Sunday, 22 July 2018

The subliminal world of political campaigning

In 1973, a new episode of Columbo hit the NBC screens. Robert Culp made another appearance, this time as a devious advertising specialist who used his ability to influence the viewers of his advertising videos to commit a murder. The particular method was to place subliminal stimuli into the videos which prompted one person in a selected audience to feel thirsty and leave the auditorium to seek some relief at a public fountain in the foyer. That's where the murderer struck.

The use of subliminal messages for manipulation is well known since the 1970s. However has obtained new resonance in our times of fake news and political campaigns using targeted messages.

Subliminal cues work by inducing brain processes below a threshold of objective awareness. In other words, they are stimuli which we are subjected to without being conscious of. There is some debate as to their effectiveness. Some research indicates that they are less effective than stimuli above the awareness threshold (those we can perceive as such). But all agree that they are basically a form of manipulation.

Never quite what it seems - Robert Culp in 'Double Exposure' NBC

There is also a clear consensus about what is wrong manipulating people. Manipulating people is not based on the selection of preferences based on human volition and deliberation. Manipulation is in essence a mechanism to avoid what we do when we need to chose, that is to think which options are preferable to us and why. As Hannah Arendt noted, giving reasons for our actions is part of the human condition. Whilst it is a fundamentally flawed process, it is also one that allows others to challenge us and enter into a discussion about the merits and disadvantages of our choices. It is the process by which we relate to each other in mutual respect and recognition of our ability to decide freely in matters concerning the body politic.

Arendt was clear about the fact that our public and private deliberations were often flawed, conditioned by a lack of knowledge, poor information, and the like. Yet, she contended, there was little else. Beyond the free and fair exchange of ideas in the public arena was only the realm of manipulation and distrust inevitably undermining the political institutions of democracy and civic liberties.

This is where targeted campaigning and subliminal messaging in advertising meet. As the Leave.EU donor Aaron Banks admitted to the Select Committee of the House of Commons, their campaign 'led people up the garden path' (one of those pretty English euphemisms for something loathsome, namely lying).

Combined with targeted political advertising, political choices may have become based less on what we know but what others want us to (not) know, a perversion of the notion of choice which is based on voluntary selection of preferences underpinned by an awareness of options and their consequences. As Arendt sees it, it is public civility and respect versus manipulation of behaviour.

Manipulating voters in political campaigns is similar to placing subliminal cues in product advertising. Voters do not quite know what they are being told. Where campaigners feel no commitment to be truthful, a basic consensus about our democratic decision making falls apart: that within the boundaries of the competition of ideas, falsehoods should not be part of the arsenal of weapons to defeat your opponent. All electoral laws in the Western world accept this basic principle; there are strict sanctions for those who disseminate lies deliberately in the public domain during a political domain.

Targeted political ads however are not illegal and we may want to ask whether our current electoral legal framework is sufficiently robust for the times of facebook, insta and rogue 'news' outlets.

In case you wondered, subliminal messaging is illegal in the UK. The BCAP Code defines it as 'misleading advertising'.And yes, Columbo did get his guy in the end.

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Charles Ives at Bridgewater Hall

A few years ago, I came across a piece by the American composer Charles Ives and I fell in love with it. It is titled The Unanswered Question and starts off with a faint melodious section played by the strings. Whilst the piece initially flirts with romanticism, within a few bars a dissonant call from the brass overlays the strings. As the strings continue, a signal trumpet call gains strength and is undercut by a wood wind theme, subversive to both strings and its brass brothers in arms. (there is a NYPhil version on youtube here)

Charles Ives (1878-1954)
The piece is only less than 5 mins long but it is impressive and leaves one with a fully painted mental picture. Ives' music, it seemed to me back then, was like a painting by Edward Hopper, only that Ives was painting outside urban scences where Hopper wanted to look into the inside of people's places from outside.

That Ives composed radically metropolitan scences shows even more clearly in his piece Central Park in the Dark. If you did not know the title, the ever increasing noise of urban sounds swelling to a mighty explosion in the piece would leave you in no doubt that you are in the middle of a city.

What Ives manages however is to portray the fragile contrast between a city's harmonic background bordering on silence and the discordant hubbub that surrounds us on a daily basis. The piece starts off in near silence with the strings once again setting the scene, this time less melodious, giving off a whiff of a metalic sound. As the wood winds intermittently intersect with the strings, the scene still remains distant in sound and impact on the listener.

Next, the flute takes up a theme and hovers above strings and wood winds. None of them even attempt to merge or meld into one coherent whole. Finally a singular violin and a piano furnish additional moments of urban sounds, until all climaxes in pandemonium as we know it from the streets of New York.

Ives added a beautiful note of contrast as the musical tumult cuts out suddenly and the strings are heard to continue to the very end of the piece. It creates a moment of surprise as you realise they have been there all along, no matter how loud the city was.

The piece's crescendo is difficult to play (there is a Bernstein/NYPhil version here). In particular, what appears like an unwanted disturbances of the strings by random noise actually requires careful calibration of the sound levels. The BBC Philharmonic conducted by John Storgards gave their all but at times it was not quite enough. In particular, as the flute and piano starts to overlay the string theme, the string section needs to be low enough, almost whispering, so that flute and piano are recognised as distinct voices. The Bridgewater Hall has a decent acoustic but the orchestra did not quite pull it off. From where I sat in the centre of the stalls the flute was not quite audible and the single violin, played sensitively by the concertmaster, did not quite emerge as different from the main body of sound.

It was more a confluence of music rather than a caleidoscope of discrete notes from different players. Still, it was amazing to hear this piece live for the first time.

The evening also contained a muscular rendition of George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, delivered with gusto by Peter Donohoe. I prefer the version for Jazz orchestra over the full orchestral arrangement (by Ferde Grofe) but both Donohoe and the BBC Orchestra gave a spirited performance which made me tap along with my foot.

The evening ended with George Antheil's Symphony No. 6, a pleasing piece of work sitting comfortably somewhere between Stravinsky and Shostakovich and a composition by George Walker called Lilacs. Walker set his music to Walt Whitman's 'When lilacs last in the door-yard bloom'd'. Joshua Ellicott gave it a rounded sound, perhaps at times struggling against an overwhelming orchestra, and it made me wish to hear more from this song cycle.

The evening concert was recorded for broadcast on Wednesday 14th Feb as part of the BBC Radio 3 in Concert Series. So you can tune into BBC Radio 3 next Wednesday at 7.30pm to hear it or catch up with it on BBC iPlayer.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

What poetry can do

I always struggled with poetry. Somehow the metaphors never seemed to connect with me. I suppose I don't have that imaginative mind that is required to read and understand it.

Since this is a blog charting a personal journey, you can probably guess what's coming next. I had an epiphany... well, not quite. But something like it.

Recently, the German poet Jan Wagner was awarded the prestigious Georg-Buechner-Preis, one of the highest accolades for writers in Germany. In one of the reviews of his work, someone quoted a line from his poem 'Hamburg-Berlin' (Jan Wagner, Selbsportrait mit Bienenschwarm. Ausgewaehlte Gedichte. Hanser: Berlin 2017):

'... in der ferne nahmen zwei windraeder 
eine probebohrung im himmel vor:
gott hielt den atem an.' (p.20)

That's funny on the surface but also intensely moving once you visualise the scene. Well observed and mischieviously subversive, undermining our sense of reality and how the world is supposed to work.

Wagner's poems are radical in their metaphorical tranformative power. He is playful and his words reveal new vistas on the world; his poems have what a good poem needs to have: it forces us to re-think reality and to discover what is there but was hidden until we read it.

The power of the metaphor - it never is what it seems.  Flamish 17th cent painting .

Although I struggle to find the right words to appreciate his poetry I did also notice something fascinatingly limiting in his poetry. Wagner's poetry is strongly metaphorical, yet in its playfulness it lacks the human dimension. His poems are observational, almost resembling the still lifes of Dutch painters, such as a table with decaying fruits. There is beauty in them, but something is missing.

Enter a poem by an American writer who lived in Britain in the 1960s.

The Hanging Man

By the roots of my hair some god got hold of me. 
I sizzled in his blue volts like a desert prophet.

The nights snapped out of sight like a lizard's eyelid:
A world of bald white days in a shadeless socket. 

A vulturous boredom pinned me to this tree.
If he were I, he would do what I did. 

This poem is equally densely packed with metaphors that evoke feelings and have tranformative power. But at every line, the words also force us to take position to the story, the story of Christ and Christianity. It is full of mockery as well as respect, it is literal at times yet also figuratively untrue. Yet most of all, it is about us as human beings. It does not shrink from plunging head on into human affairs. The poem was written by Sylvia Plath (from Sylvia Plath:Ariel. Faber and Faber: London 2015 [1968].)

I may have misunderstood her words, I may miscontrue the meaning of the poem, but I do clearly recognise the differences between Wagner's and Plath's poetic thrust. Wagner's is observational and subversive in a gentle way, reordering our relationship with nature and the things around us. Plath however places herself squarely within the human domain, metaphorically interfering with the social and historical encounters that we have every day. And Plath is nothing short of radical, forcing us to take position on, what she thinks, is a constantly shifting ground.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Why no one should be 'gay'

Isaac Newton allegedly once remarked that 'If I have seen further than other men then only because I stood on the shoulders of giants.'

Whilst the sociologist Robert Merton once investigated this as a tenet of scientific progress, nowhere else is it more true than in sexual politics where men and women of the past found the courage to challenge the status quo to allow those that come after them to see further. For me as a gay man the main point of reference are those men who stood up to police repression during the Stonewall riots in 1969. Their spirited refusal to accept the dominant social and cultural standards inspire awe and gratitude in me as it allowed me to say openly who I am. Vaclav Havel (in a different context) called this with living within the truth. And this fight for equality and rights is not over yet as recent headlines about gay people being persecuted in Cheniya and other places demonstrate. Rights to express yourself and live within the truth are still being denied to gay people all over the world, be it in Uganda, where homosexuality is still a criminal offence, or Germany, where discrimination in marriage on grounds of sexuality continues.

Gay pride or gay ghetto?
Yet, we have come a long way and it is perhaps appropriate to look at where we are and where we want to go in those societies that have largely accepted homosexuality.

Partially the fight against discrimination drew strength from a sense of community amongst gay people which furnished them with a conceptual framework of belonging and collective power. It allowed them to articulate a version of society that was based on inclusiveness of marginalised groups and hence latched on to notions of equality before the law, civil rights as well as group rights.

In the process of this fight, this sense of community took on a life of its own and we are now quite comfortable with the notion that there is something like a gay community with a specific gay culture. Challenges to this notion of a comprehensive and coherent gay culture have come from unexpected quarters recently. Transgender campaign groups have pointed at the exclusive nature of such a concept of group culture based on a single sexual identity. This has led to an awkward compromise, reflected in an ever growing string of letters in the acronym of cultural politics of recognition (I lost track after LGBT).

What is less articulated yet probably more fundamental, is to question whether there is indeed something like a gay community based on a gay culture in the first place, or, irreverently, whether or not there should be one.

The question turns on the role of community in promoting and fostering change through mutual support. But its tentacles reach wider, well into the realm of identity politics and group rights. There can be no doubt that conceptualising and formulating a version of gay collective consciousness has been instrumental in pushing for change on the societal level whilst it has also had tranformative power for individuals. Making a choice to belong to a specific community does not only grant you access to support networks, it also liberates you from the idea that you are alone. Collectives undoubtedly have transformative capacity. Yet they can also be oppressive as they set standards of behaviour and define borders of identity with which any group member has to conform if he wants to belong. This is reinforced whenever notions of sub-cultures and group identities become hegemonic not just within the group of members but more widely by the rest of society.

Gay critics of the 'gay culture concept' have pointed this out as soon as mainstream culture started to adopt stereotypical portrayals of gays in movies and TV. Whilst early portrayals of openly gay men were often welcome, a feeling of discomfort with their narrow stereotypical appearances soon mounted. The argument essentially was that cartoonish depictions of gay characters in the media allowed straight audiences to accept homosexuality only because it was considerably different from being straight/normal. Acceptance was grounded in the recognition of, and insistence on, difference.

Empirically this media image of course never had any facts to call upon. Gay men are as diverse as any men in the straight part of society. The critics' point, however, audaciously extended to the collective strategies of culture making within the gay community. Where gays feel the need to go out in their own clubs and segregate themselves from wider society by constructing their own community and marks of belonging, signs of difference are emphasised rather than diminished. Ultimately, groups with sub-cultures to cultivate may spin themselves into a cocoon of collective behaviours that provide comfort but stop challenging society's preconceptions of the group. In other words, what is rebellious becomes orthodox. It's revolutionary potential dissipates and a stale taste of conformism remains.

So we may want to ask ourselves: do we still need to be 'gay' to be gay? Do we still need to declare ourselves as part of an imaginary community with its rules and cultural standards (policed by prominent members of the group's elite) to be able to say that those of us, who do not live a 'gay life style', can stand on the shoulders of the giants who fought for gay rights? I would hope that whatever somebody says about me in twenty years time, it will not be that I was that 'gay' bloke writing a blog. I would not feel empowered but diminished by such an epitaph.

Monday, 26 June 2017

The chore of sightseeing

I am fortunate to be able to travel within Europe from time to time and I particularly enjoy my city trips. Milan and Florence were the latest destinations. As much as I love my time away, I am dreading the questions from friends and family whether or not I have seen this or that landmark, went to this museum and looked at that painting. Those questions used to always give me a pang of inadequacy, of having missed something out. The fact is that whenever I am abroad, I rarely see anything that would make it into the 'must see' list of any guidebook.

It's not that I have not tried. I trudged through the Forum Romanum with hundreds of other heavily persperating tourists on a hot Italian summer day. And I have stood at the back of a sizeable group of Japanese tourists staring at a small rectangular painting hung about 40 meters ahead of me on a Louvre wall. I didn't see much but I was told it was the Mona Lisa.

Have you seen me? 
And yet, if you asked me which way Michelangelo's David turns his oversized head on the famous Florentine Piazza, I couldn't tell you (I did take a lot of pictures though, inexplicably mostly of his backside).

So why does sightseeing mean so little to me? I think it has something to do with the fact that I do not connect with the artifacts I look at. It does not mean anything to me when I am told that while Boticelli painted his famous picture La Primavera he was deeply in love with the daughter of his neighbour. Quite frankly, who cares? And why should it matter? Sightseeing, it strikes me whenever I have to endure it, is not much than a playground for all stories tangential to the artifact in question. And most of the time, the plots of those stories go off the object just as cheap Aldi fireworks dye out on Hogmanay. 

On a recent trip to Florence, I have had enough of tourists hooked up to earpieces trudging mindlessly through narrow alleys following their guide like lemmings. I packed my bag with a towel and flip flops and left the city centre to go to a nearby open air swimming pool. As soon as I hit the outskirts of the city, everything changed. The tourist shops with the naff souvenirs disappeared. People started to look normal, going or coming from work, others resting in front of their houses after the day and chatting with their neighbours. The swimming pool itself was full of locals and I must have been the only foreign soul there. Total bliss!

I will never forget those moments I walked down the street in the neighbourhoods of outer Florence or lying next to an Italian couple trying desperately to keep their two small children in check on the green next to the pool. Yet ask me what I saw in the Duomo, for the life of me, I couldn't tell you a single thing. So please, next time we talk about our trips to foreign lands, don't ask me whether I have seen that famous church with that incredible triptychon. I couldn't care less.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

The charity conundrum

I puzzled for a while now about how differently I react to requests for charity. Money that is to you and me. It's probably fair to say that I have always given generously and on a regular basis to organisations such as Unicef and others. In fact, about 15 years ago I promised to myself always to give about 2 percent of my after tax income to charitable causes. So far, I kept that promise, with Unicef the most prominent benificiary over the years. One of the most satisfying instances of giving for me was with the Guardian scheme in Katine, Uganda, where every pound was matched by Barclays Bank for five years (check it out HERE, it was an amazing project!). The money was spent on training programmes for schools, midwives and health visitors in several villages in and around Katine and the Guardian and the charity reported annually about progress and difficulties. I enjoyed giving to it since I felt it could make a difference and I had a sense that there are real people at the end of this programme. Also, I thought the money would not be spent on temporary disaster relief but on permenantly building up the community resilience to problems. Sadly the programme ended after five years, perhaps a sign of how effective it has been in improving people's lives there.

This mix of motifs and incentives also lies at the heart of what puzzles me about charitable giving. What attracted me to the Katine programme was clearly the ability to see firsthand that there were actual people at the receiving end, that the money was used to provide them with help to help themselves, and that there was significant oversight and reporting on progress made.

Cut to a street in Liverpool or London in 2017 where I am being approached by someone who asks for a pound. No matter how desperate, homeless or not, I simply would not get my wallet out (before you set off in indignation let me add, I used to give on the street as well). Worse, when being confronted by images of poverty in the UK, homelessness and the like, I feel no pull on the heart strings.

Copyright: Peter Shelomovskiy

Which one would you give to? Copyright: Telegraph

So why is this? There is nothing more concrete and immediate than a person standing in front of you asking for money. I know where the money would go and how it would be used if I was to give any. Why don't I feel the same generosity when I am confronted by the signs of UK poverty as it is when I see it in far away countries?

I think it has something to do with the differentials in opportunities between both contexts. I recognise that people can get into all sorts of difficult situations where they need help, either from their own family and friends or from the local community. However, there is a crucial difference between the two environments. In the UK, whatever you think about injustices built into the system there are enormous opportunities for education, training and work with a basic safety net that includes homeless shelters. This highlights, rightly or wrongly, the role of personal responsibility in creating your own destiny. It emphasises how much we are all in the driving seat when it comes to forging our own future.

This heightened role of personal responsibility carries risks of failure for those who struggle to reconcile personal obligations with individual behaviour. In those cases, we are all called upon to help. But the help should be provided, in my mind, by (local) government, not by individual charity.

The situation of a child (or adult for that matter) in a village in Uganda is considerably different. It's position vis-a-vis opportunities is hampered by ineffective or non-existent government services in the first place, due to state failure or corruption. Here it does not matter whether or not anybody accepts responsibility for their own future. The barriers are simply too great to overcome. Charity in this context is mitigating state failures to ensure that they do not translate into personal tragedies.

I acknowledge that there are structural injustices in both contexts which conspire to hold people back. Yet, the fundamental difference remains: where states function well, opportunities, however small, exist. None of this means that we should be heartless or cold towards personal suffering wherever it occurs. It does however tell us something about our own agency and how we behave in the face of need. In the UK, as largely in the Western world, we mitigate need through government and its myriad organisations, stressing the sense of personal responsibility. In the developing world we recognise that the failure of government itself is the main cause of poverty and the lack of opportunities. Personal responsibility does not take you far where state institutions have broken down and do not provide the basic infrastructure to allow you to thrive as a human being. It's there that we are all called upon to help.