Paranoid London (Look it Up!)
Hello everybody back home. It’s another rambling letter! This isn’t because I’ve gone crazy, but since My Person left, I no longer have someone to talk things through with, so I talk it through with my own writing.
My latest metaphor for my life is that I’ve been thrown overboard into a stormy ocean. I just managed to grab a piece of driftwood and survive the first weeks. But since then it’s like I have to rebuild the boat beneath myself while the storm keeps going. I’ve got a half-decent raft with a wonky tiller now (my London warehouse community), but it’s still not entirely seaworthy.
Still, I’ve done lots of things that show how lucky I am. I danced to the Solstice on Hampstead Heath. I went to Denmark and bumped into the Prince Consort and his spaniels. I went with friends on a road trip through France and Spain, saw human castle-building in Barcelona, and then dealt with our car-engine exploding on the return journey. But on the other hand, I spend long hours lying sadly in my room, I have zero sex, and when I go to magical events I feel more like a human CCTV camera than a human being.
I believe that is called alienation. I’m angry a lot of the time, and lately I’ve been sublimating that anger into my city and the funny old people who populate it.
I do think that people, almost all people, are good and silly and wonderful. Life is an endless comedy of misunderstandings and confusion. My favourite outing of the last month was going to see my new comedian friend (an occultist transvestite) who shares my politics and my dress sense. We had a drink afterwards. An older woman came to him for advice, said that her husband of many years had come out as a kinky cross-dresser. She had tried to support him, gone to a few fetish clubs with him, but was tired of seeing men’s pale bottoms quivering in the floodlights. She was unhappy.
We weren’t sure what advice we could offer. After she left, the Occultist said, “Sorry about that. She shows me these photos of her 70-year-old husband in latex hats and I’m like, mmhmm, yep. What can you say except, it’s not as unusual as you think? Also, she’s a huge Tory. A massive Tory.”
That story is apropos of nothing, except it reminded me that being a Tory is the ultimate thought-crime in creative North London now. ‘Fuck the Tories’ is sung by the crowds at nightclubs and festivals, housing ads categorically state that Tories are Not Welcome to apply, and there is an urban legend/ghost story I have now heard told at two separate warehouses about a previous tenant, a quiet young person who seemed nice enough, but was a bit anal about the cleaning roster and who then turned out to be a YOUNG TORY ACTIVIST! Other housemates clap their hands to their mouths in fright.
For most people, the dickish policies are reason enough to hate the Conservatives, which is fair enough. But this year I have seen a scarier undercurrent in London thought — that the Tories aren’t just out-of-touch, unimaginative, privileged jerks — they’re genocidal maniacs.
It came out immediately after Grenfell Tower fire. What the fire symbolised to me was the lack of accountability that has crippled public life since I have been making my way in the world. The deadly cladding was installed by people who had no stake in the big-picture, no interest in their tenants’ health and safety, and were pressured to make savings wherever they could. Nobody was in charge. Nobody knew what to do. No authority was willing to step in. The aftermath was total paralysis, with a paralysed PM at its apex. The same inertia that torments me when I try to deal with the tax office, only this time people died.
That’s fucking bad enough, and I would be very pleased to see manslaughter charges laid. But it’s not DELIBERATE. But for some people, Grenfell was premeditated murder, and part of a pattern of eradication of traditional London communities to make way for gentrification. The theory I heard repeatedly was that Kensington Council (Tory), in league with the UK Government, set fire to the Tower so that elites and hipsters could move in and take the land. The most unsettling moment was when I overheard two mums discussing the Tower in the supermarket, and one of their little boys chirped, “the government is hiding the death toll so we don’t know how many people they killed!” The mums nodded seriously.
That’s where things are often at here, with the assumption that The Other Side is willing to commit murder to cleanse the poor. If you believe that then any form of resistance is justified.
I’ve seen a reasonable amount of the world now, and in every layer of society people seem the same. Organisations lurch from crisis to crisis, and I have almost never seen any long-term plan be formulated, let alone followed through on. Few people can keep a lifelong secret, and large groups (which consist of people) never. Bad things happen by chance, or because incentives drive fearful humans to make bad choices. Evil is real, for sure, but it is almost always passive and impersonal. Yes, I know that there are exceptions, please don’t trigger Godwin’s Law.
But in the strain of conspiracy theory paranoia running through the fringes of London (and, I assume, everywhere), all evil is directed and personalised, and any suggestion elsewise is Fake News.
My social circle is progressive, so I hear ‘progressive’ conspiracies, which usually end at the Oval Office. But any glance at Internet comments show that the new nationalists and traditional conservatives are swimming in very similar waters. It’s still Us and Them, and They are working actively to destroy Us.
There are too many examples from this summer to go through. One night, I sat in a dress and listened to a Greek bloke tell me WWII was a setup and that the world was run by 13 Jewish families, including the Rockefellers…who are not Jewish. Totally bizarre. “Look it up!” he said.
At my old Imperial College job, a scientist told me that the American government funded ISIS (a germ of truth) and were the true actors behind the Syrian regime’s chemical weapon attacks, which was a false flag operation (not true). “Look it up!” she said.
At drinks this weekend a young white musician told me that Trump was just the face-man for the Shadow Government. “Look it up!”
“Look it Up” has recently become perhaps my most hated phrase in the English language, which is sad when you consider what an Enlightenment Child I like to style myself as. Because you can look it up. All this stuff is available on the internet, with footnotes and all.
My most exhausting encounter of all was a stream-of-consciousness diatribe from a charming British-Guyanese guy which mingled reminiscences of his time squatting in Crouch End (amazing building, old theatre. Place was haunted, of course. Girl, good friend, eyes milky, sat for three days drumming her feet against the edge of the stage, not drugs well maybe drugs too but also possessed. Had to leave); modern life (No, not on Facebook, that place makes you sad. What is the future anyway? Had a robot friend, very committed to the cyborg lifestyle, every party had a better suit, you know, ching-croosh-krrsh, disappeared into it in the end), and then, of course, the Conspiracies, (Grenfell was done to drive out the poor, 9/11 done to justify the Arab wars, and ok, the moon landings were real…except for the first one. You’re an intelligent man, do you really think that tower just burned on its own?). Which tower? Grenfell or the World Trade Centre? Didn’t matter. No tower burns on its own.
He told me that he saw the world clearly, because he came from Guyana where the CIA had faked the Jonestown massacre using their plant Jim Jones. “How do you get bullet holes in your back from drinking Kool-Aid? Look it up!”
It’s not always people of colour who tell me these things, but when it is it they have always played the trump card of, “if you knew what Western governments did to my country, you wouldn’t be so trusting”. On the whole, I do know what Western governments did to these countries, and I don’t trust authority. I know about the Opium Wars and extraordinary rendition and CIA coups. I try to explain what I see as the difference between broad-brush, greed-fuelled, fuckery vs planned, personalised, conspiracies. I guess it’s the difference between the people ruining others’ lives as a side-effect of their actions (sadly common), and the mythical people who wake up in the morning actively rubbing their hands and thinking, ‘how can we ruin lives?’
But I have no cultural authority to speak on these matters, and so I am ignored when I do.
People outside the dominant paradigm have spent their whole lives being lied to and mistreated by people in power, and now their justified scepticism has gone into overdrive, a kind of cultural immune system that has started attacking its own body politic.
I don’t know what I can do. I was reading Clive James the other day, and underlined his line, “‘There is no reasoning someone out of a position he has not reasoned himself into”, because that’s where I’m stuck. There is nothing I can say to these people except, over and over, that I think most people are trying their best. You can disagree with your opponents, even hate them, without believing them to be baby-eaters.
Most of my friends are not conspiracy theorists. But the scariest thing about bullshit is watching it reach critical mass, at which point the social equilibrium flips and the logical in-group strategy is to agree with the people around you. People who I never hear voice this stuff will nod along to it at parties once they’re listening to a passionate alpha male tell them about the Illuminati. And when I play the passionate alpha male myself and argue back, which I always do, I’m breaking the social harmony. I’m asked to stop.
My friends don’t understand why it makes me so angry. Especially when I am so laid back most of the time. But it makes me angry because it’s a poison. Conspiracy theories are stimulated by breaks in the social contract, but then they accelerate that breakdown by turning society into warring camps that believe the worst of each other.
Without conspiracy theories, we wouldn’t have Donald Trump. Without conspiracy theories, I don’t believe that Russia and Turkey would have fallen so completely to autocrats. And without conspiracy theories we might not be facing the breakdown of modern civilisation from climate change. One of the reasons I left Australia and my work in environmental campaigning was the hopelessness of trying to convince climate sceptics that scientists weren’t a shadowy, global cabal risking everything to take away Aussie families’ four-wheel drives. I spent years preparing articles and media presentations and it just felt so, so, pointless. The carbon tax came, the carbon tax went.
I figured that demographics were on my side. I figured I could travel and see the glories of the natural world before they vanished (bye Great Barrier Reef!), and eventually the angry old people would die and my generation could get to work salvaging the planet.
But now I’m witnessing all the same thought-patterns again, only the poison has infected my own age-group. And this time I can’t dismiss people as angry or stupid. They’re friends, or friends of friends. I know that they are good, kind people, reacting to a lifetime of being fed lies, bullshit and over-complexity.
Three years ago, when I was more serenely confident in my own culture, I went to Turkey and Morocco and was fascinated to find that everyone we talked to believed in the Big Lies. 9/11 was in inside job, Assad was in league with the Americans, Fethullah Gülen’s shadow government was behind every misfortune. These were educated and lovely people. But they felt powerless, ignored and resentful, which incidentally would describe an awful lot of people in the West right now.
Living in the West today, it can feel like we have become the victim of our own monsters: colonised by a global elite that extracts resources with increasing efficiency, and offers nothing back, just as ‘we’ used to do to the rest of the world. It feels like that even when I perceive myself as halfway to being global elite myself, so I can only imagine how it must feel to other people.
But the understandable mistrust that grows from economic forces, racism, fear and oppression can spill out in anger and hatred. That mistrust came out here again the other day, when a 20-year-old black man called Rashan Charles died in police custody after being grabbed in my neighbourhood.
What seems to have happened, based on the police statement and surveillance footage, is that when an officer approached him, Rashan panicked and swallowed a package. The policeman then choked him to try and stop him swallowing, but Rashan died in hospital, either from injuries or from overdosing. It was a horrible situation, and not yet clear what had happened.
The family called for calm as it was investigated, but for a lot of people, there was no point waiting to hear an official statement and they wouldn’t have believed it anyway. There were protests at Dalston Junction, with bins set on fire and bottles thrown. When I went down the next day, all the ATMs had been smashed, which seemed a pointed gesture about the linkage between capitalism and racial oppression.
The next night as I was going home on the bus, a monstrous street-preacher stood with a loudspeaker beneath a scrap of canvas, and bellowed, “People do not take responsibility! A drug-dealer chokes on his own sin, and people blame racism! They blame the police! Like Adam and Eve in the Garden, they blame each other! This is why we cannot have the Kingdom of Heaven here on Earth!” I guess I’d also thought people were too quick to blame the police, but I wished someone would punch the preacher in the mouth. He looked so delighted by tragedy. Rain ran down my bus window, and I felt like I was in a panel of Watchman.
It made me so angry. The worm-head preacher, the furious Londoners, the so-called socialists who egged-on violence to watch the world burn, the pious government officials. They all seemed like idiots. And then I decided that while I was hating things, I hated drug laws most of all.
I assume that Rashan is dead because he overdosed on his own stuff in a panic. But even if that is true, he wasn’t just a ‘drug dealer’, he was a person; and if he swallowed drugs to avoid being charged with dealing, then in the big-picture he is a victim of a system where people like him in Dalston die because they are supporting people like me in Dalston to flaunt drug use openly. This whole city runs on cocaine, shiny and pure in the penthouses and cheap and cut in the warehouses. It’s as open a secret as the speakeasies in Prohibition Chicago, which, incidentally, ‘my sort’ now recreate for costume parties.
I probably shouldn’t name names, but I tallied up the 25 or so people I know well in London — mainly (not entirely) white, middle class, under 40 — and at a rough count I’ve personally seen 2/3 of them do coke, from the hairdressers to the engineers. Maybe I just hang out with a Bad Crowd. But if so, they are a particularly kind, idealistic and smart Bad Crowd, all doing their best at being human.
I presume that a good proportion of the city’s judges, lawyers and police officers do cocaine as well, I may be wrong. And that is fine to me, except that none of us seems interested in fighting for decriminalisation, or acknowledging the substrata of ruined lives that fuel Friday night highs. The hypocrisy makes me ill, but we’re all trapped in this system. I don’t know what to do about it, except talk about it as openly as I safely can and vote for decriminalisation options when I can, and try not to be complicit in bullshit.
Because I think it’s backlash against decades of bullshit that has triggered this wave of mistrust and conspiracy. Everybody knows that so much of our society is built on hypocrisy. As Leonard Cohen said, we know the poor stay poor, the rich get rich. We know that drug enforcement is a rigged game that turns into a form of social control. Then it’s an easy step to assume that the social control is the POINT of drug policy, and then it’s not that big a step to assume that They are actively conspiring to ruin your life. As for who They are, pick your poison. Jews, social justice warriors, Davos elite, lizard people.
My brother, a lifelong Londoner, thinks that this is just me breaking out of my cultural cocoon (into an adjacent cocoon), and that London is considerably less oppressive and paranoid than it was twenty years ago. The world hasn’t changed, my perspective and demographic has.
Obviously that’s at least partly true. All I can do is write from my experiences, but I know the absurdity of trying to understand a world of 7.5 billion people by extrapolating from the few dozen of them that I know personally, and a couple of internet pages. It’s like the parable of the blind man and the elephant. The only defense is that nobody else can do much better.
And of course, things aren’t black and white. People do lie. I do believe that Western intelligence services do terrible things. I do believe that the Russian government conspired to influence the US election. I do believe that corrupt police departments sometimes coverup the murders of young black men. I do NOT believe that fluoride is being used to erode critical thinking in the population. But that means that the difference between conspiracy theory and history is just a matter of judgement, and I’m just like anyone when I say that MY judgement is right and THEIRS is wrong.
I am very aware that I could be wrong too, in fact I am sure I am wrong about a lot that I believe. I spend boringly large chunks of my time analysing my own opinions and why I hold them, and why they coincidentally tend to match the opinions of the people around me.
But not knowing in advance where I am wrong, all I can do is ask myself why I hold the beliefs that I do, and then fight for them. In the same way we can only respond to the world we perceive with our senses, we can only argue for the opinions we create through our judgements.
Which is exactly what the conspiratorial types would say as well, and I end up back at square one.
I don’t know what to do except to try my best every day to be an empathetic and kind person, think about my own beliefs, and when I am sure I disagree with something to stand up and say so. But sometimes I feel despair, because it feels like nobody ever changes their mind about anything anymore, if they ever did. I don’t change my mind.
So, what is the point of dialogue, or writing in general? How does society work peacefully if change can’t be brought about by debate? I don’t know, but it has to; because the alternative is too horrible.
When I was in Barcelona, we were shown the bullet-holes where people were lined up and shot against a church. The Spanish Civil War in the 1930s pitched (broadly) revolutionaries and liberals against fascists and traditionalists, and both sides were representing very global trends. Both sides believed terrible things about each other. Also, when push came to shove, the liberals lost.
So, when I finger old holes in the stonework, it makes me really want to fight for empathy and understanding, and for everyone to be able to agree on some broad definition of truth. Because I don’t like the places that paranoia can take us.
And that’s why I’m causing trouble at parties.