Thursday, 22 October 2009

Honestly, Some Of My Best Friends Are Black

Poor old Nick Griffin eh? Not only has he got that wonky eye, but also everybody hates him. Actually, that’s not true. Quite a lot of people like him. Several million in fact. But that doesn’t stop him being regularly pilloried by every left-wing reactionary who can force their bleating, half-formed opinions into print, not to mention his parliamentary colleagues who seem, in a fit of pique, to have regressed to an infantile state. ‘Eeerrr, I’m not sitting next to him, miss. He smells/is a racist.’

That’s right: a racist. Probably the worst thing in the world it’s possible to be. Now before you vomit all over your Guardian in sheer disgust – don’t panic. I’m not here to defend Mr. Griffin. The man, in all probability, is a monumental bell-end. But is he a racist? Does anyone have any idea what that word means any more? I suspect not, and furthermore I’m going to prove it. Just you watch.

Now I’m not going to quote the dictionary, because that is a risible way to begin any argument, but I think we’d all agree that the definition of racism is something along the lines of: To discriminate against someone purely on grounds of their ethnic background. Now then, consider the following example.

A manager has two candidates applying for a job. One is white and one is black. The manager chooses the white candidate, despite the fact that he is clearly the less qualified of the two. When asked to justify his decision, he replies ‘Black people are lazy.’

You can’t get much more clear-cut racist than that. Or can you? Let’s look back at the definition. This time I have italicized the crucial word, because you, dear reader, are not clever enough to spot it on your own: To discriminate against someone purely on grounds of their ethnic background. In our example, has the manager used the candidate’s race as the sole negative factor in making his choice? Has he ignored the man’s qualifications and skills, and made a decision based on ethnic prejudice? If so, we can justifiably cast him as racist.

His reason for not employing the man was ‘Black people are lazy.’ Now, what was the defining factor that led him to favour the white candidate? Surely it was the laziness. Laziness, it must be admitted, is not a desirable quality in any kind of employment, and any employer would be entitled to look unfavourably on a lazy interview candidate. How did the manager know the candidate would be lazy? Because in his opinion, black people generally are.

It might sound like I’m splitting racist hairs here, but let’s stay with this, because it’s important. The manager did not reject the black candidate simply because he was black. It was because he suspected the candidate would be lazy, and he suspected this because of the candidate’s ethnic background. Can we draw any meaningful separation here? Let’s have a go.

(This is a small interlude to reassure any pea-brains reading that I am not condoning the behavior of my imaginary protagonist – merely using his views to illustrate what I think is a valuable semantic distinction. If you can’t understand that, there’s little point in reading any more.)

So then: is the statement ‘Black people are generally lazy’ a racist one? Well, for a start, it’s a statement regarding fact, that is either true or false (all right, all right, it’s probably false. Get off my back, pea-brains.) It’s quite hard to understand how a factual statement could be racist, unless the fabric of logic and causation is intrinsically racist. Good luck imagining that. Compare the statement ‘I don’t like black people.’ Technically a statement of fact (either you do or you don’t), but also an opinion based purely on race, and therefore, by our definition, racist.

This doesn’t quite work, though. You might argue that, in the real world, there is nobody who dislikes black people simply because they are black. It is because, due to the skin colour, they assume other things about the person’s lifestyle or attitude. Now I could argue that everybody makes judgements based on the appearance of others, many of which are entirely justified, but that would be to take a rather large stride towards Griffinland, so let’s keep it philosophical.

Let’s admit, then, that in the technical sense we’ve been using so far, racism doesn’t actually exist. What we mean when we say someone is racist, is that he assumes certain facts about other people based upon their racial origin. This still sounds bad, and indeed it is. It’s lazy, callous and patronising. But it seems to occupy a lower order of unpleasantness than the entirely illogical racism we’ve been discussing up to now. In this, somewhat more woolly, sense, irrational prejudice is replaced by vague stereotyping, in which race is an ostensible indication of hidden undesirable traits, rather than the basis for discrimination itself.

What conclusions can we draw from this, then? Hopefully some, since this has taken me, like, an hour to write. How about this: racism is not about discrimination so much as it is about assumption. It is not entirely illogical, even if it might be entirely objectionable. And philosophically speaking , it is not so much an outright category error as it is a cognitive methodology sitting somewhere on the sliding scale from the rational to the irrational.

That doesn’t make it sound too bad, does it? Honestly, though, some of my best friends are black.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Imaginary Assailants

I imagine that everybody reading does, at some point, conduct bile-filled arguments with imaginary opponents that leave them drained and angry and needing to calm down with a nice bowl of green vegetables. Of course they do. That's only human nature. I myself was subject to such an experience only the other day. It occurred when I chanced upon a snippet of conversation on a phone-in chat show. It went like this:

Phone-in Lady: Well, everyone knows that Islam is dangerous.
Host: Wouldn't you also say that sweeping generalisations are dangerous?

And that was it. That was all I heard. But it was enough. More than enough. Within a second I had placed myself in the position of the Phone-In Lady. No doubt the original Phone-In Lady had some specious retort that would do nothing to further her cause. I was there to save the day. Now (in my angry head) the debate went thus:

Moronic Host: Wouldn't you also say that sweeping generalisations are dangerous?
Phone-in Lady [Me]: In what sense is that a generalisation? If anything, I'm being specific. I'm not saying that all Muslims are dangerous. I'm saying that Islam is a dangerous doctrine. In a similar way that not all paedophiles are dangerous, but paedophilia is something that should be generally condemned.

And, you might think, that would be that. I had trounced the feeble-minded host, and could now relax in a small but well-appointed bubble of contentment. But no! My foe was suprisingly resilient. This was his retort:

Totally Imaginary Host: So you're saying that Islam is the same thing as paedophilia?

I know! You can imagine my incandescence. It was at this point that I grabbed my imaginary axe and went on a killing spree through the corridors of my subconscious, jamming my blade into the skulls of all who lived therein. Although the host of this chat-show did indeed get horribly (and justifiably) murdered, the rampage also, regrettably, involved the slaying of several imaginary childhood friends. Such is life.

I probably sound a bit mental now. Let me bring things back to reality. You see, although Totally Imaginary Host didn't actually say those things, there are people out there, actually out in the real world, living and breathing and occasionally grunting sounds to express whatever passes for their stunted emotions, who WOULD say things like that. I've heard them, so I should know. People who literally cannot understand the form of an argument. Here's another example, this time taken, more or less, from real life:

Me: In a sense, democracy is everybody saying 'I know best.'
Opponent: Are you saying that everybody should be selfish? Because I'm not.

That is, almost verbatim, a conversation that happened at work yesterday. Now say what you like about my initial gambit - in retrospect it does sound a bit wanky. And if the retort had been, 'That sounds a bit wanky,' then I would have bowed my head in shame and felt thoroughly humbled. But no. That isn't what happened. Look what DID happen. My opponent in this debate obviously heard some words that he recognised: I. KNOW. BEST. And, no doubt with an internal spasm of glee, reeled off a sentence that contained a word that condensed those three words into a single one. How succinct! How apropos! How utterly irrelevant!

I could go on and on about this, but I won't because I have to go and make some dinner. However, there's every chance that another imaginary assailant will launch himself into the arena of my consciousness any time soon. I may well be back.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

The Black Album

Have you ever seen anything so bad that it makes you genuinely angry? Not like a blind puppy being kicked down some stairs. In the right context that can be quite funny. But in an artistic sense. Some execrable dollop of irredeemable hatefulness, paraded before you by a troupe of talentless no-hopers who luxuriate in the unshakeable belief that they are doing anything other than securing themselves starring roles in your most demented, blood-soaked fantasies. Have you? Have you ever seen anything like that?

I have. It was a play at the National Theatre (the National bloody Theatre) called The Black Album. I saw this on Tuesday - two days ago - which is how long it's taken for me to condense the swirling, coal-black fog of derision into anything resembling a coherent critique. I hate this play. I hate it more than I hate the people singing in Trafalgar Square in the O2 advert, which is a lot. And I only dredge up its foul memory a final time, in order to write this review as a public service. If can save at least one person from going through the ordeal that I experienced, I will consider my job done.

So: The Black Album. Adapted from his own novel by Hanif Kureishi (which, by all accounts, is a fairly decent read) it follows the (boring) exploits of a young Muslim named Shahid, who travels to London and gets caught up in the conflict between liberal Western permissiveness and nutjob Islamic fundamentalism. Of course, this cultural schism is merely the background tableau, upon which the playwright cleverly constructs a complex interwoven narrative of interesting characters and sparkling dialogue. You'd hope. In fact, Shahid shambles around the stage, bumping into other 'characters' and exchanging pointless and torpid opinions, some of which lead him to become 'angry' (shout) but mostly allow him to remain on 'normal' (speak in monotone dirge.) There is a story of a sort, involving an affair with a tutor or some such, but there really is no point in my recounting it here. You wouldn't be interested. I wasn't interested, and I was there. In fact, I was so not interested that towards the end of the first half I began to forget that it was a play, and the experience was reduced to a dim awareness that there were people-shaped blobs moving around in front of me making noises.

It's difficult, really, when faced with something so across-the-board awful, to pinpoint the main culprits. Would the writing not seem so dire if it had been delivered better? Would a sharper script have given the actors something more substantial to work with? As far as I can remember, the only line that got a smattering of titters was 'we don't turn the other buttock', which turned out not, to my surprise, to have been lifted from the script of the far superior Short Circuit. But even this half-decent (I'm being polite here) gag fell still-born from the actor's mouth and lay shuddering its last on the stage floor. The audience giggled nervously, but solemn apathy soon regained hold. Add to this the clumsy, amateurish stage direction, the lack of any pace or rhythm, and the general stodginess of the whole performance, and you are left with a big blob of pulsating shoddiness that any sane person would immediately lock in the cupboard under the stairs and forget about for the rest of their lives.

If it's at all possible to be both incredibly angry and incredibly bored at the same time, then that's what I was during this production. Had it been some improvisational skit by first-year drama students, it would still have been rubbish, but forgivably so. But for someone to have the sheer gall to present it at an internationally-renowned theatre and charge people money t0 watch it, well, whoever that person is, he should probably start syphoning off some of that gall and donating it to family and friends. He clearly has too much.

I needn't really tell you, at this point, not to go and see this play, but I'm going to anyway, because it's just possible you thought I was joking up till now: Do not go and see this play. I cannot stress this enough. You will hate it, and if you don't, then you're not the sort of person who should be allowed to go to the theatre. Effortlessly, it has taken up pride of place as the worst play I have ever seen (ousting with ease Nigel Planer's abysmal On The Ceiling) and I can't see it relinquishing this spot any time soon.

Oh, and to Jane, who very kindly took me to the theatre, and paid for the tickets: If you're reading this, sorry. But I expect you hated it too, didn't you?

Monday, 10 August 2009

Literary Smart-Arsery

Just a modest, literary oddity that I knocked together at work today. Enjoy...

Every story, so they say, should have a beginning, a middle and an end. Well, not this one. No, sir! Why, the very prospect of being bound in such a prescriptive strait-jacket is, and should be, anathema to the creative artist. I refuse to be shackled in the stocks of literary dogma, to suffer the bombardment of stylistic presumption, hurled from the prosaic hand of the cosseted mediocrity. This story shall have no beginning. It shall be bereft of middle. It shall most certainly be wanting for conclusion. Only in this manner may a true visionary, such as myself, achieve the rarefied echelons of artistic endeavour that the gutter-dwelling journeymen might dream of, if only they were able.

And do not make the mistake, humble reader, of thinking that already I have stumbled unwittingly into a swamp of contradiction, for it is not so. My intellectual rigour remains steadfast. But have I not, the dry-lipped pedant might smugly point out, already denied my tale a beginning, while at the same time submitting one in the form of the previous paragraph? Ah, my dear fool. That was scarcely a beginning. It was merely a prelude, or an preamble. It was a foreword, or a preface. Or at the most some species of introduction. A beginning it was not.

Semantic quibbling, our bureaucratic friend might smirk, and even if he has a point, which he does not, it is academic in any event, since I have already decided to erase the previous two paragraphs before final draft. This radical manoeuvre will ensure that this work remains, as it was always intended to be, a cocked snook in the face of the emotionally moribund establishment. I maintain that this work shall not have a beginning, and am prepared to adopt such vicious self-censure in order to stay true to this guiding principle. And if my tireless critic musters the energy to look up from his soulless ledger one more time, and points out that the erasure of the previous writings does nothing more than to promote the current paragraph to the status of beginning, then I shall look him firmly in the eye, and inform him solemnly that even if this tale does have a beginning, as he so tiresomely insists, then this only redoubles my conviction that it shall definitely not have a middle or, Heaven forbid, an end.

With some dismay I see that, in my desire to quell the trivial objections of my detractors, I have let this tale meander rather further than I should have liked. While you will gladly admit that such precautions are laudable and entirely necessary to facilitate the maximum appreciation of my work, it is with a heavy heart that I once again hear the reedy voice of my adversary. I see his long, pale finger crooked in objection, and his face spitefully gleeful in the candlelight. But I am not done with yet. I know what he is going to say. He is under the impression that we have already, unwittingly, reached the middle of the story, and once again I must address him.

You may well find, should you take the trouble to scan to this end of this piece, that we do indeed appear to be at a mid-point, or meridian, insofar as there is as much text already gone than there is left to go. But oh, weary cynic, does this define our current position as being, if we must use a dullard’s phraseology, ‘in the middle’? What, after all, is a ‘middle’? I notice our nimble-fingered correspondent reaching for his dictionary, doubtless as a precursor to the mutterance of some stultifying ‘definition’. Perhaps: Middle – the part right after the beginning. If we are too give any credence whatsoever to such joyless literalism we may as well rip up our notepads, burn our libraries, and cast our literary aspirations upon the heavy pyre of industrial monotony. Are we to let the clerks and book-keepers dictate our creative trajectories? Need every sparkling fibre and strand of our imaginations be tallied and totalled by some insect-like civil servant?

If a definition we must use, then I would infinitely prefer something a little more suitable for our needs. Perhaps: Middle – the part right before the ending. And now we see we are no longer in difficulty. An imperious twirl of the artist’s wand, and grumbling logic vanishes as if it were no more than old smoke. Since this story has no ending (and positively will never have one), there can be nothing to precede it. Therefore, only a fool – and here I risk at glance at our beetle-brained critic – would suggest that our current position could ever be described as a ‘middle’. No sir, we are cast adrift, free in the sea of narrative, naked against the elements but all the more exhilarated for it. It is a sea that stretches forever. It has no beginning and no middle and no end, and the whoops of those who find themselves tossed wildly on its choppy waters are the cries of men who are free at long last from the tyranny of tradition. It is a wonderful place, a liquid desert of peace and hope and liberty. An endless oasis of wonder. A paradise.

But wait! Humble reader, do you sense as I do that we are not entirely out of the woods yet? Do you feel the presence of the pedant, as like that of the trapdoor spider, waiting with endless malevolence, somewhere in the darkness? I fear that, despite the heights we have reached, this ink-penned predator will make one last attempt to drag us back down. There is only one thing for it. It is time to bid our farewells before he has a chance to strike. And I should like to thank you, the unquestioning, for accompanying me on this journey. For allowing me to lead you to places that you may not have known existed. If it has been your honour, then so also has it been mine.

And now, hasten, before it is too late! Already I feel the cold jaws of rationality grinding around us. Once again, farewell! I shall face my foe alone, and no matter what spurious mendacity spills from his lips, I shall know the truth. This isn’t over. It can never be over. Just as there was no middle, there will be no end. Not here. Not now. Not then. Not then. Oh Lord, give thy subject strength…

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Unbearable Snobbery

I was sitting in the grounds of Southwark Cathedral yesterday, reading a book about quantum physics. No, really I was. It was this book:


Now this post isn't actually about the book, but I feel I should mention it, as it is very excellent, and I heartily recommend it to anyone who is not an idiot. Which brings me to what this post is about: idiots. For as I sat on my park bench, with my lofty reading material, imagining that I was wearing a tweed jacket and some steel-rimmed spectacles, half-hoping that an elderly academic would come and sit beside me, perhaps with his sandwiches wrapped in brown paper, and spark up a conversation about the nature of reality, I became aware of another presence. Another soul, another sharer of my universe. I glanced up from my book.

It was, I discovered with some dismay, a pissed man. Now nothing necessarily wrong with that. It was after midday, so that's allowed. He did seem very pissed though, and I conjectured that the post-meridial nature of his inebriation was purely co-incidental. He was shouting things, too, in a strange, guttural howl, an aural melee from which occasional, comprehensible words and phrases emerged. At first I thought these ramblings were directed at the world in general, but then I noticed the headphone wires trailing from beneath his grubby baseball cap, and realised that he was on the phone. There was somebody on the other end of this. This wasn't just the drunken outpourings of a mentaller. This was a conversation.

Try as I might to return my attention to the finer points of the photoelectric effect (and the necessity of introducing quanta to explain the rate of electron dispersal), there was no getting away from the bestial hollerings of my fellow park-goer. So I had a listen. And it turned out, despite the volume of the exchange, the conversation was surprisingly banal. It was someone's birthday next week. He was meeting Tony later. Do you know where my mum is? Yeah, I'm in the park. No. What? Oh. Right.

There were quite a lot of 'fuck's in there too, which I have edited out in deference to my more sensitive readers (there might have been the odd 'cunt' as well), but on the whole it was just general chit-chat. And this, somehow, made it worse. It made the creature stumbling around in front of me even more pitiful. At least, I thought, at least have the decency, if you're going to get all pissed up and go to the park, to entertain the crowds with a paranoid, delusional, drunken monologue. Rail at the heavens, claw imaginary demons out of your hair, give stentorious voice to those half-formed, ineffable thoughts that hover so tantalisingly on the fringes of your subconscious. Intellectually vacuous it may be, but at least it's visceral. Nobody cares if you're meeting Tony later. We don't even know who Tony is.

Now I don't expect everybody in the world to be a model of erudition and wit. For heaven's sake, even I hadn't twigged that the photoelectric effect intrinsically necessitates the quantum division of electromagnetic energy until I read that book. So you can't accuse me of getting on some elitist high horse. We are all of us, to some degree, fools. But mostly fools that contain some basic elements of humanity. Something that makes us 'worthwhile'. And if you think I'm bending over backwards to include the manic tooth-gnashings of an alcoholic tramp in this, you couldn't be more wrong. I'm not even bending over forwards. I am remaining erect. Because however deluded or downright insane someone might be, a glimmer of awareness is all it takes. A glimpse of the appreciation of the privilege it is to be human. Then, to some small extent, you have justified your existence.

So the sad conclusion must be that my brief companion in the grounds of Southwark Cathedral is worse than foolish. Worse than alcoholic, deranged, morally corrupt, idiotic, tedious, violent, socially inept. Worse than all those things. He is worthless. And, without wanting to jump to conclusions, I expect Tony is too.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Burgers in Paradise

Picture the scene: a sparkling, crystal sea of sprawling azure, stretching off towards the horizon, where it joins a sky of perfect blue. A beach of white sand, curling languorously along the coast line, studded with palm trees that sway loftily in the light, refreshing breeze. Birds swoop and whistle overhead. The sun scatters motes of dazzling, diamond light from the gentle surf. With tears of wonder in your eyes you turn you head, and oh, look, there's a fat, sunburnt man in Speedos gnawing on a burger and glaring out at this island paradise with derision and contempt. He's got a Sheffield Wednesday tattoo on his right calf. You wish he was dead.

Ever been to Tenerife? I have, last weekend. And that's what it was like.

Now I'm not one to be snobby just for the sake of it. I don't advocate the culling of all those without a Mozart cello concerto in their CD collection. But after five minutes of appalled wonder in the midst of the average Tenerife-goers, I can honestly say that every single one of them is a worthless, hateful animal. Again, picture the scene: clots of pale, red-streaked flesh, choking the entrances to dingy, plastic bars. Kebabs sit half-chewed on Formica-topped tables. Ugly, loud voices spew from the chaos, and faces appear, grimacing and leering and with eyes, squinting in the sun but filled with mindless apathy, darting this way and that, in search of something new to scorn. Horrified, you turn away, away to the dazzling beach. It's got a McDonald's on it. A leathery middle-aged couple sit on a cheap towel slathering sun-lotion on their desiccated bodies, each wearing an identical expression of muted dissatisfaction. Somebody is reading the Daily Mail. A seagull pecks forlornly at a chicken nugget. This time you almost wish you were dead.

But it's just like England but with sunshine, innit? And this is not as crass a notion as it might first appear. After all, I quite like England. I'm glad I live here. And fair point - it would be nice if it was a bit sunnier. But what these dead-eyed drones fail to understand is that upending a Wetherspoon's onto a tropical beach does not automatically transplant an entire culture. England is England. Tenerife is Tenerife. And as they mutely squat over their fried breakfasts, trying with exasperated fury to force a square peg into a round hole, it never occurs to them that it just doesn't fit. This isn't, and never will be, anything at all like their home.

It's all so desperate. Somebody should do something about it. And maybe they will. One more time, picture the scene: you cast your eyes upwards, above the gaudy shopfronts and bellowing proles, beyond the swathes of watered-down pints of lager and the fag-ends. There, out in the distance, shrouded in a light mist, sit the mountains. Towering silently, unnoticed, above the melee, these ancient, high-shouldered denizens of the island look down sadly upon their land. They were here before all this began. In the primeval, cataclysmic birth of Tenerife, when volcanic eruptions ripped apart the earth and flung up the staggering, jutting, impossible landscape, they claimed their place as its guardians. They know that this is not what was meant.

It can only be a matter of time before the island reclaims its borders. The brooding power of nature fills the air like a low, solemn, endless note, too low for the shrieking savages to hear. One day the forefathers will take matters into their own hands. In the meantime, you can be sure, slowly and surely they will draw their plans against us.

Friday, 22 May 2009

Dreams of my Father

You know how only inexcusable bores tell you what happened in their dreams? How it only takes around one microgram of self-awareness to realise that nobody else gives a monkey's about the tiresome machinations of your sub-conscious? How the merest implication that, because your dream featured something wacky like, I don't know, a marzipan swan or something, you somehow have a unique and bizarre mind, is enough to justify your immediate and brutal murder? Yeah, well, I had a dream the other night, and I'm going to tell you about it. How do you like them apples?

In my dream, I was having a blazing row with my dad, because he had asserted that there is only one sort of dance. I mean, honestly! One kind of dance! You can imagine my frustration. I was all, like, 'Yeah, Dad, so I suppose that ballroom dancing and break-dancing are just the same, yeah?' But he was having none of it. He was adamant. Over and over he insisted: 'There is only one sort of dance.' Well, as you know, you can argue with your dream-dad until you're blue in the face, but once he has it in his head that there's only one sort of dance, there's very little you can do to dissuade him of the fact.

And as I swum up out of sleep, the fury was still there, rattling around inside my skull like an angry wasp. I wanted to phone my dad up there and then and finish the argument once and for all, until I realised that it's not my actual dad who thinks there's only one sort of dance. He freely acknowledges the wide panoply of dancing styles. It's my dream-dad. And he's gone now, probably forever. The argument will never be settled. He's out there, somewhere, still thinking that there is only one sort of dance, and nobody will ever be able to put him straight.

Frustrating, as I'm sure you'll appreciate. I can always hope that I might bump into dream-dad in another dream, on another night, but you know what dreams are like. The new dream-dad will probably have no recollection of the argument, and when I say, 'You know when you said there was only one sort of dance...?' he will stare blankly at me as though I am an idiot. I hate that.

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking that there must be some Freudian interpretation of all this, that probably boils down to some sort of intimacy issue. Well, perhaps you have a point. Well done. Perhaps when my dream-dad says 'there's only one sort of dance', he actually means 'I hate you and I wish we'd had you adopted'. It's difficult to say with dreams.

So yeah, that's my dream story. I hope you enjoyed it. In my next post, I'll tell you all about another dream I had this week. It had a marzipan swan in it. I'm mad, me.