Tag Archives: the spectacle

Let’s Talk About: ‘Labour Maquis’

This week a friend tipped me off about a Twitter account purportedly belonging to a group calling itself the ‘Labour Maquis’. Those of you familiar with the history of World War 2 will know that the Maquis were the French resistance. Some Maquis cells were as small as 5 members and others could boast as many as a thousand members. As I write this, the ersatz Maquis has 1,176 followers, which means absolutely nothing at all. They may call themselves a “resistance” movement but they’re more Vichy than Maquis.

This Tweet is a hoot.

I like the way it talks about “core values” by reeling off a list of words that could easily have come from so-called ‘Corbynistas’, whom they despise and oppose. Yet it’s the way the word “democracy” has been deployed as a weapon in this Tweet.  It makes the claim that Corbyn and his supporters are freedom hating anti-democrats.  Hell, they may as well be called ‘Commies’. Although Dan and his friends would disagree, it is they who hold the democratic process by which  Corbyn was elected  as leader in contempt. Democracy? They don’t know the meaning of the word.

But have a look at the icon. That isn’t the logo of the Maquis (they didn’t have one), that’s the logo of the Maquis in Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. This is a fictional Maquis, and like their bitter enemies, the Cardassians, they don’t exist. The imitation of reality in the Star Trek series, although set in the distant future, is very much anchored in the present and is influenced by contemporary discourses. But it is not real; it is only a representation of the real. It is, as Baudrillard would describe it, a simulation.

So whose  Twitter account is this?  The Cat thinks it belongs to ‘Desperate’ Dan Hodges, the self-styled “Blairite cuckoo in the Labour nest” and embittered Torygraph hack. For only a couple of months ago, Hodges wrote a column titled “Labour members are now preparing to go underground to resist the Corbyn regime”. I hardly think any of them have gone “underground” as our Dan would have us believe. Danczuk? Mann? Umunna? They’re what you might call ‘out and proud’.  I digress but here’s the crux of the article:

Over the past few days two different strategies have emerged, which have been dubbed the “Free French” and the “Maquis” strategies.

Really? Do tell us what these “strategies” are.

The Free French strategy involves effectively withdrawing all support from Corbyn. MPs will not serve in his shadow cabinet, they will not observe the whip, they will not be bound by any sense of collective responsibility to the official party line. Those advocating that strategy are being compared to De Gaulle and those French forces that retreated into exile in Britain, then returned to the French continent on D-Day to liberate their homeland.

The Maquis strategy involves “staying behind enemy lines and fighting”, according to one MP. Existing members of the shadow cabinet will organise slates, and stand for election in the shadow cabinet elections Corbyn has pledged to reintroduce. From here they will oppose Corbyn’s more radical policy initiatives and start to construct an independent base from within the PLP and the wider Labour party, which they will use to strike out against him when they judge the time is right.

I find his use of war language crass, and the comparison of Labour right-wingers to the French resistance also tells us that he’s no student of the history of WW2 (except in the sense he’s probably watched The Great Escape a million times). This ignorance also extends to recent history, because those with whom he shares an ideological kinship, still believe they are uniquely capable of winning elections… and this is in spite of the fact that the Labour Party under a  right-wing leadership lost two elections in a row!  And here’s something else: the Labour right is only concerned about elections and can’t quite understand that politics is about more than fighting elections, which themselves happen once every five years. It’s about relating to what’s happening everyday in the lives of real people between those elections, rather that relating to fictional characters from a Star Trek story arc.

Comparisons to the Maquis are not only over-dramatic: they insult the memories of those who fought against the Nazi occupation of France. But the use of a logo that belongs to a fictional resistance militia from a television series set in space, shows us that whoever owns this Twitter account is representative of the Labour right’s weak grip on reality.

 

 

 

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Filed under Labour, Labour leadership election 2015, Labour Party, Let's Talk About, Media, Political parties

What’s Happening To Stand-up Comedy In Britain?

I’m one of the judges for the New Acts of The Year and we’re about half way through the contest. One thing that I and other judges have noticed is the general lack of political and philosophical engagement with the world among novice comedians. There are also a worrying number of acts who either have no material or have nothing interesting to say. Some have even ventured into misogyny, homophobia and casual racism in a feeble attempt to get laughs. What we also tend to find is that, rather than present a quirky view of the world, some of these novice comedians are giving us a spoken version of their CV. Is this what people are being taught to do at the many stand-up comedy courses that have proliferated since the early 1990s? I think it is. Whatever the case, British stand-up comedy is on its sick bed.

For the last few days, many comedians have been talking about Andrew Lawrence’s alleged support for UKIP and his attack on immigrants. Even UKIP leader Nigel Farage has given Lawrence his support.   A potential kiss of death? Possibly. Only time will tell. What has the world come to when today’s comedians are embracing anti-immigration rhetoric and railing against diversity? Are we really heading back in time to the immediate post-colonial period when comedians used trot out a stream of racist and sexist gags and used “it’s only a joke” as a defence? Sometimes it seems that way.  In Lawrence’s case, it’s easy to suggest that he’s doing this to attract attention. On the other hand, perhaps he, like so many others, is suffering from cognitive dissonance or maybe he’s just a right-wing reactionary arsehole. At any rate, there is an absence of critical thinking to his rant and I would argue that this is indicative of a malaise that is currently affecting the entire country, especially in England, where this negative attitude towards difference seems rife. This malaise is particularly manifest in those people who believe UKIP is ‘anti-establishment’ or ‘anti-politics’.  ‘Anti-politics’? Really? There is no such thing as ‘anti-politics’. Everything is political. UKIP is an anti-intellectual party that appeals to anti-intellectuals, who believe the country’s myriad problems can be solved by simply ‘pulling up the drawbridge’.

On Lawrence’s Facebook page, he attempts to “clarify” his earlier post but is actually reiterating what he said previously. In effect, he ends up digging himself an even bigger hole of gargantuan proportions:

A comedian from a minority background who uses their own ethnicity as a foundation for the whole of their act, rather than looking at wider aspects of society and exploring outside of their own personal experience.

And then says:

Quotas have been introduced, whereby every panel show must book a certain number of female and ethnic comedians, regardless of ability or merit.

Objectively then, there are comedians on panel shows who are there first and foremost because of their gender or ethnicity.

But it gets worse:

Because there is currently not a sufficiently large enough pool of female comedians with the requisite experience and ability to fill the quota, there are females who’ve been booked for these shows who are either poor comedians, not comedians at all, or aspiring female comedians that are still learning their craft, but have not yet reached a decent professional standard.

These females I have described as ‘women-posing-as-comedians’.

The upshot of all that is that there are still many women coming across incredibly badly on panel shows, which is helping to perpetuate the myth that women aren’t funny.

The hope is that women currently on panel shows, will further legitimise stand-up comedy as a career for women and encourage other women to take up comedy. Which is an admirable aim.

Unfortunately for every female who gets on a panel show, there are very many male comedians with more ability and experience who are not and will never get the opportunity to be on one. I think that’s a great shame for TV audiences.

And for his finale:

Oh, and I don’t have a problem with properly regulated immigration and I don’t have a problem with immigrants.

I do have a great deal of concern about the lack of border controls in this country and subsequent gross overpopulation as a result of EU legislation, which I believe adversely affects all our quality of life.

Here Lawrence uncritically accepts UKIP’s position on immigration and seeks to rationalize this position by summoning up the Malthusian claim of “overpopulation” to lend some kind of intellectual gravitas to his narrativization. This is exactly what Malthusian think-tank Migration Watch UK (and Bill Oddie) does all the time.  But this claim that there is a “lack of proper border controls” is not only ludicrously melodramatic, it’s a complete myth. He claims that he isn’t a UKIP supporter but that claim is pretty meaningless, given the fact that he’s regurgitated the same myths as Kippers and the rest of the English Right. Lawrence, if anything, is a reactionary, though it’s not something that he would readily admit. Instead, he complains that comedians are making jokes about UKIP. Diddums.

Let’s return to Lawrence’s comment about “minority comedians”, who he claims use their ethnicity as the basis of their act. Here, he doesn’t even try to understand why this is the case. He’s a white male stand-up and looks more or less like every other white male stand-up. If you’re black or a woman (or both), you have certain visual signifiers that differentiate you from the rest of the pack and may make jokes about those things. That’s what happens. If you have red hair or you’re fat, you will also make jokes about those things. That’s what happens. Yet, for Lawrence, it’s as if over 200 years of colonialism and racism never happened and that things are all right now because this is the year 2014 and people have stopped being racist. Sure they have. Yet for all the white male faces on television, the numbers of black faces on panel shows is so small as to be non-existent. Can you think why that is? I can. It’s called institutionalized racism and it’s a product of the dominant class’s early socialization. The vast majority of producers and commissioning editors come from public school and Oxbridge backgrounds. In their schools, some of which are all boy schools, they never see any females apart from those who are employed to teach or make beds. Black pupils are just as much of a rarity, thus commissioning editors tend to employ those people who are most like them: white and male.

With regards to women comedians, Lawrence has painted himself into a corner by claiming on the one hand that there aren’t a large number of women comics and on the other,  this small number of women comics is responsible for inferior female talent because male numbers are superior. Confused? Don’t be. It’s the anti-intellectual tripe of a knee-jerk reactionary. Like so many white [right-wing] males, Lawrence is playing the victim and it’s as if to say “It’s all the fault of those horrible wimmin with their feminism. They’re oppressing me”.  Lawrence is offering nothing new and is merely repeating the worn-out fallacy that women aren’t funny. Let me tell you something, Andrew, a lot of women are funnier than men, they just don’t get the same opportunities as white males who constantly refer to their genitalia and their apparent sexual inadequacies/perversions. Boring, huh?

The current malaise in British stand-up comedy is an indication of an overall malaise that hangs over this country like miasma. We have now entered a time when the very idea of tolerance is being pissed on, not only by right-wing politicians, but also by selfish misogynistic comics for cheap laughs, who believe they’re ‘pushing the boundaries’. The dominant discourses in this country have been orientated to the right for the last 35 years. People walk around talking in market-speak without realizing it. Other people repeat phrases like “Benefit claimants are addicted to the state” and “We need to have cuts” without thinking about them. Some, like Toby Young, believe that free speech means you can say anything you like without being criticized or being called an ‘idiot’ for it. However, if you’re tolerant and see immigration as a benefit to the nation, you’re shouted down, while those who oppose immigration complain that their voices “aren’t heard” even though the newspapers are full of articles complaining about immigration, and which rely on the usual myths, tropes and hyperbolic flights of fancy like “the country is crowded” to make their spurious points.

If comedy acts as a barometer for the political and social health of a nation, then Britain or, at least, England is a very sick patient indeed. It is obsessed with nostalgia and ready to blame its condition on everything but the system that produces inequalities and untold miseries. Instead, women, ethnic minorities and immigrants are scapegoated for a system that has comprehensively failed to deliver. Those in power in Westminster are happy to allow this continue and comedians like Andrew Lawrence are more than happy to act on their behalf. Sometimes I think the battles that we fought in the 1980s were for nothing.

 

 

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Filed under Comedy, comedy, Ideologies, immigration, National Identity, Popular culture, racism, sexism, social class, Society & culture

Mediating notions of freedom: The Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

Radio Free Europe’s headquarters in Prague

Away from the physical wars of violence and destruction, a cultural war has taking been place since the end of World War II. I’m not referring to the phony cultural war of the Right versus Left or Conservative versus Liberal, I’m talking about the bombardment of other countries via the airwaves. The countries that are enduring this cultural bombardment are those in Central Asia, the Balkans and the Middle East.  Some Eastern European countries are included… but not those that have already succumbed to the imperialist message of brotherhood through ‘free trade’.

Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty are, for all intents and purposes, one and the same broadcaster and were, until 1970, directly funded  by the CIA. Their funding now comes directly from Congress but that doesn’t make them any less pernicious than they were previously. In the glory days of the Cold War, RFE/RL would broadcast messages about the wonders of Coca-Cola and other treats to the so-called Iron Curtain countries, but once the Berlin Wall fell, they turned their attention to those countries in Asia, which they believed were in need of ‘freedom’. The truth is altogether less altruistic and I will come to that later.

RFE/RL broadcasts to Iraq and Iran (no surprise). It claims not to beam its signal to Syria but I think, given the current situation there, it most probably does.

RFE began broadcasting in 1950 to Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland and Romania. RL began in 1951. It is interesting to note that in the same year that RFE was founded, the CIA covertly created the Congress for Cultural Freedom.

For decades in art circles it was either a rumour or a joke, but now it is confirmed as a fact. The Central Intelligence Agency used American modern art – including the works of such artists as Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko – as a weapon in the Cold War. In the manner of a Renaissance prince – except that it acted secretly – the CIA fostered and promoted American Abstract Expressionist painting around the world for more than 20 years.

Here’s a clip from Crusade for Freedom. This is the same Orwellian freedom much beloved of our friends in the Liberty League and The Freedom Association,

The Crusade succeeded in convincing many Americans that the idea of freedom that was being mediated to them by domestic broadcasters was the ‘right’ freedom, and that this freedom should be ‘enjoyed’ by everyone.

While not exactly sinister, the Crusade for Freedom was unquestionably deceitful. Over almost twenty years, it repeatedly took advantage of American good will, expanding from a small, obscure program into a monstrous propaganda subterfuge. Crusade organizers instigated parades in small towns, complete with a shining Freedom Bell displayed along the streets. Organizers cast the bell at a foundry near where the Liberty Bell was originally created to enhance its propaganda value. They added other touches, too, appealing to people’s patriotic sentiments. The top of the Freedom Bell, for example, was circled with peace laurels, and the bottom was engraved with a quote from Abraham Lincoln. People were asked to sign Freedom Scrolls and donate Truth Dollars.

“Freedom Scrolls” and “Truth dollars”. What does that sound like to you?

RFE’s website tells us,

In the first years of the Cold War, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty adopted more confrontational editorial policies than other Western broadcasters. The broadcasts produced in accordance with these policies did not promote uprisings and, after 1953, emphasized evolutionary system change.

The original intention of RFE/RL was to inspire insurrection in the East but this failed to happen. Instead, the radios adopted a more softly softly approach through the use of culture.

In what came to be called “surrogate” broadcasting, RFE and RL provided an unbiased, professional substitute for the free media that countries behind the Iron Curtain lacked. Unlike other Western broadcasters, the programs focused on local news not covered in state-controlled domestic media as well as religion, science, sports, Western music and locally banned literature and music.

They claim that they provided “unbiased” news. Such news does not and never did exist.

The “radios” provided news, features and music aimed at communist and non-communist elites as well as the general population. RFE and RL also gave a voice to dissidents and opposition movements that, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, would emerge as leaders of the new post-communist democracies.

Most Americans had no idea that their tax money was being used to support RFE/RL and many still don’t understand the role they played in the production of propaganda during Gulf War II and the occupation of Iraq.

But it’s not going all RFE’s way. Last October, the Voice of America website reported,

U.S.-funded media outlet Radio Liberty says it will end its radio broadcasts and move to digital platforms to comply with a new Russian law prohibiting foreign control of broadcast licenses.

In a Moscow Times article, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) president Steve Korn says the station is adapting to new legal realities and changing technology and distribution systems.

Korn says Radio Liberty’s future lies in digital, Internet and social media, where it hopes to reach “young, urban and educated Russians” who “are at the forefront of change and who will lead Russia in the future.”  He says there was no alternative to compliance with Russian law.

The Voice of America (VOA) looks like a rival outfit but it is part of the same propaganda machine. The VOA includes the African continent in its broadcast orbit as well as the rest of the world. In the 1970s, I can remember once tuning in to the VOA in time for the news. The announcer told listeners that the news was in “Special English”. I always took that phrase to mean “code”. It actually means “American English for foreign speakers”.

English language lessons are part of the propaganda drive: through the teaching of a language one can inculcate in the listener the values of the culture from which that language comes.  In this case, the language is American English, which tells us that the cultural values of the dominant ideology in the United States will be passed on to the listener in a seemingly innocent manner. This is also true of the BBC World Service.

Chomsky and Herman (1989) say,

The mass media serve as a system for communicating messages and symbols to the general populace. It is their function to amuse, entertain, and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society. In a world of concentrated wealth and major conflicts of class interest, to fulfill this role requires systematic propaganda.

In the case of VOA, RFE and RL, they obviously function as American propaganda machines: they are supported by the government through taxation and private (and corporate) donations. While Chomsky and Herman wrote about the function of the media in advanced capitalist societies in which there exists a ‘free press’, it is important to understand how the American radios projected an image of America that was at ease with itself and in which there were no internal conflicts, racism or the surveillance of ‘subversives’. The American people were portrayed as unified and happy. But this was no more than an illusion for the American people and the world’s listeners, whose only knowledge of the US came from one of the radios. In Debordian terms, this is a spectacular image of the US that is being mediated to listeners. But is not the radios themselves that are spectacular, rather the social relations that exist between the listener and the radios are spectacular.

Indeed, Debord said,

The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.

The spectacular freedom articulated by the radios can only be achieved by the ‘opening up’ of markets so that the consumer goods can flow freely. Images of fast-food, high-spec gadgets and designer clothing are used to reinforce this mediated idea of freedom.

Let’s take the example of the Czech Republic, of which Pew Global said,

Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project found broad-based Czech discontent with the country’s economic situation and the way democracy is working.

Adding,

Nonetheless, the data also showed a strong commitment among Czechs to free markets and democratic values. Moreover, Czechs ranked high among their peers in the region in terms of happiness with the transition to free market economics and multiparty politics.

The Czech Republic was one of the first of the former Soviet Union’s satellite states to embrace the free market notion that had been mediated during the Cold War. It is likely that the idea of the “democratic values” of which Pew speaks were projected through the distorted lens of capitalist commodity production onto the Czech people through the radios.  The use of the slippery word “happiness” is instructive here and I would suggest that it has also been subjected to the process of spectacularization.  In other words, happiness comes through the consumption of freely available commodities, but for those without the means to consume such things there is no freedom. This is the ugly flipside of the freedom and democracy concepts that were articulated by the radios. The Shangri-La promised by RFE/RL/VOA exists only for the wealthy, who snapped up the former state industries, and the powerful political figures who capitalized on the vacuum left by the former rulers.

Now the transmitters have turned their signal to those parts of the world that have been hitherto untouched by the invisible hand of the market.

So for those who have yet to be touched by the joys of free market capitalism: your freedom will be mediated to you.

References

Debord, G. (2005) Society of the Spectacle, Detroit: Black and Red.

Herman, E. S. & Chomsky, N. (1994) Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, London: Vintage Books.

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Filed under Africa, Media, Middle East, propaganda, United States, World

Mediating freedom: the role of the libertarian think-tanks

Madsen Pirie: the architect  of Thatcher's privatization programme

Madsen Pirie: the architect of Thatcher’s privatization programme

How does one define the word “freedom”? There is a group of people who believe they know exactly what the word “freedom” means. “Freedom” and its cousin “liberty” are abstract nouns, there is no hard and fast definition for either of them and any attempt to give them some kind of single meaning or, indeed, a list of meanings is utterly futile and is most likely going to be dishonest. Moreover, it could take you a very long time to compile such a list.You can no more easily define “freedom” than you can words like “happiness” or “love”, because these words mean different things to different people at different times.

There are people who believe that they have knowledge of the true nature of freedom. They form themselves into ‘non-partisan’ think-tanks’ and discussion groups and refer to themselves collectively as “libertarians”. It’s as if as libertarians, they and only they have found the true meaning of freedom. It is as though they had heard the word of G*d Himself who spoke unto them and revealed the secret of liberty.  He said unto them, “It is not Communism”.

And lo, it became the everlasting Truth… until the collapse of the Wall of Berlin, when the disciples of The Truth believed unto themselves that freedom had triumphed over the tyranny of Communism, which they declared to be “unfreedom”.

After some soul-searching and not an inconsiderable amount of hand-wringing, they decided among themselves that unfreedom was to be represented by so-called radical Islam. They had found their antithesis! Lazy thinkers are attracted to binaries because they can only define themselves against their opposite. They are not Communists/Socialists/Lefties/Islamists, therefore they love freedom!

Those who call themselves “libertarians” deny that they are of a right-wing disposition and will gather at the feet of some economic guru or high priest, where they receive The Word directly from the master’s mouth. They may also deny that they are ideological and claim that they are “non-partisan” or “neither right nor left” but this is dishonest for when you press them on certain matters, they will produce a reply that contains the usual messages of “responsibility” and a “small state”. They speak in maths. Society is merely an afterthought.

Classical liberalism, as a term, has become both a touchstone for nostalgists and means by which to reorder language. Even neologisms are subjected to this transformation. The term “neoliberalism” is resented by the Right because they did not coin it. In its stead came “classical liberalism”, a term made seemingly older by the prefix “classical”. It is still neoliberalism in form and in substance. We cannot return to the past, no matter how hard the Tories try to recreate the past in the present. Therefore they revive old terminologies and long for the days before they were born.

The economic theories embraced by the Adam Smith Institute (ASI), for example, are most definitely on political right and are therefore ideological. There’s no escaping it. In the 1980s, the ASI was very close to the Thatcher government. To whit, ASI’s president/high priest, Dr Madsen Pirie was  the architect of privatization. His freedom is that which steals food from the mouths of babes and condemns the poor to lives of never-ending serfdom.

Right libertarians believe themselves to be the arbiters of the freedom ideal. Their idea of freedom is a mediated one. That is to say, it comes from someone else or is produced by a body of people like ASI who make a deterministic argument of freedom, based more or less on the notion of economic liberty, which they assert is the fount of all freedoms. Such thinking is absurd when one considers the tyranny exerted on the poor and working poor by states that have operated this model.

For neoliberalism or classical liberalism to work, it must be imposed on the citizenry. These economic ideologies can only benefit the rich and any claim that they will “liberate” the poor is patently absurd and is not supported by the evidence. “Trickle-down” is a lie.

The ASI, like so many other libertarian think-tanks have convinced themselves that they know the True meaning of the words “liberty” and “freedom” but it doesn’t and to claim that it has a form of superior knowledge that leads them to a position where they can provide a definitive meaning for these words is arrogant, mendacious and self-delusional. Have a look at this pamphlet from the ASI, from which I shall quote a portion,

Liberty can be defined as not being interfered with, or not being
imposed on, by others (non-invasive liberty). Not being attacked
or robbed is part of liberty; attacking or robbing people is not part of liberty.

It follows that liberty means being able to do what you like with
your own body (the principle of self-ownership) and your own
property, as long as you are not thereby imposing on the body or
property of others. You are free to harm yourself, for example by
taking dangerous drugs, but if you harm someone else or damage
their property without their consent, you are violating their liberty.

This sense of liberty is what libertarians, or classical liberals,
mean when they advocate liberty. It is also the dominant idea of
liberty within Western history and it applies to any society that is
described as generally ‘liberal’.

This is a mainly Hobbesian formulation of liberty that has been infused with neoliberal discourse (Hobbes was a supporter of absolute monarchy). But to characterize liberty in purely Western terms is misleading and rather vague since it presumes that freedom does not exists outside Western ‘liberal’ discourse. It also suggests that “liberty” was conceived by Westerners, ergo they are the arbiters and owners of the “freedom” concept. Furthermore the essentialistic arguments on the nature of freedom put forward by the ASI is only one set of definitions and can never represent a totality of freedom, because there will always be limits or disagreements.

The Freedom Association (TFA) is a right-wing pressure group, whose idea of freedom is narrow. Indeed, its name is Orwellian. I can think of no group that calls itself The Love Association or UK Happiness League.  No one can tell you what constitutes  love or happiness. If I were to ask you to sum up what the word “love”  in a few words, you would tell me one thing. If I were  to come back to you in a couple of months and asked the same question, you may have a different answer for me. No one can tell you or I what love is; it is dependent upon one’s individual perception of that word at a particular moment in time.  You could say that love is not hate. But then, what is hate?

The idea of freedom put forward by ASI or TFA is a spectacular one, precisely because it has been mediated. These groups have set themselves up not only as arbiters of liberty but have hijacked the discourse on the subject. It stands to reason that those who accept the ASI’s and TFA’s definition of freedom as Truth, do so because it emphasizes their relationship to capital. If you do not accept their kind of freedom, then you are a supporter of unfreedom; a totalitarian. It’s as simple as that.

When the government announced it was going to “measure” the nation’s “happiness”, I was suspicious and rightly so, you cannot measure, let alone define, happiness. It was a government attempt to manipulate people’s emotions. Nothing more. Nothing less.

In George Orwell’s satire, 1984, he created a dystopian world in which ignorance was a virtue and in which the state created ministries with names like the Ministries of Truth and Love. He was onto something.

There was some  Situationist graffiti that once said, “Don’t liberate me, I’ll take care of that”. That is my motto.

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Filed under Cultism, economic illiteracy, Economics, laissez faire capitalism, Late capitalism, neoliberalism, Philosophical musings, robber baron capitalism, Spiv capitalism, Taxpayers Alliance, Think Tanks

Leveson and the Tory press’s myth of free expression

Lies are what passes for the truth in Tory media land.

The Tories and their pals in the media are fond of telling us that we have, in this country, something called a “free press”. This is a lie and those who believe that Leveson will magically remove this “free press” have been tricked into believing that by the spectacle.

No Tory newspaper proprietor or its hacks wanted Leveson in the first place. The journalists who write for these papers have mediated the notion of a universal free press in Britain to the public, many of whom have been taken in by the hacks’ complaint that it will spell an end to a free press that didn’t exist in the first place.

The other fear is that the Leveson Report will suddenly prompt a rash of repressive legislation that will affect bloggers but that’s emotional blackmail on their part and they know it. But I ask you this: under the current system, do you think it is right that British newspapers can lie to the public under the aegis of a free press? Furthermore, do you think it’s responsible for a newspaper to print articles they know to be entirely false?

Under the current self-regulatory system, if a newspaper prints a false allegation about a member of the public, what do you think happens? I’ll tell you, not much. The newspaper in question is required to print a retraction. That is all. The wronged party is not compensated and the paper is free to print more lies. The Press Complaints Commission (PCC) is run by the newspaper industry and even then, some papers don’t participate. Northern & Shell withdrew their subscription last year, which effectively means the Daily Express and OK! can print any old shit it likes. Furthermore, the PCC has also been chaired by former Tory ministers or sympathizers. Do you really think that’s right?

Political Scrapbook tells us that David “Shoot the bastards” Blunkett (who’s also a member of Labour Friends of Israel) and the YBF’s Conor Burns had a letter drafted for them by a Daily Mail executive. There’s your free fucking press.

If freedom of the press means telling lies for the sake of keeping one political party in power over another, then that isn’t a free press. That’s no better than the press in the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany. In fact, it’s worse because they lie about the press being free when it clearly isn’t.

According to Reporters Without Borders’ Freedom Index, the UK is number 28. That’s 3 places behind Mali. Even Namibia has a freer press than the UK.

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Filed under Journalism, Media, News Corporation, propaganda, Tory press, Yellow journalism

The Comedy of the Spectacle (and its alternative)

 

MacIntyre. Spectacular comedian?

Alternative comedy is dead. Maybe it never actually existed. After all, none of us referred to ourselves as “alternative comedians”. Some of us never liked being called “comedian” either. Comedians wore dinner suits, bow ties and frilly shirts. They told paddy jokes and sexist jokes. They told Paki and coon jokes on prime time telly. It wasn’t funny. Alexei Sayle had an interesting line, “I’m alternative comedian. Which means I’m not funny”! But he was very funny.  A breath of fresh air. We needed it then and we need it now.

Whenever someone asked me what I did, I would often offer “plumber” or “exorcist”. Sometimes I would tell them I was a “shaman”.  I thought of myself as an artist who painted or sculpted with words.  This was the 1990’s. Alternative comedy was dead. Some people said alternative comedy died because it was too “politically correct”. I don’t know what “politically correct” means. Others said it was “outdated” while others conceded that it was “necessary”. The frilly shirts and bow-ties returned to the shadowy world of the CIU circuit. They became the alternative comedians.

When I started doing comedy in 1986, it was called cabaret back then. It was fresh, exciting, dangerous and innovative. Sometimes it wasn’t funny. The audiences knew the score. They came for something different. They were fed up with frilly shirts and bow ties too.

The frilly shirts and the bow ties are back. Well, the attitude has come back. It started around 1992.  Loaded appeared and the jugglers and poets disappeared. The lad was here. Well, the lad never went away. What was alternative was transformed into something mainstream. Something more television-friendly. The clubs became factories that produced commodities. The commodities were fetishized by television companies and magazines like Loaded and is imitators. This is comedy on an industrial scale.

Then some journalist declared that “comedy” was “the new rock and roll”. Avalon took this seriously. They even booked Wembley Arena for their star performers. Kerrrrching! Even the comedy tours of the eighties didn’t take in such massive venues. This was the sort of venue that only the likes of Queen or Dire Straits played. This was stadium comedy to go with your stadium rock. “Welcome to the machine” is what Pink Floyd said on their album Wish You Were Here. Welcome to the machine.

Guy Debord said

In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that is directly lived has moved away into a representation.

The lived experience of the alternative performer was gone. Representations of life appeared in their place. The master discourse was renewed and articulated through the comedian. Observations of nothing-in-particular came to signify la comédie nouvelle. The new jokes needed butts. They were found in the Welsh and people with red hair. One was a ‘sheep shagger’, the other a ‘ginga’. People paid good money to hear this stuff. But you can go to a playground on any day of the week and hear that stuff for free. Save your money.

The girlfriend was substituted for the wife or the mother-in-law. The frilly shirts and bow-ties owned those two. Homeless people became the new niggers at the hand of the hack. I once heard someone do a load of stuff about “smackheads”. It was tiresome. Tedious. Unimaginative. Pointlessly cruel. The weak became the focus of the new cruelty. Not the powerful. Not career politicians. The weak. But it’s just a joke. Can’t you take a joke? You have no sense of humour sometimes! It’s political correctness gone mad!

No, it isn’t.

Carr. Cold and clinical

It’s worse than that.

Much, much, worse.

Today’s comedian is like a vending machine. They produce perfectly formed gags like cans of Coke. Each one is the same as the last one. Put coin in, get a can of Coke. Repeat the process.  If we take Jimmy Carr as an example, we see a comedian who is more of  a technician than an artist. Arthur Smith once said of Carr that  “He makes jokes like little clocks. He has no interest in their context or meaning, only that they cause an explosion of laughter. I want a comedian to have a hinterland”.  Even Carr’s shows reflect a certain sterility to his approach. One show was titled “Joke Technician”. You really cannot get more technocratic than that. Such an admission is revealing, it shows us how some acts view their profession: not as art but as a science or a bloodsport. His current show is titled “Laughter Therapy”, which is not only unimaginative, it is also highly clinical.

Nelson David wrote an interesting article for Chortle a few months ago. He says,

I’ve often wondered why many younger generation comedians seem less politically and philosophically engaged with the world around them than their predecessors of 25 years ago, especially as times are so turbulent.

So where is the reaction? Maybe audiences are more interested in observations of naff all.  A promoter once asked me “Why do you do all that political stuff? Why can’t you just stick with your impressions”? Nelson David,

It does seem that exclusively political comedy has become the preserve of the more mature performer in Britain. Sadly for me their number is few, certainly far less than I’d need to be able to nickname them the Grecian 2000. But Jeremy Hardy, Mark Steel, Mark Thomas, Arnold Brown and Rob Newman for example remain inspirational.

More recently, Bob Slayer, writing for the same website, said this,

Fuckin’ A! It’s been a quarter of a century since alternative comedy turned the industry on its head and it is long overdue another shake-up. Comedy may be booming at the top but there are many signs that it is becoming more than a little middle aged around the middle, it is increasingly choked with clubs promoting generic comedy, established comedians delivering interchangeable material and new acts, that only want to be the next Russell Howard, trying stand up as a career choice.

Bob rightly puts his finger on the industry’s lack of adventure. Pierre Bourdieu reminds us that,

Old style intellectuals monopolise legitimate cultural practices due to the inertia of the institutions of cultural production.

The “old style intellectuals” here are those who control the industry. They are the ones who produce tastes and project them downwards to the masses. These intellectuals come from the public schools and Oxbridge. Many of them are employed by the BBC.  Political satire is one area where production is controlled by former public school and Oxbridge types. A good example of this can be found in Channel 4’s  Bremner, Bird and Fortune, a series that is patchily amusing and often full of obscure parliamentary in-jokes that need to be decoded with the aid of Hansard.  It is a programme for those who have been initiated into the political system. Those who have not been initiated will feel alienated.

The comedy industry like the rest of the  culture industries is not concerned with innovation or inventiveness. It concerns itself entirely with safe ideas, safe products and safe comedy. When it offers danger it tends to be produced without thought or analysis and is done to shock. Recently there have been a series of article about the number of rape jokes being told. Emma Poole, writing for the blog site, Liberal Conspiracy writes,

I watched a recorded episode of ‘Russell Howard’s Good News’ this week – I couldn’t even enjoy the funny bits. The show was fragmented by the host’s jokes about rape and paedophilia. I don’t find them funny. They make me feel sick. They give me nightmares.

Rape and paedophilia jokes have become the new comedian’s stock-in-trade. Rape jokes can be funny but only if the perpetrator is the butt of the humour. More often than not, it is the victim who is the butt of the joke. Alexei Sayle says,

Offence doesn’t reside in the subject matter, but in the power relationship between the comic and the audience.

Perhaps some of the newer comics should take this on board. But the phrase “power relationship” is not one that many of them will understand. Some will try and claim that they are being ‘ironic’ but this is the last refuge of the coward and the bully. The behaviour that would have once been left at the school gates has now accompanied these comedians into adult life.

There is a need for a new alternative comedy. We live in turbulent social and political times. The economic crisis, peak oil and war would have featured in many an alternative comedian’s set in the 1980’s.  Today’s comedians would rather talk about their dicks or talk about disabled people as though they were subhuman. The only way to ensure that there is an alternative to the new mainstream is to create the space for it. But with most pub landlords interested in short term gains, finding a sympathetic landlord is a very difficult task indeed. I should know, in the last three years, I tried to set up an alternative cabaret club and each time,  pub management was the obstacle to progress. The old mainstream acts still had places to play when alternative comedy emerged.  They still had audiences. The alternative acts had nowhere to play once the new mainstream took control but surely they still have audiences? The only real way forward is to have your own space where you are not subject to the capricious whims of a pub landlord. You control the means of production, not the landlord, the brewery or a lads mag.

When alternative comedy arrived in 1979, it disrupted the spectacle. In 1992, the spectacle recuperated comedy and transformed it into a product of the hospitality industry. It’s time to take it back!

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