The Covid 19 Situation

The Situation

I usually avoid writing about political matters as I feel that discussing such topics often generates more heat that light. However, I think the recent debacle surrounding Boris Johnson’s flagrant breaking of his own government’s rules concerning social gatherings during lock down has brought the more ludicrous aspects of British politics and the pandemic into focus.

The common interpretation of Johnson’s breach of the rules I hear endlessly repeated, namely, that the public were morally right to follow whatever ludicrous rules the government imposes on them so long as the prime minister also follows them also. The prime minister’s dishonesty is clearly worth of rebuke but should not our attention really be focused on the inhuman restrictions lock down imposed on society? Even if the prime minister were following the rules he would be doing so from his mansion Chequers, which is presumably well staffed. Simply put, he is already living a gilded lifestyle. The idea that any sacrifice he makes would have anything more than a purely symbolic value is an illusion.

There is something of the theatrical in this whole situation, Johnson has failed to play the role assigned by society as a person who must follow his own ridiculous edicts. This failure has generated a level of outrage that is beyond the ordinary. Boris Johnson has stepped out of character and revealed that the luxury of being a law maker is not having to follow rules you create. There is also something curiously roman about his rule of the country via edict although apparently supported by “the science”. This said, appealing to Apollo or Zeus a source of authority is far more honest and transparent than using science as a shield.

I have never held public office but I imagine the job of being prime minister must be very stressful, if he wants to let off some steam and have some booze he should be allowed to. Although, his dishonesty is clearly reprehensible it is the rules themselves that are deserving of far greater censure. Can a society be said to be free when it is an item of law under what circumstances I am allowed to leave my house? The discourse around the virus and the constant messaging we are subjected to word “safety” is endlessly repeated, what is ignored in this rhetoric is that the vast majority of adults are not at risk of serious health issues from the virus. Instead of focusing on shielding vulnerable individuals the government instead opted for the dubious strategy of making everyone’s lives equally miserable. It is this logic which is at the heart of socialism: all people must be leveled down to the point where we are all existing in the same reduced state. The government than proceeded to micro managed what people could and could not do on a daily basis: pubs were allowed to open, but had to close after 10pm, you had to wear face mask in restaurants, but not when you are sitting down, face masks were mandatory on planes and trains, but food and drink were still served. Such double think is an intrinsic part of the new regime we must all live under. The government had to be seen to be doing “something” no matter how stupid it is. We must observe the rules even if they are contradictory.

Neil Oliver sums up the situation very eloquently in this speech:

Another feature of this new order is that instead of dividing people by class or by the religion we instead divided by whether our occupation is “essential” and “non-essential”: health workers, public transport employees and other such professions are “essential”. These people were allowed to leave their house more than the prescribed limits. Most other people were not able to enjoy this privileged status.

The virus does not care about our societal notions of “equality”. A great deal of fuss has been made in media about how the pandemic has had an unequal effect on people’s lives, the rich mostly escaping unscathed are able to spend the duration of lock down in relatively luxurious living conditions. Again, there is clearly something wrong with people living in deprivation and poverty (something the government created by making it impossible to for people to work due to the restrictions). However, would it be better if the virus had been more lethal and virulent and killed larger swathes of the population? That would clearly be a more equal distribution of outcomes but it is not better.

The British like to style ourselves as a freedom loving people. After the shockingly high levels of compliance to the government pandemic restrictions I am not so sure we can do so anymore. What people do not remember is that one of ways any evil regimes takes power is not through force alone, but also through the passive compliance of the majority1 . This brings me to another point that is often ignored, that the best defense against the virus is being healthy. However, for a government in love interfering in people’s lives simple advice advocating a healthy lifestyle, loosing weight and getting enough time outdoors was obviously not a going to be popular as these are not interventionist measures. None of legislation brought in during the pandemic was give proper scrutiny. Shouldn’t people who pay for all of the state apparatus have some say over how it is run? We get to vote every four years but beyond this our participation is generally not required. It both farcical and disgusting to have my civil liberties taken away by a service I pay for. Although on this occasion our overlords have deemed that we can have some of our rights back; perhaps on a temporary basis.

Taxation represents year of my life in service of a system that does not even help the people most in need. The homeless were housed temporarily only to be turned out onto the streets again. Much of the money that is taken is lost in layers of bureaucracy or the inflated salary of public servants. Where accountability is lacking, wastefulness grows. The various government measures surrounding the pandemic have in a large part been funded by money printing and debt. Further, there is no clear end in sight to the social ills of inflation, in my grand parent’s day £100 could buy you a house; today it would barely buy a decent pair of headphones. It seems likely that the UK will see hyper inflation at some point if it continues on its current trajectory. However, nobody knows when this will happen so for now The Bank of England is happy to play fiscal chicken, for what can be the harm in devaluing other people’s money? The rule makers themselves are doubtless already insulated from the downside.

Fatigue

My overwhelming feeling as we come out of this crisis is fatigue, fatigue from the gradual erosion of normality and the layers of uncertainty that have been exposed, financially, emotionally, and spiritually. I have been living in the interests of survival for so long that is only now as we lurch out of one crisis into another that I have time to take stock and try and understand what has happened.

The pandemic has also taught me to be more grateful for what is right in front of me. So often we are carried away by future plans that we miss the only thing we will ever have, the present moment. Such talk may sound platitudinous but it is true. The pandemic has also shown me the fragility of things that appear to be stable and permanent. Our hard won liberties are very fragile and can be quickly be evaporated by the powers that be. This has clearly happened in the case of the pandemic in the name of our “safety” whist vast numbers of people die from other illnesses that could have been treated and the NHS not been commandeered to only focus solely on Covid 19.

To return to the discussion of the government, the problem with our current situation is that the state is not treated as a mere means to and end with limited power. Instead it has become an end in itself. It is hard to know when (if ever) the tide will turn towards a more liberal society. It is my hope that I will see the change in my lifetime, if not on these shores then perhaps on a new land yet to be born. I would encourage all of you to weigh up your options.

Crimes Against Jerusalem, The Appropriation and Abuse of Blake’s Poetry

I cannot hear the opening bars of the hymn Jerusalem by Hubert Parry without strong feelings of revulsion. The hymn is of course based on the an extract from the poem Milton by William Blake. In this context it has become a dumb symbol of patriotism and the rallying cry of the establishment. Blake was a radical, he was an early supporter of the french revolution and got in to trouble for a confrontation with a soldier who was trespassing on his property. His relationship with organized religion was not an easy one and he was a vocal critic of the hypocrisies of the church. Although he was a Christian his beliefs were far from orthodox. If Blake were to know what had become of his poem he would surely be horrified. He was certainly not a believer in the kind of dumb patriotism that repurposing of his words has been used to promote. John Higgs sums up the situation perfectly when he writes the following:

“There is now a long tradition of Blake being celebrated by authorities in ways that were, to those who understand his work fantastically inappropriate. When the Labour and Conservative parties sing ‘Jerusalem’ at their party political conferences, they are presumably unfamiliar with the context of those works the preface to the poem Milton. As they heartily bellow the lyric, moved by the stirring music, they seem unaware that they are calling for the revolutionary overthrowing of the ‘ignorant Hirelings’ of ‘the Camp, the Court & the University’. The song is sung by schoolboys in places such as Eton College who seem not to know that they are the uninspired, insipid targets of Blake’s words. Blake is trying to persuade them to to take up mental weapons, such as ‘Arrows of desire’, as well as physical ones, such as the sword that shall not ‘sleep in my hand’, until in order to burn their college down1.”

What patriotic sentiment that is present in the poem and the rest of Blake’s work is a romantic one that appeals to nature and the inherent goodness of mankind. This is a far cry from the unholy alliance of religious and state power that the monarchy in Britain represents.

Blake in a portrait, Thomas Phillips

Let as now turn to the music of the hymn itself: Parry struggles to unite the significance of the music with the words in the final lines of the second verse “Among these dark Satanic mills?”. Blake is using the rhetorical question to point out what he saw as the evils of the industrial revolution and in a stereotypical romantic fashion harking back to a rural idyllic notion of England. In the music of the hymn the vocal melody moves to resolution that does violence to the spirit of the words. This musical mistake is a indication of a wider problem – namely – that Parry does not make contact with the deeper meaning of the poem, he merely engages with it on a surface level. Jerusalem has elements of the patriotic to it but it also questions the possibility of the divine in the person of Jesus ever having visited English shores which is now troubled by “… dark Satanic Mills”. Blake contrasts the old mythological idea of England with the more troubled modern situation. Any sense of unease is erased in the hymn by the triumphalist tone of the music. Further, Parry chooses to use the same melody in each verse (as is conventional to the style of hymns) this subordinates the significance of the words to the melody as they become locked into a generic rhythmic and melodic structure. It turns what is a beautiful poem into a piece of quaint nonsense.

It is a sign of the cultural poverty that so many only know of Blake through the hymn Jerusalem and have no further understanding of his significance as an artist. Although has now attained the dubious status of being culturally acceptable which usual means that a neutered and watered down version of their legacy in enshrined in various “respectable” places such as the national curriculum. Almost all artists desire fame but many would surely be unhappy with the manner in which they become famous. It is my suspicion that Blake would certainly be dissatisfied with his popularity which is focused on a very narrow number of his works and has turned him into a symbol of Englishness, something he would have almost certainly resented.

Is this not the fate of some many great artists to be permanently misunderstood? Romeo and Juliet is usually thought of a celebration of romantic love when it may have in fact been a satire, an exhibition of Edvard Munch’s of art in London was well attended by upper class types, the very people Munch despised and frequently depicted negatively in his work.

Anxiety, Edvard Munch.

Sadly, in the case of Blake’s poem the damage is done. It is my hope that this piece may change some minds but I am not optimistic about the possibility of a cultural reversal. The greats of the past can no longer speak for themselves behind the veil of death they must rely others to help them. To the open mind the spirit of the artist shines through the poem, no amount of lies can ever fully bury the truth.

Triumph and Unease, The Rise of Nerd Culture

One of my few memories I have of primary school was being given a teased because I was reading The Lord of The Rings. At that time all things fantasy and sci-fi were definitely not cool; skateboarding and sports were cool. As a young boy I could never have predicted the great cultural reversal that has taken place in the last decades. Even the meat heads who I practice martial arts with have all watched the Avengers film Endgame and probably all of the proceeding titles to boot. What happened? How has our cultural world been turned upside down? I will do my best to answer this question and through this specific change try to understand how culture has changes in general.

For me it all started fittingly with Peter Jackson’s cinematic adaptations of The Lord of The Rings. What he achieved with these films was to take what is sprawling and inaccessible story, which is full of obscure lore and an unmanageable large cast of characters and render it into something accessible. At the same time retaining the Wagnerian imagery and emotional power that made the books resonate so deeply with so many. The films went on to be wildly successful both commercially and critically. This I believe was the genesis of the new cultural trajectory. For surely somewhere in Hollywood a light bulb must have turned on in the head of many a film executive when they realized that nerds were willing to shell out to see cinematic renderings of beloved classics. Further, that the even those who were not hardcore fans were sucked into the orbit of these pieces by the minority who were obsessive in their devotion the sci-fi and fantasy genre. This has lead in turn to more “mainstream” titles being fully or partially displaced. This logic was proved by the earlier massive success of Star Wars which although is by comparison with Lord of The Rings quite light in terms of the complexity and intellectual challenge is none the less definitely nerdy. Another precursor to the turn in the cultural tide was the explosion in popularity for the Pokemon card game (which despite being an avid collector of the cards I never played), cartoons and films. The key difference between this and the success of the The Lord of The Rings is that Pokemon was always bounded to the younger generation and never shed its childish connotations in a way that it could be adopted by adults without some element of embarrassment, at least this was my experience growing up, now this has to some extent changed which I will discuss later.

By contrast, the success of The Lord of The Rings crossed boundaries of age, as the older generation fondly remembered the books and and the younger gained access to Tolkien’s universe through the films. Of course, there were purists who despised both the literalness that comes with the cinematic rendering of a book and the boiling down of the narrative to its barest essentials. In my experience these were a minority.

Next came the early Spiderman films staring Tobey Maguire, this development was portentous as it paved the way for every comic book no matter how stupid to be turned into a film. Once the flood gates were opened a vast quantity of such films were released, there was simply too much money to be made. This is not to say that the spate of comic book adaptations that came after this were all devoid of artistic merit, many of the Xmen films where decent. However, clearly the majority were motivated as all Hollywood blockbusters are by narrowly commercial concerns.

At the same time in the early 2000s information technology began exerting more and more influence over peoples lives, as a result many in the tech world were becoming exceedingly wealthy. The rise of the nerd in the business world is perhaps connected to the rise of nerd culture. For surely money and power have always been sources of prestige. By attain these things the nerds by proxy legitimatized the cultural expressions of this identity.

This change in our cultural landscape leaves me with a sense of vertigo and unease. the main source of this being that the changes in culture bear eerie parallels with changing generational dynamics. For fantasy and especially the type of fantasy epitomized by the popular Marvel and DC comics is childish. In many comics the motivations of the characters, the emphasis on action and the simplistic the morality are childish (although it must be said much that is considered “adult” could also be guilty of these sins). Have not the lives of millennials become increasingly indicative of a an eternal pseudo adolescence? Fewer and fewer people will have will children many still live with their parents well into their 20s and beyond. What I am not suggesting that the cultural change has caused a change in lifestyle, rather, that the two trends have occurred in parallel and each has reinforced the other. It is the infantalisation of the adult that the rise of nerd culture symbolizes. I say this as someone who is undoubtedly a nerd, I work in IT, not a day goes by when I am not interacting with one form of device or another, the majority of fiction that I have read is of the sci-fi/fantasy genre.

Part of my mistrust must surely stems from the resentment that arises when something that you used to feel was the exclusive property of you and other connoisseurs is now the property of the masses. There is an element of snobbery here which cannot be denied. In my defense, I think some of this feeling are justified. For example, the films of the The Lord of The Rings have largely supplanted the books, the memories I had of the books are supplanted by the styling of the cinematic depiction. The clunkier parts of the books were largely evaporated away from the plot of the films (with the exception of the extended editions) . This boiling down is necessary for the purposes of adaptation but removes much of what was charming from the original story. As tedious as many of the passages in the trilogy were to read they added a sense of depth and eccentricity to the narrative that linked them to strangeness of the ancient myths and legends Tolkien was inspired by. The removal of this elements can make the narrative of the films feel flimsy by comparison. Further, this theme occurs again in again in the adaption of any narrative that originally appeared in book form to film regardless of genre. Whilst the two mediums are not mutually exclusive but I cannot help but feel that in many cases the reduced low fat narrative of the film has supplanted the original. Here I must also add that in some cases this taking liberties with the original plot can lead to improvements, especially if the story being adapted was not very good in the first place.

Is my unease justified? Or a mere exercise in snobbery? One way of answering this questions is to consider the qualities of both the mediums. Is there is an inherent difference between events depicted in film and those of the written word beyond the surface and obvious? One key difference is the way they are experienced by the viewer. In the cinema you are a passive observer of the action rather than an active participant. By contrast, a book requires the reader to engage their mind and imagination with the work. A film through its immersive quality can silence the viewer’s critical faculties in a way that a book simply cannot. This is not to say their cannot be thought provoking films, but that their ability to impose their message on the mind of the viewer is far stronger due to the passive state they induce. In light of this, we can see how a bad film is far worse than a bad book, for a bad book does create as immediate an effect on the mind than the written word. The violence done to the mind by a low quality work is greater. Further, that the simplification of narrative and concept that the film encourages increases the likelihood a film will be bad as consequence of its medium. In so far as this is true my unease is justified. Unease is not the same a condemnation; I do not share Roger Scruton’s wholesale opposition to film as a medium.

Another question that should be asked is what this shift in taste can tell us about mass culture? Does it operate by a sort of logic? Or are its operations blind and purposeless? Earlier, I have argued the former. That the changes in culture has run in parallel with the changes in the world at large. Further, that they can to limited extent influence each other. As this influence can only be observed through the similarities between the two trends it is impossible to say with any precision how accurate this conjecture is and if it is true which of the two trends is the more influential. There is undoubtedly a element of cultural change that is cyclical and presumably the dominance of nerd culture is itself part of one of these larger cycles. Contrastingly, there is an element of cultural change that is undoubtedly random, I can remember when for brief period of time blue suits were all the rage in central London; now they are nowhere to be seen. It is as if they were like freak growth of some plant triggered by unusual conditions; blooming quickly but then disappearing.

However, the rise of nerd culture has by this point had many years of upward trajectory and cannot simply be dismissed as a fad or something that is likely to go away any time soon. As many societies in some respects have become increasingly anti-social might this lead to a counter reaction to a life excessively based in the world of fantasy and by proxy the internet, which in many ways embodies the idea of a fantasy world. It offers types of interaction that is simply impossible face to face or by any other medium. Further, the ability to adopt any number of pseudonyms that Edward Snowden so eloquently describes in his memoir Permanent Record, means that a user can indulge in any number of fictional existences. Surely the dominance of the internet over almost every aspect of modern society must also be symbiotic with the cultural changes under discussion? For the “real” world has increasingly become transformed through the application of internet based tools whether this be shopping, dating, careers or socializing. One consequence of this is that stereotypical interests of the computer programmers behind this change have a cachet to them that previously did not exist. Science fiction seems less ridiculous and overblown when our lives are increasingly dominated by the influence of technology.

To conclude, whatever comes next culturally after this phase (if we are indeed in a transitory state affairs rather than something permanent) is unknowable. However, a reactionary move against the constant presence, for better and for worse, of technology in our lives seems likely. I am skeptical that this could ever reach the level of mass culture as surely the vast majority of people seems to be happy with the convenience and new opportunities technology affords. To buy into some new cultural option they must surely turn against it analogue in the everyday world as well. Until this happens I suspect that any wider change in the cultural landscape is unlikely.