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November 2007

Dumb Culture

Fabian Tassano ponders dumb culture and its causes

If cultural deterioration is acknowledged in a mediocracy, it is blamed on marketisation. The implication is that cultural products are somehow traded more than they used to be, which is specious. Culture has always been bought and sold, and would not get produced at all without someone to pay for it. What is different about a mediocratic market for culture is that purchasing power is in the hands of the mass consumer and the state, rather than those of a small elite. The characteristics of the prevailing culture will therefore reflect the tastes of the mass, and the ideological preferences of the political class, rather than the tastes of the bourgeoisie. This point — that it is empowerment of the mass and of the collective which drives cultural change in a mediocracy — is ideologically unpalatable and therefore suppressed. It is more convenient to blame the market, especially as this can be used to justify intervention.



Further to recent comments on Muhammad and how one might view him, here’s H.G. Wells on the same subject, from A Short History of the World, published in 1922.

Then for four years more until his death in 632, Muhammad spread his power over the rest of Arabia. He married a number of wives in his declining years, and his life on the whole was by modern standards unedifying. He seems to have been a man compounded of very considerable vanity, greed, cunning, self-deception and quite sincere religious passion. He dictated a book of injunctions and expositions, the Qur’an, which he declared was communicated to him from God. Regarded as literature or philosophy the Qur’an is certainly unworthy of its alleged divine authorship.

Wells goes on to concede that “when the manifest defects of Muhammad’s life and writings have been allowed for, there remains in Islam… much power and inspiration.” But what catches the eye is how sharply Wells’ estimation of Muhammad and the Qur’an contrasts with modern affectations. It’s hard to imagine a similar view being expressed quite so freely by a public figure today, when much smaller improprieties often meet with sudden inhalation and calls for apologies.

Friday Ephemera

Karate Monkey. // TV detector vans. “It’s in the front room… and they’re watching Columbo.” (h/t, Biased BBC.) // Climate change and the alignment of the planets. No, really. (h/t, The Thin Man.) // Tunguska revisited. // Space History. (1962) “Red spacemen keep coming!” // Is my starship bigger than yours? Death stars, cubes, birds of prey. // The Islamic car. // The bicycle vending machine. (h/t, 1+1=3.) // 5000 London Transport posters. // 25 photos taken at exactly the right time. (h/t, Stephen Hicks.) // Origami insects. // Robo-bug. // Marvel digital comics. // Unintentionally amusing comic strips. Mary Worth, angel of death. (h/t, An Insomniac.) // The world beard and moustache championships 2007. Including the partial beard freestyle. // The art of Travis A. Louie. // Terminal thrill-seeking. // New hate crime discovered. “Research suggests that you are four times more likely to be a victim of blogosphere satire if you are a Socialist.” // Leftwing novelist wants to “de-Europeanise” Paris. “To make space for dissident voices.” (h/t, The Thin Man.) // The world’s longest underwater pipeline. 746 miles. // Wind dam. // Calculator watch prototype. (1970) // A brief history of LED calculator watches. // Via Coudal, the slide rule resource centre. // The museum of horology. // 100 movies, quotes and numbers. // The golden age of the boombox. // Dance like James Brown. Hot damn. // And finally, via The Thin Man, it’s Mr Johnny Cash.

Explaining Why

Rummaging through the archives, I unearthed this nugget by Steve Edwards, from an essay titled On the Right to Give Offence, published last year in Policy magazine. In the extract below, Edwards points out why offending religious prejudice can be a necessary part of realistic discussion, and why avoiding such offence can be grossly unfair.

A Muslim is somebody who believes that a man called Muhammad… passed on certain revelations and instructions directly from God Himself. By logic, a non-Muslim is somebody who does not accept that Muhammad was any such prophet, and thereby rejects his teachings as not having come from God… If, contrary to Muhammad’s claims (assuming he has been represented correctly), we do not believe that he was any such prophet from God, what do we truly think of the man?

The answer must be one of three possibilities: either Muhammad was a liar, or he was deluded, or he was mad. These are the only possible conclusions of the intellectually honest non-Muslim. Let us ponder one of the three possibilities—that Muhammad was a liar. Would it be unreasonable then to posit that a man willing to deceive many thousands of people, perhaps out of hunger for power or self-aggrandisement, could be labelled as ‘evil’? If so, on what basis do we object to an extremely negative portrayal (either graphic or prose) of such an ‘evildoer’?

Whether or not such a portrayal may appear ‘gratuitous’ or provoke widespread anger, it would nonetheless be a justifiable expression of dissent. Therefore, to place legal sanctions on any such piece of literature is to necessarily outlaw opposition to, and disagreement with, Islam to a logical denouement; this suggests we are implicitly calling for the abolition of the right to proclaim oneself a non-Muslim in clear and in certain terms. That is, one may still be a nominal ‘non-Muslim’ free of harassment, but one cannot explain and defend one’s position in any significant detail without committing the act of blasphemy.

More. Related. And. Also. Plus.

Misery and Joy

Climate Resistance has an entertaining piece on Guardian regular George Monbiot’s earnest disapproval of the Top Gear motoring programme and its deplorable exuberance. 

George's problem is that the culture he wants us to be part of is entirely negative. In contrast to this cultural pessimism, Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May celebrate human achievements - however shallowly - and appear to risk their lives for their passions, while Monbiot considers us to be a destructive plague on the planet… Clarkson bumbles his own way into making history by doing dangerous things like driving to the North Pole, while Monbiot twitches behind his curtains, tutting about what other people are getting up to.

The rest.

Other reasons why Top Gear is more entertaining than Monbiot’s Guardian column can be found here, here and here.


Mr Monbiot’s indignant curtain twitching continues in today’s Guardian.

Nowhere is more nonsense spoken about [speed cameras] than on the BBC. Its Top Gear series has become a sort of looking-glass Crimewatch in which the presenters enlist the public to help criminals foil the police. There are tips on how to avoid prosecution and endless suggestions that speed cameras are useless or counter-productive. The tone was set in 2002 when the team demonstrated that you could beat the cameras by driving past them at 170mph… How, while BBC editors are sacked for misnaming the Blue Peter cat, does Top Gear remain on air?

Humourless exasperation is, of course, a Monbiot trademark and I can’t offhand recall a column that hasn’t called for something, somewhere to be banned, pulled, dramatically reduced or taken off air and horsewhipped. Setting aside some comically po-faced accusations of criminal incitement, it’s worth noting that, once again, the earnest Mr Monbiot struggles to conceive why an enormously popular programme of which he disapproves is allowed to remain on air.

It’s telling that Monbiot doesn’t understand Top Gear is, in part, popular precisely because it mocks pretentious fatalism and po-faced urges to control - urges that Monbiot and much of his readership now represent. The Guardian’s foremost eco-warrior is outraged that the BBC should devote one hour a week to a programme that celebrates human ingenuity and individual daring, albeit brashly and with abandon. It offends him, as if it were some kind of indecent throwback to a more primitive age - hence an absurd comparison with the Black & White Minstrel Show. It clearly isn’t enough for Monbiot that his own worldview is reflected widely across the media, not least by the BBC. The fact that a single hour of airtime should defy his prejudices is, it seems, an intolerable irritation. But such are the awful burdens of the uptight puritan. 

Radical Darlings

Speaking of echo chambers… In today’s Observer, Jay Rayner ponders the whereabouts of dramatic radicalism in an age of state subsidy and asks what happens if, as Julian Fellowes suggests, “It’s just become impossible not to be a Socialist within the artistic community.” 

What strikes me most, during the discussions I have, is an almost total failure of imagination when it comes to working out what a play from the right might actually look like. We none of us have any problem naming overtly left-wing plays or their playwrights: names like David Edgar, Caryl Churchill, Trevor Griffiths and David Hare fall into conversation with ease. By contrast, even defining an overtly right-wing play, let alone identifying one, is apparently impossible.

One director, whose identity I will protect to save their blushes, baldly announces that they would “never put on a play that was racist or sexist.” I point out this is a pretty Neanderthal reading of neo-conservatism. We have one of the most right-wing presidents in US history in George W Bush, and yet he chose a black woman as his Secretary of State… Abigail Morris, a former artistic director of the Soho Theatre, describes how she used to receive plays in which a rape would take place “and the woman would start to enjoy it. I suppose you could call that right-wing.

At various times, and in various conversations, I wonder out loud whether any of them could imagine a play that challenged, say, the values of multiculturalism. Mostly I am met with baffled silences. Sir Peter Hall sums it up for me when he says: “I’m sure there are people who would like to write that sort of play, but they would fear it wouldn't be acceptable.”

Update, via the comments:

Rayner makes another interesting observation:

Time and again I am told that the job of theatre is to challenge the status quo and that this, necessarily, means it must come from the left. When I point out that the status quo now is the left, there are two clear responses. The first is to switch tack slightly and argue, as Michael Boyd of the RSC does, that “the job of the arts is to discomfort any orthodoxy”, whether it be from left or right. The second, which Lisa Goldman at the Soho Theatre most cleanly articulates, is simply to question the notion that there is even the slightest tinge of red to the current establishment. “I don't think the status quo is left-wing at all,” she says. “Though there is, I suppose, a liberalism to it.”

An oppositional self-image is very important to some people, most often to people on the left, and particularly to artists. But in order to maintain the appearance of being anti-establishment or anti-bourgeois or whatever, the nature of mainstream bourgeois culture (and how it has changed) may have to be ignored or distorted, and the views of one’s political opponents may have to be caricatured. Hence the denial of theatre’s left-leaning tendency, and that of contemporary art more generally; and hence the claim that a fondness for racism and rape is a marker of “right wing” politics. 

More. Not entirely unrelated. And

So Very Tired

The much-publicised launch of Sunny Hundal’s Liberal Conspiracy blog has already produced a fine moment of inadvertent comedy, and possibly a revealing one. In a post titled We Need Our Own Space, Guardian contributor Zohra Moosa bemoans the troublesome obligation to substantiate her politics with, you know, evidence and argument.

“I’m a little bit tired of spending so much of my time defending the most basic principles of what I stand for. It serves to distract. What I need is a safer space where I don’t lose so much energy justifying why social and environmental justice are worth spending a lot of society’s money on. What I want is a space where these ideas are a given and the debate is about how best to actualize them…”

A “safer space” is, presumably, a kind of echo chamber - one in which basic assumptions remain conveniently unquesti0ned, and in which such loaded terms as “society’s money” and “social and environmental justice” can be used freely and without clear definition. Principles are, of course, so much easier to have if one isn’t obliged to defend them or explain how they might work. Being clear about what one is arguing for - and keen to spend “a lot of society’s money on” – would, it seems, be a wearying distraction. Instead, Ms Moosa wishes to “actualize” her politics, which, I’m sure, is a comfort to us all. 

On a still more reassuring note, Ms Moosa also wishes to be “inspired by the good and the great to imagine what is possible – in that place where all life prospers,” and to have “conversations with people that are constructive, compassionate and rigorous… conversations that are both logical and passionate.” Though, given the previous paragraph, one might suspect that “passion” is of much greater importance to Ms Moosa than logic, or tiresome explanations.


Friday Ephemera

Tan and shower simultaneously. “Will revolutionise the experience of showering.” // Avalanche-retardant clothing. If the mountain should attack. // Bacon popcorn. // Bacon chocolate. // The Museum of Ham. // Humanoid shelving unit. // More Japanese manhole covers. // Cube games. // Christophe Huet. More. // Are You Ready For Marriage? (1950) The folks don’t approve. // The Moon in HD. Video. // Google Earth flight simulator. // A gallery of car parks. (h/t, 1+1=3.) // Professor Bob Carter on carbon dioxide, climate change and gross credulity. Part 2, 3, 4. (h/t, The Thin Man.) // Deogolwulf on fuzzwords. Warm impressions, meaning unclear. // Alan Dershowitz on interrogation. “Would you authorize the use of non-lethal forms of torture if you believed it was the only possible way of saving lives?” (h/t, Cookslaw.) // Robert Spencer on “creating dialogue.” // Christopher Hitchens on whose fault it is. “Perhaps it will be admitted, however grudgingly and belatedly, that there is something sui generis about Islamist fanaticism: something that is looking for a confrontation…” // Councillor opposes Tablighi Jamaat’s plans to build “mega-mosque” in London. Video “obituary” appears, featuring councillor and his family. More on Tablighi Jamaat. And. // The United States of Islam. And then the world. // Racing robot cars. // Iron Man teaser. // John Carpenter’s The Thing retold in Lego. // Via Coudal, a short history of TV science fiction. Captain Video, Time Tunnel, Rocky Jones: Space Ranger. // Aerosol pancakes. A miracle breakthrough. // Winsor McCay’s Dream of the Rarebit Fiend. Indigestion fantasies. // And finally, via The Thin Man, Miss Dinah Washington.

Emasculated Liars

Given recent posts on the University of Delaware’s bizarre indoctrination programme and my comments on corrupting students’ probity, it may be worth revisiting an extract from an interview with Theodore Dalrymple, presented here in longer form. The second paragraph below was brought to mind by Dr Shakti Butler’s claim that “all white people” are racists. I was trying to imagine how a student might react to this assertion and, given the context, how disinclined they might be to respond realistically - and what that unrealism might entail.

My father was a communist though he was also a businessman. Our house was full of communist literature from the 1930s and 40s... It was always clear that my father's concern for humanity was not always matched by his concern for men, to put it mildly, for whom (as individuals) he often expressed contempt. He found it difficult to enter an equal relationship with anyone, and preferred to play Stalin to their Molotov… I think the great disjunction between my father's expressed ideas (and ideals) and his everyday conduct affected me, and made me suspicious of people with grand schemes of universal improvement…

Political correctness is communist propaganda writ small. In my study of communist societies, I came to the conclusion that the purpose of communist propaganda was not to persuade or convince, nor to inform, but to humiliate; and therefore, the less it corresponded to reality the better. When people are forced to remain silent when they are being told the most obvious lies, or even worse when they are forced to repeat the lies themselves, they lose once and for all their sense of probity. To assent to obvious lies is to co-operate with evil, and in some small way to become evil oneself. One's standing to resist anything is thus eroded, and even destroyed. A society of emasculated liars is easy to control. I think if you examine political correctness, it has the same effect, and is intended to.

Examples of how the obvious can be ignored with great determination can be found here, here, here and here.


Thanks to ‘flu, I’m preoccupied with the question of exactly how much mucous the average human head can produce. (More than I’d have thought possible, it seems.) Until normal service is resumed, please feel free to browse the archives, or watch some short films, or peruse the greatest hits. The ephemera archive contains somewhere in the region of 700 or so items, so there ought to be something in there to help you pass the time.

Back shortly. Cough.

One Down in Delaware

A victory for FIRE

“The University of Delaware has dropped an ideological re-education program that was referred to in the university’s own materials as a “treatment” for students’ incorrect attitudes and beliefs. The program’s stated goal was for the approximately 7,000 students in Delaware’s residence halls to adopt highly specific university-approved views on politics, race, sexuality, sociology, moral philosophy and environmentalism… Universities often cannot defend in public what they try to do in private, and the situation at Delaware was no exception… While we are pleased that this program is over, it is stunning that it ever existed at a public university in the United States.”

Meanwhile, at the University of Maine, at Tufts, at Duke, and in Seattle’s public schools...