Some of my best friends are bigots.

November 21, 2016 § Leave a comment

Perhaps it is because my prejudices have not eroded as much as I would like to think but occasionally I have to acknowledge that deep inside me lurks a soft spot for bigots. That bit of me tends to surface when someone stands on the moral high ground and de-contextualises the views of others by dismissing them as bigotry. So it was with Hillary Clinton when she put half of Trump’s supporters into a “basket of deplorables.” During the course of a vicious election my admiration of Clinton grew by the week. In the face of monstrous attacks from Trump she stayed calm, displayed enormous character and demonstrated that she was indeed one of the best qualified candidates to have ever stood for the presidency of the United States, yet her deplorable quote made me cringe. So it was a few years ago when the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown (again someone I selectively admired) was caught on open mike dismissing a middle aged woman who asked about immigration as a bigoted woman. When I heard that I couldn’t help thinking: “Steady on Gordon, that’s my mum you’re talking about!”

So perhaps my prejudices haven’t eroded as much as I’d like but then given my childhood, they did start out rather Himalayan. I guess many of us baby-boomers had similar upbringings. I always give a wry smile when I hear about the liberated 60s. All that wearing flowers in your hair nonsense, not a hope, there was far too big a chance of getting bashed for being gay. Of course homophobia didn’t really exist in the 50s and 60s, neither did misogyny or racism. No, instead there was just a generalised suspicion of difference, a suspicion that all too easily escalated into fear and then hatred. It was a time when a Tory candidate won an election in Wolverhampton with the slogan: “If you want a Nigger for a neighbour vote Labour.” That wasn’t seen as offensive, it was the norm, as were the many pub doors adorned with the sign “No blacks, Irish or diddicoys.” In the pantheon of prejudices my family was probably pretty much middle of the road for the times. I remember on one occasion my father forbade the family (he was rather a traditional husband and father!) from ever talking to the next door neighbours. This was after he had seen the man next door hanging out the washing and he didn’t want us talking to “that sort of man” or his family. Mum had her own specialisms when it came to prejudice. It would never have occurred to her to warn my sisters about bringing a black man home (that was truly unthinkable) but she did give them stern lectures about men with ginger hair, or regional accents. Not that there were many black faces around at the time and the closest we got to illegal immigrants was a couple of times a year when a battered motor boat, that looked like a Dunkirk relic, would tie up at a barely used jetty on the river. That was the French onion sellers arriving, not exactly undercover given they wore Breton shirts and berets. Two or three of them would get off in the early morning, their battered sit up and beg bicycles festooned with onions. They would spend the days going around the local estates before disappearing at dusk back to the boat. That was as close as we got to multiculturalism and the occasional sighting of a black or brown face was met with whispering and barely suppressed shock.

While I look back in horror and embarrassment at the bigotry I was raised amongst, somehow it’s the bigotry rather than the bigots that appals me. If you live a precarious existence it is far too easy to fear difference and blame the “other” for fragility of your life. It is not people like those who I grew up with that make me despair, instead it is those who cynically feed off and inculcate their insecurities that we really need to fear. It is not my Mum and Dad, or the kids I grew up with, neither is it Gordon Brown’s bigoted woman or indeed Hillary Clinton’s basket of deplorables that threaten us. Yes, we should challenge and refute them but the real threat is from those who manipulate their fears, it is through the Le Pens, the Wilders, the Farages and the Trumps that the world descends into self-loathing internecine warfare feeding off its own myths. One such myth is that it is only the ill-educated who support demagogues like Trump. The most narrow-minded, bigoted group of people I worked with were senior managers, many with PhDs, while the most liberal were a group of blokes I shared a smoko hut with on a mining site. Just visit a British public (private) school and you discover that it is not education or class that promotes bigotry, it is insularity. Trump’s supporters on average earned above the median wage and he received as many votes from college graduates as Clinton did.

The bigotry, and narrow-minded judgmentalism of the people Trump is appointing to his cabinet is staggering and not one of his appointees could ever be accused of being either ill-educated or disadvantaged. It ranges from a Vice-President elect who tried to pass a law forcing women who had abortions, for whatever reason, to have a formal burial service of the fetus, right along to an Attorney General who refers to black men as “boy”. I guess that has been one of the difficult parts of the US election. Generally faced with the onslaught of bigotry that we have seen in the past few months, you create a gradient of nastiness but the interminable display of primitive prejudice has made it impossible to construct a hierarchy of hatefulness. You look at what Trump says and does and think “Surely he will draw a line at that” but then he doesn’t and instead finds a way to dig even deeper into his apparently bottomless pit of atavistic antagonisms. It almost makes the mindless bigotry of my childhood seem inane, at least we drew the line at certain things (and why is Trump such a whiner? A man who has lived a life of enormous privilege, a multi-millionaire, soon to become the most powerful man in the world and he cannot stop whinging on about how unfair everyone is to him. The last time I heard anybody whine as much was when I was eight and the loud-mouthed school bully had his marbles confiscated because he kept throwing them at the other kids.)

Okay, I realise it’s easy for me to have a soft spot for bigots, I am after all an old white bloke so very little of the bigotry is directed at me but most of the bigots I grew up with had sometimes subtle lines that they didn’t cross. I am pretty sure that my family and neighbours would have responded to the election of Trump with a mixture of hilarity and horror. The hilarity stemmed from his name. Although cursing and swearing was frowned upon, language was fairly down to earth particularly relating to bodily functions. In the world of my childhood, people didn’t pass wind, drop one, or fart, instead the most common euphemism for flatulence was “trumping”. I remember like yesterday an aging aunt at a family function (the port and lemons had been flowing liberally) brushing past my mother in the scullery and saying “just going into the garden for a trump!” as she headed for the back door. Invariably some of my saucier relatives would add an onomatopoeia emphasis to the word “Trump”.                  So it would have undoubtedly caused considerable amusement that the President of the United States was both named after and personified the passing of foul wind. The horror would have come from another source, for while my family would have agreed with many of Trump’s utterances I suspect there would have been one thing they couldn’t have got past.

Misogyny (even amongst women), racism, xenophobia, and homophobia may have been rife yet there were still nods at a common humanity that transcended prejudice. It may have been a time when children with disabilities were routinely institutionalised and I won’t pretend that the obstacles placed in the way of disabled people weren’t even greater than those faced by the disabled now, but there was definitely a line that we kids were not supposed to cross. Kids can be cruel and it wasn’t unusual for a kid to use the term “spasso” or “mongol” to either describe a kid with disability or to insult another; even so when such a term was used it was inevitably followed by an embarrassed laugh and a guilty look. The one thing all kids seemed to be taught was that, on pain of a good smacking, you never mocked someone with a disability of whatever kind. In the face of all the bigotry generated by fear of women, black people, gays or anything seen as different, there was a strange sort of communal empathy for people with a disability. That didn’t mean that there wasn’t a certain fear and discomfort around disabled people and an unfairness in their treatment, yet for all that there was a recognition of a shared humanity that placed a firm taboo on mocking them. There was a lad about my age with hydrocephalus that my mates and I would sometimes see outside the sweet shop opposite our primary school. He would sit there in an old cane bath chair, his massive head lolling to one side, unable to speak as he waited for his mother to come out of the shop. Sure, in our childhood insecurities the lad made us uncomfortable, but not so much that we didn’t stop, say hello and try to chat a while. Yes, it’s true to say that we were all nasty little bigots but it wasn’t just the fear of a good spanking from our mums that stopped us mocking him. No, it was something more imbedded, more intrinsic that instinctively told us that if there is any measure of humanity, it is our capacity to value rather than mock the vulnerable.

So to all those in the States who voted for Donald Trump, I can just about understand how you could vote for a man who displays and acts on the most malignant of prejudices, a man whose manifest destiny seems to be to drag a great nation into the gutter with him yet I suspect my mum wouldn’t be able to understand it. For all her bigotry there is one thing Trump has done that even she would find unforgiveable and while her threats of giving us a good smacking never materialised, I’m pretty sure that she and all her neighbours would be queuing up to give Mr Trump a good slap on his legs…whilst sniggering at his name.

Mum may have sniggered at an unfortunate name but she never sniggered at an unfortunate person. Unlike Mr Trump. So again, American voters, how is it possible that nearly half of you consider that this man Donald Trump, who so crudely mocked the disabled NYT reporter Serge Kovaleski, is fit to be your President?

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The Great American Songbook

November 13, 2016 § Leave a comment

It’s one surprise after another. Mind you, some surprises are so jaw-dropping incomprehensible that you truly realise the world has slipped into madness. You would have thought that the Swedish Academy was the least likely institution to auger the world tumbling towards Armageddon but no they went ahead and nominated Bob Dylan as the Nobel Laureate for literature. Bob Dylan!

Now, I can’t say I have a problem with popular music having the same literary status as say J.M Coetzee or Pablo Neruda, far from it. Indeed, soul-inspiring and accessibility always coalesce in the best literature but Bob Dylan! I’ve listened to Dylan for fifty years and in that time seen him twice, once at the Albert Hall when I was seventeen and once at Frinsbury Park about fifteen years ago. Live he was terrible, albeit in a different way each time. The Freewheeling Bob Dylan was the first album I ever bought, not for myself but for my girlfriend at the time. Okay, the hours of listening intently while staring into each other’s eyes while contriving meaning from the trite lyrics eventually paid off, but I’m still not sure that the effort was worth it. Sure, I’ve been listening to him since, usually accidentally and sometimes thought “that’s not bad” but pretty much by the time I was twenty-one I’d given up on trying to convince either myself or others that I was more cerebral than I actually was so stopped pretending that Dylan’s music was a gateway to another dimension.

To me, what excludes Dylan from the literary greats is not that he is a miserable misanthrope, which he is, but because that is all he is. I enjoy a good wallow in misery as much as most of us, yet warmth, humour and optimism are as much a part of the human spirit as despair. Why is it that however much I listened to Dylan, he never made me smile, even wryly or ironically? In contrast the renowned miserabalist Leonard Cohen (Canadian of course) had a warmth and humour that transcended melancholia. The already much missed Cohen understood that life was far too serious to take seriously and sometimes you just have to get off your soap box and laugh, even if it’s at your own expense.

The truly evocative lyricists make us smile at our own foolishness rather than being defeated by it. When Hank Williams writes:

Just a deck of cards and a jug of wine
And a woman’s lies makes a life like mine”

you smile wryly in self-recognition and when you hear Goffin and King’s:

“Tonight you’re mine, completely
You give your soul so sweetly
Tonight the light of love is in your eyes
But will you love me tomorrow”

you are immediately touched by the familiar complexity of hope and fear. And then there is the great Smokey Robinson:

“People say I’m the life of the party
Because I tell a joke or two
Although I might be laughing loud and hearty
Deep inside I’m blue”

Simple lyrics yet so immediate and telling. The great American song book is full of them. One of Dylan’s predecessors in Greenwich Village, the wise and humane Tom Paxton signals all our regrets when he sings:

“Are you going away with no word of farewell,
Will there be not a trace left behind?
I could have loved you better, didn’t mean to be unkind.
You know that was the last thing on my mind.”

And then there’s Kristofferson capturing loneliness:

“Well, I woke up Sunday morning
With no way to hold my head, that didn’t hurt
And the beer I had for breakfast wasn’t bad,
So I had one more for dessert.
Then I fumbled in my closet through my clothes
And found my cleanest dirty shirt.
Then I washed my face and combed my hair
And stumbled down the stairs to meet the day.”

Every day a hundred half remembered lyrics from great American songwriters tumble through my mind, enhancing my experience with their warmth, intelligence and humour. Nothing ever comes to me from Dylan except, annoyingly, something about a joker called Johnny mixing up medicine in a basement. So how come the miserable old anti-social sod gets the Nobel Prize?

I caught sight of the news the other day and watched a few demonstrators gathering in American cities. I thought for a moment that they were protesting about Dylan getting the Nobel when everybody with any knowledge of either music or poetry knows it should have been the truly singular great American bard, John Prine. This is the man who in one sentence demonstrates the pain of both war and addiction

“There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes.”

Or who captures the perceptual traps life creates for us

“Broken hearts and dirty windows
Make life difficult to see
That’s why last night and this morning
Always look the same to me”

And unlike Dylan’s pretentious pseudo intellectualism, Prine writes with down-to-earth warmth and wit; who else can write:

“A bowl of oatmeal tried to stare me down…and won”

Or portrays children falling asleep after a family party in Kentucky by singing:

“The kitchen light fell asleep on the bedroom floor.”

 

Okay, I know taste is subjective but as hard as I try I just cannot believe that Dylan is a better songwriter than John Prine. As this is a literary discussion, I confess I’m engaging in a smidgen of hyperbole to emphasise a point but even so, with the best will in the world, I would be hard pushed to put Dylan in the top ten of great living American songwriters. It is all arguable and I can completely understand those who would press Dylan’s claim to be the greatest and would say in my defence that pretentious tosh is not to everybody’s taste.

Now if I can understand that, you’d think I’m a pretty understanding sort of bloke yet some things remain totally incomprehensible to me. Most pressing is the question that has been confronting me for the past few days. How is it that an amazing country like the United States which abounds with energy, culture, diversity and decency and which amongst all the other geniuses it nurtures, produces the most astonishing song writers still willingly and knowingly elect as its president a man such as Donald Trump? I wonder if the Swedish Academy had a say in it!

The accident

November 9, 2016 § 2 Comments

I’m not sure why but as I sit here writing, it somehow feels like a Sunday morning. Perhaps I’m a little disorientated from lack of sleep last night. Although I never left the house it is as though I spent the night driving along a chaotic contra-flow both fascinated by and despairing of the pile-ups taking place around me. If I had been driving, my shoulders would ache from the constant rubber-necking. It is not Sunday though, it’s Wednesday morning after the US election.

As day turned to night in the States, realisation started to dawn on the other side of the Atlantic and Europe awoke to a Trump presidency. For all my horror I could not help be both curious and fascinated by what lay in store.

Within us all lurks a vestigial evolutionary instinct, apparently dormant but all to ready to unexpectedly burst like a diseased appendix. Our primitive instincts ensure that when we see a threat or something that generates anxiety, we fix and focus on it. If we see a snake we are transfixed, almost hypnotised by it. The problem with the instinct is that it makes us focus on the threat rather than the way around it. One of the most important things that anyone who has ever ridden a motorbike has to learn is not to look at the approaching corner but to look past it. Our instinct is to look at the corner and drive straight into it. It is commonplace in the Australian bush to drive along a straight flat road for a 100 Ks, come across a dangerous corner and see at the apex of the corner a couple of cars wrapped around an old gum tree.

Our instinct to look with fascination at accidents is the same instinct that contributes to us causing the accident. And so it was with the election of President Trump last night. It may have been a shock and one with catastrophic consequences but should it have been a surprise? The media is already awash with explanations, condemnations and dire warnings but given the context in which the election was framed, surely the result shouldn’t have been altogether unexpected.

One of the convenient delusions that neo-liberalism and democracy share is that the markets and voting are both a function of rational decision making based on objective information. What nonsense! What the election of Trump demonstrated (as too would have Clinton’s election) is the significant role that subjectivity plays in decision making. Okay, we are all subjective but given Trump’s tenuous hold on honesty, decency or ability, surely subjectivity does not trip so easily into the collective madness of the almost half of adult Americans voting for him? Yet it does. Imagine two middle-aged white American men who both see the same debates and receive identical information; one looks at Trump and says: “My, what a misogynistic, racist, innumerate and illiterate bigot, no way will I vote for him.” Whereas, his fellow patriot says: “My, what a misogynistic, racist, innumerate and illiterate bigot, I can’t wait to vote for him.”

While it may seem like an oxymoron for dispirited, alienated white voters to turn to the most discredited and unqualified candidate in American history to represent them, within their paradigm of angry hurting it makes a strange sense. When we feel powerless, too often the only way left to express our frustration is through destructive negative power. Like dispirited, disenfranchised teenagers huddled together in a decaying bus shelter on the edge of town we end up pissing on the floor and breaking the windows. Sure, it may effectively make our life even less comfortable but at least we are doing something even if it is just lashing out. Trump played to those feeling. Although himself one of the absolute, privileged elite he fuelled many Americans’ anger at the injustice of their perceived betrayal by the “establishment”. And again like teenagers who feel let down and cut adrift by authority, they begin to define themselves not by respecting authority but by the stance they take against it. So easy then to support the, however implausible, candidate who claims he will “drain the swamp.”

When we feel our trust is betrayed by those in authority or those we loved or trusted we can act in contrary ways. I guess at some time in our lives it happens to most of us, particularly on a personal level. Someone we loved, trusted, believed in absolutely, lets us down and we go through the whole denial, anger, rejection bit… no way are we ever going to trust again! We turn our angry sceptical back on it all, even as we secretly yearn for another truth to replace the one we have lost. Therein though lays the paradox of overcoming our betrayal, our loss of trust. Too often we attempt to rebuild trust not by listening to the honest but by being beguiled by the most implausible of liars. Honest people are often uncertain and hesitant; they know they don’t have all the answers and can come across as unconvincing. The betrayed need the certainties and absolutes that only the plausible, smiling sociopath can provide. We may know the sociopath is a liar and cheat but if they are truly skilful they make us believe that somehow the lies and the deception will not apply to us and the very implausibility of our belief in them seduces us even further.

So, after eight years of a presidency inhabited by one of the wisest, most empathic and decent men to have graced the world stage, America went to bed believing that their next president would break the glass ceiling, albeit as a somewhat dull but competent and hard working Washington insider. Instead, they awake to the chaos of uncertainty seeded by the possibility of a long day’s journey into night. Such are the fine margins of collective decision making and madness. Like Gore in 2000, Clinton actually won the popular vote but lost the presidency to the vagaries of the Electoral College. We know where it ended in 2000, particularly as the consequences continue to rumble around the world but where will 2016 end? Yes, it’s scary but we should remind ourselves that the actual electoral shift was minimal (even though it had maximum consequences) and the fundamentals of American society have changed little, even if those fundamentals now need to be negotiated through the dystopian vision of a neo-conservative dominated Congress. Still, every cloud and all that, just imagine the vicarious excitement we will get as we watch the crashes pile up as the incompetent but supremely lacking in self awareness new administration get behind the wheel in January. Just imagine … no, better not.

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