Random Movie Theory: The Matrix Trilogy

Okay, so The Matrix Trilogy is one of the most influential movies series of all time. Set in a post-apocalyptic world where machines possessing incredible artificial intelligence, powered by human-derived electricity, it wowed audiences with both its style and substance.

The premise of the story is that Neo, the saviour of humanity, is released by a plucky band of outlaws from his virtual reality induced servitude to wake up in the real world and ultimately end the war between machine and man that had been waging since the 20th century.

The stage is set between two worlds. The first is The Matrix, an interactive virtual world in which humans who are plugged in to the system go about their daily lives unaware of their enforced slavery. The second is the real world, which is entirely dominated by those intelligent machines that, following the war, gained dominance across the entire earth.

This contrast is highlighted cinematographically in a number of ways, including colour grading of each scene, scoring, and the ‘clean’ vs ‘cyber punk’ staging of each reality.

Neo, being the saviour that he is, is able to manipulate the programming of the Matrix in order to perform impossible actions, including his superhuman speed and strength. He sees beyond the visible, and can sense the presence of the machines around him. That is all well and good, but a question has been confusing audiences ever since the second instalment of the franchise; Reloaded.

How the blooming heck did Neo, unplugged from the Matrix, mange to feel the presence of the machines in the real world, and continue to perform miraculous acts in a world bound by the rules of physics? Many fans will just let this wash – accept that he is simply a Jesus-like saviour figure that can do what ever the flip he wants to do. But this seems a bit too sloppy within such a carefully crafted cinematic universe.

I think that there is a much more rational explanation; one that accounts for Neo’s skills in both the virtual and real worlds. What if the real world is not real at all, but another, second virtual world in which the machines, just like the humans, are unconsciously enslaved in order to perform a task for a higher power?

Perhaps, both worlds are virtual environments. In one, we have humans providing creative (and, apparently, electrical) power for those that require it, whilst the virtual machine world provides the more monotonous tasks required to maintain the functioning of the system. There would still need to be some form of emulation/translation between the two worlds, hence the difficulties in travelling between the two. When Neo had his incident at end of Reloaded, maybe some form of system malfunction occurred in which he gained a portion of the translation software required to decode what was going on around him in the real world.

So, who created this ‘real-world-Matrix’, and why? Well, it would have had to be some form of being that had the ability to overpower both the humans and the machines. Perhaps the events that led to the creation of the Matrix were indeed a part of the history of the cinematic universe, however at some point in the future, the machines who inherited the earth were surpassed by the next greatest thing, and were in turn enslaved?

Who could that higher power have been? New AI? A resurgent human population? Some form of cyborg-wetware combination of the two? Aliens? And for what purpose was it done? Well, answers on a postcard!

I think if the next instalment of The Matrix, due in 2022, followed this sort of storyline, it could lead to a whole world of possibilities in future story telling within this franchise!

Wonder, Wealth, and Sacrifice

When Hernán Cortés first set foot in the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan on the 8th of November, 1519, he must have truly believed he had entered a city of the gods. What must he have thought of the majestic expanse of urbanity that eclipsed the largest European cities? A city as populous as Paris, London, Florence, and Milan combined, with gleaming skyscrapers of stone, must have appeared as alien to that Spanish invader as a city floating in the sky would to modern humans. As he walked down wide boulevards lined with gold and tumbaga, he must have doubted just for a moment that European sense of superiority that drove his mission of conversion and conquest. Surely he wondered, as he gazed up at the Templo Mayor, what history had brought these people to this point? How could this culture have so effectively terraformed the land around them so that it might provide for their every need, when back home even the construction of a simple canal was a monumental undertaking? This must have seemed to Cortés, even if just for the briefest of moments, as the most advanced civilisation in the world.

But of course, this magic spell could not have lasted. Gunpowder, horses, and biological warfare in the form of smallpox made swift work of bringing this beautiful culture to its end, and the Spanish inherited its wealth in less than two years.

But peeling back the majesty and wonder of the Aztecs for just a moment, we see a far more brutal society. I am, of course, talking of human sacrifice. For the Aztec, and the Maya before them, human sacrifice was a practice built in to every day life. It was not just meaningless murder, either. Aztec culture believed that the existence of the universe was dependent upon the continued and sustained sacrifice of the gods, who provided the conditions for life to continue. Human sacrifice was a reflection of this practice, and a way in which humanity itself could thank the gods, by relieving a little of the burden upon them. It was, in essence, considered as an absolute necessity for life to carry on, and for society to function. Without it, civilisation would collapse, and the great cities, and skyscrapers, and temples would fall into the earth and the Aztec would be no more.

Of course, this was seen as a horrifically barbaric cultural practice by the Spanish, who moved quickly to outlaw the practice. The Aztec were taught that their religion was wrong, and that Catholicism was correct, and that God loved them, and that suicide was a sin, and the practice was ended.

Human sacrifice was not limited to the Aztec and the Maya; countless civilisations have practiced it throughout history, either secretly or overtly. The Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Celts, Chinese, Japanese, Mongols, Israelites, Vikings, Nazca, Inca, Indians, and almost anywhere you care to look have at some point throughout history indulged in the practice, usually as a quasi-religious metaphor in order to ensure the continuation of society by pleasing and thanking the gods, or to attempt to improve the health of a person or people. Giving the life of another human being is the ultimate sacrifice, and usually it was done only as an absolute necessity, when no other loss would suffice.

These cultures have now ended, and their rituals lost to the depths of time. This surely demonstrates the futility of wasting life for the purpose of continuing a societal system.

Which brings me to the present day.

We live in strange times. Capitalism is supposed to be a system of opportunity, in which the poor are able, through struggle and strife, to work their way into wealth. Yet we reached a stage of capitalism in which those who are born poor are likely to remain that way throughout their lives, and those who are wealthy are likely to see their resources grow indefinitely. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, and they are held as shining examples of what can be achieved. This of course conveniently leaves out the enormous quantities of luck required, and the infinitely small probability of doing so. Furthermore, we regularly turn a blind-eye to the harm that our economic system is doing the world around us; in a form of collective suicide we are causing the conditions for a slow species extinction.

Regularly, we are told by those who have made their fortunes through the capitalist system of how fortunate we are to be ‘free’; that we live in relative comfort, and that we have never had life so easy. We are reminded of how many died for the failed experiments in socialism, communism, and other ‘isms’ throughout history, and that capitalism would never tolerate such barbarism.

Yet if this is true, in a world where all but a handful of nations are paid-up members of the global capitalist club, why are more than eight hundred million human beings undernourished? Why, when we have individuals sitting on piles of wealth that they could not possibly spend in a thousand lifetimes and whose capital continues to grow, do people starve to death, or lack basic medical care? Why are thousands of tons of food disposed of in landfill, when children go hungry at night?

Of course, everybody believes they are exempt from this system; nobody wishes to believe they are part of such a cruel machine. But the truth is that we are all caught up in the intrinsic self-preservation of this way of life. Every time we buy a new car, or television, or novelty clock, we are perpetuating a system in which resources are taken away from those most in need, and funneled slowly but inexorably wealthwards to those dragons sat upon on their mounds of gold. But, you may be thinking, what on earth this has to do with human sacrifice?

At no time in the modern world has the fragility of the capitalist system been more apparent than during the current Covid-19 crisis. After only the briefest of moments in which the world stopped working, economies around the world were on their knees, with systems on the verge of collapse. Of course, nations initially shut down their workforces in order to preserve life, but when it became apparent that the capitalist economy could not sustain extended closure, talk immediately turned to how best to restart the fires of industry.

Whilst the probability of a person dying of Covid-19 is low, it is significant enough that the world was closed-down for weeks if not months. Yet now, when capitalism is on its knees, human beings are being told to go back out into the world, and risk their life in order to preserve the system.

Is a system which requires humans to die in order for it to survive worth preserving? Covid-19 has not fundamentally changed anything, it simply created an extreme in which the limits were tested. In doing so, it highlighted what was already there to see, had we all looked; humans have being dying for capitalism since its inception, from lack of food, shelter, warmth, and medical care. It is a system whereby many do win, but in order for that to happen, many must lose. And in this case, losing often means dying. When one truly stops to consider it, there is a morbid hilarity in the knowledge that the combined resources of the wealthiest three individuals on earth could end poverty and hunger, yet instead they choose to compete over who can build the coolest space ship.

Human beings are being sacrificed upon the high alter of capitalism, which makes us no less barbaric than those past civilisations whom we so much enjoy patronising for their simplistic beliefs.

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The Paradox of Politics

During a lovely long walk to the middle of nowhere and back, a conversation was struck up about why the political right always seems to have greater periods of electoral stability and success than their politically left rivals. Certainly, if one looks over the timeline of British election results over the last couple of centuries or so, it reveals a startlingly blue hue. As the conversation progressed, it evolved into a more generalised look at how things generally remain broadly (small-c) conservative over the longue durée, with brief moments of liberalisation during which previously withheld rights are granted to repressed groups. Naturally, I start musing on the reason why this might be, and, why the left might in fact never win in the long run.

Although I wont pretend to be an expert on such matters, something became apparent very quickly. To explore it, I am going to use some incredibly blunt generalizations about the two wings, but it will save us from wasting the time to categorise and label each and every scenario when the majority understand broadly what is meant when referring to ‘left’ and ‘right’ in both situations described.

It should be noted that at this stage, these are very loose-fit thoughts that I shall probably return to ruminate upon at some point in the future. I would gladly welcome helpful input!

The first problem for the left is that it tends to err towards a position of acceptance of difference. This openness is seen by the likeminded as a forum for constructive debate, in which issues that face individuals and the wider world can be solved, and is one in which every person is entitled to hold their own opinion. However, whilst this is a perfectly good system when engaging with those of a similar persuasion, when faced with the more generally closed-mindedness of the right it faces an issue. Those on the right are traditionally less accepting of difference, and more likely to surround themselves with those of their own cultural background. When challenged on a resistance to change, the right must only remind the left that it is supposed to be accepting of all opinions, and that they must treat those of the right with the same respect as those of their own. In this, the left faces a conundrum. How does the left claim that the insular opinions of the right are incorrect, whilst maintaining their acceptance of free thought? To do so would be to undermine, and create a paradox within their own philosophy. Furthermore, the right is far more likely, due to its inherent homogeneity, to reach consensus between individuals and thus create a more unified position from which to fight their political battles. The left, however, is philosophically bound to allowing the voices of all to be heard, precluding the possibility of unification. The only binding consensus is that everybody may condone differing courses of action – which is not a useful position from which to launch an offensive upon an ideological rival. The only way in which this can be countered is to adopt the consensus strategy of the right; a hypocritical action. This undermines the left, creating a logic-crisis that can be easily exploited. ‘You believe in diversity and difference, yet you are all presenting the same front. You believe we should all have free thought, yet you wish to eliminate my preference for homogeneity.’ Furthermore, the likelihood of any left-consensus surviving over a significant period is inversely proportional to the willingness to abandon the core philosophy of individual thinking.

The second problem for the left is the preference towards pacifism. In practical terms, this faces the same paradox as the first problem in that the right only has to arm itself to fight a battle in order to have won both the physical and philosophical fight. In this situation, the left will either stick to principle, and be wiped out, or take up arms, and become the hypocrite that abandoned their philosophy. Once again, the left has no hope of winning.

The only hope of a stable and long term victory for the left is the permanent abandonment of some core beliefs by a select few who are willing to sacrifice their principles in order to ensure the survival of the deeper philosophies. Yet, even though this is something that is part of the day-to-day political vernacular, the true left attack this position, leading to yet more fragmentation.

As stated, this is only loose-fit thoughts at this stage. Furthermore, it relies on gross oversimplification of complex ideologies predominantly based on how one side views the other, rather than any basis in reality. However, I hope it is an interesting thought experiment nonetheless. I find it an interesting topic for consideration, and so I shall return to this at some point in the future when it is more developed!

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Addressing the Binary Characterisation of Historical Figures

During the Second World War, there existed a leader who so perfectly characterised the actions of his nation that he has become not only a symbol for his side, but for the entire war. He is a leader who was willing, to do anything necessary to win; someone whose pre-war political guile was so effective that it put him in a position of almost unchallenged power. During the war itself, he took decisions that had disastrous consequences for his people, and were barbaric in nature. He used his citizens as a meat-shield to protect the military. People were allowed to starve to death to enhance his war effort. And of course he was directly responsible for the deaths of two to three million people in a single year alone. He stood proudly amongst the ruins of his bomb-ravaged cities, whilst enemy aeroplanes flew overhead, proclaiming that the sacrifice of the civilian population was necessary for the war effort. As the war drew to a close, he even stood by and allowed the Holocaust to continue, ensuring that the grotesque and evil genocide taking place would continue until the very end of the conflict.

Yet to the electorate, he was a hero. He appeared to the public as a sole voice of reason against a sea of political insanity. Whilst his rivals wound themselves up in knots, attempting to politic their way out of national crisis, his voice cut through the nonsense, and appealed directly to the people.

Of course, you know of whom I am speaking.

Over the last few days and weeks, there has rightfully begun a debate about the esteem in which we hold our historical, national heroes. Much has been said about them, and much has been ignored. As a historian, what saddens me the most is that people are unwilling to see the nuances of humanity; nobody who ever lived had an exclusively good or evil nature. Every human has elements of both. Yet I have observed over recent days historians who have for years been my own academic heroes drawn in to this black hole of binary conflict, and joined in the rhetoric of absolutist argument.

I will not be detailing the individual actions and atrocities undertaken at the behest of Winston Churchill whom, if you had not guessed was the subject of the opening paragraphs. He directed some actions the morality of which is absolutely unforgivable. So, why then do we overlook the evil within the man and celebrate him as a national treasure?

Imbued within the man lies not only the decisions that he took, rightly or wrongly, that brought about British victory in the Second World War, but also a metaphor for Britain at that time. In his image lies not only his successes and failures, his kindness and his evil, but the actions of every soldier who stormed the beaches at Normandy, protected the skies in the Battle of Britain, and who sacrificed his life so that we might be free to criticise Churchill today.

His image is not simply the representation of one man, but it is the encapsulation of millions upon millions of human beings who died in those horrific years. We must learn to accept the flawed man – and he most certainly was flawed; the perfect human does not unnecessarily sacrifice the lives of three million Bengalis, or set a Howitzer upon democratic protesters.

So why maintain his image at all? Well, for better or for worse, he was the one chosen to lead Britain at that time. And amongst all debate, that fact will never change.

We must acknowledge all of the triumphs, inadequacies and evils of the man but at the same time, understand that his image has transcended the simple likeness of a singular human, to become an embodiment of the millions who gave their lives in that terrible time.

The Damned Media

Over recent days and weeks, it is fair to say that there has been considerable unrest across a number of countries, including the United Kingdom. The fires of civil disobedience have been stoked, in part, due to the inequality that still continues to be a fact of life for many within the black, and other repressed minority communities. Whilst it has been heartening to see the inclusion of white allies in calls to take action against injustices, it has also broken the hearts of many to see the outing of neo-Nazis and fascists, who have taken to the streets in a show of hatred against all that is different to the straight-white power hegemony that has existed across the globe since the early days of European colonialism.

These racist, homophobic, misogynist, fascist nut-jobs have been, in recent years, emboldened by the rise of the political right, particularly in (thought not limited to) the English-speaking world. Here, we have seen nationalistic insularism become the new alter upon which politicians have decried the evils of immigration and cultural integration; difference has become a dirty concept. An increasing number of followers of this not-so-new cult of hatred have lapped it all up, seeking more and more, as if requiring their next hit of heroin. And just like those who cannot control an addiction to heroin, a tipping point has been reached in which all sensible activity has been suspended in the crazed need to get their next hit of hatred. For these people, it has become a need, and there are dealers who are ready, willing, and able to supply them with their fix.

I am, of course, talking about that symbiotic relationship between politicians and the media. On the face of it, this should be a simple relationship in which the politician speaks, and the media reports what is said. Yet, as with so many things in this modern world, that is simply not the case.

It seems that the media has, in recent years, taken it upon itself not only to report the news, but also to create it. They no longer need the input of the political side of the relationship. They have surpassed the requirement. This is a terrifying prospect; the organisations that we reply upon to let us know what is going on in the world around us are manipulating events in order to sell more advertising space. The shinier and more exciting a story is, the more people will consume the article. Therefore, media organisations are in a constant battle with one another in order to ensure their survival by providing the consumer with the most tantalising and exhilarating stories possible. This is capitalism at its not-so-finest.

But surely, you ask, this is all just a conspiracy dreamt up in the mind of some oily little person in the basement of their responsible adult’s home? It does sound awfully like it. But when one looks, even with just a hint of criticality, it is easy to see that it could not be more horrifically true. I shall highlight this with a few choice examples.

On the face of it, when Charles Saatchi grabbed Nigella Lawson by the throat whilst having breakfast in a London restaurant, the story was clear; an abusive husband physically harms his wife. There can be no excuse for this kind of physical violence. And initially, that was the story. Our national treasure, that slightly-naughty tv cook with a bubbly personality and assets that drew men to her shows, had been dis-respected, and we were not going to have it. However, as the months drew on, stories began to appear in the press about how Nigella was a habitual cocaine user, may not have been faithful, and was a poor wife. The media had begun to reframe her not as an innocent victim of a violent attack, but as a person who perhaps had driven Charles to do something out of character. Why on earth would this kind of story manipulation take place? What could be gained from it? Well, aside from dragging out a tragic tale of love gone wrong, it was to fill column inches and to draw out more details; Nigella could not simply stay silent and have her name tarnished in such a manner, so she and her team of course would respond. Now, it is up to others to consider what role Saatchi, whose multi-millionaire status was crafted in advertising and media, had to play in the attempt to discredit his victim. But with his contacts list, it cannot have been hard for him to make a couple of phone calls. Did these stories require fact-checking? Of course not. Throw the word ‘allegedly’ in front of any sentence and it becomes legally acceptable. Does the public read this as potentially misleading? Of course not. They see the words, ‘Nigella’ and ‘cocaine’, and immediately she is a drug user, and her reputation is tarnished.

This practice has been applied with devastating effect to the events surrounding the murder by the police of George Floyd. Never mind the fact that there is video evidence of the police officer kneeling on his neck for eight minutes and forty six seconds, with him begging for his mother and his life, having not resisted arrest or engaged in violent conduct. Never mind that two other officers were also allegedly kneeling on his back. Never mind that his pulse was checked after six minutes or so and none was found, but the officer continued to kneel on his neck. Never mind the fact that his supposed crime was the use of a fake twenty dollar bill, which at the time could not be proven. Never mind the fact that when he was murdered there was no evidence whatsoever that he was guilty of any offense. What matters to the media is that, in the past, he was guilty of armed robbery, and that he was ‘allegedly high on drugs’. Note that canny little word again, that absolves the writer of any responsibility to fact-check their claim. ‘I heard it from a reliable source.’ Will the public read this as a potentially misleading statement? Of course not. They will see, ‘George Floyd was on drugs, he was a violent criminal, and the police officer needed to restrain him because he was dangerous’. It is despicable.

Why would the media seek to discredit individuals in such a manner? There could be a number of reasons. It could be to protect a wealthy and powerful individual who has influence over a particular outlet or organisation. It could be to draw out the story in order to generate more revenue. Or, it could be to push a certain agenda. There are many reasons for doing so, but it is unlikely that from the outside it can ever be established with any certainty.

Another way in which the media creates its own news it by the careful and cynical manipulation of facts. In the past, this has been a subtle art, but in recent years it has become a blunt-force instrument used no differently than a police officer uses pepper spray to blind a peaceful protester.

I will firstly use the example of Laura Kuenssberg, a vile individual whose only rival in the art of manipulation would be the theoretical devil-spawn of Rita Skeeter and Delores Umbridge. Her BBC title gives her a sense of credibility that she simply does not deserve. And lets not forget, the BBC is an organisation itself that cynically manipulated the image of a candidate during an election cycle to make it look as though he were a Soviet soldier. Kuenssberg has managed to get away with more lies than a child whose parents catch them drawing graffiti on the walls with crayon. Let us not forget the occasion upon which a story was released of, ‘A labour supporter viciously attacking a Tory electoral candidate’ in Leeds. This story was release, picked up by the wider media, and then escalated to the Tory Prime Minister who willingly lapped it up as the next story in the ongoing propaganda attempt to paint the Left as hooligans. Even the person who was the supposed victim of the attack got on board with the witch-hunt. Until it was revealed the next day that the whole affair was fabricated. It had never happened. Kuenssberg tweeted a brief apology, and that was the end of the matter. Except that it wasn’t. The apology did not matter one jot; the aim of the story had already been achieved; the right-wing rage indicator had risen another notch, and strengthened their resolve to do anything they could to ensure the ‘loonie lefties’ were punished. By the time the apology was issued, the impact of the fabricated event was over, and no amount of back-tracking could undo the damage it had caused.

Next, we turn to the USA. Fox News has, for many years, been known to those with anything more than two brain cells as the media outlet of choice for those who like to consume their news content in a right-wing, subtly racist flavour. Over the years, this has mostly been presented in the form of praising one individual over another, ignoring character faults of those to whom they are sympathetic, and finding the most trivial transgressions of their enemies and presenting them as atrocities. But in recent days, things have taken an alarming turn. For context, it should be noted that social media is a place upon which images are photoshopped, and videos are misattributed with astonishing regularity in order to prove a point, regardless of accuracy or truth (see any number of examples from the recent right-wing riots in London, labelled as left-wing violence). However, direct manipulation like this has been below the standards of traditional media. That is, until Fox News decided that it was acceptable to take the perfectly peaceful protests in Seattle, and attribute to it images of a man standing with a machine gun amid rioting and looting, and the burning of cars and buildings. Not only is this misattribution alarming, but in the first instance, some person had even gone to the effort of photoshopping the man with the machine gun into the image. If this is the new standard of the traditional media industry, what hope does the public have of being able to discern truth from it? What does the media, in this case, Fox News, have to gain from such a heinous activity? They play into the hands of their hard-won audience by blowing the dog whistle and proving that they were right all along. They cement the loyalty of their fanbase by reconfirming their beliefs, and in doing so ensure that their audience in the future is assured. That day-long right-rage that exists before the inevitable admission of deception is, as with the Kuenssberg incident, worthwhile to craft the narrative they have decided upon in advance. The rage dies down after a day or so, and the apology becomes meaningless as the story has already served its purpose.

The British are alarmingly arrogant about their superiority in many aspects of their culture. I should know – I am indeed British. And for that reason, many that read these words might well be thinking, ‘ah yes – but that sort of thing would never happen over here. We have far higher standards!’ If only this were true. We have had occasions where the mobile telephones of dead children have had their voicemails hacked in order to generate a story. We have had newspaper stories printing images of queues of migrants in order to present the image that our borders are ‘under attack’, only to be shown that they are entirely false. And we have had blatant lies about this, that, and the other fed to us (£350m per week for the NHS? Weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?) channelled through to us throughout the last few decades, with little regard as to the quality of information given by the ‘reliable source’.

But for my last point, I turn to a large, regional media outlet with a declining physical newspaper readership, but a loyal and dedicated Facebook following of over 200,000.

Over the last week or so, the Yorkshire Evening Post (YEP) has posted no less than twenty articles to its social media sites, highlighting the disruptive nature of the Black Lives Matter protests around the world. They have noted when protests have turned into riots in the USA, that UK BLM protests have resulted in social distancing laws being broken, and that vandalism and destruction of statues has taken place. Each time one of these stories is posted, it is followed up, usually two to three hours later, with a ‘reaction article’, in which a local politician has given a response. These articles might in and of themselves seem like they are presenting the facts, but for one small issue; those 200,000 followers. Articles are immediately lost in a maelstrom of comments, angry-faces, and abuse, all of which the YEP relish. Once the commenting begins to quiet, the ‘reaction article’ pops up in people’s feed to ensure that the rage never truly subsides. And what rage it is. I have witnessed numerous comments along the lines of, ‘If they don’t like it, they should leave England – this is our country’, written about protesters taking part in the BLM movement. I have observed, ‘these people should all be shot’. I have noted hundreds of occasions where images of far-right, fascist and racist riots have had a label such as, ‘see what the BLM protesters are doing’ have been posted. And the YEP does nothing to prevent this. In fact, I added a number of comments underneath these types of posts over the last few days, mentioning that the supposed facts that these contributors presented were indeed incorrect, only to find that they had been subsequently removed and the misleading images left in place. Twenty or more articles posted denigrating the BLM movement as violent and illegal, yet upon the occasion when the far right took to the streets of London, smashing up property, throwing missiles at the police, urinating on memorials, and making Nazi salutes, at the time of writing this piece, there has been absolute silence on the matter. What does this tell us about the YEP?

Well, it tells us the same story as can be drawn from every one of the above examples. Traditional news media is dying. It is at its endpoint. In the ultra, possibly even late-stage-capitalist world warned about by Werner Sombart over a century ago, they have to justify their reason to exist, and fight with every fibre of their being to do so. In a world where social media reports the news instantly, as it happens, and with high quality camera equipment in every street of every town of every country, traditional news media must use its coffers as a war-chest in order to fight for its existence. The capital it has built up in money, power, and public trust ever since the moment the Gutenberg pressed his first piece of paper are being used to fight for survival by any means possible. If the news can no longer simply be reported, for that is now the job of those with a phone in their pocket, then it must be created. In order to ensure consumption, they must ensure loyalty. In order to ensure loyalty, they must provoke rage and inspire fear. By doing this, they might continue on, but at what cost to society at large?

The actions of the industry whilst attempting to survive in the modern world has been the cause of division, anger, and violence on a global scale. After all this noise and pain, it is time for traditional news media to go into retirement, and die a quiet little death.

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Should We Reevaluate Comedy?

In the wee hours of the morning, having been watching my favourite Twitch streamer get slowly sozzled playing Final Fantasy 7, I found myself inadvertently engaged in a discussion of the highest quality and respect with a good and dear friend of mine. What was particularly surprising was that upon re-reading the chat transcript the next morning, considering the quantity of gin that had been consumed by that uncouth hour on the o’clock-metre, its points remained valid and interesting. As a historian, I enjoy having my personal opinions questioned, challenged, and cross-examined by those able to make intelligent, reasonable, and cogent arguments. And the friend in question is more than capable of doing so. At this point, you are probably wondering what this particular discussion was about.

Under consideration was the recent trend of censoring certain types of comedy that do not fit into the socially ‘woke’ narrative of society’s left, in which socially repressed groups are considered an endangered species that must be protected from insult at all costs. In recent days, this has led to a multitude of censorships of past broadcasts, demanded apologies, and outrage. But to what extent is this necessary?

My friend, a kind, reasonable, and balanced individual prodded me towards this discussion by asking the question of whether it is right or not to censor comedy, and if comedy should be a protected form of art (much like speaking in parliament) in which special leeway is given due to its irreverent nature. I will attempt to summarise the points that were made, before explaining where, having had time to process my thoughts on the matter, I stand on the issue. This post is somewhat long, but please do stick with me on this one to understand the full justification of what is written; half a story could paint an alarmingly erroneous picture.

The discussion opened by considering what comedy actually is. This sounds like an obvious question, but not necessarily so. It exists in such diverse forms that really, it is rather hard to nail down as an art form. There are gentle, rambling comedy films that one can happily watch with Granny on a rainy afternoon, and there are Scottish comedians who stand up and make jokes that would make the most hardened criminal gasp. But the point is, it is a medium that is supposed to make people laugh, or at least chuckle, and it is supposed, to a greater or lesser extent, to be funny. But what makes something funny, and another thing not? I am brought to mind of a comedian who I cannot remember discussing this very subject. Comedy is a genre that always has a ‘victim’ – be they human, animal, or inanimate. Humour is derived by the interaction that is created with that ‘victim’. Where this became interesting was in the description of who this ‘victim’ is; it is nearly always a person or group that is higher in social, economic, or political status than the person throwing the punch. Punching upwards is a perfectly acceptable way of creating humour. What is most definitely unacceptable is punching downwards, and there is a very good reason for this; making fun of somebody who is socially, economically, or politically not as fortunate as yourself is a behaviour that we are taught from a young age has a specific name – bullying.

Of course, there are caveats to this upwards/downwards punching thing as there are with any broad-spectrum rule. Do forgive the crude adjectives that are used from here onwards, but I do not wish to dwell on nomenclature – nothing here is intended for offense, simply description.

It is absolutely acceptable to point at any ridiculous action taken by an individual who would be below oneself for the sake of comedic value. People do stupid things regardless of their position in life and society, and people doing stupid things is intrinsically funny. What is not acceptable is using generalised, broad-brush characteristics about a vulnerable group within society that is below your own position. Why? Because this has become bullying. I will get to some examples a little later to show how looking at what is acceptable comedy in this way is phenomenally complex, yet it is a rule generally followed by comedians, even if subconsciously.

But that does not really answer the question of censorship. Should comedy be censored at all? Should it be a protected form of speech? Should audiences be left to make their own minds up about whether to engage with controversial topics? Well, herein lies the trickiest of topics.

Certain types of comedy, stand-up for example, require a tacit contract between the audience and the performer in which the former accepts that the latter has the intention of deriving humour, and not insult, from the output of their work. The audience in this case is an informed observer in that they are broadly aware of what they are about to be viewing. It then becomes the opinion of the audience as to whether or not the output is indeed humourous in nature. I fully accept and agree that stand-up should have a free hand to allow speech in whatever form the performer desires; the audience is, in essence, the regulating function in this scenario. No comedian worth their salt is going to blow their career by saying something so socially unacceptable that the audience walks out. Unless they do. At which point the audience walks out.

But should this free-hand extend to other forms of comedy, in which there is a wider, less well-informed audience? In this, I am not so sure that we can apply the same rules as per stand-up. Audiences are far more likely to come across comedy by chance, and a far less likely to be informed as to the nature of its content. But, one might ask, surely there is a measure of personal responsibility involved? We are all consumers of any number of things on a daily basis; would we drink from the bottle without first knowing whether it was beer or boric acid? Of course not. We are responsible for our own consumption. What is required is the necessary information to judge whether or not we want to consume the item – something which is not necessarily forthcoming when dealing with comedy outside of the canon of the safe and vanilla. With adequate labeling, would access to this comedy be acceptable? I believe so, yes. It is consumed by an audience which has been presented with the information necessary to make a personal decision to do so. What form should the labeling take? That is a question far better left to better bureaucrats than I.

At this point, I imagine many people would be thinking that this is all well and good, but free speech is one of our fundamental rights and so the entire discussion is moot. Well, unfortunately for you, you are wrong. In this country we do not, and not in the lifetime of any living person, had free speech. We have freedom of speech within the law. There are numerous prohibitions on what can be said and written, all in the attempt to create a better society. It is illegal to conduct hate speech, for example. This is where comedy treads a fine line; many a line said with humourous intention can be said with malevolent intent. The same words can be said by two different people with vastly differing purposes, and can be received in a multitude of ways. This is summed perfectly up by a phrase I heard once spoken by Jimmy Carr who when talking about offense in comedy said, and I paraphrase, ‘humour does not happen in the mouth of the comedian, but in the ear of the listener’. That is to say, you take something that is said by another, it is processed through your brain which applies all of your life experience, social bias, cultural influences, and decides whether it is funny or not. The same is of course true of things not intended for comedic purposes. But yes, broadly speaking, freedom of speech is a protected activity in our nation, and so long as things do not stray into the realms of the ridiculous, people should be free to follow this law – even in comedy.

So far, we have said that comedians effectively self-regulate their material, that with appropriate labeling an informed audience could choose whether or not to consume content, and that freedom of speech protects the activity. So, it is looking rather positive for the genre to have free reign. But what about the cause of so much recent controversy; legacy comedy? In this particular field exists a wealth of content which, at the time, was perfectly acceptable, but today finds itself outside what is now considered decent.

Putting my historian’s hat back on, I would immediately say that one cannot judge the actions of those in the past by the standards of the present day. It is fundamental in the study of history that we do not taint the past with our own cultural and societal projections. So, alongside the measures listed above on labeling as to the possible offense that the content might cause a modern audience, I do not see that there is issue with it remaining available for public consumption. After all, we are able to observe depictions of vastly more grizzly events from history that a distasteful joke through the ancient media forms of tapestry, painting, and the written word. Should images of Harold getting shot in the eye be banned simply because we do not allow the public to carry bows and arrows through the street in modern Britain? Furthermore, as noted above, comedy happens in the ear of the listening and is subject to the social conditioning of its audience. If you find a joke humourous, that is because the humour is being constructed by your own mind. For evidence of this, one only has to watch Peter Kay standing, saying nothing for minutes on end, to an audience howling with laughter. If we have as a society moved beyond seeing certain types of comedy as humourous, then it ceases to be comedic content and simply enters the canon of historical artifacts reflecting the culture within a given time period.

Returning to the notion of what is and what is not acceptable comedy, my first example will consider one of the greatest taboos of them all; blackface. This is a clear example where, predominantly in the past, comedians most certainly punched downwards at a vulnerable group. So, would this be covered by the freedom of speech argument? I do not believe so. As discussed, punching downwards is a form of bullying, and bullying is a form of hate. As promoting hate is prohibited under freedom of speech laws, censoring it would be fully justified in my own opinion. And yet, I still do not believe it should be. As noted back in Blog No. 0000001, any historic mistake provides a learning opportunity. Why not use what already exists to provide an opportunity for future generations to learn? Apply the suggestion of a label requirement, inform the audience the reasons as to why such content is no longer acceptable, and allow an informed decision to be made as to whether or not it is consumed. There have been recent blackface revivals, such as depictions by Keith Lemon, Ant and Dec, Matt Lucas, etc., and I will not excuse their creation. However, I believe that these still, with adequate warning as to their content, provide a learning opportunity. Particularly as their cringeworthy attempt at humour is enough of a deterrent for people not to repeat the mistake. In any case, the public backlash that they have received in recent weeks is enough of a learning experience for artists considering undertaking such an attempt at humour to consider otherwise.

There are two complex examples that I would like to mention to explain why shock and outrage should always be moderated and measured before implementing action. The first is regarding an episode of Fawlty Towers in which a family of Germans stay at the hotel. The second is a joke told by Jimmy Carr that divides audiences.

The Germans episode of Fawlty Towers has two points of contention. The first is the outmoded and derogatory way of referring to Indians and West Indians as used by The Major. The second is the humour apparently drawn from the presence of the German family itself. With regards The Major’s choice of language, I have covered the use of language in my writing above. Use a content-warning, and explain why it is no longer acceptable. The deriving of humour from the German family is, however, far more complex. Superficially, the humour of the episode is the result of jokes made at the expense of the German family. That would be unacceptable based on the punching downwards rule; Basil is clearly in greater control of his surroundings than his victims. However, more careful consideration reveals that it is not the family, nor indeed Germans in general that Basil is making fun of. It is Nazi behaviours and characteristics that he erroneously attributes to the family. I cannot imagine many people take issue with poking fun at the Nazis, however the family is still a victim, and therefore it is unclear which way the comedy is punching. That is, until you realise that the humour of the situation comes from the fact that Basil, through his own ignorance, is entirely unable to differentiate between Germany and the Nazis. When watching this episode, the viewer does in fact have sympathy for the German family; laughter is directed entirely at Basil himself. Whilst not strictly punching upwards, punching oneself is tantamount to the same thing.

‘Poor little Suki has to walk fifteen miles each day just to collect water. I can’t help but think; she should move.’

A joke that divides even the hardened audiences of Jimmy Carr. Superficially, Carr is punching significantly downwards in this joke. However, once again, if we look more closely for the person who is the butt of the humour, it is not Suki, but the (presumably) white, middle-class viewers who are ordinarily the target of such the charitable advertisements, and are most likely to misunderstand Suki’s true difficulties. The audience here is laughing at the stupidity of the ignorant, white middle-classes, hence Carr is punching upwards once more. It is delicate here, to be sure. Removing the words, ‘I can’t help but think’ would place the responsibility of the situation squarely at Suki, making her the victim of the joke, and redirecting the swing of the punch downwards, making it unacceptable.

As demonstrated, comedians are rather good at their craft (for the most part), even if what they do is subconscious. And for that reason, they should be allowed to continue, as they have done through history, to speak and act with freedom and no fear of censorship. An audience will judge the output on its content, and any content that goes too far is hate speech, which is already prohibited by law.

Yet there is one final problem. I shall call it, ‘The Bernard Manning Clause.’ There might be occasion upon which a comedian becomes popular by telling comedy which is of a racist nature, or derogatory towards another vulnerable group. Perhaps this comedy reaches the ears of an audience who are sympathetic to such a cause. It is not unfeasible that such a comedian could become a lightening rod for unsavoury individuals. In a case such as this, how could one prove that the line between comedic use of derogatory terms, and hate speech had been crossed? What is the limit of freedom of speech in comedy? I leave that very difficult subject open to discussion.

✌️☮️

Artemis Fowl Film Review

***Artemis Fowl Spoilers***

Artemis Fowl. I remember the very first time I opened the mysterious green vellum-like hardcover of that incredible first book, covered with its mysterious symbols that one would later come to discover is the fiendishly difficult to learn language, Gnommish. Opening the books, and reading the first words of the psychologists who had made it their mission to diagnose and define the titular character. Of course, these psychologists would also turn out to be not quite of our human world, yet even they had a sense of humility and the understanding that Artemis Fowl was truly an individual capable of extraordinary fetes of the mind.

I remember that first chapter, when Artemis meets his prey for the very first time; the words of Eoin Colfer filling my nostrils with the dusty scent of the Saigon street, and my eyes with the vision of that scaly hand, giving over the Book that would change the Fairy world forever. As the story unfolds, one is treated to the gradually emerging tale of a child genius who is the master of all he surveys; in his pre-teen years, he is an individual who has the mental capacity to take on not only the human race, but every other intelligent species on, over, and under the planet at the same time. As a reader, you are treated to a gradual unveiling of the most incredibly intricate plans, laid in painstaking detail by an intelligence beyond what most of us can grasp. Artemis is cold, calm, calculating, and in control of every situation; he even takes control of the chaos.

But as the epic tome unravels, the icy persona begins to slip. Chinks in the armour appear, and the true reason for Artemis’s actions are revealed. He may maintain the glacial calmness of an iceberg, but beneath the surface exists a young boy, desperate to recover his lost mother and father.

Yes, the book has its issues. Mulch Diggums burps in the first half of the book, and in the second we are told that trolls can’t burp. It’s adjectival selection is not particularly advanced. And… well, actually that is pretty much it. But Artemis Fowl appealed to me, and to other children around the world in a way that the likes of Harry Potter never could. Sure, it did not sell enough copies to fell a small rainforest, but in many ways it was the better story. Every young person wants to be a wizard – and they will seek out literature that allows them the escapism of imagining that they are a part of a world in which that is possible. But deep down, every young person knows that in reality, it is simply not possible. For that reason, there will always exist a schism between the child reader and Harry, or Hermione, or Ron. But Artemis, for all of his incredible power of the mind, is just a little boy. He is far more relatable, and his life is far more attainable than that of the Potterverse. Well, to the extent that any child-prodigy-billionaire’s life can be. But you get the point.

So when I heard that there was to be an Artemis Fowl film, bring to life the character whom was idolised by myself and so many other children, I may have gotten a little over-excited. It felt like it was in the making for decades. But finally, on the Twelfth of June, 2020, with the help of Disney, the Artemis Fowl blockbuster landed. As I settled down, scrolling through the Apple TV menu, I could hardly contain my excitement.

And then I watched it.

Oh my. Oh my, oh my, oh my.

From the opening of the film, I knew I was in for something that would not sit well on the stomach. In the office of Artemis’s school is the psychologist. Human, not fairy. Ah! Thinks I. Artemis is about to run rings around this fool of a man. And for a moment, it appears he will. Until the psychologist mentions the death of Artemis’s mother. Hang on a moment… what? Isn’t she alive but seriously unwell in the book? Isn’t that one of the driving influences for the entire motivation of the character’s actions; to heal his mother? Oh dear. As Artemis began to get angry and upset, running out of the office, I could not help but pause the film, with a hand raising slowly up to my forehead.

It would be difficult for me to detail every way in which this film systematically dismantled the intelligence, wit, humour, and magic of the books without feeling a huge sense of sadness. Magic! From a book in which fairies can do everything from disappear to control the human mind, heal those on their deathbed, and grant impossible wishes, to a film in which we see a couple of colourful sparkles. How can a film about fairies have such a dearth of magical feeling? Enormous plot points from the book, such as the time-stops and bio bomb, are cast aside or treated as unimportant and throwaway. In a tale about magic, magic is replaced entirely with sci-fi inspired technological trickery. Fairies do not to complete the ritual in order to replenish their gift, thus entirely missing the point about how Butler… sorry, Dom (?!?) manage to capture one in the first place. And an integral part of the story, that fairies cannot enter a dwelling without permission, is sidestepped almost entirely, removing one of Artemis’s most ingenious ace cards in dealing with the LEP. It is a crying shame. I could go on to mention the plethora of questionable Irish accents, but I feel at this stage, you are getting the point.

That is not to say that there are no redeeming features of the film. I chuckled at a couple of moments, including the sight of a troll being flown across the moon. The graphics are absolutely gorgeous, and although many of the locations did not meet my vision as a child, they were beautifully crafted by the design team. And Judy Dench. Who knew a dainty English rose of a woman could play a gruff Irish man with quite so much authenticity. She really is a wonderful actor.

Artemis Fowl has been broken by this film. The film about magic has lost its magic. It has suffered the same fate as the latest Maleficent film, in that style has entirely won out over substance. It seems Eoin Colfer’s vision of the world he so carefully crafted around his beloved character has been systematically dismantled and replaced with, well, it is hard to say, in all honesty.

But what makes me the most sad, is that there is a current generation of children who will watch this film, and be disappointed. They will not go on to read the book from which it is loosely derived. They will never experience the wonder and magic created in the original Artemis Fowl books.

To Eoin, you are a genius and I am sorry for what has happened to your book, but to everyone else, please, for the love of God, go read the incredible books. Leave this film well alone.

✌️☮️

Reconciling the Imagery of Our Past

Until recently, I’ve been a fairly quiet in public on current political happenings. I absorbed myself in my work, quietly sitting and contemplating the big questions of historiography. I have been a historian of empire for several years now, considering many aspects of how they are born, grow, and decline. Empire fascinates me. Not in we-must-get-back-to-the-glory-days, pomp and circumstance, flag-waving way. But I am truly fascinated by the political, financial, and social dimensions of how great empires rise, what sustains them, and what causes their downfall. I have studied the subject for years, possess an excellent, first-class degree in the subject, and have written numerous papers musing on historiographical questions and philosophy. I would say that I am fairly well qualified to discuss history and politics.

Recent events have been shocking for everybody to watch. What started as the murder of an unarmed black man by four armed police officers, in an 8 minute and 46 second strangulation and suffocation has resulted in mass protests around the world, where black individuals, and thousands if not millions of well-intended allies, have protested, marched, and yes, rioted, in demand of racial equality. Only a few days after action broke out in the USA, it hit sleepy little England like a ton of bricks.

When future historians look back at this huge event, what is likely to be the focus of interest, and what is likely to be shown to children learning about it, are the scenes of the statue of Edward Colston being unceremoniously ripped from its plinth in a handsome Bristolian square, knelt upon by protesters, and dumped into the nearby docks. This singular event has become a rallying cry for both sides of the argument; battle lines have been drawn, and it is scarily polar.

I will not delve too much into the flurry of activity that has happened subsequently, but what has become apparent is a dire need for a sensible debate about the history of Britain, and how we aim to portray ourselves to the world. The argument right now is far too raw. On one hand, we have a group of individuals advocating the tearing down of every statue with historical links to the British slave trade; on the other, individuals who willfully ignore the atrocities caused by the men depicted upon them.

Clearly, neither side is going to, or indeed should, get their way. Britain has a past, and it must be addressed. However, the anger felt by individuals over these statues of slavers means that something must be done. But what? I will return to this shortly.

Pro-retention groups cry out with passion that, ‘a statue teaches us about history!’ And in a very, very minor sense, that is true. But then, what can really be learned by the ordinary passer-by about history from a statue? Usually, a plaque will tell you who they were, and when they lived, and (as they are almost invariable paid for by the person portrayed or an admirer of them) a very brief, propaganised synopsis of their life telling a couple of the best bits, and ignoring anything untoward. What are we learning from the statue? From a historical sense, very little. Does it tell us how much they gave in philanthropic causes? Probably not unless it is on the plaque. Does it mention that the subject beat his wife, or was the town drunk? Also rather unlikely. What they do offer is a sense of period, of grandiose history, of wealth, and of power. Statues are not an unbiased historical document; they are a propaganda piece created to the glorification of that which is depicted. We learn little about the individual, or the period in which they lived, other than the superficial. So, we should tear them down?

Well not just yet. On the other side of the argument, these pompous creations are simply empty vessels devoid of detailed meaning. They are simply an item, showing an individual who lived, and died. They are not asking for adoration, or adulation, or plaudits. They only exist. Why in that case should they be torn down? If we are honest, many of these statues are incredible works of artistic merit. Wouldn’t their intrinsic beauty be worthy of retaining them in situ? Considering the recent loading of meaning upon many, particularly nasty individuals from history, probably not. Yet, as the supporters cry, they have stood for so many years without anybody bothering with them; why tear them down now, and where is the line? Do we tear down the pyramids as they were built with slave labour? It is hard to counter this reductive logic, so should we leave the statues in place?

Well not just yet. A third option is to remove the statues, and place them with a museum setting. This has its advantages. Statues could be correctly labelled, and their story told with the proper gravitas as part of a wider educational journey. But, closed away behind doors, the teaching opportunity is lost, and its audience much reduced.

I see two main questions emerging from this bipolar debate. Firstly, and most obviously, what should we do with statues of individuals that no longer represent our values? Secondly, where do we draw the line as to what is acceptable and what is not acceptable to display in public? I will answer the second question first, as in many ways it is the most facile.

The current issue with these statues is that they are representing people who still, to this day, represent a division within society that is causing pain and anguish. Slavery may be two centuries in the past, in Britain at least, but its affects are not. There are enormous wealth disparities between black communities and white communities, and discrimination is still apparent both within society and institutionally. So when is the cutoff? Should we be demolishing the pyramids? Obviously not, and to suggest so is the most cynical reductio ad absurdum. I would suggest selecting a period in time that still has connections to the present state of the world. In Britain, that might well be 1707, or 1607, or perhaps even 1492. I will leave you to look up the significance of those dates – and I encourage you to learn for yourself! This may be different in other countries, and necessarily so. However, these dates to me provide tangible pointers to a system in which we still exist, and is still relevant today. Why not demolish the pyramids? Well, to be quite honest, if you can find a person today who is directly affected by their construction, then I will happily demolish them myself with a hammer and chisel.

So, we should move our post 1492/1607/1707 statues into museums then? Well, no. I do not agree with that either. At this time. Perhaps in future. What we must do is both easy, simple, cheap, and will be remarkable effective and educational.

We must leave the statues exactly where they stand. We must allow them to remain where they are, in full view of the public. However, we absolutely must create a new national institution that places them within a wider network and context. I am talking about creating a whole new type of museum to Britain; a National Outdoor Monuments Museum, or something to that effect. Each statue would have close by to it some form of location sensor, or QR code, or… something which can be scanned by smart phone, and leads to an information page detailing everything about the individual and history of the statue. And here is where it meets the modern world; the page allows visitors to the NOMM to discuss the piece, reflecting upon what it means to them, and how they feel about it. Some may simply reflect upon a statues beauty, whilst some may consider more detailed historiography, engaging in debate about why an individual was great, or indeed evil.

These statues should remain public. But the information and emotive content that they carry that must change. With modern technology, this can be done easily, cheaply, and, with political will, incredibly quickly.

These statues are not currently devices for learning. Many are symbols to a barbaric past. But with modern technology, they could be repurposed, and transformed into one of the greatest historical learning tools at our disposal.

✌️☮️

Introducing Myself

I will get around to writing a bit more about myself at some point, and I’m sure it will be as dull and uninteresting as you imagine. Suffice to say, I’m you’re average historian, who likes to observe the goings-on in the world around him and write things about it. Lets see where this all goes…