Monday, 30 July 2012

Why the Daily Mail and the Tory Right hate and fear the Olympics opening ceremony

Is there still, nigh-on half a century after Enoch Powell and Peter Griffiths, something in the water in the West Midlands (which begat Aidan Burley)?  Am I wrong in fearing that anyone I hear with the accent (which in itself, unlike seemingly everyone else from the rest of the country, I rather like) has moved here for all the wrong reasons?

But my very existence shows how dangerous the Mail's hysterical (the hysteria of those facing and fearing defeat and comeuppance, as I will come round to later) attacks on the opening ceremony actually are.  I'm white.  I've lived more than half my life in Dorset.  I like grime.  I like it because I find it far more relevant to my life than Official British Music (whether that is classical or rock).  I am sure that Paul Dacre would have me and many others hanged as race traitors, but that is the truth.  This isn't 1963-style fogeyism.  Nor is it simply considering rap to be a new and unfamiliar form, as it might once have been (Burley is only 18 months older than me; British acts like the Cookie Crew and MC Tunes were having crossover hits when he was a kid; when "Rapper's Delight" charted, he'd have been in the cradle).

This isn't about music or the way music sounds; this is politics, pure and simple, and it has its roots in the defining territory of left-right politics ever since "we all agreed" on economic matters (Hitchens Minor's objection to the very inclusion of suffragettes - suffragettes! - is, even in Mail land, too far gone to be worth discussing; Burley's assumptions unfortunately aren't).  Burley's belief that Dizzee Rascal "didn't belong" is simply a result of the fact that it contravened the right-wing idea that Britishness is a multi-tiered thing - that some people who know no country but this are less British than others, that national belonging is not something equal to all those born and brought up here but something tightly graded and classified and separated.

The same philosophy dictates - actually for arbitrary reasons which are dressed up as though they were objective and final - that a form of music which has been hybridised and mixed in with other forms here for thirty years in a way that would never have been possible anywhere else (certainly not in the US) must still be considered less British than other forms which are equally imported and, quite often, more second-hand in the process.  There are plenty of other people and forms which do not get anything like this opprobrium whose claim to absolute, unalterable belonging here is just as subjective as that of Dizzee or the form of rap generally.

This has been the main factor separating Left and Right since the drawn-out collapse of traditional socialism (really a twenty-year process between roughly the mid-70s and mid-90s); the Left, broadly, believe that everything said or done in Britain is equally British, and that all people born and brought up here are equally British, whereas the Right believe, broadly, that there are levels and degrees of Britishness and that certain people and things need to stay in some kind of notional quarantine for longer before they can be seen as the equals of other people and things.  Sometimes the Left can go too far; some parts of the Left, out of a well-meaning desire to avoid seeming paternalistic or dominant, have failed to stand up for the victims of sexism and homophobia among British Muslims, and I don't defend that for one moment.  But even when Leftists allow cultural sensitivity to stop them standing up for people in minority groups who are treated badly, at least their intent was not to discriminate, even if it was misjudged.  Even when they go against their own principles over sexism or homophobia - and sometimes they do, and to their credit many who once did now admit that - it has been because they regard Britishness as a cake of which everyone living here has an equal share.  That is a far more noble mistake or misjudgement than anything made by Aidan Burley.

The main reason why the Mail and its fellow travellers have disliked the ceremony so much is that it fatally weakens their own politics. For decades, they have made fertile political capital out of the politics of "either-or" and "us-and-them" and ridiculous "if-you-want-this-you-must-want-that" assumptions and equations; if you like Elgar you can't like Dizzee and vice versa, if you think diversity is broadly a good thing you must think everyone who lives outside a major city is a fascist, if you support the NHS you must want ice cream vans nationalised.  Having seen the success of their American counterparts fuelled by the "culture-wars" narrative, they had worked out that they could achieve comparable success if they thought in similar terms, as the principal dividing line between them and the Left now that the latter had abandoned traditional economic goals.  And despite the universality of the BBC offering a residually common narrative which simply doesn't exist in the US (which of course is precisely why they want it carved up; had the Tories of 1986-1994 succeeded in reducing the BBC to a Telegraph letters page version of PBS and NPR, Dizzee would never have escaped his ghetto), they have had a good deal of success with it.

But then all of a sudden the Olympic opening ceremony comes along, and millions of people sense - instinctively - that it isn't either-or or us-and-them.  You can like and respect and respond to both Elgar and Dizzee, both the romantic national myth of the countryside and the achievements of the Industrial Revolution, both the older traditions cherished by the Right and the post-war developments cherished by the Left.  On Friday night, miraculously, it suddenly all seemed to be part of one narrative, part of a shared national story.  Millions of people - many of them the very people the Right think of as natural allies in a culture-wars narrative - had seen Dizzee and weren't frightened.  They recognised that this music isn't a break from the narrative of our history but a continuation of it.

And suddenly a disproportionately powerful minority - along with, much worse, their lumpenprole footsoldiers - get frightened.  They know that their power and success - at dividing and conquering - depends on one sort of working class seeing another sort of working class as alien, Not Like Them.  They know that if the Middle England millions think of Dizzee as part of the same culture as them, part of the same narrative rather than something outside it, that fatally weakens their dominance, their ability to set the national narrative in terms of who or what "fits" or "belongs".  They know that the Olympics' very ethos is wholly opposed to theirs - and they know that its application to Britain exposes their reading of our history as a partial and politicised one.

So really the success and popularity of, and national coming-together over, the Olympics opening ceremony suggests that millions of people who the Mail and the Tory Right thought were loyal footsoldiers in the culture wars might actually hold a far more open and broader view, a far less narrow and exclusive one, of what it is to be part of this country.  And a certain set of people cannot face that, as they know it might mark the end of their ability to set the agenda. It's exactly the same as the retrenchment to fear and nativism that has gripped the US Republicans since the moment Obama got in, and which lies behind their terrifying attempts effectively to fix the election through disenfranchising his most likely supporters.  It would have been far more surprising if people like Burley hadn't been so upset.  Twenty years ago nobody like Dizzee would have been there at all, because multi-tier Britishness was still far more dominant across the board.  The frustration of people like Burley is really the frustration of the impotent, those who know - secretly - that their short-term victories in culture-wars gesture-politics hide a deeper, long-term defeat.  And we know how that kind of frustration tends to come out ...

Monday, 9 July 2012

In the new spirit of reconciliation and freedom from history ...

... between the English and the Irish ...

... may I make the polite request that those who would have historically considered themselves most ineffably opposed to the English anti-Catholicism with which it unfortunately became mixed up (Sinn Fein voters, Celtic fans - come on, it's not as if anyone else will be able to win the SPL for the foreseeable future) - make a conscious effort to reclaim the tradition of autumn bonfires?  They are, after all, part of their own tradition, part of the Celtic pagan inheritance.  They got mixed up with the Protestant revolution and all the unnecessary hatred and bloodshed, lasting well into my own lifetime, that resulted, and they were (unforgivably, and almost certainly hastening their decline in England) misused by certain Mail or Express-reading types to suggest that all Irish people were potential terrorists.  But that does not change their origins, nor does it change their immense potency and power, their evocation of things beyond normal human understanding, their sense of - ultimately - life and death.

More to the point, it has become necessary to champion them simply as a means of detracting from the imposition of American-led commercialism on the process of the seasons for all of us in both the islands, and of undermining the ludicrous pretence of some in Ireland (who really, really should know better) that a victory for US big business is in some sense a victory for them (when in fact those commercial forces menace the autumn traditions of Ireland just as much as they do those of England, and for very much the same reasons and with - thus far - seemingly as little serious resistance). Autumn bonfires were a means of marking the change of seasons centuries before the Gunpowder Plot.  They can and should be so again.  The divisions and hatreds that have turned families and brothers against each other for centuries - and thus the inability, until now, to create a unified front for all the peoples of the two islands against the forces of exploitation and degradation - have been a significant factor in the forces of global commerce laying waste to the traditions of all parts of the two islands, and exploiting the arguments of the left (which it would not otherwise care about one iota) to present them as "racist" or "backward" (when what it really means is that it cannot make enough money out of them).  Now that those old hatreds are seemingly - finally - dissipating and being recognised as impositions and restrictions which hold us all back in a way that can no longer be afforded, could this also be a moment for the English and the Irish to come together in favour of autumn bonfires, for whichever reason you want them and whoever or whatever you want to commemorate or not, as against the Americanised version of the festival which the Irish and Scots once thought was theirs?  That festival and autumn bonfires share the same origins.  It is time to use the reconciliations of 2011 and 2012 in both parts of Ireland to bring them together again.

Why the Beatles sound better under Cameron than under NuLab

Yes, yes, I know I posted here many times in the run-up to the last election that I'd never be able to listen to the Beatles again once the social tribe I had wrongly believed they had laughed out of power for good in 1964 was back in government.  Yes, yes, I did listen to "I Should Have Known Better" on election night, staring desperately at the sea I've so often wished could be drained to nothing, genuinely believing it would be the last time.  But strangely enough, things didn't turn out that way.  The Beatles actually sound better to me now - stranger, more rebellious, more of a challenge to the dominant ideology of the ruling elite - than at any time since before the Blairites and their pop-cultural allies got hold of them and turned them into a front for all the timewarping and imposing of fixed agendas on the working class that they ever opposed in their time.  The Beatles - or at least their mutant, uncontrollable side (why did I ever dismiss "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" as blues-bore purism?  It's easily the best and strangest thing on Abbey Road - an album which otherwise offers ample proof as to precisely why their split was necessary, and the fact that a teenage Alan Parsons was an engineer on it is frighteningly, chillingly apt) - have been rehabilitated, freed from elite manipulation, by the very event I thought would finally rob them of all meaning for good.

What has made the difference is that our current rulers come from the first generation for whom the Beatles are Before Their Time, a mere detail that contains no personal or emotional resonance and may have been dismissed as an unwelcome parental imposition (indeed, their adolescence was during the very period often dismissed during the Blair/Britpop ascendancy for not sufficiently venerating the band).  George Osborne was born a year after Let It Be was released. But Ed Miliband was also, crucially, born when they had more or less ceased to exist.  It works both ways; the Beatles being History (if not quite, yet, Proper History) to a politician may be a factor in a complete inability to see that alternatives to neoliberalism even exist, a significant reinforcement in an institutional belief that pop culture is merely a front for increasing elite power, but it might also be a reason (Miliband was born at Murdoch's first Christmas; McDonald's first came to London when he was four) for that politician being open to at least quasi-socialist ideas on the organisation of British society, without being blinded - as the Blairites were - by the misleading childhood glamour of Radio Caroline and tabloids and fast food seeming exotic and unobtainable.  Not having lived in the pre-Murdoch world utterly closes some politicians to other options, but makes some politicians far more open to other ways than those who actually grew up in it were.

Virtually throughout the first thirty years of my life (with a slight reversion to older ways under John Major) Britain was governed by former members of one or other of the two great revolutionary movements of 1974.  In my childhood, during which most of my considerable pleasures came from the dying embers of the pre-1979 world, those who - after early political careers which they would later dismiss, with Britain itself at that time, as drifting and directionless - sensed that their time might be coming when they Found Themselves as part of the right-wing anti-state movement of the mid-1970s held sway.  In my late teens and twenties, from which I can take few positive recollections of any kind, erstwhile members of the mid-70s radical student-left who had also supported the withering away of the state, albeit for entirely different reasons, came to the fore, having created a brilliantly cynical hybrid between their old pop-cultural loyalties and 80s neoliberalism which they (absolutely and entirely correctly) now recognised was a far more potent and workable method of enforcing their anti-old-establishment cultural visions and post-Marxist enthusiasm for global capitalism - the capitalist stage of the Marxist process with the ending changed (a phrase which effectively describes New Labour, the American neoconservatism it embraced so enthusiastically, and to a great extent Thatcherism; never forget Alfred Sherman's political origins).

But now, for the first time, those whose political thinking was developed during the tumult unleashed by Harold Wilson's cathartic defeat-in-victory have retired from the front rank, never to return. In the process, the Beatles really have become Proper History - and thus, as they never were before 2010, immune to the distortions and misinterpretations of the political process.  Nothing can touch them now; the elite no longer care anyway.  We have a rising political elite for whom the mid-1970s were about nothing so much as Brian Cant and Geoffrey Hayes (if even that), not a grand-scale left-right power struggle.  And that can mean anything the politicians want it to.  It can mean what George Osborne wants it to mean, or what Ed Miliband wants it to mean.  What do you want it to mean?  That is as decisive a question in 2012 as "what do you want the collapse of the post-war consensus to mean?" was in 1975.  Nobody can afford not to answer it.  There is the Cliff Richard / Duran Duran / Dappy answer, or the Beatles / Human League / Trilla answer.  How will you answer for yourself, if the judgement of history condemns you for not giving the latter answer sufficiently loudly and forcefully here, now?