Tag Archives: nostalgia (as a substitute for history)

Culture For The Future?

People are fond of gazing back at the past through rose-tinted spectacles.  I remember reading somewhere that no one ‘does’ nostalgia like the British.  I love the 70sI Love The 80s and Dominic Sandbrook’s lightweight, but subtly ideological history series The 70s always present the past as the ideal time in which to live. In Sandbrook’s case, the blemishes, lumps and bumps that define eras and epochs are simply burnished or given a right-wing twist.  “Thatcher arrived to save the country from the unions” was the unspoken message at the end of Sandbrook’s series, which ignored the fact that management ineptitude and a chronic lack of investment was mostly culpable for Britain’s economic and industrial decline. In the case of the I Love… series, talking heads from showbusiness were interviewed on camera to talk about how wonderful Kickers and Kappa tracksuits were. “I really loved Kickers and you had to wear the key ring that came with them” opined one talking head. Just great. As I sat watching I Love 1980 on BBC2, it struck me how much about that year wasn’t mentioned. It was as if the people forced onto the dole queues by the Thatcher government never existed and the St Paul’s riots in Bristol never happened. This was an age of social and political turmoil. Thatcher was determined to destroy what remained of Britain’s countercultures- the permissive society she called it – and she had no time for those who disagreed with her.

Sure there were some good things about the 1970s but the decade wasn’t entirely good. This is, after all, the decade that saw the end of the post-war consensus. This is the decade that witnessed the rise in extreme right-wing activity on our streets, when people of colour were randomly attacked by neo-Nazis for merely going about their business. The National Front were emboldened by electoral gains they’d made in the local elections. Its splinter, the National Party, won two seats on Blackburn council in 1976. One of the reasons why punk arrived at the moment it did was because there  was a need for an antidote to the near endless stream of cultural nostalgia. Everywhere you looked, there was some romanticized reminder of the past, whether it was on The Black and White Minstrel Show or in the pop charts with bands like The Rubettes and Mud rehashing the 1950s with songs like Sugar Baby Love and Tiger Feet respectively. Nostalgia was in Britain’s pop cultural driving seat in a car that had one wheel stuck in the ditch. Britain could not move forward because cultural magnates were too busy gazing longingly into their collective navel.

The toxic sludge of nostalgia that was current in British mainstream culture and political discourse in the 1970s seeped into the thoughts of some of Britain’s prominent rock stars. In June 1976, David Bowie returned to London and gave a press conference to waiting journalists at Victoria Station. Standing in an open top Mercedes, he appeared to give a Nazi salute and was whisked away, flanked by outriders. In a later interview, Bowie told a journalist that

“Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars. Look at some of the films and see how he moved. I think he was quite as good as Jagger.”

A couple of months later a drunken Eric Clapton addressed a stunned Birmingham audience with this message:

“[I think] Enoch’s right … we should send them all back. Throw the wogs out! Keep Britain white!”

Roger Daltrey and Rod Stewart were just as vocal as Clapton. For the millions of kids who bought their records and wanted nothing to do with the views they espoused, this was a slap in the face and a kick in the teeth.  Clapton, in particular, had made a living by playing the blues, an African-American musical form. Ironically, Clapton had recorded a cover of Bob Marley’s I Shot the Sheriff two years earlier. This was a point that was picked up by Red Saunders and Roger Huddle, who responded to Clapton and Bowie’s musings by writing an open letter to Britain’s music press. The letter read:

When we read about Eric Clapton’s Birmingham concert when he urged support for Enoch Powell, we nearly puked. Come on Eric… Own up. Half your music is black. You’re rock music’s biggest colonist… We want to organise a rank and file movement against the racist poison music… P. S. Who shot the Sheriff Eric? It sure as hell wasn’t you!

Rock Against Racism, formed in response to this letter, was the most successful cultural intervention in living memory. It successfully brought together left-wing politics and youth culture, and marginalized the right-wing elements in rock music and beyond.  While it is tempting to think of Live Aid and even Red Wedge in similar terms, we must remember that RAR was a rank and file movement that began with a simple letter to the music press. Red Wedge, for example, was founded to attract votes to the Neil Kinnock-led Labour Party. Live Aid, however, can be read in two ways: first, it was a naive project that responded to a news item on the Ethiopian famine, which had been created by the Eritrean separatist war against Ethiopia. This part of the story was ignored. Much of the aid sent to Ethiopia was diverted to warlords. Second, it was a vehicle to revive the fading career of Bob Geldof. Yes, I’m a cynic but take a look at Make Poverty History and tell me how that has succeeded in eradicating poverty. Poverty can only be eradicated by destroying the current capitalist system, not by liberal hand-wringing and buying cucumber sandwiches at premium prices (a fraction of the profit made on these sandwiches goes towards buying a bucket). Make Poverty History temporarily assuaged liberal guilt and nothing more.

Since the global economic crisis of 2007/8 and the installation of a deeply unpopular Tory-led coalition government in this country, a number of political initiatives have been launched to counter the government’s austerity policies. There’s the Occupy movement and UK Uncut to name but two. What has been missing from these political movements is culture. If you have a Left idea, then you need something cultural to go along with it (qv. Roland Muldoon). For most of the political parties, be they mainstream or fringe, the idea of culture often takes second place (if it happens at all) to their respective ideologies and if culture appears within these parties, it is used as a means to have a laugh and unwind after a hard day of selling the party’s papers on the street, but not as means to contribute to real structural change. This kind of culture that speaks only to a small group of people.  The Conservative Party has never made any real use of culture because they’re too concerned with the past: their idea of culture is stately homes, old bones, statues of war heroes, and possibly the West End theatre of Cameron-Macintosh. Culture is a living thing that’s been created by ordinary people. It was revealing that, instead of creating a Ministry of Culture, John Major created something called The Department for National Heritage in 1994. He may as well have called it The Department for Mausoleums and Tombstones.

The situation that we currently face is dire and, in some ways, it is similar to what we faced in the 1970s. The need for a cultural intervention in Britain is now greater than ever. The rise of UKIP, the appearance of street groups like the English Defence League and Britain First are a cause for concern. Over the decades, the far-right has modified its language and now wishes to be seen as respectable.  Yet the sentiments in Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech are never far from the surface.  Powell himself was never subjected to rehabilitation, though his legions of admirers (some of whom weren’t even born when he made the speech) continue to claim that he was “right”. The normalization of racist, sexist and disablist discourses in the media are partly due to the rise of UKIP and are uttered under the rubric of free speech (or I speak and you shut up). The coalition government’s policies blame the economic crisis on – in no particular order –  benefits claimants, the disabled, single parents, immigration etc. You name it, they blame it. People like Katie Hopkins, who have no formal qualifications in the subjects on which they pontificate, are granted hours of airtime and are rarely, if ever, challenged on their repugnant views. Bullying and deliberate cruelty have become the new lingua franca of mass entertainment and the government alike. The phrase “political correctness” is used pejoratively to marginalize anyone who defends tolerance and fights for equality. This must be challenged at the cultural level as well as the political level.

We should not let Labour off the hook. When  Gordon Brown succeeded Tony Blair as Prime Minister, he claimed that he wanted to see the kind of patriotism he saw in the United States. Three years later, he gave a speech that contained the phrase “British jobs for British workers”. These words could easily have come from the mouths of Nigel Farage or Tory MP, Peter Bone. Instead, they came from a Labour Prime Minister, who was desperate to appeal to floating voters whose political sympathies were defaulted to the Right. In doing this, Brown unleashed powerful forces that he could not control. Let’s not forget that during the Wilson-Callaghan years the Labour government failed to deal with the rise of the far-right and hid itself inside its Downing Street bunker, oblivious to what was happening on the outside. Callaghan had already called time on the post-war consensus when he applied for an International Monetary Fund loan in 1976 to deal with the Sterling crisis, which was precipitated by the Heath administration’s massive balance of trade deficit. The conditions of this loan led to massive public sector cuts and helped to pave the way for Thatcher’s victory in 1979. Once she had won, Thatcher then draped herself in the Union Jack and repeated the phrase much beloved of nationalists and bigots everywhere: the country is “swamped with immigrants”. These days the words used are “mass migration”. The old right-wing cliché that the country is “full” has also been resurrected. The NF may have been marginalized as a political force, but their anti-immigrant and racist rhetoric lingers in the speech of UKIP and others.

The leadership of today’s Labour Party is just as bad as their predecessors, because they have failed to learn the lessons of their past. In the aftermath of the local and European elections, Ed Miliband and his shadow cabinet kept repeating the line “We got it wrong on immigration”. This plays into the hands of ethno-nationalists and, of course, UKIP, and shows us that the Labour Party’s leadership is too scared to say anything positive about immigrants and immigration for fear of a press backlash. If we go back to the beginning of the current economic crisis, Labour’s political enemies, the Tories and UKIP, couldn’t claim that Labour was “soft on crime”, so they attacked the party on a different front: immigration. Since 2007/8, there has been a steady stream of anti-immigrant stories in the media in which all immigrants are misleadingly referred to as “migrants”. However, many of us living in the  United Kingdom are migrants. If you move home within a city or town, you are a migrant. If you move from Stoke-on-Trent to take up a job in Manchester, you are an economic migrant. The recent British Social Attitudes Survey claims that most people are against immigrants and immigration, with a many more people claiming that immigrants come to this country to take advantage of our benefits system. Yet there is no concrete proof that people come here to live on a measly £72.40 a week. Benefits are more generous in other European countries, so why would anyone want to come here just to claim benefits? If you point this out to the average immigrant-hater, they have no argument. What the British Social Attitudes Survey actually tells us is that people are quite prepared to believe the lies and scare stories that come from the press and the self-appointed experts of Migration Watch UK . Perhaps worst of all, the data from this survey could be used to bolster the Right’s claims that immigration is bad for the country and immigrants are taking British people’s jobs. The Tory-led coalition’s ‘reforms’ are killing people and making many more homeless. They are pitting worker against worker and neighbour against neighbour.

Not a week passes by without some minister or other, repeating the phrase “hardworking families” and smearing those who are out of work. Television also plays its part in these attacks with the near-endless stream of poverty porn that oozes from our screens. Benefits Street, On Benefits and Proud and Filthy Rich and Hungry are a few examples of the media’s bandwagon-hopping tendency to demonize and stigmatize benefits claimants. The latter programme was actually shown as part of the BBC’s Sport Relief season. People’s poverty should not be a cheap source of entertainment; a sort of two minutes hate for bullies and self-styled ‘hard workers’.

Like the 70s, there is a great deal of nostalgia present in mainstream political discourse. When the Tories came to power in 2010, Michael Gove wrote of his affection for the Victorian age. The party itself repeated 19th century mantra of ‘self-help’ and resurrected the phrase “deserving and undeserving poor”.  Ethno-nationalists gorge themselves stupid on nostalgia. They’re constantly dreaming of a Britain that existed in fairy stories. UKIP, for example, wants a return to the 1950s and grammar schools, which it claims are essential for social mobility.  Yet during the 1950s, social mobility was fairly limited. Moreover, people knew their place.  Confusingly, UKIP also wants a return to the 19th century, but their idea of the 19th century is one without the poverty, disease and high infant mortality rates, which proceeded hand-in-glove with the ‘classical’ liberalism that is much loved by today’s Right. ‘Classical’ liberalism is also loved by American neo-confederates, who never tire of telling people that slavery “wasn’t that bad”. It was under a classical liberal economic system that the Irish Potato Famine took place. The mantra then was “it’s God’s will”. For the Right believes that inequality is “natural” – a God-given.

The Tories have always hated the comprehensive education system and want a return to the old system that effectively excluded anyone without the material means to pay for a decent education. In our current education system, by rote learning is threatening to supplant the teaching of critical thinking skills. This is particularly the case in Higher Education, where the former polytechnics (or post-1992 universities) are cutting courses and expunging those courses that include the teaching of critical thinking skills from their curriculum. The government likes people who can’t ask questions, because people who don’t ask questions are easier to manipulate. This the neoliberal idea of education: to train people to be mindless consumers, who question nothing and are unaware or refuse to believe that they’re being oppressed. This is what Gramsci calls “contradictory consciousness” and what Bourdieu refers to as “illusio“. The message from the top seems to be “You will love us while we kick the shit out of you. It’s for your own good”.

Neoliberalism, apart from creating false economies on a grand scale, forces people see themselves as consumers; customers of a particular service.  Healthcare and education, for example, are reified; magically transformed into commodities. Neoliberalism produces illusions: illusions of freedom, illusions of wealth, illusions of choice. Neoliberalism exists to defend the power of the already wealthy and powerful. It pretends to be meritocratic, but in reality it diverts ever more power to the same people who have controlled things for centuries. Neoliberalism is nothing but feudalism in a Savile Row suit carrying a smartphone. If we aren’t careful we will find ourselves in a technologically advanced version of the Middle Ages, where ignorance and superstition rule unchallenged and trump reason and evidence-based solutions every time. We want a modern country that isn’t afraid to look forward. Nostalgia is a comfort blanket for those who fear what the future might hold.

Recently the government has insisted that schools teach “British values”. Aside from being a woolly, ill-defined concept on two levels, this is nothing less that a rush to inculcate forms of nationalist thinking in our children, and risks unleashing dangerous forces that cannot be controlled. For the Right, British history is marked by the dates of battles between royal houses and the births, lives and deaths of monarchs and their acolytes. Britishness only came about with the 1800 Act of Union that brought Ireland into the realm against its will. Moreover, Britishness (like any form of national identity) is entirely constructed from a selection of myths and half-truths. You create your own history.

We know what we’re against: we’re against neoliberalism, inequality, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, disablism, anti-Ziganism, anti-Semitism, corporate greed, slum landlords, inflated travel costs, lazy grasping MPs, war, etc. Therefore, we need to define what we’re for. We are for the 99%, because the current form of capitalism helps to enrich greedy people and sustain a hatred of Others. We must create culture for the 99% that addresses social and political concerns rather than tug on people’s emotions like the bourgeois theatre that dominates London’s West End, or the Hollywood movies that place style over substance. Much of today’s art doesn’t seek to engage with people’s lived experiences, instead it speaks only to itself. It is self-indulgent drivel. The artist must reject the dead space of the bourgeois art gallery, which demands disinterest and contemplation instead of engagement, and use the street as their palette and exhibition space instead.

We should adopt RAR as our model but include all forms of art and culture.  Much to the anti-immigrant parties’ disgust, Britain is a multi-cultural country and that is not going to change. All the multi-coloured cultural strands of this country need to be brought together under one umbrella in celebration of our diversity and in opposition to a cultural industry that is run for the benefit of accountants and media moguls, and says nothing about life as it is lived. We want artists of all kinds to take part in a new grassroots cultural movement for the 99%. Painters, sculptors, musicians, DJs, comedians, dancers, poets, rappers, writers, actors, jugglers, stilt-walkers, puppeteers, clowns and others that I haven’t mentioned. We must create cultural artefacts that look forward, not backwards.

History is a teacher, but nostalgia will teach you nothing that you don’t already know. In the words of Johnny Thunders, “you can’t put your arms around a memory”. That’s true, but you can embrace the challenge of the future.

We are the many, they are few. Culture for the 99%!



Filed under Arts, Comedy, Education

Libertarians and nostalgia

Libertarians. Don’t you find them ridiculous? For all their talk of freedom and liberty, they’re nothing more than wannabe feudal overlords. They’re fond of telling us how their idea of a minimal or ‘night watchman’ state will lead to a better world for all of us. Yet, whenever they open their mouths to speak, they inadvertently betray their true thoughts.

The other night I was listening to The World Tonight on BBC Radio 4. On the programme were two self-described libertarians discussing the floods. One of them was Telegraph columnist, Peter Oborne and I didn’t catch the other person’s name. The unnamed libertarian whined about the state and described it very much in the same terms as a teenage boy would describe his parents. “I hate my parents”, was more or less the what he was saying. “Why can’t they leave me alone to pull the legs off this fly”? Oborne told listeners that in the 19th century people would have dealt with the flooding themselves. This almost casual remark about 19th century Britain revealed the inner workings of the mind of the ‘libertarian’: they are not forward-looking, rather they are backward-looking romantics who are only capable of viewing history through the distorted lens of nostalgia.

In a libertarian world, the rich would be much richer than they are now and the rest would live as serfs. For the libertarian, the 19th century was a period of almost unparalleled ‘freedom’ when the bourgeoisie was more or less free to do as it pleased and the working classes knew their place in the hierarchy. It should come as no surprise that the term ‘social mobility’ does not appear in the lexicon of apparent libertarian freedoms.

So what is so great about the 19th century? True, there were scientific advances but there was a great deal of ignorance. Poverty and disease were rampant and most people were kept in the dark about their own body. Colonialism may have brought many riches to the aristocracy and the newly embourgeoisised middle classes alike, but the poor remained resolutely poor. Some libertarian once tried to tell me that the poor were “richer” at the end of the 19th century than at the beginning. The word “poor” means exactly that and the idea that the poor were somehow better off by 1900 is not only laughable, but fundamentally dishonest.

The libertarian right uses all the means it has at its disposal to hoodwink the gullible into signing away its rights for what it calls “freedom”. Yet in a libertarian world, only those who already possess material wealth and the privilege that comes with being members of the middle and upper classes will enjoy any kind of freedom. They’ll tell you that they hate war and that they stand for equality. But many of them would happily invade another country to ensure their bogus concept of ‘free trade’. This is why a good number of them have degrees in War Studies.

One of the favourite themes of the right libertarian is so-called ‘flat taxes’ which they claim are fair and that everyone – the low waged included – will benefit from them.  This is, of course, nothing more than a delusion.  If everyone pays the same rate of income tax, then those who are on meagre incomes will suffer, while the rich carry on as normal. The last time the UK had a flat tax was in the late 80s and early 90s, it was called The Poll Tax and it was seen as ‘fair’ by the Thatcher government. It cost millions to implement and cost even more to pursue the defaulters through the courts.

Right libertarians are accomplished liars who believe in the logic of their own lies. The very idea of social progress is anathema; it sounds too much like real fairness and being closeted social Darwinists, in their eyes, only the strong (in this case, the rich) should survive. If you don’t have the money to pay for the treatment of a chronic illness, then that’s too bad. You die.

Libertarians aren’t capable of looking forward. Their idea of the future – and they won’t admit to this – is to create a dystopian world from highly-selectivized memories of the 19th century. It may well be a technologically advanced world but it would have the feel of the Middle Ages to it, where knowledge is concentrated in the hands of the ruling elite and, even then, only certain kinds of knowledge would be considered valid.

Right libertarians are fantasists who want you to share their dream of a ‘better’ world by signing over your human rights and accepting the marketization of all social relations. Remember, in the world of the right libertarian, the police exist solely to protect the rich and oppress anyone who disagrees or steps out of line. – just as it was in the 19th century.

In the 19th century, Britain was a police state in all but name. No wonder right libertarians view the epoch with such affection.


Filed under Government & politics, right-wing libertarians, Taxpayers Alliance

Nile Gardiner, the Falkland Islands and Barack Obama

Nile Gardiner: obsessive and paranoid. He could give Dr Strangelove’s General Jack D Ripper a run for his money.

There are two words that I’d use to describe Moonie Nile Gardiner. One is paranoid, the other is obsessive. He can only write blogs about two things: The Falkland Islands and Barack Obama. Sometimes…well, most of the time, he combines his two obsessions into a single blog.

Until Mitt Romney’s defeat last November, Gardiner was one of Mitt’s mutts. His brief was to brief Romney on foreign affairs. He did a pretty poor job of it too. Now he’s back to his day job as the Director of The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom (sic), a subdivision of the extreme right-wing Heritage Foundation.

In the last month, I’ve lost count of the number of Gardiner’s blogs that mention or feature Obama and The Falklands. It’s clear that he desperately wants some kind of confrontation between Britain and Argentina. He’s nostalgic for the glory days of 1982 and he doesn’t really mind if people get killed just as long as the Falklanders maintain their dubious ‘sovereignty’.

Take yesterday’ blog titled, “British Ambassador to Washington calls on Obama to back rights of Falkland Islanders”, in which he conscripts the ambassador to fight his corner. He writes,

Sir Peter Westmacott, the veteran British Ambassador to Washington, has an excellent piece in Politico today in advance of the Falklands referendum which is taking place on March 10 and 11. Aimed squarely at US policymakers, the article outlines why Argentina’s claims over the Falklands are unfounded, and why the future of the Falkland Islands must be decided by the inhabitants of the Islands themselves. It is a clear-cut case of self-determination. As Sir Peter writes, invoking the spirit of the American Declaration of Independence:

My bold. He’s got this all wrong. How on earth can he compare the Falklands – a British colony  Overseas Territory in the South Atlantic – to the 12 states that rejected British rule in 1776? His understanding of history is faulty. Here’s what the ambassador wrote,

The Argentine government claims sovereignty over the islands based on events that took place more than 180 years ago when the archipelago was little more than an isolated outpost with almost no permanent population. But according to the most fundamental principles of international law, accepted by all nations for the past 60 years, it is for the inhabitants of a territory alone to determine how they are governed — the fundamental principle of self-determination, which received its most eloquent expression in Philadelphia in 1776.

… Kirchner and her government seek to portray the Falklands’ status as an example of British colonialism. But what could be more colonialist than seeking control of a territory — over which you have never exercised sovereignty and which your country accepted was British more than 160 years ago — against the wishes of the people who lived there?

Britain, as it has done so many times, stole the islands from under the noses of the nascent Argentina.  The islands were formally colonized by Britain in 1840. But the word “colonialism”, which has been used by Cristina Kirchner, is contested by Gardiner and his buddy, Westmacott.  But the facts speak for themselves: the Falklands are one of the last vestiges of British colonialism along with the troublesome Pitcairn Islands and tax havens like the Cayman Islands. The title “British Overseas Territories” is highly misleading because these territories are colonies in all but name; their inhabitants are considered British citizens but have no political representation in the ‘mother’ country as is the case with French overseas territories or DOM-TOM. Most of these overseas territories have strategic value or are located adjacent to some natural resource or other. Hence the reason why they remain British.

But what about this referendum? Isn’t it a foregone conclusion that the Falklanders will vote to remain, er, ‘British’? So what’s the point of it? It’s simple: Britain or, at least, the Tories and perhaps UKIP, want to rattle sabres with Argentina. Both parties are nostalgic for the long-dead British Empire and both parties gush over the memory of Thatcher’s triumph over the beastly Argies.

In the previous blog, the Moonie writes,

As readers of this blog will know, the Obama administration has a long track record of knifing Britain in the back over the Falklands issue. It has consistently sided with Cristina Kirchner’s calls for negotiations between London and Buenos Aires over the sovereignty of the Falklands, and will not recognise the right to self-determination of the Falkland Islanders. The Obama White House and State Department have refused to condemn the Kirchner regime’s campaign of intimidation against the Falklands, a self-governing British Overseas Territory in the South Atlantic, including the boarding of fishing vessels bearing the Falklands flag, and threats to mount a naval blockade.

“The Obama administration has a long track record of knifing Britain in the back over the Falklands issue”? The Obama administration has only been in place a little over 4 years. But here’s a question: how has Kirchner “intimidated” the Falklanders? He does not say. Knowing Gardiner, as I do, I would suggest that he’s come over all dramatic like a pantomime dame. I urge you to look at the blog title. It’s typically hysterical.

He provides a video produced by The Heritage Foundation… well, there’s a surprise.

The narrative advanced by this video ignores the fact that sovereignty over the islands has always been disputed. The reason why Britain colonized the Falklands was because of sealing and whaling. Both animals provided oil for lighting, heating and domestic products. Now oil of a different kind has been found offshore.

The Eastleigh by-election, in which the Tories came fourth behind UKIP, is shamelessly used by Gardiner to have another feeble pop at Obama.  He only mentions Obama once in this blog and it’s in the final paragraph. He tells us,

David Cameron needs to look to the Iron Lady, and not Barack Obama, for inspiration if he is to have any hope of winning in 2015. A conservative party can only win if it sticks to conservative values. Otherwise it becomes an empty shell that succeeds only in alienating its own base and destroying its very identity.

Ridiculous. Nurse! This one keeps thrashing about!

The day before Eastleigh, the ever-paranoid and shrill Gardiner tells us that Obama’s presidency is “A nasty, brutish, imperial presidency”. So why is that, Nile?

Thomas Hobbes wrote that the life of man is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Today’s White House definitely isn’t poor, lavishly feeding off the wealth of the American taxpayer, and the current presidency certainly isn’t short, with nearly four more years to run. But it is undeniably nasty and brutish, as veteran Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward has found after questioning President Obama’s narrative on the sequester issue.

A quote from Hobbes? Great. Just what we needed. There’s more,

Woodward, one of two reporters who broke the Watergate story that led to Richard Nixon’s downfall (immortalised in the 1976 Oscar winner All The President’s Men), has revealed to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that the White House warned him that he would “regret” his recent remarks on the sequester, made in Washington Post column. (Read the exchange of emails between White House economic adviser Gene Sperling and Woodward posted by Politico here.) Woodward is hardly a conservative, and has been at the heart of the liberal media establishment for decades. He is, however, not afraid of challenging the status quo, as he did with his 2010 book Obama’s Wars. Woodward is not alone. Lanny Davis, another liberal columnist and former special counsel to Bill Clinton, who has penned several pieces critical of Obama’s policies, has also spoken out against similar White House tactics.

So Bush’s presidency, in which the PATRIOT Act was enacted, doesn’t count?

We get to the point of the blog towards the end,

Will American liberals now stand up to the Obama White House and condemn its blatant attempts to suppress criticism and free speech? I doubt it. The Washington Post has provided relatively little coverage of the story, despite the fact that one its own star writers has been targeted.The New York Times is, unsurprisingly, completely silent (with the exception of a small mention in a single blog) on the issue. Ironically, most of the reporting of the White House’s attempts to intimidate liberal critics has come from the conservative press, led by the Drudge Report, which has propelled the story to national prominence. Both conservatives and liberals should be rallying to the defence of free speech and freedom of the press, holding the Obama presidency to account. All Americans should be concerned by government attempts to stifle press criticism in the land of the free, tactics which undermine the very foundations of liberty.

The first sentence of this paragraph reminds me of Louise Mensch’s outburst on Twitter when she demanded that the Labour Party condemn those who wished Thatcher dead. It’s a right-wing trick designed to claim moral authority over their opponents.

I would continue with Gardiner’s obsessions but I’d be here for months. Why not have a look at this page on Telegraph blogs? You’ll notice that the Moonie has little else to write about. He even manages a rather bitchy attack on Michelle Obama.

Now I’m not a fan of Obama but I find Gardiner’s fascination with him bizarre to the point of being pathological. He’s a cheerleader for war, death and destruction. His idea of freedom, like that of The Freedom Association, is Orwellian.

Mitt Romney lost the presidential election. Gardiner is still bitter that his man choked it. Now he spends his days churning out blog after blog about Obama. He also has the Falklands to use as a stick to smash his favourite target over the head. Obama will be in the White House for four years, but I suspect Gardiner will still write blogs about him long after he is gone.

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Filed under Ideologies, Journalism, Media, propaganda, Tory press

The British Right, the EU and the absence of modernity

John Bull: pigheadedness, anti-intellectual and resistant to modernity

Whenever I returned from a visit to the continent in the 1980s and 1990s, my heart would sink as I approached the port or airport. For I knew that when I set foot on British soil I was likely to be confronted with an antiquated train that was dirty and smelly. These days I need to re-mortgage the home I don’t own to pay the fare. On the continent, the railways are fast, clean, efficient and reasonably priced. Everyone has a seat and no one stands. Those countries embrace modernity. This country mostly rejects it. We have one high speed line. That is all.

In 1970, when my father announced to the family that we were going to move from Germany to England, I wasn’t happy. I wanted to stay in Germany. I’d grown used to the country and learned to speak German. But if you’re a child growing up in a military family, you get used to moving every 3 or 4 years. You lose friends and you quickly make more. That’s the way it is.

When we arrived in England, I was surprised that little had changed since my previous visits in 1963 and 1967. The country was still fusty, curled up around the edges like a stale cheese and pickle sandwich. Many television programmes were a source of horror and I was appalled to see white men blacking up and singing minstrel songs in 1970! I was disgusted when I heard comedians tell jokes about “nig nogs” and “pakis”. Grown up men telling jokes that schoolchildren whispered to their mates on the playground. Grown men!

People were still complaining or making jokes about the Germans. The attitude toward the French was no better. Other European countries also came in for abuse. No one was safe. But there was no justification for this superiority complex. None at all. It seemed that Britain was resting on its laurels; always harking back to the 19th century and the days of Empire. “This country kick-started the industrial revolution”! “We invented the railways”! So? What are you doing now?

Britain’s post-war governments had tried and failed many times to join the EEC. Now European nations must be wondering why they bothered in the first place. But in the 1970s Britain persisted with its application for membership and because the biggest obstacle, De Gaulle was cold in the grave, it was finally successful.

So on Wednesday when Cameron appeared before the cameras to announce that he would give the British people a say over the EU, it reminded me of all the times I’d heard jokes about the Germans and the French. On Twitter, the Europhobes crowed.  They started popping the corks – prematurely, of course. Some started talking fondly about the Empire. “Oh, those were the days”! “We should never have given up Inja”!

Britain is not a modern country. The parties of the right are obsessed with the days of Empire. They refuse to face the future, because it’s much more comforting to look to the past. But it’s not a past that exists in either the bowdlerized history books beloved of Michael Gove and Niall Ferguson or the popular memory. It’s a past that’s formed entirely out of the nothingness of nostalgia; it’s shit and dust. The Tories and their ideological cousins, UKIP, are incapable of doing anything but looking backwards and in doing so, they want to drag us back to some mythological age when there was “free trade” and “civilization” was dispensed from the barrel of a gun.

And with the talk of a referendum, comes the Churchillian rhetoric about “fighting them on the beaches”. Plucky little England against beastly Europe. These people demand Imperial Preference from an Empire that no longer exists and “free trade” that isn’t free. The thing is, in spite of what our Europhobic friends say, Britain still trades with its former colonies. Today when I visited the supermarket, I saw Anchor Butter (from New Zealand), New Zealand lamb, Sri Lankan tea and coffee from Kenya – openly on sale. Who says that Britain doesn’t trade with these countries? UKIP does and so do Europhobic Tories.

It was a Conservative government under Edward Heath that took Britain into the EEC. The Labour Party was mostly opposed because they saw it as an institution dominated by bankers and bosses. By the 1980s, the Labour position had changed because of Thatcher’s anti-union laws. The EU was gradually seen as a bulwark against the excesses of rapacious neoliberalism, though it was pretty much hopeless, because those laws were passed (so much for a “loss” of sovereignty) and trade unions were forced to comply.The Tories complained that Britain would lose its sovereignty. It didn’t.

The Tory-supporting media drives the debate on Europe and it would be wrong to suggest that it doesn’t. It would also be wrong to suggest that many British people are well-informed about Europe. They aren’t. If you tell that to a member of UKIP, they’ll tell you that you’re being “patronizing” but they’re in denial and they’re arrogant. Just have a look at the papers: they all say the same things about Europe and the EU.

The alleged ban on curved bananas was a myth fabricated right here in Britain. You see, Britain can still manufacture things, even if those things are completely wrong or useless. The press continues to make up stories about Europe and the EU. Take this example quoted by Roy Greenslade in The Guardian.

I pointed out on Monday that the Daily Express had run a bogus splash,EU wants to merge UK and France.

A similar story appeared in the Express’s red-top sister title, the Daily StarClowns plan to turn us French.

I can only shake my head in dismay. How can we have a sensible and rational debate about the EU when our “free” press prints lies like these?

I’ve said in a previous blog that the EU isn’t perfect. But when one unpacks the narrative of the right’s opposition to the EU, one uncovers the sheer hatred of foreigners and immigrants that lies beneath rhetoric about sovereignty. I see plenty of comments on Telegraph blogs that do nothing but bleat about “purity” and how Britain’s culture is being destroyed by immigrants. Like it or not, this country is a nation of immigrants and it is all the better for it. But it still isn’t a modern country.

What really galls me about the UKIP and Tory Europhobe argument is their tendency to insist that there is a consensus of support for their position. But this consensus is entirely imagined. They talk of the “people” but they have nothing but contempt for the people. They demand a referendum on the EU but they won’t give us a referendum on austerity, the cuts to education and the selling off of the NHS to medical companies.  Their obsession over Europe and the EU is pathological, perhaps sociopathic. Even a psychoanalyst would say so.

As for modernity, it’s resisted at every turn. Right-wing politicians and businesses (including Registered Social Landlords) operate like feudal overlords. The poor, the unemployed, the disabled are all dumped on. Those with the least means are saddled with  massive debts and high costs. Modern? Hell, Britain isn’t even civilized. A socialist  acquaintance told me years ago that “Britain was the last colony of the British Empire”. He was right. We’re all living under the heel of rapacious colonizers and little empire builders in a country that refuses to grow up and enter the modern world.

Europhobes cry “Many people weren’t old enough to vote in the Common Market referendum of 1975”. The people who use this line are the same people who weren’t old enough to be Tory MPs during the Thatcher years, but who now insist on forcing through policies that not even that government could get away with.

We need a proper grown up debate on the EU, not more lies, mischief-making and scaremongering by the press.

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Filed under Europe, European Union

The Tory obsession with the past

Given their fondness for the past, anyone would think that the Tories knew something about history, but it isn’t history or the past that they’re interested in. It’s something else. Now they won’t admit it to themselves, but what they’re actually concerned with is nostalgia: the romanticized view of the past or, as I often put it, “history with all the bad bits taken out”. It is a ‘past’ where the rich could get on with being rich. The aristocracy controlled parliamentary politics and much more besides and the working classes and the poor knew their place.

This blog from (Fr)Ed West is a case in point. West asks “What was so bad about the 1950s”? This is a cue for his racist readers to complain that today’s Britain is full to bursting with those horrible ‘coloureds’. West opines,

But what do people have against the 1950s? It’s a strange insult to use because, not only were the 1950s an incredibly peaceful, ordered time but they were also, by today’s standards, very equal (and getting more so).

A “peaceful and ordered time”? I think I know where this is going. But let’s deal with the lie that the 1950s was “peaceful”. He forgets the Korean War, in which Britain was a participant. The Suez Crisis, the euphemistically-named Malay Emergency, the continued occupation of Iraq, the struggles that preceded de-colonization (Kenya was particularly nasty) and the ever-expanding Cold War.

It was a great time to be poor – the first time in history when a working-class Englishman could afford to support a wife and two kids, as well as having enough to save, afford a holiday and, often even run a car. Today, especially when housing costs are considered, that is very difficult.

Hang on, it was a “great time to be poor”? Is he for real? Then, with a straight face, he tells us, “a working-class Englishman could afford to support a wife and two kids”. He deliberately confuses being working class with being poor. I think the less time I spend on Westworld, the better.

So what is this Tory obsession with nostalgia? Is it because their knowledge of the past comes from fictionalized historical narratives? Or is it something else? Early into their government, some Tories were openly advocating a return to Victorian’values’. Cameron even told us how we should return to those days to ‘reclaim’ our industrial heritage (there was the subtext of Empire too). This blog from Andrew Hill of the FT, kicks a big hole in Cameron’s ‘vision’.

The Tories don’t like a citizenry that questions things. In fact, they would much rather we didn’t refer to ourselves as ‘citizens’ but as ‘subjects’ instead. A subject is not an active member of society but a passive one. Subjects question nothing, their role is to accept everything that comes from their masters. They are deferential to authority and are happy to take up arms against anyone whom the state has identified as the ‘enemy’.

The thing that started this sudden interest in 1950s nostalgia came from Pob (Michael Gove) and his plans to revive old qualifications, which he declared are better and tougher than today’s qualifications. Never mind that he insulted all those youngsters who have completed their tough exams by telling them that they have it easy or that he has practically set about destroying the comprehensive education system in this country. For Gove and his chums, it’s all about learning facts, dates and figures by rote. Forget about developing a critical mind. In today’s Britain, questions are verboten. Accept your place and like it.

Even many historians who self-identify as Tories are inclined to revisionism. Niall Ferguson, who was asked by this government to rewrite the history syllabus, is notorious for his ‘counter-factual’ histories. Not content with seeing the past as it was, the Tories want to create a new past in which social reforms never existed. They despise the idea of a ‘people’s history’ or social histories because these tell the real story of the people not the Tory version of history with its emphasis on ‘derring-do’ and Empire.  Starkey, in particular, dismisses social history as “feminized”. This probably tells us more about his misogyny than any concern he may or may not have for ‘real’ history.

In the Tory version of history, the Peterloo Massacre was entirely necessary because the Chartists represented a threat to the ‘natural’ order. The Reform Acts of 1832 and 1867  should never have happened because a modicum of power was ceded to some of the people (the property qualification remained until 1918 and women were only permitted to vote in 1928) – too much, in other words. It also meant that politicians were now accountable to the electorate, which was anathema to those who wanted retain their tenuous hold on power through the rotten boroughs.

The 1950s was a time of political deference that was only disrupted by the appearance of Beyond the Fringe and even then, half of the participants in that production came from ruling class backgrounds (Miller and Cook).  This longing for another age is indicative of an inability to face up to the present or confront the challenges of the future. This attitude is best represented by the image of the ostrich with its head in the sand. Gil Scott-Heron, writing about the US Republicans’ penchant for nostalgia in his rap poem B-Movie,  sums it up,

The idea concerns the fact that this country wants nostalgia. They want to go back as far as they can – even if it’s only as far as last week. Not to face now or tomorrow, but to face backwards. And yesterday was the day of our cinema heroes riding to the rescue at the last possible moment. The day of the man in the white hat or the man on the white horse – or the man who always came to save America at the last moment – someone always came to save America at the last moment – especially in “B” movies. And when America found itself having a hard time facing the future, they looked for people like John Wayne. But since John Wayne was no longer available, they settled for Ronald Reagan – and it has placed us in a situation that we can only look at – like a “B” movie.

B-Movie may have been written about the US but it applies to Britain as well. Instead of John Wayne, we have Winston Churchill or any number of rehabilitated right-wing heroes. Enoch Powell, for example. These figures have been detached from history, airbrushed and re-presented to us as demi-gods or prophets. This shouldn’t surprise us, because the Tories don’t like taking a critical look at their objects of worship. It’s easier to accept easy answers to complex issues and if that means re-ordering the past to suit their thesis then that’s what they’ll continue to do.

Nostalgia isn’t real: it’s a representation of history. Nothing less. Nothing more.

Finally, nostalgia is easier to deal with than history because of the uncomplicated nature of the fantasy. Nostalgia is free from the ugly realities of life. This is why the Tories find it so much easier to engage with nostalgia than history itself.


Filed under 19th century, 20th century, History, History & Memory