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Friday, 6 April 2018

'Listening' requires ... listening.

Further to my previous post about long-form internet TV, I thought it might be worth flagging up at least one show that the curious viewer might wish to check out. There are many people providing excellent and challenging content in long-form chat shows on the so-called ‘intellectual dark web’. Among these are Joe Rogan, Stefan Molynuex, Sam Harris, Gad Saad and Dave Rubin.  
The latter’s ‘Rubin Report’ is one of the most reliable and civilised on the market. Rubin is a charming man with an open, inquiring mind and he will often demonstrate that he’s prepared to do the old-fashioned thing of changing his mind when the facts change. 
He's a gay man  from the old liberal left whose life experiences led him to the conclusion that a number of his key assumptions were mistaken. His oft-expressed view is that he didn’t leave the left; ‘the left’ left him. He tells a nice story which illustrates why he now finds himself thoroughly embroiled in the fight for enlightenment values.  

He was invited for a drink by an old liberal friend that he hadn’t seen for several years. During their conversation, his friend expressed the view that he was somewhat alarmed, not only by Rubin’s willingness to engage with ‘objectionable’ people, but by the fact that he appeared to have changed his mind on a number of big topics. The friend implied that Rubin’s ‘conversion’ was motivated by financial concerns, because his show was obviously picking up a lot of subscribers.  
After a frustrating exchange of views, Dave decided to ask a question which he thought would at least create some kind of base from which they could start to build a reasonably constructive dialogue. I’m paraphrasing, but this is more or less what he asked his friend:

For the purposes of this discussion, are you prepared to allow that my aim is the same as yours, namely to try and make the world a better place; and further, that my positions are not only sincerely held, but have been arrived at through careful consideration of the available evidence?”

Without a second’s hesitation, the friend replied: “No, I’m sorry … I can’t.”

And there, in the shell of a nut, is an illustration that, in an age of tribalism and entrenched group identity, there can be no dialogue between opposing viewpoints.

Dave Rubin, unlike his former friend, understands that, unless you can approach political conversations with the belief that there is at least a possibility that the other person might just know something that you don’t, then -whatever else you are doing- you’re not really listening. 

Here’s a recent example of his work, a free-ranging discussion with Steven Pinker, a cognitive psychologist at Harvard University and the author of ‘Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress’. 

Sunday, 4 March 2018

I think my TV is broken

I've been talking with people recently about the increasing popularity of ‘long-form’ internet chat shows and wondering: 
a) why this is happening and 
b) why so much of the really interesting political and philosophical content is being produced in America. As far as I can tell, there are very few British equivalents (although I’d be delighted if someone pointed me towards something which would disprove that assertion).

I'm not sure why this seems to be the case, but there are, I think, a couple of ‘broad brushstroke’ observations that could be made. Perhaps because of the way the nation had to win its independence, the American psyche seems more readily tuned to notions of intellectual freedom, particularly to ideas that might, broadly speaking, be described as iconoclastic and /or libertarian (although I realise that these days that, in itself, might be seen by some as a pejorative term). Americans have a positive concept of citizenship which –generally speaking- makes them less inclined to trust centralised authority. 

By contrast, many British folk see themselves as subjects. Our psyche seems more readily tuned to deference and I think this applies as much to institutions and political parties as it does to class. Perhaps as a result of the conditions which prevailed during and after World War 2, our political discourse seems more likely to be framed within implicitly statist concepts and notions. Indeed, some of these have become such articles of faith that many folk appear to be unaware that there might be other ways of thinking about them. To take two obvious examples: Start a thread on any social network questioning the sheer wonderfulness of either the NHS and /or the BBC and you’ll soon encounter something very close to cult-like behaviour (by that, I mean an unwillingness to consider the possibility of any deviation from received views).

I only have an outsider’s superficial grasp of American mainstream media, so I won’t comment on the failings which are causing people on that side of the Atlantic to look elsewhere for nourishment. In the UK, the mainstream channels persist with the pretence of impartiality, a notion that permeates a lot of news content like a bad smell. Just occasionally, political debate ‘red in tooth and claw’ is allowed to break out, but generally speaking, the quality of discourse is dismally shallow.

It is inevitable, once consumers start noticing this, that some will decide to shop around. The popularity of the so-called ‘intellectual dark web’ has come about because people are rejecting the orthodoxies and pieties of the mainstream media, demanding instead content which treats them like adults and which recognises that every story contains degrees of nuance. They want discussion that isn’t stale and managed; they want debate which doesn’t banish some topics to the realm of the forbidden.

With the mainstream media unwilling or unable to provide such a service, some consumers will naturally flock to platforms which allow real conversations, unmediated by spin, to take place between real people. The popularity of these alternative outlets is evidence that there is, after all, an appetite for serious discussion about complicated ideas.

But don't expect mainstream journalists to do anything about it. 
They haven’t even noticed that the television might be broken.

Saturday, 17 February 2018

Vinyl Diary, part 4: New Wave

In 1993, the rock press started to talk about something called ‘Britpop’. I had no idea what it meant, other than that someone had invented yet another music genre. The phenomenon went on to carry some cultural weight, although perhaps not always for the reasons celebrated by some commentators. Depending on your point of view, Noel Gallagher hanging around Downing Street with Tony Blair was either the zenith of ‘Cool Britannia’ or the precise moment at which rock music relinquished its risible claim to be the standard bearer for anything resembling a counter-cultural movement. Here’s a clue: If you’re sipping tea with the Prime Minister, you may still fancy yourself as a rebel, but you are most definitely inside the tent, pissing out. 

It is generally accepted that the first two Britpop albums were by Suede and The Auteurs. Suede had some good songs, but the production on their album was awful, spoiled by an excess of washy reverb and the vocals being too far back in the mix. The singer, Brett Anderson, wrote lyrics coyly alluding to vague homosexual encounters and once claimed in an interview that he was "a bisexual man who never had a homosexual experience". It seemed a bit lame, but at least he looked like a bona fide pop star.

By contrast, Luke Haines of The Auteurs, with his foppish hair and junk shop clothes, looked more like your well-read sixth-form mate who would sit at the back of the class making snide remarks. He sang like someone who had only previously performed in his bedroom, with the vocals all double or even treble-tracked; his weedy voice and cynical tone conveyed the impression of someone who was, perhaps, out to take some revenge upon the world. 

For all of the vocal limitations, his songs certainly had a bit of devilment and wit about them. When I heard ‘Showgirl’ on the radio for the first time, I was struck by the boldness of the opening few bars. The sudden drop after the line “I took a showgirl for my bride” sounded brave, assertive, brimming with confidence; it compelled me to shut up and listen. The songs on ‘New Wave’ appeared to explore a bohemian demi-monde of actors, musicians and dancing girls, stuck permanently between jobs and waiting for their big showbiz break. In ‘Valet Parking’, Haines sang “I’m sick of parking cars” and you got the feeling that he meant it. 
His lyrics could be acerbic, but were sometimes mysterious and allusive. On the splendidly cryptic ‘Idiot Brother’, he directed the following line at surely the only person in the world who would understand what it was about:

"And what about our fat friend
With the golden ear?"

I had no idea what was going on, but it was fun trying to guess.

'American Guitars’ was interpreted by some as a Britpop statement of intent, something along the lines of: ‘we’ve had enough of these bloody yanks influencing our pop kids’. But the lyric is clearly celebratory, with Haines -for once- expressing genuine admiration about something, perhaps in recognition of an authenticity that he felt his own work might have lacked:
"Some people are born to write, some people are born to dance
Thought I knew my place in the world, thought I knew my art.
Glad to be there, see them begin.
It was easy to see them, they were the best band to be in … American Guitars"

I really liked the sound of the group. The uncomplicated guitar and minimalistic piano always served the interests of the songs, while James Banbury’s cello added a certain je ne sais quoi to the proceedings. On ‘Bailed Out’ –which, in the wrong hands, might easily have turned out to be a bit of a plodder- Banbury’s deft lyricism lifted the track into another dimension.
Despite making a distinctive contribution to the sound, Banbury was viewed as a mercenary by the group leader. In the first volume of his memoirs (‘Bad Vibes – Britpop and my part in its downfall’ published in 2009), Haines, throughout the text, refers to him merely as ‘the cellist’. The book is bitter, bitchy and misanthropic, but there is also humour in the mix, with the author being honest about what a twat he could be at times.
Bad Vibes’ paints an illuminating picture of the thin line between failure and success, but it is even better on the thinner line between ‘modest’ and ‘massive’ success. The Auteurs famously lost out on the Mercury Music Prize by one vote to Suede; I don’t know if that made any difference to their respective trajectories, but Suede went on to be huge and The Auteurs didn’t. Haines eventually got over the disappointment and, henceforth, only felt sick about the injustice of it all once every couple of minutes.

One of the reasons I think I liked ‘New Wave’ so much was the fact that I was -at the time- in a band which, to my ears at least, ploughed a similar furrow to The Auteurs. “If this is Britpop”, I thought, “bring it on”. My hope was that my own band might get a record deal on the back of some timely zeitgeist-surfing. We also hired, at considerable expense, a cellist to play on some of our recordings and the results convinced me that we were in transition from being ‘half-decent’ (we were quite a solid unit) into something ‘quite interesting’. But finding a good cellist who would do the stuff that the rest of us were willing to do (paying for rehearsals, gigging in grotty pubs, paying for van hire etc.) was about as difficult as finding a unicorn that could cook; all the good ones wanted MU rates just to get out of bed.   

My band never managed to secure that elusive record deal. But I eventually got over the disappointment and nowadays only feel sick about the injustice of it all once every couple of minutes.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Let's play ... Quidditch?

When I was out for a walk the other day, I spotted a sign (pictured left) in the middle of Kelvingrove Park, where the University of Glasgow’s ‘Quidditch Club’ was holding an open session. The sight of the cavorting students made me stop and think. I wasn’t sure what to make of it; was this a good thing or a bad thing? Upon returning home, I told my 19-year old son about the Quidditch Club. He drew a look of disdain and uttered four words, the first two of which were “that is”, the fourth of which was “tragic”. 

I think I understand why he responded like that. The idea of people investing time and energy in a game that was made up by an author, a game made for flying wizards on broomsticks, does seem quite silly. Those students were only pretending to play a pretend game because they are not wizards, they don’t have broomsticks and they can’t fly. It’s obviously not a ‘real’ game, so they must be a bunch of losers. Well … perhaps not. According to my internet machine, there is a governing body (founded in 2010) called the International Quidditch Association. The version being played by those students is sometimes described as ‘Muggle Quidditch’, because it accepts that the participants aren’t wizards, don’t have actual broomsticks and can’t fly.  

After making that discovery, I reviewed my impulse to pass judgement. What is the difference, after all, between running around with a stick between your legs and, say, pretending –as I sometimes do- that a tricky putt on the 18th green is actually for the US Masters?

Lots of young folk prefer to get their kicks sitting in front of a computer, so we should applaud the fact that the Quidditch Club members were out there having fun, taking part in an activity which involved physical exercise and social intercourse. There are worse things those students could have done with their time. They might have joined some ‘triggered-by-inappropriate-words-in-literature’ group and, instead of 'Quidditching' in the park, been out demonstrating their belief in equity and diversity by burning books or pulling down statues.

This made me think a bit more about the extent to which fantasy should be a legitimate part of an adult life. Is playing a game invented by an author a less authentic fantasy than some others we could name? Are students running around with broomsticks any more tragic than those who escape into works of fiction or those who follow football teams around the country or those who pretend that their tricky putt on the 18th hole might win them a major golf championship? (Don’t answer that last bit, because you’ll just hurt my feelings).

Some would argue that there are plenty of problems in the world for us to solve and that frivolous pastimes just distract us from the serious business of improving the lot of the poor, the disadvantaged and the oppressed. But people who can only talk about serious stuff are, generally speaking, the sort of people that you wouldn’t want to be stuck in a lift with. 

The game of Quidditch is nonsense on stilts (or at least nonsense on a pretend broomstick), but a life lived without fantasy, fun and frivolity would, I think, be far less rich than one concentrated on purely utilitarian concerns.  

This topic is probably worth exploring in some depth, but I’ll leave it for the moment. I need to get back to practising my golf swing, because the US Masters is only a few weeks away. 

Monday, 12 February 2018

The view from the hole

Further to last week’s post, I have been involved in several interesting discussions with various folk over the merits and demerits of Doctor Peterson’s work. A lot of the criticism being circulated online claims that his views are somehow ‘dodgy’, but the critics don’t often get around to a full examination of those views, preferring instead to focus on how ‘dreadful’ his audience is. 

The more interesting topic, I think, is to ask why Peterson’s message is resonating with so many young people. His recent speaking engagements in London (booked before the transmission of that Channel 4 interview) sold out in minutes. A few weeks ago, an American college campus invited him to speak at their 400-seat theatre. He was ‘no-platformed’ by the usual zealots, so the organisers of the event decided to book the only available local alternative, a 1,500-seat concert hall. It sold out.

Much of the criticism characterises this audience as ‘alt-right angry white males’ (although mostly male, Peterson’s audience is clearly mixed); that level of ‘analysis’ -and it is an act of generosity to describe it thus- will get us nowhere. 
The Independent published an article about the Channel 4 interview under this headline:  

'When white men feel they are losing power, any level of nastiness is possible.'

That wasn’t just intellectually feeble; it was utterly reprehensible. This kind of thing actually reinforces one of Peterson’s key messages: namely, that identity politics is a dead-end street and -at the end of that street- lies a whole heap of trouble. When I was growing up, to have assumed (and judged) someone’s views from their ethnicity, age or gender would have been considered discriminatory, vulgar and racist; now it has become the norm.  

We are in a deep hole with this stuff, yet some folk want to keep on digging. I’d suggest that one of the reasons for Jordan Peterson’s popularity is that many people have decided that they don’t like the view from that hole.