Category Archives: From the news

Stuff triggered by news stories

Celebrity Culture is Sick

On a long train journey recently I found myself reading a disregarded copy of a celebrity magazine: the front cover was bursting with pictures of celebrities in varying states of disarray, distress and undress: ‘What Michelle really thinks about Brad’s new girlfriend’ and ‘Stacey loves her new boobs’ screamed the headlines.

As I flipped through the pages, I felt nauseous. Tulisa has a new tattoo on her bikini line which states ‘lucky you’…can you imagine having sex with anyone so utterly narcissistic that they feel the need to leave a written message like that on their nethers? What did she do before she had it? As her lover’s hands travelled down her body, did she look them in the eyes and say it? I don’t know about you but I would find that a massive turn off.

The largest spread in the magazine belonged to a footballer’s wife, posing with her new silicone boobs: ‘How would you describe your new boobs in one word?’ asked the interviewer, ‘Natural’ she replied without a hint of irony. I kid you not.

On page 9, one of the Kardashians was being slated for having botox during pregnancy as it might harm the baby. More lost irony, that a magazine which is part of the endless self-referential media circus which helps to maintain the cult of celebrity, and the endless pressure on women to look perfect, should adopt a moralistic tone about it. God knows, had she developed a millimeter length line on her forehead it would have been on the front cover the week after: ‘Kardshian in forehead line shocker.’

I found myself feeling a plethora of emotions: pity, sadness, anger and fear for the future of our societies. Pity for both the women in the magazine, who can’t even enjoy normal experiences like pregnancy without feeling fat and insecure and the women who read about them and feel that their own wobbly thighs and lined foreheads fall short. Sadness about the fact that at this stage in human history, the people who make the headlines, the people who our children aspire to, appear to be so utterly devoid of intellect, so utterly self-obsessed. Fear and anger that from here, we can only descend further into vacuity, if that were possible.

But, it’s more serious than that. Reading through the lines of all the petty squabbles, broken relationships, diva-like behaviour and obsessive me-ism of the celebrities featured, I felt as though I were reading a mental health diagnosis, a cry for help. Becoming a celebrity, something many aspire to, seems to so isolate you from normality that it conspires to create the ideal conditions for the following traits:

  • Believing that you’re better than others

  • Fantasizing about power, success and attractiveness

  • Exaggerating your achievements or talents

  • Expecting constant praise and admiration

  • Believing that you’re special and acting accordingly

  • Failing to recognize other people’s emotions and feelings

  • Expecting others to go along with your ideas and plans

  • Taking advantage of others

  • Expressing disdain for those you feel are inferior

  • Being jealous of others

  • Believing that others are jealous of you

  • Trouble keeping healthy relationships

  • Setting unrealistic goals

  • Being easily hurt and rejected

  • Having a fragile self-esteem

  • Appearing as tough-minded or unemotional

Where does that list come from? It’s a list of the traits exhibited by people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, a serious mental health condition characterised by dramatic, emotional behavior, which is in the same category as antisocial and borderline personality disorders. I rest my case: celebrity culture is sick.

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Who will speak for the unemployable?

Back in my days of literacy teaching, when I worked with adults whose linguistic skills ranged from non-existent i.e. barely able to read and write, to threshold GCSE, I always started my classes by talking about what my learners COULD do because this helped to build confidence and let them know that I valued their skills as much as they valued mine. We sometimes played a game where, as a group, we allocated jobs in a fictional stranded on a desert island scenario, and it made them chuckle when I commented that I’d be the first one to be barbecued and eaten, as knowing where to place a comma would be extremely unhelpful if shipwrecked: unable to build a shelter, whittle a simple bow and arrow or fishing rod or build a fire rendered me something of useless hanger on, more useful for my meat content than anything else. Knowledge and skills are of course, contextual. I think of this often in my current job as a careers and skills adviser and with great sadness because lately I meet more and more individuals who are condemned to long term unemployment because their skills don’t work in the context in which we now live.

The current UK job market has shifted so much over the last 50 years: the task of applying for work, even unskilled work, requires literacy and computer skills beyond the grasp of many, young and old; unskilled work has become rarer and more competitively sought; qualifications have replaced experience as an indicator of job role suitability and an increasing professionalisation of even manual work has taken hold. Global capitalism has led to the outsourcing of production: in the past 30 years alone, the UK’s manufacturing sector has shrunk by two thirds. This process, termed ‘de-industrialisation’ goes hand in glove with the growth of what New Labour termed the ‘knowledge based economy’ i.e. lets flog ideas, tourism and brands instead of objects, be the brains of the operation rather than the hands. (for a more in-depth and intelligent exploration of the subject go to Aditya Chakraborrty’s excellent Guardian article here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2011/nov/16/why-britain-doesnt-make-things-manufacturing)

I work on the front line: every day I meet individuals caught in the struggle to find meaningful work with which they can support themselves; for example, I meet many who have supported themselves brilliantly through practical trades all their lives who now find that this is no longer an option. The recession, which is a direct consequence of our unsuccessful economic policies, has killed the construction trade; in addition, even simple labouring now requires a health and safety ticket, beyond the grasp of those with poor literacy skills or without the money to pay for it.  I regularly meet men who have driven dumpers for 25 years but can no longer do so because they cannot afford the £500 needed to gain certification or feel that  they cannot take a test because they can’t read or write very well; young people who have fantastic practical skills but are shy and can’t sell themselves at interview so stand no chance of getting a job or even an apprenticeship; people with learning difficulties, who are actively seeking repetitive work, factory work and the like but there just isn’t enough to go round. The list is endless. How can we help these individuals, who grow in number year by year?

These are a common stories and heart breaking ones: many of these individuals have a strong work ethic and, for them, being out of work can lead to ill health, depression or alcohol abuse (more customers for the overstretched NHS). I have listened to more than one tale of woe which ended in a confessional of suicidal impulses: I think it says much that a careers adviser should be the witness to this kind of emotional desperation

And it’s not just the older generation who suffer: as a teacher, I taught many apprentices who were fantastic bricklayers, hairdressers or carpenters, but who were simply unable to grasp how to place a comma, or a plural apostrophe. The local college has now made it a matter of policy that individuals who are unable to gain GCSE C standard English and Maths cannot continue to study their trade to a level which will help them gain employment: the ranks of the unemployed and unemployable grows and grows.

I am regularly reminded that it is part of my job to challenge these individuals and I do: I encourage all my customers to engage with education and training and to gain better IT skills which will enable their job search and job applications. Don’t get me wrong, I am still a teacher, and I believe in education as a force for change, for self development and growth, social, economic and individual (but this  means we must see education as more than a tool for churning out accountants and software engineers- another subject dear to my heart). As a teacher I did all I could to engage my learners, to contextualise the skills they needed to develop and to value the skills which they had. But to imagine that this is sufficient is naive: more often than not I could not overcome the problems wrought by generations of low aspiration, poverty or poor nutrition to name but a few, and at times it was hard to argue that it was even necessary: I would not choose a bricklayer based on the quality of his written work; must a cleaner have an NVQ? We cannot even begin to address the issues of our de-industrialised economy without changing some of the fundamental inequalities at its heart: as I witness first hand Labours’ ineffectual attempts to provide a political alternative and the Tory answers to these problems, slashing benefits, scapegoating claimants and continuing to pursue economic policies which widen the gap between rich and poor, I wring my hands in despair. Who will speak for these disillusioned and marginalised individuals?

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At last I have a diagnosis!

At last I have a diagnosis!

Symptoms may include unemployment, poverty, homelessness, hunger, feelings of powerlessness, fear, apathy, boredom, cultural decay, identity crisis, loss of free speech, incarceration, suicidal and/or revolutionary thoughts, death.

4 Comments

November 27, 2012 · 8:26 pm

Why I think Abu Hamza should be allowed to stay in the UK

Just a quickie roundabout response to danuiseult’s lovely piece of writing and RoS’s Costa Del Fish’n’Chips – the problem with immigration.

You see, I’ve been listening to the news on Radio 4: yes, yes, I know I said I didn’t watch the news, but this was just using my ears, not my eyes….I’m not sure I’m going to do it again, because my neighbours probably think that shouting at the radio constitutes some sort of mental breakdown and were eying me very warily in the front garden this morning…Anyway, as I was saying, the news- it was full of Abu Hamza’s High Court challenge to avoid extradition to the US, and quite apart from the fact that I find it hard to think of any crime which deserves a spell in a US prison, I have to say that I am sick of hearing the whole ‘why can’t we just deport him’ argument. Yes, it’s costing us £50,000 a year to keep him in prison; yes, it’s costing us thousands to house his family; yes, his lawyer is paid for with *shock* *horror*, Daily Mail readers look away, TAX PAYERS MONEY! Well, so what? This is the price we pay for living in a society which at least tries to pretend it is civilised, a society with laws about how we treat people, even people we don’t like. If we deported him, these laws would be useless, and we’d all be vulnerable: we can’t make exceptions for someone because we’ve decided they’re really too bad to merit OUR continuing to behave properly ergo the fact he is still here means that our human rights laws are working- phew! – And, this is the very thing that demonstrates our difference from terrorists, fundamentalists and all those who seek to enforce their draconian views with violence and lawlessness, which stomps all over human rights. I am lucky to be living in a country that can’t just throw people out without due process so stick that in your pipe Daily Mail readers!

Here’s where danuiseult’s  blog comes into it: I apply the same principle to so called ‘benefit scroungers’. As I commented in response to her piece, if benefit scroungers really do exist, then funding them  is a price that I am prepared to pay so that I can live in a society which chooses to do the right thing by helping vulnerable people. I’m happy for the tax I pay to support someone who is ‘lazy’ if it means that all the people who really need help, get it, and I’d rather accept this than be part of a ‘scrounger’ witch hunt.

Enough said. *Gets off soap box, rubs knees, goes to make a nice cup of tea.*

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Why I don’t watch the news…

This post is inspired by Rule of Stupid’s post We are so much more wonderful than we let ourselves believe and informed by Guy Debord’s classic ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ and the rantings of controversial French philosopher Baudrillaird…I’m not half as clever as any of them, but I think my explanation of what I think is so insidious about the media in our post modern world takes a little from each of their theories…

In my response to RoS post, I propounded Baudrillaird’s notion that the media could never be a force for positive change, because by its very nature, it keeps us one step removed from reality:

“We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning.”
Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation

I commented that I’d often pondered what the world was like when it was smaller: smaller because pre-technology, it was harder to know what was happening outside of our own communities, and impossible to know what was happening on the other side of the world. But I also wonder how the experience of living in a world which is so relentlessly enmeshed in a game of self-perpetuating surveillance and reportage affects us and the way in which we behave, politically, socially and culturally. I’m not just talking about the dis-empowering passivity created by being able to watch the suffering of human beings on the other side of the world on our televisions; a phenomenon perfectly summed up by Susan Sontag- ‘Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers’- but rather the way in which the knowledge that we are being watched, that we are being reported on, constantly affects our responses.
It seems to me that what is wrong with our political and social infrastructures is that they no longer seek to come up with the ‘right’ solutions to our problems but rather the solutions which ‘look and sound right’: a subtle difference I know, but one which has devastating consequences because instead of ending up with hard to face truths which have the potential to lead to solutions, we end up with marketing ideas and emotional rhetoric, carefully doctored to appeal to the majority. Policy should be informed by unbiased authenticity not ill-informed spin.
I don’t watch the news anymore because it is my silent protest against relentless media interpretation and a world where almost every ‘professional’ decision, whether made by a doctor, social worker or politician, is made with one eye on the news: where, too often, the question asked on an individual and collective level by those in power is not ”What can I do to help this fellow human being/society?’ but rather ‘How will the decisions I make look from the outside?’ and crucially ‘What do I need to do to make sure that I am not held accountable for anything that goes wrong as a consequence of my decisions?’
I’m not against visibility and accountability per se in so much as it can provide protection from hubris, but I am against rule by media mob, against a world so bewilderingly huge and all seeing that it no longer allows for humanity, compassion and good intention, for the making of difficult, unpopular and yet sometimes necessary decisions.

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