Monday, 12 March 2012

White light, white heat

A piece on the intemperate nature of sexual politics in the US in last Sunday's Observer wheeled out the cliche that hyper-conservative views on the subject can be traced back to the Pilgrim Fathers and the mores of the 17th century. This is absurd. A few thousand English sectarians in Virginia and Massachusetts 400 years ago have not determined modern views. The American attitude towards sex has been conditioned by much more recent developments.

In the southern states, the traditional underpinning was not Puritanism but the fear of miscegenation, which led to an obsessive focus on female sexuality (always at risk, always prone to betrayal), and an animalistic view of male sexuality. This in turn contributed to the wider belief in cultural swamping and the fear of social pollution. The danger of becoming infected, of turning into "the other", continued through the Red scare, the AIDS scare, and has now found its most recent home in zombie movies.

The Civil War clearly did not end in the 1860s but in the 1960s, with the ostensible triumph of the civil rights movement. Many southern conservatives remain unreconciled. The sight of libertarians justifying government interference in sex looks plain bonkers, until you realise that controlling your womenfolk is the last redoubt of "property in a person".

Most inhabitants of northern states are descended from immigrants who arrived after the Civil War and mainly settled in industrial cities in the North East and small towns in the Midwest. Usually from conservative rural cultures in Europe, they brought a Victorian evangelical Christianity and ultramontane Catholicism. This continued to be an important dimension of identity in the US melting pot up to the 60s. Many ideologues/activists today remain influenced by parents/grandparents conditioned in this era.

The growth of political Christianity in the 70s and 80s is often seen as a simple reaction to the 60s, but it may ultimately be more a generational retrenchment, drawing the waggons into a circle, as the original values began to dissipate through assimilation and societal change. Santorum et al may be a last flowering before decay. It is no coincidence that sexual permissiveness in the US was championed in an area outside both the South and the North East/Midwest, i.e. California.

America is a wilfully antique society. The foundation myth is that the US is essentially the creation of the 17th and 18th centuries, and that its ideal vision of itself remains the "shining city on a hill", even "the light of the world" in foreign affairs. This idea is widely propagated through politics (e.g. the focus on classical liberalism, the fear of over-mighty government, neo-conservative intervention etc), the festishisation of the constitution (the right to bear arms), and the belief that property can be conjured out of thin air (manifest destiny).

Current European foundation myths (i.e. in respect of modern society) date from much later: 19th/20th century class struggles, nationalism, anti-fascism and WW2 etc. Native Londoners will usually cite the Blitz as the prime example of the city's social spirit, not the crucial decision to back the Parliamentary side in the English Civil War.

The point of this is that foundation myths are not immutable. We regularly recreate and reform them to suit our present needs. This was exemplified in the first episode of White Heat on BBC2 last Thursday. As WW2 retreats into care home memory, and the baby boomers are well into the memoir stage, the 60s have become the crucible in which modern Britain was forged.

The fact that White Heat started moments after The Singing Detective finished its series re-run did it no favours. The quality of writing and acting was a no-contest, and I'm not even sure the modern work would edge it on costume and scenery. To an audience inundated with cheap TV, it bore the look of something both serious and expensive, but in truth it was just another instance of a tired format. Not reality gawping (exposure instead of a fee), or sponsored consumerism sold as lifestyle, but the hardy perennial of desperate schedulers, the list programme. With its exhaustive desire to tick off every cliche, White Heat was your top 100 sixties stereotypes.

Some of this was unintentionally funny. The female artist independently inventing Yves Klein's anthropometrie painting technique, though using menstrual red rather than International Klein Blue. It could take a while to unpack that one. I also noticed The Mighty Boosh's Julian Barrett moonlighting as the art teacher (predictably cued by another character as randy - I wonder where that might lead). Then there was the kindly gay Asian who failed to lock his bedroom door, during a party no less, resulting in his new Bogside Catholic girl confidante catching him about to give head. What a carry on.

It's early days, and some will say the need to introduce a large cast will limit the time for character nuance, however the shallow exposition ("I've just discovered my dad's been cheating on my mum, so I'm going on the pill") and instrumental manoeuvring ("we're all his guinea pigs") was too heavily reminiscent of Big Brother. The key difference seems to be in guessing which one of them has died, rather than who will be voted out first.

Future dramatic tension was served by the setting up of massive signposts: the MOR Geordie will presumably get a leg-up in politics by the dissolute landlord's MP dad (they're always handy); the quiet Jamaican lawyer will somehow save everyone's bacon after some Hamlet-like dithering; and there will be more tragedy for the Bogsider ("victim" is written all over her ample frame).

I may be proved wrong, but I think the irony of the title may yet be eluded. The phrase comes from Harold Wilson's 1963 speech, before the Labour victory of 1964 (his first term as PM), on how "the Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this [technological] revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or for outdated measures on either side of industry".

This was not just a plea for a meritocratic society to replace the class-bound stagnation of post-Suez Britain (Cool Britannia avant la lettre), but a clear pointer towards the significance of reforming industrial relations and boosting capital investment. So far, the programme has shown a greater interest in the politics of the personal, and the milieux of the arts, media, law and government.

The foundation myth of the 60s is built on personal liberation, success through talent, and a flowering of tolerance, which somehow produced the ugly child of the 70s and the triumph of Thatcherism. Don't hold your breath for a debate on industrial policy or the role of the City of London.

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