Josie Moon

Poet, Musician and Educator

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Pisagua

It is 40 years since Thatcher became PM in Britain. Her election ushered in change that damaged the fabric of society, destroyed communities and began the steady dismantling of the country’s infrastructure. I have a strong and abiding loathing of her and all she stood for.

It is arguably not widely known that Thatcher regarded Pinochet of Chile as a good friend and ally. I am currently re-reading Andy Becket’s excellent book Pinochet in Piccadilly which details the strange, fascinating and disturbing story of Thatcher and Pinochet.

When I first read the book I wrote the poem below. The poem returned to me as I read comments fawning over Thatcher and as I picked up the book again.

Pisagua

1973

The trucks began to arrive

and cries rang from those

who dragged themselves

naked

up the glass-strewn nitrate slopes.

No visitors.

No Red Cross.

Executions took place

beside the cemetery.

Now an unscarred monument

in black and blue and red

guards the place of the dead.

Vultures still circle overhead.

There is a memorial to the dead in Pisagua, pictured above; a solemn and frightening piece of wall art that tells the story of those taken, tortured, murdered and left in a mass grave under Pinochet’s orders.

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Spectacle and Surveillance

The Panopticon

I’ve been considering the inter-relationship between Bentham’s Panopticon, the society of the spectacle and the steady creep of surveillance culture.

The most unsettling feature of the Panopticon design is that inmates never know whether they are being observed and so consequently behave as if they are.  Bentham’s design was intended for public institutions; schools, hospitals, asylums, prisons and was an expression of his utilitarian thinking.

I think the theory of the Panopticon has been adopted by the wider culture and is a theoretical model of management in public institutions.  Take education. Schools now operate under the threat of inspection, always on high alert in anticipation of the ultra-punitive surveillance of Ofsted.  There are ‘rehearsals’ for inspections taking place all the time with everybody expected to behave as if they are being observed in compliance with directive policy. The risk of being found wanting is high with punishment being a key motivating factor in ‘improving standards.’

More insidious than the theoretical implementation of surveillance in the work place is the adoption of surveillance as a model of on-line social interaction via social media. Do we exist if we are not being liked and shared constantly? The erosion of the boundary between public and private space is more or less complete with no aspect of human interaction being regarded as a matter of privacy. The urge to participate in the spectacle of social media is compelling. Removing oneself or reducing contact with the arena is difficult and requires self control and the informed decision to not participate in what is often little more than a circus.

At a more mundane but equally concerning level is the routine way in which we are now expected to hand over personal details to organisations without question.  Only last night, I was expected to give my personal details when buying theatre tickets with cash and was told the computer system would not give me a ticket unless I was compliant. I refused to comply and was given a ticket anyway.  Why on earth should a theatre have my personal details in what is an impersonal transaction? It doesn’t make any material difference to theatre X where I live or what my date of birth happens to be.

Of course this is all about power; power at the micro and macro levels. In what is an increasingly Orwellian state we are handing over more and more of our personal power, whether by choosing to live in the Panopticon of social media or by unthinkingly giving our details to anyone who asks for them or by contributing to the society of the spectacle by engaging in public life as if it were a circus. This benefits those who are watching, primarily the advertising industry and the state. Acts of refusal  are healthy for our personal autonomy and are to be encouraged. Next time someone asks you for your personal details, try saying no.

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Free Association

The anarchist movement presents some challenging theories regarding the structure and organisation of society. Not surprisingly perhaps, most of these are not in evidence in mainstream public or private life because of the human tendency to conform to pre-existing structures and models and familiar paradigms of social and governmental practice. Most commonly considered in political terms, free association is also personal and is increasingly a governing principle of my personal philosophy.

The idea of free association has been revelatory in terms of embracing the principle that one is wholly free to associate with whoever one likes and for that association to have no constraints on it. The nature of being is that we change and grow and being locked into relationships when they cease to be meaningful is a corrosive experience that inhibits growth for both parties. The biggest learning of this past year has been to recognise and be honest about when it is time to leave.

In practice, free association is difficult. Human beings form attachments and these can quickly become possessive and all encompassing. It is easy to be overwhelmed by these kinds of relationships and to feel disproportionately beholden to people or groups out of a sense of loyalty. Obligation that stunts growth is unhealthy and when any situation becomes a burden then it is time to go.

Free association enables us to bring out the best in ourselves and others for whatever time it is appropriate for the particular relationship to exist. It is a philosophy that recognizes the essential nature of individuals as beings in their own right. It empowers each individual to take responsibility for the path they are walking without the need to impose on others. It allows being to move and flow when it needs to and imposes no constraints.

Free association is at the heart of my sense of self. I own no one and no one owns me. I have no desire to own anyone and reject anyone who would impose their being on me. I delight in others and their achievements. I love working with people but respect their right to work with others and to do as they wish. This feels like a ridiculously simple and infallible way to live.

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The Handmaid’s Tale, Critical Debate and Adaptation

Literary adaptation is a problematic art form and is very much a hot topic at present with the runaway success of Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (THT). Taut, politically astute and imbued with dread the adaptation does not adhere strictly to the text and yet is paradoxically faithful to it in terms of capturing the nuances of Atwood’s cautionary tale.  

The adaptation has come at an apt moment and eerily reflects critical examples of state violence and oppression that are current. FGM, radical evangelicalism, homophobia and attacks on women’s reproductive rights are starkly presented and have their seeds in the novel. Atwood famously used precedent for everything she presented in the novel from the role of the handmaids to the salvagings. Since the publication of the novel in the 1980’s, Atwood’s novel has come to reflect the reality of many women’s lives rather than become an anachronism of a time now past. In this way it shares similarity with Orwell’s 1984 that has never also never dated or lost its impact. 

I was curious to observe and participate in discussion forums about The Handmaid’s Tale and have spent a week or so making occasional comments and reading posts. I have now withdrawn from that.  In part, life is just too short but also I found the level of some – not all – comment facile. I appreciate and support the right for everyone to take part in debates and to express opinions and clearly the adaptation has ignited a great deal of passionate conversation. However, when a particular thread was asking  ‘are you team Nick or team Luke’ I felt deeply uncomfortable.   THT is a serious novel. It is not chick lit. It is not romantic.

Luke was Offred’s husband in pre-Gilead. In the novel his fate is unclear. In the adaptation he escapes to Canada. In either scenario he is lost to Offred.  In the novel and the adaptation Offred mourns him. Nick, the driver in the Commander’s household is first used as a tool by Serena Joy to get Offred pregnant. Her body is for his use as a means of reproduction.  

In the novel Nick is ambiguous in terms of his position in Gilead. In the adaptation he is an Eye, a member of the horrific secret police. As he and Offred embark on a sexual relationship, in the novel he says ‘no romance’ and he is right. There is no romance. Like for Winston and Julia in 1984 sexual love endangers both of their lives. However, for Offred her status makes the danger worse for her. In the language of Gilead, women are whores, temptresses and responsible for the provocation of lust. The inequality in Nick and Offred’s relationship is a stark emblematic reminder of the abjection of the handmaids and the powerlessness of women. It is not something to be celebrated however much comfort it appears to give to Offred. Remember it is she, not Nick who is taken by the secret police at the end of the novel. We assume she survives at least long enough to record her story and we know Gilead falls but that does not mitigate against the horror of her life or the certainty of the violence used against her. So, ‘team Nick,’ no thank you.  

In truth, I have a problem with team anything. Superficially it’s fine to nail your colours to a mast and come out in support of a position. As evidenced by the recent UK General Election it is sometimes very important to sign up to a movement, to get behind someone and work collectively to make a difference.  However,  to do it uncritically is to put oneself under the thrall of the ‘they’ and to abdicate personal responsibility for thinking about issues that are complex and nuanced.  

In my professional life I have seen the ‘team’ principle in action and it is a business practice linked to corporate values. With the increasingly managerialist and bureaucratic culture pervading professional and public life the notion of ‘team’ is sinister. To me it’s about subsuming individual identity within the value system of a corporation or organisation. To use the language of Star Trek, I have no desire to be assimilated.

Once one accepts the subsuming of self and adherence to the values of the ‘team’ one accepts authority. The problem with authority is it leads to authoritarianism and authoritarianism is on the continuum towards totalitarianism. This is the trajectory of THT. Corporate America with its neoliberal values, tolerance of extreme right wing Christian fundamentalism and obsession with women’s bodies and reproduction gives way to Gilead. Gilead is one possible end point of a political system that was in train in the 1980’s in America and which is still in motion now. Hence the timely arrival of Hulu’s adaptation. The cast are quoted as saying their work is activism. This is why the level of debate around it is important. 

As I have said, everyone is free (ironically given the context) to express their view and engage in whatever level of debate they so desire. I want to explore this ‘team man’ idea a little deeper. Slash fiction, fan fiction and ‘shipping’ – appropriating a relationship to characters in fiction that does not exist – is a pop cultural phenomenon that started with Star Trek fans imagining a homoerotic relationship between Kirk and Spock. It’s fun and light and can be hugely creative. However, shipping also gave the world 50 Shades of Grey.  Born out of the horribly misogynistic Twilight saga, 50 Shades presents a deeply dysfunctional and abusive relationship as a romantic BDSM fantasy. The internalised misogyny in that novel is breathtaking. It was a runaway success on the back of an anti-feminist backlash. Twilight struck me – and many others -as a neo-Con, illiberal riposte to Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Buffy was a series that placed feminist values at the heart of its story arc and which dealt with rape and violence seriously. It was deeply depressing to see the ascension of Twilight sweeping away the empowerment that Buffy had brought to the small screen and to see the young women I was teaching at the time wearing ‘Team Edward’ t-shirts.

Post Buffy, post Twilight the zeitgeist has lost its appetite for the supernatural and has turned to dystopian literature. Art always reflects life and in a world where there is perpetual threat from terrorism and from government it is unsurprising that THT is so powerful. There are women in the United States dressing as handmaids to make political protests, drawing attention to the violence against women’s’ bodies being committed by legislative practices. Anti-abortion laws, the religious right, the retrograde and downright dangerous Trump administration are clear and present dangers. In the UK, a filthy and discredited government is so desperate to cling to the dying embers of its power it is brokering a deal with a political party, the DUP,  that does not believe dinosaurs existed, upholds legislation that makes abortion an imprisonable offence and actively promotes homophobia. Dark times.

Offred in THT is not only a singularly oppressed woman imprisoned in a state that sentences her to constant rape and reduces her personhood to the viability of her ovaries, she is a symbol, an icon even, of oppressed women everywhere. The handmaid is the ultimate objectified woman, invisible and irrelevant except for her reproductive capacity. The brutality that is used to enforce that subjection is unflinching. The adaptation goes further than the novel. Following the episode in which Emily/Ofglen underwent a forced cliterodectomy as punishment for her sexual relationship with a woman, I could not sleep as I was so horrified. The world over, there are preachers speaking in favour of FGM as a way of controlling women’s sexuality and it is still accepted ‘cultural’ practice in too many places. There is a war being waged against women all of the time and there are those who will persist in their endeavours to roll back hard won rights and freedoms. THT is part of the fight, a cultural phenomenon that makes a challenge to power and spotlights the grotesque inequalities that women still face and which are a stark reminder that without vigilance and rigorous debate and readiness to fight,  rights and freedoms that do exist are not a given.

 

 

Photograph copyright @ McLelland and Stewart

 

 

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A Coalition of Dignity

When John Lennon wrote Imagine in 1971 he presented a universal prayer that envisioned a fairer, saner and more peaceful world for everyone, free of oppressive forces, violence and prejudice. Unsurprisingly it remains one of the most popular and widely performed songs of the 20th century and it never dates because the issues it addresses have not changed.

Lennon was a courageous visionary who was unafraid to use his power and influence to speak out. He was a great artist and thinker and with Yoko Ono he explored his existence and interrogated the world in order to come to  an understanding of himself and his personhood.

Each and every person walking on the planet today has a right to understand their being, the very nature of their existence and what life means for them. Every human being is a wonder and a source of exciting possibility and potential.

And yet.

The world is a place riven by war, greed, violence, intolerance and prejudice. We have created dominant narratives that enframe our lives placing limitation in the way of potential. We have enabled a culture of fear and suspicion that obscures our ability to see clearly and directly causes us to view many of our fellow human beings as ‘other’, as ‘not like us’ and therefore outside of the tribes to which we adhere.

The result of ‘othering’ people is always awful. In the UK homosexuality was once a crime and individuals were persecuted, criminalised and dehumanised for their sexual orientation.  That has changed in the UK which is now a much more tolerant and open society but the othering of gay people continues unabated in other parts of the world. The othering of homosexuals in Chechnya has resulted in concentration camps where gay men are being tortured and executed daily as a homophobic narrative runs rampant across the culture.

However othering is not always so extreme and overtly violent. It is often so subtle that we barely notice it and accept it without challenge. Take as an example the attitude in the UK to care of the elderly. Health and social care policy has effectively othered elderly people in need of care and defined them as a problem to be managed. When this kind of managerialism takes over the human is essentially lost. We now accept as standard practice that vulnerable elderly people can have their needs met by 4 care visits a day to the home, lasting approximately 15 minutes. There are no guarantees of consistency as carers come and go, unsurprisingly as they are often on terrible pay under zero hours contracts. Between visits we seem to have accepted that the vulnerable elderly can be left to their own devices allowing efficiency to be served with minimum consideration for the needs of the cared for or the carer. Step back from the unexamined acceptance of this and the inhumanity at work is stark indeed.

We could go on, examining countless examples of the prizing of efficiency and meeting of targets over the needs of humans. It’s not just happening in social care, but in education, the health service and in businesses where humans are simply resources to be managed and organised and often exploited. This might explain the recourse to othering,  which defines humans as problems to be solved, dehumanising people and removing them from our sphere of personal responsibility.

So what do we do? Firstly we think about it. From thinking comes action and action can take many forms but it all comes down to resistance and making a stand in the name of what feels right; imagining a better world and fighting for it.

James Baldwin, the American writer, public thinker and activist has much to say on how oppression works and how it can be resisted. Baldwin talks about a ‘ coalition of dignity’, the idea that humans agree on the sanctity of human dignity and put aside separatist concerns to create the possibility of a better world that serves the best interests of every human regardless of race, gender, sexual identity or political sensibility. It seems an incontestable principle that human dignity should be at the absolute heart of how we live and how we treat each other. Imagine a world in which people are put first, in which at the centre of all decision making is placed the dignity of the human. Such a world is possible, first we imagine, then we act.

First published in The Cleethorpes Chronicle, May 2017

 

 

 

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The Unpredictable Consequences of Change

This week on Radio 3 programming is centred around Martin Luther and The Reformation, obviously focusing on the change to music that resulted from radical thinking. Sometimes listening to Radio 3 is like being at university, such is the wealth and breadth of knowledge that is conveyed alongside the most sublime music.

It seems peculiar to us now that prior to The Reformation the bible was in Latin and ordinary people relied totally on the intercession of the clergy and had no way of accessing scripture in a way that was comprehensible to them. I was astonished to learn that when Luther (allegedly) nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the church within two weeks his proclamation had traveled throughout Germany and within two months throughout Europe. This was in 1517. There must have been a great appetite for change, particularly for the principle of scripture to be in the vernacular.

Luther’s arguments paved the way for The Reformation and for the events in England under Henry VIII which led to the establishment of the Church of England, the dissolution of the monasteries, the iconoclasm and destruction of churches, artifacts, manuscripts and texts and the clear separation of English affairs from the influence of the pope and the Holy Roman Emperor.

No one could have predicted the changes that took place. Once a process of change begins it is not possible to know how things will resolve and what will be different at the end of that process. All that can be predicted is that events will be unpredictable. This is true of both private, personal change and change in the public and political spheres.

Brexit is not a reformation, even if it would like to think it is but it is an enormous change, the outcome of which is totally unpredictable. Born out of cynical politicking the reality now is that the UK has to negotiate its way out of an economic and political union that is labyrinthine in its complexity. What is clear is that the Leave campaign was dishonest  – remember Boris Johnson’s shiny red bus and the great big whopping lie painted on the side of it regarding the NHS? The population was not properly informed about what leaving the EU would mean, in part because nobody truly understood what it would mean. Cameron quickly got himself out of the way of the mess he had made leaving a robotic, cold and unconvincing Theresa May to wipe up after him.

Signs from Europe about the process of negotiation are not good. The word ‘delusional; regarding the British government’s view of how it sees the process keeps occurring. If the powers of Europe are using the term delusional then the nation should be concerned.

Brexit, like The Reformation will bring permanent and lasting change. It is likely that there will be violence and disruption along the way, chaos, fear and disarray as there was under the brutal policies of Henry VIII and his son Edward VI and of course under Bloody Mary when she attempted to restore Catholicism.

Looking at Scotland and Ireland there is a strong chance the union will break up and the UK will become fragmentary. We are already seeing tribalism in action with the right wing press referring to those who voted Remain as Remoaners and Saboteurs. There is not doubt that Brexit worked like a Pandora’s box, unleashing virulent racist attitudes and making it acceptable for those views to be aired in a way which they were not prior to June 23rd 2016. Of course those attitudes were there, under the surface but now they are visible and expressed with a kind of impunity that is frightening.

Brexit is not the only fearful and uncertain force for change that is frightening at present. Trump in the Whitehouse is almost unthinkable and yet it is reality. The sabre rattling with nuclear weapons that is happening should be terrifying to us all and yet the populace here in the UK is more uncomfortable with a political leader – Jeremy Corbyn – who says he would not use nuclear weapons than with the Tory party who say they would use first strike. It’s a bizarre situation that the electorate can be persuaded to vote for a party promising to wipe them off the face of the earth should a nuclear conflagration occur.

With Trump in the Whitehouse the likelihood of a major international incident has increased exponentially. He is the kind of leader so obsessed with his own ego and power that he appears to have no rational sense of what government, democracy and leadership should look like. Of course he was brought to power by antagonistic, dispossessed voters who rather like the Brexiteers thought they were voting for change and for their voices to be heard. The sad truth is that no one is listening because the Trump administration and the British Tory party are both obsessed with power, posturing and protecting the interests of neo-liberal super-wealth and not with the lives, hopes and dreams of the citizenry they are supposed to represent.

Luther and the Reformation brought change that led to an explosion in cultural life in terms of art, music, writing and thinking. The lumpen philistinism of Trump, May and Brexit is likely to do the opposite and far worse. And of course, it will not be them that pay the price of their hubris and venality. It will be the people, many of whom voted for monsters they could not possibly hope to understand and who they will never be able to control.