Archive

Society

A couple of posts ago I hinted at my rage at Halloween having become a commercial sham and an excuse for people to dress up in a fashion that is in no way relevant to anything, get shitfaced and behave disgustingly (damn I’m transforming into a grumpy old Scotswoman at rapid pace here).

I say this as if I have some sort of aversion to getting drunk and behaving badly – I don’t, I do this all the time. My revulsion is at something once culturally significant being turned upside down and its insides squeezed out for commercial gain, to the point where it really does mean nothing to the ignorant souls donning their ‘pirate wench’ and ‘zombie cowboy’ outfits, other than another excuse (as if they needed one) for a night of debauch.

There’re two aspects that bother me, one being the Americanisation. When I was little (cue grumpy old woman), there was no such thing as ‘trick or treating’. Halloween/All Saints Eve/Samhain, whichever name you care to give it, religious slant or otherwise, was a pagan, Celtic festival celebrating the end of the harvest season and the commencement of the dark half. It is firmly rooted in Scottish heritage.

 

Guisers on the Isle of Uist [image: angusmcphee.blogspot.co.uk]

‘Guising’ would see you go round your neighbours with your wee pals in your wee witch or warlock costume, tell a joke, a ghost story, or sing a wee song, and get a sweetie or a few pence in return. The custom originates from the belief that dressing your children to blend in with the evil spirits abroad on the Eve of the Hallows would protect them, and it was considered prudent to give them small gifts to help ward off ill will from the souls of the dead.

 

Kiss front man Alice Cooper, who was disappointed with the Halloween celebrations growing up in the US [image: nndb.com]

The Americans in their true, naïve, culture-crushing style, have taken away any element of lore and replaced it with, well, that great American virtue – greed. As Alice Cooper, who now always celebrates the date in the UK, said of Halloween growing up in the States – “It was all about the candy”. This is the attitude that the global corporatisation of traditional events and holidays has succeeded in supplanting over here in the years since I grew up.

And it was turnips, not pumpkins…

 

Proper neep lanterns [image: blog.makezine.com]

The infamous harlotty Halloween costume which has now become the norm has also come to grate on me. That other renowned American virtue, vanity, comes to mind. It goes beyond vanity though. We all want to dress to look our best (I shall be doing so at a Halloween-themed cabaret night tomorrow), but Halloween outfits for women have transgressed into the downright degrading. A friend’s work colleague was apparently dressing this year as a ‘slutty skeleton’. A slutty skeleton. I could certainly see that being thrown as an insult at some of the sights you see on a Saturday night, but actually – a slutty skeleton. I have not words…

 

Oh yes, it really exists [image: thebroccolihut.com]

This has even less to do with Halloween than trick or treating, and is in fact part of a wider trend of sexism, pornification, and the division of genders that is happening across the board in the West, and which has been on my mind a lot over the last year but is so huge that I’m unsure where to even begin writing about it. I’ll leave that one at that for the moment…

The state of what Halloween is fast becoming is only one facet in the list of traditions and festivals that have been slaughtered by a market-driven culture. With Christmas marketing having begun before Halloween was even over this year, expect a follow-up rant soon…

Advertisements

I left Facebook last week.

It was something I’d been mulling over for a long time. I realised long ago that the thing was a total time succubus, and with my inclinations for procrastination it was quite a hindrance to productivity. But I’m a sentimental devil, and I couldn’t bring myself to part with my hard-earned friends, many in far places, with whom this was my sole connection. I also hoped that I could show some strength of will and be more disciplined about the time I spent gawping at it…

Alas, the gawping continued. And other, more pressing things began to niggle at me. The insidious advertising: sometimes blatantly there in the newsfeed, completely uninvited; but more often through ‘sponsored links’, things that friends ‘like’ showing up. (Note, the first thing on the drop-down menu at the top right-hand corner, before account or privacy settings, is ‘advertise’).

This was only an aspect of a newsfeed that was becoming ever more disinteresting, or rage-inducing, due to a growing accumulation of meaningless ‘friends’, some of whom were turning out to be racists, fascists, or just total blockheads (no Tories though, thank goodness). Even if they weren’t themselves posting racist/fascist/blockhead material, posts that they ‘liked’ would appear: “Dear British Goverment, i think our country z shite becuz u hav let in all the forein immigrint scum n they hav takin all tha houses and tha jobz and the money n they r the reason that i am a fat twat with no grammar or other skillz.”, “Dear Tayside Police, why were yooz out pure catchin me speedin when i seen on the news their wiz old ladies bein mugged n that?”…

Get your ignoramus beliefs and piss poor grammar out of my eyes.

Nonsense like that contributed to a growing unease about the way that Facebook leads you to accumulate people. I have no interest whatsoever in sharing my life with fascists, et al, and yet here they were, in my face every day. Not to mention countless posts about children I’ve never met, dogs whose existence I care nothing for, what people eat for all meals of the day, what time they go to bed, what time they get up, whether they took a shit that morning, what car they have, what phone they have, what fecking handbag they desire, when they’re drunk/hungover/high/bleeding/vomming/dying – oh wait, they’re not dying, just hungover, bleeding and vomming. (And I can’t deny having made such posts myself). But an irritating etiquette has emerged whereby you’re obliged to be ‘friends’ with co-workers, ex-classmates, ex-lovers, wives of distant cousins, friends of parents – a whole array of people you would never normally have communicated details of your personal life to. And people never move into the past… That’s a bit creepy…

A friend of a friend used an analogy I liked – normally in life you have a jar, and there’s a little hole in the bottom of that jar, and as people become less important to you they get smaller and shuffle down and eventually fall out the bottom of your jar. But with Facebook – there’s no hole in the jar! People just collect and collect until you’re drowning in amongst them.

I’m also, I think, augmenting the ‘grumpy old Scotswoman’ aspect of my personality. Conversely to communicating with people you wouldn’t normally communicate with, you also end up not communicating with the people you would want to communicate with. Increasingly, people can’t be bothered to call, or to write an email, or (proper old school, I know) to send anything in the post. ‘Liking’ a friend’s new profile picture has become all that’s needed to let people know you’re thinking of them, and that’s rubbish. I took the time a couple of weeks ago to write some proper emails, and it was wonderful. Wastebook-based communication, in contrast, is SO superficial, and vacuous, and narcissistic. Well, I unsubscribe from the enforced Facebook ephemera!

Just this week, reading about status anxiety in ‘The Spirit Level’ has confirmed to me that I’ve made the right decision. Worry about social status is something that has become a huge burden to people in economically rich countries, and Pusbook* totally exasperates this, plays and even depends upon it.  Whether you are willing to admit it or not, anyone that uses it regularly gets drawn into waiting for friends to like or comment on their posts. For some people, especially teenagers now, their social status truly lives and dies by the sword of Pusbook. So, I thought, why add to all the other anxieties already assaulting me in this post-modern century? Since deleting only days ago, I’ve felt a notable decline in anxiety, like I’ve been unburdened from a pernicious responsibility. I feel almost emancipated!

There are things I will miss. It is undeniably useful for organising events and keeping up with developments in my spheres of interest. I had a variety of pages I followed for aesthetic or literary fixes (Magnum Photos, Rumi, Beware of Images, for example), and for quality or leftfield news (Al Jazeera English, BBC World Service, Jezebel). I will miss having a network of knowledge and advice at my fingertips. And I will miss spying on people who I perhaps haven’t spoken to in a long time but like to check in on. Equally, perhaps, there are people who liked to spy on me from time to time and will miss me too…

But deleting my Facebook will be a pretty good indication of which friends are important to me: they are the ones that already have my email or phone number, or I have theirs. They are the ones that, when I posted that I would be leaving, got in touch. They are the ones that I made sure to let know, because I want to keep them… As for the others, it’s once more up to serendipity to bring us back together…

*Local slang name, from the Scots vulgar vernacular for ‘face’.

I am so relieved to see the back of this year. It felt for a time like it would never come. This has been straight up one of the most difficult years of my life, if not thee most. Not the worst, mind, but the most difficult. Financially, emotionally, physically. Mostly emotionally.

We moved into the House of Doom right at the beginning of the year – that certainly got us off on the wrong footing. Senile barking dogs, mosquito infestations, unbearable breezeless heat, builders with man-sized speakers belting Jesus-themed country and western, the Loudest Van in the World that roared up the hill every a.m., the loopy man-obsessed drug-addicted Quebecois drama queens next door, insomnia, scheming sociopathic flatmates, inadvertently becoming the ‘party house’, the falling apart of friendships and relationships…

All that before we even got to the shooting incident, the ruination of my ankle (still quite ruined), further disintegration of House of Doom-based relationships, dwindling funds, and a whole swilling island full of crazed and broken souls, some of them my dear, dear friends and indeed an inadvertent boyfriend who I did my best to look after.

A broken heart (the most acutely painful to date), a deportation, the death of my grandmother, a sorry retreat to my sorry hometown, another half-broken heart, the death of a once-vivacious aunt, a forced return to retail (oh woe!), a royal fucking-over from Canadian Immigration, and yet another bit of heartache later, I thought 2011 had finally spat all it could at me. Until this week. A final twist of the knife had to be had…

It’s not just me though. This year has been a motherfucker for numerous friends. And people seem to have been dying off all over the place, almost as if they are getting out while they can; they sense the change coming… The world is revolving – revolution in the Arab world, the killing of Gaddafi, Bin Laden,  the death of Kim Jong Il; the continued economic decay of the United States and the European Union; the rebirth of powerful public dissent in the West as well – both civilised (the Occupy movement, especially in the States), and feral (the UK riots – see my earlier article); not to mention an onslaught of destructive climatic events – earthquakes, hurricanes, flooding…

It would be nice to think that this was just a blip, but I have the foreboding feeling that in 2012 it’s about to intensify… I don’t believe that the world is going to end on 21st December 2012, or that the aliens are going to come, and I certainly hope that the planets aren’t going to align and cause a freak gravitational event whereby we will all float up off the earth and explode (as Dado, my old boss, is expecting to happen)… I’m not prone to airy-fairy notions but I do think there may be something in this Mayan shit. Not that we are facing the End of Days, but an End of Days. Things are afoot. Things feel different. Change be a-coming…

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. In terms of the world order we’re about due a change, and if that makes our lives in the West more difficult, so be it. We reap what we sow. Hopefully our new condition will jolt our society out of its stupor (I like to think the signs are already showing).

On a personal level, I did say that though 2011 has been exceptionally difficult, it has been far from the worst year of my life. So many lessons learned and new things experienced and things figured out and falling into place and FUN had and god damn me for being sentimental but so many good good friends and, for the first time in my life, I have found myself looking to the future with something that is not fear.

Hello 2012…

A few weeks ago I sat with a couple of friends, flippantly contemplating the future of society as we know it, how it could be End of Days after all. Not by some biblical, supernatural cataclysm, but that it could be the end of the current political and economic order. We debated how this might come about – internal governmental collapse, economic ruin, the ubiquitous zombie apocalypse… I favoured an uprising by the people at the bottom, not in some Marxist class-war glory but base and brutish, violence and destruction en masse until total lawlessness ruled.

I didn’t expect it quite so soon…

London and now numerous other English cities are being plagued by night-time riots after the shooting dead of a young black man, Mark Duggan, in a North London district last week. What began as a peaceful protest in Tottenham on Saturday has descended into a chaos where all initial meaning has been lost and it has become an excuse for gangs of ‘youths’ (I’m loathe to use such a loaded term) to rampage, loot, and destroy.

Of course the Tory government rhetoric is full of lingo like ‘criminality’ and ‘disrespect to property’. What about disrespect to community, morality, humanity? And what are the causes underlying this uncondonable behaviour?

The broken

This should not have been unforeseen. The factors that caused me to make my prediction only weeks earlier are there for the seeing: a failing economy, high unemployment, public services feeling the axe of austerity, disillusionment with ineffective and aloof government – these are the immediate factors which always contribute to social unrest. However what was also apparent was the deeper, long-term issues that affect this society – and what differentiates these riots to those of previous generations: the disintegration of community, the hegemony of greed and consumerism, the increasingly egotistical and un-empathetic youth, and the alarming arrival of violent crime for pleasure rather than gain.

Of course these ‘youths’ are responsible for their own actions – many are amoral, violent, self-interested, or at the very least susceptible to the herding of those that are. The acts being seen at the moment are displays of blatant thievery, thuggery, thrill of destruction, and ignorance with absolutely no political message in mind. But these young people have turned out like this for a reason. Why weren’t the rioters of previous generations making such displays of greed? Because only now are we seeing the culmination of successive decades of capitalism-over-community governance, beginning, of course, with (that lady who I tend to lazily pin all of society’s woes on) Thatcher, perpetuated by Blair and his desecration of Labour party values, the baton now picked up by rubbery-faced (it seems to be some sort of Eton affliction) Cameron.

Capitalism FAIL

Three decades of materialistic, consumerist culture shoved at us from all angles has created a generation fundamentally defined by ‘stuff’ and the ownership of it. This is pervasive in pop culture – music videos full of stuff, songs about having stuff or wanting stuff, whole TV series – reality and otherwise – about people who have tons of stuff. The want-and-have mentality fostered by the banks throwing credit at people in the late 90s and early 2000s; the transition from Generation X to Generation YWhy can’t I have it now? All, of course, beginning with the greed-is-good ethos promoted in the 80s. As one of the (fierce and admirable) young men appearing on the Newsnight debate last night (see 15min>) said, where are the role models? When people look up and see corporate bankers still raking in millions, having ruined homes and whole countries, and going unpunished, how can we expect those at the bottom to uphold the morals those at the top do not? It is a serious symptom of the spectacular failings of neoliberalism. When ownership and greed are the tenets of society, we cannot expect people to grow up with values pertaining to anything other than self-interest.

Cameron, you and your kin have created this monster, this ‘feral youth’ as you like to call them – now YOU have to live with the consequences.

No race necessary

It does concern me that some of the foreign (and probably domestic) Leftist/alternative media are marking this as some sort of uprising of the oppressed and a revolutionary landmark in the class/race/equality struggle. They need to take off their idealist’s spectacles because that is not what’s happening. I am staunchly of the Left but there is need for realism here. The best we can hope for out of this mobbery is that there will be a realisation of the issues facing British youth (and I say British. The riots may only have been in England but being Scottish and smug about this is kidding ourselves – we suffer the same issues here).

I fully await, however, an out-spewing of vehemence and dogmatic rage, calls for punishment, etc, etc, in the mainstream media which the majority of the public will dogmatically fall in with, jiggling in their armchairs, brandishing their fists over breakfast, not having learned anything about the questionable morality of their news sources from the only-the-other-week phone-hacking scandal. And unfortunately the Tories look set to highjack the moral/community aspect as a means to nag on about Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ hypocrisy and their backward, traditionalist ‘family’ values.

Another worrying possibility is that right wing factions within the Conservative party, the (quite ridiculous) UKIP, and, more potently, the BNP and EDL, will use this is a platform to pedal their anti-immigration/racist bilge. Though long-running police harassment of Black and Asian youth, and the death of Mr Duggan, have been factors in fuelling the rage on the streets, these cannot possibly be defined as ‘race riots’. Those of all colours have been caught out joining with the mob: it is the mob against the establishment, no race necessary.

Hope or death?

There may be hope. Like I say, we might begin to take more notice of the issues that have broken our communities and brutalised our young, and accept that money has to be spent on social programs to even begin to heal this. Read this excellent article by youth worker Camila Batmanghelidjh, who tells the story from the ground and outlines the issues so much more expertly than I can. Reading about a 22 year-old rapper with a strong grasp of the issues taking his message to both the street and to Downing Street, and watching those young men stand their ground against a fat old bigot and a ragey mother on Newsnight, fills me with pride.

End of Days? Let us dare to place hope in the young…

Every now and then, the BBC still gets something right.

 

Watching Syrian School on BBC 4 again last night, I was thrilled to see the documentary tear through Western stereotypes of Arab culture, especially when it comes to young women. Originally aired in 2010, and therefore filmed before the recent uprisings and turmoil, the series follows pupils in four different schools in the capital, Damascus.

The film makes valid reference to the lack of political freedom and the prevalence of propaganda in education, providing us with a glimpse of the climate before the protests began in January, as well as to the strict Muslim inclinations of some teachers and families. But more overwhelming is the predominance of strong, virulent teenage characters, girls in particular. Though some wear the hijab, many do not, and many that do pair it with Western-style clothing – it is a personal choice. We meet girls who throw discus, girls who play basketball and travel the country with their team, girls who vent at length and with confidence about the politics of their country and the wider world, girls who defy their teachers and parents to write and perform rap music about the Palestinian struggle, girls who write poems about love and read them aloud at competitions while their proud fathers watch on, not to mention the extravagant head of the Zaki Al-Harsuzi girls-only school, Mrs Amal Hassan, clad in knee-length skirts, shoulder-padded jackets, and fantastical make-up.

It made me happy and proud to see young women with their heads screwed on like that, fighting against cultural norms, striving to be top of their game, whatever that may be. And it made me sad to think of teenage girls in this country, afflicted by princess-itis, crushed by conformity, oblivious to the oppressive nature of the inane and superficial pop culture, living and dying by the sword of X-Factor…

Where are you, girls? Say something.

While the ongoing revolt in Syria is clearly justified after many years of political repression, the Ba’athist government was (is) a secular one. I hope that these girls’ freedom of expression can be maintained in whatever regime comes to bear.

*

Watch last night’s episode of Syrian School on BBC iPlayer here (UK only, I’m afraid).

Find more information about the program, its contents, and the Syrian education system here.