Yesterday I dusted off some work from the archives of my laptop and gave it a new, backup home on the world wide web in the humble dwelling that is Mrtsblog. Today I’ll continue the trend with a more academic piece. This essay was the fruit of a summer of reading science fiction, histories of the Cold War and comparisons between the American and Russian ways of life. Originally I also intended to write about Ray Bradbury’s works. Whilst I did enjoy The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451 immensely, and they really are beautifully written with fantastic ideas, I could not accommodate his writing with my theme. Perhaps it was better I left Ray’s work alone and in the drawer of pure enjoyment in my brain.
Anyway in the end my essay, for an Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) at A-Level, became a comparison of the work of Aldous Huxley and Phillip K. Dick. Looking back on it now there are things I wish I had done better and it’s not as well as written or argued as I hope to be in future. But I do miss the satisfaction of both academic study and essay writing now and again, so these posts will remind me that I am capable of it.
The first post (this one) will be the introduction, with the two parts on Huxley and Dick to follow. I really enjoyed marring my interests in literature and history with this essay, and as it was primarily written for English sizeable chunks about American history had to be removed. Unfortunately it’s still quite a drawn out read, with as I say, a lot of weaknesses despite a good mark. I don’t really expect any readers to consume the whole thing, but as I say, will add it to my online archive of work regardless.
So here we go:
Focusing on the Cold War, how does the work of Aldous Huxley and Phillip K. Dick challenge dominant historical perceptions of America?
Aldous Huxley and Phillip K. Dick can both be loosely linked under the banner of “science fiction” writers. However the two men have extraordinarily different backgrounds and influences. Huxley was an English intellectual living in the shadow of the First World War, whereas Dick was an anti-establishment Californian who came of age as the Second World War ended. The literary outputs of the two men are also poles apart in a number of ways. Huxley wrote satires of the English upper classes but Dick’s mainstream successes were realistic portrayals of the average American dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Huxley’s most celebrated work, Brave New World, is regarded as a “novel of ideas” and Huxley himself admitted that he struggled to find the balance between plot and information. Dick did not have Huxley’s scientific heritage, but approached writing fiction with a strong knowledge of philosophy, psychology and Eastern Religion. These influences are all evident in Dick’s most highly regarded novel, The Man in the High Castle, along with an excellent original premise and believable characterisation. Whatever their differences however, both men continually challenged accepted thinking in their writings and in particular questioned the reality of the Cold War world. Both men are also best known for cautionary messages that prompted readers to remain vigilant about threats to their humanity from any source, totalitarian or otherwise.
Huxley and Dick were both rightly influenced by the division of a post-war world into two separate ideological camps. Huxley was deeply concerned by the methods of totalitarians and the worrying susceptibility of the masses to their tactics. Dick was amongst the first to recognise the destructive potential of two nuclear armed adversaries and the implications of impending doom on human existence. However what sets them apart from the rest is their refusal to allow their thinking to be consumed by the scale of the Cold War and the evil of the Communist threat.
Both men had the awareness to keep one eye turned inward on the frailties of the Western world, at a time when democratic governments were getting an easy ride on a wave of unity against the tyranny of the Reds. Neither man succumbed to the temptation of oversimplifying the world around them into a good vs. evil struggle. They equally recognised the potential for right and wrong in each individual human being. A Communist was still a person capable of good, just as an American had the potential for bad. Both men touched on this theme in their work, Huxley with his “Savage” outsider and Dick more specifically with his almost – human androids.
The underlying warning was that a capitalist citizen could be as easily exploited as a Communist drone if they neglected their freedom to think and question. In life both Huxley and Dick were determined never to do so. Huxley fretted about ignorant modern lives, lived to purely satisfy the senses. He questioned the very idea of progress, warning against unnecessary and deceptive changes. Dick led a tortured life, lurching between periods of depression, paranoia and addiction. Through it all he maintained an intellectual curiosity with the abuse of power and perceived reality. There was hope for both of them in freedom of expression.
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Last week I rekindled my love for History and looked forward excitedly to the day I would begin my own studies of the subject. Attending a friend’s lecture on Freedom and Servitude at York University, I was reminded of the myriad of issues and possibilities that arise studying the subject, and the endless opportunities for arguing varied points of view. The lecturer did an admirable job, without a PowerPoint presentation, of skimming through an incredibly contentious theme of history in a thought provoking way. He never became boring or grating, alleviating heavy philosophy and figure based sections of his speech with lighter links to an interview with Kate Moss in Grazia about her idea of freedom and an amusing, scandalous Bible story used as bewildering justification for the slave trade for centuries.
I made my own notes and learnt that Harvard scholar Orlando Patterson described freedom as an under theorized concept; something which made a lot of sense. Like love or beauty, freedom is something easier to understand through experience and hard to articulate. Its vagueness adds to its allure though. Equally interesting is that some cultures, particularly in Asia, attach much less importance to what we in the West might term “freedom” or liberty. In Japan they have no word for freedom. Our guilt and direct experience of slavery has led to a freedom fetish in our culture, stemming particularly from the American fascination with it.
The lecture rose numerous other interesting points, which it is not my intention to delve into here. It highlighted aspects of history, such as Greek and Roman dependence on slaves, and the cultural slavery instigated by some tribes, never so much as touched on at school. But crucially its conclusion threw up a controversy, a set of conflicting views about the overall interpretation of slavery.
Traditionally it’s assumed that after the Declaration of Independence in America, the North phased out slavery, and the South didn’t, which led to Civil War and the North imposed the right way on the South. But the North continued to condone slavery in several ways and the push for freedom was far from strong and complete. Inequality would remain even as slavery faded, as any minor knowledge of the civil rights movement will reinforce. The challenge to conventional history then, was did Americans, be it the establishment or the majority or whoever, realise in some way that their considerable freedom depended upon the servitude of others? Just as Sparta’s mechanised and elitist form of society in Ancient Greece depended on the labour of enslaved Helots, did the blossoming prosperity of white Americans depend on the comparable hardships of their black workers?
I relish the considerable crossover with other subjects in History; be it politics, literature or philosophy. And in philosophical terms the conclusion of the lecture could be boiled down to: can freedom exist without slavery, or vice versa? Something that’s always appealed to both the realist and idealist in me is that things can simultaneously be their opposites. By this I mean, as Orwell notoriously wrote in 1984, “Freedom is Slavery”. Perhaps one really cannot exist without the other. I think that when studying History it helps to remember that there will always be a contradictory view and that just because it might completely oppose the more sensible option, does not mean it does not have value or truth or validity. I’m not expressing myself very well, but hopefully my point will become clearer.
I’ve always admired the historian Niall Ferguson. I discovered him through extremely engaging programmes on Channel 4, about Empire, America and War. His ideas and theories challenge traditional views, and this is something the historian should always be looking to do. His interpretations of the past connect and enlighten our immediate future. Often his focus will be economic but he rarely alienates with too many figures. He simply selects the right ones to back the thrust of his story. For me he achieves all the things an historian ought to. This doesn’t mean his conclusions have to be full-proof. Indeed it’s because he recognises History is not straightforward and that it’s constantly evolving and full of contradictions, that I admire him.
In yesterday’s Observer Ferguson gives an insightful interview. The writer, William Skidelsky, does a superb job of marrying the probing of Ferguson’s personal journey with his world view. There is some interesting background to Ferguson’s works, which shed light on them. Overall it’s a fantastic article about the man as well as the ideas. He is truly a remarkable human being and looking suave at 46 I would go as far as to pop him in my exclusive idol drawer.
His latest book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, is closely linked to an idea Ferguson has been espousing about History teaching in schools. The curriculum, most accept, is too narrow and sporadic. Students leave having studied Hitler countless times but with no clue of History’s broader sweep and its overarching connections. It’s something that puts the comprehensive school pupils at a disadvantage against more traditionally educated, public school types. I can personally vouch for this and as a keen History student would welcome the subject being both better taught and more attractive for future generations.
Ferguson’s new work is targeted at 17 year olds, he says, and it charts the ascendancy of the West over the East since Early Modern times. Ferguson’s recent back catalogue of works have focused on Empire and his views, particularly on the British and American systems, have been controversial. His fusion of idealism and realism is tremendously inspiring. What I tried to express earlier is brilliantly summed up in the conclusions to his work: for example, the British Empire did bad but also a great deal of good or Americanisation can be a force for immorality but also if applied more earnestly and thoughtfully, bring immense prosperity and freedom. I am generalising and simplifying, but as I said he is the best of historians; accessible but scholarly supreme, dynamic and revisionist but pragmatic.
I look forward to his latest work, both in TV and book form and wish him the best of luck with his crusade to evolve the teaching of his subject; just as history itself and his views have done.
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Some people are perfectionists. You cannot imagine them any other way. They strive again and again to be the best, to fulfil their wildest, finely crafted, unblemished dreams. We all know people that work themselves into an unfathomable, illogical frenzy about the slightest flaw. You worry about what will happen to them if they ever completely lose perspective and fall through the cracks of their own expectations. How far can they push themselves, what lengths will they go to in the quest for perfection? Will you lose the person you know as they struggle towards faultlessly achieving their goals?
Black Swan is a film about the extremes of the perfectionist and the mania that can ensue in the dizzy rush for excellence in art. It’s packed full of themes about creativity and control, trust and tantrums. Is talent about honing your skills again and again until they’re technically sound, or something more intangible you must simply give into, like desire? Can anyone ascend to stardom and maintain their youthful innocence? Just how destructive can all consuming ambition be? Most of all, whatever questions Black Swan raises, it is a piece of beautifully pure, utterly gripping drama.
Drama as powerful and captivating as this is rarely found at the cinema these days. Perhaps because of the influence of and sizeable chunks of Swan Lake used in the film, Black Swan has the sensual quality of a stage production. Frequently it is flinchingly shocking. Acclaimed director Darren Aronofsky ratchets up the tension and paranoia to chilling, unsettling but completely compelling levels. The whole thing is a visual feast. Most surprisingly of all, given the sheer number of scares jostling for position and all the hype around the film, there were more than a handful of moments in which the auditorium was plagued by infectious giggles.
Most of these laughs come via Vincent Cassel’s Thomas Leroy, director of the New York ballet company. He is amusingly frank with Natalie Portman’s Nina, as is Mila Kunis as Nina’s dancing rival Lily. Both of these supporting cast members give excellent performances but it’s Portman’s Oscar worthy turn rightly stealing the headlines. In the past I’ve found her acting irritating, especially her regular appearances as an English rose type figure, with stereotypical accent. She was the only thing I mildly disliked about V for Vendetta. But here Portman’s character is meant to be prissy and annoying, and despite this as her delusions worsen and multiply you find yourself rooting for her to overcome her demons. Her portrayal of mental confusion and paranoia spiralling into madness is startling.
Barbara Hershey plays Nina’s controlling mother, who has projected her disappointments from her own curtailed career onto her daughter. In a sickly sweet, cotton ball world at home Nina lives as a little girl, primed only to succeed as a dancer. This suffocating environment is far from helpful as Nina works to try and embrace the role of evil, seductive Black Swan as well as the pure, fragile and perfect White Swan Queen. Her director continually tells her to loosen up and the suffocation from Nina’s home life spread throughout the film, haunting her and the audience. Nina projects her own anxieties onto the confident, relaxed Lily, who soon becomes a recurring, taunting theme in her fantasies.
At the beginning of the film, Cassel’s director tells his dancers his will be a “visceral” reworking of Swan Lake. And Black Swan is certainly visceral. Of course it touches on all the themes I mentioned earlier, but in reality it’s far too over the top to explore them properly. Above all else it is a fantastical and theatrical story. You’ll be gripped by the drama, haunted and confused by the plot. Sucked in by claustrophobic visuals, charmed by stunning dance sequences and engaged by superb acting; Black Swan has a bit of everything and its vividness is inexplicable. You won’t see anything more sensual this year.
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All hospitals look and feel essentially the same. They are the same mass of endless corridors, stretching on and on, filled with nurses and clipboards and trolleys but still somehow feeling like big, empty tubes brimming with nothing but still, sterile, clinical air that gnaws and chews at the nerves and wellbeing of patients before spitting them out from some unidentifiable artery drenched in anxiety. They have the same mockingly soft carpet, the same peeling paint from the same cold metal chairs, the same trundling squeaks from the laundry cart or doom laden whines of consultant’s doors. They are littered with the same old people riddled with ailments, the same proud photos of ill people remarkably overcoming their unlucky genetic hand, the same criss-crossing, numberless signage with countless departments. They are staffed by the same kindly but ordinary people, who for whatever reason work in the service of other people’s health and are without fail exposed, despite the reassuring professionalism or caring compassion behind the smiles, by the thick scent of disinfectant hanging in the air as the messengers of pain, discomfort and humiliation.
This hospital though was rather more particular than others. The walls had been whitewashed in an attempt to impose the familiar order but the age of the building meant that the corridors were endless but twisting and unpredictable, the windows suddenly large, the carpet non-existent, pipes peppering the wall like the workings of a rusty cruise liner. The floor abruptly sloped at times and the rooms were inconsistent in size. The reception area was a modern pod inserted into the post-war whole, plastered with the usual abundance of signage but beyond this all was quiet, free of clutter and business. My chest x-ray took all of thirty seconds and was carried out by a single nurse, the only member of staff in the entire corridor, who had rehearsed her lines perfectly from years of service. There was no whiff of doom in the air, merely the cold tinge of the metal plate and a slight chill from the corridor as I put my shirt back on. The results would filter through the NHS bureaucracy to my GP in a week, she said.
A relatively comfortable routine test then, that despite a handful of distinctive features at this hospital, ought to be as simple and painless across the country. In the run-up to the election David Cameron was desperate to make his party the party of the NHS, an institution he and others clearly now see as a fundamentally British ideal, not simply a Labour one. Since coming to power Cameron and his government have reaffirmed their commitment to “ring-fence” NHS spending and protect it from the comprehensive spending reviews due to steamroll through the budgets of other departments in the autumn. Presumably this is because Cameron, and it would seem the entire political class, rightly believe that healthcare should meet the same standards nationally and be available to all for free and that to provide such a service is a key indicator of a modern, civilized nation. Despite Cameron’s championing of the “Big Society” when it comes to health he has adopted a position he has often dubbed as “big government”.
Cameron’s emphasis on the “Big Society” and the masses of waste that inevitably stem from the contrary “big government” spending approach, mean that a dangerous debate is emerging that is set to compromise efficiency and fairness in the race to slash the budget deficit. Cameron has wrongly insisted that spending must be conducted in either a reckless way involving “big government” control or a devolved, fair, effective “Big Society” way. The reality is that government has an enormous role to play, often with taxes and spending injections but also that it must occasionally extend freedom to the private sector for jobs it would do better. The NHS is easily the biggest strain on government spending and Cameron has sought to impose his “Big Society” rhetoric on it in a way by encouraging local control and a purge of absurd bureaucracy. This purge would aim to increase efficiency and effectiveness by doing away with ludicrous regulations that prohibit nurses from giving injections but allow them to carry out blood tests for example, as well as cutting wasteful spending. Any attempt at streamlining efficiency is always welcome but ultimately as hollow as the Conservatives’ promises of “efficiency savings” during the election to deal with the deficit. The problem goes much deeper. If Cameron was serious and sensible about tackling “big government” spending he would address NHS spending as it accounts for such a large chunk of the state’s expenditure. He would prioritise treatment for those truly ill and scale back other projects such as IVF and cosmetic surgery currently available via the NHS. He would ease the tax burden on private hospitals and encourage those who could afford private treatment to use it, whilst increasing taxes on anything that adds to the NHS workload, for example alcohol, tobacco, particularly harmful fats and additives in food. To take these sensible steps that would lead to a higher quality NHS for those ill and injured through no fault of their own, genuinely deserving of treatment, Cameron’s government would have to make unpopular choices and introduce tax rises and it is far simpler to be hailed as moral crusaders for preserving the inalienable right of free health care above all other areas that are trivial in comparison.
By writing a blank cheque to the NHS Cameron makes the axe fall harder elsewhere in Whitehall departments. This is foolish given that certain things only the government can do and others government ought to do more with. For example the MOD is set to face massive cuts which could be even more devastating if the Chancellor wins his ministerial battle with Liam Fox, the defence secretary, to ensure the Trident replacement is paid for out of the MOD budget, not the Treasury’s. “Defence of the realm” Cameron insisted this week, “should always remain any government’s first priority”. And yet somewhere Britain’s capabilities shall suffer irreversibly, be it through the loss of a fleet of helicopters destined to safely ferry troops tasked with an ambitious withdrawal target around Afghan provinces or through the loss of jets, or troops or aircraft carriers. A Strategic Defence Review might lead to a much needed rethink in the direction of defence strategy but it will also herald the scaling back of Britain’s global influence, it is simply a question of how much prestige we shall concede.
In my opinion defence is not the only area that can only effectively be administered by government being hit hard by the proposed cuts. The energy department’s budget is under threat and Liberal Democrat Energy Secretary Chris Huhne has already stressed that the bulk of his budget is consumed by the safe disposal of nuclear waste. Britain could be well placed to avoid the worse of energy crisis and turmoil in the future if proper investment is given to renewable sources, particularly wind as we have 40% of the potential wind energy in Europe within our territory. However the coalition government’s ideological spending decisions mean that their only efforts will be the “encouragement” of private investment in these industries, at a time where swift and direct action must be taken to kick start a long term, essential process of diversification and development. Private investment is in any case bound to be slow as we emerge from recession and the industries are yet to be regarded as ripe for profit. This is all ignoring the fact that a country surely ought to have a great deal of direct control over its energy production for reasons of security, independence and stability in the long term and yet we are happy to surrender the keys to our daily lives to vulnerable, private, foreign companies?
Staying with climate change a “big government” solution to transport emissions and efficiency would also be preferable, but unthinkable without a major redistribution of government spending. At the moment government expenditure helps maintain the railways and yet private companies control prices and provide largely unattractive services. Government control would allow a fresher, greener, cheaper and more widely used transport network and would inevitably have to be offset by tax rises on the motorist. All of this talk of nationalisation style policy and tax rises is far too left wing for the coalition government, but the Liberal Democrats called for such revolutionary transport policy in their manifesto, to invigorate the economy and lead the way on emissions cuts. Instead the Lib Dems are being sucked into an alliance of slashing not just in spending but in government influence. It might be liberal to rein in the police and even to make sure benefits are only paid to those genuinely in need, but it can also be liberal for government to make transport cheap and appealing to all, ensure a consistent, cheap energy supply and take direct charge of basic education in schools. This divide between big state and small state liberals has long been a feature of the Liberal Democrats and may continue to be an issue.
Several contributors to DemoCritic have warned that the Lib Dems must be careful in coalition and I have urged them and us, the voters, repeatedly on my blog to ensure the Conservatives do not have unlimited use of orange and yellow human shields in Parliament. When it comes to Cameron’s “Big Society” agenda Nick Clegg has promised that it upholds liberal values. But during the election he dismissed the slogan as a gimmick designed to disguise rushed, ideological deficit reduction that threatens not only the economy but the efficiency and fairness of our state. Clegg and those in his party must endeavour to ensure what’s good about the “Big Society” goes ahead and the Labour party and the electorate must continue to call for what Cameron labels “big government” solutions when they are right and suitable.
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