Matthew Tannam-Elgie explains why ignoring the world of political discourse is no easy task
Standing on my shelf, amidst a handful of other compilations and critical analyses, is a collection of poems and short stories published by LitSoc at the tail-end of 2016. This was in the middle of the collective dismay surrounding the American presidential election and, further back, the Brexit referendum. Reading the editors’ introduction hammers home the inseparability of the student body from political upheaval;
As students, we watch the world turn around us with little to do but stand in awe of the wretched course it inevitably takes. But it is the youth that must be the coming tide, must bring a new wave, must push discourse even further in the face of these rapidly rising waters. There are few tools we are given with which to plot our own course. In such trying times, it is our words which must stand for us.
Those last two sentences capture the sense of puppetry that can be all-too dominant in youth. It’s the sense that politics and crisis are carrying you down a tide that won’t subside, despite your constant protestations and wails.
I recall, with clarity, the morning after America’s election night when the bus to this campus was chock-full of mournful faces glued to their phones. The absurd question I constantly ask myself is why political earthquakes, global or domestic, need to infiltrate the everyday and the mundane?
The answer to this question hits me just as quickly. The structure of a nation relies fundamentally on a political system, with all its posturing, drama and skulduggery. I recall, with less clarity due to an upheaval of the familial kind, a lecture in Southern Europe last Spring in which an ageing professor told us that political governance is a social contract. Society accepts law and political order so that security can be assured for the population. In exchange, she said, the population relinquishes some of its freedom and obligates itself to the rules set down by the state.
Here we find a key reason for the multitude of mournful faces that morning in November 2016. Every country is bound by this social contract, and political upheaval sends shockwaves down the international line because it applies directly to each and every one us.
The strange little fantasy I’m mulling over now is simply this; what would happen if you were to take away that social contract? Obviously, laws would not apply. We’d have to be on our guard, bolt our doors, change our route etc. However, buried among the danger would be the undeniable truth that we would essentially be free. Indeed, the plague of certain states’ legislative stereotpying of gender, or restrictions on same-sex marriage, for instance, would be gone.
The cascade of peril, stemming from the removal of law, would be complemented by a small but significant leap from oppression to equality (at least in the legislative sense). Also removed from the population would be the infiltration of political crisis into the everyday and the mundane. At last, one would be able to escape from politics forever.
Now, it’s time to grind my diatribe to a halt and bring out the essential disclaimer; I do not want to live in an anarchical society. I value my life just as much as everybody and his brother. I’m simply writing all this to show that extricating yourself from political culture and influence is impossible. It’s a scenario so impossible, in fact, that it reaches a level of fantasy shared with pagan devotion, the music industry and delusions of grandeur. It shares an element of religious transcendance with all three.
Here’s where things get interesting; the ability to escape from politics lies on the boundary between fiction and reality. It’s the stuff of the roman à clef, Gonzo journalism and cinéma vérité. The very fantasy of what society would be like without politics contains, in some ways, the essence of all entertainment; pure, beautiful humanity, unfettered by oppression or social obligation. The very fact that it doesn’t exist is a source of pleasure in itself.
So, now I resign myself to the real state of things. The idea of escaping from politics is an optimistic fever dream. There’s no room to be the analytical equivalent of a free-market extremist. Political shenanigans will always interfere with us, regardless of our dispositions or interests. All we can do is remind ourselves of the inherent beauty of a fictional world where politics steers clear from those who don’t want it to hurt them. Only then can we feel the way Keats probably did when he wrote that famous verse from his Ode on a Grecian Urn;
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty- that is all ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know.”