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Saturday, April 30, 2011

Pomp, under the Circumstances

There seem to be two basic views about the Royal Wedding (now why did I capitalize that?).

1. Relax and enjoy the fairy tale (royalty, Englishness, empire, national unity, the promise of social mobility for commoners like Kate)! Times have been tough--let's party!

2. How can we afford this when we can't afford education, health care, job training, public transport, etc., etc.? Roll on the Republic!

The first counsels brief happiness at the expense of engagement with truth of things as they are; the second counsels righteous anger at the expense of a good knees up which everyone clearly seems to need.

Princess Beatrice obligingly came dressed as a Yak. Or a Georgian architectural folly--I'm not entirely sure.

I see both points, I really do, though I have always been a staunch republican (not the GOP, you understand). I also like a bit of fantastical escapism, me.

But I'm getting old, and the echoes of Cassandra-like warnings from the recent past about the present we now live in were brought back to me by the whole affair.

I used to teach English Lit. and an interesting task was always to get students to compare the twin pillars of 20th century dystopian novels--Orwell's 1984, and Huxley's Brave New World. Both were written mid-last-century. Both predict a politico-social order to come (about now, actually). Both predict a dystopia in which individuals will lose what is taken to be their humanity--their emotions, uniqueness, will, inner life.

BUT--in Orwell's book, social control is achieved by force and coercion--what the Frankfurt school philosophers call RSA's (Repressive State Apparatuses). A security state using violence, torture, informants. To a degree, and in some places more than others, this has come true. Ask a Syrian.

Thankfully, this didn't come to pass for us. Or did it?

However I think it is Huxley's opus that gets it right for the Anglosphere--Britain, America, Australia, etc. In this book, control is achieved by narcotics, elaborate diversions, sensuality (or its promise), in short by escape from a reality in which the individual person is effectively powerless to do anything other than indulge and distract him/herself. Plus the ideologies at work in the public sphere that make these practices seem normal, natural, and right.

This one did come true.
A bottle of cheap  Prosecco, a fantasy on a flat screen (on credit), a public holiday, and cake--is all we need to carry on for a while longer in a country that is over-crowded, bankrupt, and paradoxically increasingly squalid and hideously expensive for the overwhelming majority of its 'subjects' (I use the word advisedly).

'Soma' was the name Huxley gave to the cheap, easily acquired narcotic that kept the helpless souls of his dystopian idyll happy and complaint.

"There's always soma to calm your anger, to reconcile you to your enemies, to make you patient and long-suffering. In the past you could only accomplish these things by making a great effort and after years of hard moral training. Now, you swallow two or three half-gramme tablets, and there you are. Anybody can be virtuous now. You can carry at least half your morality about in a bottle. Christianity without tears-that's what soma is."

- Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, Ch. 17

Soma...somnolent...somnolence....all drawn from the same root word meaning sleep......zzzzzzzzzz.

"Whassat Kate Middleton goth that I aint got...?"

Go back to bed, Britain. Your nation is great and splendorous again.

Go back to sleep, Britain. We are one happy nation in the sun, building the new Jerusalem, a shining model for the world.

Go back to sleep, Britain and let nothing wake you from pleasant Blytonesque dreams of picnics and lashings of cream.

Meanwhile, libraries shut. Home care services are cut. NHS officials are finding ways not to treat people to keep costs down. And a railway ticket between major cities costs a week's wage.

First slum of Europe: a role
It won't be hard to win,
With a cast of crooks and tarts*. (*Author's note: take a good look at the guest list)

And that will be England gone,
The shadows, the meadows, the lanes,
The guildhalls, the carved choirs.

There'll be books; it will linger on
In galleries; but all that remains
For us will be concrete and tyres.
--Philip Larkin: "Going, going"

So why not open the Prosecco, look adoringly on the Lords and Ladies, and dream again of the past? I can think of no reason why not.

"God bless us...every one."

Monday, April 18, 2011

Theatre of the Absurd: How Terror Wins

"They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety
deserve neither liberty nor safety."  --Benjamin Franklin

Call me old-fashioned, but I think an essential liberty worth defending is the liberty not to have our under-aged children extensively groped by some anonymous hired goon in a uniform.

A reasonable assertion, surely, yet this is a freedom we apparently no longer have. Witness:

If you were the parent, the grinding indignity of watching this forced upon you, what would YOU do? 

It took me about a nano-second to realize that, had my very beautiful 14-year-old daughter been in this little girl's shoes, I would now be sitting in jail on multiple security and assault-related charges. Why? 'Cause I'd have broken their arms. Which is why THESE parents are way smarter than I: they filmed it in all it's stark, damning Auschwitz-ness.

I do not think I overstate. The guard is an ordinary person "just following orders/procedures", very professionally. Anyone with an ounce of sense knows that the child poses no actual threat to the Reich. The helplessness of the parents having to witness their innocent offspring being man-handled by the state is a key part of the control mechanism: "If we can do this to kids (and we can, see?), imagine what we can do to YOU if we feel like it." A non-consensual violation of a child's body--something that would meet with the harshest penalties and the sternest social disapproval in ANY other circumstances--is allowed to pass as normal, necessary and right, as banal as ticking a box. It's that banality, the casualness of the cruelty, that is for me the most crazy-making aspect of this. "It's all in the interest of the greater good, so what are the parents so upset about?

"When they came for the 6-year olds, I said nothing because I was not a 6-year-old."

Nothing new to see here, citizens. Move along.

And let's be clear: transport security is largely theatre, creating the feeling of improved security without the reality. Oft-quoted stats from the absolute height of security paranoia in the six months immediately following 9/11 indicate that the following passed through un-detected:
  • 70% of knives
  • 30% of guns
  • 60% of fake bombs
But they never fail to notice your damned water-bottle. Nice work, team. Bet you sleep like babies at night.

And do remember that the 9/11 hijackers initiated all this mayhem with box-cutters.

Conclusion: That's right, your kids being clumsily groped buys not one iota of safety. So the humiliation, loss of liberty, and probable psychic damage of a child were for nothing.

My old pal, writer and wit Dave Belz says:

"I've got a clean driving record, no criminal convictions, a stable job and a permanent residence in the U.S. I should be able to have a sticker on my driver's license or passport that says: "OK to Fly." Talk about where we could cut spending..."

Anyone capable of irony is probably NOT the dude you're looking for.

Similarly, 6 year old American kids are so unlikely to be hiding bombs in their pants (watch the video if you haven't already and if you can stand it), that the CERTAIN damage to people, to simple justice, to human rights, and to common sense certainly outweighs the POTENTIAL threat.

What strikes me as particularly absurd about all this, is that the defenders of post-Patriot Act security are usually the same people cozily assured of  heaven and their place in it. Those who croon sentimentally about death--"Don't worry, honey, Nana's gone to a better place."

Strange, is it not? If the after-life really is better than this veil of tears, if there's pie in the sky when we die, if it's all in God's hands anyway, why the paranoia over being killed by some vicious evil-doer? At least it'll be quick. But no one who ever thought carefully about their theology embraced an injustice in the name of something so provisional.

Quick is, I fear, NOT what will be this child's recovery time. Nor will be quickly relieved the parents' sense of impotence at the bizarre injustice of a 'freedom-loving' country.

By such small increments does hard-won, man-made freedom die.

Monday, April 11, 2011


I have an uneasy feeling that France's burqa/niqab ban won't end well.

From today, it is illegal to wear one in public. To leave your home while wearing one is an intention, therefore, to commit a crime. Police will not have the power to remove it, nor will they insist that it be removed by the wearer. They will simply ask the wearer to accompany them to the station. Creepy, I say.
For those who don't know the variations on the theme.
The rationale for this has nothing to do with race or religion, we are told. It is simply a matter of security--people should not be allowed to hide their faces in public. Likewise, it will be illegal to wear a balaklava in pulbic, which will be a blow to skiers on the pistes of the Valle d'Ser (sp?).

Implications for street mimes, people on their way to fancy dress parties, commedia dell'arte troupes, Zorro and Batman impersonators, and the like, are still being worked out.

Clearly a security risk
In short, everyone wearing anything which masks their normal visage will be assumed to be going about incognito--lying about who they are, in effect. I mean, what good will the profusion of security cameras do if your physiognomy can't be captured and scanned and archived? How will the surveillance society we have become over the past 15 years or so function properly?
(Which begs the question: when did my right to ponce about like the Lone Ranger get eclipsed by national security imperatives? Not that I do...)

The Preach-for-Food solution: better latex-based masks. Any actor knows about the wonderful efficacy of foam latex to produce life-like flesh and facial features totally unlike our own, Mission Impossible style. If the problem is that the burqa/niqab prevents a view of a woman's face and hair, a view which would otherwise drive men wild with unrestrainable lust, simply ugly up, thus:
If, on the other, hand the mask on the right also drives you wild with lust, you may need to seek professional help.

But I jest and I digress.... A story from life, 'cause you couldn't make it up:

As many of you know, I live in a predominantly Islamic part of Manchester, the "Curry Mile" as it's called. The other day I was standing in a queue with a small group of Muslim women, dressed in full, black burqas. My sense was that they were related, as there was a small squad of kids running around between them, playing, seeming to know each other well. One very little muslim girl, shy at first, was clinging to her mother in all this mayhem, and gradually joined in the running around.

The Curry Mile: The Lahore of the North.
The queue advanced and the positions of these identically-clad women shifted. When the little girl had had enough larking about, she went back to look for her mother--and I watched as she stood there genuinely confused for a moment about who to run back to. She ran up to one woman and hugged her legs, and was gently corrected that, no, she was not her mother The woman who was her mother spoke up, and the girl ran back to her hug her legs, relieved.
A Muslim man and I had watched this exchange, and he smiled at me as if to say--"happens all the time in our world".

And in that moment  I kind of got how stupid and reactionary the burqa ban is--what the hell do I know about the complex and subtle daily negotiations around the burqa such folks go through every day? How do I know, for example, the sexual politics around it--that the woman under the burqa is actually being coerced into wearing it. How do I know that it is not a conscious choice which has costs and inconveniences she's prepared to deal with?

Come to that, living on the curry mile, I've felt a lot more threatened by the EDL thugs that roam the Muslim quarter looking for trouble,  than by any of the demure, polite, courteous muslim men and women I meet every day.

Security risk? Anyone can hide anything anywhere, if they want too bad enough. I mean, people sneak knives into jails, and in jail they look in your a**. As a security measure, the burqa ban, therefore, is a blunt instrument, and cannot in itself prevent a single terrorist act.

What it WILL do is further polarise an already intolerant social order, quietly demonise muslims, and perhaps prop up the fortunes of an unpopular President de la Republique, by taking support away from the far right Le Pen goons. It is populist fear-mongering travelling incognito.

How many Muslims do you think he included in his focus-group discussions?
While it targets the deeply held beliefs of a particular culture, last thing this is about is religion.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Gag Reflex

Why is some of the best stand-up material about religion?

Not a widely-recognised likeness.
 If you don't accept the premise of the question, do yourself a big favour: get a box of Kleenex (for the tears, sicko) and do a Youtube search, inserting any of the following comedian's names into the search phrase "...on religion":

Bill Hicks
Dave Allen
Billy Connolly
Doug Stanhope
Bill Maher
Lewis Black
George Carlin

Then point, click, and brace yourself.

This is a quick grab-bag, largely to do with my own tastes, but you can always think of your favorite stand-up, search him/her and the odds are good there'll be material on God, the Bible, religious traditions, etc.

Nor is this phenomenon historically new (cf. Aristophenes and Chaucer), although this strain of humour did go 'underground' during the bad old days when a non-pious crack could get you flayed, burned, disemboweled, quartered, hung, and tossed in a pond (just to make sure of the job).

So, if religion has always been a laughing matter, even if sniggered quietly about in secret amongst the lower orders, did one urge pre-date the other? That is, which came first, the joke or the prayer? Did sentient hominids have humour before heavenly thoughts?

A widely-recognised likeness.

Or, as seems more likely to me, did the two grow up together, sort of the conjoined twins of the human psyche?

Why does this seem an urgent question to me? Well, let me, er...confess that I find my pulpit style moving from "Speaching" to  "Preaching"; that is, I find myself drawing more and more on the genre of stand-up than on the dry academic lecture or earnest Victorian-style improving public address. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that good preaching and stand-up share certain frontiers--present-tense audience engagement, a sense of danger in uncomfortable truth-telling, and a liberating catharsis.

Could be this is just me, as I have always had a 'gag reflex'--possessed of a mind that finds the quickest route to a quip. This might just mean, of course, that I'm not really cut out for the work as it's practiced.

It's not that most of us in the pulpit make no attempt at humour, it's just that that humour is also usually lame. Like your 10th grade math teacher's idiotic daily puns and safe, stock gags he's been laying out for years.  Wry, dry, professorial...no, no, no what I want is the laughter that leaves you helpless, your mind blown by truth that SO needed saying, your soul cleared of the s*** that banks up in the course of living in this broken world.

Laughter has long and widely been known to be intensely therapeutic; so why oh why are the no jokes in the Bible (or the Qu'ran, come to that)? What will we laugh about in heaven? Will there even BE laughter at all, since all absurdity will have been resolved? I shudder at an eternity without big fat laughs.

You'll go blind looking for a laugh in here.
 Unless God's idea of a joke is Job or Isaac ("Bwahaha...just kidding!...'smatter can't you take a JOKE?"). Perhaps because his audience was a pre-literate desert tribe, armed with little more than pointy rocks and just ten evolutionary hairs short of a clan of orang-utans?

Jesus, too, seems particularly (nay deliberately) humourless. But as an genuine iconoclast, he was well-placed to mock the falsely pious pretensions and the systems of authority he was passionately over-turning. It's a situation and an audience ripe for comedy. Some of the comics listed above are noted for their messianic quality.

My theory is that the Bible is probably FULL of humour, but like most humour, it has not survived translation. Ancient Hebrew or Aramaic to Greek, Greek to Latin, Latin to 500-year-old English, 500-year-old English (which regularly uses the long-defunct subjunctive tense) to whatever it is we are speaking and thinking in today.

Watch a sub-titled comedy from, say, Finland, if you don't agree. Even if SOME humour makes it through (and modern Finnish is linguistically VASTLY different English, it's almost like Vulcan), it clearly does not make the same sense to you as it does to the Finn.

Despite cultural and linguistic and historical differences, we ALL have a gag reflex, though the triggers for it may vary. But not the guide-for-living-holier-than-thou core texts, oh no, missus. Matters too serious for anything as coarse as a guffaw.

A mission, if I choose to accept it: making the practice of worship a safe place for healing, cleansing, full-bellied laughter? NOT at the expense of others, though some of my favorite targets are fundamentalists and Catholics. And that's just not good enough for a confirmed pluralist, which I claim is the essence of the Unitarian ethos.

But I want people to leave the church service--not always, but not never-- feeling as good as I saw a large, mixed audience of all ages last night leave the Frog and Bucket comedy club, far and away the best such establishment in the northwest. Cheap ethnographic ministerial field work it was, too--5 comics for 6 quid plus the cost of a carefully-nursed pint of Murphy's.

A mere 'widow's mite' for a glimpse, however brief, of the Kingdom of Heaven where all is truth, and light, and laughter.

(Speaking of messianic comedy, enjoy this video of the late lamented Bill Hicks, doing the best preaching you'll never see in church.)

It's just a ride...all that's missing from the end of his set is an 'amen.'