CHRONICLES PART III: ‘“Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right”? A Triptych of Sketches Intended to Delineate the Present Culture Wars’, Segment I
Make sure to check out the first two parts of Brett Mottram’s CHRONICLES before reading Part III, so that you don’t spoil the story for yourself! You can read Part I here.
Here follows the account of Brett Mottram, M.A., reproduced from datum recovered from hard-drive 12369482360112416284614612840, formerly deleted, originally composed 23/04/2019 of the Common Era of the Modern Terrestrial Calendar.
The following pieces are intended as efforts, however modest, to correct the present climate of political polarisation which has spilled over from university campuses into Westminster, the mainstream media, and even the most intimate aspects of our private lives, causing untold suffering with every step. The pieces represent differing views, but should also be seen to offer areas of common ground which might do something to challenge the currently dominant idea of two entirely opposed ideological camps, one on the virtuous left and the other on the fascistic right. Today, such a challenge is an intellectual and moral imperative, for the sake of the truth, ourselves, and future generations. At the very least, I hope that greater clarity, understanding, and sympathy might result from the following exploration.
Imagine the collection below as a cabinet containing and consisting of a kind of secular triptych, three panel paintings joined together by hinges, which the faithful, especially in the medieval period and into the Renaissance, used as objects of contemplation. As they gazed at these images, viewers saw their own lives depicted in those of the Holy Family and the saints, and hoped that the resulting identification, experience, and reflection would help them to overcome trials, live virtuous lives, perform good deeds, and build the just city. This textual triptych is offered in the same spirit.
The Exterior Inscription (Read Across the Reverse Sides of the Panels When the Cabinet is Closed)
We live in an age of increasingly polarised politics. Brexit debates, accelerated immigration, identity politics, the destruction caused by religious and far-right extremism, the status of freedom of speech, environmental crises, and social and economic inequality are just a handful of issues which have contributed to the heightening of tensions in the public sphere. As these issues multiply and solutions are not forthcoming, the only voices to be heard belong to those who can scream the loudest, and it is easier than ever to feel utter despair at the state of the world – especially if those screamers are telling you that you are a victim of oppressive power structures. A convincing case has even been made for attributing the incontrovertible rise in reported cases of depression to this last cause. But the link between the publicly political and the personally political would be obvious even if this last conjecture were to be entirely disproven; the truth is, these broader issues, to adapt Auden’s phrase, are obsessing – even infecting – our private lives.
In my experience this influence overwhelmingly takes the form of suffocating expectations of allegiance: currently, especially in an academic milieu, or any other social network which claims to be left-leaning, there has developed a tendency to quickly or even automatically label people as allies or enemies. In the past week alone I have experienced the phrases ‘on our side’ and ‘us and them’, along with the tacit assumption that everyone to whom you happen to be speaking will agree with your wild claim or slander because you all know how to tell apart the good guys and the bad guys. We have all experienced this, even if some of us might not be aware of it because we believe more strongly in the battlelines. Apparently, according to this outlook, each of us falls into one of two categories.
The first encompasses those who voted for Brexit, who have concerns (however mild or legitimate) about immigration, who are Islamophobic and racist, who believe in the importance of tradition (however adapted, modernised, and inclusive of other cultures), who come from either a working class or obscenely affluent background, who are indifferent to or sceptical of climate change and economic inequalities, and who believe that people should be allowed to say what they think. They also probably think that Trump is onto something.
The second category encompasses those who voted against Brexit, who are in favour of unlimited immigration and/or a no-border policy, who are Islamophilic and naïve or in denial about the dangers of multiculturalism, who believe that tradition – even in the sense of artistic inheritance – is a corrupt construct privileging a minority from a certain ethnic (and gender-, class-, and sexuality-defined) background while excluding all others, who are thinking members of the modest and educated middle classes, who want to stop or at least palliate climate change and make everyone equal in every way, and who are wary of saying or doing anything which might offend those who might be or have been somehow oppressed. They, by contrast with the first group, probably think that Trump is on something.
What do you do if you dissent from any aspect of one of these broad positions? The polarisation described above means that if you speak out against even one element of a doctrine, you’re assumed to be opposed to the others too. We know that the consequences of this can be grave: foundering of friendships, obloquy, end of career. For example, if someone, especially a public figure such as a politician, has doubts about the wisdom of mass immigration, they will almost certainly be labelled a racist or even a fascist – and in our current situation it would make no difference if the person in question was fluent in several world languages, was an expert in Islamic art, had a proven track record of working to improve immigrants’ integration into their new society, or had even originally arrived in their country as an immigrant themselves.
I would propose that the divisions just outlined, based on lazy (if not dishonest) and unfounded assumptions, are not only doing us no favours, but are doing us actual harm as a society. They create an atmosphere of doubt and self-censorship which perpetuates our problems (while failing to tackle actual injustices) by constructing a false consensus which few dare to challenge, either because they doubt themselves due to the fact that they don’t think the same things as everyone else, or because they fear being suspected of far-right sympathies. This last example might have revealed that this is a problem especially of the left (after all, every reasonable person opposes the true far right), and one which has to be faced by all who believe in leftist ideals and hate to see them transformed into a totalitarian party line. At present, such a party line is alienating would-be sympathisers and driving them dangerously towards the extreme right. My own experience of this issue has taken (and still takes) place in that very pseudo-leftist setting, British Academia, where the bubble of the campus is a hothouse for ‘wokeness’, political correctness, a narcissistic obsession with identity politics, sexuality and gender (rather than human personalities), constant fears of cultural appropriation, a denatured form of something which calls itself feminism, anti-Western sentiment, and, for good measure, opposition to everything done by Israel. All of these phenomena, perpetuating the ‘us and them’ mentality and creating divisions in our society while failing to engage in the reasonable dialogue which is the only means of addressing its real injustices and crises, can only result in the destruction of everything we value as citizens of a liberal democracy.
The Left-Hand Panel Painting
Towards the End of a Humanities Degree: An Attempt to Understand and Expound the Current ‘Liberal’ Worldview
(The following imaginative reconstruction is based entirely on my personal experience of events, comments, and attitudes directly seen and heard over the past year or so. Naturally, they have been creatively shaped, but it is my sincere hope that the result, notwithstanding its leaps, platitudes, and contradictions, is representative of the realities. Names have been changed in the interests of anonymity.)
That glass door… Is there anyone coming out? This blinding sunlight, with its inconvenient reflection… Do I look alright? I can’t wait until this degree’s over, just a few thousand words to go… Great: finally inside. Ugh, why’s it always so hot in here? All this glass: a brilliant design for a library, especially in early summer, in a university, with its bonus heat-haze of dissertation and exam revision madness rising from every face and brain. Floor 3… Hmm… Half past three. All good. So busy here… How can you take a call on these stairs? Seriously, girl. Ugh! I guess people talk about all sorts of things in all sorts of places; it doesn’t matter if they need to shout either. The same frankness online too…
That whole bloody debate last night! Ed grinding his axe, as always. All I did was post… No, I’m not going there. But I can’t let it go. Why can’t I let it go? It’s like it’s possessed me… Grrrr! Female actresses not getting paid as much as male ones, that was the dispute, the issue, the fiercely-snarled-over bone of contention. Clearly, incontrovertibly true, of course. I’m adamant. And him going on about evidence, bringing up Matt Smith’s prior roles to undermine my point about how much Claire Foy was getting, or hauling up Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn and Sophia Loren and God knows who else from that old well of history to act as witnesses for the defence… And that was before the waffle about different jobs being attractive to men and women, and his statistical evidence… Evidence… Well, I’m sorry, but you don’t need evidence of that – the existence of the pay gap and of gender inequality is obvious, and it has been for centuries! Everyone knows it. As though the patriarchy doesn’t exist, as though it hasn’t always existed. He’s just being argumentative for the sake of it. Men always feel the need to assert themselves. A bit like Michael at that dinner in Italy months ago… Michael… weird guy, especially with what he said that other time about cultural appropriation (how could he deny that?) … I do wish that Iggy hadn’t lost it in the comments, though. Bless him, trying to help by responding to Ed’s bile, but Christ it doesn’t help the cause, that kind of resorting to name calling. But then Ed was being stubborn… using examples from the 1950s… perhaps he did have a point… Actresses back then… No, it must be nonsense. Need to drink more water and get more vitamins down you, dear, calm down, de-stress! You’re not thinking straight! Everyone’s going on about it all now aren’t they, everyone’s waking up to it, on campuses, on social media, on the news, in the film industry… I bet it’s only on building sites, greasy canteens, and old people’s homes that no-one has a clue. Or on council estates. But that’s how we ended up with shit like Brexit after all, isn’t it?
Aghh! Need to remember to be careful on those stairs. Oh wow: ‘Inspirational Women: How Not to Feel Like an Impostor in the Workplace’ – must go to that. Good that they put these posters up. Selina mentioned her name the other day, said how eloquent a speaker she was… Well good for her! Will let Selina know she’ll be here. Friday at 5pm… Tonight! Fab. We’ll go together. Should tell Tasha, too. Hey, have you seen that Gratuity Shehan is giving a talk at 5pm today? Fancy it? Then pizza and a pint? What emoji suits that? Need something which conveys fun of pizza and drinks, yet also gravitas of topic… Nah, forget it: don’t need them at all.
Don’t worry! Thanks! The doorways here are so narrow! Well she’s working hard… I can’t believe I’m searching for this heap of crap… Probably going to be a monstrous volume, too. He avoids replying to my emails, then in the eventual meeting tells me my work’s shit, then wants me to read all these fucking books. Great supervisor there. And why should I read them? All written by old, straight, white men… We don’t need this stuff anymore. At least some of them will die off soon. And some other things seem to be going in the right direction as well, in spite of the fascists who want to oppose it.
That last talk was amazing… Absolutely right that these things are organised for us as women, and for those who identify as LGBTQ or people of colour, too. Should we say that? Wasn’t ‘colour’ a segregation-era term? Perhaps ‘ethnic minorities’ (of course, ‘BAME’ now, isn’t it?), but what happens when they’re no longer minorities? Ah, someone can always change the language to suit the cause of greater understanding and inclusiveness. The ideal is the important thing, the ultimate goal. The point is, we really can do anything, and we don’t need anyone to tell us how. Fuck all the rest. Aaliyah and Giulia confuse me… Why won’t they get on board with it? Why do they hesitate? Brainwashed still, of course… all the nice people are, and they are sweet. Maybe it’s where they come from? They can’t quite understand what we’re fighting? They seem to get on with Michael though… Hmm… At least the next one with Selina, and maybe Tasha and Adriana too (will tell them, must remember!), is something to look forward to. We really should take possession of our own lives, we deserve it, they’re ours, and we’ve been fighting for so long. Where the –? Yes… fuck what anyone else thinks (within certain limits, of course – always got to be careful not to offend certain people) – do what you like, say what you like, dress how you like. No need to behave or be sexy for anyone.
Finally… Jesus! Size as expected. Weight as expected. Dust as expected. Contents exactly as expected! How could I possibly have guessed? ‘The Concept of the Artes in the Middle Ages’, ‘Grammar’, ‘Anglo-Saxon and Carolingian Studies’… Michael would probably love it. Can’t believe I and him, once… God… God in a fucking enamelled, gilded, gift-wrapped box! At least now… But Si, he’s… No, no he’s fine. A nice guy. Interesting. Writes poetry, writes the odd article and actually gets paid for it (not that that matters, given what the media’s like here), lived in Argentina for a while, plays guitar. In bed… Hmm. Could improve. He’ll do for now. Good fun. Need to book train tickets to see him next week… should be a good exhibition over there. Love Picasso… And all from 1932 as well… should be some real gems. Can cope with that. Cope with him. Won’t get smashed and insult his mates again. Why are you worrying, love? It will be enjoyable. Dates are fun. Have a nice lunch at that Lebanese place – been meaning to try that out. Good excuse. No, great excuse. Haha!
Christ it’s hot. Like that bit in Gatsby, before everything in the narrative spills out and goes tits-up. Renew these? Oh, noooo, don’t think so, dear. All fine there. Got the book, about to escape, not far to go now… Hope there’s a breeze outside. Sometimes I wish I smoked properly… Long day today… Save it for later: nice little carcinogenic treat… What did Michael call it once? A memento mori. Ridiculous man – no, boy! But I’m definitely changing out of these as soon as I get back; I might as well get ready for later. Into what though? Must do laundry – add that to list. Or just do it? Yes, remember laundry! A-ha! Marvellous idea – that top from Milan! Perfect. Bit nipply… can just wear the jacket though. Nice. Can’t believe how prudish some people are… Actually, why bother with the jacket? Fuck the jacket. Warm summer nights… And I’ve shown more before: God, the rumours that fly about Oxbridge colleges… Good old Taylor there again, with the rumours being terrible and cruel but mostly true! Just a few more steps…
That glass door, with its slight, golden reflection of the setting sun as the scented air and the spirit of the evening begin to rise… Must write that one down! Time to represent. I’ll message them now, rally the troops. I just have to remember what Tasha said: every woman should be able to look in the mirror and say: “Hair looks good, arse looks good, tits look good: I’m sold”.
Illustrated by Andrea Miranda.