Us and Them

Before the trade embargo was lifted, a US government agency tried to infiltrate the Cuban hip-hop scene in an effort to stir political unrest. They met with the politically vocal group Los Aldeanos, promoting them with their own TV channel and distributing their music on the black market to avoid government censorship. Los Aldeanos later went on stage at an independent music festival in Cuba and launched a tirade against Raul Castro’s government.

The plan backfired. The US plot was uncovered and the Castro responded by taking over the festival. Los Aldeanos were forced to move to Florida saying they could no longer work in Cuba because of government pressure.

If Western governments are using music festivals to try and shape the political discussion abroad you can be damn sure that they are monitoring them closely at home. Most people will say it’s just about catching drug dealers, but this story should illustrate that it’s partly about keeping tabs on political dissent.  At Glastonbury 2015 I stood at the back of the spoken word tent with eyes on stalks as a stand-up comedian unearthed three undercover policemen in the audience in the middle of his set:

“We know they’re undercover because we offered them a drink and a spliff earlier and they turned them all down.” The four heavy set men in bucket hats laughed uneasily around their cabaret table. “Yes they’ve been trained to laugh along,” the comedian’s eyes blazed from the stage, “but we know they’re really undercover.”

The tension in the air was extraordinary. No-one knew quite what was going on.

I went up to the men after the gig to investigate. “Are you really undercover policemen?” I asked harmlessly. “Yes” one of them replied. Then they laughed it off, “no we’re undercover villains” said another. Unconvinced I walked away. The men kept up the joviality and even got on stage to take pictures with the comedian, smiles a mile wide all round.

I can’t explain the vibe emanating from these four men. Perhaps they were just nervous. But the real moment of truth came a few minutes later. I was taking a piss in a nearby urinal when the four men came in together. “Oh look it’s the undercover policemen” I said cheerfully. Away from the crowd there were no laughs or smiles. An uncomfortable silence set in and we all stared straight ahead as our urine drummed deafeningly into the plastic.

I’ll never really know if they were undercover or not. Maybe they just had small penises. Reliable sources in the festival industry assure me that undercover police are indeed sent to festivals with the express aim of monitoring political dissent. At Eden, a festival of 8,000, there were 14 undercover policeman this year. Isn’t that a bit paranoid?

Actually I think the tactics are spot on. If the revolution comes at all it will probably come from music festivals. Music festivals give you a glimpse of a different way of life, love and ego liberation. And some people are so touched by this glimpse that they take it back with them into their lives forever. A world populated by such people would be bad news for capitalism: it’s a fact of life that the spiritually contented just don’t tend to shop as much. If I was exceedingly rich and powerful and keen to remain so, music festivals are exactly the sort of thing I’d be worrying about.

If the Cuban Hip-Hop Crisis tells us anything it’s that the political establishment are well aware of all this. It’s not simply that they find music festivals a bit smelly; they consider the whole ethos that goes with them an ideological threat.

As indeed they are. Where festivals are not expressly political they are implicitly so. You can always find revolutionary rhetoric at The LEFTFIELD stage at Glastonbury, but art can be a much more powerful way of getting your message across. Glastonbury 2015 fell just after the general election, and Shangri-La, which always has a thought provoking artistic theme, was a massive political slap in the face.

dave-cuntsHumour is a wonderful valve for frustration but some of the artwork in Shangri-La that year towed the line between creative expression and destructive hatred. I wonder how far this sort of thing goes to solving the problems the artists are so angry about.

I tried to articulate this to Akala when he spoke at Shambala festival, also in 2015. Intelligent, passionate and eloquent, this is a man with a powerful ability to sway minds, and yet midway through an electrifying spoken word performance, he used these abilities to incite hatred against all posh people. He admitted as much to me in person after the gig. I tried to tell him that I agreed with the problems of the world as he saw them, but that spewing vitriol against the upper classes, or any group of people, is not the way to solve them.

Now clearly I’m on shaky ground here. As he pointed out, police have never shot at anyone in my family. And he’s right, I don’t know what it’s like to have the hurt of history hanging over me. But the effect it was having on our conversation was clear to see; to him I was just another enemy.

This is the problem with the whole “us and them” mindset: when forced to define who “they” are, we pigeonhole individuals into groups and factions and hold them responsible for collective failures, and in doing so we end up making enemies of whole swathes of people who, if we looked a little closer, might be our allies.

Doing away with “us and them” is easier said than done (even in this article I couldn’t avoid pointing the finger at the “political establishment”). There’s no doubt it’s much easier to build a movement when there’s a common enemy. But what happens when the enemy is done away with? Hatred can give a revolution momentum but that same hatred will end up hollowing it out.

This is why conspiracy theories are such a dangerous game to play. It’s not that I throw them all out, it’s just that they force me to imagine some kind of evil boardroom of men wheedling their hands over the puppet strings. Perhaps such men exist, but if they do then they feed on our hatred and they bring us down with them if we make the mistake of doing so.

I would offer that the explanation is far more elusive than the evil puppet master scenario. We’ve been brought up on stories of good and evil, light and dark, heroes and villains. There are all these terrible problems with the world, someone must be responsible, right? Our narratives expect, and our egos demand an external enemy to pin our collective failures upon.

Identifying the problem as “out there” is the easy route. It diverts our attention away from the painful process of honest self-examination. It takes the burden of responsibility away from us. And the angrier we get the less energy we have to expend on effective action.

The people who really piss us off tend to be people with the same character failings as us. Thus a stubborn person tends to find stubborn people incredibly irritating, extroverts find other extroverts to be show offs, and selfish people think everyone else is being selfish.

My point is that perhaps the enemy we rage against is within us at least as much as it is “out there”. We all have light and dark within us. Sort out your own back yard first before waging war against nefarious conspiratorial rings like the Illuminati or the Bilderberg Group or whomever else you think is responsible. In a nutshell: let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

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Entropy & Life, Yin & Yang and why we like a well mown lawn.

“Help us to be ever faithful gardeners of the spirit, who know that without darkness nothing comes to birth, and without light nothing flowers.” – May Sarton

“Garden as though you will live for ever.” – William Kent

At a wedding last weekend I found myself with a glass of champagne in my hand, standing on a perfectly flat, freshly mown croquet lawn. The sunlight reflected off the grass at different angles to create that lovely chequered effect seen on test cricket grounds all over the land. All around us the flowerbeds were straight, the gravel smooth and the box hedges well clipped.

I turned back to the conversation and asked my companion a question that I have often thought about while standing in beautiful gardens. Why are our aesthetics so geared that we prefer order in our gardens rather than chaos? Why do we prefer straight lines and trimmed grass when we could just as well prefer tangled undergrowth and brambles?

He told me I was crazy. So I knew that the question was important.

Well kept gardens give me a feeling of deep satisfaction. Something like finishing all your admin for the day or tidying your room. Although most people might not describe it that way, most of us do seem to find something reassuring about order. It’s one of those may facets of human nature that are so pervasive that we don’t stop to question it. “Neat and tidy gardens just look nice,” you want to say, “of course they do.”

Contrariwise, disorder is inherently perturbing. A messy room causes us strife that goes well beyond the mere practicality of the matter. Advertising gurus, increasingly the discerning psychoanalysts of our time, were quick to take advantage of our deeply rooted aversion to disorder in a recent advertising campaign for payday loans.

Consider it for a moment and it becomes clear that we could just as easily prefer the sight of a messy room to a clean one and a straggly garden to a prim one. In any case, a person with a taste for the untouched would save alot of money on trowels and trouser presses.

Part of the reason may be just that – well ordered gardens take money and time and as such they are indicators of wealth. There’s an evolutionary case that indicators of wealth could shape our aesthetic preferences in certain instances – from high ceilings to the ample bosoms of well fed figures in renaissance paintings.

But I suspect there is something deeper at play.

There are few fundamental laws of the universe. In fact most of what we like to think of as universal laws are really more like habits.[1]

One pretty well agreed upon law is the second law of thermodynamics. This states that in any closed system randomness and disorder, known as entropy, always increases over time – eventually things die, decay, and, as Chinua Achebe famously pointed out, fall apart.

The universe itself is generally agreed to be a closed system, there being nothing ‘outside’ the universe from which energy can flow (bit controversial this one but stick with me). Within this closed system there can be any number of open systems – systems into and out of which energy and matter can flow. Your garden is an open system which imports energy in the form of petrol for the lawnmower and cups of tea for the gardener. This borrowed energy can be used to fight entropy and create the order and patterns I enjoyed at the wedding.

The earth is an example of an open system. It borrows energy from the sun which allows it to create order in the form of complex molecules and biological life. As ever this is a temporary achievement. Entropy is still lurking in the background – rocks are eroded, leaves shrivel and decay and granny won’t be around for ever. But whilst the sun still burns the flow of energy allows the constant renewal of order and life.

Thus we like order in our gardens because on a deep level it symbolises the fleeting triumph of life against the odds. No wonder horticulturalists have the highest levels of job satisfaction.[2]

Entropy and Life are therefore something like the Yin and Yang of Chinese philosophy – opposing forces that yet depend upon each other for existence. Indeed yang has etymological connections with the sun, the life affirming force of our planet which creates temporary order over and against entropy driven destruction.

So next time you compliment someone’s garden try something like, “Oh I just love your rhododendrons they’re so yang.” And then forward them this so they know you’re crazy and can stop worrying about it.

Yin 陰 or 阴 Noun ① [philosophy] negative/passive/female principle in nature ② Surname Bound morpheme ① the moon ② shaded orientation ③ covert; concealed; hidden ④ ⑦ negative ⑧ shady side of the mountain ⑨ south bank of a river ⑩ in intaglio Stative verb ① overcast ② sinister; treacherous

Yang 陽 or 阳 Bound morpheme ① [Chinese philosophy] positive/active/male principle in nature ②the sun ④ in relief ⑤ open; overt ⑥ belonging to this world ⑦ [linguistics] masculine ⑧ sunny side of the mountain ⑨ north bank of a river

[1] <http://www.sheldrake.org/files/pdfs/explore-Materialism.2013.pdf&gt;

[2] < http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2232056/Gardeners-florists-named-UKs-happiest-workers-90-horticulturalists-enjoy-going-work.html&gt;