Designing the Future

 

In a sea of hot-takes and off-the-cuff put-downs regarding the current snap election in the UK, I realise adding yet another one to all the noise has all the effect of a fart in a tannery but I want to look specifically at the aesthetics of these campaigns and how it reveals more than you might think. A close look at the Labour and Conservative manifesto’s graphics can tell you just as much as the policies inside. In addition I want to look at some of the language used by both sides and how that also – literally – speaks volumes for their ideologies. I won’t be looking at policies necessarily and while there is some cross over this isn’t necessarily a criticism of either parties pledges or policies. Here is a link to Labour’s manifesto and the Conservative manifesto so we are all singing from the same hymn sheet.

Let’s start with the most glaring difference between the two: Web optimisation. Labour has dedicated an entire subsection of their site to their manifesto, each section of it has its own webpage making it quicker to load. You scroll or swipe down to carry on reading and on the desktop version an image is justified to the left and remains static. There is a menu for each chapter allowing you to jump easily to the section of the chapter you want to read. This all speeds up load times and is very efficient. The Conservative manifesto is pdf in a media player on a single page of their website. In the page it is small and difficult to read but you can full screen it, however it still displays as a pdf in a book format (complete with animated page turning) and does not fill the browser. The player is much slower to load too due to the more complicated requirements of the animated elements. In addition Labour’s is more web native so downscales well for mobile devices which is how a majority of people will get their first access to it whereas the Conservatives’ relies on the ISSUU player and does not alter its appearance depending on what device you view it from, whilst this maintains consistency cross platform it makes it much harder to read if you’re viewing it on a smaller device. Now, importantly, the Conservative web manifesto is less friendly to the differently abled, certainly people without finger dexterity or who have vision problems, whereas Labour’s is much simpler to use and easier to read.

Now let’s look at font and text layout. The Conservatives have gone for a classical serif-based approach with Garamond (the font this article is written in), Labour instead have gone for the sans-serif, clean lines of Helvetica. As well as being visually opposite to one another the history of these fonts is poles apart too. Garamond was designed by engraver Claude Garamond in the 16th century for old printing presses, Helvetica on the other hand is a modernist font from the 50s by designer Max Miedinger. Generally in English we are used to seeing the printed word in a serif type like Baskerville or Times New Roman (named after the paper it was designed for) as it more readily appeals to our eyes that seek more human handwriting patterns, whereas Helvetica is much more a display font due to its clarity (used in the logos for American Airlines, Toyota, North Face, FedEx). Now on the printed page I’d argue Garamond works better in the lengthier prose sections except it has the effect of making the Conservative manifesto look dense an impenetrable, like the long form prose of a novel. Labour’s font may be plain and rather flat but it looks much easier to take in at a glance and therefore more welcoming. Online however it’s a different story. There are more sans-serif fonts on websites than serif, Helvetica is a fit for purpose multi-platform font that is clear and simple whatever device you read it on, Garamond is not (he said, writing in Garamond). Whilst it is definitely not like other web fonts and certainly looks ‘classier’ it is neither inviting nor easy to read. Unfortunately the Conservatives further compound this illegibility by seriously messing up the kerning (the spacing between characters). The Initial (those big letters that start the chapters) is really badly cramped against the paragraph, to the point of nearly overlapping – a design no no. Labour’s kerning is on point however, plenty of spacing between characters, aided by Helvetica’s clean lines, and a pronounced white box around the Initials Also the Conservatives’ page layout is cluttered and dense, Labour’s is sparse and minimal. The Conservative Manifesto reads more like a text whereas Labour’s reads like a power point presentation. The former is undoubtedly ‘powerful’, with more gravitas, but Labour’s is much more like the bulletin board it should be.

Labour’s Manifesto is much more in keeping with the design aesthetic of today (specifically web design) whereas the Conservatives’ is more like what we picture a formal legal or government document to look like. The latter is very much in keeping with the repeated dirge of ‘Strong and Stable’ and portrays the Conservatives as a more classical, traditional party but it is undeniably drab with it’s dour palette of Black, White and Blue. Labour’s on the other hand looks like every pamphlet you get dropped through the door: bright red, with the white shining cleanly through and – importantly – full colour images and colour coded sections. This speaks of Labour’s idea of inclusion, it is open and inviting with pictures of different people of varying gender and ethnicity. The Conservatives’ speaks more of its belief in individualism and the state stepping back to allow you to imprint you personality on to the policies and their presentation. In both cases both designs are not bad at all, they both reflect the message the party wishes to impart in the content of the writing itself and does so admirably, the point I’m making is that these designs are specifically tailored to appeal to their core voter and any undecided voter. Personally I find the Conservatives’ design to be an ugly, cluttered, austere mess with kerning issues and a shocking lack of understanding about web optimisation, whereas Labour’s is a minimalist, modernist’s wet dream i.e. Me.

Then there is the question of cost. Labour provided a financial break down of their manifesto promise in a separate sheet that broke down the costing. This was due to constant criticism by the press and the other parties that the socialist program was a myth and could not be properly funded. The Conservatives, with no such pressure, have provided no information on how their manifesto pledges will be paid for.

Now let’s look at the language of these manifestos and their respective launches. The Conservatives seem to be pushing the party to the background by constantly referring to Theresa May and her team, her foreword is littered with “I” and “My”, promoting the idea of individuality and (rather ironically given her and the party’s criticism of the ‘identity politics’ around Corbyn) that you would be voting for the leader who is much more popular than her party because apparently people still have the Mummy issues left over from the Thatcher era. Ahem. Labour talk about “we” “us” and “our” promoting their ideology of a shared society, community and a government integrated with the populace instead of one that steps back at times of crisis. Then there was the way the leader’s introduced their manifestos. Alright this is where I really get on my soapbox. Jeremy Corbyn used the same language in introducing his policies in an open airy space, unmolested or delayed by protesters. Theresa May’s however was delayed not just on the day but the manifesto’s printing itself was delayed four times (allegedly). Corbyn spoke of we and you and us and our where May talked of I and me and my. For all the talk of not trusting Corbyn you had better really bloody trust May as her words were that this was “My manifesto … a vision of the country I want this to be after Brexit”. That to me is terrifying and the true politics of identity. She spoke of wanting “to build a country” and that is telling. Brexit to her means destruction. It means the collapse of the previous Britain with its worker’s rights and moves toward equality, so the Conservatives would then have the ability after Brexit to build the country anew in their own image, or should I say hers. Corbyn’s introduction spoke of “unleashing Britain’s potential” after Brexit not attempting to reconstruct and introduced the policies saying “I am very proud to present OUR manifesto”. Believe what you like about the cult of Corbyn he is not the one publicising it, Theresa May – despite point blank denying it – most definitely is relying on the cult of her own.

My personal politics and loathing for the Tories and Theresa May aside what the manifesto launches and the manifestos themselves make plain is what is on offer from either party and not just in the policies themselves. On the one hand you have a severe, cold, austere, classical, stately manifesto of gravitas and great circumstance and on the other you have an open, warm, colourful, modern, simple manifesto of inclusion and assistance. I know which one I’ll be buying a hard copy of.

There’s still time to register to vote. Takes two minutes. Click here. Then vote for anyone except the Tories.

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Generation Loss

Generation loss is a term for when something is transferred, replicated into another format or reproduced and the quality decreases incrementally with each copy. This happens across all formats, analogue and digital, be it a negative that has another negative made from it or an online video that is downloaded, no replica is ever perfect. This theory has been explored in science fiction fairly regularly when clones deteriorate at an accelerated rate or when multiple clones are made the later ones are less like the original, this was confirmed when the world famous Dolly the Sheep, the first living clone of an animal, was found to have debilitating arthritis and died relatively young. The more you reproduce something the poorer the reproductions become. Have you ever played chinese whispers? The final phrase, announced after having been heard and retold to a group of people, has suffered from generation loss. The photograph of a beautiful valley reproduced a thousand times becomes and green and blue smudge.

Socialism is (contrary to popular belief) not Communism. Communism is the opposite of Capitalism, Socialism accepts Capitalism but believes in democratic state intervention to curb its excesses. Y’know, the ones that result in people dying or being abused or discriminated against. It’s original meaning, coined by Henri de Saint-Simon, was to refute the individualism espoused by liberal politics i.e. that people prosper when we work together for a common goal as opposed to everyone being “out for themselves”. Socialism developed into a genuine political force in the 19th century and whilst the history of it is convoluted and difficult, one of its first major ‘wins’ can be seen in the Paris Commune of 1871, a short lived French Government post Franco-Prussian War that didn’t result in many decrees being passed but ones that did were significant. The separation of Church and State for instance. But in Britain in 1900 was when socialism took a larger part in the politics of this country. The Labour party was formed under the banner of socialism and rights for workers (hence the name) and overtook the Liberal party as the major opposition to the Conservatives. Since then the Labour party has remained the main ‘other’ party in Parliament.

Rather amazingly Labour’s impact is profound on any British resident. Even people who claim to be adamant Conservatives still believe in an awful lot of socialist principles: free health care, legal aid, social housing (to combat those pesky homeless people who want your change), maternity leave, and a myriad of other things that we in this country, when we are not taking them for granted, overwhelmingly agree with and actively fight to maintain. The post WWII two Labour government developed the Welfare State and the NHS, put many services into public hands by Nationalising things like the Bank of England. After the decimation of land, property and populace wrought by the war something drastic had to be done and Clement Atlee’s Labour Government, with the help of William Beveridge and Aneurin Bevan. developed this rather radical socialist agenda into policy. It worked and within 6 years the country was transformed to the point where, even though the Conservatives won the 1951 election, it was only by accepting these substantial social changes as a rousing success known as the Post-War Consensus. A lot of these ideals did not survive Thatcherism but some did, notably the NHS and the Welfare State and it is rather encouraging that even as Labour shifted right in the 90s many of these ideals were still maintained. Until today.

The generation loss of socialism has come to the point now where it is so muddied and unrecognisable that people cry foul at its nearest mention and, as mentioned earlier, confuse it with the unmitigated disaster of Soviet Communism. With names like Social Justice Warrior, Feminist and Do-Gooder used as pejorative terms this shows the deterioration of an ideology that was seen as a consensus, an objectively beneficial set of economic and ethical principles. From generation to generation we have been handed these political ideas but shuffled in amongst growing disparity in class and increasing austerity from every political party in the UK. This has created a contempt for this mode of political thinking whilst taking the surviving elements still seen as good and repurposing them; the Conservatives notably referred to themselves as the ‘Party of the NHS’. The result is that the Labour Party of 2017, despite having the largest membership of any party and espousing policies that benefit a massive proportion of the country of all classes, is rife with civil war from its own MPs who demand Labour return to its more right leaning ways so it might win the snap election against an unabashed and staggeringly popular Conservative Party that are doubling down on a glassy-eyed nationalism and individualist manifesto. Politics that once saved and united a nation is now dismissed as a chaotic mess and actively maligned as out-of-date and impractical. Socialism’s generation loss has left it barely perceivable from its source.

This is not unique to the UK. You need only look at the dawning of the Trump era of Rule by Whim and Oligarchy, the rise of sanitised Fascism in Le Pen in France, North Korea’s existence under the boot of a Dictator, Syria’s near total collapse under Assad, Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte saying he literally doesn’t give a shit about human rights and is “angry. I will kill people” make it quite clear that in the 70 years since the greatest humanitarian disaster in human history, there has been a deterioration in the memory of that era that revealed to everyone the depths of depravity and unconscionable evil mankind can stoop to under the guise of individualist pride and nationalism. As a child, the values espoused by socialism: fairness, equity and altruism – seemed to be a given, countries and people that did not go along with these kind of egalitarian and (I believed) forward thinking ideas were confronted and taught “that’s not how we do things now”. In the last 3 years or so this seems to have done an about face. Endless reams have been written on the subject, analysing why from every side of the argument but, to me at least, they all fall short of describing the paucity of humanity inherent in nearly every nation across the globe today. That verdant green valley and it’s crystalline blue river, now nothing but a hazy cyan smudge.

When Theresa May wins the General Election in June and England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland become single party Nations, when we leave the EU to our unmitigated detriment due to a myopic and over inflated sense of self worth, it is unlikely anyone reading this will feel the sociological tremors resulting in the genuine catastrophe that awaits. That will be the next generation. The next generation, in the wake of unchecked totalitarian political control, fascist governments, nationalist policy and a total lack of diversity in any field, will lose more than we can comprehend. In just this country alone the NHS will be privatised, the Pound will be one of the lowest valued currencies, class divisions will result in substantial ghettoisation, a hard border in Ireland will plunge us back to ‘The Troubles’ of the 70s that cost thousands of lives, all combined with general economic disparity that will produce a generation bereft of any of the socialist ideals that, ironically, the right wing trumpet as our great institutions. It is the next generation who will be described in history as the Generation of Loss.

Let us hope they develop a radical political idea of working together for a common good. A party of, I dunno, being social?

The Beauty of Fascism

 

Have you noticed that Trump says ‘Beautiful’ a lot? And words similar? Everything he likes or that benefits his administration or wants to create will be beautiful. The same kind of language appears in the rise of similar parties in the UK and Europe, not necessarily beating the drum of ‘Beauty’ but certainly speaking in terms of restoration and face lifts. London since the stock market crash has become a forest of cranes and building sites as modern architectural wonders grow into the air. A political equivalent of ‘keeping up appearances’ in the eyes of the world permeates the Nu-Right. Watching a recent party political broadcast on behalf of our unelected Prime Minister in a pathetic attempt to placate the growing unrest (in spite of soaring opinion polls for her and her party) it was a bizarrely rose tinted video filled with smiles and opulence, an Instagram-like filter was even used to give the whole affair a golden hue as if far from being plunged into a bleak future of segregation, vilification and economic suicide, the nation and her party literally glowed with delight and promise. A return to Aesthetics seems to have been adopted by the leading political parties of developed nations today.

Aesthetics was a philosophical movement developed from the early Greek idea of Beauty, one of Plato’s ‘Forms’ by Alexander Baugarten in the 18th century. It deals with the nature of art, beauty and taste through the creation and appreciation of something beautiful. One of the most noted Aesthetes was Oscar Wilde. Prior to the second world war the appreciation of art and beauty was reasonably uncomplicated, the Romantic ideals of beauty are still indelibly printed on our collective consciousness. “A rose by any other name” and so on. Beauty, thanks to the Romantics and Aesthetes, became inextricably linked with love and was often assigned an equivalence with truth. Art and culture prior to the rise of Modernism near universally accepted the most beautiful things as the best and most honest. And then Nazis appeared. Part of the Nazi ideology was an entrenched desire and love of beauty. The very idea of an Aryan Race is that of a race of perfect and beautiful people, a master race. The Nazis hoarded art and built vast and grand buildings, each a mass of finely detailed and exquisite design and architecture. Since then a love and appreciation of beauty has become problematic, it is now linked with humanity’s darkest hour. Beauty had become inherently ugly.

In the fairy tale of Beauty & The Beast, a rude and selfish man is punished for this crime by “Being made to look as ugly on the outside as he is on the inside” and thus turned into a beast. Throughout the tale he is confronted by a woman, the embodiment of beauty, and made to change his nature by falling in love with this beautiful girl. On the brink of death the Beast is brought back to life by the woman’s declaration of love and transforms him back into a handsome prince. At play here is a traditional association with beauty, that it can transform the ugliness and cruelty in the world into the good and beautiful. It has often been noted in analysis of this story that identity is in fact lost through this conformity. Applied to real life – the idea of an unattractive person who is withdrawn and insular because of society’s treatment of them because of their appearance, that they should simply be a nicer, more welcoming person to those who insult or deride them and then they will be seen as beautiful – this seems like a problematic acceptance of aesthetic beauty so as to conform to a society that demands they be hidden from view. The need for the Beast to ‘transform’ into a handsome prince so he may be better accepted and therefore worthy of marriage speaks volumes for how the adoration of beauty lacks a great deal of humanity.

The fascism of beauty is still very much alive and well, we all know the unfair standards of beauty set by mainstream media and its focus on aesthetics (certainly when it comes to women) and how ostracising it is. Post WWII the modernist movement even went some way to attempt to counteract it. Brutalist architecture and much more plain, abstract, disjointed, even plain ugly design was incorporated into architecture, literature, music and art itself but in the same way as we resist the ugly undercurrent of beauty we equally resist the unattractive veneer of a more fair minded appreciation of the world, people and culture. Anyone who has seen Kubrick’s vision of A Clockwork Orange will know how oppressive the Brutalist architecture aesthetic is and yet the right has openly returned to its love for beauty. Why?

The answer, I think, lies in the Philosopher and MP Edmund Burke’s treatise on the Sublime.

Burke again takes note of the Greeks and their idea of The Sublime and sees it not simply as that which is beautiful i.e. aesthetically pleasing, but as that which can destroy us. He points out that the sight of a beautiful vista: a tempestuous ocean from the shore line, the grand canyon, a forest of redwoods, etc belittles us, reminding us how small and insignificant we are and how easily a roaring sea, bolt of lightning, a volcanic eruption or a tornado could snuff us out at any given moment. The sublime is beautiful and dangerous. As such, this seems to be how fascism adopts beauty for its own ends. Beauty and grandness is imposing and implies threat so by adopting each of these and the mode of Aesthetics the parties most in need of appearing strong, desirous of little challenge and the outward appearance of welcome and inclusion appear stronger, welcoming, inclusive and warrant little challenge.

Equity by contrast is ugly. The need for humans to create beauty inherently requires the removal or hiding of anything not aesthetically pleasing or meeting the individual’s taste, hence the fascism, but a more egalitarian, equal, equitable aesthetic vision requires the inclusion of the parts of society and art and culture that generally we do not care for. Featuring the handicapped, the mentally ill, the non-gender-normative, and just generally anyone who is not aesthetically pleasing is representative of the world as it stands today but this is not the world we see represented through art. If anything these supposed minorities are shamed into either conforming to a given aesthetic taste or simply shunned. This was changing until recently. With the sudden rise of right wing populism the demands on a more ‘Traditional’ aesthetic standard has been rekindled and anything not deemed beautiful is neither necessary nor desired. Sadly the left seem as resistant to letting its standards of beauty slip to combat this. Fairness, inclusion and equity, that which ‘Liberals’ or any left leaning individual deem to be their dictums, by their very nature are messy, difficult and yes, very ugly.

What Burke calls The Sublime is a beauty of nature, of existence itself and importantly rife with ugliness throughout. To experience it is to be humbled and to dwarf our petty demands on the planet or the cosmos, this is not something that can be manufactured by humanity and it is why Trump and his acolytes’ continual allusions to beauty ring so hollow. Be suspicious of those who try to convince you of the beauty they see without acknowledging the ugliness too. It’s only fair.

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The Platitudes of Tumblr

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When I was a fresh faced 18 year old, having just moved into my first house with wages from my first full time job I was living with my friend Russ. My dear departed Dad would stay once a week when he was in town and I remember him spotting something that Russ was reading and picked it up to have look. It was a book by the author Paulo Coelho. Russ is a good 10 years older than me and I assumed, being 18, that anything he read was sensible and grown up. I knew little of what Coelho wrote but knew it was often described as  “a bit new aged” and rather “spiritual”. My father being the ultimate tree-hugging hippy who does tai-chi in his slippers, I assumed would nod sagely at this choice of reading material. He didn’t. He flicked through the book and said “Oh dear that’s no good. These are just aphorisms” then followed that up with, “that’s dangerous.”

Now my father had many faults, he was by no means perfect but he was a very wise man. Maybe not  “smart” but a very gifted and wise man. So for him to describe a book of aphorisms as “dangerous” puzzled me at the time but I did not ask him to elucidate. Having subsequently read some Paulo Coelho I now know that Dad was right in that it is some of the most wishy-washy ambiguous new-age bullshit I’ve read but ‘dangerous’? Dad never knew me as a poet as he died long before I converted so I don’t know what he would make of my now career as I don’t really know if he ever had any interest in poetry himself. I never saw any in his book collections. But he did like to quote in conversation, something I have adopted. I like being able to site reference to other instances when talking or writing and I have a good memory for those sorts of things. Though my quotes tend to be more pop culture and cinema… Anyway, point being he was a user of aphorisms himself so referring to a book of them as dangerous still seems odd. Especially from a man who re-read The Celestine Prophecy numerous times.

Aphorisms in the age of the meme are enjoying a resurgence unseen since the Victorian era when sound bite witticisms and wisdom-isms were all the rage thanks to the likes of Oscar Wilde (who has many a meme circling the toilet bowl part of the internet). These manifest as graphic design images that get posted on social media. You know exactly what I mean. The Instagram post that’s a picture of a sun bleached field of corn with a carefully chosen font exclaiming “It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves”. Some are profound (as that Edmund Hilary quote truly is), some are genuinely funny, most are banal, asinine drivel with all the depth of a puddle. Love them or loathe them they are everywhere. Memes themselves are slightly different and I confess I detest the word Meme due to the fact it was invented by a man who is the reverse of spiritual who I also dislike greatly but this trend for creating “CONTENT” (whatever the fuck that word means now) involving little to no thought or creative development that simply involves finding a free image via google and slapping any old collection of words on top of it, is actually the death of aphorisms.

A true and poetic aphorism, in the briefest amount of syllables and fewest words, should cut to the bone of a topic. Encapsulate all arguments and respond to all queries. They are the beautiful jewels of language that speak to us with an immediacy that can be mulled over and thought on for hours even days later. Especially when timed and deployed correctly. If Wilde was King of these Shakespeare was God: “Our enemies are our outward consciences”, “How bitter a thing it is to look into happiness through another man’s eyes”, “All glory comes from daring to begin”, “Nothing can come of nothing”, “Have more than you show, speak less than you know”, “Light and lust are deadly enemies” and the most appropriate “Brevity is the soul of wit”. Those can be chewed on for a long time and deserve to be. Few of those have been subjected to the above treatment for memetic usage and those that have tend to be in serif font on an old parchment backdrop to signify ‘Ye Olde’. No, now we use quotes possibly made up by the typer or quotes that are truncated or poorly sourced and most of the time not attributed, just simply encased in quotation marks like the grammatical version of holy water.

Tumblr is where these go to garner the most ‘likes’ and views but equally where aphorisms go to die. Few ‘good’ aphorisms make it through the Meme generator as they require thought and effort to understand, this is not what the internet at large wants. It wants something quick and easy to digest but then it is not an aphorism. Then. Then it is a platitude. And platitudes ARE dangerous.

The various quotes that are the currency of tumblr can be deployed at the drop of a hat. There is even a meme that states “All females have 50 screenshotted quotes waiting in their album ready to post when shit goes down”. What this means is their currency is inherently valueless, they become an echo chamber, a feedback loop. There is a quote or aphorism for any given emotion, topic or experience and for every side of the issue. There are even old sayings that contradict one another: “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” & “Out of sight, Out of mind” being the most obvious. The picture of a balloon with an instagram filter on it with the words “you let me go” etched in faux typewriter font is sat alongside “Society often forgives the criminal, it never forgives the dreamer” and both given equal worth because of their context. Your way of thinking can be bolstered by a meme quote even if you know you are wrong. When “shit goes down” it should be a time for contemplation, serious thought. If you have separated from the one you love being told that “Love is blind” by a friend can cause you to analyse both your own motives and the person you are separated from’s, as apposed to the tumblr  equivalent of “There are plenty more fish in the sea”.

Tumblr’s platitudes promote inaction and uncritical thought, they are affirmations that you were doing it right all along and that you should carry on as you are. This is wholly wrong. Aphorisms, true aphorisms, stem from the poetic mode of compression and that in turn requires personal involvement on your part. It should be ambiguous, it should stir questions not set you at ease. The reason I was riled to be so vitriolic and sweary in this post is that the kind of childish ill-thought out platitudes I see all over social media have now worked their way into speech and interaction not simply the passive aggressive posting on facebook etc. People use these meaningless non-quotes in conversations as cappers on an argument or discussion like that quote ends it. No! A good aphorism or quote should further the debate, should deepen the turn of conversation not end it because whoever the quote is attributed to says so. My father knew this and I now realise why he declaimed the Coelho book as dangerous, as they were not aphorisms, they did not challenge, they did not deepen or contradict your current thinking, they affirmed it.

In the film ‘The Rock’ by Michael Bay, Ed Harris is talking to Sean Connery and quotes Thomas Jefferson saying “The Tree of Liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants” to which Connery’s character replies “Patriotism is a virtue of the vicious” which is, of course, Oscar Wilde. In the context of the scene, for such a silly action movie, this actually gives something of a profound weight to both characters and their motivations in the smallest amount of screen time and even just reading them together would give one pause to consider the necessity of patriotism. That is what great language can do.

So the next time you see one of those, oh so pretty, like-baiting quotes over a pretty dull image shoved through an IG filter stop before liking or reposting just because you thought “Yeah! It IS like that isn’t it? That thing. Yeah.” Because that’s what the meme is for but it doesn’t help you or anyone else, it just exists as a digital water wheel, cycling round and round taking what it already had right back where it took it from. Then respond to that post critically, reply with your OWN quote, a more ambiguous one. The great people who said these things were challenging you to see the world anew not telling you everything is fine the way it is.

“To speak with another’s tongue, is to be silent” – Leo Cookman, 2015

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P.S. Checkout these tumblr parodies to see the absurdity of this pernicious trend. I laughed till I cried looking at them and the originals deserve our contempt.

 

In Search of The Worry

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I was watching broadcast television at the beginning of the year at a friends house. My friend and I were babysitting and being forced to endure some inexplicable kids show. During the ad break there was an toy advertisement for something called ‘Worry Eaters’. Children are to write down their worries and concerns and feed them to these knitted creatures who devour and digest the issue and presumably absolve the child. I was struck dumb by this; In a world where children can be prescribed anti-depressants toys are now marketed specifically for the purpose of removing anxiety from children.

The Worry Eater dolls are German in origin and probably have some sort of cultural or folk lore precedence, akin to native American ‘Dream Catchers’. The idea of making an intuitive worry or fear a physical object  so as to dispense with it is an old one practiced by witch doctors and shamans since early man but this was normally perceived as a supernatural concern and one that was not usual to afflict children specifically. The dolls themselves are cute-ified monsters and were apparently quite a hot seller at Christmas so can only be seen as a reflection of something that is a growing prevalence in the young. That they are scared and anxious, even depressed at an age when we assume it is all puppy dogs tails and playing Tag.

In the brief bit of research I made on these toys the highest entry on Google was, alas, the Daily Mail with its typically reactionary and scare-mongering article about how this is an epidemic and no doubt that “something must be done” or “ban this filth”. I don’t know, I didn’t read that far because as I began reading the drivel about why the BBC/the Labour Party/Immigrants/ Benefit Scroungers were to blame for this epidemic my eyes flitted to the side bar of latest articles all containing a montage image with a click-bait headline. Normally involving a half-naked woman or some sort of lascivious detail. This basically explained everything I needed to know.

Historically we have fewer cases of ‘Anxiety’. That’s not to say it didn’t exist but I doubt we had as sophisticated diagnoses or diction to describe this mental state prior to the mid 20th century. Before psychoanalysis developed these kind of mental afflictions were probably described as ‘ Fatigue Syndrome’ or ‘Exhaustion’  etc. You need only read a 19th century novel to see how many people collapsed from ‘Shock’ or a similar ailment  and then put that alongside a modern Panic Attack to see that a similar problem did occur but it does seem to be a much higher percentage of people suffer from these kind of mental health issues today. I wrote about the growing number of Mental Health patients on the NHS in another post but this notion of children suffering to the extent even their toys are used as a way of relieving symptoms of anxiety, stress and depression leads me to some different rather more horrifying conclusions.

Recently I have been reading a lot more Horror. This was prompted by watching the first series of True Detective which under the guise of American Gothic storytelling told a truly murky, bleak and horrific tale of cosmic horror, incorporating the intertextual horror of the likes of Ambrose Bierce, Robert Chambers and HP Lovecraft. Delving into this world of episodic cosmic horror has been quite a revelatory thing for me. This kind of writing, far from giving you a monster or ghost to fear simply gives you yourself and the cold, uncaring universe which, frankly, is the most chilling thing of all. The fallibility of our minds and our temperaments and the perilous knife edge on which we survive against incredible odds everyday should be enough to chill anyone’s blood. Lovecraft wrote at a time when we were learning more and more about our place in the universe and when civil rights was at a tipping point (Lovecraft himself was a notorious racist with some dodgy opinions on sex and women to boot) and crafted these feelings of being buried under a tide he could not fight or little comprehend by personifying them as ineffable monstrosities from beyond the stars.

Today we are bombarded with information, development and growth of our species that only serves to place us sheep in a vast herd, desperately bleating for significance on a windswept rock on a lonely mountain. That is enough to make anyone anxious. As our populace grows and we create more to distract ourselves and try so hard to ensure the fleeting breath between cradle and grave have some lasting meaning the more we will feel the crushing weight of nothingness that surrounds our little blue dot pressing down on us. The more we search outside ourselves the more we discover and the more alone we feel. The growth of apocalyptic fiction in recent years is a good indicator of this mentality too. we hope for a reset or a recasting in a world that makes more sense, where one person can make a difference whereas in truth there is no purpose and we all know that, probably why so many billions still turn to faith to salvage their sanity and hope there is something beyond that infinite black. All of which recalls Neitzsche’s warning of  “Gaze not into the abyss for the abyss gazes also into you”.

So yes Daily Mail, anxiety and its fellow mental health issues is a more modern problem but is probably a symptom of humanity coming to terms with our own growth and development, a mental evolution following our physical one, the awkward teenage years of the human race as it realises its powerlessness and insignificance in the face of a much larger world. For me as a teenager I took any method I could to relieve that fear and worry so personally I think everyone should have a worry eater doll if it makes you feel better.

Sold Out

judas

Once upon a time there was a notion, seen as unforgivable, called  “selling out”. This was the idea that your integrity in whatever field was up for sale and whatever it was you had to offer, once bought, could never be retrieved as it was now “sold out”. It is often used in reference to artists of various kinds. The most egregious cases of selling out were when it was to do with advertising. It is often used as a weapon by seething rivals to wave at their more successful peers to draw attention to their lack of integrity and that their talents are for sale to the highest bidder. Some would argue, however, that utilising the money and exposure offered by some form of larger cultural presence, such as a business etc, is a great thing as it allows the artist to develop without the constraints of poverty and allows a greater audience to see their work. In a capitalist society the latter is generally seen as the focus for any artist but never more so than now.

The notion of “selling out” is all but gone today. The young creative sector of society’s only goal today is to sell their creations or  ‘content’ to the highest bidder at the earliest available opportunity. Youtuber’s (almost universally between the ages of 16 to 26) main aim is to gain a large enough following to tempt companies to advertise on their channel for an intermittent and wildly unrepresentative fee, singers and musicians believe their only route into success is to now use the various television “talent” contests developed purely to make money for the hosts and to be owned, wholesale, by the promotion company owned by oily, bleach toothed, hair dyed, billionaires. Fine artists and graphic designer’s greatest goal seems to be that their art is used in an advertising campaign.

Then there are the deluded artists (like me) who believe that integrity is all that matters when it comes to art, in whatever form. That believe art should not be censored or compromised for any reason, least of all money. That any creation is compromised the moment it requires substantial financial input, because that means that there a many more vested interests that believe they know how best to create the thing for the maximum return on investment. Whilst larger artistic works certainly require involvement from people other than the artist to create a piece, there tends to be a guiding hand. Which is where the idea of selling out came in. To make a film say, requires a lot of money up front to develop and produce and in western society that is an investment (and a high risk one at that) and the more input from outside sources the less control there is from the artist but for a book say it just requires the writer and their editor, right? Not any more. The publisher needs to cover costs too and the Big Six publishing houses need to turn over massive profits every year to maintain their lists so there will be executive input there too. What this amounts to is the fact that if you create anything of any kind your next step to being able to earn money from it is to literally sell it i.e. give away the thing you have created for a fee so it no longer belongs to you. Many business minded people would see not agreeing with this as precious but many artists (like me) see this sale as an unnecessary step it the creative process.

I think this death of the idea of selling out is largely due to the death of foundations, institutions and bodies that would assist artists or talents in their develop with the knowledge they would not make their money back, that their investment in culture was the return. In an age where universities now charge £9k per year – a figure set to rise in the coming few years – and where students are treated as consumers and then duly act like consumers, their education a commodity, the notion of social enterprise for no financial reward is an unthinkable concept. Therefore any creator’s drives must be largely financially minded today, you can no longer want to do something creative purely for the sake of creation, there must be recompense. As such, you must then sell. This sale is so much part of every industry today it isn’t even referred to so selling your product isn’t an unpleasant route that some artists or creations mistakenly take to be rich and famous, it is the goal in western (but let’s be honest, global too) society.

My utter utter despair at my fellow countrymen at the beginning of May for voting in such an unashamedly cowardly and self-centred way was also tempered with surprise at my own naivety that people would not vote for the outwardly cruel and despicable bunch of self serving cunts we now have in power by virtue of the slimmest majority possible. Scotland and Ireland voted (rightly) for themselves and so did England. The majority of voters in England sold out any notion of integrity for personal gain this last general election because they voted for their own pockets, to stay rich, middle class and take care of themselves and their own families knowing full well they were voting for five more years of food banks, public sector cuts, austerity, punishing the poorest and sickest in society and generally a government that any so-called ‘civilised’ country would be ashamed to have rule them. That to me, is the definition of “selling out” and the simple fact that but for one march in London little has been done or said to protest this fact means this mentality is the prevailing wind in this country I now bitterly call home.

I don’t deny I want to be a published author still as I would like to make a living from my writing but in light of our current regime and overall disgust with the attitude of the people in England I am more resolute in my desire than ever to not accept that to succeed is to be selfish. To truly succeed is to be selfless. Altruism outlives you and affects far more than your children or grandchildren. I have been long-term unemployed for the last 3 years (yet mercifully found a job just as the money obsessed Conservatives gained power) and was able to survive purely through the kindness of other people. My Dad was not wealthy and I did not inherit any great deal of money but I did inherit a support network of hundreds of people who have all in small or large ways kept me going over the last three years. I can tell you who hasn’t: British social institutions, our government and by extension our society as a whole. Every time I went to institutions for help they were either entirely unhelpful or incredibly bitter that they had to help me at all and when they did it was made as difficult for me as possible to garner any assistance at any turn. I was made to feel like a criminal and villain simply for the unforgivable crime of not earning money. This sanctified notion of “working families” that is all any political party cares about. The government sells its wares and expects returns despite being malfunctioning and piss-poor in its delivery and effects, my Father gave his away and his legacy is still present today. The same goes for most of the good people I know. If you sell yourself all you get in return is more money which many say is enough, I don’t. I’m greedy. I want to be happy and want other people to be happy and safe and fulfilled and creative. Money never has been able to and never will be able to purchase that.

Judas Iscariot was paid 30 pieces of silver for betraying Jesus’ trust and in so doing, causing Jesus’ death and then later his own suicide. All for 30 pieces of silver. Those coins are long since lost (if they ever existed) and would never be recognised amongst the currency of the day as it is. Judas sold out, it earned him little but cost him everything.

If you are looking for compassion here in England now, I’m sorry. We’re all sold out.

The Other’s Way

Benjamin Franklin's cartoon of the Colonial Union in America from 1754
Benjamin Franklin’s cartoon of the Colonial Union in America from 1754

The Other is a philosophical idea coined by Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel in the 18th century. It posits that the idea of one’s Self is defined by exterior forces, or an Other. The Other is not us but it shapes us. As babies we exist in a world of pure self, similar to dreaming, we can see and hear only indistinct shapes and sounds. When a baby moves its arm it does not understand why the rest of the world does not come with it, as the child grows it separates further from this world as it realises its own desires and pains are unique and distinct from it. Over the years we refine this into seeing into a broader sense of ‘Self’; the self of community, family, ideology and so on. This serves an evolutionary purpose as it is what helped early man hunt in packs, have a tribe that would look after children etc. This kind of “social reflex”, as Pavlov put it, can be seen in any church, a human need to metaphorically huddle together for warmth, to create a community. We see anything like us or with the same values as being like ourselves. A high and definable sense of self is healthy and natural.

But what of the Other?

The Other is all that we fear. It is all the things we are not. The Other stands against us, moulding us and shaping us. The Other is basically anything and everything we are not or we do not identify with and on a deep level we, for good reason, mistrust this. We have personified this hard-to-define Other as the ubiquitous ‘They’. “They don’t care”, “They are wrong”, “They think it is stupid” and so on. How often do we say “It’s raining”? Who is this ‘It’? The world? The It and They are the Other that we have created so we can stand as an individual in our lives. It is a ‘necessary evil’.

Far be it from me to question the father of modern philosophy but I don’t think Hegel’s idea of the Other is helpful anymore. Why am I saying this? Because we have an Election coming up here in the UK and that Other is being used really rather terrifyingly to remove our liberties and sway our decisions.

The Other is now so ingrained as a human model in the social sciences we never question it and it is part of our speech but this idea is now being used to manipulate people. You need only look at any advertising campaign to see how the Self is used to make you think you are missing out on the product or service they are selling: “Doctors recommend”, “here for you”, “real beauty campaign”. In short they say these people are you or are part of you culture/experience and they use this product and/or service so if you want to remain part of this social self then you had better buy into this. What troubles me the most is how insidiously the notion of the Other is being used. The rise of a Nu-Right in British politics is a prime example of this. UKIP stands on one policy: Immigration. The very notion of Immigration is a Hegelian legacy writ large – “THEY ARE NOT FROM HERE. THEY ARE NOT YOU. BE AFRAID.” UKIP uses this evolutionary fear of the outsider on which to base its policies. George W. Bush summed up this notion during the height of the “War on Terror” by stating simply: “Why do they hate us?” The Other is the language of politics, the ‘if-you’re-not-with-us-you’re-against-us’ mentality is now so loudly trumpeted it is deafening in the run up to the Election.

This needs to change.

I make no claim to being a great cultural theorist or critic but I am able to see problems where there are clearly problems. The notion of the Other was co-opted by Nazism, McCarthy-ism and eastern European communism in the 20th century to generate hate for people that were considered ‘Not Us’. For the Nazis it was non-Aryan people, for the Communists it was Capitalists and for the Capitalists it was the Communists. And we know how that all turned out. UKIP and the Conservatives, more so than any other parties, not only speak the language of the Other but actively propagate our hatred of them and drive a greater wedge between the Self and the Other. Yes, I am comparing UKIP and Tories to Nazis because it is the same ideology that drives them. A few friends of mine are academics and they have nothing but contempt for George Orwell’s novel 1984. This surprised me as I rather like that book and it has proved startlingly pertinent (ironically, since 1984). When I asked why he hated it, my friend pointed out “it has done more for the rhetoric of the Right than it has for the Left”. The more I thought about this the more I realised how easy it was for the Right to co-opt this vision of the future as the Other and use it to their advantage. You hold up the nightmare of big brother and parody it, make it a TV show, laugh at how wrong Orwell was, show how luxurious we all have it, create a new middle class that has everything with its iPhones and internet and loudly cry: “We’re not like that grey dystopia!” “Nobody wants an Orwellian regime” “This is why 1984 won’t be like 1984” all the while Edward Snowden points out exactly how we are having our liberties taken from us. A fascist culture of control is never going to be like 1984 because it can’t happen like that, we would see it coming. The true 21st Century oppressive society is one of extreme decadence, giving everyone what they want so we can continue to live happily with this sense of self, meanwhile ostracising, vilifying and ultimately destroying The Other. I would hope I am not perceived as ‘Other’ in that scenario…

This is not a new cultural theory and seems resoundingly hysterical to posit that we are heading for another controlling system of Government but every time I look at a news outlet or talk to my friends in any industry this is all I ever hear. That our culture and society is being shaped to fit a very small percentage of people with substantial penalties if you fail to comply. This CANNOT be allowed to go on. The world is changing and everything we consider the norm is going to be very different by the end of our children’s generation. We can no longer fear the outsider, we are literally running out of time. With the growth in communication and the distribution of knowledge the world is a tiny place and there is no excuse not to understand or communicate with one another. Borders are human inventions built to keep this ‘Other’ out, the cities and their industries came first and then the borders were built up around them to create a stronger sense of self. These borders are actively being felled both metaphorically and literally every day. To quote a recent blockbuster “We must not act as individuals but as a species”. Do not listen to the backwards thinking of the modern Right because it is so transparently and incredibly damaging we may not be able to recover.

The reason I am saying all this is because the Election looms here in the UK and we really badly need a change. I won’t tell you who to vote for but I can’t in good conscience say it is okay to vote for either UKIP or Conservative. What I will say is that EVERY VOTE counts, really and truly and deeply. I am writing another post to follow this about why you should vote but for now hopefully you will be given an inkling into why we should mistrust the established political model and the language they use but instead of simply removing the voting system as the Russell Brands of the world would have us do the best we can do is nail our colours to the mast so the mast is weighed down with sails and flags of every colour. If we do that it shows a faith in a DEMOCRATIC system that we all want to be involved in, a system we all consider part of our Self. If we can take that back maybe then we can start listening to that Other and maybe help shape it as well as it shape us.

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Register to vote here.

Have a look at who you should be voting for here.

UKIP Manifesto Here

Labour Manifesto Here (pdf)

Sort of Tory Manifesto Here (an actual manifesto by them is actually hard to find but they are banging the Economy drum hard apparently) and their pledge on Europe here (pdf).

Green Manifesto Here

SNP Manifesto Here

Plaid Cymru Manifesto Here

Liberal Democrat Manifesto Here

All you need is right there. Please register to vote. At least enter the debate. Apathy and ignorance are no longer (and never have been) an excuse.

Thank you.

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