Sunday, 14 October 2018

No need to be frightened of the drill

Last week the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee heard testimony on live music from a number of witnesses, including from ShaoDow. In his testimony ShaoDow spoke eloquently about how Hip Hop and grime artists find it difficult to get booked at small venues due to preconceptions about their music. These preconceptions seem amplified when it comes to drill music, particularly given the way drill music has been linked to violent crime in the public imagination.[1] I believe this negative characterisation misunderstands the role of drill in today’s youth culture. It further risks stigmatising what I believe to be a vital release valve for many youngsters.

The contemporary debate about drill music, and its role in knife violence among our youth, replays past arguments about other forms of rap music.  As the saying goes ‘history doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.’ Its over 20 years since 2pac uttered the words ‘n-s been dying for years, so how could they blame us?’ on the track ‘2 of Amerikaz most wanted.’[2] Nonetheless, society is still arguing about whether rap music (of which drill is simply a subgenre) is a negative influence. 2pac was right to assert that he did not create the conditions he was rapping about. Likewise contemporary drill musicians did not invent the concepts of lurking, trapping, drilling, scoring shots and so on. For many, these are things they grew up around and had to encounter every day. Why should they be denied the chance to talk about their experiences?  

The negative portrayal of drill music also ignores the therapeutic benefits of producing and listening to it. According to Cambridge University researchers, Dr Becky Inkster and Dr Akeem Sule, Hip Hop music can help people experiencing mental health difficulties.[3] Anecdotally this is certainly my experience. As with other forms of rap music, for many of the people who produce and consume it, drill music is the primary way they have to discuss issues that affect them. For those that lack the means to seek therapy, to help them come to terms with the often troubled and violent surroundings in which they live, music can be a way to avoid bottling up their feelings. Without drill as an outlet how else would these repressed and negative feelings find expression? The argument presented by certain figures in law enforcement and politics is that drill music encourages violence. My question is where would we be without it as a mode for people to get things off their chests, or to seek empathy from others in similar situations?

Nothing in our world is uniformly perfect so we should not expect drill music to be any different. I will not argue that drill music does not often deal with difficult subjects. However, it is often the product of people who have lived very difficult lives. My contention is they should not be judged by a different standard that others are held to. Particularly when, to my mind, the creation and consumption of drill music is not without benefits.

[1] Independent, 29 May 2018, link
[2] 2 Pac, 2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted, 7 May 1996, link
[3] University of Cambridge Department of Psychiatry, 16 October 2014, link

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

What the Prime Minister needs to do in her 2018 conference speech

The Prime Minister has a talented group of advisers around her, which guarantees her 2018 conference speech will be superbly crafted. The 2018 conference theme, opportunity, also gives her a great theme to work with: Allowing her to talk about how her plans are designed to open doors for people. Tomorrow she will undoubtedly give a very good speech. However, to make it a speech that stays in the memory she must use what she says to craft a new narrative for her government: A central theme that ensures hardworking people understand how government is delivering things that will benefit us and our families.

She must not treat Brexit as something separate to her agenda, instead Brexit should become just another issue that showcases her agenda: An agenda to give people more of a say over their own lives and deliver the security that comes from having control over where we are going in the future. Too often politicians treat Brexit as an obstacle that must be navigated so they can get back to talking about domestic issues. This is not the optimal approach. One of the great insights of the Leave campaign during the 2016 EU referendum was the desire of people to ‘take back control.’ Vote Leave was able to recognise that many voters felt disenfranchised, felt powerless about their futures and wanted to have more of sense of where they were going. In the way the Prime Minister talks about Brexit she must tap into that vein of feeling. Recent research published by Britain Thinks indicates that ‘swing voters feel they are facing an anxious and uncertain future.’[1] Because people feel they have no control over where they are going they feel anxiety. The desire for greater control, which will deliver them greater security for the future, is the framing narrative the Prime Minister must apply to Brexit and everything else she does.

She must make the conference theme come alive for normal people. Conservatives can sometimes forget our cultural assumptions when we talk politics. When we discuss opportunity, it seems self-evident that it is a good thing. However, to many people that is not the case. To many people opportunity is just a word. Indeed, some people may read it negatively. Some many ask ‘what do I care about the opportunity to do more? I just want to feel secure with what I have.’ In the way she speaks the Prime Minister must give the word ‘opportunity’ emotional content, so that it makes an emotional connection with the electorate. In short, if you are struggling to get on in life the Prime Minister must explain why opportunity is the answer. She must help the public see that opportunity is not an abstract good but something that speaks to the fear for the future pollsters are noting in voters. She must demonstrate that she wants to give people opportunity so that they can have more control over their own lives, so that they can have greater security and feel that they are masters of fate not its victims.

She must contrast her platform with that of the opposition in a way that helps the electorate understand the choice ahead. Fundamentally, when it comes to addressing the problems felt by voters, Labour’s answer is state action. However, the Britain Thinks research illustrated that moving further to the left is a net -22% negative for Labour among swing voters.[2] People understand their children will not be able to afford mortgages if the government mortgages their children’s futures by spending more, borrowing more and taxing more. The Prime Minister must make clear why Labour’s promises are not built on solid foundations but will lead to people having less more in their pockets, less security about getting by day by day and therefore less of the control over their lives and their futures.

[1] Britain Thinks, Breaking the Deadlock, 11 September 2018, p.5, link  
[2] Britain Thinks, Breaking the Deadlock, 11 September 2018, p.23, link  

Sunday, 10 June 2018

Why I hate Star Wars the Last Jedi

The reason I hate the Last Jedi is because it is a direct attack on the monomyth that inspired Star Wars. There may be a selection of fans who dislike the Last Jedi for other reasons, some perhaps for sinister reasons. For fans like myself however, fans who adored The Force Awakens and Rogue One, the problem with the Last Jedi is the story. Superficial thinking, for example about diversity in Star Wars, ignores this fact. It therefore fails to address the fundamental issue that I believe most of the Last Jedi’s detractors have with it. If the entire cast of the Last Jedi were white men fans would still hate it for its treatment of the Star Wars monomyth. Disney Lucasfilm must appreciate this to avoid reaching for the wrong answers to explain the division among its fans.

The Last Jedi is a direct challenge to the archetypal idea of heroism that George Lucas built Star Wars upon, which he partly drew from The Hero With a Thousand Faces. The foundations Lucas created for Star Wars follow the classical heroes journey. His protagonists start off as novices, encounter challenges and must overcome these in some way that prompts growth and usually involves loss.

In the Last Jedi Rian Johnson tries to undercut the classical concept of heroism to make his interpretation of the story work. Johnson wants the viewer to accept that the way we understand Star Wars and its mythos is mistaken: The Force, The Jedi. It’s all wrong. Through the characters in the Last Jedi Johnson tells us balance in the Force effectively lies in nobody using it. Hence his depiction of Luke Skywalker as having turned his back on the Force. Through Skywalker Johnson tells the audience that great light creates great darkness and vice versa. He also tries to convince the audience that the Jedi are blind to this because their vanity binds them to the hero narrative.

Johnson must do this because the hero narrative informed the thinking of George Lucas, and if you interpret Star Wars through that paradigm Johnson’s story does not fit the Star Wars universe. In the pre-Rian Johnson account of the Star Wars mythos balance is found in the triumph of good over evil, as you’d expect from a tale so influenced by The Hero With a Thousand Faces. It is not vanity that causes us, be it the audience or the Jedi, to believe in the heroic struggle of good against evil: the light side against the dark side. It is something archetypal that appeals to human beings on an instinctive level. We want good to overcome evil. We do want the Force to belong to the Jedi. We do not believe that evil is a response to good, just the absence of it.

Johnson’s subversion of the classic Star Wars monomyth creates several concrete problems in terms of characterisation and narrative in the Last Jedi. Johnson appears to understand that if he cannot convince the audience that heroism is a flawed concept we will reject his story. So as well as having Luke Skywalker act as his voice he also tries to cast heroism as dangerous, selfish and pig headed. Poe Dameron’s character suffers because of this particularly. Poe is seen as taking a series of insubordinate decisions that transform him from the likeable maverick of the Force Awakens into an unlikeable imbecile.

Even within the context of his own story Johnson’s attack on heroism leads him having to try and explain away certain acts or ignore them completely. For example, Admiral Holdo’s sacrifice to save the resistance is described as not being heroic. Ostensibly because it is done to give the resistance a chance to survive not for glory. When Finn attempts to make the same sacrifice however, by giving up his own life to destroy the First Order’s canon before it can wipe out the resistance, he is stopped by Rose Tico. Her explanation for doing this sits uneasily against the explanation Leia gave a few frames earlier for Holdo’s sacrifice, particularly as at that point within the narrative it seems like the last hope for the resistance. By arguing against heroism so forcefully Johnson is unable to lean on the simplest motive for the characters actions. This makes it difficult to draw a logical line as to why some heroism, like Holdo’s, is good and other heroism, like Finn’s attempt, is bad. This is brought into focus by the Last Jedi’s climax in which Luke Skywalker, who Johnson used to talk down the Jedi ‘legend’ in the first two acts, creates a new legend to spark the fire of a new rebellion with his last stand. Are heroes good or bad? Are legends worth putting our faith in or not? Ultimately Johnson’s Last Jedi does not provide the audience with satisfying answers to these questions. It cannot because the internal logic of Star Wars would back heroism but this would destroy Johnson’s take on the story.

Rey’s character suffers more than any other because of Johnson’s attempt to deconstruct the Star Wars monomyth. If Johnson is able to convince the audience that belief in heroes is a form of vanity, a form of vanity that blinds us to the fact true balance is the co-existence of light and the dark, the treatment of Rey’s character is palatable: Rey does not need to go through the traditional heroes journey of the kind Joseph Campbell and George Lucas advocate, she is the balance of Kylo Ren and his power is naturally balanced by hers: ‘Darkness rises and light rises to meet it’ to quote Snoke. Accept Johnson’s premise and Rey is not a so-called Mary Sue. She is a literal force of nature arising naturally by the will of the Force. However, if you reject Johnson’s deconstruction of the Star Wars monomyth and interpret episode VIII against what we learn in episodes I-VII, her character arc is unsatisfying.

Unlike other Jedi before her in canon Rey’s abilities seem to come from nowhere. That is why Johnson so readily hammers home the message to the audience that they must ‘let the past die. Kill it if you have to.’ When considering the heroes journeys of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Anakin Skywalker, Luke Skywalker or anyone else in canon Rey’s abilities make no sense. All Jedi, regardless of how naturally gifted, have been depicted as needing to train to hone their abilities. Despite being a virgin birth and being stupendously force intuitive Anakin still needed to become a Padawan, still lost to Count Dooku and to Obi-Wan. The idea of darkness rising and light rising to meet it is totally alien to the Star Wars canon predating Rian Johnson. For example, the Sith mostly destroyed themselves hence Darth Bane instituting the rule of two. Since Lucas created Star Wars the traditional stages of the heroes journey have governed its internal logic and the Last Jedi crashes painfully against that. For long time fans of Star Wars broom kid’s abilities seem bizarre when we recall Luke Skywalker’s struggles in the Wampa Cave.

The need to throw out the past to make the logic of his story stand is why Rian Johnson’s interpretation of Star Wars is so hated by so many. Over and over long-time franchise fans are confronted with a message that implies that Lucasfilm doesn’t care about its legacy. From the way Johnson reshoots Rey handing Anakin’s lightsaber to Luke so he can toss it, the film repeatedly and wilfully seems to ignore what came before it. Luke left a map to where he was, which is ignored. Yoda uses force lightning, a Sith power, yet he has been depicted as the paramount Jedi. Rey gets a power up to balance out Kylo’s abilities yet neither Luke or Yoda got similar boosts to fight Palpatine in episodes III and VI. Holdo’s plan hinges on escape pods but the Empire tracks escape pods, which happens in A New Hope and the Force Awakens. The Last Jedi feels like a slap in the face to Star Wars continuity. Johnson seems to forget that the reason people bought into Star Wars in the first place is the history he needs us to throw out to buy his story’s premises. Given this choice between the classic Star Wars monomyth and Johnson’s tale there was only ever going to be one winner. I will take the Hero with a Thousand Faces over a film that cannot even give me a clear answer on heroism any day.