Category Archives: The Big Questions
I haven’t blogged recently, because I have been studying hard. Maybe this has made me a little less lighthearted than usual. I ask myself that because today is Armistice Day, and today I found myself questioning the conflicts I see between a private act of respect, the State’s duty to honour those who fell in its name, and the grief bandwagon which rolls across so much these days, crushing dissent in its path.
I have been considering the work of the French Marxist theoretician Louis Althusser, who drew a distinction between what he saw as State power and its formal mechanisms, and State control, with its greater subtleties. Althusser argues that while we are aware of the former, the latter is exercised through apparatuses such as political parties, schools and the media to foster an ideology which ‘is sympathetic to the aims of the State’. Within that, the status quo is maintained, and the individual feels that he or she freely chooses something which is in fact being imposed upon him. Althusser called this more subtle mechanism of control ‘interpellation‘.
Now, I find this a really interesting idea, and one that challenges my response to all sorts of issues and convictions that I have never really questioned before. I am not sure whether or not – having given my aching brain even more work to do – I will, in the end, alter any of my fundamental beliefs. But I think it is something worth considering. Hence my pondering on the significance of the enormous campaign that lies behind a small but symbolic flower.
Another critic I have read recently argues that ‘Ideology’ is like halitosis, in that it is something everyone else has, not you.
I honour the memory of those I know who were young and terrified but who were still able to face machine gun fire for the sake of a country they believed in. I honour the memories of all those whose bravery took them far beyond the modern conflict of a nightclub brawl on a Saturday night, and out into the heat and dust of a strange landscape where the enemy lurks and waits. But by honouring them must I also believe that killing to protect certain beliefs is always right? That our beliefs are of course ‘right’ and that those of an enemy must be ‘wrong’?
I listened to a WWII veteran being interviewed today about his experiences on the ground during the bombing of Dresden. He said that beforehand he had seen men die; had killed. But nothing had prepared him for the horror of seeing women and children burning in the street before his eyes. Later, on the news, came reports of the stoning of two women in Afghanistan. More deaths: those we caused in the fight against fascism, and those we try to prevent in the fight against religious extremism. There are no poppies for the civilian casualties of warfare.
It’s easy, today, to quote a half-remembered line or two from the War Poets, or believe that embroidering poppies on football shirts is a patriotic act, but its harder to question the cost of warfare, and to remember, as Donne did:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were…Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind…
Yesterday had more than a few sad moments, as is often the case when I sit in the Youth Court. But none sadder than hearing a solicitor say – accurately – of her young client; ‘he has never had a childhood’.
You would think, wouldn’t you, that childhood is a period of time that we all go through; something we share as naturally as breathing, something that is common in its nature, if not its complexities, across all cultures. But when we look at what that solicitor said, it’s not that simple. What does it mean to be a child? Is childhood a time of learning and growth, or a time of freedom and play? Or both? In any case, doesn’t everyone have one?
No, of course not. We know that. We all accept that there are children in sweat shops, street children, prostituted children, children in mineral mines. Lots of ink is expended focusing the attention of the world on their plight, and rightly so. But that’s elsewhere. Our society is different. We value the child, surely? Some would say we indulge the child, hence some of the problems. But everywhere we look, there are children, growing up, having fun.
But what about troubled children? ASBO-clad hoodie-wearing tearaways? Those kids that roam our streets creating minor havoc on a daily basis? Is ‘getting into trouble’ a normal childhood experience for them? After all, are children innately good, or are they socialised to be so? And if the socialisation is not carried out properly within the family, should the State intervene? Should these children be in care? After all, we call them ‘looked after’, so that’s what we do, right?
Since the early nineteenth century philanthropists and politicians have collided in their determination to save children, and are still chasing headlines doing so. According to today’s news, the Department of Work & Pensions is to identify and work with 120,000 problem families to help deal with gang-culture. I’m impressed that the DWP can be so accurate about the current number of such families, but then, a quick Google of the words problem families will bring up a series of past headlines by Brown, Blair and Cameron, so maybe they’ve been keeping count.
The Children’s Act 1948 enshrined the right of a Looked After Child to a ‘family life’. It’s a fair bet that the lawmakers of that time had a fairly conservative view of what elements made up family life, but they intended small communities, family structures, routine and care. What they couldn’t determine was the presence, or absence of, the love, affection, discipline and support of positive parenting.
If, as is generally accepted, society ‘constructs’ the child, then does it also ‘construct’ the delinquent?
Neil Postman was in fact talking about the mediation of adult behaviours through a globalised media for children, resulting in truncated childhoods and premature sexualisation. But yesterday’s child has been expelled from the garden too.
To face a child whose entire life experience has been one of abuse and criminogenic upbringing followed by the upheavals of the care system is to face a child that Dickens would have recognised: one that feels real fear but is afraid to show it. To face a child that has ‘never had a childhood’ is to look across an almost unbridgeable gulf in ‘society’ to someone who feels they are in another world, where our rules are irrelevant. To face that child is to face someone who has been created by others. And that IS a problem.
Oh dear. Oh dearie dearie me. Lawks, even.
I am back in my seven-year old body, all skinny angles and rabbit teeth, watching the big girls rush past in the playground, and thinking I can never be, will never be, even the tiniest bit as COOL as Penelope is. Yes, she was actually called Penelope. Life had dished the sparkles out at birth, when the good fairy had given her an exotic name and the blond mane to go with it. A purple Raleigh bike with a basket on the front. A mum that let her wear WHITE socks, not itchy grey ones that bagged at the ankles, and bought her Quavers. A secret Rule Book that made her the ultimate authority on Hopscotch, French skipping and IT. A radiant personality. I wasn’t quite sure what that was back then, to be honest, but I was pretty sure that hiding in a doorway wasn’t necessary if you had one.
This blogging lark is that playground, on a massive scale. Since deciding to start a blog was a spur of the moment thing, I thought I should pay some proper attention to those who have been blogging for a while. Try and read the rulebook over their shoulder. Off for a spin and see what the traffic is like out there.
Millions. Millions and millions of bloggers. Right now, right here, their daily moments rushing past me in an unstoppable tide. Conservatively, 145 million blogs are careering around the blogosphere this very second, their creators sobbing, arguing, complaining, creating, dreaming, reporting, commentating, interpreting life in millions of different ways.
Small. Insignificant. Unimportant. Alone. Back to the doorway.
Back to what it really means to be blood, flesh and bone on this planet. Back to such a dark place that the imagination can’t stay there for long and sets off again, hurtling through the neural overload to make contact. New York, Paris, China, Scotland. Private griefs placed in public view. Public figures and personal analysis. Humour, boredom, materialism, socialism. Literature, Art, Science, politics: the debate of the day reduced to the issue of the moment. Clever conversations, acid wit, informed analysis: everywhere I stop I find another view to admire.
What can I say? What should I think? Do I think at all? Perhaps I only think I think? Does it matter to anyone whether I think or not? So much is out there that I am only sure of original thought while it is still in my skull. Even then, am I sure that I am original ?
Such a seething tide of individual self-expression has a counter-intuitive effect: it removes the boundaries of distance, culture, belonging, and absorbs each tiny piece of humanity into a giant whirlpool of perpetual commentary. Into a huge playground of shouting, moving figures all with voices to raise and complicated games to play.
As I said, dearie me, girl. What’s the matter?
To be unique. To stand outside. To matter. To survive. To be me.
Back to the doorway. I’m not hiding, Miss, I’m thinking.