Thursday, November 09, 2023

9: It is entirely possible to think that the Atlantic Slave Trade is quite a serious stain on Britain’s national history; and to simultaneously believe that street furniture should not be summarily removed as part of a popular demonstration.

It is entirely possible to think that the Atlantic Slave Trade is quite a serious stain on Britain’s national history; and to simultaneously believe that street furniture should not be summarily removed as part of a popular demonstration.

It is entirely possible to think that covering your mouth with gauze during a ‘flu epidemic is a sensible precaution, and to simultaneously think that governments have got no right to make laws telling people what to do with their faces.

It is equally possible to think that the medical evidence that masks inhibited the spread of Covid was pretty shaky and to simultaneously think that the government was doing the best it could under very difficult circumstances and we should all have stuck to the rules, even Boris Johnson.

It is entirely possible to think that it would be a good idea for the British Labour Party to have adopted a socialist programme, but to simultaneously believe that Mr Jeremy Corbyn campaigned inadequately during the European referendum and said some very ill-considered things about Jewish people.

It is equally possible to think that Jeremy Corbyn was a man of integrity and honesty, that the Jew thing was obvious bollocks from start to finish and to simultaneously think that Momentum’s socialist manifesto would have been a disaster in twenty first century Britain.

There are two sides two every argument, apart from the one about who created the Silver Surfer.

But a substantial minority of the human race believes that Covid Masks were part of a global conspiracy. A substantial minority of the human race believes that Jews (or space aliens, or Democrats, or the globalists, but when you scratch it, it usually comes down to the Jews) wanted me to wear a breath mask in order to acclimatise me to doing exactly what the government tells me. And to symbolise the fact that I have no right to free speech. And to show that white people are the real slaves and Black people are the real masters.

Or that someone in a high place just invented a pointless and irksome rule because he gets off on making pointless and irksome rules.

And a much larger group of people, people who don’t consciously subscribe to conspiracy theories, have picked up a general vibe that wearing masks is liberal, or left wing, or, as it is generally framed nowadays, woke. And that refusing to wear masks is the proper freedom loving commie hating stand up to authority back to blighty common sense spirit of the Blitz thing to do.

And I know that they think that.

And they know that I know.

And Sir Kier Starmer knows that I know that they know that I know.

So when I mask-up, I am not simply obeying perfectly sensible public health advice. I am also sticking it, very firmly, up the un-vaccinated bottoms of right wing conspiracy theorists.

And when you don’t mask up, you are not simply ignoring public health advice that you think is a bit silly. You are also refusing to take the knee to the liberal woke politically correct elites.

When the next pandemic comes—probably in time for Christmas—the government of the day will not make its choices based on finely balanced scientific advise. Not only. They will be consciously aware that masks are “a bit left wing” and not wearing masks is “a bit right wing”. And that will influence their decision.

They might say “We don’t care about the symbolism; we’ll just follow the science.” That would be the sensible thing to say. But “not following the symbolism and just following the science” itself has a symbolic value. To some people, the whole idea of being sensible is ‘a bit left wing’.

This is not a new situation. We are human beings; we have consciousness and language and we make up stories; we inhabit a universe of symbols as well as a universe of objects. Crosses and masks and shamrocks and poppies and lions and vegan sausages have powerful symbolic meanings about which people are prepared to go to war and write jolly stiff letters to the Daily Telegraph.

But we increasingly inhabit a symbolic universe which consists, not of complex texts to be interpreted by priests and shaman; but as collections of singular, irreducible nuggets of meaning.

I get that fuck and nigger and gollywogs and men’s dicks and Harry Potter are dirty or racist or pornographic or transphobic regardless of context. But we increasingly aspire to a conceptual universe where everything has context-free meaning.

There is no neutral space.

There are no actions which are not symbolic.

There are no thoughts outside of language.

Whoever is not with us is against us.

If you aren’t actively punching Nazis then you are sticking it to the Libtards.

Or very possibly vice versa.

Some time ago I wrote a short book, which I entitled One Hundred And Forty Characters In Search of an Argument.

It would now have to be titled “Two hundred and eighty characters in search of an argument or four thousand if you have a blue tick.”

I argued that the site formally known as Twitter tends to turn all debate into a game of “What side are you on?” It doesn’t really matter whether arguments are wrong or right, correct or incorrect, sensible or stupid. Arguments function only as bugle calls, as badges of identity, as signifiers of tribal orientation.

I reject your argument, not because it is illogical or factually incorrect, nor even because it is based on a false ideology. Rightness and wrongness are not qualities that arguments have. I reject your argument because it is the kind of thing that the kind of person who believes the kind of thing you believe might be expected to believe.

I happen to think that it would be a good idea for the UK to maintain free trade with the continent we are geographically part of. But there are good arguments against this.

I happen to think that it was quite a good idea for a female person to essay the role of Doctor Who. But there are good arguments against this.

I think that the rich should be slightly poorer and the poor should be slightly richer. But there are good arguments against this.

I think that women should have the final say about abortion. I don’t think that even nurses who murder babies should be hanged. I don’t think teachers should be allowed to beat students with sticks. Or indeed with anything else. I think that we need to radically reduce the amount of fossil fuel we burn. I think that Jack Kirby created the Silver Surfer. But there are good arguments against all these points. Except the last one.

But even quite serious politicians are increasingly reluctant to tell me what the good arguments are. They would rather tell me that the kinds of people who agree with me are lefties or remoaners or corbynites or wokies.

Since I wrote that book, the argument about identity and privilege has moved on. 

Or very possibly it has stayed in exactly the same place and I have caught up with it.

I now understand that European and American society is built primarily on white supremacy, and secondarily on patriarchy and also on a “Christian” hegemony. “The Left” now broadly means those who think that this is a bad thing and should be dismantled. “The Right” now broadly means those who benefit from the present state of affairs and want to maintain it. This is essentially the only political dividing line which matters. Every opinion, every action, every episode of Doctor Who and every flavour of Walkers Crisps is to be understood according to where it fits into that power struggle.

White supremacy does not mean “white people are in charge of every single interaction and every single organisation.” It doesn’t mean “people in military uniforms or with bedsheets over their heads burning crosses”. It means something more like “treating whiteness as the default state”; assuming that everything is or should be white unless it has a very good excuse not to be.

When I studied A level English literature in school every single book I studied was written by a white author. Every single character we studied was a white character. Except one. And he strangled his wife.

This post forms part of an extended essay. 
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Thomas said...

It occurs to me that the covid mask has been (intended as) a symbol from the beginning. Everyone was convinced it didn't do much, especially not when everyone kept reusing the stupid things. But protection was not the most important effect of it. When everyone wore them when going outside, it served as a visual reminder that the situation was not normal and that we had good reason to keep our distance. Which is a thing that was more effective than masking.
It also served as a pretty good indicator of who would respect your boundaries or be careless about it.

Gavin Burrows said...

“There are no actions which are not symbolic.”
True enough. But there are actions which are wholly or primarily symbolic, and actions which are primarily concrete which still attract symbolic value. At George Floyd’s memorial speech, Al Sharpton said “we could never be who we wanted and dream to be [because] you kept your knee on our neck.” He was generalising from a specific moment, turning it into a symbol. But the speech had power because the specific moment was concrete, there was an actual knee on an actual man’s neck which cut off his breathing until he died. (And after.)
Conspiracy theories fetishise symbols. Prove to their adherents that there wasn’t a basement of abused children below that Pizza place, that in fact there wasn’t even a basement, and they’ll just shrug it off as an irrelevance. Other examples apply. They start with what they want to believe and stick with it regardless.
And because they fetishise symbols they are attracted towards what’s already symbolic. If you read David Icke (remember I said if) there’s an abundance of explanation how all corporate logos actually give the game away that everything is run by the lizards, provided you are on enough mind-altering drugs. Quite why the lizards would develop so elaborate a cover then deliberately give their own game away, well perhaps that’s covered in another volume I’ve not read yet.

While we may object to things done by, say, Monsanto. But that’s because of things they’re doing, not because we don’t like their logo much.
Conspiracy theories are almost by definition about disconnecting from reality to inhabit a world of pure signs. While we attempt to interrogate the real world best we can. Ultimately, that’s the difference. And we risk being pulled into their world just by arguing with them.
…I will at this point start on about the materialist conception of history unless I receive the standard PayPal donations. Please tick the ‘used notes’ box.

Gavin Burrows said...

There isn’t an absolute equivalence between conspiracy theories and far-right ideology, but there’s a strong connection. And when they do connect the ultimate conspiracy theory, the one all the others cluster round, is that it’s white people who are the persecuted minority. This notion dissolves on contact with reality, so must be held apart from it at all costs.

(That should probably be inserted in the above somewhere. But it's been a long day...)

Andrew Rilstone said...

"Conspiracy theories are almost by definition about disconnecting from reality to inhabit a world of pure signs."

Do you know Woody Guthrie's Ballad of Tom Joad? Allegedly, he wrote it after he's seen the movie of Grapes of Wrath, never having read the book. John Steinbeck is supposed to have said "You bastard. You managed to say in seventeen stanzas what took me six hundred pages."

So, anyway, my series of articles run until the end of this month.

Gavin Burrows said...


Delete or embargo comments above if required!

Andrew Rilstone said...

Not remotely. Merely amused that we are thinking along the same lines.

We ought to meet up for coffee or do a podcast or something one of these days.

Gavin Burrows said...

I like the fair city of Bristol, but rarely find myself there these days. Are you ever back in Brighton?