Tuesday, 29 December 2009

The Ballad Of The Naughty Noughties

By Euclides Montes @gatulino

What will be the feature that comes to define the ‘noughties’ whenever future generations cast their critical eye on us? Would it be perhaps the belligerence of our political and religious systems? Or, maybe, the Warholian accessibility yet ultimately transience of celebrity? Or, perhaps, we’ll be judged under a more positive light as the generation where the seeds of environmentalism finally took roots?

As this decade draws to a close, we’ve had lists aplenty organising in a neat order the greatest moments/songs/places/etc of the decade but I’ve been instead pondering about that one defining feature that will always be associated with the ‘noughties’. Regrettably I don’t have the advantage of a magic ball to look into the future but as an avid observer of the “western experience”, I personally believe that the feature that will define the ‘noughties’ generation will be its quasi-instinctual belief that everything they want is not only possible but easily achievable as soon as they want.

This Veruca Salt-like mind set has been the feature that has shaped most of this dying decade and I wonder where it will eventually lead us. The 'I Want It All, I Want It Now' mantra of the noughties reached its logical conclusion in the rather fitting financial crash that plunged us into an uncertain economic environment for the last part of the decade. What the crash also revealed was an almost caricaturised version of the inherent greedy nature of our society in the form of the fat cats bankers and financial gamblers that led our economy to the edge of financial oblivion and also exposed the ideological bankruptcy of our collective political and social systems.

I understand many will view the statement above as a rather critical assessment of our society, but we have reached a point where the ideological glue holding us all together has been stretched to breaking point, revealing its weaknesses and giving us in turn a massive opportunity, if not a mandate, to take the reins again and shape our society into a fairer and more equal one.

It’s said that the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was to convince humanity he didn’t exist. Similarly, the greatest trick that greedy and unchecked capitalism pulled was to convince us that we can have anything we want, whenever we want it and at the lowest monetary cost possible. Do you want your fast food burger and chips? Pay a couple of pounds for it, never mind the Amazon being destroyed to breed cows. Do you want a £1 top? Go to your high street chain and buy it, never mind who made it and under what conditions. Do you want to have 6, 8, 10 holidays a year? Book and check in online and while you’re at it, put it on your credit card, never mind the cost to the environment or the fact you can’t really afford it yet. Do you want an 8 figure bonus at the end of the year? Gamble with someone else’s money, never mind the OAP who’ll have to do with less money since you’ve just lost their pensions.

Make no mistake about this, we’ve all bought into the ‘Veruca Salt mind set and we are partially responsible for the state of where things are. We need, almost like children, to learn the value and worth of ‘no’. No, we shouldn’t always have everything we want. Sustainability shouldn’t have to be a life choice but instead it should be part of the way we interact with our surroundings. I believe we are at a pivotal stage in our development as a species where a few tweaks in our ideological mind set could set us in the right path. And here’s where the heart of my ponder lies. How can we achieve that? We are about to embark on a whole new decade, how do we want the future to judge us? And are we capable of change at a social level and move on from the ‘I want it all, I want it now’ mind set to a fairer one where ‘at any cost’ is no longer part of our vocabularies? Or am I perhaps a raving dog barking at the wrong tree? I don’t know. What do you think?

O, and Happy New Year!

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Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Did you hear the one about the Tiger and the penguin?

by Candice Carboo-Ofulue @Candaloo

Yesterday, I received a considerably frustrated phone call from my friend Penguin. It transpired that yet another round of strikes within the Antarctic Post had delayed his copy of the National Enquirer, and he and the polar bears were desperate to know the latest in the Tiger Woods scandal. Surprised that a penguin as educated and informed as he cared about celebrity gossip, I suggested that he should probably be more concerned about the real events of Copenhagen, at which he laughed.

Unfortunately for Penguin I have been righteously ignoring the Tiger Woods story, so I could not divulge much. I half-heartedly relayed what I had glossed over in the Guardian that weekend about the National Enquirer being bribed to “bury” a story of one of Woods’ affairs back in August 2007. Rejuvenated with his celebrity fix, Penguin sadistically mocked that the reason for Woods’ indefinite leave from golf, was because he had been deafened by the sound of his life crashing down, and had lost his balance. I replied that it was wrong that his public life had been so catastrophically affected by personal matters. After all, he’s an excellent golfer, who cares who he sleeps with. Penguin told me I was naive and then hung up.....and I was left pondering.

Why is the world so obsessed with celebrities? Admittedly, this is not a new question, simply type the words celebrity and obsession into your search engine and it will readily respond with an abundance of hypotheses from religion to consumption. But recently, it seems that the slime of celebrity obsession is proliferating, blocking all news outlets with its infectious gunk, and even contaminating the channels of serious news. For those of us who refuse to care, camping out within the pages of the Guardian or other ‘broadsheets’ is no longer possible, with even those publications giddily spooning out celebrity trash as a side to our world news dish. That’s not what we ordered. All we can do is sew our ears shut, but then they’ll just get us through our eyes.

So I propose that we fight back with why? Most answers I have come across fall short of providing a comprehensive explanation. This obsession is more than just passively ‘gorking’ at the rich and famous through the OK window. It’s dynamic. Our celebrity diet simultaneously combines all the virtues and ‘unvirtues’ of human nature; we admire, adorn, mythologize, imitate, criticise, judge, sympathise, desire, fanaticise. In fact, over the last decade we have even been actively manufacturing celebrities through the reality TV machine, so that we can create our very own ‘celebridolls’. It’s more than complex, it’s a phenomenon. And in accordance with the phenomenon tradition it should be awarded it’s very own ‘ology’. So, ‘Celebriology’: The Study of the Obsession of Celebrity - let’s give it a crack.


The first important question for ‘Celebriology’ is whether our obsession is instinctual? Possibly. Some essential characteristics that underpin our celebrity fetish also worked for our branch swinging ancestors. Gossip; many evolutionary psychologists agree that gossip was an effective means of helping our ancestors make sense of the world, which may explain why we ruthlessly air Tiger Woods’ dirty laundry through every possible news outlet.

How about the desire to imitate high status individuals; used by our ancestors to ascertain scarce resources and secure their reproductive success, maybe that why we rapaciously consume mags that salivate over celeb lifestyles and offer cheap routes to the latest must-haves flaunted by Posh.

But does our desire to imitate explain why we’re so ruthlessly judgemental when celebs go bad? Maybe we can’t distinguish between their private and public lives? We believe that the price for enjoying life’s luxuries is that they follow a higher code of ethics. The ‘Gucci Ethics Code’. This may explain why Tiger Woods has fallen from the pantheon of Gillet, but it fails to explain why one day we’re pillorying Jordan and the next we’re dowsing her with compliments and admiration. So maybe, familiarity provides a more sufficient answer (another of evolutions wonders). We are more flexible in our judgements towards people we know. Jordan, through living her life within the media, has exposed her many faces, which makes her an intimate and our memories short-term. But the ‘private’ Wood’s is a stranger, so we struggle to be empathetic.

Ahh, the mind ponders and boggles. Don’t even get me started on religion. All I will say is that the distant world of celebrities is looking suspiciously similar to Greek Mythology, with its nefarious and incestuous goings-on. Although, this arguably a product of our desire to mythologize than how celebrities actually live.

So, there it is. The beginnings of Celebriology. Of course, before it can compete with the likes of Sociology, Psychology, Pathology etc, it will need to be developed. Share your comments, so we can collectively build a theory that will contain this monster. Either that or we find a suitable place to hide, and given my discussion with Penguin, the Antarctic is off.

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Tuesday, 15 December 2009

It's The Final Countdown... Of Doom

by Rachel Surtees @RVSurtees

It’s the final countdown do do do dooo do do do do dooo. It’s obviously not the final countdown, simply a ruse to get your attention. This is in fact “The Countdown Of Doom”. That’s right, read on and what you’ll find is a little sprinkling of good cheer to brighten up your day… HA!

The Christmas season is now well and truly upon us - it took a while to arrive this year didn’t it? But what every self-respecting telly addict knows is “The Christmas season” is in fact a smoke screen for the “season of incessant end of year list making and countdowns”. Countdown coordinators at television studios around the world will no doubt be in a perpetual state of orgasmic spasms because this 31st December is not only the end of the year, it’s the END OF THE DECADE.

But, while the shiny faces over at BBC Three try and convince us of the highlights and achievements of the Noughties, what I really want to know is, could it really have been any worse? Genuinely, could anything else possibly have gone wrong? And could any of the things that did go wrong have gone any more wrong than the wrongness that they wrongly became?

I have a theory that every generation has a dud decade. 10 years of misery, hatred, chaos and Cheryl Cole. Think about it, who do you know who’s had a good time over the last few years? Incidentally, if you have spent the last decade riding on a merry rollercoaster of happiness, good health and joy, I’m genuinely pleased for you but feel free not to comment.

I’m aware that there are one or two holes in my theory but I will boldly ignore them and plough forward regardless. It can’t get any worse. Can it? It appears that people only become cognisant of how much they’ve been through in retrospect so allow me to bring some of the forgotten miseries rushing to the fore of your consciousness and present the Noughties’ countdown of doom:

2000: George Dubya Bush is elected for his first term.

2001: 9/11 and its immediate aftermath changes the face of world politics forever.

2002: Bali bombings kill hundreds… The first prisoners arrive at Guantanamo Bay… “The Wall” is built in the Gaza strip.

2003: The million who marched are ignored and the invasion of Iraq begins… Heatwaves through Europe kill over 30,000 people.

2004: The year ends with the Indian Ocean Tsunami.

2005: Coordinated suicide bombers strike in London and a week later Charles De Menezes is shot dead in Stockwell tube station…. Hurricane Katrina hits the East coast of America, 1000s are left destitute in New Orleans and Bush rejects an offer from Cuba to send aid and supplies.

2006: Israel launches a military attack on Hezbollah and sends thousands of troops into Lebanon.

2007: Burmese crisis breaks out… Benazir Bhutto assassinated in Pakistan.

2008: The global financial crisis takes hold… Swine flu breaks out… Cyclone Nargis hits Burma and 146,000 people die… The voice and image of Sarah Palin is burnt onto the world’s retina… War breaks out between Russia and Georgia… Boris the Buffoon Johnson wins London’s mayoral elections… Zimbabwe faces one of its worst periods of civil and political unrest in the face of looming general elections.

2009: Brown loses his already tentative grip on the country… Fascists take to our streets and televisions seig heiling as they go… SuBo becomes the biggest selling pre-ordered album on Amazon (yes she has a great voice but don’t tell me that’s why you’re buying the album)…

It is true that lots of amazing things have happened this decade too - most of them Obama shaped - but for every positive thing that you think of, there were at least three soul destroying catastrophes to counteract them.

I rarely manage to answer any of my own ponders but this time I can: no, it can’t get any worse so prepare yourself for a shiny new decade, full of joy and goodwill. And in the meantime allow me to wish you a Merry Christmas and a very happy New Year.

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Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Am I Really Black?

by Joshua Surtees @joshuasurtees

“But I’m not black” says my sister. We are in the car with our mother driving home from the airport. “Yes you are” I say, mildly annoyed. Since childhood, our white mother has always told us we are black and should describe ourselves as such, even though we are half white. Right now, however, our mother appears to be supporting my sister’s argument, and beneath my growing angst I realise it may be wrong of me to impose my personal view of our ethnicity on to her. And yet I persist.

“No, I’m mixed race” she says. “Yes,” I say “but you’re also black”. “No, I’m as much white as I am black, but nobody calls me white so why should I call myself black?” “Do you really not know?” I say. “If you mean the one drop rule, then yes of course I know” she says “but why should a theory derived from the civil rights movement in the US decades ago apply to me now?” It’s an interesting point…

Let me back track to the conversation that sparked this discussion. In my kitchen at home one evening I’m talking to my lodger. She is of the same background as my sister and I (her father is black her mother is white). We are talking about her imminent return to Suffolk after a year in London. “I’m going to miss London,” she says. “There aren’t many brown people in Bury St Edmunds”. I’m amused by the comment. “You don’t describe yourself as brown do you?” I ask, slightly bemused as it’s been a while since I’ve heard the term. “Yes, I’m not black and I’m not white, I’m brown”. “Oh that’s interesting,” I say, “what does your dad [a black American] think about that?”, “He’s fine with it” says my lodger.

Over the next 20 minutes or so my lodger and I discuss the merits of the various labels that could be applied to us. I tell her that my own perception of the label ‘brown’ is the derogatory, condescending term ‘brown babies’ used in the British post-war years to describe children of white mother’s and black US soldiers. I also explain my concern that mixed race people often refer to themselves as brown out of some residual sense of lingering shame at the thought of calling themselves black. It must be remembered that in the eyes of most of the world, being black is something that only relatively recently emerged as something to be proud of. This is especially so in England where immigration of black people in large numbers only really began in the 50s and 60s. The generation of the earliest immigrants from the Caribbean still to this day refer to themselves as coloured. Because that is what they were told they were. Because being ‘black’ back then was undesirable. The term coloured today is racist, and yet older generations, including my white grandmother, still use it innocently, as if it is the correct term.

At school in the late 80s/early 90s, the awful term half-caste was commonly used. My siblings and I would come home from school describing ourselves thus, having been described as such in the playground or even by teachers. My mum would tell us never to describe ourselves as such, nor allow others to, explaining that the term comes from the Indian caste system and essentially means you are half a person. Of a lower class. Thank god that term is largely eradicated now along with terms such as mulatto or indeed yellow.

I suppose the term half caste came about from a genuine embarrassment in this country about the new phenomenon of mixed race babies. Until a turning point in the 60s and 70s, it was rare for a white woman and black man to have a baby, or vice versa. It is this embarrassment around issues of race that I have a problem with and may be why I am not a fan of the term brown. To me, it feels like an attempt to sanitise, ‘pretty up’ or get out of simply saying black. It is ‘black’, made more palatable for society. To me there should be no sense of shame or compromise with the word black. It should be something to be proud of. That is what was drummed into me by my mother, and indeed my father, and has stuck with me. “People will see you as black and you should be proud to be black, never deny that you are” was their message. “But Rachel [my sister] is lighter than some Italian people” we would argue. “She’s still black” would be our mother’s response.

For me, the black pride factor runs deep in this debate. Many black people require black success stories and role models to identify with, to motivate and to stimulate personal pride. If a half black person achieves success and calls themselves a black man or woman, this represents a greater fillip to black empowerment, than calling themselves brown or even mixed race. Barack Obama describes himself as African-American. What would it do to the psyches of other African-Americans in the States if he instead described himself as multiracial, bi-racial, mixed race or dual heritage? I feel it would be a disservice.

But am I wrong? Is it me who is living in the past? Is it not the choice of each individual to decide their ethnicity, even when those individuals come from the same background or even the same family, like my sister and I? Surely she has the right to call herself mixed race and my lodger to call herself brown? In the months since my lodger used the term brown, I’ve heard it quite frequently, most often from people of Indian or South Asian origin. So, is it just me that’s still living in a 1980s PC ‘Right On’ world where we march against ‘the bomb’ and acid rain and Thatcher and people calling themselves brown?

I tell my sister I find the term ‘mixed race’ unsatisfactory. “It’s meaningless. It doesn’t even describe which races one is a mix of. Ethiopian and Italian? Korean and Mexican? Iranian and Jewish?” In an, ideal world I would describe myself as half English half Jamaican. When I ask my half Norwegian half Guyanese friend he concurs. Yet these are our parents’ nationalities, not really our ethnicities. I think dual heritage is a prettier term. For me, ‘mixed race’ is just the latest in a line of flawed terminologies that the government and equalities agencies haven’t really thought through. I think it will be replaced fairly quickly with another generic, unflattering term.

My sister recounts the a time when a chatting with two childhood friends she said to one “please don’t call me half caste it’s incorrect” and the other joined in “yeah, and don’t call me Indian”, to which my sister had to politely point out “but, you are Indian!”. The unfortunate interjection somewhat devalued the original point but it neatly highlights my previous point; that some people actually are embarrassed or confused about who they are.

Then, she makes the final point that another mixed race friend, a well educated young woman, until only recently referred to herself as half caste. I am shocked.

It seems political correctness is not the solution to everything where individuals are concerned. This is the essence of the debate. Is it the right of individuals to call themselves whatever they want? Whether that be black, white, brown, mixed race, coloured or even half caste? Is it unacceptable for others to label people with official, political or ideological terms?

I think it’s fair to say I have mixed feelings on this one.

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Tuesday, 1 December 2009

The Fear

by Euclides Montes (@Gatulino)

You’re on the night bus, on your way home after a night out on the town. A group of boisterous hooded teenagers get on the bus, perhaps having a laugh about something or other. You can feel the mood change in all of your travel companions. It darkens. The fear can almost be seen by the naked eye. These are no longer teenagers, you see, but they are instead the shadowy demons from Ghost who have come to claim your peace or maybe even your souls. Never mind that 9 out of 10* of all bus journeys will always end up as intended: just a bit late, with us iPoded Britons looking grumpily for a free seat. I could have used many other examples to highlight the explicit fear that I think permeates our society but in all of them, the result is always very clear to me. Even though the odds are stacked heavily against the things that scare us – be it gun crime, immigration causing an uncontrolled increase in our population or the PC brigade trying to ban Christmas – the fear of these things happening is here, it’s obvious, it’s pervasive and, I feel, it’s here to stay. And so, to my ponder. Is this fear understandable? More importantly, is there anything or anyone perpetuating the fear? And for what purpose?

Where to begin? For a start I believe that there are many anthropological/ sociological/ biological explanations of what ‘fear’ is but this post will not attempt to tackle these philosophical musings since the author cannot really claim to have the academic nous to put forward a definitive appraisal of the explanations! However, in the spirit of a good ponder, I have been wondering what it is that drives these waves of fear in our societies, for the simple reason that it’s as clear as day to me we are suffering from a terrible case of collective heebie-jeebies. Since we haven’t got too much space, and time is always a commodity, let me plant my flag and declare my stance on this issue.

I believe that as a species, our brains are wired into feeling fear. Fear of the dark, fear of the unknown, fear of heights. In short, fear of the dangers that in evolutionary terms have been with us for a while. We have now taken those fears and translated them, writing them into the complex socialised system we know as a society. We have understood them, given them fancy names and tried to master them but these fears are part of our biological imprint. They are part of what ‘we’ are. Now, here’s where my piece could be seen as a tad controversial because I believe that what’s different about this particular moment in our social history is that we have not only tried to master our fears but we have also managed to use them as tools of social control. This has happened to such an extent that we are at a stage where we are being constantly bombarded by fear-mongering from all directions with one single purpose: someone wants to sell us something. And in order to do so, our primeval ‘fear’ has been, and continues to be, exploited.

Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not simply talking about the McDonalisation of our private fears. After all, fear has always been used to sell almost anything that needs selling. A religious system, a dodgy war, a government campaign, the latest brand of toothpaste, a xenophobic ideology. In fact, this has become such a repetitive process that we have taken the next logical step in this tale and “The Fear” is now a permanent feature of our daily lives.

And who’s perpetuating this fear on a daily basis if not the media? I’m not saying they’re wholly responsible for this state of affairs but they are certainly liable for at least some of it. The newspapers and news channels that we go to get our daily dose of facts are suddenly now using this sales technique for their own agendas and that worries me.

If fear is part of our psyche and it is being exploited indiscriminately to sell whatever it is you’re supposed to be buying, where does the responsibility of the media start? This question arises because, in my opinion, this was a bad year [and maybe even a bad decade] for journalism. For every positive achievement by the media, there were 10 scaremongering pieces out there. For every Transfigura, there were your Dunblanegates and your racist fau pauxs. For every Aaronovitch, you had your Jan Moirs and your Littlejohns. All in the name of sale figures.

Why? It’s an issue that goes to the very meeting point of our modern society and our primeval fear. We have readily-accessible information everywhere and suddenly every click and every sale is worth a lot more than before. Sometimes I can’t help but feel that certain sectors of the media want you to be in a constant state of fear, scared of everything. It would seem that tales of teenagers killing are better for sales than reporting on fiscal deficits or Prime Minister’s Question Time.

Some of you might say that business is business after all but here is where my ponder hopefully becomes yours. Shouldn’t newspapers be more responsible? Shouldn’t we expect them to be a positive force in our society? Don’t get me wrong, ‘the fear’ came first in this ‘chicken and egg’ scenario but I believe that a few fat cats have made a omelette of it and the result is that suddenly our bearded neighbour becomes a jihadist, a vaccine becomes a poisonous arrow and our children become the goblins who haunt our trips back home from the pub late at night. ‘The Fear’ is here and here to stay. And now the weather...

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