Glow sticks, superclubs . . . and Bruce Forsyth

Mark Watson is wrong about dancing.

 

Mark Watson's most recent New Statesman column describes his angst at how suddenly everyone, everywhere, seems to be dancing -- with Strictly Come Dancing, Dancing on Ice, and the new competitive shows on the BBC and Sky that are seeking out "Britain's best dancer":

At what point did dancing earn the right to be presented as a matter of such importance? And how come I missed the meeting?

Oh, Mark -- you missed the meeting by several thousand years! I do hope you at least sent your apologies. Some minutes were taken by Hieron, the 6th-century BC painter, mostly in the form of ceramic vases.

Watson is half right when he says we're in the midst of "the most widespread and inexplicable dancing mania in at least 400 years" -- but what's wrong with that sentence is the word "inexplicable".

As Barbara Ehrenreich explains in her wonderful book Dancing in the Streets, dancing, music-making, dressing up ("costuming") and taking narcotics with others are hard-wired into the human DNA.

It's an evolutionary necessity for human beings, prefiguring speech as an agency of social interaction. In order to avoid being viciously mauled by that inconsiderate sabre-toothed tiger down the road, our ancestors had to assemble in groups larger than just the family unit, typically groups of ten to 15 people. To do this, they had to learn to get along with people they didn't share DNA with. And so, to help them become social animals, human beings learned to dance.

In strictly Darwinian terms: dancers survived and wallflowers got EATEN BY TIGERS. (Do stop me if the science is getting too technical.)

After we learned to dance together, we learned to speak; and as time passed, we started to construct civilisations. We built roads and sanitation systems, created hierarchies and governments. Eventually, we invented glow sticks, superclubs and Bruce Forsyth.

 

Make it funky

The impulse to dance is ever-present in human history, lying dormant for periods and then flaring up at points when alienation from power elites becomes more acute.

In this context, the dance mania of 2010 makes perfect sense: it is literally a knee-jerk response to the sedentary shackles of our "spectacular" culture of passivity. It's true that all of Mark Watson's examples of dance manias are TV programmes -- but we must hope this leads to more than just people wiggling their toes from the comfort of the sofa.

Certainly UK Funky, the genre-tag for some of the most exciting dance music being made in Britain right now, has become defined by its "skank" culture: this is a grass-roots movement to create and disseminate simple, choreographed manoeuvres that yell out, "For God's sake, do try this at home!" But not just at home: in IKEA, at KFC, in clubs -- at any rate, in public.

A generation of urban youth alienated from public spaces by privatisation, Asbo culture and de facto gated communities in their own backyards are now striking back. And they're doing it feet-first.

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Fake news sells because people want it to be true

The rise of bullshit, from George Orwell to Donald Trump.

When is a lie not a lie? Recently, the Daily Telegraph reported that university students had demanded that “philosophers such as Plato and Kant” be “removed from [the] syllabus because they are white”. Other outlets followed suit, wringing their hands over the censoriousness of today’s uninquiring young minds. The article generated an extraordinary amount of consternation click bait. Angry responses were written and hot takes were quick-fried and served up by outlets anxious  to join the dinner rush of  ad-friendly disapproval.

It’s a story that could have been designed to press every outrage button of the political-correctness-gone-mad brigade. It has students trying to ban things, an apparent lack of respect for independent thought and reverse racism. It seemed too good to be true.

And it was. In reality, what happened was far less interesting: the student union of the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) at the University of London had proposed that “the majority of philosophers on our courses” be from Asia and Africa, and that the Western greats be approached from a “critical standpoint”. Some might consider this a reasonable request, given that critical analysis is a component of most philosophy courses, and Soas has a long tradition of promoting the study of the global South. Yet a story about students declaring Kant irrelevant allows the Telegraph to despair for the youth of today and permits advertisers to profit from that despair.

People didn’t start pumping out this stuff because they decided to abandon journalistic ethics. They did so because such principles are hugely expensive and a hard sell. Even those of us who create and consume news can forget that the news is a commodity – a commodity with a business model behind it, subsidised by advertising. Rigorous, investigative, nuanced content, the sort that pays attention to objective facts and fosters serious public debate, is expensive to create. Talk, however, is cheap.

Fake news sells because fake news is what people want to be true. Fake news generates clicks because people click on things that they want to believe. Clicks lead to ad revenue, and ad revenue is currently all that is sustaining a media industry in crisis. Journalism is casting about for new funding models as if for handholds on a sheer cliff. This explains a great deal about the position in which we find ourselves as citizens in this toxic public sphere.

What has this got to do with Donald Trump? A great deal. This sticky, addictive spread of fake news has fostered a climate of furious, fact-free reaction.

Press outlets give millions of dollars of free coverage to Trump without him having to send out a single press release. The reality TV star is the small-fingered god of good copy. The stories write themselves. Now, the stories are about the threat to the future of journalism from the man who has just entered the Oval Office.

Trump’s first press conference in six months, held at Trump Tower in New York on 11 January, was – by any measure – extraordinary. He did not merely refuse to answer questions about unverified allegations that he had been “cultivated” by Russia. He lost his temper spectacularly with the assembled press, declaring: “You’re fake news! And you’re fake news!”

Trump did not mean that the journalists were lying. His attitude to the press is straight from the Kremlin’s playbook: rather than refute individual accusations, he attempts to discredit the notion of truth in journalism. The free press is a check on power, and Trump likes his power unchecked.

Writing in the Guardian in 2015, Peter Pomarantsev noted of Putin’s propaganda strategy that “these efforts constitute a kind of linguistic sabotage of the infrastructure of reason: if the very possibility of rational argument is submerged in a fog of uncertainty, there are no grounds for debate – and the public can be expected to decide that there is no point in trying to decide the winner, or even bothering to listen.”

If people lose trust in the media’s capacity to report facts, they begin to rely on what “feels” true, and the influence rests with whomever can capitalise on those feelings. Donald Trump and his team know this. Trump doesn’t tell it like it is. Instead, he tells it like it feels, and that’s far more effective.

Fake news – or “bullshit”, as the American philosopher Harry G Frankfurt termed it in a 2005 essay – has never been weaponised to this extent, but it is nothing new. George Orwell anticipated the trend in the 1930s, looking back on the Spanish Civil War. “The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world,” he wrote. “Lies will pass into history . . . In Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie . . . In the past people deliberately lied, or they unconsciously coloured what they wrote, or they struggled after the truth, well knowing that they must make many mistakes; but in each case they believed that ‘facts’ existed and were more or less discoverable.”

This is the real danger of fake news, and it is compounded by a lingering assumption of good faith on the part of those who believe in journalistic principle. After all, it’s impossible to prove that a person intended to deceive, and that they didn’t believe at the time that what they said was true. Trump may believe in whatever “facts” he has decided are convenient that day. When he insists that he never mocked a disabled reporter, whatever video evidence may exist to the contrary, he may believe it. Is it, then, a lie?

Of course it’s a lie. People who have no respect for the concept of truth are still capable of lies. However, they are also capable of bullshit – bullshit being a register that rubbishes the entire notion of objective reality by deeming it irrelevant. The only possible response is to insist, and keep insisting, that the truth still means something.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era