Paul Victor Tims

Paul Victor Tims

Paul Victor Tims is a writer and a magician. 

Culture Punch: The BBC's right-wing bias
Wednesday, 05 December 2018 17:47

Culture Punch: The BBC's right-wing bias

Paul Tims lays into the BBC's right-wing bias.

In this article, you’ll see that there are all sorts of valid political and cultural reasons for my personal distaste of the BBC. However, in the interests of full disclosure, I should also admit that I may have been soured by the declining quality of Doctor Who and the mere existence of Strictly Come Dancing (a tedium-filled televised berk-scape with the subtlety and grace of a 3am foghorn). But I’m also deeply concerned, angry, embarrassed, angry, revolted and angry about the insidious right-wing bias within the public service broadcaster. Did I mention I’m angry?

Of course, before I can dissect the BBC’s right-wing bias, I have to prove that it’s really there. To that end, let us consider Exhibit A… or Andrew Neil as he probably prefers to be called. Until quite recently, the BBC’s flagship political discussion program was The Daily Politics. It’s been cancelled for largely non-political reasons, but throughout its run it was hosted by Andrew Neil. Now, the purpose of a show devoted to discussion and political analysis is to provide an unbiased platform on which individuals with different political views can put forward their arguments and be met with robust-but-fair critique. This isn’t possible if the host of that show is openly and explicitly aligned with a particular party or ideology.

Andrew Neil is a raving-righty, dyed-in-the-wool Tory, misogynist and climate change denier. He was once editor of the right-wing paper The Sunday Times. During his tenure, he hired a Holocaust denier and Nazi apologist to write on the discovery of Goebbels’ diaries, see here. He has also been directly involved with the Conservative party itself - he once helped them to select a successor to Michael Portillo by personally hosting an evening of interviews. This man was the supposedly unbiased, balanced host of the BBC’s supposedly unbiased, balanced flagship political show. For fifteen years. Give that a minute to sink in.

Naturally, Andrew Neil is only the tip of a very large, very Tory-blue iceberg. He’s a good example, because everyone knows who he is and recognises his face (if only from nightmares in which they’re trying to cross a bridge and he emerges from beneath it wielding a bone-club). However, the real scope of the BBC’s bias only becomes apparent when you look at its higher-ranking but more-easily-overlooked personnel and former personnel.

For example, Robert Gibb (who used to be the Beeb’s political editor) has recently been appointed as the Director for Communications to the Tory PM Theresa May. Meanwhile, Nick Robinson (the BBC’s current political editor) used to be the chairman of the Young Conservatives. Chris Patten (chairman of the BBC Trust) is a former Conservative cabinet minister. Kamal Ahmed, who succeeded Robert Peston as the BBC’s political editor, formerly worked for the explicitly right-wing paper, the Daily Telegraph.

The BBC presenter John Humphries declared his bias on-air with a political programme so right-wing that even the BBC Trust (which is chaired by a former Tory cabinet minister) had to admit it was at fault. The programme was ‘The Future of the Welfare State’. According to the Child Poverty Action Group, it “failed the public by swallowing wholesale the evidence-free myth of a ‘dependency culture’ in which unemployment… is the fault of the unemployed”. By the BBC’s own admission, it failed to provide appropriate statistics that would have allowed its viewers to arrive at informed opinions.

It’s also worth noting that, when the Beeb uses panels of pundits in its political shows, an overwhelming preponderance are right-wing, according to an article published in The Independent.

The BBC’s right-wing bias isn’t just in its appointment of high-ranking staffers and show-specific speakers, however. It’s ingrained into the language and rhetoric that proliferates across the network. In one article about the BBC’s pro-establishment leanings, Owen Jones describes how he has frequently been introduced as a “left-wing firebrand”, while equivalent language is never ascribed to right-wing guests who appear on the Beeb. The article is also my source for the names of BBC right-wingers. 

Perhaps the most compelling proof of the BBC’s bias, however, can be found in its treatment of Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn. A study conducted by the Media Reform Coalition and published recently by the universally-respected Birkbeck University found that the mainstream media (which, of course, includes the BBC) has consistently given more time and prominence to Corbyn’s critics than his supporters. In fact, they’ve given his critics twice as much airtime. In this way, the BBC has supported right-wing bias against Corbyn without making direct statements against him itself.

This is a particularly dangerous form of bias, because it allows the broadcaster to keep its hands clean and therefore keeps it free of accountability. You can read the full report here.

But what about BBC comedy and drama?

Of course, there is a counter-argument to all this. The BBC has provided a platform for many left-wing writers and presenters. It’s showcased the comedic talents of such varied lefties as Frankie Boyle and Stephen Fry, for example. Some of its dramas have a fairly obvious left-wing subtext, such as The Night Manager (which used a sadistic arms dealer as a personification of capitalist greed and western callousness) and The Line of Duty (which wasn’t afraid of showing incompetence and corruption in the British police).

But that’s the problem: the BBC only really entertains left-wing political views in its comedy and drama. It’s happy to include left-wing ideas, provided they can be safely contained in whimsy or fiction. However, when it discusses the real world in its serious news shows and political analysis shows, the Beeb reels inexorably and inevitably to the right. The bias is baked in from the start because the people in charge have very specific, very right-wing views. The subtext is unequivocal: the BBC doesn’t mind giving the left fantasies and rants to divert us, but it won’t take us seriously in real discussions.

It’s also worth noting that, though the BBC does occasionally allow leftist thinking to enter its dramas, this is by no means the norm. A quick Google search for ‘BBC dramas’ reveals that most of their prime-time dramatic output has consisted of crime dramas. That’s not always indicative of right-wing bias (hence the excellent Line of Duty), but it usually is. Detective shows tend to perpetuate the myth of an infallible police force and an irredeemable, uncomplicatedly evil criminal underclass. I love a good detective yarn as much as the next person (though I prefer the old Poirot series to anything the Beeb has to offer). However, the preponderance of shows with clear authoritarian leanings should trouble anyone with an eye on the shape of our culture and society.

The BBC’s right-wing bias is particularly disappointing because of its position as a state broadcaster. As an organisation that exists outside the profit-motive paradigm of the free market, one might expect Auntie Beeb to provide a haven for alternative, unprofitable ideas.

In my last ‘Culture Punch’ article, I talked about the cultural dominance of the Disney corporation and suggested that breaking it down into its component studios would be a good step towards ending this dominance and creating a polyphony of different voices. After the article went up, a very wise person pointed out that all the newly-created media companies would still be profit-motivated, because they’d still be part of the capitalist system. As such, their voices and ideas might not be as varied as one would like to imagine. In an ideal world, organisations like the BBC should be the answer to this problem. State broadcasters should provide a space for ideas and viewpoints that would never find favour among people who want to earn a fast buck. In particular, they should offer a platform to leftist thinkers in order to counteract the right-wing bias intrinsic to the private sector.

Clearly, this isn’t the case. The BBC has the same ingrained bias as its private-sector counterparts. It is free from the profit motive, and thus perhaps lacks the Randian, libertarian aspects of right-wing ideology. However, it still clearly cleaves to a socially and politically conservative world-view. It postures about impartiality and feints at left-wing ideas in its fiction and comedy, but the most cursory glance at the people controlling it exposes its Tory affiliation. A flick through the TV schedules demonstrates its authoritarian undercurrent.

The key to the BBC’s bias – and to what the broadcaster could be without it – lies in its founding principles. The BBC’s original mission statement is grounded in Reithian values. In other words, it seeks to “enlighten and educate” the public. This mission statement sounds noble. Indeed, in the early days of the broadcaster, it made perfect sense. Before the internet and the proliferation of other TV and radio channels, information didn’t flow particularly freely. Learning about the world, its history and its political landscape, was difficult. Not everyone had the time or energy to sit in a library for hours, reading influential academic texts and comparing the reports of different newspapers with different biases. Synthesising a coherent and self-consistent opinion or world-view required non-trivial effort. By offering factual programming and news, the BBC provided a guiding light and made it easier for people to stay informed.

However, there’s a problem with Reithian values- a problem that has become ever more apparent as the world has entered the information age. Reithian values are fundamentally paternalistic and conservative. They enshrine a hierarchical relationship between the ignorant viewer and the all-knowing Establishment broadcaster.

Small wonder, then, that the Beeb’s top brass and institutional outlook fall firmly into the Tory camp.

So what can be done?

What, then, can be done about the problem of BBC bias? First of all, I’d like to see an incoming Labour government clean house. British governments have historically kept the BBC at arm’s length in order to preserve its impartiality. Since that was clearly a massive waste of time and effort, I think it’s about time the BBC and the BBC Trust were forced to retire editors, executives and trustees who have explicitly affiliated themselves with political parties. People with such transparent biases have no place in a broadcaster whose role is to be as impartial as possible. If the BBC appointed a Morning Star columnist to a position of political editorship, the public and the mainstream press would be up in arms about leftist bias. Yet the broadcaster employs multiple personnel who worked for Tory-affiliated or explicitly right-wing newspapers, alongside people who have actually been involved in the Conservative Party itself.

The double standard is self-evident and needs to be done away with. Ideally, I’d like to see the BBC’s top brass drawn from the ‘front lines’ of culture. For example, the BBC’s political and news editors shouldn’t be the patriarchs of newspapers and other outlets who have just moved from one desk to another. Perhaps, instead, they should be experienced journalists and reporters who have involved themselves in political and global events as they’ve unfolded, have challenged powerful interest to report the truth and have a real sense for what is and isn’t important. Meanwhile, the people in charge of drama and comedy and soaps should be drawn from the arts – people who are dedicated to the act of creation, not just filling a schedule.

Secondly, the BBC’s Reithian ideals need to be re-examined by whoever takes charge of the organisation following the Great Cleansing… er, I mean, upper-management restructuring. It makes very little sense for a broadcaster to dedicate itself to “educating” viewers who already know the facts surrounding world events. Perhaps a better goal would be to offer insight. Simply giving viewers an incomplete set of factoids (the selection of which betray a certain bias) is no longer enough. In order to justify its existence, the BBC needs to provide detailed analysis of issues and events from a wide variety of different political standpoints. This needs to be enshrined in an updated mission statement.

Finally, it wouldn’t hurt to create more state-backed broadcasters with different remits. One already exists. Did you know that Channel 4 is a state broadcaster, even though it funds itself with advertising? Well, it is, and it has an explicit remit to push boundaries and provide a platform for alternative ideas. It’s actually been a huge success, giving us forward-looking speculative dramas like Humans, Black Mirror (which has since moved to Netflix) and Utopia. I also regularly watch both BBC and Channel 4 news and Channel 4’s news shows typically challenge received wisdom more frequently and offer more unbiased reporting than the BBC’s.

Yes, Channel 4 isn’t what it used to be. It’s become less radical in recent years, possibly due to its need to attract advertisers. While its funding model isn’t perfect, however, in principle it represents a genuine alternative to the BBC. However, Channel 4 and the other, associated ‘4’ channels represent one modest network. Compared to the BBC and the ocean of privately-controlled channels, the Channel 4 group is miniscule. However, the existence of Channel 4 does prove that state-backed broadcasters with alternative remits and the freedom to operate more independently than the BBC are viable. Creating a few more of them couldn’t possibly be a bad idea. The state could even fund their creation by taxing private broadcasters and taking money from the BBC’s own inflated budget.

None of these ideas are particularly radical. Getting rid of self-serving, biased shot-callers, re-evaluating the BBC’s mission and putting money into an already-proven alternate broadcasting concept are all things that can be accomplished quite easily. What’s more, they would benefit everyone.

As a socialist, I obviously dream of a world where the BBC leans left instead of right, but I’m not suggesting turning the BBC into a paradigm of leftist thinking. Getting rid of its Tory infestation wouldn’t turn it into a radical leftist organisation, it would simply help dispel the pall of bias that hangs over the broadcaster. It would be a step to abolishing the Beeb’s (barely) hidden agenda, so that it could be trusted again. A credible, trustworthy BBC is something you should want, regardless of where you sit on the political spectrum.

Creating new broadcasters is a good way to open up the cultural stage to new voices, which is always a good thing. Obviously, the project of Cultural Democracy demands more platforms for more voices, but creating new broadcasters does more than that: it provides a space which creates more culture. The capacity of the human race for creating ideas and telling stories is infinite, and allowing our culture to reflect that is nourishing to the soul.

The BBC should be a home for an enormous range of ideas. Its news shows and political programmes should give equal time and attention to views from across the political spectrum. Its dramas and comedies and serials should be drawn from genuinely daring concepts that privately-owned, privately-funded broadcasters would never dare to touch. And when it fails us – as it has by inflicting its rightwing bias on the public – it should be held accountable.

What’s more, it shouldn’t be the UK’s sole state-backed broadcaster. A healthy culture is one where countless ideas are allowed to flourish. At present, the BBC holds a privileged position as the media voice of the UK. As a result, it gets to filter which ideas, narratives and world-views make it into the wider public consciousness. Frankly, that needs to end. The BBC needs to take a more democratic role, as one media voice amongst many.

Culture Punch: The Many Horrors of the Disney Corporation
Saturday, 27 October 2018 18:02

Culture Punch: The Many Horrors of the Disney Corporation

Published in Films

There is a certain self-satisfaction to our popular culture which I find nauseating. TV and film are used to tell more styles and types of stories than ever before. At any given moment I can boot up Netflix or Amazon Prime and find a hundred sci-fi series, horror flicks, romances or documentaries. On any given day, I can walk into a cinema and satisfy my craving for any genre I choose.

And yet, I find myself discontented. For all the superficial variety of modern cinema and television, almost everything on offer suffers from the same vague, ideological squalidness. The underlying ideas and concerns of most of the stories in our visual medium are as tawdry as they are homogeneous. And just to be clear: they’re very homogeneous.

This problem finds its purest and most troubling expression in one company: the Disney corporation. I despise Disney. Don’t get me wrong: like everyone else in the universe, I like some of the films they’ve bankrolled. They own Marvel Studios, and a surprising number of that studio’s films are very, very good. My issue with Disney has nothing to do with their ability to produce entertaining content: my problem is that they own just about everything. Well, that and the use of child slave labour to make their merchandise. We’ll come back to that.

It’s Disney’s money behind the Star Wars franchise (and every other LucasFilms franchise), the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the animated films of Pixar, Touchstones Pictures, the ABC (aka the American Broadcasting Company), A&E and Lifetime (two lesser-known US cable channels), and, for some mad reason, the Muppets. And that’s not even a comprehensive list! Disney owns shares in various news and music distributors as well (including Vice, believe it or not).

The point is that this one corporation owns most of the film studios generating our most influential cultural myths, along with a vast network of lesser studios and TV channels. Its ideas, values and ideologies therefore dominate the cultural landscape. Yes, it’s true that most of their interests are in America, but we still consume the same content here in Britain. If you regularly watch movies of any description, your mental landscape is being shaped by Disney. If you have kids who watch films or TV, their value systems are being moulded by a company that got caught using sweatshop labour as recently as 2012. And no – I don’t think they’ve stopped just because they haven’t been caught again since.

You can find a complete history of their malpractice and abuse at the Corporate Research Project. Disney is a company that’s happy to subject its workers to slave-like conditions whenever it thinks it can get away with it. It also grossly underpays its western-based workers outside of sweatshops. You can find an interesting summary of just how wealthy Disney is and how little it pays its workforce in the essay Disney Corporation Through the Eyes of a Marxist. The essay also discusses Disney’s function as an ‘opiate of the masses’, which makes it a perfect companion to this article.

This single, exploitative company is in charge of the most influential cultural franchises on the planet. Yet despite the evil of the company itself, there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with the values and ideas that Disney-backed films promote… at least on the surface. Those films seem pretty big on friendship, diversity, self-sacrifice, etc. – all the usual positive values that help our society function. But dig a little deeper and you’ll see that there’s quite a lot of weaselly and self-serving messages hidden in Disney’s output.

Consider, for instance, the villains of the Marvel studios films. If you’re familiar with those films, you may have noticed that a surprising number of the villains are motivated by outrage over injustices they have suffered at the hands of America in general, or its fictional superhero community in particular. My favourite example is probably the terrorist from Captain America: Civil War, who turned ‘evil’ in response to the fact that American superheroes and villains nearly destroyed his eastern-European home city.

Villains

Meanwhile, there’s The Vulture, from Spiderman: Homecoming, who’s actually just a working-class dude who loses his job to a company owned by Tony Stark (aka Iron Man), and is driven to a life of crime as a result. Hmm. I wonder why a company like Disney that routinely exploits the impoverished and people from less affluent nations might be keen to portray them as unhinged psychopaths-in-waiting. Maybe I’m paranoid, or maybe Disney has a vested interest in limiting our sympathies with the people and demographics it regularly screws over.

Of course, not all Disney’s Marvel films are propaganda for capitalism and western colonialism. It’d be hard to argue that there’s anything ideologically suspect about the Guardians of the Galaxy films for example. But then again, those were directed by James Gunn, who was fired by Disney at the first opportunity, so I’m not sure if that counts for anything.

Lest you think the disturbing propagandist trend is confined to just one of the studios that Disney owns, let’s examine another one. LucasFilms is the Disney-owned studio that makes Star Wars. Now, who can tell me what’s wrong with Star Wars? That was a rhetorical question – put your hand down.

Part of the problem is the simple lack of depth. To say that the modern Star Wars films are about as deep as puddles would be an insult to puddles. I once stepped into a puddle in Wales and sunk up to my waist. I wish Disney’s Star Wars had that kind of surprising depth (and that I’d been wearing waterproof clothes, but that’s off-topic).

The Empire’s holdouts in the new trilogy are clearly meant to be an allegory for the rise of the far Right, but they seem less villainous than the real thing because they’ve been airbrushed into a saleable form. They’re a stylised form of evil designed to shift themed merchandise, and they make that type of evil look almost appealing, which is kind of irresponsible when its real-life counterpart is on the ascendant across Europe and America.

Also – and I admit this is a comparatively minor gripe – the new films actually endorse the mindless following of orders, even if they don’t make sense. In The Last Jedi, there’s a military General on the good guys’ side who keeps giving really, really stupid orders that keep putting people in danger and nearly getting them killed. Some of the other characters nearly mutiny… but it turns out the General had a super-secret plan all along and should have just been trusted!

The moral of the story seems to be to trust high-ranking military officials, even when they’re clearly nuts. I think the film’s writers and producers expected to get away with this little subplot because the General is a purple-haired woman who looks like a Liberal Arts major rather than a moustache-twirling Kitchener type. Newsflash, Disney: smuggling a message of militarist conformity in under the guise of diversity and progressivism makes it worse, not better.

Disney also has a… complicated relationship with sexism and racism. In fairness to the corporation, there’s actually very little direct sexism or racism in their recent films. Their classic output, on the other hand, is rife with it. Remember that, until recently, Disney was primarily known for its animations based on fairy tales and the ‘Disney Princesses’ contained therein. Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White – that whole fictitious milieu. None of these characters had any real agency.

racism 2

Of course, in the modern age, Disney has made a show of subverting and even mocking this trope from its earlier films. Films of that era also contain quite a few racist stereotypes (Dumbo, one of their non-fairytale films from that era of animation, contains a racist caricature in the form of a crow named Jim Crow, after the segregation laws that America used to discriminate against people of colour). There is a discussion of Disney’s sexist and racist messages here.

The problem isn’t that the Disney company made sexist and racist movies years ago. I can’t legitimately attack the modern incarnation of a company for things it did before most of its current executives and employees were even born. The problem is that Disney continues to profit from these movies. It regularly releases and re-releases DVDs and Blu-rays of them. It continues to sell them to uncritical children and nostalgia-blinded adults.

I’m not saying these movies should become inaccessible. I don’t think any cultural artefact should be put beyond reach, no matter how repellent it might be. However, there’s something sleazy and toxic about the way Disney continues to peddle them (and therefore the ideas they contain) for profit. Really, they should be in a public archive, instead, with annotations explaining their historical context. But they’re not. They’re in supermarkets, utterly devoid of context.

By now, you should have a sense of how huge Disney is and how comprehensive its impact on our culture truly is. The point is that one of the largest media companies in the world – a company whose content almost all of us consume – is perfectly comfortable with skewing the underlying ideology of its current output to the right while selling even more retrograde content from its past. And that’s a problem, because the messages are ubiquitous and therefore play a gigantic role in shaping the thought processes of anyone imbibing them. Worse, they’re also subtle. They enter the brain as background information and aren’t subjected to the critical and analytical processes that would greet explicit ideological message-mongering.

Any cultural and ideological monopoly is bad, because it means a single source is distorting and mutating the mindscapes of entire populations. A cultural and ideological monopoly that happens to be in the hands of a right-wing, morally-bankrupt mega-corp is so, so much worse.

Disney is engaged in a constant project of acquiring more studios and controlling more and more of the cinematic and cultural landscape, which should worry anyone who values the polyphony of ideas and viewpoint that exist in a real cultural democracy. And they have a history of using sweatshop labour.

In their article Culture for the Many, Not the Few, Mike Quille and Chris Guiton state that “Fundamentally, cultural activities are social, unifying and egalitarian. They assert our common humanity against divisions of class, gender, race and other divisions caused by capitalism”. The Disney corporation controls an enormous swathe of our media culture, and the ideologies that it pushes are antithetical to those cultural ideals. It enshrines division, particularly between different nationalities and classes of humanity. As such, it is as an enemy of cultural democracy.

Do I think a company like Disney can be reformed? Frankly, no. I think the culture of exploitation and right-wing bias is so deeply ingrained in Disney’s corporate DNA that its incapable of meaningful, lasting reform. However, that doesn’t mean that the individual writers, animators and artists trapped within the company are beyond redemption. In an ideal world, I’d like to see the talented people working for Disney break away and set up their own small, independent studios, which would be owned by their workers, not external shareholders. Smaller studios that aren’t answerable to profit-motivated capitalists can put out content with a healthy range of ideas and viewpoints.

Believe it or not, you can encourage individual creators to break away from their masters and Disney in this fashion. All you have to do is find out the names of individuals who have worked on films that you’ve enjoyed, and support their independent projects. You can also be open in your criticism of Disney in order to make creators and film-goers aware of the depravities of the organisation.

However, individual action is never enough on its own. It’s also worth considering what governmental and legislative steps can be taken to break the cultural dominance of the Disney corporation and improve conditions for its workers. As you probably guessed, I have a few ideas.

Crucially, I think we need to see a new kind of anti-monopoly law aimed specifically at media corporations. This law would limit the number of studios and creative teams that any one company could have under its corporate umbrella. A key part of the problem with the Disney corporation is that it owns too many studios and creative teams and therefore dominates our cultural landscape. Any law that prevents it from acquiring new studios would be a positive first step. If the law could also force Disney (and companies like it) to sell off some of their studios to the people who already work there, that would be even better. It would create a polyphony of worker-owned, independent studios practically overnight.

Theoretically, an incoming Labour government could introduce such a law in the UK, but Disney is an international company primarily based in the USA. In other words, other countries (particularly America) would have to adopt versions of the law for it to have a serious effect. However, the UK has an opportunity to lead the way by being the first company to apply anti-monopoly laws to the cultural landscape itself, and thereby encourage cultural democracy.

An incoming Labour government could also do something about the way Disney treats its workers in this country by raising the UK minimum wage for individuals employed by corporations above a certain size. It could also help combat Disney’s use of sweatshops by requiring that all companies have documented proof that their goods are not being manufactured in sweatshops.

None of this would result in the destruction of the Disney corporation. However, they are practical steps that can be implemented within our lifetime and – hopefully – within the lifetime of the next Labour government.

I’m not saying you should never consume media put out by Disney. Aside from anything else, that would be almost impossible, particularly if you’re into genre films. However, Disney has been given a free pass for far too long. Large swathes of the population laud the company for the creative risks that it supposedly takes with its movies and for its superficial (and entirely false) progressiveness. It’s important to bring its faults, failings and evils to light. Discuss them with other people who watch the movies. Make people aware that they’re putting monsters on a pedestal. Heck, talk about it on the Internet if you’ve got the stomach for the inevitable backlash, courtesy of emotionally fragile fans.

Above all, when you consume their content, don’t do so uncritically – be aware of general and current issues.

Vice

Lying to the Land
Sunday, 30 September 2018 15:17

Lying to the Land

Published in Cultural Commentary

In the first of a series of articles on aspects of modern culture, Paul Tims tells us about 'fauxgress' as exemplified in the film, TV and music industries as well as elsewhere – and how we can make things better.

The most pernicious and successful lie in western culture is that things are getting better. Every day, in every way, we move closer to perfect equality – or so we’re told. The general consensus is that we have more rights than ever and the bigotries and xenophobias of the last century are being pushed out of existence. The rise of the far right and the election of spray-tanned pop-up tyrant Donald Trump are supposedly aberrations: the death-throes of a sickening paradigm.

It must be nice to believe that. It’s a comforting theory that probably helps a lot of people sleep at night. I have another theory, however: one that contains markedly less horseshit. My theory is a simple one and can be summarised in a single sentence. Brace yourself. If you’ve been living in the consensus reality-tunnel for the last few years, this may blow your fragile little mind-melon into a thousand tiny pieces. Here it is: our culture is basically as awful as it’s always been, just slightly prettier. Don’t worry if your monocle popped out your eye in astonishment. That’s a perfectly ordinary reaction.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the progress we’re supposed to be experiencing is a carefully-crafted illusion. Over in the States, Trump wasn’t elected by a vocal minority of bigots, because that’s not how democracies work (no matter how dysfunctional they are). He was elected by a terrifying majority of socially alienated, systematically-ignored rust-belters who didn’t have access to the level of education needed to realise he was exploiting them, lying to them and pandering to their worst impulses. Here in the UK, racism is clearly alive and well. The British people are glibly preparing to leave the E.U. (along with the cultural and economic benefits it provides), largely because ludicrous caricatures like Nigel Farage told them it might provide a great opportunity to get rid of a few foreign johnnies.

Feminist Classic White Ladies Tee 1050x

You can buy T-Shirts with the word ‘Feminist’ on them, but they were probably sewn in sweatshops by women who are treated little better than slaves. Oh, and while we’re on the subject, did you know that reports of rape shot up by 20% last year in London alone?

It’s also worth noting that there is a prevailing sentiment against the poor and the sick here in Britain. The Tory government has declared literally thousands of disabled people on benefits ‘fit for work’ only to have them die within six weeks, cut off from the state support that allowed them to live. If there wasn’t a nasty undercurrent of hatred for the impoverished and the disabled, there is no way the party that did that would still be in power.

Racism, right wing lunacy and misogyny are supposed to be dying out, but the most cursory glance at actual statistics (or even just electoral and referendum results) tells you that this isn’t the case. The lie of continual progress is laughably transparent. There are, however, two questions worth asking. Where is this false narrative on culture coming from, and why is it being pedalled?

The chances are that you feel confident that you’ve encountered the narrative and agree that it’s pretty pervasive… but I bet you can’t think of a single source that’s actually articulated it! That’s because the lie isn’t told explicitly on news programmes or in editorials. If it was, people would see through it in an instant. Humans are pretty dense, but they don’t actually have brains made of play-doh. They’d notice a fib that spectacularly obvious. Instead, the lie is fed to us at a sort of primal level: it’s encoded into our cultural myths, emphasised by the stories the media chooses to tell and implanted in the very language used in mainstream forums.

moonlight

The media went mad with ecstasy awhile ago, when Moonlight (a film by and about black people) won Best Picture at the Oscars. It was happy news, of course, but did you notice the way that it was framed as a watershed moment: a significant victory that marked a serious change in the way western culture regarded non-white stories? Maybe that’s even true, so long as the stories in question are on the silver screen.

The year that film came out, America arrested 111,000 people just for being in the country illegally- a 42% increase over the previous year. Sure, it’s great a film by someone other than Honky McWhitebread the Third won an Oscar, but clearly it changed diddly-squat about race-relations in the real world, where human beings actually have to live.

If the murky waters of US race relations don’t float your boat, why not take a look at the always-zany world of representational feminism? Since 2016, we’ve seen gender-flipped reboots and/or continuations of some major nerd-culture touchstones: women now fill the main protagonist roles in Star Trek, Star Wars, Ghostbusters and Doctor Who. This is framed as an indisputable sign of progress by the decision-makers responsible. Conversely, any criticism of these gender-swaps is framed as inherently sexist.

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But why are we seeing lazy gender-swaps of stuff that already exists instead of a wave of original women-lead TV shows and films? And why hasn’t this supposed triumph of vaginal representation magically empowered women to not be used as fuck-toys and free labour by rapists and sociopaths out here in the real world? It’s almost like a lot of people in the film and television industries have cynically seized on feminism as a brand, that can grab viewers for their sub-par cultural byproducts while leaving actual women to suffer the same miserable fates they always have.

It’s not just films and telly that have turned once-meaningful ideologies into cheap brands, however: it’s also the music industry! I speak, of course, of Beyoncé. She’s held up as a symbol of both racial equality and feminism in the music world… despite being a truly terrible human being who shouldn’t be considered a paragon of anything. Once again, I should stress that it’s good non-white women are having their voices heard in music. Unfortunately, Beyoncé is a non-white woman who once gave a private concert to the family of the murderous dictator Gadhafi. She also once danced around in front of the giant neon-hued word ‘Feminism’ wearing nothing but a figure-hugging leotard. As a man, I understand I’m not allowed to define what feminism involves, but I know a lot of radical feminists who would tell you that it doesn’t involve gyrating around, half-naked.

Of course, in the three previous paragraphs, those perpetuating the lie of progress aren’t actually oppressing anyone or screwing anyone over. Maybe they’re not deliberately creating a false narrative? Maybe they’re just overly optimistic morons who ate a lot of paint as children? My counter-argument is one word: Disney. Disney films have had a fairly liberal outlook lately, right? They’ve promoted tolerance and equality and… hang on a minute! This bloody company was producing its merchandise using sweatshop slave labour as recently as 2012! Weirdly, I can’t find anything more up to date than that on the subject… which is suspicious in itself. If you needed proof that the pedlars of faux-progress (fauxgress, if you like) know exactly what they’re doing: there it is.

On a similar note, Nike (purveyors of the world’s most pretentious trainers) recently launched a massive ad campaign designed to combat racism… by including non-white people (especially Muslims) on the posters. We’ll leave aside the fact that simply including non-white people isn’t especially radical: it’s basically just the bare minimum demanded by human decency. Instead, let’s focus on the fact that Nike was using sweatshops and child labour in non-western countries as recently as August 2017.

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Just like Disney, Nike is a systemically racist company with a history of exploiting non-white workers. Despite this, they are hypocritically cultivating a progressive, anti-racist image for themselves in order to promote their brand. As with Disney, trying to figure out if Nike still uses sweatshops has proven rather difficult, as there’s a troubling dearth of post-2017 online resources regarding their corporate practices. However, I’d invite my readers to apply inductive reasoning to the problem and take a wild stab in the dark.

Nike and Disney don’t have the monopoly on exploitation however. The tech giant Apple has a nasty habit of filling its phones and computers with conflict minerals. If you’re not familiar with the term, I should explain that conflict minerals are metals and other materials mined in territories controlled by local warlords who use the profits to fund obscenely violent conflicts with other warlords. It’s interesting that Apple has managed to position itself as a trendy, alternative, ‘progressive’ brand without actually having a specific progressive message. It’s even more interesting that it’s managed to do it while indirectly funding wars that kill innocent women and children on a daily basis.

I’ve told you where the cultural narrative (or lie) of progress is coming from – cultural pundits, media outlets and half-arsed content creators. Given this information, it’s not that hard to figure out why it started. Money. Tell people everything’s getting better, frame yourself as a champion of the new paradigm and watch millions of good, kind, politically-aware people queue up to buy your DVDs and T-shirts, read your magazines and newspapers, retweet your sponsored fucking content.

The world is not getting better. Not in the ways that matter. But it can get better. You might be feeling a bit bleak and alienated after reading twelve paragraphs of proof that progress is a lie and that the world is as bad as it’s always been. But I’ll tell you a secret. You have the power to change things for the better.

Progress in mainstream culture may be a write-off, but we are living in an age where we have unprecedented access to music, books, TV shows and opinions that exist outside the mainstream. If you’re feeling dissatisfied with the way you or others are represented in your favourite genre of TV show or film, go on the internet and find cinematic works created by artists with genuinely different voices, or visit an online bookstore and find literary examples of your preferred genre that would never make it into Waterstones or Barnes and Noble.

If you’re sick of the pandering, half-witted fauxgress to be found in modern music, it’s easy to find lists of alternative songs in any style on music websites, then listen to them immediately on Youtube. It’s even easier to simply not buy products from corrupt, fauxgress-spouting compaies.

You’re already sat at your computer, reading this article. You’ve already taken the first step towards seeking out counter-cultural content. Thanks to technology, you have the ability to ‘vote with your feet’ and only engage with content that meets a high standard. If you want to kill fauxgress and replace it with something better, the simplest way to do so is to ignore it to death.