Comedy rules – two great American novels 

We were in my last blog on the road in America, fifty years ago, give or take.

It put me in the mood for more America. Better wild and offbeat, I thought, rather than Frantzen-style intensive scrutiny. So having read the blurb I picked up Paul Beatty’s new novel, The Sellout, and read it just a week before it won the Man Booker prize last Tuesday. And that put me in the mood for a novel written almost fifty years ago, John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces.

We’re in New Orleans, well away from all the California fun and games. Toole creates one of the great comic heroes, Ignatius J Reilly. A medievalist by education and inclination, preferring his own room and company, yet forced to work he creates chaos in the sales office of Levy Pants, and confusion in the streets as a hot-dog salesman. He is wonderfully quotable.

Optimism nauseates me. It is perverse. Since man’s fall his proper position in the universe has been one of misery.’ Advising us to avoid all of history apart from the early medieval he recommends that ‘for the contemporary period , you should study some selected comic books’. Strangely prophetic. ‘I suspect that I am the result of a particularly weak conception on the part of my father. His sperm was probably emitted in a rather offhand manner.’

Ignatius’s New Orleans is a place I’d want to visit: I was there in 1971, and might have met him, had he existed… but I listened to jazz and didn’t scratch below the surface.

Likewise Dickens, the LA ghetto brought back to life in Paul Beatty’s novel. Dickens had somehow dropped off the map. Along with segregation – blacks shutting out whites – Beatty’s hero and narrator wants to put it back. He also unwittingly takes on Hominy, a one-time child actor who insists on being his slave. So as a black man he’s taken before the courts, on charges of slavery and segregation, and the novel begins and ends with the case brought before the Supreme Court. Black comedy in every sense, but such is Beatty’s commitment to irreverence that he absolutely gets way with it.

Unlike Jonathan Frantzen’s families, who I wouldn’t want to meet, I’d love to have got acquainted with Toole’s and Beatty’s characters in real life. Though maybe not more than acquainted….

And now we have Donald Trump acting out one of the great American comedy turns. Only it’s not comedy. Would he was a novel, and we could laugh.

America shares its life with us. We could be put off but we know, or we should know, that our own lives in our own countries are just as absurd, just as lost and lonely, mixed-up, angry, funny, devoted, passionate. So two cheers for America. If only we could slip in there, past the miserable souls who staff the airport arrival halls – and wearing ear mufflers which let in the roar of both the big city and the prairie winds but shut out the news networks which blight every bar and home.

Something for Google to look into. I don’t want a Google glass which enhances my experience. Rather mufflers that screen out …

On the road 

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,/Healthy, free, the world before me,  /The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.              Walt Whitman, Song of the Open Road

Whitman walked, we’re driving. We’re in the USA. A far cry from the Camino. And yet….

We’ve not planned our journey, we don’t have expectations, there isn’t a goal. There’s no history along the way, the road is open, everyone and no-one has trodden this route before us. Encounters with God are accidental not planned. We don’t walk or shuffle, we drive. Our minds picks up the blisters, wheels the wear and tear, not our feet.

We travel in a straight line, travelling west, heading for the sierras and the ocean. America travels in straight lines. Or back east. Start in New York, or California. Route 1 or Route 66, or the Pacific Coast Highway. Keep travelling.

The hobo, riding the blinds… rootless … looking for work: ‘I’ve been doing some hard travellin’, as Woody Guthrie sang.

The Beats by contrast had it easy. Kerouac was out of Columbia University. But like the hobos they were footloose, in mind and body. Searching for God, as Kerouac put it, not work.

Heirs of Whitman, and Emerson, and Thoreau. Even John Muir, though the Beats travelled the road not the wilderness.

They’d escaped the impact of war, the road network arrowed across America, an invitation, the cars that travelled it were streamlined. How lucky and how unlucky they were. War and its aftermath were three thousand miles away, too young to fight or worry, they didn’t have to agonise over combat or parade a political conscience. They were beyond their upbringing… drugs and sex came easily. And jazz. California Zen was a convenient religion – Dharma Bums as well as On the Road.

The Midwest and California have their own dreams and myths. The Beats were originally out of New York, but found California. California lifestyle reinterprets America. Putting up a different dream against New York. Not a Hollywood dream. Precursors to hippies, but they didn’t seek to change the world – not just yet. Challenge because they couldn’t help it – witness the obscenity trials – but not change it. America was their head space, not a place beyond.

They could be measured, a little bit lyrical:

‘Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.’ (Kerouac, On The Road)

And out of their minds:

‘I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,/dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,…./who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war,/who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull….(Howl, Ginsberg)

And as for me…

It’s 1971 – I’m on the open road, on the Beat trail, starting in New York, ending in California. A road journey, yes, but no automobile of my own. And I’m not hitch-hiking. Taking Greyhound buses city to city. The bus has its own iconography. Bus stations, hostels, camping out with friends in New Jersey, Toronto, Atlanta, Colorado, San Francisco, San Diego. Sleeping rough in Chattanooga. I couldn’t listen to music – but I could read. So Whitman and his streams of consciousness my companion. And Albert Marcuse. Mine was a counter-culture. I might teach history on California, but I wasn’t planning to sully myself with any other work along the way. No encounters with God, but charity from a Baptist preacher who paid for my breakfast and invited me to lunch with his family – but first I must attend his Sunday morning service, and hear him preach.

The long road north out of Texas, straight and parched and empty. Colorado I sensed was still Indian country. San Diego: we were all still hippies at heart. Barefoot and beaten by the sun. I could have tried surfing but instead I headed south, took to the road again, to Mexico. But the Mexicans wouldn’t let me in. Hair too long. Strange irony. They weren’t sure they wanted me back in America either. They cut back my visa to one month. I returned to Mexicali my hair shorn and my ears, unaccustomed to the sun, grew burnt and blistered, as I headed south to Oaxaca, the Yucatan and Chichen Itza.

Did the road came first, or the need to travel it? The road without destination, always going somewhere. Road movies aren’t about physical, but personal destinations. About setting out and avoiding arriving. Not seeking self-knowledge …but maybe achieving it. Though not knowing what to do with it.

My trip was my own road movie, before they invented the genre.

The road’s just one agenda for America. America has multiple agendas, it’s own powerful myths and images, but they have a kind of surface quality. Still a dream. Europe has multi-thousand years of history interwoven into its structures, artefacts and traditions. They root us, define us, hold us back and lift us up – America isn’t tied down – it looks for, loses, its way, finds it again.

James Dean on the one hand, Howl on the other. Drugs, sex, Zen … they are unto themselves, not adjuncts of another culture, a music, a street culture.

I’ve avoided the noise and anger and foolery of America for a while. But I’ll go back. Maybe because there’s no place for complacency – and no place for rebellion – quite like it. It has open spaces, and straight roads, and you can still be alone there. And the skies are big. And there are millions there like me. Chugging along, rebels at heart.

Rights, compassion and all that serious stuff

Our concepts of justice and social justice are closely tied to our ideas about the rights we enjoy as human beings. Rights easily taken for granted, and all too easily abused.

That takes us to another question, one that’s long concerned me – what lies behind the rights we enjoy? An external authority? Or something beyond that – are the rights we enjoy innate in who we are?

If this sounds heavy duty, please do bear with me. It gets to the core of why I set up the zenpolitics blog: how we can relate compassion, and the practice of compassion, to our everyday lives, and beyond that, to political life.

Negative rights assume self-interest is paramount: we respect the rights of others to pursue their interest to the extent that they respect our rights to do the same. Our loyalties are tied to family and community and to country: emotions attach to those loyalties, but they link back to our own selfish interest.

Positive rights assume a wider concept of interest, where the interests of self and others are ultimately the same, based on a natural justice common to all. From this derives everything from the right to vote and to an education, to the rights of the child, as in the UN Charter, and indeed to natural justice, where justice, and the legal system that enacts it, is common to all.

A natural justice common to all? Based on what? It can’t simply be a convenient construct, or rely on a hypothetical contract between citizens, which can be interpreted many different ways and swing as mood and opinion swings, or government or media interests dictate. (Though for many a construct or contract is as far as they’re prepared to go, following a trail blazed by Thomas Hobbes.) It must rely on something that goes deeper.

Religions avow an external authority, but I’m not sure we need religion as such. When we put ourselves beyond the addictive emotions, beyond anger, fear, desire, pride – beyond the attachments which cloud our judgement in everyday life, we find in the silence – a silence of mind – that compassion and fellow-feeling come entirely naturally. Compassion isn’t an emotion but a state of mind.

In Buddhist terms, your ‘original face’, in Christian terms, we’re back before the Fall, for the humanist we’re simply in touch with human nature. In the debate whether mankind is intrinsically evil or good I come down firmly on the side of good.

Silence – we have to find silence. Not a few moments walking to the station, or even walking the hills. Silence is silencing all the voices and emotions that take over our lives without our realising it. That’s where we go beyond our selfish selves, and find something else. Where the feelings of others are as important as our own.

The ‘others’ are not just our family, our peer group, community, country – they are by definition (compassion isn’t partial) all mankind.

We fall short all the time of course, sometimes a million miles short. But silence is our reference point.

And who is working class these days?

Working class – who is working class these days? The numbers of Americans defining themselves as middle class are in decline: 48% now consider themselves lower or working class. There are similar shifting sentiments in the UK.

And where do the old values of social liberalism (for a definition of social liberalism see * below) and social justice fit within this changing spectrum?

In both the USA and UK a new identity (nation, race, interest group) politics is taking hold. At the expense of both a more liberal outlook, and ‘the more conservative Labourism that might still stand the best chance in small-town England’. (David Marquand)

Taking Labour first, what the old Left hasn’t accepted is that the working-class solidarity of old, which has inspired the Labour movement for 150 years, is gone forever. And that could include Marquand’s ‘more conservative Labourism’. Left-intellectual radicalism and working-class aspirations no longer gell as once they did. Grinding poverty is no more, the old Marxist underpinning likewise, and there’s an alienation, a boredom and increasingly an hostility toward the political process.

And intellectuals, never too popular in the UK, are out of fashion as never before.

The popular instinct, as the Brexit result revealed, is to hold on to what we have. Immigration, globalisation, new technologies, the old politics, all are suspect. There’s support for renationalising the railways, but not for wider state intervention.

Maybe the Corbynite left will convince us otherwise, but I think they’re simply out of tune with the popular will.

So too social liberals – they’re also out of tune with broad sections of the population, who only see government indifference to unwanted changes in their lives – housing shortages, pressures on services, regional development, immigration.

It’s addressing these issues, rather than an overtly radical political prospectus, that will win people back to a liberal agenda.

Likewise, this should be Labour’s policy focus. Radical at heart, but pragmatic in practice. Unless you’re happy in the wilderness.

*Wikipedia has a helpful definition of social liberalism: Social liberalism is a political ideology that seeks to find a balance between individual liberty and social justice. Like classical liberalism, social liberalism endorses a market economy and the expansion of civil and political rights and liberties, but differs in that it believes the legitimate role of the government includes addressing economic and social issues such as poverty, health care, and education. Under social liberalism, the good of the community is viewed as harmonious with the freedom of the individual. Social liberal policies have been widely adopted in much of the capitalist world, particularly following World War II. Social liberal ideas and parties tend to be considered centrist or centre-left.

A citizen of the world 

“If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word citizenship means.”

My response?

I am, Mrs May, a citizen of the the UK, a citizen of Europe and a citizen of the world. Your comment shows how narrow your concept of citizenship, and in a connected world, how worthless. The patriotism you espouse is insularity, and treads close to, and encourages, jingoism.

Define citizenship as I have done, take your patriotism out into the world, share and understand the patriotism of others, and we will quite simply have a better world. Talk of strengthening borders and keeping foreign workers out, when openness and welcome have always been defining characteristics of our country, is the cry of a lady of comfortable circumstances, rooted in her own and not her country’s past. It’s is the cry of someone wanting to hold on to what she has, before she thinks what she can offer to others.

I’m not belittling that very personal attachment and pride we have in our country. I’m attacking those who would define it in their own interest, and respond with fear and a closed mind when all our futures lie in an open mind and heart.

And the others I have in mind? The young, the generations coming through who understand that we live in a global and connected world, and that the old narrow definitions of citizenship have a new and wider context.

Not only is Mrs May self-serving she also works directly against her country’s interest. In leaving the EU we not only put in peril trading relationships, we also seriously impair that remarkable influence we’ve had across Europe over the last forty years, where our democratic traditions and practice, our legal norms, the standards we espouse for society, the environment and the workplace have become accepted practice across much of the continent.

Mrs May’s citizenship is a straitjacket. A heavy boot on the hopes of future generations. Do not, Prime Minister, tread on their dreams.

1968 and all that

There’s a perverse pleasure in wading through reviews of books and articles on subjects I know nothing about and may never encounter again. On occasion something hits home. One example: Terry Eagleton in the special Cheltenham Festival Times Literary Supplement edition, on everyone’s favourite subject, post-structuralism:

‘In its curious blend of scepticism and euphoria post-structuralism is a form of libertarian pessimism – one which dreams of a world free from the constraints of norms and institutions, but which is not so incorrigibly naïve as to believe it could ever come about.’  

I could dine out on that one!

‘The revolutionary elan of 1968’ was followed by ‘the disenchanted mood of its political aftermath’. I remember 1968. Too well.

It’s a pattern oft-repeated. More recently we’ve had the frustrations of the Obama years, when ‘yes we can’ didn’t quite happen. (Maybe it never will.) The aftermath of the 1989 and the fall of the Wall. Occupy and the now empty squares of New York and London. Above all the Arab Spring, and its brutal aftermath.

But we won’t and can’t let our optimism die. I’m one of millions now and forever who believe in social justice, opportunity, capability, compassion. We rejoice when we see progress, we’re despondent when we see it pushed back. But we don’t despair.

We don’t of course always agree with each other. Do we work with the system, or oppose it – and by what means? The divide between global and anti-global perspectives is vast. Many (not all) proponents of big government and small government have the same end in view but believe in radically different ways of getting there.

I supported and support Obama, always believed Occupy wasn’t sustainable … Bernie Sanders I admire, Corbyn I don’t. We will bicker and insult and traduce the motives of others, while still aspiring to the same humanity.

And we will undermine each others’ efforts. Refuse to vote for Hillary. Battle it out for the soul and machinery of the Labour Party. And if we’re not careful – and we haven’t been of course – let another party in, a party which doesn’t define compassion and social justice quite as we do… which puts up barriers rather than engage with the world. Abandons institutions rather than seeks to reform them. Follows the populist piper, who advocates easy solutions, and plays to prejudice.

There are many good reasons for retiring to a monastery or a country cottage or sitting room and TV, and disengaging – and yet we hang in there. If we keep open minds, listen to each other, avoid scorn and hubris, remember that we’re ultimately on the same side – then we might just make progress.

‘The normal parameters’

“I am endorsing Hillary. And all her lies and all her empty promises. I am endorsing Hillary. The second worst thing that could happen to this country. But she’s way behind in second place, you know? She’s wrong about absolutely everything – but she’s wrong within normal parameters.”

We enjoyed PJ O’Rourke at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. Serious, yes, but with a sense of the absurd which gets to the heart of things. There’s no-one else like him. (He’s a great fan on Jon Stewart, on the other side of the political spectrum.)

Who else is out there beyond Trump, beyond the normal parameters? A serious party game – where protagonists just might come to blows.

Thinking of the UK.

Farage, or farrago, as my spellcheck would have it, of course: he like Trump claims to be within boundaries. He’s fooled a good few people. But closet racism, and recent support for Trump, place him firmly outside.

Corbyn, with his past support for elective dictatorships like the Chavez regime, and backing from trade unions who muddle the pursuit of workers’ rights with political agendas from another era – likewise.

Sections of the Tory party, the libertarian Davies and Fox wing, are on the parameter edge, and should never ever be near positions of powers, let alone dictating.

O’Rourke takes inspiration from Hayek, and avows a small government, minimal intervention agenda. That’s firmly within. We’ve been battling in the UK and USA between big and small government for decades – and that’s the way debate should be.

*

Read on for O’Rourke on Brexit.

He recounted interviews he did for an American public radio programme: he’d set out to understand why Brits voted for Brexit. He quoted a ‘financier’ who argued that the euro and probably the EU was going down the tube sooner rather than later, so best get out now. (To which the obvious reply is – we’ll be hit amidships anyway, and immeasurably better to be in there, influencing proceedings.)

And a more cogent argument – this is no longer the country we grew up in. The older generation’s lament. It isn’t the same country of course, and it’s the same for every generation. The sanity of representative democracy normally allows us trade-offs between young and old, and we move forward, an erratic progress maybe, but progress nonetheless. But not when you chuck a referendum into the mix.

Not a point that O’Rourke made, but a US presidential election has some of the characteristics of a referendum, in the sense of the media blitz and the half-truths, and this time the blatant untruths. But running in parallel are the Congressional elections. There’s balance in the US political system (which sure as hell isn’t perfect!), which brings politics back closer to the centre, where both sides have their say, and policy evolves out of a rough consensus – policies and programmes balancing out over time.

(At least, there was a balance, before Tea Party, and Cruz, and acolytes, and now Trump, came along.)

But referendums on their own – overriding representative, parliamentary democracy… that’s another story.

‘Normal parameters.’ Depart too far, allow prejudice and ideology to take centre stage, and the damage could be irreparable.