I’ve never given a lecture before, so let me apologise in advance. I’ll be talking about things which some of you will know more about than me, I’ll touch on struggles that are not my own, and I’ll definitely get some of this wrong. I had second thoughts about doing this: guys with beards telling everybody how it is is probably what got the world into this mess in the first place. And then I was listening to Nas’s One Time 4 Your Mind the other day and I thought, lets do one time 4 the mind son. I thought let’s talk about where the British mind is at, and how it got there. Let’s talk about the reality tunnel that we live in today. And let’s talk about the idea of whether it is possible for people like me – by which I mean privileged, white, rich, arseholes – to live moral lives. Just a year ago, I don’t think I would have felt confident giving my genuine opinion on anything….But now I know the time, got a older mind. Plus control a nine, fine, see now I represent mine.
We all live in our own reality tunnel, seeing things through the prism of our own prejudice and expectations. Look at Star Trek. To us, the Federation seems benign, travelling the galaxy in a quest for knowledge. Wait a minute, though. Some planets are just holiday worlds. Umm, did they choose that, or did the Federation tell them that suddenly their whole planet was going to be washing beach towels and handing out cocktails? Is that what the USS Enterprise is flying about the galaxy looking for – new sex worlds? Perhaps the formal name is ‘holiday world’, but of course they are actually sex worlds. If we take the Enterprise as being representative of the Federation, it seems to have three approaches when it discovers new alien life. FUCK IT, STUN IT or KILL IT. And holdup, that ship they fly about in seems to be pretty much a giant floating gun. That’s not good, is it? Often, they are so keen to shoot something as powerfully as possible that they divert energy from their life support systems to the gun. Yet we see them as being altruistic, floating about in the USS Peacegun, looking for places to go on holiday. I’d imagine the Federation looks quite different if you’re living on an undiscovered world with a lot of beaches. And maybe Star Trek looks different if you live in South America and you have a history of explorers being the first stage of colonising invasions. Does that sound stupid to you? That’s because I’m from a different reality tunnel. One where I wander around thinking about the ideology of Star Trek, when I’m supposed to be writing a lecture.
So what is Britain’s reality tunnel? I think they key to understanding Britain and America are that they view themselves as exceptional. As being an exception even to things like international law, and the rules of war. American exceptionalism comes from the fact that it developed it’s imperial tendencies in the era of modern warfare, or possibly because it only exists because it perpetrated genocide against its own indigenous inhabitants. It could roughly be expressed as we alone have a moral right to use force. Britain’s exceptionalism is similar, but slightly more colonial in tone. I think it can be summarised as: we are civilised and other people are not. As a kid, I used to love a big book in our local library called Civilisation. I think I thought, aged about 12 or 13, that if I read it all I would be civilised. It was the book of the landmark BBC series from the late 1960s by Kenneth Clarke. It’s most famous now, I suppose, for having focussed entirely on Western Civilisation, as if nothing else mattered. In the book, Clarke came across as an intelligent man with an empathy for other cultures. At one point he even muses that the British museum, for us a sign of civilisation, would have looked as threatening to other cultures as the periscope of a nuclear submarine. Nonetheless, what is truly remarkable about that book is this: Civilisation is never defined. It doesn’t have to be. It is self evident that what is civilised is us, and the Western Tradition. The book starts with a comparison of a bust of Apollo and an African mask. He writes of the bust
“Whatever its merits as a work of art, I don’t think there’s any doubt that it embodies a higher state of civilisation than the mask. They both represent spirits, messengers from another world – that is to say, from a world of our own imagining. To the Negro imagination it is a world of fear and darkness, ready to inflict horrible punishment for the smallest infringement of a taboo. To the Hellenistic imagination, it is a world of light and confidence, in which Gods are like ourselves, only more beautiful, and descend to earth to teach men reason and the laws of harmony.”
And that is the reality tunnel of this culture. We are civilised and others are not. Indeed, we believe our imaginations are more civilised than those of others, and that we create art and culture which is a reflection of ourselves and our desire to promote reason and harmony. If you can’t find those ideas in our culture today, just stop me afterwards and I’ll be happy to point them out to you in today’s paper, where they will form the basis of most of the reporting of our latest foreign military adventures.
So how is our reality tunnel constructed? Obviously the media is key. The BBC continues to project homogeneity onto an increasingly divided and unequal society. Even the names of the programmes (The One Show, The Great British Bake Off) suggest trying to push conformity at an increasingly diverse audience, many of whom understand BBC purely as a porn term. There’s a horrifying lack of diversity. A recent report said that only 1.5 % of programmes on British TV last year had a black, asian, or minority ethnic director. But then how could there be diversity? How could you continue to push the idea of homogeneity if there was diversity? How could you continue to say we are civilised and other people are not if you had to produce a fair quota of programmes that reflected multicultural British experience, when some of those people’s experiences involve Britain blowing up their grandparents? I’m being facetious, but I honestly wonder if the lack of diversity in broadcasting isn’t at least partly conscious. It’s not like there aren’t writers and actors and filmmakers from minorities submitting their stories. It’s that the broadcasters have for decades literally ( and I mean literally, it’s important that we understand this) had meetings with those people, sometimes commissioned treatments and pilots from them, and then taken those scripts and thrown them into a furnace.
So a lot of our media tends to be produced by a small, homogenous, often painfully middle-class group of people. The general attitude to people outside of the Oxbridge bubble isn’t intolerance exactly. Sure, there’s a certain air of smiling through gritted teeth as people from the local housing estate turn up at the village fete, but really it’s just an overwhelming lack of interest. That expression on their faces when you’re pitching your E14 set cop drama (“Grimescene Investigators”) is the same one Prince Philip wears when he’s forced watch a Maori war dance. England is a hugely parochial country, where nobody speaks any languages. Anyone who doubts any of this should go see who’s cleaning Broadcasting House, where race relations seem to have been closely modelled on Gone With The Wind. Scotland, naturally, raises a couple of hundred million pounds of licence fee a year that isn’t spent in Scotland – subsidising the stories, music, and humour of other people whose lives, we are left to assume, are somehow more valuable and meaningful.
And what is the culture that is produced by our media? Well at the moment entertainment must have the blandest, most soothing tone possible. The average evening’s television is baking, pottery, ballroom dancing – like the occupational therapy programme of someone who has suffered a horrendous mental breakdown. And that’s because people are going to need it to recover from face-clawing, fear-mongering hysteria of the news. The Batman villain The Scarecrow produces a fear gas that gives his victims terrifying hallucinations. I was laughing with my kid the other day, saying that Batman got hit with the fear gas on an early mission and everything else is just the effects of the gas on him. The larger-than-life villains are just local teenagers being beaten to a pulp by this madman. He probably doesn’t even put his costume on. The Joker is just some children’s entertainer who gets regularly victimised during his flashbacks and The Penguin is a local pigeon. Really we’ve all had a blast of the fear gas. If you see a Muslim on a plane and think terrorist, that’s a delusion. People walk about thinking they’re going to be mugged or raped, and do you know why? They’re pumping us full of fear gas, man, and it gets into the house through your TV. That’s why in the Western world, in these times of plenty and no real threats, we’re governed by stress, the hormonal response to danger and famine.
The question of how racism informed slavery and slavery was informed by racism is a complex one, which I’m happy to leave to people who know more. But there was one ,often downplayed, element to slavery and colonialism: it was driven by greed. Indeed the Caribbean slave trade might encapsulate the whole sordid thing, as it was largely for sugar production, and many suffered for something that nobody actually needed. Colonialism was for profit. India was first colonised by a private company. Post war, The US was a superpower unlike any the earth has ever seen. It encouraged European countries in their colonial endeavours because of something called the “dollar gap”. America was producing so many manufactured goods that countries like France and Britain didn’t have enough dollars to pay for them. So France was encouraged to plunder Indochina, and Britain held onto Malaya for similar reasons. So the subjugation of whole societies (an appeal against Malayan massacres was heard in British courts this week) and the theft of their resources was a simple matter of accounting, and explicitly involved with consumerism. This is what we are built on, and it is permitted by the maxim we are civilised and you are not.Britain is so far from dealing with the reality of colonialism that the Raj still regularly forms a backdrop for romantic dramas.
Our whole society is founded on ideas of economic growth. If you borrow money at a rate of interest, you will need to grow the investment to pay back the principal plus the interest and retain a profit. So Britain has always needed to grow, even when the resources they needed to grow had other people living on top of them. We are a society where everybody is expected to be trying to get rich: no matter how futile the attempt. And despite the fact that we know something that we learn from every magazine and hip-hop song. Something we’ve known since we listened to fairytales as kids. Rich people aren’t happy.
The reason rich people are so unhappy is that luxury is only designed to be aspired to. It’s part of the sales pitch of capitalism – the advert. You’re not supposed to actually have it, any more than you’re supposed to eat the picture of a hamburger off a menu. Take that holiday brochure in which a waiter serves a couple a romantic meal on a beach. In reality, your chair leg would sort of sink into the sand at some odd kind of angle and you’d have to shift your weight in the other direction to try to counter it. The table would sink into the sand, too, altering its angle every time you pressed your fork down on to the plate. You would be dimly aware of being annoyed that you could see your waiter smoking under a palm tree between courses. Later, he would startle you by laughing explosively with a passing member of staff and you would vaguely wonder if they were talking about you. There would be little flies everywhere but they wouldn’t spoil the food, because all the food would taste of sand. It’s an illness really, the pursuit of wealth. Beyond a certain point money is useless. A pair of diamond-encrusted high-heels costing £276,000 are the most expensive shoes in the world. If you encrust anything with enough diamonds it can be the world’s most expensive. Stick a £50 note in dog shit and you’ve got a world record.
Only the very rich and the very poor can boast about the sheer act of having bought a thing. For the middle classes it’s all about connoisseurship. You can’t boast about your spending power, so instead it’s about your taste, as you burrow deeper and deeper into the marketed life. Connoisseurship is what used to be boasted of by merchants – ‘Look at all the lovely stuff I’ve gathered to sell.’ We’re still merchants but now we’re selling the idea of ourselves. And, of course, our personal taste is largely meaningless, but it’s all we’ve got, so we give it the force of moral judgement.
I live in a nuclear armed state that has spent centuries looting the world. I pay taxes that buy bombs, aircraft carriers, fissile material. Can I really be moral being just because I don’t like Dapper Laughs? I have taste. I don’t do what mainstream culture tells me to. I buy independent comics, and conscious hip-hop. But how can I buy my way out of problems intrinsically linked with consumption? You can take it further. Am I really a better person if I don’t use discriminatory language, but I have little to do with the groups that language discriminates against? Am I not just drawing a circle around myself and my friends and saying we are the good people? Am I not just repurposing our culture’s defining myth? We are civilised and you are not. An ethical consumer is still just a consumer. We’re all beautiful individual little snowflakes, but it’s all just snow.
I remember as a kid scouring those little brochures you’d get from Woolworths for my parents’ Christmas presents. Like you, I moved on to express myself through the charities I supported, the bands I was into, even the people I hung around with. Around me grew a society where people would turn up for the half hour of adverts before a film and never complain, where we tried to express our individuality through the purchase of mass-produced goods. Even my favourite comedian, Bill Hicks, was peddling that ‘individuality through smoking’ thing. That was just an angle thought up by ad men decades earlier. People started to speak of the ads being better than the TV shows, somehow believing against all the evidence that the TV shows were the principal content and the adverts incidental.
We have a bit of a hangover from earlier times. People think of themselves as a ‘self’, a conscious being. In late capitalism the ‘self’ is no longer the ego. It’s our brand identity. Most of what we do is not to serve our ego, our own idea of ourselves, but actually to serve our status, other people’s idea of ourselves. We’re the first completely market-oriented generation in history and it has destroyed our ability to be free and conscious. We’re not the people we pretend to be. If I invented a time machine, I’d like to think that my first trip would be to go back and kill Hitler. In reality, I’d use the first trip to kill Piers Morgan’s mother at the moment of his conception, and the second one to go back and check.
I’ve always felt ambivalent about psychoanalysis. I’ve thought of going into therapy, but I know it’d be like hiring a window cleaner for a burning building. It says a lot about our society that we feel our daddy not playing with us enough might explain our whole personality, but people whose countries were destroyed by our troops, or later our corporations, should just get over it. When talking about our relationships we can admit “it’s complicated”, while we feel intractable international problems can be solved with a bit of simple bombing. But perhaps we could look at Britain as a therapist might look at it. It lacks the desire to address it’s problems, that’s a starting point. It lives in denial about its past. It’s paranoid about its own people, it’s prone to lash out. It’s in a pretty bad place.
I was an alcoholic once, a long time ago now. Sometimes strangers come up to me and ask me how I stopped drinking. Sometimes they admit they have a problem themselves. And recovery is always a lot of little steps, so I try to suggest something minor to them – going and talking to someone about it, even just a friend, admitting they’re in trouble maybe. Any little practical thing I can achieve in a short conversation. What I actually feel like saying to them is just too large. I want to tell them that I was there, and I couldn’t see anything else either. I was trapped in an addiction that meant I couldn’t enjoy the moment, and I couldn’t see any way out. And now I spend a lot of days sitting under a tree listening to great hip-hop records and writing jokes. I spend whole days just writing jokes to tell my kids when they get out of school. Sometimes they don’t laugh at any of them, but it’s still good. I want to tell those people when I meet them that there is a place beyond this. That they just can’t see it from where they’re standing.
And as a country there is a place beyond this. The suffering caused by the modern British mindset are just the problems created by any troubled mind. We could just try to come to terms with our shame over our history, you know, and move on. The payment of reparations for the colonial past will feel like a relief when it comes. It might even be fun. I thought when Glasgow hosted the Commonwealth Games, how great it would have been if we’d used the opening ceremony to rename the places that are named after the slave trade: Jamaica Street, the Kingston Bridge. We should have handed over the profits from the games at the opening ceremony, while the Proclaimers sang a terrible version of Redemption Song. There is a place beyond this, I think. Because problems are presented as insoluble doesn’t mean that they are. We could probably treat every wounded soldier from the last decade of war for the cost of the first missile we drop on Syria. We could change our institutions so they helped us grow rather than imprisoned us. Poverty, whether physical, intellectual or spiritual, is manmade, and we can unmake it. I think we could start by trying to change our founding principle from We are civilised and other people are not to
There is a place beyond this. And it’s going to be beautiful.