Welcome to Perception Central By William Bowles

29 March 2005

Stop and search figures showed the numbers of Asians targeted by the police has risen by 300% since the introduction of ‘anti-terror’ laws.

The threat is most likely to come from those people associated with an extreme form of Islam, or who are falsely hiding behind Islam.

If a threat is from a particular place then our action is going to be targeted at that area.

It means that some of our counter-terrorism powers will be disproportionately experienced by the Muslim community.

It was a reality that should be recognized. – Home Office minister Hazel Blears

I strive to maintain an optimistic and objective outlook on life when writing this column by trying to analyse the workings of capitalism not only from the perspective of its failure to live up to its alleged values but also from what I believe are a set of ethical values that are universal in nature.

But sometimes I feel overwhelmed by a deep sense of sadness, melancholia even when I observe and sometimes undergo experiences that threaten my ability to stay positive. No wonder many of us seek solace in religion or drugs or endless consumption or dumping on people who don’t look or apparently behave like ‘us’. But perhaps I don’t look or behave like ‘them’ either?

I’ve lived in many different cultures throughout my life and have experienced the violence of the state up close and personal on several occasions but it was not until I returned to London that I experienced mindless, purposeless violence at the hands of young people, twice now, both on London buses of all places that left me feeling angry and insecure.

On both occasions, I was left feeling confused and frustrated and frankly frightened by the sheer hatred I saw in the faces of the young guys who carried out the attacks on me. There was no point to them. Here I was in the city of my birth, experiencing something that had never, ever happened to me before and wondering, what the hell was going on?

My initial reaction on both occasions was to want to beat the crap out of the offending individuals. I was, like the youths, angry, pissed off. I could have understood it if was about theft but on both occasions there was simply no point to the attacks I suffered, it was I perceived, pure anger and resentment that motivated the attacks.

I could have reacted as many do by blaming the ‘breakdown of the family’, the well-worn ‘lack of values’ and lack of respect ‘for authority’ and all the other slogans the state and the media wheel out when such events occur. But as always, I prefer to dig a little deeper and look for the underlying reasons as to why events happen.

I reasoned that such things hadn’t happened to me in the seventeen years I lived in New York, allegedly a violent and dangerous city, even in East Harlem where I lived and worked for a few years. Coming home late at night or in the early hours travelling on the IRT, I naturally kept my eyes peeled for thieves but never really felt insecure. Cities are my ‘natural’ environment; I feel at home in them and regard them as ‘mine’ no matter which city I happen to be in. I suppose I’m a true cosmopolitan, a citizen of the world.

Then I remembered an event that I witnessed in London in 1999, when here on a short visit. I was walking up Tottenham Court Road in the centre of London and the sidewalk was crowded. A man bumped into someone accidentally and in the flash of an eye there was fight. I was gobsmacked. The same mindless violence that seems borne out of a deep-seated frustration with life, where lashing out at what is nearest is the reaction.

Afterward, I thought back to living in New York where the sidewalks are equally, if not more, crowded than they are in London, especially during lunch hour and the difference between the two environments. In New York, people, whether consciously or unconsciously, navigate effortlessly along crowded sidewalks, collisions are rare and when they do happen invariably result in a profusion of apologies all round.

In London, by contrast, the reactions are more likely to be ‘get the fuck out of my way!’ or ‘look where you’re going, why don’t you!’ Such reactions are echoed on the Tube where even looking at your fellow passengers is resented. In New York on the subway, it’s de rigueur to check out your fellow passengers to see who the nutters are. I actually enjoyed traveling on the subway (except during a heat wave in the rush hour). ‘Armed’ with nothing more dangerous than my Walkman and rocking to Bob Marley (and maybe a ‘toke’ or two), traveling the subway was a source of endless fascination with my fellow humans and not once was I confronted by the kinds of reactions such behaviour will elicit on the London Tube.

Frankly, I think England is, as they say, fucked. The question is, why? There are, I contend very fundamental issues involved here that have to do with the nature of British capitalism. I further contend that the current Labour government, far from being a break with its past, is actually right in tune with its roots, being very much the product of an imperial dynasty. That the current Labour policies reflect the values of a class-ridden society that is conservative and deeply reactionary in nature and in the current climate, deeply divided. That it is these deep divisions of class, race and gender that is at the root of the ‘malaise’.

The divisions have been amplified by the total takeover of consumerism as the dominant ‘culture’ with the ruling elite actively promoting consumption as a way of life. The problem with such an approach is that there is a significant segment of society who is denied access to the consumerist culture not only by virtue of poverty but also by an education system that actively discriminates against him or her, effectively ghettoising them into a world where there is no hope or future. This is Blair’s ‘meritocracy’, founded on a false ‘science’ backed up with the barely disguised brute force of state power, in other words, the ‘law’.

It is within this context that the policies of the Blairite/neo-liberal agenda makes perfect sense, with its appeals to ‘traditional’ values rooted in the Judeo-Christian, imperial tradition of the 19th century, smug and self-assured of its superiority over all other societies. It has moreover, been able to co-opt even those it actively discriminates against (given time).

This is why a ‘return to traditional Labour values’ demanded by those who consider themselves on the Left’ of the Labour Party is at best self-deception. At worst, it reveals why they collaborate in the deception of which the support for the invasion of Iraq and the ‘war on terror’ is ‘merely’ the tip of the iceberg.

What else explains the flood of laws designed to control all and any forms of resistance to the hegemony of the state? One phrase, used endlessly by the media, especially the BBC, has struck me particularly forcefully – ‘the public’s perceptions’ especially when used in the context of ‘crime’ and ‘anti-social behaviour’.

Where do these ‘perceptions’ come from? On the one hand it’s a blatant admission of the creation and manipulation by the state, of the public’s understanding of causes and on the other, it’s the exploitation a very specific segment of society’s resentment and fear of the ‘dispossessed’. Resentment because the dispossessed reveal that all is not well in the ‘state of Denmark’ and fear that underneath the carefully manufactured veneer of an allegedly civilised society lurks another reality. A reality of resentment, frustration and insecurity that there is no future worth living for; that the entire thing is based upon a lie, a lie carefully crafted by an elite specifically educated to create and deliver the lie.

Anybody who listens to and watches the BBC carefully cannot fail to notice that it is dominated by an allegedly educated and informed cultural, political elite composed of the ‘cream’ of the higher education system, that smug and secure in its comfortable existence, lords it over the ‘rest of us’, always ready to ‘explain’ things in the most ‘reasonable’ of ways. These ‘middle class’ professionals, who when pushed to explain why in the fourth richest country on the planet such inequalities and frustrations exist, peddle the idea of ‘perceptions’, perceptions that it appears they are immune to, but why are they immune to these perceptions and nobody else is?

Because these perceptions originate with them. And I’ll be frank, the anger I saw in those young guys on the bus, I understand, I feel it about these smug bastards who pontificate about ‘family values’ and ‘law and order’, the only difference between me and those youngsters is that I direct my anger and have, I think, an understanding of why society is so unfair and so unequal. Perhaps it’s the only thing that keeps me teetering on this side of sanity, or maybe it’s my working class background, fed by the same kinds of resentments and sense of inferiority that I felt at art school where I experienced the condescending and patronising attitudes of the middle class offspring who outnumbered us working class kids ten to one, who, by some miracle, had made it through the minefield some people have the audacity to call an education.

These issues are not easy to deal with as they exist not in reality but precisely in the engineering of a complete replacement reality, replete with its own set of ‘laws’ which like a well-written script, has (almost) complete continuity. It’s difficult to see the joins in the virtual reality created by the professionals, they’ve had five hundred years to perfect their craft. It depends on the creation of a set assumptions about the way things work whether it’s called ‘human nature’ or people’s ‘perceptions’. There’s nothing accidental about the use of the word perception for it depends on a subjective reality that is fed by a precisely engineered set of ideas that are self-referential.

(Note that my thesaurus offers the following definitions for perception: view, opinion, take on, slant, assessment and experience.)

Once people have (are possessed by) fears, whether real or imagined, dispossessing them of these fears needs a pro-active stance. Note for example that the state manipulates these fears in a very subtle manner, so rather than the crass outbreaks by the overtly racist/fascist BNP, the state drops ‘hints’ that it then is at pains to ‘explain’ that it didn’t really mean what it said. But it will often say that even though it disapproves of such views, it is legitimate to ‘bring them out into the open, people are concerned, people have the perception that our education system is “swamped”, that the public perceives that our “values” are under threat’.

These ‘slips’ have the desired effect, namely to make such questions legitimate. They then become an integral part of the perception game. If your political leaders reveal, albeit in a sneaky manner that they have the same or similar views, such views have henceforth the blessing of the state. If the government thinks this way then it must be alright for me, got it?

By the same token views that it disapproves of are dealt with in the same manner. “Inciting religious hatred” for example, itself the most slippery of concepts is on the one hand incited by the ‘offhand’ comment let slip by a government spokesperson such as the one the other week where we heard a minister for home affairs talk about the ‘fact’ that Muslims should expect to be stopped by the police more often than your average, clean-shaven white guy. On the other hand, when a bunch of bigots attacks a play that attempted to deal with issues of sexism and child abuse in the Sikh community (like some Sikhs don’t abuse their kids?), the government stood by and instead of defending the rights of free speech ‘understood’ the feelings of that bunch of bigots.

This is the contested terrain of contemporary capitalism. It has less to do with outright material deprivation than it has to do an entire set of values rooted in a set of assumptions – perceptions – about the way things work. A lesson the ‘Left’ have yet to take onboard even as they spout about the ‘battle for the hearts and minds’, as always, reducing fundamentals to mere sloganising.

Until we learn the lessons of the past, that the past as we are taught to perceive it, is largely an invention of the dominant culture, we are condemned to be manipulated by a bunch of slick, well-fed and complacent hired hands of capitalism who feed us the perceptions that manipulate our fears and insecurities about the present and a future that we are told, is beyond our control. Thus ‘leave it up to ‘us’, we’ll take care of it for you’.

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