Disclaimer: I am no Émile Zola, nevertheless, an exasperated rant ahead. Consider yourselves warned.
Where to begin…well, the election weekend in Spain triggered it, I guess. A lot of people seem to feel comfortable to voice their delirious opinions lately. People from my fencing club, for instance. While I am perfectly aware that people who fence (most of them former military) are rather unlikely to have liberal views and I in fact try to avoid talking politics, I also think it is a bit out there to insist discussing their (negative) views of immigration with me, of all people. The lady who teaches me Spanish twice a week finds perfectly acceptable to share her dislike of foreigners. I don’t know, I suggest you get a different job, maybe? I go mostly undisturbed by gratuitous racist slurs, but until recently the bigots were aware of the general unacceptability of their “opinions”, and at least kept them to themselves or only voiced them in company of like-minded individuals. Now they feel safe. They feel their “opinions” are perfectly legitimate. When my teacher told me that she didn’t like foreigners, she spoke with disarming candour. As if she was telling me she’ll have two sugars in her coffee. She also said she would never live in a (Muslim) country where she could not make her own decisions without a consent of a man, which I find particularly poetic, as the people she politically identifies with are relics of a regime that did not allow women to open a bank account without their father’s or husband’s permission some 40 years ago.
When did this happen? I can obviously work out the link between populist parties gaining support all over the western world and the impression of their electorate that since they now have representation, they feel comfortable to express their hatred publicly. Which is preoccupying. But where did it all come from?
I blame culture, or rather lack thereof. Whatever cultural identity we claim to have, it’s been decaying, and rapidly. “They (refugees, migrants, foreigners) come here to steal our culture” you’ll often hear people say. Oh really? Let’s pretend for a moment that this is a valid argument, that it does not mean simply “I am not a racist, but I don’t like people of different colour”. Let’s also not dwell on the fact that in popular imagination, an immigrant is of colour, while white people living and working abroad are merely expatriates. Instead, let’s ask ourselves another question: When was the last time a government of a western country had a substantial investment into education or cultural projects funding in their programme? Because, in my view, that is how one defends a nation’s culture, by investing in it, by exposing young people to it, not by building walls and proposing to sink the boats the planet’s most disadvantaged try to escape their miserable existence on. But this isn’t happening, and it hasn’t been happening since a fair while. I go to the opera and I am the youngest one around. OK, that is not actually representative, because opera is expensive and to an extend an acquired taste. In the cinema most people are much older than me. Theatre, exhibitions, rock concerts, same thing. Where are the young people? Maybe I just like obscure things, which I admittedly do, and this is not supposed to be a “when I was young” rant anyway, but when I was young, the schools used to organize outings to the cinema, theatre, museums, and after-school musical education, arts and sport activities were subsidized by the state. This should not be considered some sort of communist spectre somehow surviving from the époque past, this is the only way to protect national identity and promote culture, by making it accessible.
We can of course discuss what a national identity or culture even is. And by no means it means just engaging in cultural and creative activities. It does not limit to being well read or well thought, either. To me, “being cultured” has always meant being curious (about other people, their world, their values, about arts, science, sports, about any aspect of human creation, really) or willing to learn and discover, rather than having encyclopedic knowledge of a given argument. But is there a uniting trait of European/western cultural identity, rather than the race and common history (that is largely neglected in schools, we’ll get to this in a minute). Christianity? Not since the Crusades, or at best since the end of the 30 years war, but even that is a stretch of imagination. Respect for human rights? I don’t believe so. While many believe that all people are born equal, many more just don’t give a flying toss about what is happening to others as long as no one bothers them personally. When people boast about “our way of life” these days, I don’t know what they actually mean. Freedom to consume alcohol, maybe. I think that the only thing that unites the western society nowadays is its greed.
To consume means to live. To own means to exist. To appear means to be. An experience (even an insignificant one as going to a cinema or having dinner in a restaurant) is not valuable unless it’s documented and ideally immortalized on social media. An “influencer” is a career. Mind you, an influencer is not someone who tries to promote ideas and generally broaden your intellectual horizon, it’s typically a young woman whose Instagram feed makes Jessica Rabbit look like an icon of class and subtle elegance in comparison, who is hoping to get paid for trying to influence your spending behaviour. “I use this particular brand of face paint and my choice of eye shadows is an absolute must” (if you want to make Henri Matisse envious, that is), and “look at my brand new painted claws” (I’d like a tutorial on how to use a toilet paper with those things, just out of curiosity), or the famously misquoted “Give a girl the right shoes and she can conquer the world”…a/ Marilyn never said that (she was much smarter than people give her credit for) and b/ a pair of shoes is what a girl needs to matter in the world? Seriously? Not education, not opportunity, a pair of fucking shoes? But that is actually the point, isn’t it? We (men and women alike) should not be interested in the bigger picture, we should not trouble ourselves with general problems, ideas or God forbid politics. Oh no, we should crave a Louis Vuitton handbag instead. Or Prada shoes. An Armani suit. The latest iPhone. We do not seek joy through experience, through the intangible, through simple things in life. We became convinced that having expensive things translates into being happy, and if we buy more stuff, we will automatically be happier. This is our culture now, this is what we became. For what I care, none of this is worth defending.
Unfortunately that’s not all. Schools have been failing miserably to produce young people capable of critical thinking. This is direct consequence of the disastrous way history has been taught in schools. Throughout the curriculum, children go three times through innocuous prehistory and Egyptian dynasties, but rarely ever make it past WW2. The most recent history, the part that affects us most, is skipped entirely. This means there are young people in post-communist countries born after 1989 who are now of voting age and have never been taught about communism, how it came to power and what effect it had on the society. We are taught how Germany started two world wars, but not what lead to that point. The Brits concentrate the national history into the following: Henry VIII, shagged loads of women, the bloke on the column at Trafalgar Square defeated Napoleon, and we won two world wars (hinted: on our own), lest we forget! Colonialism and its legacy in terms of today’s geopolitical mess? Not important. We’ve had a century full of international disasters, conflicts and crises, we’ve littered four continents with bodies, we even used a nuclear bomb against each other, but the lesson still seems to be escaping our learning potential. We’ve tried in practice about every possible form of establishment, and we should have really got something right by now, and come up with something feasible that does not involve half of the planet’s population suffering, the other half just about surviving, while 1% thrives. Not only we did not, but we also managed to grow a generation (first of many, I’m afraid) that has largely no idea about anything.
And no wonder young people leave school unable to interpret what is happening in the world, if we cannot attract capable teachers to take on the task. The Visegrád 4 are the countries that shout most about cultural invasion when it comes to accepting refugees, but they are also “topping” the list of the OECD countries where teachers are paid the least. Of course people with potential to teach will take a different career path, unless they want to struggle to make ends meet for most of their lives. “We cannot just throw money at them” or “Who’s going to pay for it”, the government’s arguments normally are, whenever the teachers threaten to go on strike. Well, to start with, I would be happier to know that my taxes are used to invest into education of the country’s youth, rather than buying attack helicopters for the army. For example.
Another example: 42% of British 16 years old are functionally illiterate. And this was in 2006, before the austerity kicked in and I don’t suppose a decade of tory cuts on education spending improved the situation. Let’s allow a moment to let this sink in. Almost half of Britain’s young people leave school able to read a text, but unable to fully understand it. Britain is not alone, according to a study conducted by PIAAC in 2012, about 50% of the adult population of OECD countries qualify as low performers in literacy and moreover in all member states (except for 2) this percentage has increased since the previous study had been carried out in 1998. If we don’t understand our own language, if we are not able to express ourselves in it fully, of course we are unable to interpret correctly what is going on around us. When I was teenage, I remember we used to spend tedious hours of Czech grammar lessons analyzing phrases, identifying which sentence depends on which, and how a meaning of a discourse changes when rephrased. At the time is seemed a boring, useless, pointless activity. It wasn’t. Because grammar and meaning of words to a language is what bricks are to a wall, and language to a thought is what walls are to a house. Now, I am no architect, but I think we can all convene that it is an impossible task to build a house without walls and bricks. In the same way, decent mastering of a language, starting with one’s own, is essential to being able to correctly express and comprehend just about anything.
As a consequence of decaying literacy, people read less. Over the last decade, the number of books sold in the UK has shrunk by a third. Over 50% of adult Italians don’t read a single book in a year. To make it to the Wall Street Journal bestsellers list, a book must sell 3-5.000 copies. In a city of 8.6 million. In a country of 330 million. Few thousand copies. I cannot check the current list, because – same as most other decent online press (with the shining exception of the Guardian) – WSJ now has a pay wall, which isn’t expensive, but it means that only people who actively look to read the news get to do so. Apart from all the positive things reading does to people’s brains (expands vocabulary, improves fluency, phonemic awareness and memory) it also trains one’s comprehension. I used to joke with my ex partner that “some people would consistently misinterpret the reality around them”. It’s not a joke anymore. It’s becoming a rule.
So we have a poisonous cocktail of systematically under-educated people struggling to assess what is happening around them or put what they are being fed by the “elite” under critical scrutiny, unequipped to recognize a news as genuine or fake; throw social media in and you are brewing a tragedy waiting to happen. Or already underway, more likely. More and more people use social media as the primary source of news/information. I have two problems with this: 1/ The algorithm is programmed to “provide a positive experience and sensation of well-being”, therefore preferentially puts into our feed content that we are likely to appreciate, based on our previous interactions on social media. This means that we are mostly exposed to ideas that we already agree with, we are reassured that our opinions are the correct ones, and we hardly ever come across anything that may challenge our view of the world. Anybody else can see how living in a bias bubble can be an issue? Of course, if your social media feed consists of gel nails and make-up tips, than none of the above probably matters. 2/ Our attention span collapses whenever a text is longer than the 280 character limit of a tweet (and even there, only 1% of the tweets hits the limit, while only 12% of Twitter contain is longer than 140 characters, but most tweets are of 34 characters). To put it bluntly: if anybody can distill a thought down to 34 characters or less, they are not exhibiting a particular talent in synthesis, they are oversimplifying. When we comment on something, we don’t even need to stitch together a complete sentence: a like is enough. Or a heart. Or a tearful face. We can choose from an overwhelming range of six emojis fitting most occasions, rather than using the language. I mean, functional illiteracy is bound to be the natural outcome, sadly.
So let’s sum this up: in today’s world, as the western society faces complex problems, from climate change to mass migration, issues that are largely consequences of centuries of our own past and ongoing actions and politics in the third world, an increasing part of said society had been becoming incapable of not only upholding, but even understanding of what the other part of the society believes are or should be our values, thanks to the decades-long lack of responsible internal policies. For as long as the ruling class bothers to organize general elections (It does look like they will not seek the electorate’s permission for much longer), communicating with the voters per slogans is paramount. “Your hardship is their fault.” See, 25 characters. Sufficient length to carry the message over to the masses whose brains go into short circuit when faced with anything longer than that (Like, for example: “Decades of cuts to education – because the revenue from corporate taxes we don’t collect cannot pay for services – means that the country now needs foreign workforce that is actually skilled and properly trained.”). Of course populism is gaining ground. “There is an invasion underway.” 26 characters. “Take back control!” 15. “They came to take our culture away.” 28. They did not need to. We managed quite well on our own.
Closing notes: this post is not meant to be an exercise in in patronizing. I am not saying that young people are stupid. I am saying that if there is such thing as national identity, it subsists in language and history, and not enough attention is currently being paid to either. I will not include traditions here, because I don’t think that just because something is a tradition, it should not be questioned or challenged, therefore traditions, in my view, are not essential to national identity. (Again, please, I am not saying that traditions are meaningless, I am just saying they are not essential. There is a huge difference between the two statements.) I am saying that culture can only be saved by fighting ignorance. If we want to preserve a nation, or in wider context, Europe as a cultural entity, we need to produce generations of young people who are capable of understanding recent history and using such knowledge to gain larger perspective to orientate themselves in modern world. Only such people will be able to identify themselves with a cultural reality and its values, without simplifying the matter to white or coloured, fascist or communist, christian or muslim, native or immigrant, us or them. To groom such people, we need to ensure their education, we have to invest in it. This is not happening. Instead, people leave school unable to fully understand a written text, or a real meaning of a discourse, unable to recognize if a statement rings true or if it’s a total nonsense. Let me give you an example: There should not even be a debate about the benefits of vaccinating against infectious diseases, yet opposing the vaccination is becoming an acceptable opinion. Or: The common misconception during the Brexit charade was (still is), that the Bruxelles establishment (EU Parliament and Commission) is unelected. This statement is obviously untrue, but the real problem is, it should have never became this widespread. A normal person, upon hearing “No one voted for the politicians in Bruxelles” should really be rather suspicious. They should be asking themselves something along these lines: “Is it really possible that the biggest legislative/executive body in 21st century Europe is unelected?”. No, of course it isn’t. But many people these days are not even aware that there is something rotten about the “No one voted for them” statement, and questioning it does not cross their minds, they just accept it at face value. This is what I’m talking about. Now, what if the next time the untrue statement is something more sinister? Something like “They came here to invade us, to take away our way of life. Fight them. Defend your fatherland. Kill them, before they kill you.” In the current state of things, best case scenario is the no-vax lunatics get us all killed long before we start killing each other in the name of long-defunct culture. In which case they will be doing us a huge favour.