Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Top intellectuals "coming apart before our eyes"

"The idea of Europe is in peril."

Really? That surprises me. Evidence?

"From all sides there are criticisms, insults and desertions from the cause."

OK. If I understand you right, you are defending a Europe, or "an idea of Europe" in which "criticisms" and "insults" cannot be tolerated. Or - let's break down the process - in which initially mild "criticisms" are loftily ignored by a bureaucratic elite, to a point where frustration builds up and "insults" begin to be heard.  And then, when even these are ignored, or are responded to with further "insults", you affect to be surprised that "desertions" begin to take place. Is that it?

“Enough of ‘building Europe’!” is the cry."

Wait a moment. You said that the idea of Europe is in peril. Which idea, precisely, do you mean? I ask because the notion of Europe as a continent has been in circulation at least since Herodotus, and was well established in intellectual common currency by the Late Medieval. It is therefore hard to imagine that such a venerable and useful idea as "let's draw a line roughly down through the Caucasus crest and give the landmass to the West a special name in recognition of its shared history" is going to disappear simply, as you suggest, as a result of a sudden swathe of poor electoral choices.

Let's be clear then. What is in peril, according to you, is not "the" idea of Europe, but A PARTICULAR idea of Europe, one which you happen to approve of. If so, why not come out and say it? What's wrong with being honest?

“Enough of ‘building Europe’!” is the cry. Let’s reconnect instead with our “national soul”! Let’s rediscover our “lost identity”! This is the agenda shared by the populist forces washing over the continent. Never mind that abstractions such as “soul” and “identity” often exist only in the imagination of demagogues."

If such abstractions only existed in the minds of a demagogues, it is hard to see what danger there could possibly be. If I stand on a soapbox and tell curious crowds that we must reconnect with our "national cohnbendit", it is unlikely that I will gain a large following among the majority who confessedly have no idea what a "cohnbendit" is or might be. Once again, try being honest. You know perfectly well that "soul" and "identity" are abstractions that exist in the minds, not only of the demagogues, but of the large numbers of people who form their natural or target constituency. While ill-defined, and thus vulnerable to manipulative resignification, the concepts are not meaningless. For example, ask a sample of Dutch citizens whether they regard the opera as part of their "national identity", then ask a sample of Italians, and compare the results. If "national identity" was a meaningless term, you would not get those results.

People have an idea of their country. Its name evokes images in their minds. Some of these have strong emotional associations. This should not be a problem (unless the images in question involve, say, pogroms or book-burnings, and the emotional connotations accruing thereto are positive, which I suspect is not the case outside of the diseased imaginations of a tiny number of psychotic extremists, if that).

And if such vague but benign notions of national identity are not a problem per se, nor appear to contradict the existence of an "idea of Europe", why do the demagogues (as you describe them) find it necessary to place "reconnecting with the national soul" in opposition to "building Europe", as you say they do? Might it not be because there is a particular "idea of Europe" - the one you defend here - that is perceived as a threat to this "national identity"?

Wrongly perceived, you will perhaps reply. Well, maybe so. If you want to make the case that there is no necessary opposition between your "idea of Europe" and, say, a Brit's "idea of Britain" or "national identity", that the two can coexist in perfect harmony, fine, I'll listen, and I might even end up agreeing with you if you make a good argument. But loftily and sneeringly dismissing "national identity" as a mere piddling "abstraction" is hardly a promising beginning to such an argument. After all, your "idea of Europe" is every bit as much an "abstraction" as the national identities you profess to despise... and, unfortunately for you, one that is far less widely shared, or stable, or evocative of strong feelings and loyalties.

"Europe is being attacked by false prophets who are drunk on resentment, and delirious at their opportunity to seize the limelight. It has been abandoned by the two great allies who in the previous century twice saved it from suicide; one across the Channel and the other across the Atlantic. The continent is vulnerable to the increasingly brazen meddling by the occupant of the Kremlin. Europe as an idea is falling apart before our eyes."

The first sentence here, with its coy refusal to name names, its incendiary rhetoric and almost complete lack of falsifiability, strikes me as a textbook example of demagoguery (that thing you were railing against in the previous paragraph), but let's leave that aside. What we find here is, first, a frank admission that the UK (that mere "ally...across the Channel") is not and never was an integral part of your "idea of Europe"; and second, an extraordinary rewriting of history, whereby the sacrifice of 20 million Russians who also helped to "save [Europe] from suicide" merits not the barest mention.

Once again, let's be clear. The people who saved Europe from suicide in the last century are not to be found in the governments of any country today, nor are they represented by those governments. Those heroes have not "abandoned" anyone or anything. But if we think their sacrifice was important, we could do worse than remind ourselves what it is they thought they were fighting for. No, you tell me. You're the Top Intellectuals. Put that fragile ideal into words. I dare you.

This is the noxious climate in which Europe’s parliamentary elections will take place in May. Unless something changes; unless something comes along to turn back the rising, swelling, insistent tide; unless a new spirit of resistance emerges, these elections promise to be the most calamitous that we have known. They will give a victory to the wreckers. For those who still believe in the legacy of Erasmus, Dante, Goethe and Comenius there will be only ignominious defeat. A politics of disdain for intelligence and culture will have triumphed. There will be explosions of xenophobia and antisemitism. Disaster will have befallen us.

Nobody sane wants explosions of xenophobia and antisemitism. If we are serious about opposing these destructive forces, we need to look at what might be causing them. Here are a couple of summary analyses:

 (A) These unpleasant consequences derive from the unwillingness of the dull-witted, uneducated masses, prey to the blandishments of "demagogues" and "false prophets", to kowtow humbly to the "intelligence and culture" of their betters, specifically the powerful, unelected lunimaries of the EU's policymaking superstructure.

(B) These unpleasant consequences derive from a combination of global economic downturn (2008 onwards) and the rise of populist political forces taking electoral advantage of genuine, palpable failings in the political system in which they find themselves.

Personally, I find (B) not only more persuasive, but also more constructive as an analysis,. Rather than indulging in handwringing over the alleged stupidity of the masses (to which the only short-term solution would appear to be some sort of massive onslaught of propaganda and attempted brainwashing, along the lines of what you say the Kremlin is doing, but this time conducted by the "right" machiavellians), I prefer to think that there are specific political issues that need solving, and that the best way to find out what these are is to listen to the views of the electorate in the countries in question. Furthermore, I also find it highly significant that the rise of populist political tendencies has turned out to be not a local or national but a continent-wide phenomenon.  This would suggest that at least part of the problem that needs to be fixed is likewise continent-wide in scope. I don't want to be excessively reductionist or simplistic, and I'm not going to advance the absurd proposition that the EU is the source of all Europe's current ills; but it does at least seem, prima facie, to be more a part of the problem than anything else.

"We count ourselves among the European patriots (a group more numerous than is commonly thought, but that is often too quiet and too resigned), who understand what is at stake here. Three-quarters of a century after the defeat of fascism and 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall there is a new battle for civilisation."

I personally have never met a European patriot. That is, I have never met anyone who would be willing to march into battle to the strains of An die Freude. I can't say that I'm sorry. I'll take your word that this is not an empty set, but you haven't given me any reason to care what such an exotic coterie of people might think.

I agree that civilization is not a given, and has to be fought for. In fact, I think this proposition might command near-universal assent among the very deluded, unwashed masses you so pompously rail against. Perhaps the difference is what is understood by civilization, and what is considered a threat to it.

I have written endlessly on this elsewhere, but if you want a summary of what I think: civilization is a state of affairs likely to obtain in a society wherein certain basic freedoms are guaranteed and no one has too much power; current threats are varied, but include authoritarianism; the accumulation of power by unaccountable bodies remote from the citizens they purport to serve; dogmatism and illiberalism visible in a proliferation of petty regulations (corruptissima re publica plurimae leges); in some cases, frontal attacks on ancient freedoms; and increased social polarization derived from the aforementioned broken covenant between citizenry and government, in which the EU is complicit insofar as it has spent the last forty years undermining the accountability of national democracies to their voters, in part by providing them with the perfect alibi for poor decisions and fatalistic inaction.

Our faith is in the great idea that we inherited, which we believe to have been the one force powerful enough to lift Europe’s peoples above themselves and their warring past. We believe it remains the one force today virtuous enough to ward off the new signs of totalitarianism that drag in their wake the old miseries of the dark ages. What is at stake forbids us from giving up.

I find the word "virtuous" in the above sticks out like a sore thumb. So this is where we're at now? "My Europe is more virtuous than yours"? Likewise, "above themselves" is very, shall we say, Freudian. You just can't help it, can you, Top Intellectuals. Every word here drips with lofty, supercilious contempt for the common citizen.

I won't bother quoting the rest, although the peroration is interesting:

In this strange defeat of “Europe” that looms on the horizon; this new crisis of the European conscience that promises to tear down everything that made our societies great, honourable, and prosperous, there is a challenge greater than any since the 1930s: a challenge to liberal democracy and its values.

Yes - there is a challenge. No - the EU (your blinkered, elitist, romantic and authoritarian notion of "Europe", so elaborately disguised and tricked out here) has nothing to do with what made "our societies" great and honourable, or even prosperous (such prosperity as we saw in Europe prior to 2008 was the direct result of the single market, and not of the ECJ, the Commission, the EP or the Brussels Gravy Train). If the intention is to counter authoritarianism, xenophobia, antisemitism, religious interference in secular matters, neo-Nazism or islamofascism, we are all on the same side. If the aim, as it rather seems here, is to defend the corrupt institutions of a bloated and outdated centralised political federation whose long-term mission creep has, in the course of the Brexit negotiations, boiled over into blatant revanchism and the most sinister form of overreach, then I'm afraid that, if you want to get anyone on board your proposed new "surge", you're going to have to hold your Top Intellectual noses, come down from your ivory tower and actually engage with the European citizens you so openly despise: perhaps, even, by actually presenting, in place of the overblown High School rhetoric, some cogent arguments.

Or have today's "intellectuals" forgotten how to do that? I've often wondered this of late.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Row Jimmy

Older incarnations of this blog had songs pulled from YT as a regular feature (one day I might even get round to tagging them). Sometimes there'd be brief commentary, most times not. This morning I had the idea of using this space to annotate some more music, in the hope that my favourite elusive mythical beast, the Actual Blog Visitor, might discover something they liked. Seems a harmless enough activity for a Sunday night. Seems a common way to go, even.

"Row Jimmy" appeared on the Grateful Dead's Wake of the Flood album, which along with various other Dead albums, and a smattering of prog and Motown soul, provided much of the backing track to a goodly chunk of my unspent, bedroom-bound, lightly sozzled adolescence. Forty-odd years later, I still like both the song and the album.

At that time, the meaning and reference of the lyrics of Row Jimmy seemed fairly obvious to me, apart from the cryptic middle 8. Since then, courtesy the Internet, I've discovered that my naive teenage interpretation is endorsed by precisely no one else, and certainly not by the lyricist, Robert Hunter. However, there doesn't seem to be a canonical, coherent alternative, so I'm sticking to my fanciful "antebellum Mississippi" version. Here's a short extract from where I got it from:

“I see a light a-comin’ roun’ de p’int bymeby, so I wade’ in en shove’ a log ahead o’ me en swum more’n half way acrost de river, en got in ’mongst de drift-wood, en kep’ my head down low, en kinder swum agin de current tell de raff come along. Den I swum to de stern uv it en tuck a-holt. It clouded up en ’uz pooty dark for a little while. So I clumb up en laid down on de planks. De men ’uz all ’way yonder in de middle, whah de lantern wuz. De river wuz a-risin’, en dey wuz a good current; so I reck’n’d ’at by fo’ in de mawnin’ I’d be twenty-five mile down de river, en den I’d slip in jis b’fo’ daylight en swim asho’, en take to de woods on de Illinois side."

Attentive readers will recognise the accents of Jim, the escaping slave in Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, describing the first stage of his bid for freedom. I'd read this book a few years before I came across the Dead, but still had it fresh in my mind, and it seemed to me plain enough that the Jimmy of the song title was this Jim, or someone very like him, and the "rowing" of the chorus was his method of escape (OK, so you don't "row" a raft. A mere quibble, if you'd asked me). The detail fell into place easily enough:

Julie catch a rabbit by his hair
Come back steppin' like to walk on air:
"Get back home where you belong
and don't you run off no more!"

I'm not sure there's a Julie in Huckleberry Finn, though there is a Judith. Maybe Miss Watson, Jim's "owner", was called Julie? At any rate, here she catches Jim, or another slave - the figurative "rabbit" - in an earlier escape bid, and tells him to get back home and not run off no more.

Don't hang your head let the two-time roll
Grass shack nailed to a pine wood floor
Ask the time - "Baby I don't know:
Come back later, gonna let it show"

I tended to vacillate between the speaker, here and passim, being Jim talking to himself, or being a sympathetic third party (someone like Huck, or Tom): it didn't seem to matter much. "Don't hang your head" : try not to look guilty while you're planning your next escape bid. "Let the two-time roll": practise dissembling. "Grass shack": Jim's current accommodation. He needs to know the time as part of his carefully devised plan: his interlocutor doesn't know, but promises to give him a signal when the moment is right to head down the river bank.

And I say row, Jimmy row
Gonna get there? I don't know
Seems a common way to go
Get down and row, row, row, row, row

Self explanatory. "There", presumably the North, and freedom.

Here's a half a dollar if you dare
double twist when you hit the air
Look at Julie down below
the levee doin' the do-pas-o

A benefactor has given Jim money to help him in his escape attempt. He has to swim out (as in the book), and perform an evasive manoeuvre in the water ("double twist") when he comes up for air, in case anyone tries to shoot him. Before he can make it to the river, he finds himself peering from a wood above the riverbank, looking down on the townspeople, including Julie, crowded around the levee, almost as if there was a country dance (do paso) going on there (I think do paso is a contraction of dos pasos, which would be a two-step, though in archaic Spanish it might also mean "where did he go")

repeat chorus

Broken heart don't feel so bad
Ain't got half of what you thought you had

I have always loved Hunter for these lines. Regardless of what you make of the rest of the song, they are perfect. A subject for another post, perhaps, but yes: one day you realise you never had the friends you thought you did, and a whole other emotional weather system (loneliness, a broken heart) installs itself in your soul, and you then realise that, well, it's something you can, despite earlier fears, adjust to well enough.

Rock your baby to and fro
Not too fast and not too slow

(? A far fetched interpretation would have the "baby" as a raft or canoe or similar conveyance, but I never really bothered to think these lines through. They just feel right.)

repeat chorus

That's the way it's been in town
ever since they tore the juke-box down
Two-bit piece don't buy no more
not so much as it done before

OK, this part always floored me, though if you pushed me I'd say the sort of people who tear down jukeboxes are just exactly the same sort of people who would have had slaves and hunted them when they ran away, and that we are all of us (slaves or not) the worse for their interventions ("two-bit piece don't buy no more"). Empathetic identification with the downtrodden? Good enough, or not, you decide.

repeat chorus, end

The music. The beginning of the song always sounds unexpectedly slow and dragging, and the rhythm throughout seems calculated to evoke slowness, stoicism and dogged determination, with extra bars of repeated cadences thrown in here and there to emphasize slowness and difficulty. The harmonies are simple and appear to want to evoke a rustic, backwater, country feel. The ethereal backing vocals on the chorus suggest isolation and a nocturnal ambience. Garcia's vocals, sad and elegiac. Ghostly feeling in the outro, as if the camera ends on a wide shot of the river just before dawn. A simple song, but nothing missing, a nuanced instrumental accompaniment that never merely repeats anything, and as much emotional depth as you want to put into it.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Nicely trust, and served with sprouts

Not quite a microcuento but still:

"So you say you have proof that I agreed to have five dollars deducted monthly from my account for this hokey insurance deal?"

"We do. We have a recording of your voice agreeing to this, over the telephone."

"You recorded my voice on the phone?"

"Yes, we did. One of our agents phoned you and sold you our insurance package. Don't you remember?"

"In other words, you recorded my voice saying 'yes' to an unrelated question, then spliced that with a separate recording of an operative asking me if I wanted to pay five dollars." The aggrieved customer (whom we shall call Pussy Cinderwell, although her real name is not this, in fact being a fictional character she doesn't have a real name) paused for a moment, fiddling with her cellphone during the ensuing polite silence. "Well, can I hear the recording?"

"Certainly, Miss Cinderwell. Just one moment." Mr Smugglebrowe pressed a few keys. Out of his laptop speaker, the following exchange could be heard, in a tinny recording punctuated by unexplained clicks:
Voice 1: Would you like to pay five dollars a month, deducted from your credit card account indefinitely, for a totally worthless insurance package that guarantees a fully paid-for burial in the event of apocalyptic nuclear holocaust and not much else?
Voice 2 (Miss Cinderwell's own): Yes. Yes, of course. 
Mr Smugglebrowe sat back and hoisted an eyebrow as Pussy fiddled again with her cellphone.

"So if this goes to court, you will use this recording as evidence I agreed to purchase this insurance?"

"Certainly we will."

"I see. Well, in that case you will not mind if I use a recording of my own. Here..." She tapped the screen of her cellphone, and the following was instantly heard:

"In other words, you recorded my voice saying 'yes' to an unrelated question, then spliced that with a separate recording of an operative asking me if I wanted to pay five dollars."
"Yes, we did. "
Moral: every time you pick up the phone, make sure you have Rimsky-Korsakov playing in the background. Though on reflection, I'm not sure that even this provides a complete guarantee against forgery when it comes to the crunch.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

How to lose friends and influence nobody

If you're a Hollywood director, you'll know that a "teacher" is someone who stalks about the timbered end of a classroom, firing off Socratic questions and pertinent facts, a tall ship in the centre of a small inland sea of rapt attention. Girls prop their chins on their hands and gaze adoringly at him (sic). Behind him, waves of untidy equations rise and fall on a seasick blackboard. At some point, this "teacher" may instruct students to rip up a book or stand on a desk: querulously or with alacrity, it shall be done. And of course, years later, he'll be remembered with a mixture of amused affection and reverence. This blameless, worthy soul, dedicated to the disinterested pursuit of knowledge, will have "changed lives" almost in spite of himself. Friendship, maybe not so much, but influence, well, he's practically got the patent on it.

I am not this "teacher".

I don't know whether he really exists. Perhaps he does. I've never considered myself typical of anything, least of all my profession. But I have to say that the teacher in Floyd's Wall, pettily sadistic when not being beaten to within inches of his life in some unspeakable domestic Gehenna, or the one in Breaking Bad who moonlights in a car wash, there to be humiliated by his more affluent pupils, or (especially) the one in Python's Meaning of Life, whose exhibition of coital exertions proves less interesting to students than the rival charms of a sleeping ocarina, seems to me a more realistic depiction of the profession. While it is possible that all of them exerted some sort of "influence" over their students, this influence clearly wasn't in the direction the teacher himself might have wanted or hoped. If he ever once resolved to set an example, he is long since resigned to being merely a cautionary tale. That's why, when I worked in a High School, I decided to expedite this process, and make it clear to students from the start that, in my own estimation, I was what happened to people who had (materially speaking) failed in life, and that I saw my job as helping students to avoid falling into the hole I languished in. As a simple rule of thumb, kids: try to be as unlike me as you can.

Perhaps this philosophy goes some way towards explaining why, in over thirty years of teaching, I have never once, to my knowledge, influenced anyone, in or out of the classroom. I don't see that as a bad thing. None of my teachers at school or university influenced me, as far as I can tell, besides providing a rather boring fund of trivial reminiscences, none of them of dinner-table standard, that obtrude into my consciousness at odd moments, to be impatiently shooed away. But they did their job well enough, drilling me with Spanish irregular and radical-changing verbs, walking me through Newton's Thermodynamics, or convincing me that there was some mysterious entity in Darkest Europe called "the Palatinate" whose aimless wanderings around the German countryside reliably prefigured the downfall of empires and redrawing of alliances. My teachers, on the whole, were like me: self-evident losers, social cripples, refugees from that terrifying marketplace of unachievable skills that began just outside the playing fields and school walls. They were as far from positive role models as it's humanly possible to be: and one thing they certainly didn't do was help to determine my politics.

Do any teachers do this, ever? Has any attempt at "indoctrination", in a school or university setting, ever actually worked?

I look at myself and cannot see, for the life of me, any mechanism by which this aim could be achieved. If someone wanted to indoctrinate me, they would have to shoot their way through multiple defensive rings of scepticism, cynicism, and - arguably the most valuable weapon of the lot - dissimulation. If someone told me, for example, that "social justice" was a relevant consideration in my future profession, I would, in my English manner, nod and politely agree, while privately not believing a word, and dismissing my tutor as a tinfoil-hatted charlatan. Theoretically, I guess I might prove as vulnerable as the next boy to that elusive Hollywood creation, the teacher who seduces by example (a literature teacher who wrote literature, say, or a history teacher who made history, or a chemistry teacher who cooked crystal meth) but as I say, having never encountered any living members of the set, I tend to dismiss them as fabulous beasts. "If you can't do, teach" still seems to be the dominant paradigm, and we live in a world where it is getting harder and harder to tuck feet of clay out of reach of the corrosive fingers of social media. In short: to successfully influence others, it seems you have to be an ostentatiously and robustly good person, and in the twenty-first century, there are unfortunately no good people left, the entire species having been discreetly and accidentally rendered extinct between 1970 and now. What's left, let's face it, is at best simpatico, but hardly inspiring.

Of course, while not necessarily convincing us emotionally or intellectually, there is always Aristotle's ethos for the would-be social engineer to fall back on, an operating system weakness to which our post-truth headless-chicken society is peculiarly prone; and there is a type of person - my old friend Dolors used to call them ficheros planos - so mentally monochromatic as to be unable to separate the meme from the reality, the custom from the instinct, the slogan from the truth: a person, then, whose behaviour you can effectively condition entirely through the medium of tribal conformity, someone who without ever reaching any apogee of inspiration or enthusiasm, proves slavishly amenable to the Done Thing, in any one of its grotesquely fractured variants. These, if any, would be the natural constituency of would-be indoctrinators (these, or their very young kids, as per the Jesuitical method). I'm talking about the kind of person who will read online that a particular category of human (Jews, infidels, women, men, blacks, whites, people who breathe) are the source of all the world's problems, and, lurching across from screen text to the real-life basement, immediately conclude that it's not only OK, but actually rather chic, to stockpile ammunition, and then go out and mow down as many of those problematical sorts of people as possible - apparently unaware that those people whose admiration means so much to them do not actually mean what they write.

What is worrisome is that this sort of indoctrination via conditional inclusion seems to be, increasingly, the preferred method - certainly the one that enlists the greatest talent. One would like to think that the fichero plano is not such a common species of human, and that most people are at least canny enough to keep whatever petty hates they nurture safely out of reach of pipe bombs; yet even if most haters aren't murderers, dramatically increasing the total population of haters doesn't seem a very sensible way to run a society; and the trouble with inclusion, as I've noted elsewhere, is that for every person you include you have to exclude someone else, else inclusion means nothing; hence, using "if you agree with me, you can belong to my cosy Guardian-readin' peer group" as a psychological tool to enforce conformity, while sidestepping both reason and the demurer emotions, pretty much guarantees social division, polarization, strife, violence, in that order. Possibly chaos to finish up with.

There was an English philosopher early last century - can't remember the name right now - who held that morality, in Classical times, grew out of an obscure psycho-social phenomenon he liked to call "shame", before it was dragged off course by the metaphysical pretensions of various newfangled religions. At the time he wrote this, such a reading of history must have seemed frivolous, but it doesn't now, with the social media baton poised over our collective heads bearing that same word so thirty-six-pointedly inscribed on it. Today, "shaming tactics" so obviously represent the future of law enforcement that even the police are reaching for them - opening Twitter accounts in which to relay the Plod Guide to social conformity to a bemused world. If there's any way, any littl' ol' way at all, in which you can be induced to feel shame, and therefore manipulated, Mr Zuckerberg and friends would very much like to know about it - and know about it they will. It's probably time, therefore, that you stopped reacting so predictably to accusations of, say, sexism, misogyny, fascist or Nazi tendencies, racism, reddish-purplish-gammon supremacy, prozionism, antisemitism, maternal-basement-dwelling, small-penis-ownership, crypto-neoliberalism, or conspiracy to encircle Windsor Castle with Chinese restaurants, and recognise the obvious: that accusing you of any or all of the above is simply a baroque way to threaten punishment by social ostracism, and that such threats depend for their effect on your own tacit acceptance of the other's arrogated status as representative of "society". If all else fails, the Maggie Gambit will show you a way out of that one: there is, indeed, as it turns out, actually no such person as "society". And if this is so, straightforward logic insists that there is no reason anyone should ever experience shame (save in the presence of the Divine). It's a dumpster-scavenger of an emotion, and you are made for better things. (And so is morality.)

All of which is to say that I find the Bolsonarista denunciations - like Jordan Peterson's before them - of teachers who "indoctrinate" students by telling them stuff that ain't true - stuff that you can record, or videotape, or track to a course syllabus - naive. Not entirely wrong, but naive. It's not what teachers tell you - after all, the antidote to any claims made in a classroom are a mere Google fact-check away -  but what they threaten you with, even if only by implication. It's not what they say, it's the language in which they frame it, and the baggage those words carry with them. It's not what they say, but what they ostentatiously refuse to say, or furtively omit to mention. In terms of persuasive marketing methods, the dominant ideology has a head start on its competitors of a thousand leagues, and humble school or university teachers are far from being its shock troops: indeed, these days we are largely expendable. To put it another way, two lines of dialogue in a made-for-Netflix are worth a thousand lesson plans, in terms of access to the millennial mind. While the Right has marching hup and down the square, the Left has the whole Marvel Universe at its disposal. Not much of a contest, really.

Would I like to influence people? Not really. To do that, I would have to know stuff (stuff I could then influence them with, or over), and to be right about things, and that sounds like a deal of a lot of responsibility for someone with not many teeth and just half a lung. Still, and to get to the point: stop trying to tell me that Bolsonaro is wrong about letting people defend themselves with guns (try living in Brazil, or the Guasmo, and then tell me what better idea you have); stop trying to tell me he's wrong about feminism (the dictionary is now pretty much the only reduct where it isn't yet transparently a hate movement); stop trying to tell me he's wrong to say that putting people in "reservations", in this twenty-first century, is an obscenity (back in the day we called that "apartheid", and campaigned against it); stop trying to tell me that his rudeness towards one particular female congressperson somehow implies contempt towards all women (it might, but doesn't necessarily: do better). If you want to tell me his election is a terrifying development, given his manifest support for dictatorship, and torture, and that authoritarians are not good people to have in power, then yes. That' seems like an obvious conclusion given the facts of the case. But enough of the millstone communion wafer already. It doesn't become you, and I'm not buying.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Toilet graffitist

Toilet Graffitist

He rasps the crap with crooked hands,
Close to the cistern's swaddling bands;
On the rim of the toilet bowl, he stands.

The wrinkled turd beneath him crawls;
He strains to daub the farthest walls,
And, like a blundering dolt, he falls.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

The company you keep


Picking yourself up and looking around, you notice immediately that the coconut hairs, here in the shade of the letterbox, thicket you. Houses always look like that, purifying and punifying and much too big, when you've just been posted into them: thing is to get off the welcome mat, always a dead giveaway. People are standing around, there down the all. Finding yourself to be much, much smaller than any of them feels like nakedness: but hastily hitching your shame onto your shoulder, for a makeshift parrot, you mingle anyway, all foot of you.

"Sorry, that was my makeshift parrot interrumping. You were saying?"

You had just attempted a joke. It would have gurgled down well enough out there, in the street, among accustomed slops: but a moment ago's cool rebuffeting, now five fathoms deep beneath the rim of a wineglass, reveals you are no longer among slops, which is sort of what you wanted. Isn't it? You who sort-of would not be among slops have a sheepish cardboardness about you, as if yesterday's you was a stand-in for the real one. There's something bracing about not being among slops, something you're unsure you're meant to like. Maybe the street is more your thing. At least it's easier than this standing around, taking timed sips, trying not to be accidentally trodden on, or in. And what exactly is wrong with a joke "that Jay Leno would've cracked" (exit pursued by a sniff)? Note to self: find out who Jay Leno is or was. S/he is obviously someone you ought to be a knowing allusion or two above, pissing down.

Tony, a desert of tony, an Ascot of perfectly ironed ironies. And then you chance upon, holding forth in a dense cloud of smug, well I never, Hadley Freeman, a fellow oxturd. What's she doing here?

"Hi Had. Do you remember the Queen's Lane Cof-"

"Anyone who has been living under a rock for the past 36 hours, of course, had occasion to discuss Trump's genitals, adorably. The world now laughing at Roe vs Wade - breasts, butts, legs etc., shaped like Luigi - needs a reminder from the ostensibly good guys. A tune played by the world's smallest violin - and why not, damn it? - can grab women 'by the pussy'. Only men with penises, as the Margaret Atwood quote goes, have been horrible to women in high school for oh, several millennia. When you're a star, damn it, it's totally fine to enjoy your third-stage gum disease. Daniels knows how to hurt Trump - write a musical about that, O Henry."

"Those cheeseca - "

No good: she sails onward, arms flailing, eyes akimbo, mouth ajabber. You are too statureless to intersect her line of sight, which is doggedly raised toward her personal excelsior, a hovering heavenly host still drunk on yesterday's cutesy cliches, of word as of deed, snowblinded by categories. Pity, you think: at last there goes someone comfortably as unoriginal, as pathetic, as trying hard and never quite getting it right as me - but there's no honour among thieves (they call honour "intimacy" these days, and dig trenches, and build fortifications). You interject wanly: "¿Try a vegetable samo-"


Networking, networking all around: people cluster and uncluster like febrile bacteria, working towards what at the time seemed like a conclusion but turns out to be just a fleeting pattern in an endless procession of patterns, a snapshot of temporary alignments (spouses, sandinismos, summers), a split-second semolina. Oh, what a lovely père. I thought maybe - the Dining Room?

"I'm too tired and too autistic for this," you wearily conclude. Can't reach the door handle, but someone's opened it - is pausing on the threshold to snort a cherry - and you slip out. At last, relief! Relief from the miasma of other people's opinions. Back among the slops again: the snotclean, the scrotumdismissing slops, and the nettles, and the unromantic sameness of bustling cheesebugs. At last.

Except that opinions, you find to your chagrin, cling to you, like bad smells, like cigar smoke. The company you keep (the Guardian, e,g.) bites back when you are alone. It's not as if you agreed with any of what Had had had to say - you certainly did not (see appendix) - but just the reacting to it, the aligning of yourself against it, the wasting your time with it, deforms you in ways you cannot see at the time, drags you into the compass points of a map you never wanted to be part of. There's a price to be paid for slumming on Park Avenue. This is why I'm beginning to think success (if you want success: me, I'm twenty years past my succeed-by date) has a lot more to do with roce than the successful let on (or know). Show me a great, a canonical poet or writer or I dunno, comedian who wasn't taught by or friends with or married to another of the same species, and I'll maybe reconsider. You have to rub those shoulders, even if all you see on them at the time is dandruff.

That's why I'm mystical about places, and despair of ever properly describing any of 'em in the time left to me.


1. "Is it right that the world is now laughing at his penis?" I hope not. I hope the world has a more developed sense of humour than that (there's chuckles to be had, right enough, but more at the fancied incredulity of the original beholder than the thing in itself). My suspicion is that, rather than "the world", the ripple of forced and propagandistic laughter is the province of a raucous subset of the lumpenradfeminariat, if even that. Could be wrong, of course.

2. "You want to control women's vaginas, Donald?" That - as far as I can tell - is an odd way of saying "You want to control government spending, Donald?" I suspect he does, and that this was partly what he was elected to do. I don't have a problem with this personally: most countries get by fine without a Title X. Actual vaginas, of course, would be another matter.

3. "a gender that has spent the past, oh, several millennia, explicitly discussing the appearance of women's breasts, butts, legs, etc". Sorry, Had, but genders don't discuss things. People do that. And I think you'll find that people of both genders have spent the past, oh, several millennia, explicitly discussing the appearance of not only all the aforementioned, but pretty much anything and everything else that's visible to the human eye - except, of course, when dangerously within the earshot of censorious prudes, such as you herein make claim to be.

4. "where the sun does not shine": bile reaches for wit, finds only cliche. Suggest examine source of bilious reaction. Suspect secretly aware that #notallmen, #notallwomen and #notallbuildings are actually sensible strictures (the latter applicable to zones of intense seismic activity and poor standards of construction).

5. The Margaret Atwood quote. I crossed Handmaid's Tale off my reading list after learning, in the Guardian, that she thinks penises can be "flexed" - a forgivable error in a discalced Carmelite, but not in a writer. As for the quotation itself, it merely intensifies the aforementioned impression of otherworldly ignorance. For the record, and in defence of quantifiable data:

6. "where we are at now", "totally fine", "is it right?", "crown for you", "accolade", "the world", "so zeitgeisty, me", "how women,.. are treated", "ostensibly good guys", "we", "you", "much has been written", "humiliated", "the married one", "when you're a star", "shame", "we can indulge" - see a thread? This grovelling at the feet of the qu'en dira-t-on, this pitting of imaginary collectives against each other, this deified dinnertable is the sort of thing that sleepwalks girls into anorexia, or worse, into the pages of Vogue. Grow up? Take control of society, by making your own, by deciding for yourself what company you actually want to keep.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

The Sin of Envy (2)

Being English, he would play the Tea card with care, using it carefully only a few times a day, in real emergencies. This, this having of a f*m*le head in one's lap, was such an emergency. He played the card, and managed to slide out from under her when she said Fine. The kettle went on.

He was still young, a student, and still thought that life contained possibilities and important choices, and that not all doors necessarily concealed, for him, goats. Right now, in his college-supplied room in the "Annex", he thought there was such a choice, there, lounging on his bed. If he did and said the right things in the right order, there would be puppies. She would see to it that he would have puppies, and his whole life would be transformed. In order for this to happen, he supposed he would have to inspire "love", or something roughly in that semantic vicinity. He did not know how to do this. There was no set way of doing this, since his situation was absolutely unique, and had never been faced before in the history of the world, except by the sort of people who are never written about. Since he was not lovable, getting himself loved would of course involve some sort of elaborate, morally excusable fakery. But what exactly?


He'd been dreading this. His entire record collection consisted exclusively of things he'd found he liked, without any regard for social propriety. He tried: "You?"

"Chieftains. But will lower myself to Sinatra: am broad-minded."

He'd never heard of the Chieftains. It occurred to him that she'd made a terrible, embarrassing mistake, and that the bloke she wanted, the one she assumed she was with, was actually waiting two doors down, checking his watch. The one who knew who the Chieftains were, and was Irish, and lovable, and all that. Suddenly she'd realise who he was, or wasn't, and he'd have to apologise and grovel at the door as she stormed out. "Er, Supertramp?"

That worked. A couple of songs in, there was some tentative invading of personal space a droite et a gauche, sans lunettes: lip fencing, and suddenly, there you are, your first real snog. Immediately he realised that the movies lied: there was nothing whatsoever pleasurable about kissing, per se: it was simply an objective correlative for what went on lower down your body, a marker, a ritual, a coming of age. A distraction, even. Her face looked different at that microscopic proximity: scrubbed, hairless, vaguely porous, with a bloom on it and a pallor beneath: marine, cuttlefish-like, and achingly blind.

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