On being different and why it’s important By William Bowles

7 June, 2008

Since retrieving my record collection from New York, I’ve spent hours, days, plowing through my collection, not played in almost sixteen years. Not only that, I also discovered all the master tapes of music I wrote (with my former writing partner) when I lived in New York.

The discovery has awakened old yearnings to get back into writing music (if not actually playing) again. Music has always obsessed me since I was a little kid when around about six or seven I went to my first Jazz Jamboree at the Granada Kilburn, an annual event my dad helped organize for the Musicians Union Benevolent Fund.

Going backstage and mingling with the musos at such an early age hooked me on jazz permanently but perhaps just as importantly, my love of jazz signaled something equally important that made me aware that I was ‘different’, and not just because I grew up in a family of communists. (I still remember quite vividly standing in the wings mesmerized by the singer Cleo Laine, resplendent in a glittering red gown doing her thing on stage.)

Being ‘different’ is not something tolerated in our society. Of course there are outlets for those who don’t ‘fit’ but always within strictly defined circumstances. The arts come to mind and especially the theatre but in the mainstream of society, being ‘different’ takes on an ideological significance and especially if, like myself you came from a working class background with its strict demarcation of roles and stereotypes.

So growing up was a bit of a double whammy for me for not only were my politics (and from an early age) not ‘normal’ but I was into ‘weird’ music which none of the kids on my block were into at all. Worse, I was opinionated and forever questioning just about everything around me and even worse, I was working class with a Sarf London accent, and given the strict class divisions in English society that defined you and your ‘intelligence’ by how you spoke, reinforced my being different not only from my so-called peers but also from so-called intellectuals who invariably came from middle or upper class backgrounds.

My sense of isolation was complete even as I traversed my surroundings, went to art school and discovered an outlet for my talents. But even at art school (perhaps the last bastion of free and untrammeled education at that time, the 1960s), I was still the odd one out, working class where most of the students were middle class.

Now I know I’m not alone in having experienced this, there are many I’m sure who went through comparable experiences and as I got older even my sexuality didn’t ‘fit’. I wasn’t like all the other boys (though I tried to do an imitation, to ‘fit in’). Yeah, sure I chased babes and had girlfriends from quite an early age but I had (and still have) a strong ‘feminine’ side, one that through shame and guilt I tried to hide (like I didn’t have enough problems).

The upshot however, is that I’ve been both ‘blessed’ and ‘cursed’. ‘Blessed’ because being ‘different’ gave a me a very different take on events and ‘cursed’ because it put me on the outside looking in no matter where I stood and engendered what I was later, much later, to identify as a deep-rooted fear, a fear of rejection.

But an investigation reveals a much deeper motivation as to why being ‘different’ is not tolerated within our capitalist society and it’s simple, being different makes you dangerous and difficult to control, perhaps best expressed through the gender roles we are taught from the very second we are born.

Thus everything the state does, through all its agencies, from the family to education, is designed to break you down, to get you to conform, being ‘yourself’ is simply not permitted. Now before I get accused of selfish individualism, without our conformity all the chains that bind us to the status quo melt away. The supposedly immutable becomes mutable, everything you have accepted as being ‘normal’ takes on an entirely different connotation and open to question.

However, all is not as it seems, the apparently immutable nature of what it is to be human, indeed all the assumptions about who we are and how we interact with each other are revealed as social and economic constructs.

The truth of this is all around us. The carefully constructed social relationships built by industrial capitalism are unravelling at a fast rate of knots, from the family to gender roles as the nature of capitalist economics undergoes yet another transformation.

The state’s response has been nothing if not predictable, especially its treatment of the family, focusing exclusively on working people in an attempt to shift the blame for the breakdown in social relations principally onto the parents. Thus the emphasis on ‘family values’ even as the traditional family disintegrates under the pressure of a changing working environment. That it’s largely poor, working people who are the recipients of the state’s desperate attempts to maintain the status quo is never mentioned in the media coverage.

Worse still is its attack on the youth who have been effectively criminalized en masse utilising a series of ‘laws’ including the outrageous ASBO (now being extended to cover even more areas now deemed ‘anti-social’).

The media for its part have played their role very effectively in demonizing the youth; witness the current hysterical headlines about ‘knife crime’ even though violent youth behaviour in the UK is not only amongst the lowest in the developed world but has been dropping for years.

Yesterday, 5 June, I happened to catch BBC Radio 4’s <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>AM news programme and heard the former head of the implausibly named Youth Justice Board accuse the BBC of demonizing the youth, remarking that until recently, a stabbing was regarded as local news, not warranting hysterical national headlines. The interviewer sounded outraged at the suggestion that the BBC was a party to this demonization, yet it’s obvious that ‘Auntie Beeb’ is acting as the state’s social engineer in this regard (as it has done for generations).

The paradoxes are legion. On the one hand the government relaxes alcohol licensing laws allowing effectively 24-hour drinking and at the same time goes on a hysterical tirade about ‘binge drinking’ (again with the state/corporate media doing its bit to demonize the youth). The point is, the youth (especially working class youth) don’t give a shit about the so-called values the state tries to impose on them. They wear their ASBOs like a badge of honour. This is class war 21st century-style.

The latest wheeze on this issue is our new Mayor Boris (‘Bonkers’) Johnson’s banning of alcohol consumption in public (they have something similar in New York City, it’s called the ‘brown bag’ law and they’ve had it for years, drink the alcohol but keep the can/bottle in a brown paper bag. At least you can still drink it without ending up with a criminal record). How this latest attack on our ‘freedom’ to imbibe will work when I nip outside for a smoke with a beer clutched in my solidly anti-social hands remains to be seen).

Having reduced ‘education’ effectively to a series of SATS (the laughably named Scholastic Aptitude Test, imported from the US and, I might add, yet another aspect of the insane drive to privatize everything), we nevertheless sees around 30% of (working class) kids leaving school barely able to read and write let alone ignorant of the basic facts of history (‘history’ according to New Labour, only began in 1939 with our glorious struggle to save democracy). Ask a kid about WWII and he or she will no doubt recite reams on the subject but that’s about the size of it (when I was at high school ‘history’ ended in 1914, so we have moved on a couple of imperialist wars).

The poisonous nature of the propaganda campaign is perhaps best illustrated by the following: I do volunteer work with some kids at a primary school a couple of days a week to help improve their reading skills and we also talk about this and that during our sessions. I asked one very bright but troubled eight-year old kid originally from the Caribbean whether he liked living in England and he shook his head. ‘Why’, I asked. His response was one word, “stabbing”. I pointed out that stabbings are extremely rare but it illustrates the power the media exerts over peoples’ perceptions when an eight-year old responds in such a way. But what an indictment of our society! Creating such hysteria has exactly the opposite effect to the one allegedly intended but then that’s the point isn’t it.

This is a society in a crisis of its own making. The carefully constructed social contract between the state and its citizens, built over hundreds of years, with its foundations in the unitary family (designed to do no more than reproduce labour and keep us in ‘our place’), is literally falling apart under its own contradictions. And the state’s response? Criminalize and shift the blame onto parents (or for many, parent) for capitalism’s failings.

But just look at who cooks up all this quasi-fascist, authoritarian nonsense. All are middle, upper middle class people, university educated with good jobs living in nice houses (and no doubt another one tucked away in the country somewhere). People who are light years removed from the people they are busy criminalizing and passing judgement on.

In this regard nothing has changed except the people passing the laws are no longer of aristocratic lineage and the designation ‘obey your betters’ has been dropped in favour of more technocratic and innocuous descriptions. Many are lawyers (like Tony Blair) or former corporate bigwigs, in other words, the real dregs of society.

The class war is still with us and it’s still just as vicious, all that’s changed is the location of the battles and the weapons being used. The war is not primarily over physical resources but over values. That said, there are still over five million people in the UK who live in abject material and spiritual poverty, especially the old, the under-educated and of course people of colour. Many are relegated to so-called Sink Estates, they are the under-belly of the ‘good life’, and for the most part out of sight of ‘ordinary, decent’ people. These are the demons who haunt the pages of the Daily Mail, the Daily Express and the Sun, ironically the tabloids whose readership are the same people they blame for every ill that befalls us.

But search in vain for a real working class view at these disgusting, lying rags, for all are university grads with useless degrees in ‘journalism’, well schooled in doing the dirty work of Capital.

But aside from the all the attempts at shifting the blame for our decrepit, disintegrating society, there are other, equally important reasons for these attacks on working people aside from diverting attention away from the real causes for the loss of legitimacy, for when taken with the demonization of countries like Zimbabwe, Myanmar (or Burma given that the corporate press still clings to its old, colonial name), Sudan, China or whoever is the latest recipient of our fake moralizing, they all serve to focus our attention on everything except those who rule us.

The responses are now so predictable you can set your watches by the timing of them. They reach a peak, wash over us and wain just in time for the next ‘crisis’ to confront us and it appears to be a never-ending process given the chaos the West has created around the world.

Meanwhile, the crises of of the West’s own making which make the generals of Myanmar rank amateurs by comparison, barely get a mention, indeed, the BBC which leads the wolf pack in this regard has degenerated into a digital version of Colonel Blimp, with nary a day passing without some paean to ‘our boys over there’, proving once more the old adage that those who fail to learn from history are bound to repeat the same mistakes over and over again.

But it also illustrates the desperate nature of the crisis confronting countries like the UK which is retreating from the present into its fictitious, imperial past as fast as its apologists can take us. All pretence at objectivity has flown the coop, it’s time to batten down the hatches and reassert that faded, imperial power, recreate a time when a handful of civil servants could rule an empire whilst lounging about on a tropical veranda somewhere slugging Gin Slings or Mint Julips or whatever it was they binged on.

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