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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Just Finished Reading: Stand Firm – Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze by Svend Brinkmann (FP: 2014/2017)

Of all of the comments directed at me over the years one of those that has stuck with me (apart from the iconic ‘Die you Camping Bitch’) is one spoken to me by my now long ago ex-girlfriend: You’ll never get anywhere with an attitude like that. Meaning, of course, that I didn’t have the mind-set of a corporate drone (you can see why we inevitably broke up). I have always, or at least for as long as I can remember, been sceptical over the torrents of bullshit that rain down on us every day from Governments, Corporations, Advertisers, Schools, TV shows, Movies and especially the Internet. Over the years, indeed decades, I have had a great deal of pressure (and a not inconsiderably amount of flak) directed at me to conform, to dress appropriately, to smarten up, get with the programme, stop slouching and for god sakes smile occasionally! It’s all for my own good (of course) and much good will flow from it: happiness, success, recognition, money and (of course) the ultimate reward – sex.

Most people think that I’m a bit crazy even mentioning stuff like this so it’s good (I mean really good) to finally find an author from a different generation (he’s 41) and a different country (he’s Danish) who thinks pretty much like I do. Indeed for a while there as I consumed this slim volume (a mere 129 pages including Appendix) in record time I couldn’t make up my mind if it had been written for me or by ‘me’. That, naturally, was something of a problem. Agreeing with someone practically 100% is, well, boring. Luckily this book was entertaining enough and just ‘off centre’ enough, to say nothing of funny enough, to keep me interested.

Like me the author has become more than a little irritated at the way our culture (Western Democratic Capitalist) tells us how to behave in all circumstances and that failure to do so means that there’s something ‘wrong’ with us that needs to be ‘fixed’. We are told that life, in all its aspects, is speeding up and that it’s up to each of us to ‘keep up’ no matter what. We are told that we need to be mobile, flexible, and adaptable, always open to new ideas, new experiences, and new ways of doing things. We are told that roots are for losers, that relationships are ultimately disposable (especially if they don’t exclusively meet our needs). We are told that history, even our own personal history, cannot be trusted to guide us in the ever shifting present and the ever approaching and even more mutable future. Above all else we are told to smile, to have confidence and a positive attitude. That such a mind-set can get us over any obstacle and around any problem. Of course, the author says, that’s all arrant nonsense as well as being clearly absurd.

But what can we do, one individual against the whole of our culture, our family, our friends, our fellow workers? How can we possibly resist such a torrent, an avalanche of self-improvement advice? This is, naturally, where things got interesting and (as an interesting aside) validated much of what I had realised growing up in the late 20th Century West. We need, in a nutshell, to stand firm. The first step is to stop the every present naval gazing. The answers you seek are definitely not inside you waiting to come out. The answers you seek are out there in the world waiting for you to get up off your butt and find them. You need to focus on the negative – not constantly thinking about the better world just beyond your grasp but of all the things that could go wrong and all the things you could lose at a moment’s notice so that you value what you have much more than what you might have one day – maybe. You need to practice saying ‘No’ to the millions of offers directed at you every day. Saying yes to everything is impossible and frankly absurd. Saying no to somethings enables you to actually know why you’re saying yes to somethings and no to others. Stop emoting so much. You don’t need to allow your emotions to run (or ruin) your life. With a little effort you can keep them in check without being overwhelmed by the toxic backwash. When you control your emotions they are no longer controlling you and you can move into a calmer centre while all around you people go nuts over trivialities. If you have a ‘life coach’ or personal ‘guru’ ditch them. You don’t need someone else making life and death decisions for you based on the latest fad or best-selling self-help guide. Read a novel (I loved this bit of advice) rather than an autobiography – especially those who triumphed over hardship to become a better person on the other side – or yet another self-help guide. Novels give a much more rounded view of individuals in much more realistic environments than the self-edited ‘reality’ of autobiographies will ever give you. Finally dwell on the past (without the naval gazing) to put your life in some sort of perspective with narrative form and flow. See how things have changed over time. See the continuity deeply embedded in your historical and cultural environment. This will ground you in a way that you can easily shrug off the fad of the moment because you know who you are and where you came from. You’ll have roots deep enough and wide enough not to be battered by the many storms in countless teacups that seemingly upset so many so easily.

Some of you will have bells ringing with some of the above (in admittedly modern form). Even without frequent mention of the more famous practitioners I would have not been surprised that the Appendix at the back of the volume was a potted history of Stoicism. Like me the author is a huge fan of the Stoics although, again like me, he is not uncritical of some of their ideas. They have, we both believe and contend, much to teach us about surviving and thriving in a modern (apparently) fast moving world. Their teachings show us that we don’t have to be the leaves blown wherever the winds of our times take us. We can be the trees and quietly, with dignity, stand firm. Highly recommended – especially to those who find themselves struggling to ‘keep up’.

Translated from the Danish by Tam McTurk.  

Sunday, May 21, 2017

"A person will suffer more intensely the more he or she is strong and independent. Given the apparent hopelessness of resistance, there is a powerful and continuous incentive for individuals to become less aware of their own feelings, beliefs and needs. Indeed, the only rational solution for an individual may often be to become dead inside, to become alienated from his or her feelings and desires. And it is exactly this internal deadness which has been declared the great sickness of modern man..."

David Edwards, Free to be Human, 1995

Cartoon Time.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Group Hug!

New Orleans purges final Confederate statue.

From The BBC

20th May 2017

Masked city workers in New Orleans have removed the last of four monuments to the pro-slavery rebellion defeated in the US Civil War. The 133-year-old statue depicted General Robert E Lee, the top military leader in the Confederacy, crossing his arms as he faced north towards his old enemy. Critics say monuments to the Confederacy are racially offensive, but supporters say they are important symbols of the city's Southern heritage. The three other statues were all removed at night to limit clashes. The workers on the job were wearing bullet-proof vests as well as masks.

In a statement on Thursday, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said the condemned statues "were erected decades after the Civil War to celebrate the 'Cult of the Lost Cause', a movement recognised across the South as celebrating and promoting white supremacy." Barricades went up overnight around the park where the 16ft (4.8m) statue was perched atop a 60ft column. The cables for a nearby streetcar were also temporarily taken down to allow construction equipment into the park. Before police cleared the area on Thursday, nearly 200 protesters gathered to voice support and opposition to the monument. Demonstrations were mostly peaceful, local media report. The only flashpoint was when a pro-removal protester snatched a Confederate battle flag. One man was arrested for climbing on to the monument's pedestal and refusing to come down. The monument to Lee was erected on 22 February 1884 - nearly 20 years after the Civil War ended. On the day of the unveiling, a crowd of nearly 15,000 people came to watch, the Daily Picayune newspaper reported the next day. At the exact moment that the statue was unveiled, a 100-gun salute was fired, and "a mighty shout went up from the soldiers of the Confederacy", the Daily Picayune reported.

City officials say the monuments will be moved somewhere such as a museum where they can be "placed in their proper historical context from a dark period of American history". But WWL-TV has found the removed monuments to Confederate President Jefferson Davis and PGT Beauregard in a city-owned scrap yard. Supporters of the monuments say they are a cultural legacy that promotes heritage rather than racism. The decision to remove the statues came in December 2015, six months after a white supremacist shot dead nine black worshippers at a South Carolina church.

[I do have a significant problem with things like this. OK, I can understand what they did after WW2 with the removal of Nazi emblems across Europe and the change of city names in Russia throughout its troubled history but I don’t agree with the attempted erasure and sanitation of the past to satisfy the popular sentiment of the moment. If past events are disagreeable, as many of them are, then rather than removing them from public view we should be using them as examples to learn from. As has been well attested to throughout history (oh, the irony) those who forget, or turn their backs on, their history are DOOMED to repeat it. On this side of the pond we are told that buildings and street names are offensive because they are named after slave owners. If such landmarks are erased and forgotten about there is the real danger that we will collectively forget about slavery too. A nation without a history, the good as well as the bad, will find designing its future much more difficult. Without knowing where we have been and the kind of people we used to be how can we chart a course to where we want to go and who we want to be when we get there? Leave history in place so future generations can at least wonder why we did bad things rather than walk by in (supposedly) blissful ignorance.]

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Just Finished Reading: Seize the Time – The Story of The Black Panter Party and Huey P Newton by Bobby Searle (FP: 1970)

This was a strange and sometimes difficult read. Although I am becoming more familiar with US Urban Politics in the 1960’s and 1970’s some of the names and places are still a little fuzzy which can cause some confusion. More difficult to get used to, though I did eventually get the hang of it, was the use of urban black slang used throughout the book. Indeed, from the very beginning, the book read like an almost unmediated string of consciousness from the authors mind, jumping between topics before focusing back on his original thread to say nothing of seemingly random repetitions, which meant you really needed to concentrate on some sections of the book in order not to lose the thread. On top of this was the shotgun smattering of swear words and, naturally, the dreaded ‘N’ word that people get so touchy about these days.

But, once you got used to all of the above, the narrative (primitive though it felt at times) proved to be surprisingly gripping. Told very much in the first person – though focused throughout on the founder of the Party Huey P Newton – this was a detailed account of the birth of an admittedly revolutionary political party in modern day America. From the ground up to the States attempts to crush the movement we are given privileged access to the Parties philosophy – gleaned from Marx, Mao, Malcolm X and Frantz Fanon (of ‘The Wretched of the Earth’ fame) – its actions on the streets of California ‘shadowing’ police cars and patrolling with guns clearly visible and clearly loaded, its many run-ins with the authorities in the guise of local police, FBI and others, the legal cases against many in the leadership and the almost fanatical reaction from local, State and National government to prevent the power of the Panthers spreading.

The crunch came, from the authority’s point of view, when the Panthers started to organise outside of their black urban base. If it wasn’t bad enough that a political organisation had organically emerging within this disenfranchised group they then began an outreach programme contacting and developing relations with Hispanics, Chinese and (the final nail it seemed) with the white urban poor with whom they had so much in common. Their philosophy saw beyond mere colour and recognised the fact that the urban poor of both races had far more in common and especially far more grievances in common than anything which appeared at first glance to separate them. It is easy to see why the National and State apparatus where eager to put a stop to this sort of thing – most especially because the Panthers were not afraid to publically show that they had the means to violently defend themselves if necessary.

This is definitely an interesting contemporary insight into the revolutionary phenomena in the modern West. It stayed with me for quite a while after finishing it and I can definitely see why it became a classic text in the African-American community. Of course what makes this even more interesting is its relevance to the recent Black Lives Matter phenomena and the continuing violence directed at Black America. Definitely recommended to anyone interested in US Black History and the founding of radical political parties in the modern world.