Stop shouting. Come closer.


Stop shouting. Come closer.

As always, I'm posting mainly to get something out of my system. I don't expect anyone to give a damn. But I keep hearing people at the moment saying that “democracy” is failing us. It’s not. Democracy is an abstract noun. We made it up. It’s not failing us. We’re failing it

We’re failing it whenever we vote on the basis of misinformation and lies, and reject “experts” (when exactly did that become a term of abuse?) or “elitist intellectuals” who suggest it might be a good idea to understand the issues. We’re failing it when we throw our vote away in protests nobody will ever know or care about, and may bring about the opposite of what we want. We’re failing it when we use narrow referendum victories to validate racism, but also when we allow narrow referendum losses to dismiss every person who disagrees with us as a fascist. We’re failing it when we wank on about “revolutions” that will never happen and which the vast majority do not want (having spent sufficient time on the planet to have noticed how badly revolutions tend to work out for all concerned), but also when we ignore the frustrations of people on both right and left, young and old, who feel alienated and ignored by the political system. We’re failing it when we set up straw men adversaries and waste all our energy trying to set them on fire, taking offense at anything that does not conform with our definition of acceptability. We’re failing it when we spend our lives in online echo chambers, never attempting to positively engage with people living in the opposing chambers, instead becoming self-radicalized niche-fundamentalists. 

As a parent you find yourself being addressed from afar a lot of the time. Children take a while to understand that “I can’t hear you” doesn’t mean “shout louder”, but “come closer”. But we all seem to have trouble understanding this, because the same applies to political discourse. 

Nobody is right all the time. That’s why we have democracy, to average out all our wrongnesses into something that hopefully approximates the political mood at any given moment. That snapshot may provide a map for the road ahead, but equally it will confront us with ourselves, our present angers and confusions — and there may be periods when it’s more important to acknowledge and engage with those uneasy revelations than it is to believe voting gave us an “answer”. It will suggest to us that rather than obsessing about our abstract nouns, we should be focussing on proper nouns, the real people with whom we share our societies and countries. 

Failing democracy isn’t good. But failing the real people around us, those who need our tolerance and understanding — and that includes everyone, all the time, even if they're small-minded xenophobic assholes — that’s a crime. Every time we dismiss someone solely on the basis of their religion, race, sexual orientation or politics, we’re failing democracy and ourselves. And every time we care less about someone for those reasons, we're failing humanity too. We might get further with the war on terror, for example, if we appeared to give more of a shit when Muslims get slaughtered. Over a hundred and fifty people — including many children — died in Baghdad yesterday, on Ramadan, in a single attack. That's a lot. I didn't change my avatar to reflect this — did you? No. None of us did. It didn't get a hashtag. It didn't even trend. This morning, Chris Evans bailing from Top Gear is trending instead. That's insane

Nobody is perfect. It’s not just middle-aged het white guys who are capable of being offensively dumb. There are infuriating Muslims, Jews, women, African-Americans and LGBTQs and young people too. Some of the most virulent alt-right Twitters are women, including the appalling @AnnCoulter (and yes I'm aware how many of the other accounts are feeble men hiding behind personas): plus there's this guy — @Nero. Failing to acknowledge the diversity of wrongness risks reducing any group to a concept, the fate that befell the Native Americans. Once they’d been elevated to the status of noble savages dripping with ancient wisdom it became okay to steal their land, because abstract nouns don’t need homes. It should go without saying that the groups listed above have spent more than enough time being grievously mistreated and discriminated against to be owed special consideration now. But we can’t make all our decisions based on the fact that we’re male or female or conservative or Muslim or black or love guns or straight or Christian or leftist or poor or rich or intellectual or an over-privileged white, male, heterosexual living in the Bay area (that would be me). As soon as you can never be in error, you stop being real — and you stop contributing anything useful to any debate, ever. 

Because just as everybody is sometimes wrong, everybody is sometimes right — even if it’s only about their particular situation, and needs, and fears. Yes, even that Trump supporter racist homophobic craphead in line in front of you in Safeway, recycling counterfactual Fox News bullshit so loudly and obnoxiously that after a while you start to wish you were in favor of guns after all. He or she may know nothing about the things you care about, but they know about themselves — and they get to vote too. The world — and social media is increasingly implicated in this — is steadily driving us deeper into niches. We’re getting further and further apart, and shouting even louder as a consequence. 

Countries will always be run by political elites. To believe otherwise is naive. But our towns and streets can be different, and that’s where we live. We need to stop only talking to the people on the same side, and take the risk of trying to engage in calm, polite, worthwhile discussion with those we don’t agree with. It’s extremely unlikely anybody will change their mind as a result — people almost never do — but we would all be far better informed when the time comes to vote. Voting with your heart is not enough. Your mind needs to be involved, and your conscience too. True democracy requires soul. 

Don't get me wrong. Personally I despise a lot of these people, and despair of them, and a few clicks on Twitter will introduce you to a cesspool of misogynist, antisemitic, homophobic racist vileness that beggars belief. There's no helping those assholes. They are lost to the debate and thus also, in a sense, to humanity. But there are reasonable people on all sides, and we have to talk. That’s real, grass-roots democracy, the only type which most of us have any chance of influencing, and the kind that could actually make a difference to the lives of the proper nouns we all are. 


Meanwhile I’m off to England for a month, which should be... interesting. Apparently some events have occurred there recently. Look after California while I’m gone, okay? Don’t let it do anything weird.


Stop making excuses for racist stupidity


Stop making excuses for racist stupidity

I know this will lose me some friends, but I’m now getting very, very bored of compassionate, intellectual people on both left and right patiently explaining to me that what happened in Britain — and what could happen in America in November — isn’t the fault of thick, small-minded xenophobes, and the poor little things were misled and confused by a naughty elite. This is just a more subtle form of patronizing elitism. 

Let the thick, small-minded xenophobes own their dreadful victory, even if many of them appear too thick to have realized the whole thing wasn’t a drill, or an opportunity to give a bloody nose to the same right-wing assholes THEY ELECTED. Respect their agency, and its deeply unpleasant reality. Stop thinking the “intellectuals” covertly control everything, because we really, really don’t. The stupidity is real

Read the comments in the Daily Mail or Sun or on Twitter. Watch the wankers in the streets of England now jeering at people who've spent their whole lives there saying “Ha — time to go back where you come from”. Ignorance is no defence in law, and it’s not in politics either, and we do not have to respect or excuse or second-guess the views and actions of people too stupid to work out how to sit on a toilet, never mind influence a country’s future. 

Look at this asshole. No elite made him wear that. HE DID IT ALL BY HIMSELF.


Binaries for Beginners


Binaries for Beginners

I should be working but I’m too depressed, furious, embarrassed and hungover, so instead I thought I’d provide a handy explanation of the concept of binary decisions for all the people on the right and left who clearly don’t understand them. 

Amongst the things that are most making me want to lie down on the carpet and weep this morning is the muppet parade of Brexit voters who seem to be a bit bewildered at what they’ve done, who are terribly confused to discover that voting Leave has led to Britain actually leaving the EU — at appalling long-term financial, cultural and societal cost. They apparently thought they were “showing the establishment”. They thought they were casting a “protest vote”. 

No, you morons — it was a binary. It was In, or Out. Did you not get that? Who did you think would register or admire your protest? The vote was anonymous. Nobody knew how you voted until you bragged to your friends about it. There was no “One In The Eye For The Establishment” box to tick. The choice was In, or Out? How was this hard to understand?

Democracy is not there for you to “have your say” or “show Them”. You can do that if you live in a village of thirty people. With countries of tens or hundreds of millions of voters, the process has to be streamlined. The system therefore provides people with a clear and simple choice. All it asks is that you have the wit to understand that. Which apparently was too big an ask. 

Late last night, fueled by a certain amount of beer and the common Twitter-led delusion that people do — or should — give a crap what I think, I said:

This is a wake-up call, America. There are more tiny-minded xenophobe bigots out there than you think. Get behind Hillary NOW.

The interesting thing is that nobody from the right has come back at me for it. People from the left have, though. One scolded me for being mean to the small-minded and xenophobic. Several lectured me on how evil Hillary is. 

You know what? I sympathize if you’re not entirely happy with either candidate, but nobody fucking cares about your nuanced and virtue-signaling parade of adolescent musings about big banks and corporate politics and how we need a revolution because that would be totally cool. Get over yourself and how awfully individual and interesting you are, and wrap your mind around the fact that the upcoming election is a binary too. If you don’t vote for Hillary, you are effectively voting for Trump. How hard can that be to understand? There’s NO-ONE ELSE. Bernie lost. Neither the Greens nor an independent nor Angie’s Freethinking Groovy Revolution Collective are going to be running the country next year. Do you understand? 

It’s Clinton or Trump. There are not nine options. IT’S A BINARY. 

I am firmly of the left, and always will be. But right now the left is pissing me off almost as much as the right is scaring me. Politics is not about you. It’s about us. All of us. Stop wasting everybody’s time with your sophomoric “look at how sophisticated and edgy my views are” bullshit and get ready to make a very simple choice — because the moderates of the world, the League of Empathetic Sane People, and hundreds of millions of humans of all races, creeds, genders and demographic status, are sick and tired of having their countries and lives and futures fucked up by extremists at either end of the spectrum.


The Song of Being European     #remain


The Song of Being European #remain

A lot of people are still tying themselves into extreme pretzels trying to work out whether to remain in the EU, or leave. Because I am infinitely wise I thought I’d boil the issue down, using as an exemplar the life of the AC/DC rhythm guitarist, Malcolm Young.  

1. Complex harmony

Many factors have contributed to AC/DC remaining stadium favorites for nearly forty years. Angus Young's six-string pyrotechnics and stage antics, of course; songs compelling enough to make BACK IN BLACK one of the ten best-selling albums of all time; the tightest rhythm section in history, especially in the gold standard Young/Rudd/Williams configuration; and a crunching, dependable juggernaut of a live show. But the real magic comes from the interplay between Angus and Malcolm’s guitars. The sly, prowling rhythms are distinctive, of course — but in addition, they’re sharing the notes. Rather than follow the standard practice of having one guy thump out the chords and the other put something fancy on top, Angus and Malcolm distribute the notes of all of the chords between them, and then syncopate the result — yielding a richness of texture that few rock bands have ever equalled. 

That’s what being part of a union of countries, is, too. Sharing and distributing the job, the style, the song of being European — each country contributing its unique cultural qualities and helping build something that’s far greater than the sum of its parts. It’s hard. It requires work and vision, and there will be some bum notes. But retreat from this mature collaboration of equals and you’re just some kid playing Stairway to Devon by yourself in your bedroom. 

2. Step up and face the challenges

The last time I saw AC/DC live was in 2009. It’ll remain the last time, partly because the experience showed I am now too old and fragile to spend an evening in the mosh pit of a major stadium gig (it’s like having the crap beaten out of you for six hours); also because it was Malcolm’s last UK performance, on his final tour, and I'm not going to go see AC/DC without him. Nobody but the band knew at that point that he’d been exhibiting signs of early-onset dementia. By this stage in the Rock and Roll Train tour he was forgetting the chord sequences of hits he’d been playing for thirty years, and having to relearn them in the afternoon before each performance. 

Just try to wrap your head around that for a moment. How it must feel, to confront that level of irrevocable frailty within yourself, to have no choice but to acknowledge the cold winds of oncoming mortality. And then to do what it takes to overcome it, and walk out on stage in front of sixty thousand people and do your job like a fucking boss. 

Being a country is hard. Dealing with other countries is hard, putting aside national priorities for the sake of a greater good takes character, and helping find solutions to problems like immigration is part of the job of being a mature country. Malc has now retired from the band — because half the time he doesn’t know who he is any more. Britain should know who it is, and be confident of manifesting its qualities on a European stage instead of hiding in a safe, stuffy cupboard like an insecure, bolshy child. 

Britain — be like Malcolm: stand at the back, not demanding the spotlight, and dig in and work in the face of challenge and adversity. Be so stunningly reliable, such a safe pair of hands, that your band will go on stage with you despite knowing you've got freakin' dementia. Because they trust you to do the thing regardless. Don’t run away like some whining, racist, small-minded Daily Mail-reading cess-pool of lazy, insular tossers. [Editor — you may want to tone this down a bit. MMS — no, I really don’t.

3. It’s not about the money

A number of years ago a journalist asked how long AC/DC would keep at it, implying they were dinosaurs staggering around the touring circuit purely for the cash. Malcolm is said to have replied: “Look, mate, the family’s worth over a hundred and fifty million dollars now. You really think we’re still doing this for the fucking money?”

History has shown time and again that nobody has a reliable fix on the economics of running a 7-Eleven, never mind an entire country. Anybody who claims to know the effect of either being in or out of the EU is deluded or lying. Nobody has a clue what they’re talking about, and their pronouncements are worthless. Yes, it may cost us to remain. It’ll sure as hell cost us to leave. Nobody knows how to do those sums. It’s not about the money. It's about collective dedication and cultural diversity and inclusivity. It’s about being European. 

Before the last ice age, Britain was attached to the mainland. Under the water, it still is. To pretend otherwise is to be swayed by self-serving bullshit spilled by... Well, let’s look at these guys:

Michael Gove — a man who has already demonstrated what a threat to worthwhile social values he is, and whose own father has called him out for telling lies about his childhood to bolster arguments for leaving the EU. 

Nigel fucking Farage — a man who basically like the chairman of some dreary local golf club in the 1970s, running the place with smug, matey bonhomie (and quietly turning down applications from black people and Jews and women) until it turns out he’s been skimming the funds for years to pay for sex with underage badgers.

And of course, dear, bumbling Boris — a cold, smart, arrogant bastard masquerading as a buffoon, who’s been telling lies about the EU for decades and is now turning it up to eleven for the chance to be the worst Prime Minister we’ve ever had.

Everybody wants to be the lead guitarist, to get all the attention, to spend their lives saying “Look at me! I'm special!” The truth is it’s the musicians and countries with the maturity and character to stand there serving the band and getting the job done that contribute most positively to history. Nobody gets to be Angus Young unless they've got a Malcolm standing behind them. 

I accept there’s no reason for you to give a crap what I think, but just in case my position isn’t yet clear: don’t let this trio of lying, self-aggrandizing wankstains scare you into dissolving union with some of the most fascinating, extraordinary countries in the world, losing the chance to help shape a future we can be proud of, instead of embarrassed by.

Be like Malcolm, is what I'm saying.

C'est tout.

[2017 edit: live from that 2009 tour]


Fathers’ Day


Fathers’ Day

A few years ago, on a drive up through the Monterey Bay — the trip after which we decided to leave London and come live in Santa Cruz — we stopped for coffee at a tiny town called Moss Landing. From the highway there’s not much to see (there’s not a lot to see in Moss Landing from any angle, to be honest) and the only reason you’ll stop is a line of food stalls by the road, hawking produce from the Pajaro Valley that surrounds it. Suspiciously cheap avocados, artichokes, garlic, a wealth other fruit and vegetables. As I was wandering up and down the aisles I came across something that triggered a sudden visceral memory. It was a small, cookie-like thing, peanuts bound with a pale pink sugary substance. I picked it up, and smelled it, and was transported back forty years, like some low-rent Proust wearing shorts and sunglasses. 

I spent a year of my childhood in New South Wales, Australia, in a small town called Armidale. One day a week I was given a little money to buy lunch at school. My mother made it the rest of the time. She didn’t get into viral-on-Facebook parenting porn like drawing a different picture on each lunch sack, but she put them together with quiet efficiency and love (mainly efficiency, I suspect, because cranking out stuff day after day is a large part of real parenting, and the love is unspoken, and comes with the territory). On that one day a week, I always bought a little box of candy that tasted identical to the thing I found at Moss Landing (I have no idea what it’s called, and it’s impossible to describe the taste except by saying it’s self-evidently not even slightly good for you). It was my favorite thing, and decades later, that’s all I remember. Not the countless times my mother made my lunch. I have no idea what she made. The usual fairly healthy stuff you put together for your kids when there’s not much time, I guess, though in the early 1970s “healthy” meant something different to what it does now. Anything that wasn't provably radioactive was pretty much fine.

Sadly I have no memory of my mother's efforts, but that’s ninety percent of parenting: providing the dependable, forgettable backdrop against which other events and people stand out and will be remembered. Moms are the bedrock of this (still, even in these slightly emancipated times, usually that unseen force that magically creates clean beds and towels and paired socks, in addition to socializing you, and providing a cloud of non-negotiable and (largely) unconditional love that will always have your back, even if at times you wish it didn’t). 

But dads do it too. Quietly, covertly, distantly, even a little bad-temperedly — which is useful, in its way, because when you eventually emerge into the real world not everyone’s going to be nice to you the whole time, especially if you’re being an asshole. Father figures, regardless of their gender, give a different spin on childhood, and collaborate with you on it. You shape and constrain their path through life just as much as they help you find yours. They show you other things, provide additional information and different styles of support, and every important decision they make will have you at its heart.    

To be clear, I’m not talking about me — I’m a fucking useless parent. No, seriously — ask around. I’m talking about my dad (whose love for his family is boundless, and who has relentlessly supported us regardless of how daft we're being), and other dads. They’re not just about bad jokes and mocking your choice of music and being excessively invested in sports and dutifully pushing the shopping cart back across the supermarket lot and refusing to ask for directions and obsessing about work and being grumpy for no obvious reason. Amongst other roles they bar the door against the zombie hordes of your future life and responsibilities, holding that world at bay for as long as they can; but it’s often them, too, who’ll crack it open once in a while, to give you a glimpse at what’s coming down the road; before finally throwing it wide, declaring — “Time to go slay your own zombies, my child. Call your mom once in a while, for crying out loud. Oh, and we’re putting your room on Airbnb.”

At a time when more and more people are brandishing the simplistic and divisive term “toxic masculinity”, let’s remember there’s a non-toxic type, too, and plenty of humans with a Y chromosome (and some without) who are doing the best they can to be a person worth knowing, and loving, and a dad worthy of the name. And that one of those might be your dad, and today he deserves a hug.

Make it brief, though. Don’t freak him out. Especially if he’s trying to watch the game.

 My dad. He's nearly 80, you know. 

My dad. He's nearly 80, you know.