The word for today is meme…

An old letter to a sibling, part of a word game we played for a while. Added here for convenience. I do realise that ‘meme’ is a well known phrase online, often referring to those online questionnaires which purport to read your soul, and categorise you into one of twelve easy soundbites. I prefer memes in their covert forms, ideas with a momentum of their own. That is when they are at their most potent, and their most fascinating.

The word for today is meme, pronounced ‘meem’. A meme is an infectious idea. The best adverts are memes. Charismatic politicians use them. They plant a word, a phrase, or a concept into your head, and it circles around and around like an eel swimming in a pond. Eventually, they hope, the phrase that they have planted becomes some sort of truth for you. You believe what they have told you. Other memes of this kind tend to be songs, the kind that you hear on the radio in the morning, and find yourself singing, or whistling at work. If, at the end of the day, your friends and colleagues have begun to hum the same tune, you know you have a meme on your hands and you would do well to sing some other song, just to be rid of it.

The memes that burn themselves onto your brain in that way are the very obvious kind. They do nothing but annoy you. More powerful are the subliminal memes – the kinds they use in the most sophisticated adverts. They need not show anything more than their logo in a certain situation, for us to associate the two. Before we know it we actually believe that the swoosh makes us more athletic, or the golden arches make us better parents. Memes can be very sinister things, more harmful than drugs because once infected, there is no comedown, no hangover that sobers you up. They stay.

Thankfully, memes can be altered once they are inside you. Culture-jamming is the art of fucking with other people’s logos (I have a McShit™ t-shirt). You take their idea, twist it, and then send it back into society. Your idea hooks onto the back of theirs, and wherever the multi-million pound logo travels, hopefully your idea will too. You plant a seed, which flowers inside others.

One day, when humanity progresses, we will still have conflict. But instead of catapulting vast quantities of ordinance into random market squares, as we seem to be doing at the moment, maybe we will engage in meme-warfare. Thousands of egg-heads will be employed in the bowels of the Pentagon, devising the most fiendish meme possible. When they have it, they will encode it into an innocent turn of phrase, or maybe a child-like picture, and send a lone agent provocateur behind enemy lines to set it off. If you give a computer a sum that works out at infinity, it will cause an internal error and stop working. Likewise, once a meme has been set off inside a military or economic unit, that unit will cease to function and collapse from within. Tell one person in Basra or Tikrit that Saddam Hussein wears a nappy to bed, and three weeks later you find the entire Iraqi government collapses without a shot fired.

The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges wrote an amazing story called ‘The Zahir’. It is only nine pages long. Apparently, the Zahir is the name Argentines give to an ordinary coin, and the narrator receives one in his change, in a bar. Inexplicably, he finds himself captivated by the coin, until he can think of nothing else. He remembers that in India, Zahir means ‘Tiger’, and that there was a legend about a man who spotted a magical tiger, could think of nothing else, and ended up painting tigers all over the walls of his cell in the lunatic asylum! The Zahir is a destructive meme. (Borges thinks that by thinking of the Zahir you will eventually learn a truth about God – and trying to think about God is the ultimate meme-bomb).

So, memes are like viruses. They grow and germinate inside one head, and then they work their way out of one mind, through the lips or maybe through a pen, and into another mind through the eyes and ears. I like to imagine that ideas are in fact alive. They feed on brain cells and breed. When two ideas – memes – meet, and argument ensues between their hapless human hosts. If two memes meet inside a brain, well, their battle is your insomnia.

I love the thought that memes could be another type of life. But the thought that amuses me most is this: the idea of memes… is a meme itself! Ever since a friend of mine mentioned the word to me some weeks ago in a pub, I have been thinking about them, passing the idea on to those who will listen. When it came to sit down and write about a word for you, o best beloved, there was really no other choice I could make.

Has Democracy Failed?

First published in The LIP magazine, February 2003


 

Democracy should be the champion of diversity. The word conjures in our minds the image of a Greek city state, where each citizen has his own, considered and educated opinion. They talk, they listen, and then they vote. A decision prevails, and we progress.

However, some things have happened to our world over the past thousand years. First, the democratic system has been clogged by the powerful and the ignorant, who are often the same people. The economic system, however amoral, has allowed some people to buy louder opinions. Second, we have created an education system that manages to yield citizens who have no discernable opinions of their own, nor the tools of imagination, inquiry and logic that will allow them to form some.

Now, then, the ‘tyranny of the majority’ has become manifest. Instead of a constant stream of dialogue between people and between groups, we have a partially-elective oligarchy that itself exists only to influence the opinion of a single mind. If that mind is already made up, all dialogue is pointless.

Other opinions are voiced, but even if they are heard the very nature of the system ensures they cannot be heeded. Democracy has switched sides, and instead of being the shield of diversity, it has become the tool of homogenisation. We have a rubbish excuse for democracy, and it is not something to be valued, or fought for.

The politics surrounding the war in Iraq, and the protests against it, illustrate these points—if we have to resort to massive direct action, why have democracy? Our opinions count for nothing, because those who didn’t have an opinion at election time are happy to let the oligarchy think for them now.

What has been forgotten at every level of the debate is that democracy should be more than just voting for a president. ‘Democracy’ in Zimbabwe means just that, and it has created grotesque results. In Iraq we send our brothers and sisters to kill and to die in their thousands, in the name of that same confused ideal. We do not know what we are fighting for, and so our humanity is eroded in the deserts of Arabia.

What is to be done, then? Democracy should be reclaimed. Once again, it should be about engaging in rational, critical and political discourse at every level, not just in Westminster and Washington. Debate should not be run by the national media but by every group of people in the country. The group of souls who label themselves students are not doing this, despite being seeped in the diverse and many subjects they study. This is shameful. Only when democracy has be reclaimed, and real plurality of thought is really considered, can true diversity flourish.

We cannot ask for a simple paradigm shift. Such a change in the way we conduct our lives, our interactions, will take generations. But the seeds must be planted now, for our grandchildren will reap what we sow. This is our project, and with this modest offering it begins.

Humane Being?

The asylum issue has been marred by groups of people who simply have a narrow perspective on the nature of the world. They see the problem in a typically Anglo-centric fashion, never stopping to consider what is happening in countries that are not their own. It is this narrow-mindedness that is damning the human race as a species.

We can talk about the economic implications of the asylum problem all we like. Critics of the government, and indeed those actually making the decisions, consider only the ‘pull’ factors, the reason people come to this country. They suggest we are a soft touch, that we house them, give them benefits, and this is damaging the economy of this green and pleasant land.

No-one ever stops to consider the ‘push’ factors, the reasons people bother to emigrate in suffocating containers or freezing cargo trains. Why on earth would anyone endure thousands of miles of hunger and abuse to live in an alien place where language, customs and culture are hostile? The reasons are obvious, and many. Widespread poverty, soaring violent crime, economic mismanagement on the part of their own government, stellar inflation, institutional corruption, natural disasters, sub-standard water, zero health-care, zero social security, zero secondary education, low life expectancy, poor civil rights for women, sexual assault, AIDS. And these are in ‘stable’ countries without a civil war.

Why do the selfish anti-immigration campaigners not perceive the wider world? We humans must accept our embarrassing truth, that most countries are shit-holes for most people. Until we, fellow homo sapiens of the West who have won the birth lottery, make serious efforts to help the developing world industrialise, economic migrants will try and get into our country by any method they can. And who can blame them? Who can deny them that essential human trait—of desperately trying to make your life bearable. Would you not do the same?

In the meantime, we have to accept that dealing with immigrants will cream a percentage of our taxes off the top of the Treasury pot. And gee shucks, the trains might well be late, again. That is the price we must pay for living as privileged, Platinum-Plus humans.

Stephen of The Trains

All vagrants have their haunts and their tasks, which they pursue like Tantalus. Most will wander around a particular district of the city, though some will haunt the sewers and crypts below. One or two men walk the earth, preaching their crazy philosophies, selling their crude drawings and foil sculptures, or maybe urging people to repent before tomorrow’s Armageddon.

Stephen wanders around train stations some of the time, but most of the time he will be found on a train. I first met him on the long haul down to Exeter one spring afternoon in 99, but since then I have seen him on a couple of suburban services out of Victoria, and once, I think, getting off a train at Derby. A good friend of mine claims, astonishingly, to have seen him in the restaurant car of the Glasgow sleeper.

Stephen does not sit down when he gets one the train. Or rather, he does sit down, but not immediately. He roams the carriages, back and forth, searching out the person he is destined to meet. Sometimes he will make several passes before he finds the seat he is looking for.

And then a mobile phone rings.

When the shrill tones chime throughout the compartment, Stephen will settle himself down next to the phone user, the callee, and begin singing the mobile phone he has just heard. I guess this must be rather boring for him most of the time, singing in a literal monotone, although in my case (oh yes, I was one of them) he got to sing the first eight bars of the Imperial March by John Williams.

I kept the encounter of this strange man to myself for a few years, until I overheard someone else on a train telling their neighbour about this man, whom they had also encountered. I could not resist changing seats and joining the conversation, and it was there that I learnt Stephen’s name. As soon as I got home I wrote a letter to the Times newspaper concerning him, and received several replies from those who have been disconcerted by his impromptu appearance and performance in reaction to their mobile ring-tone.

The sub-community of people who have met him has grown, and there are several theories as to why Stephen has embarked on this mission. Some people with little imagination suggest that the ring-tones are so annoying that he has been sent mad, and his odyssey is an active protest. This does not sway me. Such a person would engage with his victims, shout at them, or at least explain his motives. Stephen simply sits down, sings in pure tenor, and leaves as soon as the call has been completed, leaving the person in a state of bewilderment.

Others suggest, cynically, that Stephen is actually twenty or so people, secretly employed by the rail companies to prevent people using mobile phones on trains. This is ridiculous, because the companies would never have the imagination, nor would they spend that sort of money on a hair-brained scheme. Furthermore, I have corresponded with several people (some might call them fans or followers) who all describe Stephen in the same way, a description in keeping with my own encounter: Long hair, big nose, bow tie. He is only one person, of that I am sure.

My own theory is that he is a music lover, and sees the tones as a simple form of the art. Perhaps he sees the rings as the purest, tightest form there is, where the composers have to work with only eight notes (nine if you include the silence) and five lengths of time from the brieve to the semi-quaver, and his mission is to seek out masterpieces within the theme. Or perhaps, which is the more likely alternative in my opinion, he loathes Nokia’s rape of Beethoven’s Seventh.

And I am left with a dilemma. Do I turn off my telephone when I board a train? I still find it very hard to do so, despite my former embarrassment at the hands and vocal chords of this enigma. I think that if my telephone rings, then perhaps a man in a bow tie will come lumbering down the aisle, and I may see him again, and ask him what he is doing. I have a notion that to switch of my telephone is to deprive Stephen of his work, to deny him fulfilment.

I find myself taking the train more often nowadays, even if it is inconvenient and expensive to do so. I wear a bow tie when I travel, and always carry my telephone in my top pocket, ready to ring. One day it will do so, and Stephen will be there, singing beside me.

The Case For War

If your opponent creates the rules of the game, he will win and you will lose. If you let the opposition frame the debate, the argument is all but lost.

War looms. The troops have been shipping out to the Persian Gulf for months. Now we wonder whether to provide Turkey with the protection it will surely need. The US Secretary of State asks for a second resolution that will sanction war, apparently blind to the fact that the institution he addresses, the United Nations, has its days as an effective organisation well and truly numbered. Our Prime Minister attacks us for marching against him.

The tide turns in their favour because the diplomats who matter all play the Hawks’ game by the Hawks’ rules. Only one rule matters: It is up to the anti-war lobby to prove its case. Unless a decisive and watertight argument against the war is presented, Iraq gets levelled by the twenty-fourth.

We all know how terrible a war is. We have seen the pictures on TV, in our newspapers. War truly must be the last resort, the action we take when we know that beyond reasonable doubt, all else has failed. War is so terrible, the burden of proof must always rest with those who wage it. This must be a fundamental of human politics.

As soon as the ball returns to their court, the confusion of Hawks’ case is apparent: The link between Al Q’aeda and Saddam is hearsay. The link between the CIA and both is not in question. The weapons of mass destruction have not yet materialised. Hans Blix criticises Colin Powell’s attempt to mimic Stevenson. Hans asks for more time to carry out his task.

UN sanctions have strengthened Saddam. Sanctions have killed children, and war will kill some more. Anti-Americanism (however misplaced) will increase in aftermath of an invasion which is seen as blatant imperialism by many. And at the back of our minds, we know that Bush and Cheney are both ‘oil men’ waging war against the country with the fourth most abundant supply of oil in the world.

Finally, they shout Fourteen Forty-One, and we retort with Two Forty Two.

There has been no vote in the House of Commons. The case for war has not yet been proven. We are not just on shaky ground – we are sitting on the moral equivalent of the San Andreas fault.

Despite this, we have been watching our soldiers head Eastwards, and we have come to realise that none of this matters. We are incredulous, that with so many questions to be answered, a decision has already been made… last summer. This amazement, at the complete lack of mature dialogue, is what inspired hundreds of thousands of people to walk down Piccadilly on 15th February.

We are angry that our government has not addressed any of the issues, which buzz around this war like flies around a corpse. And just like the corpse, the case for war stinks.

But somehow, we find ourselves in a situation where it is up to the peaceniks to justify their case, not the governments who wish to attack! George Bush has led the debate, and formed the rules in his own image: irrational, and leaning towards revenge. We will go to war, and it will be terrible.

How to be multicultural?

It is very easy to say that you are pro-multicultural. Politicians, religious leaders, journalists, all declare that they are in favour of diversity. And yet, they all, each and every one, have their own personal faith, that is almost always at odds with everyone else’s. How can we respect and tolerate someone, if our own beliefs are contradictory to theirs? If this question is not answered, then all talk of cultural diversity is meaningless.

Imagine three guys sitting around a table during freshers’ week (that’s shouldn’t be too hard). During their opening chit-chats, it becomes apparent that they have different faiths. One is Christian, another is a Jew… the third declares he is an atheist. During their discussions, the following beliefs emerge:

The Christian believes that Jesus Christ was the Son of God; The Jew believes that God exists, but Jesus was not His son; and the atheist believes that there are no gods.

These are three mutually exclusive viewpoints. They cannot be held simultaneously. No one knows who of the three is right, but we can be certain that at least two of them are wrong. Two of the eager students are embarking on a university career, their entire belief system based on falsehood. Is it not doublethink to respect faiths and religions, when we know that the great majority of them (including, probably, our own) must be completely wrong?

The problem with this stance, trivially correct though it may be, is that it focuses on the central tenets of a particular belief. This does not advance our understanding, nor does it help us when we realise we have to live next door to these people. We must recognise that everyone has to put blind, illogical faith in something. Even the atheist has to bridge a gap of logic if he is to believe that no gods exist. These beliefs have the same status in logical argument as the parents who shout, “Because I said so!” at their children.

What is open to discussion, however, is how those tenets effect the way people lead their lives. For example, to Christians, the most important thing about Jesus Christ is that he died and was resurrected for the sins of humanity. For non-Christians, i.e. most people, the love and forgiveness Jesus is said to have preached, and that their Christian neighbours try and do the same.

There is a challenge therefore, which extends to any group of people and not just the religions used in the example above. The challenge is to show the rest of the world how they approach life, how they treat fellow humans, based upon whatever traditions and tenets they subscribe to. (This is a particular challenge for atheists, who have to explain how they live without recourse to an ancient text). Explaining your moral system to others is interesting, rational, and most importantly it allows us to form a consensus with other cultures, on what exactly those morals shall be. Mutual respect all around the table.

Simon Schama suggests how we should conduct our political discourse:

Put another way, the fight is between power based on revelation (and thus not open to argument), and power based on persuasion, and thus conditional on argument; militant theocracy against the tolerant Enlightenment.

Competing groups may follow their own traditions and code as they interact with others, but at no point must they use their own articles of faith as a reason for political action. “We have the right to do this, because God says so” is an irrational argument and will not wash in polite debate. Sadly, many politicians on the international scene use this sort of rhetoric, over and over again. We know who they are and we should ask them to stop, because then we might be able to have a proper conversation.

How to forgive?

The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission was so improbable, I needed Desmond Tutu’s No Future Without Forgiveness to remind me that it was not some figment of my imagination, and did in fact exist. It was so unlikely, in fact, that I feel a quick summary of Commission’s activities is required, so its astounding nature can be fully comprehended.

Let me get this right: After apartheid ended and a fully democratic government was elected, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established. This body was created to facilitate a national catharsis, where people were given a platform to narrate their stories of the era. In the case of the victims of the apartheid regime, those who has been abused and tortured by the government security forces, the Commission had the power to grant them a symbolic compensation. “So far so good,” you might say—nothing too radical there. However (and you might have to read sentence twice) the Commission also had the power to grant an amnesty from prosecution, to those who confessed to crimes against humanity, committed during the apartheid era! People could come to the TRC, tell everyone that they had abducted, tortured, maimed and killed, say sorry, and then go home.

It’s all so improbable. South Africa was for half a century the epitome of animosity. The apartheid system took an entire race of people and stomped them into the ground. There was regular violence. There were massacres, notably at Sharpville in 1960 and in Soweto in 1976. There were bombings. The history of South Africa from 1948 points inexorably towards a chaotic civil war, similar to the many other conflicts that have crippled the African continent.

And it just did not happen. Not only did it just not happen, but also out of the negotiations of the early 1990s, there emerged the TRC, which began granting drive-by amnesty and gung-ho forgiveness left, right and centre.

We already know how this came to pass. It was made possible by that unique man Nelson Mandela, and also by people like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who took the helm of the TRC when it was established 1995. These South Africans were able to steer their nation away from seemingly certain civil war and onto the path of resolution and development. Such a thing was possible entirely because of the good character of those involved. The source of their morality, sketched in Tutu’s memoir, is something that should be studied by everyone.

The core message of No Future Without Forgiveness is encapsulated bluntly in the title. Before we examine its credibility and implications in detail, there are other nuggets worthy of inspection. What I find most interesting is Desmond Tutu’s account of ubuntu. I will describe it in a moment, but first a few observations on multiculturalism, and my own dabbling with it.

Whenever people talk about cultural exchange as a valuable thing, the reason cited is that we may “learn things from other cultures”. However, what it is we actually learn is never really explained. We can appreciate unfamiliar traditions, but they are always trumped by western liberal values if the push really comes to the shove.

Furthermore, culture as a concept is difficult to define at the best of times. Despite this, my personal experiences have convinced me that we do have valuable lessons to learn from non-Western cultures, and as such I am always delighted when a solid example of non-Western culture surfaces, and proves itself to be superior. Ubuntu is one such example, and one I have experienced before.

In Tutu’s words, which I shall quote at length with no qualms or apologies:

Ubuntu is very difficult to render into a Western language. It speaks of the very essence of being human. When we want to give high praise to someone we say, ‘Yu, u nobuntu’ … this means they are generous, hospitable, friendly, caring and compassionate. They share what they have. It also means my humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in theirs. We belong in a bundle of life. We say, ‘a person is a person through other people … I am human because I belong.’ I participate, I share. A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good; for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.

This is one of the best articulations of ubuntu I have read, and it makes me smile. When I read it in No Future Without Forgiveness I instantly recognised it that distinctly African way of treating other people that I experienced when I lived on the other side of the Limpopo, in Zimbabwe. It is the thing that says, “you will always feed a visitor to your house”, that says, “you will give a ride to those you see standing beside the road.” It is that attitude that says, “Respect your family,” that says “you will be better off working together.” Ubuntu is a way of saying “we are all part of the same team, the same human race.” It is a very communal attitude to take, one that is not evident in Britain, mid-2002.