Conformity is Individuality

‘I’m Happy To No Longer Be Part Of It’

(Reflections on my late grandfather and the melancholy of political homelessness amid the abject misery of current times)

My granddad recently passed away shortly before his 95th birthday.  Raised in the picturesque village of Thurlestone on the south Devonshire coast, he went to Scotland, aged eighteen, to train in mountain warfare before being sent to fight in the Second World War stationed in Italy, Austria and later Hong Kong and Singapore.  After fighting the Nazis, he worked for the army training new recruits in Norfolk before returning to Devon where he was employed by a shoe repair shop in Exeter and became an accomplished leather craftsman.  He would spend a lot of time around nature, avoided crowds, loved his dog and had a passion for golf (almost turning pro in his younger days), which he taught in his spare time and continued to do so long after retirement.  My granddad shared his birthday with America’s Independence Day and something he once said to me after his retirement has curiously stuck with me: ‘I’m happy to no longer be part of it.’  At the time, I recall feeling these words echoed a strong inclination towards personal liberty (although granddad was never overtly political).

I was a rebellious kid at school and much of that spirit has stayed with me into adulthood to the point where I have long found it depressing how little we seem to value freedom in the UK.  Reflecting on the aforementioned, it seems a tad ironic that I should find myself experiencing a small sense of relief after having sustained a closed ankle fracture.  For sure, I rue the loss of my usual mobility; I easily walk 5–6 miles a day (if not more) and recently took up surfskating, which got me into this muddle and I’m gutted that it’ll be months before I can return to it.  Nevertheless, the newly found time idling seems like as good an opportunity as any to vent the part of me that’s been looking for a way off this ride for a while.  Three lockdowns, and all the hysterical nonsense that continues to drag along with it, has left me wishing I will very soon discover a pot of gold so I can retreat to a peaceful cottage in the woods with only my mountain bike and record collection for company (and maybe a couple of cats and a dog), and have as little to do with the world as possible.

Living in the UK has the feeling of having one’s wings routinely clipped — why do we love rules so much?  The most notable addition: being successfully propagandised into all but demanding mandatory vaccinations against a virus with a disputed mortality rate.  I say ‘all but’ because, although it’s not actually law (yet!), merely writing the previous sentence opens me up to ludicrous charges of ‘anti-vaxxer,’ as if I’m some sort of deranged conspiracy nut and/or dangerous criminal; not to mention the fact that when lockdown restrictions end, I could potentially find myself forbidden to attend public events like music festivals (not that I really care to attend such corporate, environmentally destructive shindigs these days).  Though it might not yet be mandatory, I may nevertheless find myself, in all likelihood, ‘coerced’ into getting the Covid vaccination as a result of substantial parts of the population lobbying the government for more laws and protections, while ironically at the same time appearing indifferent to the most serious threat currently facing humanity: climate change (of which there is an ‘absolute consensus’ among the scientific community to quote Brian Cox).

Don’t get me wrong; I understand that Coronavirus is real and a threat to certain demographics (the elderly, for example).  Incidentally, my issue is not with vaccines per se (I’ve had a tonne of the bloody things), but rather with how the whole politicised hysteria surrounding Covid19 continues to play out, which appears, above everything else, to have considerably enriched a select few billionaires while impoverishing the people and curtailing our liberties; something I find quite sinister and macabre.  For me, just how much of it is as widespread a threat in comparison to other viruses that kill millions every year remains unclear (as much as its degree of severity in relation to climate change).  As far as I can tell, we don’t seem to have even had that conversation in the public sphere (at least not an adult conversation).  On the contrary, such a thing seems to be prohibited.

The aforementioned delirium, I would argue, was precipitated less by any dire existential threat, more by a seismic shift in the psychology of the masses since mediated through uber-corporate platforms such as Smartphones, Google, Twitter and Facebook (what I’ve come to view as a grotesque mutation of an already stupid culture worshipping celebrities fused with an equally dumb politicisation of everything jacked-up on steroids).  If it wasn’t for the manipulative, hypermedia-driven age in which we currently find ourselves, I personally don’t think these lockdowns would have occurred, nor the George Floyd protests for that matter — at least not in a manner that has bizarrely come to echo the neocon’s War on Terror in all its totalitarian use of language.

While apparently in the midst of a deadly pandemic, I found it absurd, and a little embarrassing, watching so many people doing all kinds of mental gymnastics to justify large-scale protests during lockdown (incidentally, a lot of them white middle class saviours); zealously attempting to equate interracial experiences of the UK with a country that has quite a different racial history and a considerably more violent approach to policing.  The stats are pretty shocking for the amount of white people killed by US police if you bother to do any research though of course racism towards ethnic minority groups is evidently an issue as well.  I don’t deny it’s a very serious problem in certain contexts and, in each instance, should be addressed with sensitivity, empathy and above all solidarity.  My issue is with the unthinking extrapolation of overly simplistic, generalised narratives – born from a spectacle chasing ratings by dealing in the currency of discordant absolutes – originating in a country thousands of miles across the ocean with a significantly higher level of violence than our own (I certainly wouldn’t want the job of trying to police it) to justify mass protests (all during what’s supposed to be a deadly pandemic, no less).  I despair at the widespread lack of intellectual curiosity, not least from academics and journalists; isn’t it your fucking job to interrogate the facts and test your assumptions?  Indeed, what about those from ethnic minority backgrounds who don’t consider the narrative as indicative of lived experience and as a result end up getting berated as if they’re some kind of heretic?  I found it all a tad Orwellian to say the least, for something else which troubled me was that those participating in various protests, ostensibly with a desire to do good, nevertheless appeared wholly unaware of the ridiculousness of their actions when considering the above (and that’s before we take into account the fact of them labelling others ‘Covidiots’ for protesting things they didn’t think were good!).  Of course (and alongside my current status as ‘deranged anti-vaxxer’), me even daring to point this out opens me up to further charges of ‘alt-right sympathiser,’ ‘white fragility’ and all manner of infantile bullshit that completely misses the point of what I’m saying (ergo parallels to The War on Terror, where anyone who questioned the idea of dropping bombs on innocent brown people was deemed ‘anti-American,’ ‘terrorist sympathiser’ etc.).

It seems critical thinking has no place in a world that has become polarised as a result of being siloed into echo chambers by Silicon Valley oligarchs, disseminating packaged hate to competing demographics, to the point that less and less people are thinking for themselves in favour of conforming to a globalised type of groupthink spearheaded by US cultural imperialism.  There is hardly any resistance to this, least of all in the arts, which I find utterly depressing.  Art with no passion for freedom is propaganda.  The former is dying while the latter appears rife in our current, media mad climate.  If it wasn’t for the fact that we have become so moulded by, and reactive to, what we see on social media (often with zero knowledge or understanding of the context), then I don’t think the events of 2020 would (or could) have unfolded in the globally unhinged manner it has.

This all got me thinking of something else my granddad would frequently recount.  About ten years ago, I lived around the corner from him in Exeter and would often pop round to watch the football (back when the Champion’s League was still on ITV!).  The routine was always the same: we’d watch the match, inevitably interspersed with war stories followed by a DVD, usually Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers or Enemy at the Gates and no matter how often I showed him how to use the DVD player, he’d always forget!  One of the things that struck me most about his war stories was the way he’d recount the camaraderie between his friends; he didn’t recollect it in a patriotic way, rather he seemed to recall the excitement of it.  He would also talk fondly of his years working in the shoe repair shop.  Granddad would work Monday to Friday and Saturday morning then go to the Exeter City match with his friends Saturday afternoon, followed by a dance in the evening.  Sunday was your free time, which for him would usually be a round of golf.  I think it would be ignorant, and just a tad condescending, to automatically assume ‘simpler times;’ most of us will never know the horrors and complexity of war as a young man fighting actual fascists (sorry, protesting against Trump doesn’t count; and I think it’s a sign of a truly soft-headed, detached-from-reality era that ol’ Agent Orange, an odious character to be sure, could be compared to the likes of Hitler), not to mention living through the Cold War that followed shortly after in all its ominous threats of global annihilation.  Nevertheless, I feel my granddad’s experience represented a self-sufficient, socially mobile working class that I don’t think exists today.  He had a lifelong job that paid its way (he was able to buy a house as he worked his way up to manager) and enjoyed a considerably less materialistic, relatively carefree life among friends devoid of the unnecessary anxieties and attachments we seem to burden ourselves with these days.  In that sense, I think it could be seen as simpler or, more accurately, freer.

Are we free today?  If you got rid of your Smartphone, deleted all social media and disconnected from the Internet, would you feel free to participate in society as an individual?  I think we all know the answer to that and what bothers me is that people don’t seem too bothered by that answer, nor show any inclination to rebel against it.

Let’s face it, we are ‘free’ to spend hours stuck in traffic travelling to jobs we hate, overtaxed and underpaid, to buy throwaway crap and suffocate the world with endless pollution.  We are ‘free’ to accept the shackles of debt as we aim to expand our knowledge, naively hope to improve our prospects and dare to dream, ever fucked over by our social betters.  We are ‘free’ to sit in cafes and slurp overpriced versions of the latest fad served by pretentious baristas with an over-inflated sense of self-importance.  We are ‘free’ to watch mind-numbing TV shows, drink ourselves stupid, gossip about nonsense, signal our virtue via vapid slogans, holler at football players, binge-watch Netflix and gorge ourselves on poison and consider it a treat, all the while rotting in sedentary misery.  We are ‘free’ to be lied to, get angry about those lies and lend our support to alternative lies and think we’re ‘Stickin’ it to the man!’  We are ‘free’ to gaze transfixed into inanimate rectangular objects caressed like rosary beads in the palm of our hand through which we are ‘free’ to idolise narcissists (aka celebrities), turn into a narcissist (aka posting innumerable gym selfies) and be influenced by influencers (aka twats).  We are ‘free’ to wear clothes the adverts tell us to, gaze passively at bourgeois propaganda in shopping malls for the 1% (aka contemporary art), believing it makes us cultured, and listen to music the radio tells us is cool.  We are ‘free’ to absorb versions of reality packaged by a handful of corporations (aka the News), whose primary function is basically to embody a finger pointing at everything that’s happening over there so we ignore what’s happening over here (it’s the Russians!!!).  We are ‘free’ to stare into Godlike oblongs and feel perpetually outraged, argue till kingdom come over inconsequential tweets, debate endlessly the legitimacy of facile American buzzwords like ‘white privilege’ or ‘cis’ and bitterly disagree over whether or not trans women are women.  We are ‘free’ to be monitored 24/7 by CCTV and think it’s normal, have our personal data mined by Big Tech to target us with annoying adverts and vote for same result every four years and call it ‘Democracy.’  We are ‘free’ to be overstimulated by perpetual clichés in a world without daydreams and to be made sick by the sullen melancholy of an era in which artists and architects look upon beauty with contempt.  We are ‘free’ to express our ‘uniqueness’ within the narrow confines of highly centralised, ultra-surveilled platforms owned and controlled by a handful of rich men.  We can bicker over statues, quibble over the self-regarding pettiness of pronouns and indulge in the banality of sexual orientation like it’s something really edgy.

‘Ignorance is Strength’ now reads ‘Conformity is Individuality.’  As long as the masses remain unaware that the very thing that enslaves them is also the medium they believe will subvert that which has already enslaved them, then power can basically continue to get away with whatever the hell it wants.  To dare to step outside of this, to truly not accept ‘It’s what one does,’ is basically tantamount to loudly breaking wind in a packed theatre surrounded by fools mesmerised by the dumbest show ever written.

While people are distracted by the novelty of the spectacle, our beautiful world is dying; our NHS is being privatised by stealth; billionaires get more tax breaks; the West continues to bomb brown people (or sells arms to Middle East dictatorships that also bomb brown people); university fees are skyrocketing (can university even be deemed ‘middle class’ anymore?); the arts are getting ever more homogenised and beholden to big business; thousands continue to work zero hour contracts in precarious, often highly stressful, go-nowhere jobs paying extortionate rents to a greedy rentier class, while many are increasingly having to rely on food banks to feed their families.  None of our political parties give a fuck about any of this.  Never mind.  Just clap for the NHS, wear a mask, look away as you feel a tiny prick in the arm and, above all, think not of liberty, for you no longer have any.

People turn to drink and drugs to escape the desperation of life finding refuge in oblivion.  For many, addiction takes hold and, even though they do not enjoy the circumstances brought on by it, it ultimately remains preferable to dealing with reality as it is.  I think this might go some way to explain our addiction to mobile phones and social media despite the fact it’s making us increasingly miserable, uncreative and dumber as a race.  21st century reality is both banal and shit: humanity is intent on destroying all that is beautiful to produce more crap that none of us need and does not make us happy, all purchased via the fairy-tale creation called ‘money’ which none of us really have.  Celebrities are an insufferable bore whose job is mainly to help prop up a war-mongering corporatocracy while successfully portraying themselves as tortured liberals as they literally drown in their own opulence (see: Meghan Markle).  Politicians still lie, the News is still reduced to simplistic sound bites, music mostly sucks and real journalists are left to rot in prison (see: Julian Assange — an example of what happens when you don’t toe the line like an obedient little hack).  We are not supposed to question any of this, anymore than an alcoholic is to think about why they drink; if they did, they might stop drinking and that would inevitably entail dealing with reality.

The War on Terror echoes through the whole Covid narrative.  Similarly, has the attempt to control everything just made things worse?  Similarly, we are less free, but is all this fear just an ecocidal distraction?  While we remain a society plagued by addiction, whose collective consciousness has been colonised by the polarised infantilism perpetuated by a saturated media culture, are we doomed to be like the alcoholic and the drug addict: eternally anxious, forever in chains subsumed into a self-absorbed mono-mind while everything beautiful burns?

True freedom lies in a paradox: to feel unconstrained in spirit while living in harmony with one’s surroundings.  The ephemeral euphoria of a materialistic consumer culture causes us to live in a constant state of fragmentation, in both nature and spirit, where neither liberty nor unity can be fully realised.  I see now that perhaps Granddad’s throwaway remark (he was never a serious person) contained a prophetic air with regards to discovering today’s ever-elusive road to freedom, i.e. to find a way to no longer be part of it.

24 June ‘21 (revised and updated 26 September ’21)

© Christopher Sharp

Image: sticker I came across at a bus stop in Pool, Cornwall.