn from the total, including office and staff costs, second home allowances, and so on. His were his personal claims only, and it was never explained that he wasn't eligible for the same level as many other MPs because his constituency is in London, as stone's throw from parliament, and the smallest geographically in the country. Of course, an MP effectively runs a 'branch office' of parliament in their constituency, but all of the office costs (including the salaries of the support staff an MP needs to do their job) as described as 'expenses' it creates a false impression, and certainly there were those who sought to exploit that for the purposes of creating a saintly mystique around Jeremy Corbyn. That should be noted as something beyond normal political spin, and something to be wary about, but as far as I can see it didn't come directly from him, and it was certainly not the same issue that this post is discussing - it's not what he's built his political career upon (and it is something that careers have to be built on from day one - you can't invent a new persona that you haven't used all along and maintain the kind of public credibility that you need for it in order to be able to pull it off).

It happens that the names I have mentioned here have come from the Right Wing of politics, but we shouldn't be fooled into thinking that they are the only ones capable of doing it. Remember that not all dictators and rulers come from that side of the political spectrum, and it's entirely possible that some of the more famous leaders of communist countries, for example, have used similar ideas. Indeed, where I have been using 'otherworldly', you could also perhaps use the term 'larger than life', and all sides of politics have had such characters. It's not necessarily always easy to tell the genuinely slightly eccentric from the constructs, of course, especially when you are around in the world that they may be trying to manipulate with their persona. With hindsight, though, we could perhaps consider cases like Cyril Smith - how much of his apparently 'larger than life' persona was constructed to distract people from some of the activities that we didn't really learn about until after his death? Likewise we can consider the likes of Jimmy Savile, of course - another slightly 'otherworldly' character who manipulated many people into believing that he was something he was not, and who used it to distract attention away from what he really was. A slightly different manifestation from the political arena, of course, but the technique of deliberate persona construction is really pretty similar.

I should say here that not every use of an apparent bit of eccentricity is being used for quite such evil means as some of the examples above, though it may still be considered somewhat devious. I will cite an example of someone I knew not through or in politics (and had great respect for) who used it, to an extent, as a technique in meetings. He would go into meetings having determined what it was he wanted to achieve, or what subject he particularly wanted to avoid discussing. During the meeting, he would use the fact that he was genuinely, naturally affable but apparently slightly 'bumbling' in manner (despite actually being very bright and sharp) to just direct the discussions slightly. If he wanted to avoid a particular topic, he would pick on another unrelated point coming up before it and hammer away at it seemingly endlessly, even though it would seem irrelevant to everyone else, and he would seem to be misunderstanding some aspect of it slightly. To put it simply, he would irritate people so that they'd want to shut him up, and so that they'd avoid raising the other subject lest it 'set him off again' and they be stuck listening to him all day. It could be very frustrating for people, I'm sure, but was actually a master-class in meeting manipulation. A little underhand, perhaps, but never aimed at anything more getting things done in the way he wanted them done (and with hindsight he was very often correct). Not so much creating a false persona as it was emphasising slightly aspects of his natural character to gain momentary advantage over those who didn't quite spot what he was doing at the time.

We obviously mustn't fall into the trap of thinking that everyone who is slightly eccentric, or who sometimes uses their own eccentricity to gain a little advantage, is somehow an 'evil genius' or 'wannabe dictator'. There are those who go way beyond that kind of thing, though. Those who deliberately construct a persona to achieve their ends. Some of those achieve their ends that way before anybody has really realised exactly what they are up to.

I'll finish by answering the question I began with, 'what can we learn from Doctor Who and Adolf Hitler'? We can learn to watch out for the apparently slightly otherwordly - those who seem not quite 'of this world' in some way, in case that is something they are putting forward quite deliberately as an artificially constructed persona. In fiction it's a very useful dramatic device. In the real world it is something altogether different. Such people are, by definition, not quite what they would have you believe, but they can become very popular very quickly, and they can appear to transcend normal politics to achieve personal ends through distraction and manipulation. And they can do it while many people aren't really looking. That makes them very, very dangerous.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

A few of my political 'heroes'.



This is a bit of an odd post for me, which is why the title says 'heroes' rather than just heroes. I'm not normally given to 'hero worship' at all - I tend to see people as people, with all of their complications and mix of admirable and less admirable traits. That goes for the famous as much as for everyone else, and while I might find some points interesting or inspirational in some way I don't find that they erase the negative for me to the point where I see them as 'heroes' in the sense some people seem to use. That's just me - I've never gone in for that kind of adoration stuff, as many people seem to.

That said, there are people I think of in a sense as having been inspirational on the political stage in some way (as indeed there are musicians, actors, and so on, but this post isn't about them). None of them are 'heroes' to me in the sense of me putting them on any kind of pedestal, having their posters on my wall, or invoking their spirit as I try to do my bit politically. In fact, they are mostly pretty complicated characters, and some have made some pretty huge mistakes in their lives and careers. They certainly aren't all people I agree with politically by any means either - they might have done things I admire in ways I can appreciate, but that doesn't mean I fully agree even with those things let alone with their wider political views.

That's how I think things should be, though - I'm not one for blanket dismissal or vague dehumanisation of opposition politicians, and I do think we can disagree respectfully on politics with people we regard as friends, or as fine people who seem (to us) misguided in their views. I don't tend to do the 'bloody this' or 'bloody that' type of politics. There are opposition people I regard less highly, of course - people that I believe to be primarily self-interested, and/or that I don't believe to be genuinely standing up for what they believe to be right at all, for example. I have little time for that kind of political person, but I don't think that is restricted to any particular kind of political view.

Indeed, I don't think any particular kind of political view is immune from having such people among those parties who advocate their views either. It is a sad fact that 'power', of whatever kind and at whatever level, will always attract some who see it as a means to a personal end. There will always be the personally ambitious, the primarily selfish and the simply arrogant in politics - it's a fact of life that all of us involve ourselves in politics should be aware of and remind ourselves about from time to time. While we should all (in all parties) be calling out such people when we find them, I think it should be noted that it certainly isn't the case that 'all politicians are the same', or indeed that a majority (in any party) go into 'politics' with such motives in their minds. Some may be seduced later on, of course, but I think most people in politics (elected and otherwise) genuinely get involved because they believe they can make the world a better place in some way (though they don't all agree what way that is, obviously!), and most do stay like that throughout their lives and/or political careers. I don't think the low reputation that all 'politicians' have in some quarters is justified at all, though I think there are example for that reputation and worse is thoroughly deserved. All the more so because of the disrepute that their actions bring down on all of 'politics', and the damage they therefore do to democracy and to their country. I won't name names, though!

So onwards to some of my 'heroes', for want of a better term.

I really have to start at what was the beginning for my own politics, with David Steel (Baron Steel of Aikwood, as he is now officially known). I grew up watching the news through the period of the catastrophic end of the Callaghan government (hence, like many my age and older, I always know exactly where to find the candles in my house!), the subsequent Thatcher government, and the rise of a kind of 'radicalism' in British politics on both sides. The political news was dominated by what might be called 'ranters' of one kind or another, each utterly dismissing 'the other side' as something apparently akin to pure evil, and each seemingly determined on a course of 'no dialogue' and 'no quarter' (a kind of politics we are sadly seeing again in the UK today). On the one hand you had the likes of Thatcher and Tebbit, and on the other Foot and Scargill - perhaps the ultimate expression of this was the strike that was so destructive to the country, and to so many communities in my part of the world. I've mentioned that, and David Steel, in a previous post: Orgreave, Coal and Steel (David!).

Throughout that period there was always what seemed to me to be the quiet voice of reason, and that was the voice of David Steel. The very embodiment of 'when all around are losing their heads...', it seemed to me even at a very young age. That experience was, I must conclude looking back, a very important part of what forged my own political views. It seems to me now that there are some who forget just what an important voice he was in the history of our party and our Liberal movement, leading as he did throughout that difficult period, through the period of the 'Alliance', and right up until the foundation of the new party. Indeed, it saddens me rather that our more recent improvements in party membership card, with pictures of prominent Liberal and Lib Dem party figures, does not include the option of Lord Steel. Perhaps too many people see the past through the prism of the character assassination by satire that was perpetrated by 'Spitting Image' - I don't know, but I do think it's a shame.

That is not to say that he was, or is, any more perfect than anyone else, of course - he's a human being, he made mistakes, and he did and said things that I don't necessarily agree with (I don't necessarily agree with every word said by any politician or party - I fear that anyone who does isn't adequately thinking for themselves!). However, to lead a third party in that period in the dignified, sensible and pragmatic way that he did took, I think, great courage and fortitude - sometimes it's easy to forget that history remembers those who shout loudest and those who win big, but they certainly aren't the whole story, and those who contributed in other ways should perhaps get the recognition they deserve. At a time when the Liberal centre of politics is again getting heavily squeezed between 'radicals', we should remember those without whom we may not still be here at all as an independent political force, and David Steel is without doubt among the most important of those from that particular period. On a more personal note, he was certainly the single most important figure in the early formation of my own political views., and in my very humble opinion the greatest Prime Minister that Britain never had.

OK, so this must be the single most predictable 'political hero' selection someone in the UK could present, Winston Churchill. In my part of the UK, though, it's a pretty controversial choice - that goes to illustrate what I said about seeing people 'in the round', mistakes and misdeeds and all. In a sense, that's actually partly why I include him here - my opinion about him is not based what you might call 'the usual flag waving' stuff about being a great leader during a time of war. He probably was that, though even there I'd say he wasn't exactly perfect, and made many mistakes (including 'back of a fag packet' deals with Stalin to split Europe).

He was certainly a very complicated character in many ways. Slightly obsessed with his own sense of 'destiny', but at the same time prone to bouts of deep depression (and that's without mentioning his possibly excessive alcohol consumption). I guess you could say that he did what he did while fighting his own demons, and that in itself is an achievement. What he wasn't particularly prone to was party loyalty, of course - he was a fiercely independent thinker, and that is something I personally find admirable (though inevitable I disagree with many of the thoughts he had during his long career).

However you look at him, he will always be a towering figure in British politics. Probably one of the greatest, and certainly one of the most quotable, orators in history. Even with his undoubtedly arrogant sense of personal destiny, though, he was able to acknowledge at least some of his own failings and mistakes, and take personal responsibility for them - perhaps his time in the trenches is the best illustration of that. He also seemed to be able to look beyond the 'sweeping' and see and appreciate the important smaller details, something often missed by those who see themselves in grand terms. Though he got many things very wrong, in my opinion, particularly in the post-War era, he also got some things right (especially as a Liberal serving with Lloyd George - we Liberals shouldn't forget his contributions in that period). He is perhaps one of the most interesting characters in political history, and someone I freely confess that I find utterly fascinating.

This is one that might surprise a few people: former Plaid Cymru President and MP Gwynfor Evans. My regard for him as a political figure certainly isn't about supporting 'nationalism' at all - it's about personal determination to pursue what he saw as the right course, sometimes in the face of some pretty bitter opposition even from within his own supposed political allies. When others advocated something much more like a 'revolutionary' nationalist movement to improve the lot of Wales (and it did need improving in many ways, and still does), he chose the course of democracy. When others sometimes leaned towards a more radical (and sometimes more than merely 'radical') stance, he won and maintained the heart and soul of a 'nationalist' party as a force for change achieved primarily through the ballot box. Certainly not afraid to put himself on the line directly when necessary in particular campaigns (for example when it came to the issue of creating a Welsh language TV channel, something that was badly needed), he also made a huge contribution towards furthering his beliefs in a pragmatic and democratic manner.

There is no doubt that he had a great deal of political courage, and political courage directed fundamentally towards peaceful means. There were others in his party who were very much more inclined towards other means, and in some cases even towards other ends, but it is in no small part due to him that they failed to gain the upper hand. Personally I think that was a hugely important contribution to Wales - the other way would have gained a very different reaction from opponents and public alike, could have caused a spiral of reactionary radicalisation on both sides, and could have put Wales in a very different place today in terms of recognition and devolution. As much as I disagree with many of the things that he and his party (then and now) have said and stood for, and as much as there may still be some more 'negative' forces supporting that party in some places, the brand of 'nationalism' that we generally have in Wales is a peaceful, democratic and broadly pragmatic movement for ultimate civic secessionism - one that is also fully engaged in the democratic processes, and also in wanting to make Wales a better place for its people in the meantime (though we may fundamentally disagree about how best to do that). It could quite easily have been so very different, as it was elsewhere in the then UK.

And while we're in Wales, I next must come to Aneurin Bevan. Father of the NHS? Well, as a Liberal I would obviously have to say a firm 'no', and point out that the NHS was the brainchild of Beveridge. However, as much as he wasn't the father, he was certainly a darned good midwife, and that was a vitally important role that needed to be played. While Liberals might sometimes understandably feel somewhat aggrieved that the credit for our health service is so completely claimed by the Labour party, I don't think that that should mean that we fail to acknowledge the tremendous work that was done to being the idea to life, and much of that credit absolutely should be given to Nye Bevan.

It's not just about that for me, though, and nor is it about him being another great orator, although he was that too. It's the fact that he was clearly a man of deep and heartfelt principle, but was again capable of great pragmatism where it was necessary to achieve what he wanted to achieve. He famously 'stuffed their mouth with gold' while forming the NHS, when he could have tried to dig in his heels and take a 'principled stand' that would, I strongly suspect, ultimately have failed to produce the necessary results. There is also the issue of nuclear disarmament, on which he took a pragmatic stance that annoyed many of his own closest political allies. This is an example that I think we should all remind ourselves about when we think and operate in the political world - while we might seek perfection, we need to be able to recognise when a more practical approach might actually get better results in the end.

This is again a pretty predictable example of 'political hero', but it's one that I couldn't miss out. There's not really much to say about Nelson Mandela that hasn't already been written many times over by better writers than me, but this is about my personal view. For me it is about his ability to understand how things needed to be done for the future of his country. It's not so much about his principled stance against apartheid, though having that stance was of course the right thing to do. It is about, as many have recognised, him being able to not just forgive and move on himself but also about the way in which he so effectively brought such a troubled and divided country towards reconciliation.

It would be wrong to say that he was perfect, of course, and it would be wrong to say that everything he did was perfect or that the country is now perfect. there are many problems in South Africa, and at least some of those may perhaps be due to some (probably inevitable - nobody can predict the future entirely) failings of foresight in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the previous regime. Again, he wasn't a 'hero' to me in the sense that some may use the term. That's not the point, though - as with some others that I've mentioned, in the end he allowed his originally principled stance to be moderated by pragmatism and fully contained by peaceful and democratic process. Given the circumstances of that country during the period of his life and the consequent personal circumstances of his own life, I think that was a remarkable personal achievement.


So there you have it - a few of my personal political 'heroes', as much as I have such a thing. Though they are from different political backgrounds and parties, I guess you might have detected something of a theme - a common thread among them. I'd call it 'principled pragmatism', along with the independence of mind to stand up and be counted for what they believe even when the circumstances for their political beliefs are unfavourable at the time, or even when they face opposition from their own supposed allies. Often complicated characters, often people with whom I disagree on many things, and often with careers littered with what I might call 'mistakes', they could each in their own ways be described as both 'visionaries' and 'achievers' - that is something that I personally find inspirational in politics. Achieving is worth little if you have no vision behind whatever you are trying to achieve, in my opinion, and vision is worth little if you never do more than talk about it - it is that combination of things, even if it comes with some pretty big flaws, that makes a politician 'great' for me.

There are some others that I could have mentioned in similar terms, of course - Charles Kennedy and David Lloyd George would be the most obvious examples for me, as you might imagine. There are also some others who, despite whatever else they may have done or not done, have committed great acts of political courage that are worthy of note too. Here I must (perhaps unfortunately!) mention Neil Kinnock - whatever disagreements I have with what he has said and done over the years (and believe me I have many!), 'that' conference speech in Bournemouth in 1985 was perhaps the bravest political speech I have seen a leader give to his party in my lifetime (whether you agreed with him or not). I should also (as much as I would like not to!) mention David Cameron here - though his legacy is a political mess that threatens the whole future of the country, and history will, I suspect not judge him kindly (and rightly so), he did do something worthy of credit. It's something that ironically he may even have had, or have taken, too much credit for (taking credit that should really be primarily due to the Liberal Democrats, in fact), but I think credit should be given where it's due. Whatever his reasons, and whatever the aftermath, for a Conservative PM and party leader to publicly champion Same Sex Marriage in the way that he did during the coalition period was undoubtedly a brave move that was never likely to make him popular among large parts of his own party - that, I think, is something (though perhaps almost the only thing) that should be recognised and credited. There are many other examples of individual acts of political courage, as I'm sure there are many other examples of 'principled pragmatism' in politics - I'm not here to try to produce an extensive list, though.

One more thing you may have noted, as I have myself - the majority of these figures are straight white men. I can assure you that this is more a reflection of them being in the overwhelming majority for most of out political history than it is of any kind of bias in that kind of direction myself. Indeed it is a cause of great regret to me that history hasn't given us the same number of others to choose our 'heroes' and examples from, and I look forward to a time when the greater and increasing representation of others in our political system gives future generations just that. There are a one or two I could mention, but more importantly there are a number in more recent and current times who may prove themselves every bit the equal of their predecessors. Only time will tell, and history will be the judge. Those I have included are all, of course, past politicians that we can reflect upon with the benefit of hindsight (only one is still alive, and long may he remain so). I have great hopes that in future decades such a list will almost inevitably be considerably more balanced.

So there you have it. A few of my political 'heroes', or at least some of those politicians who have inspired me in some way. I don't know if that helps to explain anything about me, or if there are any conclusions to be drawn from a list like this. I will simply end kind of where I started - I'm no worshipper of 'heroes' generally, and I think such things are usually a pretty bad idea. We must never let out admiration for certain acts or attributes blind us to the totality of a person or their actions. That can apply to 'villains' too, of course, even if the balance of what they have done or what they have stood for is negative. People are people, and that includes politicians - complicated creatures who are capable of doing, and usually do, a blend of good things and bad things. As we go through life assessing those we agree with and those we disagree with, we shouldn't lose sight of that fact.




(photo attributions:
Steel: By DavidSteel1987.jpg: Rodhullandemu derivative work: PaweĊ‚MM (DavidSteel1987.jpg) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
Churchill: By BiblioArchives / LibraryArchives [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Evans: Geoff Charles [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Bevan: By Geoff Charles - Aneurin Bevan and his wife Jenny Lee in Corwen, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38725619
Mandela: By South Africa The Good News / www.sagoodnews.co.za, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9747318 )

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Chester Bennington. We need to talk about it.



This week brought the tragic news of yet another relatively young father taking his own life. This one was famous, and famous particularly for lyrical angst. This was something that some people dismissed as mere sales-related, unhappy-teen-attracting, pseudo-angry posturing, of course, as is often the case with 'angry music', or anything that tries to use a musical medium to say anything more meaningful than 'Oooo I love you baby'.

We need to talk about mental health. We need to talk about changing public attitudes, and we need to talk about healthcare policy issues, and we need to talk about it in relation to our selves and our own lives. Thankfully awareness of that has been improving in recent years, but there's a very long way to go. It's not just about talking about problems when they start to get serious, because that can be too late to make a real difference. It's about understanding that this is something that can and does happen to anyone, anywhere, and in any walk of life. It's about destroying the taboo - understanding that mental health is an issue for every person, every day, just as physical health is.

We have public campaigns relating to eating healthily, taking regular exercise, and so on. We've had many such campaigns about physical dangers like seat belts in cars, swimming in dangerous waters, and so on. Where are the big public campaigns about maintaining mental health, though? It's an improvement to be saying that we should be talking about mental illness when it's already happened, and there have been campaigns on that, but that's not quite the same thing - we're trying to make people understand that suffering from a mental illness is a normal thing, but we need to look at prevention more too. We need to think about that. We need to talk about it.

Obviously there are some circumstances that can make problems worse, or make them more likely, and we have to consider and try to address those too. Poverty, and an endless daily struggle to physically survive, is just one example. It's not the only one, but on that specific issue I was very interested to here some comments recently about the potential benefits of 'Universal Basic Income'. As a Liberal, my instinct is to be wary of such an apparently 'redistributive' approach, but as a pragmatist I'm certainly interested in evidence relating to such a benefit - if it does, as has been suggested, really make a significant difference to the mental well-being of those struggling most in society, then I think it's certainly an approach worth looking at. Indeed, we have a duty to look seriously at it, whatever our ideological instincts might suggest to us.

Perhaps I'm digressing a little, though - poverty probably wasn't the main direct issue for a hugely successful multi-millionaire rock star. What were the factors in this case? How much stemmed from early life, and how much was later? How much was 'nature' and how much 'nurture'? What kind of stresses were being put on him, and how was he helped to deal with them? I'm obviously not going to speculate on the answers to those kind of questions - I didn't know him personally, and it wouldn't be fair or right to wander off into such an uninformed discussion. We do know that the factors can be many and varied in different cases, though, and it's unlikely to be the direct result of one single isolated factor. We need to think about all of those possible factors and how they apply to people across the huge spectrum of human lives.

It's not just about individual, personal 'coping mechanisms' - we need to consider the way in which our lives are organised and run - the pressures and expectations being put on people in all kinds of ways. It seems to me that, more and more, life is becoming about expectations and even deliberately applied stresses, in the belief that we have to quantify everything about everyone and apply standards of 'success' and 'failure'. Everything seems to be about competition and 'winning at life' in some way - we do it to children in schools, for example, 'testing' them from a very young age and putting huge pressure on them to at least 'meet expectations' and 'reach standards'. It might be that the pressure is unintentional, but it's still there - it's on teachers to 'get results', and it's on parents to prove how wonderful their child is compared with others, and if we think that isn't transmitted to the minds of the children themselves we are living in a fantasy world.

We have to think about that kind of thing when we look at any kind of policy, and we have to be able to talk about it too - there are too many elephants in too many rooms when we talk about public policy. We need to remember that these 'numbers' are always human beings, with real lives, real minds, and real combinations of circumstances. Obviously we can't ever remove any kind of stress or pressure from everybody's minds, but we have to understand that the effect is cumulative in the individual. Doing a school test at a very young age, and being pushed to do well because it's a statistic that actually matters (if not to them directly, to those who are pushing them), may not seem like a huge thing in itself, but it doesn't exist in a vacuum. The modern (western, particularly) world, with all of its pressures of expectation driven now by ready accessible and universally accessed multi-media in a way that has never existed before, is a place full of expectations of all kind, and full of fears of being a failure in some way or another (and mental illness is itself often still considered a 'failure', of course).

It's not just about sorting out our attitude to mental illness, but about sorting out our attitude to mental health in our daily lives, and in our public policy, and in the pressures and expectations we put on people who are apparently 'mentally healthy'. In policy terms, it's vital that we understand that it's not just about fixing the problems of treatment in the health service (though that is a huge issue, of course), but about trying to understand the impact of everything we do on the mental well-being of everyone who has to live with the results. It's not just about supporting people when something has gone wrong with their mental health, but about supporting people so that these problems aren't happening to so many of them. I don't pretend that's at all easy, of course, or that it is all under the direct influence of politicians, parties and governments. There are many people individually involved in many different ways in the complicated networks of human lives. That's why we need to talk about it.

So let's now talk about Chester Bennington, and about Linkin Park. I guess it's hard for some people to understand the context of just how huge, and how important, a band they have been. Although they are a name many probably know vaguely, and they have had some chart success of course, that doesn't really put it into context for a more 'mainstream' music audience. Their debut Hybrid Theory album is, without a shadow of doubt, among the most important and influential albums of all time, and one of the biggest selling albums worldwide of this century (estimated to be about 30 million copies, with their next album not being too far behind). That's a total up there with the likes of Abbey Road, Born in the USA and The Wall, but it was only released in 2000.

Of course, that's only part of the story - Hybrid Theory was a huge 'moment' in music and in time. It was at the start of the Nu Metal movement, and mixed different musical genres in a way that really caught the imagination of a generation of young fans. Ask any community of Heavy Metal (or related) fans about the album that was there 'gateway' into that kind of heavier music, and Hybrid Theory will be one of the most popular answers - probably the most popular of all, in fact. I'm a little (OK, a lot!) older myself, of course, but it was huge for me too - it was the time of MTV2, when there was suddenly a new generation of heavy music that was getting exposure, and it was a major part of what brought many older fans of heavier music back into discovering new music. It was genuinely something original and exciting, following on from the frankly dreary period of 'grunge' and 'brit pop' nostalgia-driven music that had all but drained the life out of the 'mainstream' rock and metal world in the 1990s. It's bigger even than that, though - it connected across genres too, and brought many fans of Hip-Hop to metal and vice versa. It wasn't isolated and alone in experimenting in that way, of course, coming after early works of bands like Korn, Papa Roach and Slipknot, but it was the one that hit the blend in just the right way at just the right time to become truly a global phenomenon.

I think it's fair to say that the band never quite recreated that moment of their debut (and arguably second) album. They modified their sound in ways that many didn't take to in the same way. They remained, however, one of the biggest bands on the live circuit, headlining major festival to huge crowds. I have seen them twice, in 2007 and 2014, both only partial sets at festivals (latter parts of sets after watching bands at other stages), and they were certainly a great live band to watch. In the usual way of these things, a heavier band very often doesn't quite get the public recognition of more easily accessible pop counterparts, but Linkin Park have been one of the biggest bands of the twenty first century in terms of sales and influence.

I don't pretend they are a particular favourite band of mine, obviously, hence only watching part of their sets when I've had the chance. Hybrid Theory is a fantastic album, but it's the only one I really like, and I find it a little 'of its time' in some ways now. It's not something I listen to often, although I am listening to it as I type, and it's one of those albums that I always enjoy listening to a little more than I expect to, even though I know it backwards. That doesn't diminish their importance as a band, obviously, or the success that they have rightly enjoyed over the last 2 decades.

That's a fairly long description of their importance, but it's impossible to over-emphasise, and Chester Bennington was very much at the centre of all that. So how does someone so successful come to choose to take their own life? It seems hard to understand - there's what might be called the usual collection of 'baggage' for a rock star, of course, but it seemed from the outside like he had his life in order more recently, and had everything going for him. Fame, success, money, a family - things that many people would envy. That's the point, though - it is hard to understand for anyone who hasn't experienced the kind of mental issues that convert stresses and expectations into something so negative. It's easy to say 'get over it', but it doesn't work like that. It's easy to say 'get help' and 'talk about it' too, but if that were so easy to do we'd have less tragic stories like this.

We need to understand that, which is itself not easy from the outside - it's hard to put yourself in the mental situation of someone else who isn't you, and who may not think quite like you. That's why it's so important to understand that those pressures work differently for different people, and the need to consider the pressures we put other people under at all stages in life, personally and in policy terms. What might seem a simply thing to you or me, might be a mental wall to climb for someone else - even if we walk in their shoes, we can't think in their minds. That, as we know, applies to 'famous' people as much as 'ordinary' people - this isn't the first such apparent suicide of someone who should be on top of the world, and sadly I'm sure it won't be the last. We also need to think about the pressures they are under, even if they are very different from our own (and, as an aside, we need to talk about the tabloids, too - those 'celebrity gossip' victims are human beings too).

One more thing I'd like to mention, in connection with mental health and the 'angst' in the music of bands like Linkin Park - the sometimes suggested link between angry and/or depressing music with anger and depression. It's a subject which I think is widely misunderstood, and some suggest that music and associated cultural lifestyles can lead to mental health issues. I think they are very wide of the mark there. There may well be some statistical link, but if anything it is the other way around - those who are suffering are drawn towards music and culture that speaks to them and reflects their suffering. Whether it be the darker aesthetic, or the musical and lyrical anger, of heavier forms of music, those things are very often a release for people - knowing that someone else has been where they are, and has felt like they felt, can be a huge thing for them. As well as Linkin Park being cited as a 'gateway' band into heavier music, they are also commonly cited as a band that have got people through some very hard times with their music and lyrics. Some like to suggest that darker, angrier music and culture can drive people into tragic situations - I know that it has saved many people from such situations. Sadly, it can't save everybody.

Finally, I think it would be wrong to talk about all this without remembering Chester Bennington and Linkin Park at their finest. This video was from the second and last performance I saw part of, and happens to be my favourite song from that Hybrid Theory album. Even if it's not your thing, do please take the time to watch and listen. The music matters a great deal to many people, and I think it's important to try to understand that (even if you don't particularly like it) to see this tragedy in its full context.


R.I.P. Chester Bennington

And if anybody is struggling, now or at any time, there are people out there who can help you:

Look after yourselves, and each other.

Monday, 17 July 2017

So...A Female Doctor. #DoctorWho13



There's been a huge explosion on social media since the reveal of the latest incarnation of Doctor Who yesterday. Much of that is a fuss about nothing, of course - ultimately, it's just a TV show. To many, though, the reality is that it's very much more than that. When something is that much of a fixture in the life of a lifelong fan, that emotional link matters to them. It matters to me, and I'm not ashamed to admit it. People care, and they have every right to care. Still, we should, I think, keep it all in some kind of perspective - the nastiness being flung in all direction is pointless nonsense.

Where do I stand on the introduction of a female actor in the role? Well, I'm certainly not with those celebrating it as some kind of revolutionary breakthrough - a moment in TV history to be seen as a landmark for equality. I don't buy that at all, in fact. In some ways, I think it's quite the opposite, though that is not my only objection. Oh, I know that will get me condemned on social media as a 'dinosaur' and a 'misogynist', and all of the other accusations that are being thrown around, including by supposedly liberal people, at anyone who dares to hold an alternative opinion for any reason (it's actually been one of the worst social media outpourings of insulting behaviour based on simplistic assumptions that I've ever seen coming from normally thoughtful 'liberal' people!). I've never been shy of standing up for what I believe, though, and I'm not about to start now, even if that wins me a torrent of entirely wrongly-aimed insults.

My first problem with this is that it looks and feels like a bit of a publicity stunt 'cop out' - an easy route to saying 'look - equality' without really having to think too hard. This is the kind of thing that seems to have been a trend for some years in various ways in a number of different artistic and dramatic fields - changing surface appearances rather than having to go to the trouble of breaking truly new artistic ground or having to go to the trouble of really inventive textual exploration of scripts and characters.

Take Jonathan Miller's 1980s production of the Mikado, for example. In that production, what was 'new' was really just a matter costumes and sets - largely a simple exercise in 'hey, let's set this thing set in Japan not really in Japan'. The Mikado (setting aside some of the accusations of 'racism', which I think are largely a misunderstanding of what it is all about, though there were clearly some lines in the original text that are unacceptable) actually has a fine script, with lots of space for interpretation (despite being stifled for three quarters of a century by the vice-like grip of the D'Oyly Carte company rules) - Gilbert knew how to produce characters, even in such a light and humorous work, that could exist on many levels, and could have many different interpretations and emphases drawn out by clever direction and acting within the confines of the existing text and setting. You could, for example, change the way that Nanki Poo is played to make him firmly the villain of the piece, without changing a single line - that would dramatically alter the relationships between characters, and reveal a whole new aspect to the work. There are many other such ideas that could be pursued to produce the same work in an entirely different light. They chose not to explore any of that, though, and instead make their 'artistic statement' with a bit of a cosmetic overhaul that really just ignored the basic premise of the work's setting for no apparent reason. That kind of thing doesn't really 'freshen up' a piece, in my opinion - it is merely change for the sake of change - a kind of 'faux artiness' that doesn't really contribute to shedding different or additional light, and doesn't draw anything new out of the plot and characters.

Don't even start me on the 'faux artiness' of Quentin Tarantino, by the way, and the use of silly devices like editing out of sequence and slow motion depictions of graphic violence to cover for the lack of basic plot, script or characterisation.

In the case of Doctor Who, there could have been so much done in terms of the existing, original premise of the work without resorting to this kind of obvious publicity stunt. The relationship of the Doctor with any given 'companion' is something that has unlimited scope. What we could have had was a truly strong new (or even 're-discovered' previous) female character - for example, one to whom the Doctor himself effectively became the 'companion' or 'assistant'. It's very easy to do without having to mess with the basic story and characters, and could certainly give plenty of opportunity to explore concepts like gender roles and stereotyping - bringing back Romana in a new 21st century form would be the most obvious way, of course. That would have been a really interesting new dynamic to create dramatically. Likewise on the villain side - the Master regenerating into 'Missy' was just an obvious attempt to push forward the idea that Timelords regenerate in that way, despite the fact that this never seems to have happened or been mentioned before (and Missy turning out to be the Rani would have been more interesting, too, and added extra characters to play with). It was a re-writing of the existing underlying characterisations specifically in order to create the circumstances for a female Doctor, not for any actual dramatic reason or gain within the context of the show. It all feels contrived to me, as if it is just an attempt to make a cheap statement rather than a genuine dramatic device for plot purposes.

And that is really the point - they have allowed a publicity stunt to make a point to guide the story and characters, rather than allowing the drama to take the lead in addressing the concepts that they wanted to address in a way that fitted within the pre-existing context. I don't think that's ever a good idea. The exact same point about equality could have been made more effectively by creating a new strong female character, rather than just inventing a contrived way to make an existing male character female for no dramatic purpose. It feels forced and contrived, and I don't think the cause of feminism is well served by saying 'OK - we'll let a woman do it' rather than creating a new strong female character with a different dramatic relationship with the existing characters.

In order for the drama to lead, I think you need to ask questions of what you are thinking of doing dramatically. 'Is it necessary or helpful?', for example. Is it actually of particular dramatic benefit to do what you are doing with the story. In this case, I don't believe it is. This is a science fiction series, not a soap opera. That's not meant to be insulting in any way towards the soap opera genre - quite the opposite. In that scenario, there is the scope to deal dramatically and at length with issues like sexuality, gender transition, equality, and many other important issues in modern society. They can be explored at length from multiple perspectives in story-lines that last for many years. Soap operas have done great work in dealing with a number of such issues with great sensitivity, and raising awareness of them in wider society. They have been hugely important, but, to be frank, if you want to make a soap opera or serious exploratory drama series, go and make those things - don't try to turn something else into something it isn't to satisfy that urge.

That leads me on to another issue - what I like to call 'the Cagney and Lacey effect' in long-running TV shows. Cagney and Lacey was, in its own time and in its own way, a truly ground-breaking TV show. A police action series that was firmly led by strong female characters, and dealt with equality and discrimination issues within that scenario extremely effectively (for its time - it was 'of its time' to a certain extent, of course, as everything is). The problem, though, was that as it went on it began to lose sight of its own purpose - what had been an effective dramatic device for dealing with those issues through a medium of the action series became more and more a soap opera about the lives of the characters, and as it went further and further into domestic issues it not only became considerably less good as a show to watch, but it also undid some of its own good work by gradually returning to bits of old stereotyping about domestic relationships between genders and so on. Where it has once been an effective vehicle for challenging ideas in a way that would naturally 'bring people along', it began to force ideas down their throats by gradually removing the original premise of the show (and the reason people began to watch it in the first place), and then even began to create a counter-productive counter-narrative to its own good early work on the issues of gender equality and stereotyping.

This drift from original purpose towards a form 'character development' directly at the expense of that purpose something we've begun to see in the NuWho era. True, the original 'monster a week' format allowed relatively little scope for character development, and there was space to shift the balance slightly. In the early days it did that, but then began at times to drift further down that road into explorations that weren't relevant, dramatically useful, or really working within the context of the original premise of the show. We began to see threads of love story and back story for the Doctor, which was OK in small doses as an aside to the main action, but seemed to creep ever more into the forefront to the point where it relegated the original purpose of the show into (sometimes a seemingly quite distant) second place. There is, I think, a serious danger of 'Cagney and Lacey' effect - the show losing sight of what it actually fundamentally is, and morphing into something else entirely. The essence of drama is conflict, but the real conflict in this case should generally be between the Doctor and his 'enemy' - it's becoming more and more between the Doctor and himself and his companions on a personal relationships level, and that is really a different show.

I could wax lyrical here on the last few series, and them being, in my opinion, mostly been below par, and often devoid of really good, inventive ideas. We've even lapsed into what seem to be purely 'magical' things (the point of scifi is to at least attempt some form of 'pseudo science', not to fall back on pure 'magical' impossibility - if you want magic, that's what the fantasy genre is usually all about), and them being defeated purely because 'love'. There have been some good scripts in terms of dialogue, but much of the plot invention and story-telling has been pretty dire. Peter Capaldi has been an OK doctor in some ways, but he could and should have been so much better - he's an excellent actor, and we had the new (for NuWho) 'device' of an 'older' doctor regeneration to explore. They didn't bother to explore it at all, really, and just made him the same jumpy around 'young' character as Tennant and Smith had been, but with added wrinkles (and occasional cheap gag lines on that basis).

And that is another thing that worries me about the idea of a female Doctor - we haven't explored the idea of an 'older' Doctor in any meaningful dramatic way during the time of the latest incarnation, so can we expect a female Doctor to be any different? Let's face it, in the 'Master meets Missy' scenario the scripts actually fell back on cheap nob gags - that might be 'new' for Doctor Who, but I'll make no apology for saying that I don't think it's the right direction for the series to be heading. In a dramatic sense, aside from the 'beyond the 4th wall' issues, is this just going to be an excuse for throwing in a bunch of one-liners about gender? I fear that it might be, and I don't see how that helps to advance the cause of equality.

And 'equality' is an important term here - gender is certainly not the only equality issue, but it is an issue that has required a pretty serious rewrite to the back story to allow for it to be dealt with in this unsatisfactory way, and for no particular dramatic purpose within the context of the whole ongoing story. There were other issues that could and should have been explored in a less disruptive and incoherent way, without need for the kind of ignoring of previous backstory that gender change required.

It all feels like a cosmetic change for publicity purposes rather than a genuine will for fresh dramatic exploration. There are so many things that could have been done in terms of the character of the doctor through this NuWho era, but they've not been done. Eccleston was a genuinely new kind of Doctor, but ever since they have been very much variations on a theme - that has limited the scope for character development, and got us to where we are. I just don't feel that simplistic gender change is a substitute for real in-depth consideration of dramatic relationships and character development.

And that is the basis of my issue with this casting - it's not because I think women aren't equal, or that only men can act in leading roles, or anything of that sort. It just feels like a really, really lazy option created by the desire to make a public statement without there being any real textual or dramatic reason for it. In other words, to use a rather provocative term, it feels 'token' - almost as if they haven't bothered to create a strong new female character, and have fallen back on an easy, contrived solution in the hope that one happens by default and everyone shuts up about all this equality business. I'm not suggesting that's how they see it themselves, of course, but it just feels like the desire to be provocative in society with a big headline now has overridden the desire to do the job properly with by creating strong female role-model characters (in Doctor Who and elsewhere).

Now of course those who say 'well it can be done within the story' are correct, certainly since they contrived to alter the story to make sure that it could be done a couple of years in advance. On the other hand, you could easily have a CGI Jar Jar Binks Doctor within the story, if you turn the Master into a rubbery big-eared alien thing first - that doesn't mean that it's the right thing to do, or has any dramatic benefit or justification. Indeed, the Doctor could easily have his 'life force' inserted into the circuits of the shooty dog thing, if Timelords were suddenly said to have special life force personality memory things that could be magically locked away in pocket watches or something (oh....wait.....!). The question should not be 'can it be done', but 'should it be done dramatically', and 'does it need to be done dramatically', and 'does it add potential value dramatically' - personally I'm not sure that my answer to any of those questions would be 'yes'.

Another example that's been cited by some on social media is that of the Ghostbusters remake using an all female lead cast, in the sense of 'those who don't like this probably hated that too because misogyny'. Well in a sense they are correct - I didn't like that either. I didn't like it because it was a classic film that didn't need to be remade, and I didn't like it because the remake was significantly less good than the original anyway. That was nothing to do with the women being in it. And that is perhaps the crux of the whole matter - what the creative world needs to be doing to truly advance equality (which is something they should be doing, like everyone else) is writing strong new characters, not simply rehashing old ones and using existing ones by making them female as if that somehow makes women 'equal'. It doesn't. It merely makes them 'fit to step into shoes vacated by men', and that really isn't the same thing at all. It's an easy artistic cop out to create a few headlines that I believe actually does almost nothing to advance the cause of real equality, and especially not to advance the cause of real equality within the industry itself (which is something that still desperately needs to be addressed).

Finally (almost), I'd like to make one thing very clear. I don't agree with this casting decision, as I'm sure you've worked out if you've got this far, and I don't think it's been done for the right reasons at all (although I certainly agree that it's probably been done with the best of intentions). That doesn't mean I'm going to 'go off on one', and proclaim that 'I'll never watch Doctor Who again', or whatever - I will give this new Doctor (and new writer) a fair chance, as I have given every previous new Doctor (and new writer) a fair chance (whatever my reservations about them, and whatever conclusion I have ultimately come to about them in the end). As I said in the first paragraph, it matters to me - it's been a fixture of my life from my earliest memories (Tom Baker era, in case you were wondering!), and I've been watching it avidly ever since (whenever it's been on, at least!). I'm not going to cut that out of my life just because I don't like the choice of new Doctor (hell, if I haven't abandoned it because of the wobbly walls, wobbly rubber creatures and sometimes equally wobbly plots of the late McCoy era, or the way Moffat has treated it more recently, the reality is that I'll probably put up with almost anything!). As much as I'm a lifelong 'Whovian', I can keep it all in some kind of perspective with reference to real life. I'm not falling out with anyone or making this is into  bigger issue than it actually is (nor am I being a 'butthurt' 'crybaby', 'snowflake' or whatever!) - I'm entitled to my opinion and reasoning, though, as they are entitled to theirs.

I have my own opinion, but that isn't to say that some of those condemning this decision aren't doing so on the basis of simple misogyny, sexism and lack of imagination or tolerance for anything 'new' or 'different' - I'm sure that is the case for some, even though it certainly isn't the case for myself and some others. I will make one last observation, though - a number of those celebrating this as hailing some kind of great new era of televisual equality, while attacking anyone who dares to disagree with their view as just being 'misogynist dinosaurs' or whatever, seem to then be quietly admitting that they don't actually watch Doctor Who, or like Doctor Who at all, and never really have, and are never likely to, and really don't know or care much about the whole thing beyond this apparent 'victory for feminism' anyway. Do they actually care about the artistic integrity, the long term internal plot line coherency, or the dramatic value of the show itself? I guess I'll just leave you to decide for yourself about that.