I have been tagged by Nich with the political influences meme. So here they are. Since my political position is probably not actually final yet (indeed, I kind of hope it never is – I can’t see how you can be certain you are right without closing your mind, hence the title of this blog), I have no way of really evaluating who is the most important, so I thought instead I would order the list roughly to tell the story of how I wound up with the beliefs I hold today.
1) Doctor Who – Liberalism
Before I had any interest in real politics, my political thoughts were very likely being shaped by Doctor Who. Indirectly, I suppose, this reflects an influence from my mother (a lifelong tribal Labour voter, irritatingly), who encouraged my interest because she preferred the programme to much of the contemporary fare on TV as I was growing up. Alex Wilcock has written (at typical length!) about what makes Doctor Who liberal, but for me, the values I got from it are not limited to liberalism, at least in a narrow sense. I also gathered a respect for science, a suspicion of religion and superstition, and a more general enjoyment of non-conformity. For political discussion within the programme, though, you can’t do much better than the Doctor’s argument with the BOSS at the end of the Green Death.
You might think this quite a frivolous thing to include, but I honestly do think I need to explain why, for instance, one of my earliest political memories (to slip into another recent meme for a moment) is of being in a Thorntons around the time of the ’97 election. For the occasion, they were producing chocolate models of the heads of the party leaders. I was ten at the time, and had no real interest in politics, and yet I insisted for whatever reason that I wanted the one shaped like Paddy.
For a long time before I really thought about it, I had a kind of instinctive loyalty to the underdog, rebellious figure in the political arena. In explaining this, I can only really think of Doctor Who to point to.
2) Air America and Al Franken – Party Politics
American politics is so much more straightforward than ours. There is a Clealy Wrong Party and a Clearly More Right Than The Wrong Party Party. Perhaps for this reason, before I (definitively) picked a British party, I had picked an American one. For whatever reason, I got interested in Fox News (probably because they were available on Sky, and good for a laugh over breakfast), and through them, in the people who had opposed them. Foremost amongst them is Al Franken, whose very funny book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them taught me that not all political mudslinging is the childish bickering we are encouraged to take it for by those who would rather we just didn’t pay attention to how we are governed. It showed me that sometimes, one side is just right, and the other side is not just benevolently wrong, but actually being quite slimy. As such, I suppose, it had the small but crucial effect of convincing me that taking a side wasn’t an ignoble thing to do, and that signing up to a particular party was a good thing to do. Far too many people, especially on the left, like to maintain a lofty detachment from party politics, and it does nobody any good.
At the same time, people like Franken, Garofalo and Maron, all hosted shows on Air America for a time (and are all now sadly absent). I got quite into listening to their shows and therefore keeping abreast of the daily rythmn of US politics. They taught me that political discussion doesn’t have to be dry and boring.
3) Lawrence Miles – Cultural Politics
Within Doctor Who circles, Lawrence Miles is well known for his lengthy interviews, as well as his excellent books. Much time in these interviews is given over to cultural analysis of one sort or another. Often, his interviews contain huge amounts of guff (as does his blog), but some of what he says is fantastically perceptive and, for my money, brilliantly right. For instance, a few years ago now (long before Doctor Who came back):
Looking at TV and literature right now, I think the idea is that we’re supposed to be ashamed of liking anything that goes beyond normal, everyday professionalism. We’re supposed to feel that we’re sad wankers for wanting to get away from the kind of stuff that grinds our lives down to nothing, but as far as I’m concerned if you’ve got a story about Character X ripping out Beelzebub’s heart with a pick-axe and saving the universe then it’s a story worth telling, whereas if you’ve got a story about Character Y going to work every morning and bravely doing the filing then you can frankly piss off. And somehow we’ve reached the stage where the only drama programmes that get made at all, on British TV anyway, are about twentysomething law students sharing a flat and arguing about the Hackenschmacher case as if anybody really gives a toss. For a while we at least had stuff like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but now even Buffy’s gone down that “soap opera is good, fantasy is incidental” path and started slagging off anyone who’s got a vaguely alternative kind of lifestyle. And while I’m in mid-rant I’d also like to question the long-term effects of children’s movies like Toy Story and Monsters Inc, which seem to be designed to turn things that used to be astonishing and remarkable into things that are crass and ordinary. In Toy Story, all the toys magically come alive and then… hold bureaucratic meetings about paint erosion. In Monsters Inc, it turns out that monsters aren’t actually strange and fabulous beasts but bored clerical staff who spend most of the day hanging around the water-cooler at Monster Head Office. These films aren’t made with children in mind, they’re made by “professional” adults who want to feel good about their own petty lives, and as a result the next generation’s being primed for clerical work from birth … There was a time when we were proud to do things that were new and interesting and eccentric, the whole point of Doctor Who as a TV programme was that it was the victory of the fantastic over the mundane, and yet now all of a sudden we’re being asked to side with the mundane and being told that you’re “naïve” and “unprofessional” if you don’t. The day I start being “professional” is the day you’ve got permission to murder me in my bed. So I think we’re starting to forget the point, overall. To actually look for that kind of life, where you’re stuck in an office job and acting like it’s a great heroic victory… it’s a kind of living death, I think. To be so badly messed up that you can’t even imagine anything better.
Of course, much of this probably appealed to a slightly teenage nonconformist sentiment, but I do still think he was onto something. Thankfully, I think we probably have moved on from that, thanks in no small part to Doctor Who’s return.
4) Noam and Anarchism – Anti-authoritarianism
Fairly straightforwardly from interest in the American left came a reading of Naomi Klein‘s awesome No Logo and from there, The Corporation by Joel Bakan (available as both a film and a book). Both are excellent, by the way, especially The Corporation. The guy who made the film of The Corporation, Mark Achbar, had also made a documentary introducing Noam Chomsky, called Manufacturing Consent, so I thought I’d watch that. Though overlong, it serves as a great introduction to Chomsky generally, and acted as a springboard for me to read some of his stuff.
I don’t necessarily subscribe to everything he says, and I do find his view occasionally slightly dogmatic. What concerns me perhaps more than anything else about him is that his view of the world doesn’t seem to have shifted at all in the last fifty years. Anyway, I think he does offer a very insighful analysis of the media, especially the corporate media that until blogs had more or less a stranglehold on the politics of the US. His analysis of US foreign policy is hit and miss, though it hits more often than it misses, and I have always had some sympathy for his side of the argument because the people who “rebut” his arguments in the MSM very often seem to be distorting or wilfully misunderstanding his arguments.
Anyway, I think the single most important principle Chomsky passed to me is the anarchist maxim that all forms of authority must justify themselves; sometimes they are legitimate, but we must always question them.
5) The Lib Dem Blogosphere – Rounding off a few rough edges.
Blogging in general is quite good for getting feedback on one’s views. A lot of the policy discussion on the aggregator has had a real impact on my thinking, or at least made me alive to a few weaknesses in both sides of a particular argument or other. For instance, Jock has probably convinced me on LVT. More widely, I don’t think my position in the social-economic divide, mythical as it partly is, has changed much, but if I were to rewrite the post I wrote on the subject back when I started this blog, I would hope to be able to make it a little more bulletproof.