The Importance of Individuals

Bloke in Italy makes an interesting point in the comments here:

I don’t like expressing a judgement about a national characteristic – I try very hard to say about people what I would say to their face, and a statement like mine above can only be deeply unfair to most of the individuals concerned…

I was having a conversation on this very point with a friend of mine on Sunday.  My position is that I will say anything I like about a nation state or collective population, but I treat individuals in front of me as I find them.  In other words, I might not like the (say) Iranian government, its policies, the politics, collective habits and customs, and whatever falls under the description of “national character” and I would have no qualms about saying so.  But if I were to meet an Iranian then I would not treat them in a manner that is prejudiced by my feelings on the country as a whole (at least, I hope I wouldn’t).

A nation is more than a collection of individuals and for whatever reason the “national character” does not necessarily reflect the aggregate characters of each citizen.  Somewhere in the process other factors are applied with the result that the collective population can look quite different from its constituent persons.  Nowhere was this better demonstrated than in the Soviet Union, and later Russia: one of the most common things first-time visitors say is how surprised they are by the hospitality and friendliness of the people.  In his excellent book Among the Russians, Colin Thubron says early on “I never again equated the Russian system with the Russian people”.

I have offended many people by making disparaging remarks about their country, but I have offended very few individuals by making disparaging remarks about them (at least, until I’ve got to know them).  I have never understood people taking personal offence at somebody criticising their country, believing it is a reflection on them.  I’ve mentioned it before but one of the things I like about the French is you can slag off Air France, La Poste, and the prefectures and they’ll agree with you: they don’t feel personally insulted because of it.  Alas, the same is not true for many other countries, Australia and Nigeria to name but two.  Remark to an Australian than the prices in pharmacies in Melbourne are extortionate and he’ll say “Fack off home you facking whinging Pom”.

Speaking of Down Under, I remember The New Australian writing on his blog that he had little faith in humanity but plenty of faith in humans.  It was a good line, one that I agree with.  I’ve generally found people collectively to be utter shits but generally very pleasant on an individual level.  TNA also remarked that totalitarian regimes and authoritarian types always put collective humanity over individuals.  The Soviets put everything towards creating the New Soviet Man and a communist society, but had such utter disdain for actual people that they regulated the individual almost out of existence and murdered any that didn’t get with the programme.  Listen to the pronouncements of contemporary politicians worldwide and you’ll realise that viewing individual people as a problem is not unique to the Soviets.

Going back to my earlier example, it would be grossly unfair of me to make assumptions about any Iranian I meet until I’ve been given a chance to assess his individual character.  True, his government might like hanging gays from cranes and threatening to obliterate Israel, but for all I know he has spent twenty years in prison for protesting against that government.  It is hard to think of a country more dysfunctional and unpleasant than Nigeria, yet individual Nigerians are often wonderful people.  I’d like to think I treated those Nigerians I met as individuals and didn’t make sweeping generalisations about them based on what I saw of their country.  Conversely, nobody should have taken what I wrote about Nigeria here as a personal insult (although many did).

In summary, I think the world would be a better place if we stopped attributing such importance to collective groups and the feelings of nation states and just took individuals as we find them.

Exodus

There are many things that make Paris different from other cities and I’ll not list them here, but one in particular I will mention because I contribute to the effect.

A friend of mine commented the other night that Paris doesn’t have the same festive vibe before Christmas that London does.  I speculated that this is because during public holidays – or more accurately, school holidays – Paris empties.  If I walk up and down the corridors of my office asking people what they are doing over Christmas, very few French will say they are staying in Paris.  As soon as the kids finish school families based in Paris pack themselves up and head of to “the provinces”, i.e. anywhere in France but Paris.  Usually they are heading to one or other of the kids’ grandparents’ places, or back to the region where they come from; even those who are born and raised in Paris will find some in-laws in the countryside to go and dump the kids with.  Nobody wants to stay in Paris over Christmas, and over summer the effect is doubled: the city empties of French people who are replaced with Chinese and American tourists.

The French autoroutes are superb, as is the SNCF – if it is working – but timing is everything.  If you try to leave Paris on a Friday evening when the schools break up you can look forward to one or two hours on the périphérique.  Similarly, if you are foolish enough to return to Paris on the last Sunday of the holidays, you will start hitting traffic jams up to 200km from the city and you can happily add another two hours to the journey. You’ll see hundreds and hundreds of estate cars, family SUVs, and people carriers jam-packed with kids, suitcases, clothes, presents, etc. driven by a middle aged man who looks as though he needs a stiff drink and another holiday – alone.

For my part, I have become enough of a local that I decamp to Annecy during most public holidays, as I will next week.  It is fun to stroll around the office with my appalling French and very English attire and tell people I am leaving Paris for the provinces for Christmas as per the rest of them.  Such things endear you to the French more than pronouncing “Rheims” correctly.

I am sure there are other cities where a mass exodus occurs in advance of a public holiday.  I was in New York the weekend before Labor Day and it was half-empty.  And although people undoubtedly leave London for the weekend and holidays, especially those wealthy enough to have a country pile, you don’t find almost every British family planning to flee the second the kids are out of school.  My guess is this happens in Paris because the provinces are very nice, families ties are still quite strong, it is well situated in the sense that you can depart in any direction, and the transport links are good.  It might also be that non-Parisians come to the city for work but never stop hating the place.

Would any of my readers like to tell me what other cities empty of locals during holiday periods?

Beauty and Ugliness

I’ll quote from this post by Kurt Schlichter at Townhall to repeat a point I read over in David Thompson’s comments sometime over the summer:

The sexy supernova that was Lena Dunham has somehow petered out, American men apparently possessing eyes and, equally importantly, ears. I’m required to be shallow since I live in LA, but there really is this thing called “inner beauty.” One can mock the utter cluelessness that possesses this dumpy strumpet to flaunt her figure as if she was Cindy Crawford, Jr., but what actually makes her ugly is the fact that she is just a horrible person – entitled, abusive, dishonest, narcissistic, snobbish and amazingly dumb.

The point was that while beauty is skin deep, ugliness goes right to the bone.  I rather liked that phrase.

Nobody Cares

There’s a fun little anecdote over in the comments at the Grandad’s place:

I retired at 60, and I’ve never regretted  it. I worked for 43 years as a marine engineer and spent a vast amount of time away from my family. Now i have grandkids and have the time to see them on a regular basis. They are the family that I never saw.

Although I was obviously much missed by my outfit that I retired from:

*Ring Ring*

ME: Hello?

Company servant: Hello Nick. Just ringing to ask you to send us your ID card and your anti gas respirator.

ME: OK

*Click*

Bearing in mind that I was the longest serving person for the company in it’s entire history of just over 100 years.

One of the things I thankfully learned very early in my working life is that “the company”, meaning your employer, could not give two hoots about your overall wellbeing.  Cynic that I am, I have been joking for years that if I got squashed/kidnapped/blown-up in the line of work the biggest concern my management would have is that I hadn’t submitted my timesheet that week.

The idea that a company cares who you are or would miss you should you go is one of the most  common misconceptions employees have.  I’ve seen guys resign and expect people to give a shit.  “How come nobody even spoke to me about why?” they ask.  “What about an exit interview?”  They don’t care: you’re gone, somebody else will take your place.  “But they new guy won’t know what to do!” they wail.  “Who cares?”  thinks the management, if they were to think at all.

I lost my best friend earlier this year after a long illness.  When he was diagnosed he was thrashing himself in a job which kept him away from his family and took up almost all of his waking hours.  His efforts were genuinely appreciated as proven by his boss giving a wonderful eulogy at his funeral, but one of the things my friend told me was how quickly they replaced him.  He thought he was the only one who could do this job and as such felt he could never take holidays or work normal hours.  Yet within a day or two of diagnosis the military – for he was a serving officer – replaced him with somebody from a different branch.  The handover took a few hours followed by a single clarification meeting a day or two later and that was that.  The military were good to him throughout and they are missing a phenomenal soldier, but even he was stunned by how quickly they replaced him and how little they missed him in the role.

He told me had he not fallen ill he would have leaped from one assignment to the next, each one more demanding than the last, fighting his way up the rapidly narrowing pyramid that is a military career.  He’d have gotten far, too.  The diagnosis changed all that.  His entire outlook flipped and he effectively quit his work to spend as much time as possible trying to get better and, more successfully, get to know his wife and kids.  He told me shortly before he died that if nothing else, he got to spend a couple of years with his kids which he probably otherwise would not have.  He also advised me that killing yourself in a job is utterly pointless and one should concentrate on enjoying life more.

But he didn’t need to tell me that, I already knew.

Virtue Signalling in Disguise

I’ve noticed recently that something keeps happening to me that perhaps didn’t happen so much before.

I get asked my opinion on something and the person asking me doesn’t much like the answer I give.  Usually the question is on a topic which is controversial – Brexit, Donald Trump, the Iraq War, George W. Bush, Gun Control, Barack Obama – but only in the global sense.  What I mean by that is within a certain demographic – European, middle-class, degree educated – these topics are not controversial at all, and everyone is in lock-step agreement on each.

Which is where I think I’m surprising people.  I get asked my opinion on Brexit (let’s use that as an example) and I basically say what I said here: I would have been happy enough with a Remain victory for personal reasons, but on principle I am not unhappy to have seen the Leave campaign win because I think major reforms of the EU are long overdue and these would never happen without some cataclysmic event like Brexit forcing the issue.  This is hardly an extreme view but it causes a shock reaction nonetheless.

The immediate effect is for the person to challenge what I’ve said using the first response that comes into their head (“But the British economy will collapse, all the banks will move to Frankfurt!”).  My response in turn is to refute them using the same information, statistics, facts, and arguments I’ve seen presented elsewhere to the same objection.  The thing is, what my interlocutor has not realised, quite understandably, is that I take a keen interest in certain things and read and re-read dozens of lengthy arguments on these subjects which take place on the Internet.  I also have copious amounts of time on my hands.  A lot of the time I then post my own opinions on this here blog, having taken the time to consider each angle and argument carefully so that my stance can be both clearly presented and defended if necessary.  So when I am challenged on my opinion my responses are effectively prepared in advance and rehearsed, and for somebody who has just dipped their toe into the subject without such preparation they find themselves neck deep in an argument they stand almost no chance of winning.

Which makes me appear a bit of an asshole.  I have been accused of being defensive, aggressive, unfriendly, argumentative, and a whole load of other things basically because I can defend a slightly controversial opinion with quick-fire, eloquent responses which I’ve thought through in advance.  And also, probably, because I am a bit of an asshole.

For a while I thought about softening my stance, but I’ve decided against it.  The reason for this is because I figured out a lot of people who ask my opinion on such matters are not asking my opinion at all, they are looking to confirm their own.  As I said earlier in the post, the educated, European, middle-classes agree almost wholeheartedly on these issues: Brexit is bad and Britain’s economy will be fucked and the people who campaigned for it are stupid cowards and the people who voted for it are thick racists.  If you stated that over lunch in any European white-collar office not a single peep of protest would result.

Unless I was sat there.  Okay sure, I like an argument.  I’d start an argument in a coffin, as somebody once said.  But I get annoyed when people ask my opinion only for the purposes of confirming their own, which would allow them to say that they are informed on current affairs without making the effort to hear solid counter-arguments which challenged their own preconceptions and forced them to perhaps modify their views.  I wouldn’t mind if somebody wants a proper discussion on an issue, but most of the time they want a quick agreement of their own position, not a discussion.  And this is nothing more than cheap virtue signalling, and I hate that in any form.

So my advice is:

1. Don’t ask for somebody’s opinion on something if he writes about it on a blog unless you are prepared to hear something you might not like.

2. When you hear an opinion you don’t like from somebody who writes about it on a blog, be prepared for a pretty robust argument should you challenge it.

3. Pay particular attention to points 1 and 2 if the person writing the blog happens to be a bit of an asshole who likes arguing.

Here be dragons

Via Tim Worstall, I see that the Hungarian government has upset British diplomats by dishing out leaflets saying that Britain has “no-go” zones as a result of its immigration policies.  This follows the row a few weeks back over Air China warning its passengers to be careful in areas of London populated by swarthy folk.

I cite the above merely to remark on the warnings our own Foreign Office gives to British citizens travelling abroad, which either:

1) Warn travelers to stay away from a place which has just witnessed some one-off catastrophe which is all over the news and in which thousands of people have been killed. This warning appears on their website two days after the event.

or

2) Warn travelers to stay away from a country in which something of minor consequence has happened that nevertheless got the British media excited, and life is going on as normal.

Ten Days in New York

I’m back from New York, having had a fantastic time wandering around, drinking, and hanging out with friends.  What follows are my general observations and thoughts, in no particular order of importance.

New York is massive, I mean seriously big.  I first got an inkling of this when I found the time it took to get from Harlem to 42nd Street on the subway was longer than I thought, and I’d only covered about half of Manhattan.  Later in the week I tried to walk from lower Manhattan to midtown, but gave up as I realised no matter how many blocks I covered I still wasn’t getting much closer.  Later still I stood on the Brooklyn Bridge and looked towards midtown, and realised it was an awfully long way off.  And when I crossed the Robert F. Kennedy bridge into Astoria and looked westwards at Manhattan, it seemed to stretch southwards forever.  Even disregarding Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island, Manhattan itself is enormous, on a different scale to anywhere else I’ve lived (Lagos, despite having a population of about 18 million people, isn’t that big geographically).  I quickly realised that simply walking everywhere isn’t really an option in New York.

It took me a while to get used to the subway.  About two days in I figured out that different trains run on the same lines but stop at different stations, and that some trains were “local” – stopping at every station – and some “express” and only stopping at major stations.  And whether a train was local or an express changed with the time of day and the day of the week.  This was all a bit complicated for a farm boy from Wales, but at least it explained why New York subway stations are designed with a third track in the middle: it allows trains to pass through without stopping.

The metro itself worked well enough, and was mercifully air conditioned.  But the stations themselves weren’t, and it was stiflingly hot down there.  The locals seemed to cope with this a lot better than I did, as I was sweating buckets.  I can’t say I liked the subway carriages themselves, the stainless steel design making them look more industrial than perhaps they need to, but they were clean enough.  The same can’t be said for the stations, which were in desperate need of a pressure wash, and the whole system kept reminding me of violent scenes in films from the 1980s.  At least they don’t have Guardian Angels patrolling it any more.  I will say this, though: the people seem a lot friendlier on the New York subway than they are on the London underground or Paris metro.  One chap offered to help me figure out the myriad combinations of stops and express trains – something you’d never see a Parisian doing – and I noticed people spoke and interacted with each other more than anywhere else I’ve seen.  Aside from one bellend who came in dressed like a gangster, shirtless with his pants hanging down his arse and tattoos all over him carrying a ghetto blaster playing music that only reinforced my theory that the louder music is played the worse it is, everyone was awfully polite.

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Brits Abroad

You’ve got to love the British press:

England fan fighting for his life and dozens more injured as English fans and Russian thugs clash at Euro 2016 in Marseille

The English were fans.  The Russians were thugs.  Presumably no Englishman in Marseille last night displayed thuggish behaviour, and no Russian showed the slightest interest in football.

Aye, they look like a bunch out to enjoy the beautiful game.

There’s another word the British press and authorities like to use in such situations:

Sir Julian King, Britain’s ambassador to France tweeted that several Britons were being kept in hospital overnight.

If ever a British citizen is in some sort of strife abroad, the immediate assumption is he is wholly innocent and the hapless victim of overseas thuggery, an incompetent and heavy-handed local police force, or a corrupt foreign justice system, in which case it is necessary for the British press to thereafter refer to him as a “Briton”. (The best example of this is in the reporting and government statements relating to the conviction of Liverpool fan Michael Shields in Bulgaria in 2005.)

This reminds me of the summer of 2010 which I spent in Phuket, Thailand hanging out in expat bars all day (and all night, if I’m being truthful).   One of the regulars who used to come into my favourite bar was a dangerous-looking thug from Manchester, whose reputation for fighting, drug-dealing, treachery, and other unsavoury behaviour preceded him by a good three miles.  Typically he would come into the bar at 11am ready to start the day’s drinking and recount the story of what happened the night before, usually prompted by somebody asking why he was sporting some new injury or other.  His recollections always followed the same format:

“I was walking along the street near the boxing stadium minding my own business when a bunch of Belgians started kicking off…I punched one of them, but the others got behind me and I fell down and one of them kicked me in the head.”

“We were in a bar and some Germans started a fight with us…you know what the Germans are like…and we all ended up being thrown out when the police arrived.”

“I was riding my scooter down the road and I ran into a bunch of guys…Spanish or Greeks, I think…same thing…and one of them threw a bottle at me, so I picked up a brick and threw it at him, and it all kicked off.  The police came and I had to spend the night in the cells.”

I detected a pattern here.  Now he might have been telling the truth.  And I might be the Dalai Lama.  But what I never heard, in all my time in Phuket or indeed ever in my life, was a story told to me by non-Brit complaining of getting into a fight with another non-Brit.  For whatever reason, Frenchmen don’t seem to end up fighting Spaniards in beach resorts and Germans somehow manage to rub along all right with Italians on holiday without kicking the shit out of one another.  The common element in all the fighting in beach resorts across the world, particularly the Mediterranean, is the presence of young Brits.  Little surprise then that the only trouble seen thus far at the Euro 2016 tournament features the same demographic.

When an Engineer meets an Artsy Type

One of the reasons that this blog has been quiet recently is that I have spent a portion of my spare time dipping my toe into what I was told was the “art” worlds of Paris and, by proxy, New York.  I have posted some comments about my experiences in the comments section on others’ blogs, but felt it deserves a post of its own.

In February I met a 32 year old American woman here in Paris who I will call Angela.  She works here as a freelance translator/interpreter, and from what I saw she was pretty damned good at it and had obviously worked hard on her technique and vocabulary.  However – and the importance of this will become apparent later on – the three languages she knows stem from a childhood spent in a country with two official languages whilst her parents spoke a third to her at home.  In other words, they were not learned in adulthood or even late teens.  She had spent the last 18 months in Paris after 10 years in New York.

Angela called herself an artist, both on her websites and when asked by people what she did.  She definitely fit the description of an “artsy” type: facial piercings, unconventional clothing, a history of coloured hair, but unsurprisingly no tattoos.  Her identity revolved around “art”, and most aspects of her social life both past and present were somehow connected with the “art” scenes of Paris and New York.  I’ll confess she was a lot of fun to be around, especially because she enthusiastically took it upon herself to introduce me to the art world and show me stuff I had likely never seen before.  For my part, I am conscious that I work in a rather close-minded corporate environment (despite the campaigns, there is about as much diversity among oil and gas expatriates as there is in a Glasgow Celtic convention) and so took the opportunity to let somebody show me a world I might not know existed.  And boy, did she ever.

From the beginning, Angela talked incessantly about the Burning Man festival which takes place annually in Nevada’s Black Rock desert.  I had heard of it before and seen some photos, and concluded it was some sort of alternative/hippy festival involving lots of sex, drugs, and alcohol.  But the way Angela spoke of it, one would be forgiven thinking it was primarily an arts festival which just happens to have several acres of tenting devoted to orgies and other acts of sexual depravity.  Insofar as Angela was an artist, her claim was based partly on her attendance at Burning Man and other festivals and events, which I will describe later.

Shortly after I met Angela she told me she practiced taxidermy.  She said she’d stumbled across this hobby when a friend of hers had pulled out of a taxidermy course and she’d gone in her stead, and showed me a picture of a rat she’d stuffed.  She also said she’d given a workshop to her friends on rat taxidermy.  Beyond that, she’d not done any taxidermy.  But her greatest claim to being an artist was her being a photographer.  She had numerous photography websites – both personal and professional – plus Instagram and Flickr accounts containing hundreds and hundreds of photographs she’d taken over the years (I’ll not link to them because I don’t wish to reveal her identity).  She had done some part-time freelance photography work, mainly for friends but also occasionally for literary and other events.  But most of her photographs were of arts festivals (including Burning Man) and other rather odd conventions and festivals, and a good half of them were pictures of her mates.  She’d also worked for a few years as a graphic designer/art director for a restaurant magazine which went bankrupt, and later doing communications, administrative, and graphic design work at a non-profit organisation.

Now to be fair, she was a pretty good technical photographer: she had good equipment and knew how to use it, so she got some pretty neat shots which would have been a challenge to capture in the light conditions.  The sort of skill that comes from taking a photography course and practicing a bit, in other words.  She had a reasonable photographic eye but her photos were no better in terms of artistic composition and technical quality than those being posted by tens of thousands of hobbyist photographers on a daily basis.  I enjoy taking photographs myself, and although I’d concede her photos were overall better than mine, the gap wasn’t substantial.

Perhaps through my naivety and a willingness to appear open-minded, I took Angela’s artistic claims at face value and listened to the stories of her artistic pursuits with her friends in New York with a non-critical ear.  Hell, I liked the girl, she was a lot of fun to hang out with, and I thought I might learn something.  Yet something bothered me when I was at the birthday party of a Paris-based artist a month or so after we’d met.  A Frenchman, who might have worked in film production, asked us both what we did.  Before I could say that I was an engineer, Angela had said “Je suis une artiste” and expanded on that by saying she was a photographer.  I asked her later why she said that, when she was (more accurately) a translator/interpreter.  She said she considers herself an artist, on the basis of her photography and (from what I could gather) her interest in art.

A few weeks after that she began to reveal things about her past which caused me to raise an eyebrow or two.  That’s putting it mildly.  I have gotten involved in some weird shit in my time and for a middle-class British professional I’m about as open-minded as they come, but these revelations were shocking even to me.  I’ll not go into details because they are irrelevant to the point I’m making in this post (I’d normally say they’re a subject for another post, but a dedicated blog would probably be more accurate) but they were highly sexual in nature, pretty fucked up, and were intertwined inextricably with what, according to her, is the New York “arts” scene and the lifestyle that appears to accompany it.  I also think it worth saying, lest I come across as too judgmental, that a lot of what she told me was obviously complete bullshit, and had all the hallmarks of a carefully constructed narrative generated to avoid her having to admit responsibility for any of her unwise past choices.  It was the obvious lying, and her ultra-aggressive defence of the lies, that offended me more than the content of the stories.

So having learned some quite unsavoury things about my new-found artsy friend, I started to look a bit more critically at the stuff she’d told me.  And when the friendship faltered and then ended completely – solely because of what she’d revealed to me – I started looking at it a lot more critically.  And what I discovered was pretty depressing.

I realised that for all Angela’s self-promotion as an artist, she was nothing of the sort.  She had studied Political Science at university before going to work in various graphic design/admin. positions within what could plausibly called the New York arts world.  Now it could be argued that graphic design for promotional material and magazines is a form of art, but does doing this sort of work allow one to self-describe as an artist?  Perhaps.  But it feels a bit like me calling myself a writer on the basis that I spend half my working life writing engineering reports (anyone who doesn’t think this involves creative writing and a vivid imagination has obviously not worked in the oil industry).  Certainly, when Angela introduced herself as an artist she did not elaborate on her full-time jobs, which she’d quit in any case to become a translator/interpreter.  As I said, the basis of her claim to be an artist appeared to be her reasonable but not spectacular photography, her having stuffed a rat once, and her participation in various artsy events.

What she never showed me was something she had produced or achieved which was the result of hours and months and years of practice and effort representing skill, dedication, patience, and vision.  She couldn’t – or at least, didn’t – draw, paint, sculpt, or craft.  The best I got was this photo of a tattoo on a piece of broccoli she had done one night at her friend’s place.

I’ll admit that I hadn’t met all of her friends in Paris, and none of them from New York, but from what she describes they didn’t seem much different: working middle-of-the-road jobs vaguely connected to the arts world while claiming to be artists, but producing nothing which was the result of years of effort spent honing skills to create something truly unique, aesthetically pleasing, or of value.  Now I might be selling some of her friends and acquaintances short here, perhaps some of them were genuine artists.  But if they were, I never saw their output.

Now as I’ve said, she spoke at length of various “artistic” events she attended and was involved in, which formed the basis of her social life.  I have mentioned Burning Man, where she said she assisted people in the construction of large plywood artifacts which later got set on fire.  Now I have no doubt that there are things on display at Burning Man which are created by genuine artists who possess skill and vision, but her participation seemed to be more for the social element.  And the more I read about that, and spoke to other people who knew about Burning Man, and considered the revelations she had told me about some of her “lifestyle” habits…well, I never asked.  I really, really didn’t want to know.  But I could guess.

She told me that she was involved with an outfit in New York called Figment Project which is:

[A] forum for the creation and display of participatory and interactive art by emerging artists across disciplines. FIGMENT began in July 2007 as a free, one-day participatory arts event on Governors Island in New York Harbor with over 2,600 participants.

FIGMENT’s vision for art looks past the white-walled galleries and into the realm of participation. Art is not just something that you stand still and quietly look at–it is something you participate in. You touch it, smell it, write on it, talk to it, dance with it, play with it, learn from it. Interactive art creates a dynamic collaboration between the artist, the audience and their environment.

FIGMENT’s goal is to advance social and personal transformation through creativity, in the form of free participatory arts events and exhibitions.

So, it’s a “free” arts event, described with woolly guff that doesn’t tell you very much.  But they take great pains to tell us that:

FIGMENT is uninterrupted by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. Selling or advertising goods or services is not permitted. Neither our artists nor our planners and staff are paid: everything that you see at FIGMENT is born from a simple desire to share imagination with each other and the public.

FIGMENT accepts no corporate sponsorship of any kind.

FIGMENT is an alternative to many of the shortcomings of the commercial art world: exclusive, expensive, impersonal, untouchable and often simply boring.

How very principled!  So, where do they take funding from?

FIGMENT is supported by public funds from the National Endowment for the Arts. FIGMENT NYC is supported by theNew York City Department of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the City Council, as well as by the Fund for Creative Communities, supported by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature and administered by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council.

Ah, the taxpayer.  Of course.  Which includes single mothers working minimum wage.

Angela – along with her ex-husband – were founder members of this Figment outfit, and as such both sit on its “Governance Council”, a position she attained when she was 24.  If she or her ex-husband have any formal artistic qualifications or significant experience to warrant their position on a board of governance spending taxpayers’ money, it is something she kept from me.  A quick cross-reference of her social life on Facebook and the names of people involved in this Figment Project suggests this is run by a group of mates/partners, much of it seemingly  for their own personal benefit and entertainment.  Here is a picture from one of their events:

Which is basically Angela (who is taking the photo) and her mates standing around a camp fire.  It looks an awful lot like the camping trips I used to take part in on Sakhalin, only we weren’t funded by the taxpayer.  And I wasn’t on a Governance Council.  I’ve seen other photos of other Figment events, and I don’t think I’m being unkind when I say they look a bit like a school fete that has been organised by the kids from the remedial class.  Little wonder Angela mounted a robust defence of state funding of the arts when I questioned whether it could be justified in times of austerity.

Bear in mind that when Angela told me she was an artist, it was in part based on her participation in events like these.  So what other events were there?  One called Santacon which is:

SANTACON IS A CHARITABLE, NON-COMMERCIAL, NON-POLITICAL, NONSENSICAL SANTA CLAUS CONVENTION THAT HAPPENS ONCE A YEAR FOR ABSOLUTELY NO REASON.

Here’s what it really is: a bunch of people, an awful lot of whom appear to be middle-aged, dress up as Santa Claus and take to the streets of New York getting pissed and (probably) smoking a lot of weed.  Here’s a photo Angela took at one of them:

How very artistic!  Another was an event was called the PEX Summer Festival and whose mission is:

[To] inspire and connect a growing, willing and participatory community of passionate, tolerant and motivated individuals by actively creating, supporting and providing engaging experiences. To this end we continually strive to foster an environment that nurtures and protects the family evolved by this culture.

From the gallery, it looks to me to be a cross between a rave, a hippy festival, and a general piss-up.  I have a couple of photos that Angela took at one of these events, but I will not post them here because those who have seen them begged me not to and several have told me, weeks later, that they still cannot get the images out of their heads.  But I will describe them thusly:

1. Two of Angela’s mates – a man and a woman who look to be in their mid-30s – wearing strap-on dildos which they are pushing together to make the ends touch, drinking from tins of lager.

2. Another of Angela’s mates in a swimming pool with the end of a strap-on dildo sticking up out of the water.

Angela actually told me about her attendance at this event before, and her own wearing of a strap-on dildo, as if this was something worthy of mentioning.  A mixture of tact and naivety made me keep my silence.  Another year at the same event involved Angela and her mates dressing up as grandmas and grandpas and sitting around drinking from tins of lager:

There was also Zombicon, an event similar to Santacon, only taking place in Florida and people dress up as zombies.  This event might not happen any more after somebody was shot at the last event in October 2015.

Now I’m not against people dressing up like idiots and getting drunk per se.  Indeed, I did an awful lot of that myself and I have plenty of photos to prove it.  But there are two crucial differences:

1. I quit all that in my mid 20s, when I grew up a bit.  Angela and her group of artsy mates seem content, indeed proud, to be doing this into their 30s, 40s, and sometimes 50s.

2. I never presented my dressing up like an idiot and drinking as being the basis of an artistic lifestyle, nor as proof of anything other than my being a twenty-something year old bloke with more energy than common sense.

I once asked Angela whether any of her artistic, creative friends played a musical instrument – something that requires dedication, discipline, and practice. Not a single one of them did.  By the time I asked her the question, I already knew the answer.  It probably goes without saying that they all voted Democrat, with Angela herself vociferously supporting policies such as the Living Wage, subsidised arts programmes, feminist causes (such as addressing the supposed gender pay gap) and draconian laws protecting women from “online threats”.

The truth – and this is the crux of this post – is that there is a section of society out there which is not completely stupid (but not particularly bright either) who lack the talent, work ethic, and self-discipline to enter into professional or corporate environments and so attach themselves like parasites to the genuine arts world in order to give themselves some sort of identity.  The problem with the arts world – as opposed to say, law, engineering or music – is there is no quality control: anyone can tag along, dress up in costumes, get drunk, take some photographs, and claim they’re an “artist”.

As one commenter said elsewhere:

Inventing a career and being an artist fits the bill perfectly as it’s one which can be thought to confer a certain degree of social status – it implies someone creative, passionate, sensitive, driven yet without the burden of requiring evidence of any particular professional or financial success.

Another put it thusly:

The “arts” scene you mentioned is a reminder that for many people “being an artist” is more of a lifestyle choice than an activity.  For every genuine artist who is serious about creating something of value there are at least ten phonies who just want to be seen as cool and creative without doing any actual work.

What worries me is the degree of control and influence these people have over the overall arts world (including taxpayer dollars), and how they distort the image the public have of genuine, talented artists.

I know some genuine artists, and have heard from others who do as well, and those who pursue the arts as a career have had to put in thousands of hours learning and perfecting techniques, honing their skills, and converting their visions and ideas into a tangible output.  I heard one say that he paints because if he didn’t, he might as well die.  Even those who don’t practice their craft full-time and have to take a normal job to pay the bills dedicate huge swathes of their lives doing what they love and – crucially – having something to show for their endeavours of which they can be proud.  Tastes vary of course, but one has to show something in terms of output.  Being an artist, like being anything worthwhile, is a lifetime of seriously hard work.

This just didn’t apply to Angela, and nor (from what I could tell) to her whole social circle.  Having come from a background of engineering, I must confess I was barely aware such a section of society existed.  Almost everybody I associate with has worked their backsides off, put in years of effort, and committed endless sacrifice to achieve something tangible, be it learn a language, perfect a skill, or even raise a family (Angela was long-term single and childless, having gotten divorced after 2 years of marriage to a fellow hanger-on in the arts world; few of her friends appeared to have children).

Putting aside my professional achievements and the efforts I put in to survive in places like Kuwait, Nigeria, and Sakhalin, since I graduated from university I have learned two foreign languages to conversational level, mostly self-taught; I taught myself to play the guitar to a high enough standard to enable me to take part in music festivals; I practiced long and hard enough to be able to ski down red runs if not every black run in the Alps; and kept myself pretty physically fit and strong through regular gym work for the past 6 years.  Each of these on their own represents hours and hours and hours of patience, effort, dedication, and commitment to achieving a goal.  Most of it was painful, repetitive, drudgery.  I did it because I liked the results.  Aside from those, I am pretty well versed in 20th century Russian and Soviet history and culture, and general military history, but those took no effort at all because I enjoyed learning these subjects.  Among my peers – both professional and social – I am nothing special, everybody has a similar list of achievements to their name.  Until I poked my nose into Angela’s “arts” world, I assumed that most middle-class educated sections of society were the same.

Apparently not.  Much was made by Angela of the fact that I, as an engineer without much by way of formal cultural education, would benefit from having my mind exposed to the arts world.  And maybe it would, but the side of the arts worlds that Angela inhabits is one I really hope never to encounter again.  I should probably have chosen a better guide.

There Was Once a Road Through the Woods

Perry de Havilland at Samizdata has linked to a piece in the Christian Post written by somebody apologising for being an ardent defender of Islam in recent times, somebody who now feels the critics of Islam were right all along.  This paragraph in particular nudged me into writing a post I’ve been meaning to for a while:

Though we claim the mantle of human rights, free speech and equality, we lack the courage of our convictions when it offends someone. We make the cowardly lion look like Churchill.

Principles are strange things in the sense that they do not necessarily have to be pleasant to be attractive, and that even appalling principles can be more attractive (to some) than none at all.  I recall a section in David Hackworth’s book About Face where during the Vietnam War he interviewed an NVA prisoner to try to understand what made them fight.  Once the prisoner realised Hackworth wasn’t going to torture him, and in fact wasn’t after military information at all, he opened up.  It transpired that the prisoner was four-square behind the idea of Communism and the principles that the leadership in Hanoi was preaching and practising.  Hackworth remarked that although he didn’t agree with the cause the man was fighting for, he could not help but admire the fact that his prisoner was willing to endure extreme hardship in order to do so, and noted that he had a fist-sized hole somewhere on his person (I forget where) that was a result of some battlefield injury incurred earlier in the war.  Hackworth contrasted his prisoner’s dedication with those of the feckless ARVN who generally lacked the motivation to fight, were happy to dodge the action and let the Americans do the (literal) grunt work, and represented a regime that was morally bankrupt, corrupt, brutal and stood for nothing whatsoever other than not being Communist.  He concluded that unless the South Vietnamese get off their arses and start fighting in the way his prisoner was, they would ultimately lose the war.  And he was right.

I am about as far from a Communist as it is possible to get, yet there is no denying the ideas and principles attracted – and continue to attract – millions of people.  I have read enough Cold War history to know that the Chinese fought with fanatical, suicidal dedication to the Communist cause in North Korea, that millions of Russian soldiers died with Stalin’s name on their lips, and that a huge percentage of the Soviet people worked willingly in support of the Socialist cause for decades.  These people might be brainwashed, and they might be complete idiots, but the fact is that having been presented with a set of principles – however warped both in theory and practice – millions of them followed with unflappable dedication.

So how come the Commies lost the Cold War?  Theories vary, but one crucial element in the Western victory was the upholding of certain principles which the Communist Bloc didn’t recognise: free speech, liberty, property rights, the right to a fair trial, freedom of assembly, freedom of movement, freedom of artistic expression, etc.  Granted most, if not all, Western countries upheld these principles imperfectly at various times but this does not equate to an absence of principles any more than the largesse of the Politburo meant an absence of collectivist principles in the Soviet Union.

By upholding these principles that were alien to the Communists, the West was able to achieve two things:

1. Demonstrate how they were fundamentally different from the Communists in a positive way, i.e. better than them.

2. Provide an alternative set of principles for those in the enemy camp who wished to reject the Communist principles.

Convinced of its own superior system of government, the West thought nothing of blasting the populations trapped behind the Iron Curtain with propaganda, urging them to convert to its own way of thinking.  An American president – the leader of the free world – called the Soviet Union an evil empire not only because it was, but also because he knew those living under its rule against their will would take great heart from his words and continue to struggle.  The conviction of the West in shamelessly and incessantly promoting its own principles over the Communists’ likely did as much to inspire internal resentment over the Soviet leadership as their own degeneracy: without the former, against what standard could the Soviet leaders and their own circumstances be measured?

This brings me onto what I want to talk about, which is a thought that first started churning in my head in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre.  That is, the question as to why moderate Muslims don’t speak out and condemn the atrocities carried out in the name of Islam.  It is tempting to say that many probably agree with the atrocities, leading one to question just how many moderates there actually are.  But shortly afterwards I read a comment in a blog by somebody who suggested putting yourself in the shoes of a moderate Muslim and asking whether you yourself would speak out.

And in doing so it became a lot clearer why they don’t.  What we are asking moderate Muslims to do is speak out against those whose actions are incompatible with our way of life.  But what we really want is confirmation that moderate Muslims have themselves accepted our way of life and the principles that underpin it, and will therefore reject the extremists in their ranks.  In theory, this isn’t much different than hoping citizens of Communist countries would accept our way of life and make things difficult for their overlords by seeking change.  But whereas during the Cold War we had clearly defined principles that we genuinely believed were superior and were not afraid to advertise them, what principles are we supposed to be waving in front of Muslims?

And that’s a question I can’t answer.  Whatever free speech we currently enjoy is fast being eroded: when citizens can be jailed for offensive Tweets or nasty Facebook comments, and homophobic remarks are grounds for arrest as a matter of course, then we can probably say that this isn’t solid ground on which we can fight a battle of ideas.  Individual freedom is rapidly disappearing as a concept now that refusing to bake a wedding cake is a matter in which the full force of the law is brought to ensure conformity: I’d not fancy my chances arguing that individual freedoms in the West are nowadays sancrosanct in a way that they are not in the Muslim world.  The state is becoming ever more intrusive, particularly into family matters: with Scotland now setting up a truly Stalinist system of shadow parenting by state officials (H/T Samizdata) it would take a brave soul to try to win over a Muslim by pointing to our superior methods of running a family.

That’s not to say the West has nothing to offer Muslims, because it clearly does.  But the differentiator which enabled them to offer all people – not just Muslims – something better was the society that resulted from first fighting for, and then upholding, the principles on which it was based.  The West appears to have forgotten that it was these principles that made its society attractive in the first place, and it doesn’t seem to realise that if it abandons those principles then it won’t be the same society; and if it’s not the same society, who is to say it will be an improvement on any other, particularly one that’s been aroud awhile?

To repeat what I quoted from the Christian Post:

Though we claim the mantle of human rights, free speech and equality, we lack the courage of our convictions when it offends someone.

If our leadership – and I use that term loosely – lacks the conviction to uphold the principles which supposedly define the West, why the hell should we expect Muslims to come out in support of them?  I suspect for many, faced with a choice between leaning towards Islamic principles and Western principles, many moderate Muslims are choosing the former because they are unconvinced that the latter even exist.  Hell, I’m not convinced they exist in any meaningful sense any more, so why should somebody who comes from a culture where they have been historically absent?

As the aforementioned blog commenter asked, if you were a young Muslim living in Britain over the last few years, which way would you lean?  Which way is the wind blowing?  When you have elected officials condemning the publication of blasphemous cartoons, and newspaper columnists suggesting Charlie Hebdo was probably at fault, would you stick your head above the parapet and argue that insulting the Prophet is a fundamental right?  When any atrocity is immediately followed by politicians mumbling vague approximations of supposed bedrock principles which they contradict in the very same sentence through use of the word “but”, and fall over themselves to assure you – a Muslim – that this is nothing to do with your own principles and faith, and then an utter headcase is invited for an interview on the state-owned TV channel where he defends the bloodshed and nobody says a peep: which way are you going to jump?

As the Christian Post article goes on to say:

In reality, those who criticize Islam, especially reform minded Muslims, are the bravest of the brave. They are literally putting their lives at risk by the simple act of criticizing the Quran, Muhammad, and Sharia.

It’s hard enough as it is to get Muslims to question aspects of their faith they might find distasteful and risk the opprobrium of their family, friends, and community.  But it was equally hard to get Russian citizens to criticise their own people and system as well.  Back then, we realised the importance in upholding our own convictions and demonstrating our principles in the struggle to convert people away from Communism and to adopt our way of life.

But today we have abandoned our principles, yet at the same time we expect Muslims to start questioning theirs.  Somebody with principles will not abandon them – even if they are appalling – unless there are alternatives on offer.  And although I see much merit in the principles on which Western society was based, the past decade or two has seen them eroded to such an extent that their function as an alternative which others can adopt has diminished to the point that few appear to be taking them up any more.  What’s more worrying, as David Hackworth’s prisoner demonstrated, those with principles – regardless of what they are – tend to prevail over those who are operating with none.

If the West wants its way of life to continue its citizenry had better rediscover the principles on which it developed and not only start upholding them, but demanding their leaders do the same.  They’d be wise to consider that the Muslims they are hoping to convert already have principles, they’ve been following them faithfully for hundreds of years, and there is very little they would have seen in recent years which would make them do otherwise.