The Dystopian Promise of Neo-Liberalism

September 6, 2016 § 3 Comments

I spent late last week laid up with the flu.  This means I read. A lot.  I don’t have the patience for TV when I’m sick, unless it’s hockey.  And since it’s late August, that didn’t happen.  While laid up, I finished Jonathan Lethem’s early career Amnesia Moon, and also ploughed through Owen Hatherley’s The Ministry of Nostalgia.  On the surface, these two books don’t have anything in common.  The former is a novel set in a dystopic American future, whilst the latter is a polemic against austerity and the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom.

But both point to a golden era past.  In the case of Amnesia Moon, obviously, given its  dystopic future setting.  And Hatherley is perplexed over the British right’s ability to control a public discourse of British history and memory.

In Amnesia Moon, the protagonist, a man named Chaos in some situations and Everett Moon in others, finds himself in Vacaville, which is actually a real place, about halfway between Sacramento and San Francisco in North Central California.  In Vacaville, the residents are kept unstable by the central state: they are forced to move residences every Wednesday and Sunday.  The majority of the residents work mind-numbing jobs, including Chaos’ love interest, Edie.  The society is run by the gorgeous, who are featured on TV every night, parading about in an early version of reality TV.  The people of Vacaville love and worship them.  All of pop culture in Vacaville has been re-written to venerate the president and the ruling class.  But most insidious, everything in Vacaville, for all residents, is based on ‘luck,’ a state-sponsored system based on a test administered by bureaucrats.  Not surprisingly, those with the best luck are in the ruling classes.  And then everyone else is organized and assigned their place in society based on their luck.  Not surprisingly, our Edie has bad luck: her ex-husband has lost his mind, so she is a single mother with two children.  She is also kept in place by a desperate government official, Ian Cooley, who is in love with her.

Compare this to Hatherley’s view of the United Kingdom in 2016:

We find ourselves in an increasingly nightmarish situation where an entirely twenty-first century society — constantly wired up to smartphones and the internet, living via complicated systems of derivatives, credit and unstable property investments, inherently and deeply insecure — appears to console itself with the iconography of a completely different and highly unlikely era, to which it is linked solely through the liberal use of the ‘A’ [i.e.: austerity] word.

See the similarities?

Scary Ideas and Lazy Journalism

April 3, 2015 § 6 Comments

Last week, the New York Times published another in a depressing series of articles in the print media about how colleges and universities are allegedly catering to sensitive-little flower millennials, who cannot handle big ideas that challenge their deeply-held beliefs, and how, instead, they seek to create ‘safe spaces’ all across campus, where they won’t come into contact with big, scary ideas.  I can never get through one of these articles without seething.  See, I am a professor.  That means I work and teach on a university campus.  I come into daily contact with these millennials.  And I’ve come to despise generational stereotypes about them, as much as I despised the stereotypes applied to my generation twenty years ago.  The stereotypes are largely similar: apathetic, self-centred, self-obssessed, etc.  And, just as they were a ridiculous accusation against Gen X, the same is true of millennials.

The larger problem with these kinds of articles is that they are written by journalists looking for sensation, and supported by their editors looking for clickbait (hey, look, Ma! I used the term ‘clickbait’ in successive posts).  These articles are drive-by smearings of academe (not that there aren’t a lot of problems within the system, but journalists aren’t interested in them, because they don’t generate headlines), written without bothering to understand how the academy works, how ideas are exchanged, and how we professors work to challenge and destabilize commonly-held beliefs, even if we agree with them ourselves.

Take, for example, the story of a course at Arizona State University called “US Race Theory and The Problem of Whiteness.”  FoxNews host Elizabeth Hasselbeck attacked the course, after talking to a student at ASU.  The problem was that the student Hasselbeck talked to wasn’t enrolled in the class, and she herself never bothered to talk to the professor.  No, instead, Hasselbeck instead ranted about the problems with this kind of course, in predictable fashion.  This led the professor of the course to doxxed and to receive death threats.

But back to the Times article.  I was going to write a strongly-worded riposte to it here, but my wife beat me to it.  So, instead, I point you, gentle reader, over to Margo’s blog, as she says what I wanted to say in a much better fashion.

The Wisdom of Marc Bloch

October 8, 2014 § 5 Comments

10724719_716131381768977_171791364_nMarc Bloch is one of the most influential historians ever.  An historian of mostly medieval France, he, along with Lucien Febvre, founded the Annales school of historiography in the late 1920s.  The Annalistes preferred examining history over the long durée, and across various periods of time.  They also advocated a more complete history than one of generals, presidents, prime ministers, and other so-called Great Men.

Bloch met his end at the hands of the Gestapo on in Saint-Didier-des-Champs, in France, on 16 June 1944, ten days after D-Day, as the Nazis realised they were going to lose France.  Bloch had been a member of the Résistance since 1942.  He was captured by the Vichy police in March of that year and handed over to the Gestapo.  He was interrogated by Klaus Barbie, and tortured.  It was a sad end for a great man.

Bloch had served in the French Army during the First World War, and remained a member of the Army reserve in the interregnum between the two wars.  He was called up into action during the Second World War and was on hand for the baffling collapse of France in the face of the Nazi blitzkrieg attack in May 1940.  That summer, he wrote his blistering and searing account of the Fall of France, Strange Defeat, not knowing if his words would ever see the light of day.  The book was published in 1948, four years after his murder, and three years after the war ended.

Bloch is unflinching in his critique of French High Command, and France in general, for the collapse of its Army in 1940.  In part, he blames the High Command’s over reliance on a false reading of history, that led it into a state of pathetic stasis, incapable of recognising that 1939-40 was not 1918, and that the Second World War was a different war than the Great War.  In this passage, he makes a passionate argument for what the study of History is.

History is, in its essentials, the science of change.  It knows and it teaches that is impossible to find two events that are ever exactly alike, because the conditions from which they spring are never identical…the lesson it teaches is not that what happened yesterday will necessarily happen to-morrow, or that the past will go on reproducing itself.  By examining how and why yesterday differed from the day before, it can reach conclusions which will enable it to foresee how to-morrow will differ from yesterday.  The traces left by past events never move in a straight line, but in a curve that can be extended into the future.

I assigned this book for my historiography class, and was deeply struck by this passage.  I’ve re-read it four times now, it goes against what our culture thinks history is.  Our culture thinks history is exactly what Bloch says it isn’t, that it can teach us to avoid the same mistakes over and over again.

I was thinking about this in light of my Irish history class dealing with The Liberator, Daniel O’Connell last week.  O’Connell led the movement for Catholic Emancipation in Ireland, succeeding in 1829.  He the turned his sights on the Repeal of the Act of Union (1800), which created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.  In this, he failed.  He failed because times had changed, and attitudes were different.  In the early 19th century, many in Britain, and even some amongst the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland, had come to the conclusion that the denial of civil rights for Catholics in Ireland was not a good thing, and that Emancipation was necessary.  Three of the staunchest opponents of Emancipation came around to O’Connell’s way of thinking: Sir Robert Peel, the Home Secretary; The Duke of Wellington, the Prime Minister, and King George IV).  In the 1840s, though, when O’Connell’s Repeal movement reached its apogee, he did not have a groundswell of support in Britain (or amongst the Protestant Ascendancy) for Repeal. Thus, he failed because O’Connell failed to learn the proper lessons of History.

We would do well to remember Bloch’s maxim. Even we historians.

Happy Failweek!

April 5, 2011 § 4 Comments

My Twitter friend, Emilie Wapnick, one, has a great website, and two, an interesting idea. She wants to celebrate failure.

But I object to the idea that failure is “feedback.”  I don’t think so. Failure is failure. Calling it feedback just sounds like some touchy-feely way of making it feel like I never lose, of saving our self-esteem. We all win, we all lose, we all have successes and failures. That’s life. Indeed, Frank Sinatra made exactly that point in song:

That’s life, that’s what all the people say.
You’re riding high in April,
Shot down in May
But I know I’m gonna change that tune,
When I’m back on top, back on top in June.

To call our failures feedback, while an admirable idea in order to get us to learn from our mistakes, is wrong-headed. We need to learn from our failures, but we don’t learn from sugar-coating things, at least in my humble opinion.

But Emilie’s idea goes beyond this:

How about instead of denying the existence of failure (since it’s “all feedback”), we acknowledge that it exists and embrace it. What if we actually PRAISED people for failing? What if success were measured by ACTION rather than results?

I think that if we all took some time to praise failure and even encourage it on a regular basis, there would be much more experimentation, creativity and innovation in the world.

The more we celebrate failure, the more we’ll all be encouraged to take action. So lets do it. Lets take this week and celebrate our most mortifying, horrific, soul-crushing failures!

Alright, so I’m never going to celebrate my mortifying, horrific soul-crushing failures. I don’t think that does anything, I prefer to grieve in private, lick my wounds, and figure out how to go forward.

But I love Emilie’s idea of measuring success by action foremost. Results are important, but sometimes we need to take action even if we’re going to lose, to “fight the good fight,” so to speak. This is part and parcel of the working-class Irish-Catholic culture I come from, immortalised in song by the Dropkick Murphys in their song for “Irish” Micky Ward (who, I must gloat, got his clock cleaned by my hometown boy, the late Arturo Gatti), “The Warrior’s Code”:

Failure works in many ways. It can work in the Mickey Ward sense of not giving up, or in the sense any good activist knows, of fighting the good fight whatever the results. But sometimes success comes from failure, too, as some of the people Emilie talked to on her blog point out. One of my favourite Simpsons moments (yes, there once was a time when that show was funny) comes when Lisa points out to Homer that the Chinese have the same word for crisis and opportunity. Homer, who had been down for some reason or other, immediately brightens up, allegedly recalling the word “crisitunity.” Ok, so we can laugh at Homer’s stupidity, but there’s a point to be made here.

And if we choose not to sink into the doldrums over failure, if we instead celebrate some forms of it, then perhaps we do get what Emilie wants, which is more creativity and experimentation and innovation. I’ve spent a lot of time of late reading about the Scientific Revolution and its aftermath, and one thing that is clear is that the brilliant successes and innovations of the likes of Galileo, Newton, Einstein, and Hawking, is that they are all built on earlier failures. But, in the spirit of scientific experimentation, they had no choice but to carry on. So perhaps we should engage with our inner scientists and take what we can from failure to figure out how to succeed?

So perhaps failure isn’t the evil we’re lead to believe it is, perhaps in failing we can continue to try to make the world a better place and we can learn from our mistakes, or we can recognise that our failures are the keys to our successes.

So, alright, it’s Failweek. The Twitter tag is #failweek.  Rock on, my friends, celebrate your failures and figure how to gain from them. If anyone needs me, I’ll be licking my wounds and pondering my comeback.

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