Are You A Belieber Or A Believer?

Image

Few people attract a more ludicrous amount of hatred than teen idols.

This has been particularly noticeable recently during the downfall of Justin Bieber.  Judging by the glee some evidently felt one would have imagined that he had been a Third World dictator rather than a pop singer such were the gleeful comments of some all over social media.  Indeed, some of the comments I remember hearing at the time were pretty outlandish and pretty hateful.  If people feel confused by the amount of adulation Bieber attracts from his fans, surely the volume of spite he receives is equally puzzling.

In fact it is far more odd, since the Bieber-hatred often comes from those who ought to – in theory – know better.  At least his fans have the excuse of being comparatively young and hormonal whereas his detractors have none. 

Moreover, there is one very important factor in fandom that often gets overlooked.  There is exemplified by the fact that Bieber’s fans often describe themselves as ‘Beliebers’ and use the word as a hashtag on Twitter and other social network sites to engage with other fans.  Despite the quasi-religious nature of the word itself, one shouldn’t overlook the fact that by using it individuals are placing themselves within a community that spans throughout the world.  This is the very nature of fandom; those outside of it often mistake the behaviour of fans for being about the object of their idolatry when really it’s about friendship and companionship.  When we see crowds of fans wait outside hotel doors for a glimpse of Bieber they are really there to be with other like-minded people and be part of an occasion.  This is one of the primary functions that religion used to play in society.

This becomes more obvious in the case of boy-bands and it was even the case back in the 1960s with The Beatles.  Fans would identify themselves as favouring one of The Beatles over the others and it would become a topic of friendly discussion.  This is really no different from what we now see with One Direction – the perceived value of the music is almost beyond the point, it is about being involved.  Fans will identify themselves as being a fan of Harry, Liam or another member of the band and thus become a part of the larger group.  It’s about being accepted.

Record labels understand the nature of fandom and that’s why they capitalise on it.  They know that One Direction fans of proud identifying themselves as such and that’s why it’s easy to sell them merchandise.  Nevertheless, it’s a mistake to believe that it is only young women become fans though, how else do we explain the rabid support rock fans have for the idols?  Band T-shirt sales?  Have you ever made the mistake of criticising Roger Waters in the presence of a Pink Floyd fan, for example?  Such a thing will be taken as heresy.  Forty-something men can be just as passionate as any teenage girl about their idols and quite as irrational about it.  The same argument applies to football teams as so forth.

As a regular gig goer, I’ve seen as many adult males become as determined to meet the band, have their merchandise signed as any teenage girl at a One Direction concert but rarely is this commented on.  I don’t recall any documentaries or big news features on it at all.  Who bought all the £1,000 tickets for The Rolling Stones last year?  I doubt that many teenagers can afford it.  Surely that’s as worth as much critical study as One Direction fans buying pencil cases with their idols faces on them.

 

WHAT’S WITH ALL THIS DISHONESTY ABOUT WORK?

 

Mr. Useful

Mr. Useful

Why is it that those who shout the most about the virtue of hard work always seem to be those who don’t seem to do anything remotely useful?  Yes, I’m talking to you Iain Duncan Smith and your cronies.  Why can’t we have a more honest debate out the purpose of work?

This is something that always troubled me.  There seems to be some form of conspiracy to deny the truth about what work is for.  Perhaps this is because over the years the jobs market has shrunk to such a point that we can longer be honest about it.  We are now expected to live for work, all become complete workaholics and love every minute of it.  This is of course less of a problem if you’re doing something that gives you some form of satisfaction and pays well, but what if that isn’t the case?  And what if there really aren’t ANY jobs out there?

Is there really anybody out there who loves working in a call-centre, for example?  Imagine all the flak you get in that job, the pressure you’re under and the pittance it pays.  You might make some friends in the job and that might make it bearable, but I can’t imagine any other benefits.  Furthermore, there are even more deeply unpleasant jobs than that, none of which pay very much.  Yet, if one attends an interview for such a position one is expected to claim that it is your life’s ambition rather than just wanting to earn some form of living.  What’s wrong with just doing a job, being paid for it and going home at night and forgetting about it?  How did we get to this point where we are all expected to tell such lies about it?  Who is it fooling?  I can’t imagine that it’s fooling anybody.

There is something deeply unhealthy about all of this.  I don’t remember when it got started but I have a sneaking suspicion that it started in the 1980s.  Yes, another example of the hypocritical legacy of Thatcherism.

THE EMPTINESS OF THATCHERISM

20130412-081146thatcherFirst of all I’m not going to pretend that this is an academic study of Thatcherism, this is my own personal take on what I recall of her government and it long-term effects.  I am writing this as my own contribution to the discussions being had about her legacy since her death.  It is also a reaction to a trend I see developing of some people now describing themselves as ‘Thatcherite’, some of whom may not realise the ramifications of appropriating such a tag.

To assess such a political figure as Margaret Thatcher it is problematic since it was never possible to be neutral about her; in many ways she was deliberately provocative in her pronouncements and always combative in her manner.  It was inevitable then that her death would polarise people as much as her political career had.  People either loved or hated her and in many ways I doubt that she would have had it any other way.

There is a tendency in British politics to laud those who display strength and grandeur and these are two qualities that many believe that Margaret Thatcher had.  But what is strength?  Thatcher was certainly brutally forthright about her opinions and bloody-minded but she also had a marked inability to listen to even her own ministers, let alone the people she was leading – stories about this were legion during her premiership but seem to have been forgotten now.  Grandeur?  Well Margaret Thatcher certainly has delusions of that.

Margaret Thatcher was famously a grocer’s daughter and never forgot it.  Proud of the fact and would often regale interviewers about the lessons she had learnt from her father.  Thatcher was grounded in the petite bourgeois and displayed many of the most stereotypical qualities of it.  This was highlighted by that phoney posh accent she had, something that even as child reminded me of one of my aunties utilising her ‘telephone voice’.  She was the absolute embodiment of petite bourgeois prejudices; the snobbish deferential voter; the I-vote-Tory-because-I’m-better-than-you-lot type; the mortal fear of anybody who works with their hands; the sheer terror of the ‘foreigner’; the pathological hatred of somebody being better off than you; the morbid infatuation with ‘hard-work’ and greed for its own sake.  Thatcher even went as far as joining the Conservative Party and eventually becoming its leader by ‘pulling up her own boot-straps’ (to coin a favourite phrase of hers) and marrying into money.  In fact her husband Denis subsidised her entire political career, and benefitted from it businesswise.

Margaret Thatcher’s background marked her out from the rest of the Conservatives who resented this upstart among their ranks, and this didn’t stop when she was elected Prime Minister – this was made quite obvious by the relish they displayed by tearing her off her pedestal.  However that relatively modest background did make her a remarkably astute politician; she had an instinctive insight into how people from those lower classes thought.  She was a born opportunist in the most opportunistic of British political parties.  The Conservative Party would support her for as long as those instincts were present, but for no longer.

The 1970s, we have been told, were a period of economic strife and this was all the fault of the Trades Unions who were always going on strike.  This, it will surprise no one, is a distortion of the way more complicated facts.  It was precipitated by a massive oil-crisis in 1973 and this not only had an impact on the UK but on an international scale.  For proof one only needs to look at the newspapers, magazines and even popular culture of the period to see how often this is referred no only here, but in the USA and Europe.  However we are still expected to believe it was old those evil TU’s fault for wanting too much money.

During Edward Heath’s Conservative government of the 1970-74 many fundamentally important things happened that would later prove influential to Thatcher.  Most famously her own profile rose during the ‘Thatcher The Milk Snatcher’ debacle and so she experienced for the first time the full glare of the spotlight.  Thatcher also witnessed Heath’s own attempts to curb TU power with the unsuccessful Industrial Relations Act of 1971 (repealed in 1974 by the Wilson government).  It was two Miners’ Strikes that would mortally wound the Heath government, the second of these led to Heath going to extraordinary measure of implementing the three-day week – Thatcher would never forgive the miners.  Heath is most remembered for leading Britain into the EEC and this decision has troubled the Conservative Party ever since.  He also oversaw the height of the troubles in Northern Ireland, most notoriously, the Bloody Sunday massacre.  All of these factors would indelibly mark out the character of Thatcher’s own leadership style.

Britain had up until recently been a colonial power, of course, and was only too aware that it wasn’t any more.  This fact traumatised the British psyche.  We are still experiencing to the long-term effects of this today but in the 1970s it was still raw.  People were brought up to believe that the UK was the ‘empire where the sun never sets’, maps of the world were still hanging in schools covered in the red of British colonialism..  To be born British was supposed to mean that were one of the elite, even if you were barely able to afford to eat and were treated like scum by your ‘betters’.  At least you were still from Blighty!  That had to stand for something, eh?  We won the war!  Could all of this have been a lie?

This was reflected in the politics of the time; the National Front was beginning to seem very influential.  This bottom-feeding political party tapped into those feelings of inadequacy some people were having and were only too happy to scapegoat immigrants and other marginalised groups for British woes, openly using racist terminology that would turn most people’s stomach today.  Let’s not forget that this was the era of Enoch Powell; his recent ‘rivers of blood’ speech still ringing in the ears like some cancerous tinnitus.

This was the environment that fostered the rise of Margaret Thatcher.  She told people we could make Britain great again.  Worried about those sweary punk rockers?  Well, don’t worry Maggie’s going to bring good old Victorian values, that will set them straight.  You hate all those ‘foreigners’ flocking over here and stealing your jobs?  Well, don’t worry Maggie’s not going to put up with that, she’ll  send them all home and then close our borders.  Sick of being inconvenienced by strikes? Those layabouts are going to get what’s coming to them as well.  What about those lazy bastards down our street who can’t even be bothered to wok but are living lives of luxury?  Well, they’ll have to get on their bikes and look for work or starve. Thatcher was lead us back into that fantasy version of what Victorian England was like, where everything was simpler, people knew their place and it was the richest place on earth.

This is the essence of Thatcher’s vision; a mix of prejudice, fantasy and – lest we forget – the dystopian economic philosophy of Friedrich Hayek and his most famous acolyte Milton Friedman.  Thatcher, the so-called patriot, would use Britain as a laboratory to try-out Friedmanism and although some would profit from it – mostly in the short-term – the interests of the vast majority would be sacrificed.  This was economics at its most psychopathic and even though Thatcher was warned about the dangers, she ploughed ahead regardless.

Thatcher broke away from the Post-War Consensus but didn’t replace it with anything meaningful or constructive.  Her own period of government didn’t successfully result in any grand designs neo-liberal, Keynesian or otherwise; that was left to the governments that followed (even New Labour).  Her own attempts at Friedmanism were eventually scrapped, hampered by her own destructive impulses, which merely resulted in near economic meltdown.  She did unfortunately succeed in making ‘socialism’ a dirty word on this side of the Atlantic for the first time.  This is an example of Thatcher’s gift – if it can be called that – for the negative.  Thatcherism is really about negation, being defined by what it is against than what it is for.  All of the things it claims to support fall apart when analysed too deeply.  Thatcher’s government achieved nothing.  Style over substance

Tory election posters trumpeted that ‘Labour isn’t working’ in 1979, but Thatcher’s Tory government tripled unemployment to three million in just four years (and even that figure was famously massaged down).  The resulting welfare bill meant that her entire tenure in government was marked by a persistent economic deficit, which was not even alleviated by her desperate selling off of state assets like British Telecom, or the profits generated by North Sea Oil.

It comes as no surprise then that her government’s other promises were never met either.  While in opposition her party had derided Labour’s inability to seize control of inflation which was as at 10%, promising that they could if given the chance.  This didn’t happen and in fact inflation continued to increase in the short term.  By the time Thatcher left office it was nearly back at 10% (9.7%).

Her period government was bookended by riots.  Her tenure as Prime Minister began with riots caused by unemployment, heavy-handed policing, housing shortages etc and ended with riots inspired by the Poll Tax.  Today’s praise of Thatcher has to be counterbalanced by the acceptance that this was not a popular or successful Prime Minister in any real terms.  This was the first Prime Minister whose government understood and mastered the art of popular culture – her political career resembled an ad campaign and had as much basis in reality.  The real legacy was the personality cult that British politics has become.  That and her divisiveness.

For the rest of us, growing up working-class in the 1980s was depressing.  Everybody you knew seemed to be unemployed.  Margaret Thatcher claimed to be on the side of people who worked hard but seemed hell-bent on making those who were working redundant and those out-of-work unemployable.  We were told jobs were out there but the reality couldn’t have been more different.  Thatcher also claimed she was on the side of the entrepreneur and this also rang hollow.  Shops were being boarded up, factories and other businesses closed down on a moreorless constant basis.  If you wanted to start a business you could go on the Enterprise Allowance Scheme of course, but you had to have a grand in the bank to secure your £40 a week from the benefits people (yes, the same people who supplied your income support) to do it.  If anything illustrates Thatcher’s tenuous grip on reality that does.

The old apprenticeships were replaced the crass cynicism of Youth Training Schemes or Job (later renamed Employment) Training Schemes, both of which left you only qualified to join another training scheme in six months, but allowed your labour to be exploited by the deeply unpleasant charlatans who ran such things.

All of this was part of the plan of course.  Thatcher was declaring all-out-war on the working-class.  This was the one thing they were successful at; by the time she and her colleagues left government the image of the working-class had – at least in the general public’s perception – changed beyond recognition.  It now conjured up visions of an ‘underclass’; Wayne and Waynetta Slob, the family from Bread.  A fictional caricature that eventually fed into itself.

No politician has showed more contempt for people who work with their hands than Margaret Thatcher.  This is the true ‘British disease’. It was therefore inevitable that those she hated the most were the ones whose hands got the dirtiest, that is; the miners.  As we have seen the Conservatives had already sworn vengeance on them.  During the riots earlier in Thatcher’s premierships the public had grown used to sights of the ‘tooled-up’ coppers, with riot-shields, batons, visored helmets.  These paramilitary police were used mercilessly against the miners and their families.  Margaret Thatcher did more than other Prime Minister to blatantly politicise the police.

The media built a hate campaign against the miners, particularly Arthur Scargill who was merely telling the truth about the government’s plans and doing the job of fighting for the people he was employed by.  Those of us who were properly informed knew that the strike was about pit closures that would (and have) destroyed communities but it didn’t seem to matter.  Margaret Thatcher saw his as a war akin to the Falklands; propaganda, triumphalism and contempt for the truth was the order of her day

The miners were merely the most visible of her hate figures.  Practically every industry that had created wealth for Britain was dragged under by her policies, causing vast unemployment to be embedded deep in many communities.  This was not only economically damaging, the societal damage has been long-lasting.

One of the most repeated Thatcher quote has been her claim that ‘there is no such thing as society’.  Let’s look at what this revealed about her.  Certainly it reveals that had little ability to perceive of something external to her immediate experience.  It also exposes Margaret Thatcher’s weird isolationism, her belief that she alone could be right.  To her, individualism went only as far as herself and by the end of her premiership she was even identifying herself as the embodiment of the nation in the same way that absolutist rulers used to, in her use of the royal ‘we’.  Margaret Thatcher could not perceive there being any such thing as society because her own limited experience was all that mattered to her, and informed her every action.

If only Thatcherism could be have died along with her.  If only people realised what an empty construct it actually was and is.

Is Britain A Democracy?

The accepted wisdom seems to tell us that it is, but is it?  The British system when examined closely is a strange one; firstly, we have a monarch and we are reminded of this constantly along with the counterpoint, ‘but she doesn’t have any power really’.  This isn’t actually true.

The British system is unusual because it is steeped in vested interests of medieval origin.   In many ways this is the result of not being invaded since 1066.  Since that time, the rest of Europe was often in turmoil, needing standing armies to police their borders, whereas Britain concentrated on becoming a naval power.  As the great historian A.J.P. Taylor said, “The great armies, accumulated to provide security and preserve the peace, carried the nations to war by their own weight.”  Times of upheaval lead to sweeping changes in the way countries are governed, and there was never a comparable crisis in Britain, hence little political change.  Frighteningly little, in fact.  The upside of this is that we have didn’t fall prey to the extreme politics of the first half of the 20th century, but the flipside has been inertia and stultifying inequality.

Here’s what the Oxford English Dictionary says about democracy:

  • a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives: a system of parliamentary democracy
  • [count noun] a state governed under a system of democracy: a multiparty democracy
  • control of an organization or group by the majority of its members: the intended extension of industrial democracy
  • the practice or principles of social equality: demands for greater democracy

So, let us examine this definition.  At first glance Britain seems to be a democracy, because all of us who over-18 have the right to vote (my personal view is that the age should be lowered to 16, by the way).  However, if that is the case why do so few bother to exercise it (only 65.1% in 2010).  Ask people why they don’t vote and the answer is usually “They’re all the same…”  It’s all too easy to dismiss such a comment as apathy or political illiteracy, but the issue is more complicated and in many ways it is elitist to disregard such an opinion – it is better to learn from it.   Are the people in Parliament truly representative of the populace?  Only 7% of children in the UK are privately educated, whereas 35% of British MPs are from private education (20% of whom are ex-Etonians).  Does this qualify them to be our ‘representatives’.  If they aren’t, how easy would it be to find more suitable candidates?  The answer is that it should be more easy than it currently is.

I have a real problem with privately funded education and don’t believe any good can come from it.  It creates inequality and ensures that our society remains divided by class; no child is deserving of a better education than another’s child.  This is an example of the class-system at its lowest common dominator and I will listen to no attempt to defend it.

I have always voted, but can understand the concerns of those who don’t.  They echo some of my own concerns.  What I see in parliament are a political class with even fewer exceptions than ever before.  This is demonstrated by the increasing tendency for politicians to overlook the simple fact that the vast majority of people simply want to earn a decent standard of living and bring their children up in a safe and secure environment.  This may not be an ambitious aim by a politicians standards but it is certainly a valid one, and the fact that MPs seem to hold it in such little regard demonstrates how out of touch they are.

How many of you are tired of hearing politicians talking about the electorate in such a disparaging way; the undeserving poor, the underclass, scroungers, under-skilled, uneducated, etc?  It is disgraceful and indicative of the way our democracy is utterly backwards.  If YOU can’t find employment than THEY are to blame, NOT YOU, and THEY should be held to account.  If Britain is supposed to be a democracy, that’s the way it should work.

The Cult of Leadership

ImageAll over the political spectrum there is an obsession with leadership; how do you define it and what are ‘leadership qualities’?  I personally think that there is a more important question; what value does leadership really have? The value of ‘leadership qualities’ are rarely questioned.  We’ve all attended many a meeting and discussion where people have spent hours informing us of the merits of leadership without really pointing out the inherent flaws and resultant dangers, not least to the psyche of those bestowed with leadership qualities. If one takes even a cursory glance at history, leaders can be trouble.  They are human- beings with flaws and quirks which become amplified through the prism of their position.  Every single one of them falls prey to hubris, it’s only a matter of when.  Furthermore, people are all-too willing to overlook their favourite leaders’ flaws, particularly when that leader is reflective of their own ideology and romanticised history.  John F. Kennedy is a prime example of this; a man who certainly started one war (Vietnam – okay he did inherit the problem) and almost lead his country into another (this time nuclear) but is still regarded as a great President. So called leadership qualities are nearly always defined as stereotypically masculine and extrovert.  The problem with these qualities is they don’t play well with others, are resistant to criticism and the opinions of others.  An example of how rigid our definition of leadership is the emphasise on ‘strong leaders’ (Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair) who ‘make tough decisions’ and ‘won’t give into pressure’, whereas more collegiate leaders (John Major, Gordon Brown) are criticised throughout their office for being ‘indecisive’ and not reacting quickly enough. Our emphasis on leaders is also distracting.  It is one of the primary reasons why our politics are so personality based and reflective of consumer culture.  Personality politics skews the issues and has nothing to do with policy at all; it is one of the reasons why politicians get away with breaking electoral promises and having no experience of real life.  Politicians are now ciphers; every gesture they make, opinion they spout has been learned in leadership training. Isn’t it about time that we realised that leadership is an unhealthy way of doing things?  Not only for us but those we elect as leaders.  I propose that we look for another solution – why don’t we govern ourselves?  Could we do a worse job?

Some issues are beyond debate

Although on the whole I try be polite, there are some issues that I now refuse to debate with people.  In the 21st century some of these should be a matter of simple morality:

1)    A person who uses the term ‘benefit cheat’ is either a bigot or a scoundrel; it’s as simple as that.  And of course they always have some anecdotal piece of ‘evidence’ to support their view.  Of course people should – if able – work for a living and I doubt anybody is arguing otherwise, but there is a trade-off here; is there any employment available and, if there is, is it suitable?  The people who shout the loudest about ‘benefit cheats’ would never dream of taking the kind of work they expect the unemployed to take, with little or absolutely no reward.  All jobs should pay a living-wage, because – after all – they are expected to live on it.  Business people who say they can’t afford to pay a living wage have no right to call themselves business people.  Until you agree that everybody deserves a living-wage don’t criticise the unemployed.  Furthermore, those who claim that the disabled are ‘benefit cheats’ don’t even deserve to call themselves human-beings.

2)    Profit-making has no place in education.  I would add to this that I don’t believe in private or public school education.  I have yet to hear a counter-argument that isn’t elitist or self-serving.  Ban private/public school education tomorrow and state schools would improve dramatically.  Our current system breeds inequality and should have no place in our society.

3)    Profit-making has no place in health.  Why should one person have better healthcare than another and why should a third person make a profit from it?  Why do I have to hear justifications for this?  There is no justification; there is just greed, pure and simple.  This is another example of the festering inequality in our society and the selfishness that drives it.

4)    Wealthy people should pay their taxes.  People who live in, work in, make money out of the UK should pay their fair share of taxes, unless they don’t earn enough.  Don’t tell me that ‘I had to leave the UK because Labour brought in 50% taxes’, because I won’t sympathise with you.  If you are in that tax-bracket, pay your way, because people who earn much less than you have to (if I had my way you’d being paying more).  Also, being a tight-fisted megalomaniac doesn’t qualify you to describe yourself as a Libertarian.

5)    Our system is outmoded, archaic and serves only a minority of people.  This is not a Democracy.

If you find my views here offensive, feel free to unfollow me.

Politics & Religion – A Dangerous Combination

Frank Field MP

Religion ought to be a personal matter, a matter of choice, and although many religions have a lot of commonalities, they also clash on a number of issues.  In the twenty-first century, we are a comparatively liberal society, but it has taken a great deal of work, and much bloodletting, to get us to this point.

I must declare at this juncture that as an atheist I don’t have a religion, but respect people’s right to choose their own faith.  I believe that in a tolerant society that is the way it should be.

Despite having the so-called ‘Spirit Lords’ in the House of Lords, our parliament is, by and large, secular and certainly our laws purport to be.  However, every now and then, religion creeps into the debate.

This is happening at this very moment.  Once again, women’s right to choose to have an abortion is being called into question.  This time it is being rebranded as a “Health Bill”, as women’s “Right to Know”.  Implicit in the proposed Bill, is the accusation that Marie Stopes and similar organisations have counsellors who “promote abortion” to pregnant women and that counselling should be provided by “independent” bodies.  The Guardian has a number of theories about who these “independent” bodies would be.

The two main protagonists behind this latest attempt to change the Abortion Act are the increasingly notorious Conservative MP Nadine Dorries and that well-known ray-of-sunshine, Labour MP Frank Field.  Both of these MPs would probably deny their religious views are behind the Bill but they seem to have taken a great deal of inspiration from the conservative and Christian movement of the USA in the way the Bill has been worded and presented to the House.  Furthermore, some months ago David Cameron already hinted that he would support lowering the legal-limit of the time-period of abortions (there was actually discussion of this during the last Labour government).  Thus, it looks like this time the fundamentalists might win.

Nadine Dorries MP

Am I wrong to think that religion has no place in politics or law-making?  Reason and the facts alone should decide how we are governed, not the chosen faith of individual MPs.  Abortion is a complicated issue and those who seek to simplify it on the basis of what the bible (or other religious text) says, are undermining advances society has made through intellect and tolerance of others.  Because that is as that the root of all of this – not the debate about when ‘life’ starts, nor the state of mind of women after having an abortion.  Marie Stopes and similar charities/non-profit-making organisations acknowledge all of those issues.  This Bill is about people who believe that they have access to some essential “truth” that only they, and others who share their belief, have.

For a woman to have an abortion, it is a hard and drastic decision; something that should be HER decision and not anybody else’s.  Putting more barriers in the way is cruel and inexcusable – no matter how holy the MPs responsible feel they are.