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Archive for the ‘Ideology in culture’ Category

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It’s summertime, and time for a new Gordon Ramsay project.  Chef and television presenter extrordinaire Ramsay has worked on several projects on both sides of the Atlantic in the last few years, but this time the workhorse may have bitten off more than he can chew.

The premise of the show follows in the footsteps of Jamie Oliver (Project 15 / school dinners) and James Martin (fixing hospital food accross the UK), where a known presenter enters a public institution and attempts to effect social change.  In this iteration, Ramsay has entered Her Majesty’s Prisons – specifically Brixton penitentiary – on order to improve work habits and attitudes of serial offenders.  The intention of the show is unclear – he is not there to improve the quality of food served to the prisoners (although despite his protestations against the relative comforts of teh prisoners, he does improve their food in the very first episode) – but rather he is there to develop certain skills in a number of men who appear to have never worked a full ‘straight’ week.

In the course of the first episode, Ramsay and the viewer are introduced to a number of figures, a man who has faced an incredible 79 convictions, an affable chap who in his own words spent a life ‘duckin’ and divin’ in order to get by, and a brigade of me so inured to the routines of the institution that even the slightest changes to their daily lives risks riot.

And therein lies the problem with the show.  Ramsay must present these men as no hopers, in order to triumphantly transform them into talented workers by the show’s end.  The series becomes critical of the individuals, rather than a system that has failed them.

My problem with Ramsay’s prison nightmares is not so much in his intentions which are ostensibly to improve the lives of men with very little motivation or life skills, but rather its insistence on their confinement being the inevitable outcome of their individual failings – failings which Ramsay will redress over the subsequent 12 weeks.  The men are not, the show implies, in jail becasue they live in a massively flawed society and economic system that privliges the wealthy (why isn’t Bob Diamond a fellow inmate?) but rather they, because of their massive flaws, are unable to exist in society.

Unfortunately, Ramsay repeatedly promotes the myth that prisoners somehow have it easy.  This is the same belief system that posits that those on benefits or anyone who is in part, or wholly subsidised by the public sector (including public sector employees) is somehow living in luxury and exploiting a flawed system.

Ramsay laments that prisoners are treating the prison like some sort of perverse hotel – with five choices of (appalling) meals each day, and 21 hours of lounging around in their rooms watching television and playing video games.  Ramsay questions how a criminal, with such soft treatment in confinement, could ever learn the skills of ‘hard graft.’

There is a rather odd idea being presented here, that prison is a more comfortable life than labouring in freedom.  This is surely perverse.  Either Ramsay is right, in which case, our economic system has failed us wherein there is less reward in honest labour than in doing porridge, in which case surely it is not the prisons that need fixing but rather society itself; or, conservative institutions such as The Telegraph, are misrepesenting prison as a soft option, in order to fulfil their own ideological agendas.

But surely there is something to Ramsay’s point.  Why aren’t prisoners labouring anymore?  Why are they in confinement for all but 4 hours in a day?  Why have prisons become simply a holding pen rather than reform penitentiaries?  Successive government cuts have resulted in an American style prison system in which convicted felons are simply housed, rather than provided with labour, skills and social training so that they can be returned to productive society.

In the last twenty years, the prison population of England and Wales has doubled.  Since 1993, prison populations have risen from 40 000 to surpass 80 000 in 2006.  It seems that jailing has become a new national pasttime.  We have begun incarcerating for crimes that in the past warranted fixed penalty fines.  We are filling jails at a much faster rate and all the while, arguing that those prisoners are having a lovely time of it.  Part of the problem is that there is big money in prisons.  Private, for profit groups have been earning contracts to administer prisons – there are currently 11 such prisons in the UK.  But regardless of the profit motive, it is substantially cheaper to provide prisoners with television and video games than it is to provide them with job training, labour skills, counselling and social skills.  Rather than rehabilitating prisoners, the new jails work hard to placate prisoners as cheaply as possible.  The result being that penitentiaries do whatever they can to keep the inmates quiet, rather than to prepare them for a return to society.  But there is also a profit motive in jailing.  Each prisoner represents a substantial amount of money – the cost of each prisoner per year has now reached £41 000, that represents £32 million per year of government money being placed into the hands of jail administrators.  With that amount of money, it seems prisoners could be given more to do than watch television.  With Ramsay’s training and providing inmates with both kitchen and business skills (inmates also learn to sell what they make), perhaps this is the start of a return to prison apprenticeships.

Occupying inmates is one thing – but with a captive audience, perhaps there are better uses of prison money and Ramsay seems to have hit a nerve.

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You're F@$#ed!

Oh the Apprentice is back, and what fun and frivolity this season of dweebs and fantasists has brought me!  This year, Sir Alan is once again unsure of which of his many titles the contestants should call him.  While for the last few seasons, he has been Siralun, this year he elected to be called Lord Sugar.  Surely a knighthood trumps being a peer, but I suppose Sir Alan has a more familiar, friendly appeal whereas Lord Sugar is more ominous and threatening, providing the connotation of his ability to blow up planets using a death star if he so feels.

So, titles notwithstanding, Sir Lord Alan Sugar Supreme Ruler of the distant planet Amstrad is once again commanding minions to sell dog food and biscuits.  However, there is a ridiculous fantasy tied in with this show, that people who can do any sort of selling are therefore magically gifted in business.  We’re already up to episode twelve, and while some episodes have resulted in literally thousands of dollars worth of sales (Lord Sugar’s pre-existent ties to major corporations like Asda playing no part in such sales), most weeks have returns in the far more humbling hundreds of pounds.  And this is how the show is ideological.  Despite the fact that there are t.v. cameras following the contestants, and the fact that the contestants are working in teams, with free cross-London transportation and working flat out for 48 hour periods, their returns are consistently within the 500 – 600 pound range.  And so it fulfils a sort of television fantasy, where we too with our humdrum lives of selling shoes, hobnobs or noddy dogs can feel that with our meagre incomes, our ‘talents’ will one day take us to the offices of Siralun where we too can eat at the trough of plenty.

But lets take a look at the math.  In week 12 the apprenti were set about buying and selling a load of cheap tat – umbrellas, nodding dogs, shitty watches.  Siralun provided two hundred and fifty pounds worth of ‘merchandise’ which the apprenti were tasked to sell and then sniffing out what they considered the hot properties, had to buy up more, and sell that too.  They had two days of farting about with which to turn a profit.  And in the end, the two teams had total assets of about 750.  But wait.  Is this really a miracle of business?  If we look at the numbers, they began with 250 worth of stock given to them.  So really, they generated about 500 in profit, over two days.  In teams of four.  They also spent much of their day pissing about travelling in vans, not paying gas or congestion charge fees.  So really that 500 in profit is more like 460.  They also mysteriously had booths, tables, tents and other stuff to help them sell the merchandise.  As well as pitches on the South bank and Covent garden market, pitches that one must buy a license to have.  So this 460 pound profit is not a real figure either, not reflecting the actual cost of their two days worth of sales.  Adding to their sales ability, they also had the magic of t.v. cameras, which tend to attract attention wherever you set them.  So, they had the additional draw of television and people’s natural curiosity which is piqued whenever there’s the chance of ‘will I be on the telly?’  So even their incredible sales prowess could be attributed not to their innate business acumen but rather to the fact that they’re bringing to their sales pitching their pseudo-celebrity status endowed on them by the very show itself.

So finally we’ve got a figure of roughly  450 pounds earned by a team of supposed business stars, who have the weight of television behind them, siralun’s added generosity, free transportation costs and the costs of licensing their sales venues provided to them.  But how much did they really earn?  Well, 450 pounds split four ways over two days works out to 112.50 per person.  Over the two day span, that works out to earnings of 56.25 per person per day.  Divide that into a 9 hour working day, and you’re left with 6.25 per hour, about what a long time employee at McDonalds gets.  And that’s excluding the publicity and benefit of being on t.v.

So, good on you business stars of tomorrow!

 

 

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There has been a bit of discussion on television of late about the state of Art versus entertainment.  On the Bill Maher show Real Time, Bill stated his position that art should not be publicly funded, that art should not be subsidized, and that if people wanted to buy art, then the value of art should be placed on what people are willing to pay and support from their own finances.  Maher’s argument is that it is up to the individual and private society to set the valuations of art.  But this is a flawed argument because it presumes that societal taste is unbiased.  But here is the major flaw – while entertainment is by its nature populist, changing and catering to audience tastes as demographics demand and aspiring to reach its widest audience (a tv show format changes, those changes being predicated by audience choice and tastes) art must not be influenced by commercial needs.  Art must be differentiated from entertainment precisely because it is NOT predicated by populist sentiment but rather by the vision of the artist as individual.  The fundamental difference between art and entertainment is that art expresses the view of the artist, whereas entertainment reinforces the views of the audience.  And so art prices cannot be set by populism because then it ceases to be art and becomes entertainment!

In order for art to have any meaning, it must be publicly funded.  Art is expensive to produce.  Materials, labour, venues, exhibition and distribution all cost money.  This money must come from somewhere, but if it came entirely from pre-sales, then artists would be forced to construct work that would secure good presale rates.  Their work, then, would by the nature of sales, become repetitive, conventional and safe (look at Hollywood’s reliance on sequels, prequels, remakes and ‘homage’ carbon copies) and if the art world too became subject to market tastes, it too would become ‘safe.’

I’m not saying that Bill’s argument is in the wrong spirit.  I do think that the individual has an obligation to support the arts too, but we don’t support the arts with our money, we support the arts with our participation in arts culture.  Support the arts by consuming art – support the arts by going to museums, theatre, performance art, concerts and lectures.  It is through the consumption of art (that has been financed independently from private investment) that arts cultures flourish.  It is only when public money is spent on art that is not consumed, that is shelved rather than being viewed or exhibited, that art becomes a waste of money.

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Click to watch the film Welcome to North Korea

This documentary, filmed in 2001, is a rare look into the world of North Korea.  And while the documentary has some fascinating footage into the lives of North Koreans, it continues to have a distancing gaze at the people.  Rather than looking into how people have such fervent leader worship, and to what effect that such leader worship is ideological, it continues the line that North Koreans have been brainwashed.

The narration states, with no sense of irony, that the North Koreans believe that Kim Il-Song had magic powers.  It seems strange for us to think of a people who believe their leader has supernatural powers.  When he died, the cult of Kim Jong-il was started, equating the son with the father’s abilities.

But is it really so strange for North Koreans to accept this doctrine as believable?  It’s not without precedent.

So to repeat, North Koreans truly believe that their leader had supernatural powers, and when he died he left for them his only son to lead them through to a righteous life.

But is this really such a fanciful idea and should we really be so quick to condemn North Koreans as ignorant?

It seems to me there is another, larger group on this planet who also believes that their leader had supernatural powers and he too left to us his son to lead us into the correct path.

That group, of course, is Christians.

Of course, Christians don’t just believe that the father had supernatural powers.  They’re quite sure that Jesus’ dad was God, the creator of all life.  And Catholics continue to believe that their spiritual leader, the Pope, is God’s representative on earth.

And while 100 million North Koreans must be wrong, are a billion Christians so firm in their own convictions?

My point is, we are quick to judge North Koreans as having been ‘brainwashed’ for their incredulous beliefs, while refusing to recognize the same belief in a spiritual father who has left his only son to guide a people through life, as being along the same lines as most religious belief systems.

Religions must start somewhere, and while I’m not for a second stating that Kim Jhong-il is ‘like Jesus’, I am arguing that we should have a more nuanced and sympathetic approach to North Koreans, for they are afterall, human, and humans are prone to believe in all kinds of crazy things.

The film can be watched online at the Internet Archives

http://www.archive.org/details/WelcometoNorthKorea

 

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In this episode I look at the question of race.  There are claims that this is now a post-racial society, a claim that is pure nonsense.  Because we have been a racist society, we cannot ever move beyond a question of race.  Film and media too often uses the stereotype as a shorthand for creating texture to a character, but casting characters with certain iconographies, media ‘fleshes out’ a character very quickly.  However, the stereotype is so prevelant within the collective unconscious, that as soon as any character exhibits qualities of a type, it immediately evokes our racist past.

If we take reality television as a very easy example, a show like Jersey Shore has selected characters that fit snugly into an established racial type – the ‘guido,’ and any challenging to that type is immediately countered with the supporting casts’ flak.  For example, in the ‘guido’ type, men are supposed to exhibit agressive masculinity in contrast to women as objects.  If any of the men exhibit characteristics of femininity (delicacy, taste in clothing, consideration for others) they are immediately berated as ‘unmanly’ or as exhibiting homosexual tendencies.  This then, serves to reinforce the known stereotype as being racially (shared by all with Italian American heritage) driven.

Such typing is far more insidious with African American characters who are still positioned in very limited roles:

The Uncle Tom:  An educated paternal figure a la Bill Cosby, Bernie Mac or the dad on Fresh Prince

The Buck:   the agressive sexually active young man – 50 Cent, most rappers.

The Step-and-Fetchit:    A stupid side kick, generally useless but often played for comic value, often portrayed as lazy and conniving.  D.J. Jazzy Jeff played this role on the Fresh Prince, but this character while used less, is still a main figure of much black entertainment programming.  (Chris Rock show had an interesting reversal of this, with Chris’ white friend playing the side kick.)

The Mammie:  (who has often morphed into the Sassy Aunt or, the loving, wisecracking elder woman) Tracy Jordan’s wife on 30 Rock.

The Promiscuous woman.  While much white entertainment plays to the idea that women are sexual objects, the narratives generally demonstrate the women as desirable but sexually unavailable (think of Rachel on friends – sexy, but always slightly out of Ross’ reach, and while often dating never constructed as promiscuous).  The beautiful black female roles are usually shown as not only sexually desirable, but also sexually available, their promiscuity being a part of their sexualized figuration.

And that’s it.  In 50 years of ‘progress’ black characters are still easily slotted into these five figures.  Three men, two women.

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There has been a lot in the news lately about two major incidences of changing language of past texts.  The first is the Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn Nigger fiasco, and the second involves the music by Mark Knopfler’s Dire Straits song ‘Money for Nothing’ which has the word faggot.  Both works have been censored recently, and the offending term removed.  The argument is that we are in a post-racial world and such out dated pejoratives are discriminatory and offensive to contemporary sensibilities – they have no place in contemporary society.  A noble sentiment indeed, but what is the significance of removing these terms from historical works.  Aren’t we in danger of forgetting about our racist and homophobic past?  Don’t we have an obligation to keep these works, offensive terms and all, in our collective imaginations so that we do NOT forget that we have until very recently been hateful bigots who promoted ideologies of racial segregation, forced labour, beatings and rapes?  Our past was brutal and as shameful as it may be to us in our contemporary ‘post racial’ enlightenment, don’t we have an obligation to always remember that past, scars and all?  By removing the language of oppression from our historical texts, we are refashioning history into a new model wherein violent and brutal oppression did not exist.

The argument has been made that it is difficult to teach Huckleberry Finn, because it is hurtful for students to hear the word nigger.  That may be true, but language is potent, and sometimes hurtful but it can only be made less hurtful when appropriate measures are used to make amends for that hurtfulness.  And amends can only be made when one is aware of the potency of language.

However, the alternative – removing the offending word – also removes the requisite need for making amends.  Removing the hurtful term negates our society’s need to apologise for past transgressions.  But surely we have an obligation to continue to acknowledge and grieve the sins of our past.  Of course, this raises the question of ‘white man’s burden,’ and many argue that we’ve atoned for our sins and that we are in a post racial society.

Oh really?  Do we really no longer benefit from a past history of violence?  Is there no such thing as the inherited benefits of whiteness?  The truth is that families that benefited economically from slavery passed that wealth down through generations, and white society continues to out earn and out spend all other racial groups in America.  It is not coincidental that while only 15% of habitual drug users are black and 77% are white, African Americans are four times more likely to be arrested on drug charges.  It is not coincidental that it was predominantly the poorest of the black neighbourhoods in New Orleans that were most devastated by Hurricane Katrina and it is because of the simple fact that poor neighbourhoods are in more volatile areas, and tend to be over represented by racial minorities.

But to get back to Twain and Huck, what is the harm in changing a word in a novel?  Well – it changes the meaning of the text, for one thing.

To begin, it changes the unequal relationships between dominant white and subjugated black, to a capitalist inequality of rich ownership and poor subject.  It denies that race is even a contributing factor to the relationship, and instead changes it to one of haves and have-nots.  Of course Huck is a member of the poor whites, and even the poor whites expressed dominance over the blacks.  But changing ‘nigger’ to ‘slave’ changes the history of racial oppression in America to a history of economic inequality.

Secondly, in Huck Finn, Jim is Huck’s friend.  And yet, even their close, familial relationship is still tainted by the inherent prejudice in Huck’s language.  Even though he loves Jim, he can only refer to him in a pejorative way, always reminding the reader of the inherent racial barrier between them.  And while Huck is a child and Jim an adult, Huck’s language positions him above Jim – they cannot escape their racial identities and their racist society, even when alone on a raft.

But also, I’m a firm believer in the adage ‘those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.’  So we are obliged to remember what we have been capable of doing, lest we do it again.

But are we really in a post Racial world?  While our cartoonish images of Blackness have been diminished (although not removed entirely – reality television and rap music continue to predominantly present the spectacle of blacks as volatile, violent, sexually promiscuous and lazy), we have continued the use of the stereotype to construct other races.

 

The image of Kim Jhong-Il continues to use the archetypes of the Attack the Jap propaganda of the second world war.  ‘See the crazy tiny Asian man with the penchant for violence,’ the ads scream.

The image of the Islamic in contemporary media, is often reduced to a cartoonish scimitar wielding madman intent on violence.

 

Are these really the hallmarks of a post racial world?

We have a duty to remember the sins of our fathers and continue to address and keep striving to remedy our continued inequalities.  And yes, these terms are hurtful, they were hurtful when originally used.  But to remove the offending terms is to begin to erase our history of violence and is a means of promoting the lie that we are currently beyond prejudice.

 

So here we are, in our post racial world, and yet surrounded by the stereotyped image of otherness and so totally blind to these images as racially driven and promoting ideologies of hatred, fear and intollerance.  The lesson learned?  We can’t publish the word ‘nigger’ as it appeared in racist texts because it’s offensive, but to depict Arabs as crazed ‘rag heads’ is perfectly acceptable.

Post-racist my lily white ass.

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I was asked to clarify my position about western food.  Accused of being overly pessimistic about Canadian attitudes toward food and amidst claims of my being ‘ignorant’ of the slow food movement or the within 100 miles movement, I feel the need to explain myself better.

The slow food movement is a political response to the culture of consumption in the west.  The argument is that food production and consumption should be re-directed to a localized position.  Using a FABIS approach (Fresh and Best In Season) consumption should be limited to whatever is locally produced and using as much organic / free range produce as possible.  And while I applaud such ‘G-Local’ approaches, this is a movement that is perpetuated by a particular well educated middle class segment of the population.  My point is that this is a movement in opposition to the mainstream, which is to consume factory/mass produced product.

There is no slow food movement in Taiwan.  In Taiwan, food production and consumption is almost entirely a local thing.  This is not to say there aren’t supermarkets in Taiwan – of course there are, and most long term / non perishable items are purchased from supermarkets.  However, the vast majority of people in Taiwan buy their food for daily consumption exclusively from local markets.  The difference is, that there is no need for a localization movement, because food production and consumption has never been anything but local.  Meat is puchased from butchers who are supplied by local producers, vegetables is purchased from market stalls that have production supplied directly from growers and virtually all consumption is from locally sourced produce.

 

But here in the west, we have become so completely dependent on mass production and consumption on such a mass scale, that finding locally sourced food has become a challenge, even when we live within 30 miles from farming communitites.  That we even need a slow food movement is a distressing sign that consumption has gone too far on a mass scale.  We need more than a slow food movement, we need to completely rethink how our food is channeled to us through several large corporations (corporate farms, corporate distribution channels, corporate trading and then corporate supermarkets) before landing on our plates, and also re-think our natural inclination to assume that the massification of food production is cheaper than the alternative (sold directly from farmer to consumer).  We’re being sold a lie that massification and corporatization is fundamental to our economy and that this is a somehow more ‘natural’ order of things than when a farmer sells directly to a local distributor.  We don’t need a slow food movement, we need a complete re-evaluation of how we consume.

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