Notes

The revolution that takes place in your head, nobody will ever see that.

Tag Archives: Television

A Stateless Nation

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On growing up in the nationalist heartlands of the North East of Scotland and with parents of Anglo-Irish descent, I am a first generation Scot. Always sensitive to any hint of anti-English sentiment, I remember my first impressions of nationalism and I considered it back then to be inherently nasty, bigoted and deeply parochial. Largely this was a result of a feral loathing of the English football team and the hysterical fear of the ‘auld enemy’ winning the World Cup.

Laughable as this might sound to educated observers, especially anyone who knows anything about football, the populist cry was that ‘we would never hear the end of it’ and they are right. It would be absolutely unbearable but our European partners usually come to our aid whenever this is in danger of happening.

Football might seem frivolous to some but the social consequences of this nationalist hysteria led to me preferring the union. As a result and unaware of the grim economic conditions taking place outside of the affluent fields of Aberdeenshire, I felt very comfortable being simultaneously Scottish and British. While I always considered myself Scottish, I owed my existence to parents and as a son of economic migrants; I was a product of oil rather than the Mearns soil.

Although looking back my British identity crisis was an emotional form of solidarity with my parents. It co-existed with my Scottish identity, which back then was a geographical and localised phenomenon.

T.C. Smout, the brilliant social historian, once stated that ‘what is unusual about Scotland is the widespread acceptance that national identity does not have to coincide with state identity’. He succinctly tapped into the political separation of powers of the 1707 Union settlement, where Scottish cultural and religious nationalism was allowed to flourish outside the sphere of the British state.

Shaped by the desire to secure a Hanoverian Protestant succession in the early eighteenth century, British identity has been formed around the crown, empire, industrialisation and the emotional solidarity of two World Wars. In the twenty-first century, the contemporary framework of British identity has shifted radically.

With the British Empire now confined to the dust columns of history, the BBC, NHS, Royal Mail and celebrity television shows such as the X-Factor and Big Brother provide ‘Britons’ with a shared cultural identity.

On being entirely comfortable with being both Scottish and British, I can trace my slow conversion to independence from attending two of Scotland’s oldest universities. On first attending Kings College in Aberdeen, I took great pride in learning that until 1858 Aberdeen had two universities, the same number as the whole of England.

Education always appeared to be a great Scottish virtue and with the devolved Scottish administration paying student’s tuition fees since 1999 it became clear that education in Scotland is a universal right and not something confined to the privileged few.

On transferring to Glasgow University and studying History, I slowly developed the opinion that Scotland had everything in place to be thriving independent nation but somehow shied away from taking full responsibility. A country blessed with huge natural resources, a brilliant university network, untapped green energy, a booming tourist industry and two of the greatest cities in Northern Europe only 40 minutes apart. Scotland has enormous potential to become a progressive and wealthy European state.

If Scotland were to vote for full independence in autumn 2014 then the British state will cease to exist but Britishness will not. Norwegians, Swedes, Finns and Danes are still Scandinavian despite living in politically autonomous states. The Scandinavian nations co-operate on matters of shared national interest such as security, immigration, energy and tourism.

There will be no custom officials and razed wire fences in Berwick-upon-Tweed or Gretna Green if Scotland were to go their own way. And by retaining the Queen as the head of state, the SNP have offered an olive branch to unionists uncomfortable with the pace of radical constitutional change.

With his High Excellency Alex Salmond at the helm in Holyrood anything now feels possible. A truly outstanding political operator, the SNP has been blessed with the most gifted political communicator in the British Isles since Tony Blair.

Commanding over an extremely disciplined and ‘on message’ party, Alex Salmond is gradually persuading the Scottish people there is nothing that cannot be achieved by ourselves. On turning full circle I now believe in independence. The wheels of progress have been slow but the destination now feels inevitable.

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

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Adam Curtis’s three-part BBC documentary series ‘All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace‘ explores the notion that humans have been colonised by computers. He argues that humans have lost faith in their ability to change the world for the better. Politics is dead. As the global economic crisis of 2008 has already shown, ordinary people are nothing more than helpless components in a computerised market system, which we are seemingly powerless to challenge or change.

Hope is a false prophet and secular idealism is no more of a superstition than religion itself. Cyberspace is a black hole, where our thoughts, feelings and emotions are distributed on Facebook and Twitter, and sold on and repackaged to make money.

Carmen Hermosillo, an early adopter of online chatrooms, argued in 1994 that our emotions will become commoditised.

It is fashionable to suggest that cyber-space is some island of the blessed where people are free to indulge and express their individuality, this is not true. I have seen many people spill out their emotions – their guts – online and I did so myself until I began to see that I had commodified myself.

Commodification means that you turn something into a product which has a money value. In the 19th Century, commodities were made in factories, by workers who were mostly exploited. But I created my interior thoughts as commodities for the corporations that owned the board I was posting to – like Compuserve or AOL – and that commodity was sold onto other consumer entities as entertainment.

Although what is most disturbing is not the commodification of our inner thoughts but the suggestion that humans are merely biological machines programmed by genetic instructions. One of Britain’s most famous and controversial scientists Bill Hamilton argued that human behaviour is controlled by our genetic codes.

Famously popularised as the ‘Selfish Gene’ by Richard Dawkins, the Oxford biologist explained that ‘DNA is a coded description of the worlds in which our ancestors survived. We are walking archives of the African Pliocene, even of Devonian seas, walking repositories of wisdom out of the old days’.

According to gene theorists, human altruism is a paradox that can be explained as a survival strategy by our genes. Murder, violence, genocide and suicide can also be logically explained as pre-coded behaviour to allow the stronger gene to replicate in an unforgiving survival of the fittest.

Although while Dawkins has never been an advocate of social Darwinism, his late counterpart Bill Hamilton believed nothing should be allowed to interfere with the destiny of the gene. He believed modern medicine affected the stronger gene’s survival and that to keep unfit genes (sickly people) alive would lead to the degeneration of the human race.

In this respect gene theories bear a striking resemblance to the radical Presbyterian belief of pre-destination. Calvinist extremists believe that God knows everything from the beginning of time to the end of time. So it doesn’t matter what you do in your current life as your destiny has already been pre-written by God himself.

Pre-destination was popularised in the James Hogg’s 1824 masterpiece ‘The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner’, where a Scottish religious fanatic becomes convinced by the Devil that he is grace incapable of sin, even the sin of murder, and therefore is immune from physical and spiritual punishment.

The religious protagonist in Hogg’s 19th century novel subsequently takes the pre-destination theory to its extreme conclusion. God has since died but Dawkins selfish gene offers a near identical masterplan. He believes we are all controlled by DNA codes, which are buried deep within us and humans are simply machines playing tiny roles in a vast strategic game of survival.

It doesn’t matter what we do with our current lives because our genetic destinies have already been pre-written. Our genes may live forever but according to computationalism there is no spiritual or ethical dimension to our human existence. God, love and family are merely an HTML code.

Same Jeans

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As a Scot who once neglected to wear a kilt at a local girl’s wedding, I know from personal experience the emotional power of sartorial nationalism. On being subjected to bitter scorn for rejecting Scotland’s national dress, I had not only betrayed a local tradition but my country’s sense of identity too. Although anyone walking around Scotland today is unlikely to see any men wearing kilts on their way home from Tesco. The Highland veil of tears is nowhere to be seen on the high street and Scottish citizens wear the same jeans, t-shirts and dresses as everyone else.

Germans describe the purpose of clothing as Schutz, Scham and Schmuck – protection, modesty and ornament. Clothes are essentially a non-verbal language and wearing a kilt has always been a clear demonstration of Scottish identity. Ironically there has always been a long tradition of anti-Highland satire throughout Scottish history. Lowland poets such as William Dunbar and Sir Richard Holland caricatured the Highlander as being feckless, violent and stupid, while his costume, the belted plaid (see above) was an object of ridicule. The use of tartan to symbolise a pan-Scottish identity rooted in antiquity still resonates today but it is grossly unrepresentative of everyday life.

As illustrated in Niall Ferguson’s recent televised series Civilisation: Is the West History?, the advent of mass consumption has now consigned traditional dresses to the laundry basket. Previously there had been a spectacular variety of styles all over the world. In 1909 the millionaire French banker, Albert Kahn, set out to create what he called an ‘archive of the planet’. The 72,000 photos he collected reveal an astonishing variety of costumes and fashions.

All over the world it was clear that clothing defined national identity. However, with the rampant power of American consumption leading to an unprecedented convergence of Western fashions, people are simply no longer what they wear. Even some of the most ornamental fashion scenes in London’s trendiest districts are grounded in uniformity.

Anyone walking down Brick Lane on a Sunday afternoon will see thousands of young people listening to lesbian Bulgarian folk music and drinking Chai Lattes. Invariably middle-class and well-educated, the young gentleman on display will be wearing second-hand jeans as oppose to anything on sale in Top Shop. Meanwhile their female counterparts will be snapping up colourful vintage dresses from pop-up shops throughout the city’s alternative style mile.

Seemingly original at first but when thousands of people start re-buying old clothes on a mass scale. Even self-styled individualists begin to look very familiar, especially when they all congregate in the same street. No more so than outside British railway stations, where teenage skate-punks loiter outside in the identikit black uniforms imported on mass from the United States of America.

Superficial groups may appear to diverge away from the majority culture but compared to the astonishing ethnic and regional diversity captured in Albert Kahn photographs. Everyone in the West wears the same uniform cottons on a truly unprecedented scale. Sartorial nationalism still manifests itself in a post-modern fashion, where countries such as Scotland celebrate their national identity by wearing kilts on formal occasions. Uniformity of course provides a feeling of solidarity, which I discovered to my cost when I wore an English tuxedo at a Scottish wedding.

Arrested Development

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WestEndWalk

After the Guardian revealed Lord Wei of Shoreditch is unable to fulfil his Big Society duties because working for free is incompatible with ‘having a life’. Lord Wei not only exposed the sham of a government expecting people to work for nothing in an era of massive spending cuts. Moreover it shone a torch on the murky world of corporate exploitation in the modern workplace. Earlier this week Richard Bilton’s excellent BBC documentary showed how class continues to restrict access to professions and well-paid careers to all but an exclusive pool of well-connected individuals.

Anyone looking for work in the publishing, fashion or media industry will already be familiar with internships. The vast majority of media jobs in Britain are based in London and anyone lucky enough to receive an offer can be expected to work for 3 months unpaid and still have no guarantee of employment. With 1 in 10 graduates now out of work, I can recall my struggle to make a break through after graduating from the University of Glasgow in 2004.

After the privilege of studying at a world-class 15th Century institution, the harsh reality of finding stimulating employment became all too apparent when I temped for the financial services industry. While I wanted to use my creative writing skills for a living, I sorely lacked confidence and with no connections, I found myself trapped in a vicious circle of dead end temping jobs to pay the rent. Glasgow is the call-centre capital of Europe and after graduating, I would turn up every day for £6.04 an hour wearing a Britney Spears headset on behalf of the Scottish Co-Operative Group.

With my dignity in tatters, I quickly realised that in order to improve myself, I had to go down the Scottish voluntary route. By doing so I religiously scoured the internet and worked for free on behalf of tourist boards, local restaurant guides and a global university website. Eventually I quit my administrative day job to focus entirely on voluntary writing positions I had initially agreed to fulfil in my spare time.

On not wanting to let my future references down, I eventually gave them my full working week for nearly 5 months and used credit cards to pay the rent. Clearly unsustainable I fortunately managed to get a salaried media job in London as a result of my volunteering and agreed to move down south.

While I have clearly benefited from volunteering and believe it is often a necessary passage for young people to get ahead. Anyone doing a voluntary internship in London will have astronomical overheads compared to what I had to pay in Glasgow where the cost of living is far cheaper.

If young graduates want a media job in London then they will be expected to serve not one but several unpaid internships before getting a salaried position. Expecting people to work for nothing inevitably favours upper-middle class children from the South East, who have financial support or live within commuting distance of their parent’s home. This new aristocracy of coming from a home owning family is increasingly divisive and helps to form an unfair and disproportionate workplace in some of the most desirable sectors.

Once you’re inside the door then depending on your employer it is increasingly down to the dark arts of networking and internal friendships to progress. While it would be desirable to think you can progress through ability and hard work alone, I often find social intelligence and the ability to ‘work a room’ is all too prominent in making that elusive connection to get ahead. From a personal perspective I have always found the charm offensive very difficult because I don’t have a silver tongue to seduce random strangers at launch parties, meetings or screening invites. We are all made differently and the path ahead is not always going to be a fair or equal one.

When Labour leader Ed Miliband spoke of the British promise being under threat by cuts to public spending. He tapped into a deeper trend of how the current generation cannot expect to exceed the wealth and standard of living of their parents. There is nothing clever about making the best jobs only for the rich and by narrowing the best opportunities to rich home owning families it only serves to create an increasingly divided and unequal society.

Clearly there are social, moral and long-term economic benefits from having a well educated workforce and to frighten off potential students from poorer or lower-middle class backgrounds is foolhardy in the extreme. It makes me extremely angry that higher education is perceived solely as a means for people to make money.

Surely in the current economic climate our future values have to change. We should be looking to create a fairer, balanced and more equal society instead of this myopic chase of prosperity. Even by writing inside a rented box in the sky for nothing, I am still enormously proud of my university education and feel it should be open and accessible to anyone. Something even Lord Wei would agree about as he reduces his voluntary hours in order to pay the bills.

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