Posted by: davidjmarlow | 08/03/2015

An infinity of mirrors…and a progressive strategy for the impending general election

The ‘search for meaning’ has been a consistent theme of this blog – most recently in the Scotland referendum. That cynical deceit spawned the current plethora of devolution debates across the UK, and particularly in England. It raises the ‘meaning’ question of how to enable ‘good’ from a rotten contrivance by our deeply flawed “…excuse for a Prime Minister.”

This weekend’s search has taken me from the ‘Galaxy Ad’ on TV, through the story of a Rivera mural as seen from the mid-Atlantic, before returning to current political debate, and the vague recollection of an unremittingly bleak novel read around forty years ago. I am not sure you will find ‘meaning’ over the next +/-1000 words, but I hope you will come with me on that journey.

I have always felt uneasy with the Audrey Hepburn advert for Galaxy chocolate. The scene of a beautiful iconic woman exchanging a jolly if simple bus ride for a limo and a handsome Mediterranean chauffeur, to the lilt of ‘Moon River’, lures you into a fantasy world which, for me, is only mar(s)ed (sorry!) by my dislike of milk chocolate.

Deconstructing the fantasy, however, exposes a cunning, and arguably an even more clever, deceit than the aforementioned referendum. The icon is a CGI-generated image of a much-loved actress and UNICEF ambassador who died over twenty years ago. The scenario references, but is NOT an actual scene from, Roman Holiday; whilst Moon River is from the soundtrack of ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ in which Hepburn plays, essentially, a heart-breaking, heartless call girl (albeit with a requisite Hollywood ending).

I like Moon River as a song, and have some admiration for Hepburn for her attempts to find meaning through both her acting and humanitarian work. And the Mediterranean escape has long been a potential strategy for fleeing the lack of progressive purposes in contemporary UK. My unease lies in the extremely clever manipulation of multiple illusions (modern technology, creative emotional suggestion) to suggest I might buy something that fundamentally I don’t like.

Last summer, one of my personal attempts to flee included the ‘bucket-list’ ambition to travel round the world without taking a plane. I am actually hoping to do this over three holidays comprising UK – Vancouver (2014); Vancouver – Beijing (2015); and Beijing to UK (2016) – so actually taking four planes in accomplishing a complete northern hemisphere circumnavigation.

But, leaving that ‘deceit’ to one side, the first leg included a transatlantic crossing on the QM2. It was a surprisingly wonderful experience – both relaxing and stimulating. One of the signature moments came mid-Atlantic, just after the Captain announced the nearest land was one of the outlier Azores islands, 600 miles to the south. At this point, over 500 passengers crowded into a ‘standing room only’ lecture theatre (which doubled as both a cinema and a Planetarium) to hear an art historian give a lecture on the Rockefeller Centre in New York!

The intrinsic bizarreness, almost acid-house character, of the event did not distract from what was an engaging and enjoyable ninety minutes.

diego rivera man at the crossroadsOf most interest to me was the story of the ‘Man at the Crossroads’ fresco that was commissioned from Diego Rivera – acclaimed Mexican muralist and political radical. Intended to be the centre-piece of Rockefeller’s palatial celebration of US capitalism, the Rivera piece explored the political, social, economic and technological possibilities of the 20th century. It stimulated controversy with a reverential reference to Lenin and worker May Day parades (despite Rivera’s well-publicised falling out with the USSR Communist Party).

Rivera’s industrial scale murals (and their celebration of the oppressed’s human spirit) represents a powerful radical strand in American culture (albeit by a Mexican) which is too often crushed by the overwhelming worship of moolah and US self-centred, self-righteous parochialism, epitomised today by Republican Teapartyism. Under pressure from these interests, the mural was first covered up, then destroyed – although Rivera recreated it at the wonderful Museo de Bellas Artes in Mexico City.

Can ‘radical meaning’ be found in the temples of capitalist oligarchy – whether Rockefeller’s New York, or, indeed, in the, at one level, obscene dualism of wealthy guests enjoying the labours of extraordinarily skilled, hardworking staff on the Cunard flagship?

Whilst the Galaxy ad is pure illusion, I would like to think that there can be liberating insight for both Cunard guests and workers, even in occasional reflective moments in the mid-Atlantic. But what do we do with these insights, back on terra firma?

This blog has tried to argue the Scotland referendum was a massive con trick, giving the Scottish voter an illusion that they were voting on independence. UKIP is a similarly huge, grotesque deception – professional politician misfits pretending to be ‘ordinary people’ to reap the rewards of the gravy train, playing on public disillusionment with mainstream political parties. It has exposed Shapps as the bogus businessman pursuing his latest masquerade as Tory party chairman; and Pickles as the reckless, thuggish cartoon villain of little-Englander centralism under the guise of a bogus-localism. In similar vein, I tweeted recently the latest ONS figures on public sector net debt under Osborne – rising more than the previous two Labour administrations combined, despite global financial crisis.

And yet Osborne gets away with the Galaxy-esque lie that he is prudent, whereas his predecessors were profligate. Shapps lectures Miliband on his lack of credible business experience; UKIP continuously plays the ‘anti-politics’ card; and the SNP prepare to be a kingmaker of England devolution, based on a vote they lost, and which wasn’t even about what they said it was about!

infinity mirror roomI don’t know how or why, but this ‘infinity of mirrors’, reflecting lies and deceit in a never-ending set of illusions, took me back to the book with this title that I read and enjoyed in my late teens – almost forty years ago. Richard Condon is another of those progressive Americans whose persuasive world views make me wonder why US mainstream politics is so enduringly difficult to love and even admire. Set in the 1930s and 1940s, ‘An infinity of mirrors’ tells, through the eyes of a French Jew married to a Prussian soldier, the story of the genesis and consequences of the Nazi holocaust, forensically and perceptively.

I have not re-read it on this occasion. But Condon’s own explanation of his narrative (on the back cover) describing how “when evil confronts us in any form, it is not enough to flee it or to pretend that it is happening to somebody else. But though evil must be opposed, when it is fought with evil’s ways it must ultimately corrupt and strangle the opposer” is how I remember what was a dark and terrible (if highly readable) tragedy.

With the general election now under two months away, this is the dilemma facing UK progressives.

Many would love, at this stage in the electoral cycle, for Ed Miliband and Labour to be unequivocally commanding a progressive high ground. However, Ed is too hamstrung with the ‘Galaxy-Ad’ issues of character. His recent Guardian interview asks us to accept his ‘decency’ is not a sign of weakness; and that he can ‘disagree without being disagreeable’.

I am not sure he is right. ‘Decency’ has never defeated the Old-Etonian elites. Be disagreeable – call out Osborne, Pickles, Shapps, Farage and their apologists. Make them feel extremely uncomfortable at every juncture. The risk of being corrupted is the lesser of the evil of being trapped in the ‘infinity of mirrors’ that obscures the true reflection of what currently passes for British political discourse.

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