Sunday, 19 September 2010

Religious conservatives and religious conservatives

As usual, I have left it until the Pope has left Britain to put forward my opinions on the matter. Let it be known that I have no respect whatsoever for the Catholic Church as an institution. I regard its record of child abuse and other abuses of power as a disgrace, its insistence on celibacy of priests dangerous in the extreme (and, like face-covering and other "Islamic" practices, wholly unjustified by history or the original religious texts), its refusal to accept the ordination of women an equally extreme example of what happens when the defence of a narrow set of societal norms, which have little in themselves to do with religion, against the rest of the world becomes far more important than religious belief itself (again, the parallels with Islam should be clear to everyone outside the worst newspapers in the world). It might well have been different had its hierarchy not run in fear from the full connotations of Vatican II almost as soon as they had been opened, but as the Catholic Church stands I can barely think of a good word to say for it.

So why do I feel slightly uneasy at the tone of some (only some) of the dismissals of the Pope from people I usually respect and agree with? Not because I disagree with them as such, but because I am worried that, out of a wholly understandable desire not to overlap with the kneejerk bigots of the right-wing press, certain people who regard themselves as critics of religious conservatism do not criticise it in all its forms (the only legitimate position on the matter) but are misguidedly soft on religious conservatism when it is practised by people whose religions were imported from the Middle East rather more recently than Christianity, and are willing to play games with people who, if they had power outside their current fiefdoms (which I think is highly unlikely, but not necessarily impossible), would be at least as hostile to the cultural norms of left-liberalism as the Catholic Church, probably more so, and are steeped in a tradition that is much harder to reconcile with left-liberalism than mainstream Christianity, which for all its differences on moral issues shares a more similar grounding in literature and thought than many on both sides are willing to admit.

Oh, of course, I know how natural it feels to want to defend anything the Mail bashes - a letter in that paper at least 13 years ago is the sole reason why I like the Weymouth & Portland council offices infinitely more than they deserve. I know how much they poison everything. I wish the mainstream right in the UK had not been so damaged by its Thatcherite realignment towards virtually uncritical support of Israel, which leaves religious conservatives condemning other religious conservatives - destroying what might otherwise be a very real and natural alliance, if only of convenience - and puts left-liberals in an almost impossible position. And of course, the Express's "MUSLIM PLOT TO KILL POPE" headline was a disgrace to journalism even by their standards. I just feel that it should be conceded that a certain number of people will always want the security and certainty of religious conservatism (note: not wanting it yourself, just recognising the human condition) and that, where rival forms of backwardness are concerned, it might be better to keep a hold on the Christian nurse, because the alternative is a far greater threat to liberal values. Trying to wish out of existence the fact that there are people like that, who have such desires, is a form of deluded utopianism which, as usual with such things, can have deeply counter-productive ends, the opposite of its undeniably progressive aims.

As I say, I endorse and agree with the criticisms of the Catholic hierarchy as dangerously backward and counter-productive where any kind of social progress is concerned; I simply want the same criticisms to be unashamedly aired against certain aspects of Islam (especially when they are really, as with Christian fundamentalism, politics rather than religion). If it is made clear that the criticism is born out of a defence of liberal values, rather than fear of "foreigners" and "outsiders", the right-wing press will want nothing to do with it, and might even rediscover the pre-Thatcher Arabist Toryism which makes far more sense than their current position. But until criticism of religious conservatives is equal and unambiguous - criticising them because they are religious conservatives, not for any other petty and culturally specific reason - I regret to say that I will suspect, albeit from a wholly different starting point, that there may be more truth in Peter Hitchens' suspicion - that extreme atheism is really a cultural cringe at the thought of one's childhood memories and pre-pop cultural inheritance, rather than a genuinely thought-out ideology - that I would like to believe there is. I am - on balance - an agnostic, rather than an atheist. It's the biggest difference in the world, and it doesn't make you a "Christian in denial" as both Hitchens brothers would probably think. It just makes you reasoned and tolerant.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Radio considered as a metaphor for a nation: part 32413

So Capital Radio - a London behemoth for 37 years - is coming to large swathes of the rest of the UK on FM. In reality, it's merely the logical conclusion of a process that's been under way for two decades. Like the post-war mixed economy model that created them, the original ILR stations - the ones that routinely interspersed "(Keep Feeling) Fascination" and "Blue Monday" with plugs for jumble sales - were, for all their positive attributes, uneasy hybrids constantly being pushed in two conflicting, irreconcilable directions. One of these decisively triumphed over the other with the Act of 20 years ago, and within half a decade most of what existed in the commercial sector was "local" only in the most theoretical sense, coming from interchangeable buildings in interchangeable towns and playing interchangeable music. The development of British commercial radio - instigated by Heath, stopped in its tracks for a while by Labour and the Annan Committee - was flawed and compromised on multiple levels, but it could not have been anything else because to get on the air at all, even 30 years ago, it was necessary to appeal to local elites, quasi-feudal fiefdoms whose power even as late as that now seems literally unbelievable. The quasi-nationalisation of commercial FM pop radio in Britain seems to sum up the final death of restricted, small-scale local semi-capitalism, the point when the last link (outside, perhaps, a few unrepresentative fringe areas, many outside England where the rules may still be different) between pop and the old structures it used to have to fit itself around is symbolically broken for good.

Inevitably, the very people who lament the coming of unbridled Top 40 commercial radio on FM, with no lingering ties to place and history, are very often the same people who yearned for precisely that kind of radio (the offshore stations were every bit as short-term capitalist and dismissive of all other interests as Global Radio is, the only difference was that the political consensus then didn't approve of such things) during their formative years, usually some point between Suez and the coming of the new capitalism, roughly 1956 to 1984. For all they moaned about the "communist" tactics of the Wilson government against the offshore stations, and lamented the poor reception of Radio Luxembourg, they'd have been secretly repulsed had the British state embraced and celebrated pop music, and given them multiple commercial networks plus a BBC equivalent. Had such a thing happened back then, most of these future Thatcher voters would have been exposed as establishmentarians in disguise, at least as right-wing as their parents, and that would never have done. The old restrictions were deceptively convenient for the boomers to the extent that they gave them a platform to define themselves as "rebellious" and "anti-establishment" far beyond their true status as such on the issues that really mattered.

As pop has become the establishment culture to which all seeking power must conform (Brown's real undoing; we're just too close to it to see it yet) the more intelligent and thoughtful of those raised between the collapse of British power and the advent of naked capitalism in the UK may well feel, as I do, disillusioned with pop as a direct result of the Blairite degradation of the political process. But they are outnumbered by those who merely wish for the old restrictions to be continued as a means of covering their tracks - anything to avoid facing how right-wing and kneejerk they actually are, anything to avoid dealing with the fact that they are the masters now. Most of the rest of Europe has had national commercial FM pop radio for years, and in many ways it makes sense for Britain to follow, and use digital methods to fill the gaps; the only reason it hasn't had this sort of radio until now is deep-rooted official inertia (the continental equivalents of Radios 3 and 4 manage to take up far less of the spectrum than their BBC counterparts) and the fact that the decision-makers when the national commercial licences were given out in the pre-Blair early '90s were still of a wholly different generation. But the further institutionalisation of Britain as a deregulated quasi-American economy - everything the ILR anoraks wished for when they were young - unsettles that generation on multiple levels; quite apart from finally exposing them as the self-serving right-wingers they've been for practically half a century, it makes bad pop sound, for the first time, exactly as bad as it is. For every "Good Vibrations" or "Strawberry Fields Forever" the offshore stations played vast quantities of boring banality which, in itself, was and is no better and no worse than most of what the new Capital will play. It's just that the old romanticism of scarcity made bad pop sound good. Now it has to stand up for and of itself, and within the orthodoxies of Anglo-American capitalism it isn't pretty. Now, more than ever, we have to look elsewhere.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

John Major and the law of unintended consequences

We all know the horrible tawdriness of the Mandelson and especially Blair memoirs. We all know, unless we are actually Blairites ourselves, that the loss of faith in pop music and pop culture feels like the loss of faith in God after the First World War must have done, and every bit as emotionally painful even as we know it is the only possible way. We may not know that John Major's "long shadows on county grounds" speech of April 1993 was the most important British political speech of the 1990s and the starting point for the Cameronite taunting of Brown. But it was arguably the former and definitely the latter, because without it the Blairites would never have had an instantly-understood basis for their reduction of politics to playground taunts about their opponents' cultural backgrounds rather than actual policy and ideology - the very tactic that was eventually used so cynically against Labour (which is why I can never take seriously Blairite complaints against it).

The actual context of the speech, as with most universally-recognised soundbites, has long since been forgotten if it was ever really known by most: its intention was to convince the Europhobes who Major famously called "bastards" that the traditions they claimed to love would not be threatened by further integration into the EU. That both Major and his supposed enemies completely ignored the much greater role of American influence in eroding that world need not be gone into again. But for the first year after it was made, I don't remember it being quite as famous and widely quoted as it became later, because there was no need for it to be - Labour policy under John Smith was sufficiently different from Tory policy, and the party significantly serious in its approach, that there was enough genuine ideological contrast and division between the two parties for Labour not to need to resort to ill-thought-out trivialities.

It was only once Blair had taken over, and dropped most of the policies that seriously distinguished Labour from the Tories, that the speech became a legend which almost overnight replaced proper politics in this country. The Blairites had to mock Major on those criteria alone, and for his not knowing about Oasis and the Spice Girls, and for his being old and grey, because they had ceased to be a genuine alternative to the Tories in any meaningful way. When Major desperately dribbled in 1996 that "our pop culture rules the world" (a blatant post-imperial lie of course: at the core of the EU at that time, the Backstreet Boys were bigger than Oasis) they thought they had achieved their greatest possible victory. To hear Major, impotent and destroyed, gibbering words like that was far more important than hearing him admit that Thatcherite ideas on the economy and society had been wrong - they would have been actively repulsed had he ever conceded that (as a social traditionalist such as he claimed to be should have), because in some ways the Blairites were more Thatcherite than Major; certainly the last thing they'd have wanted was to see any Tory admit that the mass privatisation of the mind had been a mistake, because that would have killed the whole Blairite myth before it even started.

Without that 1993 speech, the Blairites might well have found something else to put in place of serious politics and ideological differences between parties, but it would surely have been much harder, and had they failed to find such an easy stick to beat Major with, might they not have dropped most policies that were even social democratic, let alone socialist? We will, alas, never know. But as these profound and dangerous things happened, they were cynically hidden behind the facade of Knebworth, itself a perfect setting for the collapse of serious left-wing thought, being a once-crumbling old pile whose aristocratic owners had saved themselves from penury in the '70s via Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and Genesis. A generation was conned and lied to. A generation - mine - grew up thinking that taunting opponents for not knowing enough about celebrities was a substitute for real politics. Some of them - unforgivably - even thought there was something left-wing about it. And then a Tory clique - an Etonian-led one, at that - used exactly the same criteria to taunt a Labour prime minister, and Blair very clearly sees nothing wrong with it.

If my generation ever had a reckoning, it is now.