Sunday, 3 March 2013

Notes on America

What exactly is the American dream? For Thomas Jefferson writing his ‘Notes on Virginia’ in the eighteenth century the answer was clear. The new United States would be an agrarian democracy of self-sufficient farmers whose honest toil would generate the necessary values for personal and political independence. America would be parcelled out into small holdings worked by virtuous yeoman, tilling their fields by day and thumbing through the works of Homer and Virgil at night. A worthy vision no doubt but – having been in this country now for a couple of years now – I can’t help feeling this is some way removed from what we ended up with.

In the present century the American dream consists of driving one’s gas guzzling SUV up to an enormous windowless concrete box and wandering zombie-like through its corridors in search of cheap plastic goods manufactured by Asian serfs. Evenings are then spent, not in the study of Classical texts as Jefferson would have had it, but in the watching of such shows as ‘Jersey Shore’ and ‘The Housewives of Orange County’; a carnival of decadence, promiscuity and gratuitous violence.

These have the effect of numbing the populace and making them more susceptible to a torrent of advertising messages. In Hitler’s Germany techniques of mass media marketing were used to make the population believe they should engage in an apocalyptic race war and seek an Aryan promised land on the Russian steppe. The genius of America is to use the same apparatus to instil a set of benign messages into the minds of its people. These include, that one should buy car insurance from a Gekko with a British accent; that one should use a hotline to call some chap called ‘psychic shaun’, a young and eclectic ‘animal empath’ who will be able to tell me the innermost desires of my neighbour’s dog (to rip my ankle to a bloody pulp I would say given our last encounter);  that one should harass one’s doctor into prescribing some kind of wonder drug (with an array of nasty after effects such as vomiting, rectal bleeding and death); or – most bizarrely – purchase an ‘IRenew energy balancing bracelet’ an item - as far as I can make out – that doesn’t do a damn thing.
Some weeks ago I had the misfortune to tune into the U.S edition of Celebrity Wife Swap. This particular episode featured Gary Busy; whom you may remember as the star of such classics as ‘Lethal Weapon’, ‘Under Siege’ and the anti-Semitic Turkish blockbuster ‘Valley of the Wolves: Iraq’ (in which he played a Jewish doctor who harvests fresh organs from injured Iraqi prisoners for his paymasters in Tel Aviv).

During the show Busey and his wife Stefanie claimed to have discovered via hypnosis that they had lived a total of 31 past lives together and that they are currently on their 32nd. These included a previous existence as a Native American, a fighter at the Alamo and a witch burned at the stake. Most bizarrely of all Busey and his wife claimed that they had had a child together in one of them – the Roman emperor Constantine. If this is true it would explain why he was crazed enough to have his wife cooked to death in a super-heated bath chamber.
What’s the problem with the idea of past lives? Perhaps my scepticism lies in the fact that all of those related seem to have been exciting and eventful. The fact is that the vast majority of the 108bn human beings that have ever existed had decidedly unglamorous lives as subsistence farmers. Perhaps someday a past lifer will recall an existence in which they spent their days smearing their own excrement onto a rice paddy before dying a slow and painful death from smallpox but I doubt it.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Efficiency Savings

And so, a new decade has dawned and yet, in contrast to the previous ten years of excess, squander, and living beyond ones means, the spirit of this age has turned out to be ‘thrift’, ‘cost cutting’ and ‘austerity’. To it’s credit the government has turned to the people for ideas on how the bloated deficits of the world’s nations can be slashed, their departments downsized and the over-privileged fat cats of the public sector quangos pulled back from the trough and sent to the slaughterhouse.

In keeping with this zeitgeist I have been thumbing through my books in search of inspiration. Take this example from one of my father’s tomes entitled ‘The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Islam’ by Yahiya Emerick. Next to a technical diagram showing the major postures of the Islamic prayer is a text box called ‘Ask the Iman’. It reads:

‘When a person or group begins to pray, any angels who are nearby come and join in the prayer. The angels then report back to God and tell him what His servants are doing, though he already knows.

Now this strikes me as a prime example of an unnecessary and frankly gratuitous extra level of bureaucracy. Why Allah the almighty – an omniscient being, let us remember – needs a vast department of cosmic civil servants running around spying on his creations is anyone’s guess; especially when He can read their minds whenever he feels like it. What we see here is state spending out of control; creating unsustainable government jobs merely for the sake of it. Axeing whole of this lower tier of angels would be a considerable efficiency saving and achieve at least a 40% spending cut.

Matters get worse when we refer to the pit of hellfire; probably the worst run subterranean organisation outside of London Underground.

Nineteen angels patrol the summit, their sole role being to push the damned back in when they try to crawl out; a simple electric fence and a coating of Vaseline around the sides of the pit would do the job just as well without having to shell out market rate for 19 jailor’s salaries and their inventory of ‘smiting’ equipment. Furthermore there is no need for seven separate levels of hell fire, particularly when the last of these has to be heated up to 70 times hotter than fire on this planet. A single incinerator with inmates housed at different levels would be much more efficient without sacrificing on the unpleasantness of the overall inmate experience. Here too there is room for some consolidation, for example there is no need for the haughty and the mighty to be subject to different levels of temperature when the facilities can be centralised and standardised.

Nor do there really need to be separate forms of punishments for the damned. According to the book, faultfinders have to ‘scratch their faces with iron nails’, liars have to ‘rip out their cheeks with iron bars’ and greedy ‘will be bitten by snakes’. Instead it would be far cheaper to issue the whole lot with copies of now redundant New Labour papers on ‘Best Practice Strategies in Public Sector Management’ and ‘Controlling Wellbeing in the Work Force’ and have them read passages aloud to one other.

These cuts will be painful on the celestial workforce. Some of them might even join Shaytan and his devils. But it will be a price worth paying for a leaner, more sustainable organisation which will serve as an example to mankind.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Genealogy and Sexual Misdemeanor

The real problem with Darwin’s theory of evolution is that it makes the entire pursuit of genealogy a total laughing stock. As a case in point, somewhere on the wall in my childhood home there hangs a framed certificate. It displays the face of William the Ist of England, a man who –in one of the more audacious pieces of rebranding known to history – began his life with the nickname ‘the bastard’ and ended it as ‘the conqueror’. Underneath his portrait is emblazoned text which proudly proclaims that – according to the findings of the William the Conqueror Society - the Clarke family are related by blood to the man himself, and can presumably bask in all the vicarious glory this entails. Although, in my experience, this rarely impresses anyone down the pub; not least because -thanks to our moribund education system - most of the population have either never heard of him or think he fights for the World Wrestling Federation.

Similarly, the Clarkes are also connected – through a series of poorly documented and implausible ‘begats’ - to the mysterious Kings of Donegal. These fellows apparently took their genealogy very seriously indeed, even going to the lengths of tracing themselves back to Noah. This they achieved by the time honoured and scientific technique of locking the best scholars they could lay their hands on in a room and threatening to execute them if they couldn’t deliver the goods. Sadly you can no longer use this technique on IT departments.

Of course, none of this matters a jot. Thanks to the aforementioned theory of evolution and the discovery of common descent I am now related – not just to William the Conqueror, the Donegal glitterati and the apocryphal Noah – but also to dung beetles, mosquitoes, skunks, tapeworms and genital herpes. In fact I could probably produce a plausible genealogy certificate for every ‘slimy thing’ that crawls ‘with legs upon the slimy sea’. Hopefully the whole ghastly business can be suppressed.

In the past few weeks I have been greatly entertained by the number of marital infidelities that have come to light in the media. These were gleefully documented and regaled to me by my better half as she trawled the ‘Perez Hilton’ blog site. Perhaps in amongst all that celebrity coaching and counselling, Tiger Woods, Ashley Cole and John Terry should have been exposed to the teachings of Sextus the Pythagorean. This –ironically named - 3rd century Stoic advised that those who found it difficult to practice celibacy should castrate themselves, extolling them to 'cast away every part of the body that misleads you to a lack of self control, since it is better for you to live without the part in self control than to live with it to your peril'.

One can take this attitude too far though. At around the same time Sextus was delivering this advice, Arnobius remarked that it blasphemous to believe that Jesus was 'born of vile coitus and came into the light as a result of the spewing forth of senseless semen, as a product of obscene groping’ and extended this to refer to all intercourse as ‘filthy and degrading’. Following this general attitude the Patristic figure Tertullian decided to publicly renounce sexual relations to his wife and composed a lengthy treatise to her, explaining his reasons for doing so and admonishing her to suspend her lustful desires and lead a celibate life. Her reaction sadly has not been recorded for posterity. I can pretty much guarantee that if I tried this with my wife I could expect a harshly worded treatise in reply admonishing me to suspend my abject silliness and take the rubbish out. Quite right too.

Monday, 12 October 2009

An Afternoon at the Tate

It was in the post-war section of the gallery that you could really sense the nihilism beginning to creep into Western Culture. A series of hastily drawn sketches from the 1920s depicted several naked men, all of whom appeared to have severed their penis in a fit of existential anguish. ‘What the hell is it for?’ they seemed to be saying as their severed member sat forlornly on the couch beside them. I had enjoyed Claude Monet’s ‘Waterlillies’ in the previous room, but for me this rather spoiled my visit to the Tate Modern. St Augustine writing in the 5th century had said that his own genitalia were ‘shameful parts’ that had to be covered ‘because they excite themselves just as they like, in opposition to the mind which is their master’; but even he never went so far as to cut them off.

Deciding to remove myself from this sorry scene, I saw that other patrons were meandering through a separate doorway towards another exhibit. Having followed them I peered through the darkness within and started in horror. The room was pitch black save for a series of white screens. Upon these were projected the moving image of a man who was predictably naked, save for an animal mask. Having dressed in this peculiar manner he appeared to be leaping into the air at regular intervals while fondling himself with a paint brush. Perhaps feeling that this wasn’t disturbing enough, he had decided to augment his performance with wild cries and animal grunts.

I looked down in curiosity down to see what this ‘piece’ was titled. The sign simply read ‘room with projectors’. It seemed a bit of an understatement; a bit like describing Ingres’s ‘Turkish Bath’ – a seething mass of voluptuous naked women - as ‘Room with enormous red carpet’.

Worse was to follow. The sole exhibit in the enormous downstairs area was a bizarre scene in which a giant spider had evidently chained a selection of second hand books to metal bunk beds. No explanation was given for why the arachnid had chosen to do this. Had he felt peckish and concocted an elaborate scheme to tempt bookish types into his lair?. Had he simply felt lonely and decided to throw a literary slumber party for all who would accept the invitation?. Why was the spider watching footage of yet another naked man scrambling frantically over a rocky landscape?. No answers seemed forthcoming. Perhaps this was meant to solicit an ‘individual response’ from the spectators but the best I could summon were four letter words.

It was here that I began to long for the delights of a bucolic classical landscape. No doubt these things find themselves out of favour these days because they are not ‘avant guarde’ or ‘autobiographical’ enough. Perhaps the sight of a band of rosy cheeked cherubs playfully attempting to steal wolf cubs from their mother will tell you less about the human condition than a scene of genital hari kiri, but at least I could go to see them in an Art Gallery without feeling mentally disturbed.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

The Prospect of Castration

As I sat back contentedly in my armchair, sipping a cup of herbal tea and gazing lethargically over at the bookshelf, I began to ponder how best to engineer the deaths of thirty million of my fellow citizens. This train of thought was prompted by a recent article in the Times by Jonathon Porritt of ‘The Optimum Population Trust’, which argues that the UK population must be drastically cut from 60 million to 30 million in order to save the planet. The minor detail of how to actually halve our population, he appears to have left up for discussion. These kind of scurrilous suggestions appear to be all the rage these days.

It appears to be in the nature of the intelligencia to demand the suspension of reproductive freedom. Back in the early decades of the twentieth century at the dawn of the Eugenics movement, we were told by doctors, psychiatrists, scientists and pundits that society was undergoing a biological disintegration. The ‘weak’, ‘the unfit’ - ’idiots’, ‘degenerates’ and ‘cretins’ – would all have to be ruthlessly sterilised in order to usher in a bright and prosperous tomorrow. Now we are told, by the usual line up of environmentalists, scientists and pundits, that humanity is mother earth’s equivalent of herpes and we must endeavour not to reproduce in order to save the planet. Now instead of the ‘weak’ and the ‘degenerate’, it is the ‘polluters’, ‘the carbon producers’ and the ‘environmentally illiterate’ which must be expunged from the gene pool. This seems a little naive. As I recall from Patricia Churchland, the priorities of human beings consist of ‘the four f’s’; feeding, fighting, fleeing and heading upstairs for a bit of ‘how’s your father?’. The last of these pre-occupations inevitably results in production of offspring. A straightforward prohibition on breeding will skew the evolutionary balance in favour of those too stupid to use contraceptives; even more than it already is. This being the case, I fear the worst for our sex organs in the coming century. In fact it may be that new labour will go so far down the Green route that they pass legislation to turn us all into eunuchs. I doubt this will achieve anything; although at least we will be able to usher in the coming apocalypse with a rather charming soprano accompaniment.

A more equitable alternative method of halving the population, I feel, would be to do the following. A ministry for population reduction would be assigned to divide up the country into pairs. This would be arranged by things like age, personal income and athletic ability. At the appointed time, letters would be sent to each pair telling them to hunt down and kill each other within a certain period, perhaps including some handy information like a polaroid photo, their address, personal weaknesses and favourite pub. The member of the pair that kills the other one first wins and thus, 60 million becomes 30 million with a minimum of administration cost. This doesn’t seem to me like too bad an idea; in fact for all I know the eco lobby in the government has enacted it already. Perhaps the letter was slipped in with my Council tax bill?.

The end of the world is beginning to sound more and more like the first draft of ‘The Book of Revelation’; the one that John of Patmos decided to tear up because it ‘sounded a bit over the top’. ‘Look at this’ exclaimed my CEO as he proudly presented me with a colour coded map of the coming disaster. The once mighty east coast of the United States was reduced to a smear of purple death. The white cliffs of Dover, a mere bump at the bottom of the expanded English channel. ‘This is great!, I’m going to buy land in Canada’ my boss exclaimed, before disappearing into his office to examine a satellite view of the Yukon; presently a rather monotonous stretch of tunda but soon to be a pastoral Eden. I began to contemplate my options and eventually decided to ‘think strategically’ and buy a plot on the moon. Future generations of ‘moonlings’ will hopefully praise me for my foresight, gaze in reverence at my lunar constitution and sing my hastily composed anthem. Either that or I just paid good money for a phoney deed and a rather silly T-shirt.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Civil Liberties and Moral Turpitude

'Give me Liberty, or give me Death!' roared the Virginian politician Patrick Henry on the eve of the American Revolution, conveniently forgetting for a moment the slaves he had chained up at home. In more recent times there has been much talk aboard about what many consider to be the imminent loss of our civil liberties. After much reflection I have come to the conclusion I don’t deserve any civil liberties. A single example will serve to illustrate. On a recent excursion to Sainsbury’s I arrived at the till and paid for a stack of groceries. Before doing this I was informed by the checkout girl that I had points on my supermarket loyalty card and ‘would be able to get money off’ if I cashed them in. It was with horror I realised that all the while I had not even suspected that this plastic card gave me any benefits whatsoever; I had simply been swiping it, drone-like, day in day out thinking it was ‘just what I was supposed to do’, thereby allowing the nefarious Sainsbury’s corporate machine to track my every movement and pass a record of my purchases back to their database for sinister purposes. By mere power of suggestion they had been able to manipulate me and secure my unquestioning loyalty.

This is the way liberty dies, step by feeble step; Tesco’s club card to ID cards, TV licensing to CCTV. When ‘Google Street View’ do their next sweep, I may as well invite them in to photograph all the rooms in my flat, steal all my personal data and ransack my hard drive for pornography.

The advantage of Google Street View is that it’s blurriness obscures a lot of the more unpleasant details. Should you load up this particular program in your web browser and want to get the authentic north London experience I would suggest doing the following. First, navigate your way on the map across to Edgware high street, then load up street view. Next sprinkle the floor around your computer with a half dozen cigarette butts, a selection of dirt encrusted phone card offers, a selection of dried chewing gum and, as the piece de resistance, one used Condom.

When George Orwell wanted to depict a dystopian world the first detail he provided was a clock striking 13. For me the ultimate symbol of a dystopian society has to be the sight of a crusty prophylactic dumped in the middle of the road for all to see; a symptom of decadence, moral turpitude and decay. I should like it if people made an effort to take care of their surroundings, but sadly that’s about as likely as Joseph Fritzel winning a prize for interior design. If you really want to go the whole hog with the street experience, get your partner or flatmate to dress up in a t-shirt jeans and a clipboard and leap out at you unexpectedly in an attempt to ‘charity mug’ you for your credit card details.

Following my last post, the objection was raised in some quarters that line-dancing is not a suitable hobby for a strapping young chap like myself and that I should engage myself in more manly activities. Upon reflection I have concluded that this is a scurrilous suggestion. Besides, there are worse hobbies. The favorite pastime of the Emperor Tiberius, we are told by Suetonius, was to encourage small boys to fellate him in the bathtub, James 1st’s way of passing the time was to walk around the palace nervously fiddling with his cod-piece. Compared to that, gyrating to country music with an assortment of geriatric Londoners seems far more acceptable.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Evolutionary Angst

As I chewed frenziedly at the edge of my pencil in a science lab at my elitist public school, I felt all my youthful energy and enthusiasm ebbing away. At the time I could scarcely conceive of a more boring subject than Biology. The Uppingham science block did nothing to fire the imagination and everything to convince you that architects in the 50s and 60s were Stalinist maniacs on hallucinogenic drugs. It used to be so different. An old engraving I have of the Renaissance astronomer Tycho Brahe shows the great man at work in his laboratory. As he reclines back in his chair beside his mural quadrant, surrounded by arcane looking pieces of equipment and dusty old tomes, he raises his hand raised towards the heavens and contemplates the wonders of the natural world around him. By contrast the science facilities at my school were a labyrinthian maze of uninspiring laboratories populated by rank after rank of the eponymous Bunsen burner and always smelling faintly of gas and teenage body odour. The only hypothesis I ever tested was whether it was possible to lose consciousness from sheer boredom.

As I recall, my GCSE exam paper consisted of a short essay extolling the virtues of fish farming and a diagram demonstrating an ecological food chain; the process whereby the inter-related inhabitants of the natural world contrive to cannibalise one other. As one gets older and escape the stifling clutches of the national curriculum one realises that a study of nature might enlighten our understanding of human nature. One book which aims to do this is ‘The Selfish Gene’ a book written in the seventies by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. According to the author the purpose of this popular work was to convey ‘a truth which still fills me with astonishment’. I eagerly thumbed through the pages to find out what it was. The ‘truth’ is, as it happens, that we are all ‘lumbering’ sex robots, ‘blindly programmed’ to ‘preserve the selfish molecules known as genes’.

Of course one natural inclination is to reject this interpretation, dependent as it is on the open question of whether the universe has any overarching purpose. The mind wanders to incredulity; is everything reducible to gene survival?; did P.G Wodehouse write his Castle Blandings series in a subtle attempt to smuggle his genes into the next generation?; when John Constable painted ‘The Hay Wain’ in 1821, was he merely expressing his gene’s deep seated desire for a suitable environment in which they could flourish and propagate?.

And yet, as anyone who has been to a British high street on a Saturday night can testify, there is a great degree of plausibility to Dawkins’s thesis. There we see the inhabitants of merry England, un-inhibited by societal pretences and possessed by the kind of demonic lust which would have made St Augustine retire solemnly to his study to write his confessions. Kicking out time at the UK pub is where we see the kind of behaviour that socio-biologists love; the human animal unmasked, a slave to its underlying programming.

‘But that can’t be what its really all about can it?’, I wondered to myself as I settled down to read an improving book. As I flicked through it pages in search of enlightenment I stopped in horror at one particular passage, a quote by the evolutionary psychologist Stephen Pinker. It read:

‘Fictional narratives supply us with a mental catalogue of the fatal conundrums we might face someday and the outcomes of strategies we could deploy in them. What are the options is I were to suspect that my uncle killed my father and took his position and married my mother?’.

Great. So Hamlet is nothing more than a survival guide. The Sharpe novel I finished a couple of days ago is presumably nothing more than a strategy manual for the unlikely scenario of being somehow transported back in time to the Napoleonic Wars. If this were to happen by the way I would be well prepared. In a fit of evolutionary angst I searched in vain for a hobby which no socio-biologist would be able to link to genetic survival. I turned to scribbling landscapes in a pad, only to find that Denis Dutton has written in ‘The Art Instinct’ that:

'The universal preference for a particular type of landscape painting taps into universal innate inclinations formed during the Pleistocene period, ‘the 1.6million years during which modern human beings evolved’. Featuring, amongst other things, water, open spaces of low grasses interspersed with thickets of trees, evidence of animal or bird life, and an opening up to an unimpeded view of the horizon, this predilection for a particular landscape testifies to a primordial memory of the African Savanna'

At last I hit upon line dancing and have begun a class on Monday evenings. The rationale for this decision was my belief that even the most ingenious feat of pseudo - scientific trickery would not be able to link my synchronised dancing to country music to any attempt by my crafty genes to squirm their way into the narrative. And yet, as I struggled to match my movements to those of the elderly Londoners around me amidst the beats of ‘County Line’, a surge of unease came over me. It was as if I heard the voice of Stephen Pinker in my head saying:

Line dancing supplies us with an opportunity to rehearse formations which will prove useful in hunting strategies. By practicing our body movements, attuning them to those of others and following a rhythm, humans are fostering the techniques which would enhance survival. It is as if we are channelling the memory of the African Savannah upon which we evolved.

Could it be that this dance hall, this line dance, even this country music record are all the product of the selfish replicators struggle for existence?. After weighing this up for a moment I decided to reflect on something else. As Dawkins says ‘DNA just is. And we dance to its music.’ Sometimes the music just happens to be Country and Western.