A change is gonna come

Matthew d'Ancona

Matthew d'Ancona on the transforming world that DRUGSTORE CULTURE will explore

16 September 2018 23:01

Start here. Like Joey ‘the Lips’ Fagin in The Commitments, we at DRUGSTORE CULTURE ‘believe in starts’. As Joey tells his aspiring band-mates: ‘Once you have the start, the rest is inevitable.’

Inevitable, of course, is a dangerous word to use in our new age of political turbulence, hectic cultural change, and technological revolution. If the Twentieth Century, its failed ideologies and terrible bloodshed have a single lesson, it is that history has no direction. The future is earned, not distributed.

There are no certainties, no fixed teleologies, no unbreakable trajectories. Only the power of human agency and collaboration to do something about the world in which we find ourselves; to take its measure; and to try to live well together, compassionately and in a spirit of intelligent irony and humour.

Unlike Joey, therefore, we cannot be certain. But, in an era understandably given to gloom, bleakness and mass anxiety, we can make a decision to be optimistic. Indeed, we insist upon it.

So, first and foremost, welcome: in July, we published our inaugural print issue, a magazine-as-book that was our initial ‘hello’ to the world (you can buy a copy here – and other issues will follow for subscription). Today we launch fully as a digital platform: a place in cyberspace that will be the hub and home of all that we do in the months and years ahead.

If the Twentieth Century, its failed ideologies and terrible bloodshed have a single lesson, it is that history has no direction. The future is earned, not distributed.

Why ‘Drugstore’? Partly because of the vivid role that Schwab’s, the legendary pharmacy on Sunset Blvd, played in the early Hollywood life of our founder and publisher, Charles Finch. Sadly closed in 1983, Schwab’s was in its heyday a hang-out, a diner, a place to read, to talk and – if you were an actor – to be discovered.

It was a hip palace of culture, but also of democratic conversation, ideas and storytelling. So many culture magazines emulate the glacial, off-putting ethos of the spotlessly white gallery. In contrast, DRUGSTORE CULTURE throws open its doors to all who are intrigued by cinema, art, politics, tech, gaming, literature, theatre, television (in all its forms) and public debate. The only entry fee is enthusiasm.

Though our vision is serious, we will never be earnest. We believe in wit and satire rather than snide loftiness. We embrace pluralism rather than out-dated nativism and patriarchy.

We believe in free speech and civility; rigorous debate, not shrillness amplified by social media algorithms. We are unapologetic internationalists and do not accept that such commitment is remotely inconsistent with patriotism.

We regard ‘diversity’ not as an objective to be pursued by bosses nervous about the public image of their corporations, but as an empirical feature of contemporary society to be celebrated and reflected in all that we do. We live in a rich and heterogeneous society: who, except the sweatiest reactionaries, would have it otherwise?

We think that ideas can be entertaining, and that fun can be thought-provoking. We reject echo chambers and ideological tribes. We refuse to accept the populist assumption that people are stupid, or the lazy labelling that says that anyone who likes reading or art or drama is to be dismissed as ‘metropolitan’ (in a predominantly urban society, what does that newly-pejorative term even mean?)

Above all, we will seek to earn and maintain your trust as a source of vivid, authoritative, and entertaining writing, video and cultural intelligence. We know that all media, new and old, have work to do in this respect, and that the crisis of Post-Truth and fake news is partly a reflection of the dramatic loss of trust in traditional media institutions.

As custodians of a new project, we will be mindful of this challenge in all that we do, every day. We won’t be confined by the familiar formats of journalism – the 1,100 word column, for instance – and will give our writers the space to tell stories and to explore the detail of experience. We’ve received loud and clear the message that, especially among young people, there is a weariness with over-structured programming – which is why the freewheeling vodcast, produced here in the DRUGSTORE CULTURE studio, will be so important to what we do.

As for ‘culture’: well, that brings us to the heart of the matter and of the movement that we are launching. Loosely, the word is often used as a synonym for ‘civilisation’. But that is only a part of its true meaning. Today, ‘culture’ embraces True Detective as well as Truffaut; Grand Theft Auto as much as Guernica; Toni Morrison and Tony Stark.

Matthew Arnold was right in Culture and Anarchy (1869) to define it as ‘the best that has been thought and said’ and to insist that ‘[culture] seeks to do away with classes, to make the best that has been thought and known in the world current everywhere’.

Almost 150 years later, we welcome, and adapt, that historic challenge: to champion the shock of the new as well as the inherited intellectual and artistic glories of the past.

As E.M. Forster wrote in Does Culture Matter (1940), the love of art and literature has a strong social component: a yearning ‘to testify outside’. Digital technology has made the consumption of culture more solitary than ever. But that has not extinguished what Forster called the yearning ‘to let one’s light so shine men’s curiosity is aroused.’

When you hear the first spine-tingling bars of Nina Simone singing Feeling Good a cappella, it is impossible not to want everyone else in the world to hear them too. This is the inspiration that lies behind our PRESCRIPTION page, a real-time bulletin-board that will keep you up to speed with all that is new and best on the cultural front-line. And we will champion art and performance we love, not just review it.

This is also one of the principal reasons why we at DRUGSTORE CULTURE believe so profoundly in cinema-going as an expression of pure humanism: the enjoyment of creativity and ideas in a communal setting.

It is also why, for us, events are emphatically not a bolt-on extra, but intrinsic to our conviction that a Twenty-First Century magazine is a community: a network of writers, readers, artists, performers, public figures and friends, collaborating across platforms and face-to-face.

So (for instance) our partnerships with the how to: Academy and the Bridge Theatre – both jewels in London’s cultural crown – are as important to us as the articles we publish and the videos we post. The flipside of the online revolution is a new and growing appetite for innovative forms of human interaction.

That may take the form of a movie viewing; or a debate on the future of identity politics; or stand-up comedy shows, such as those hosted for us by Hardeep Singh Kohli at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe; or (most recently) a discussion at Anya Hindmarch’s glorious ‘Chubby Cloud’ festival at the Banqueting House to mark London Fashion Week. To quote Forster again: ‘Only connect’.

A Twenty-First Century magazine is a community: a network of writers, readers, artists, performers, public figures and friends, collaborating across platforms and face-to-face.

Yet culture is more than intellectual, creative and aesthetic achievement. It is also the matrix of social mores and conventions in which we are all embedded, constantly changing and morphing: what the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, in The Interpretation of Cultures (1973), calls ‘interworked systems of construable signs’, in which each person ‘is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun.’ Now more than ever, as digital narratives proliferate at a giddy pace, these webs need to be identified and described.

It is a founding principle of our mission that the world, including the political sphere, is now best understood through the prism of culture. And this is no small claim.

Look at the landscape of 2018: Donald Trump in the White House; the #MeToo movement (which is only just beginning); identity politics and ‘intersectionality’ (here to stay, whether you like it or not); the transgender revolution and all the questions it poses; the rise and rise of Black Lives Matter; the ugly surge in anti-Semitism on the Left; the global successes of the nativist and populist Right.

All these and many other phenomena are hard to explain satisfactorily using the categories of Twentieth Century discourse – which was framed as a grand struggle between Left and Right, in which social structure, class and institutions were primarily shaped by economic forces.

There is, of course, no shortage of contemporary argument about the proper limits of capitalism, about so-called economic ‘neo-liberalism’ and even – amazingly – about the desirability of communism as a model for social and economic organisation.

But this endlessly recycled argument between markets and statism is now secondary to a larger cultural struggle. As I argued in the inaugural print issue, what counted in the Twentieth Century was ownership of the means of production.

In the Twenty-First, what matters is control of the narrative: in the age of digital revolution and social media, a great battle rages over story. Control of popular culture is no longer a perk of state or capitalist power. It is the only reliable route to its acquisition.

Trump, for starters, is hard to pin down using traditional political terminology. Understand him, instead, as an entertainment phenomenon who has become the most powerful man on earth by annexing politics to the world of showbusiness. He became President as a reality TV star, rather than as a businessman, surfing a wave of furious social media that he continues to ride as the Tweeter-in-Chief.

As a showman, what bugs him most is ratings and reviews: which is why he was so angered by reports that his own inauguration had been more sparsely attended than Barack Obama’s in 2009; and why he cannot bear the parodies of his disastrous administration on Saturday Night Live or Alec Baldwin’s impersonation. Sad.

Control of popular culture is no longer a perk of state or capitalist power. It is the only reliable route to its acquisition.

In the UK, Jeremy Corbyn has been savaged by his opponents as a hardened leftwinger, set upon dismantling the nation’s defences and ruining its economy. Yet, to a great many of his supporters, he is something quite different: a political shaman, who, as Malcolm says of Edward the Confessor in Macbeth, comforts the afflicted with a ‘healing benediction’. For those who believe in this empathetic power – rewarded with 40 per cent of the vote in the 2017 election and the chanting of his name at Glastonbury a fortnight later – allegations that Corbyn is antisemitic, gives comfort to terrorists, indulges Putin and cares more about Venezuela than he does Britain, are not only malicious. They are completely irrelevant. He is hailed as a cultural therapist, not a veteran ideologue.

Naturally, the relationship between culture and politics has always been close. How could it be otherwise? But that nexus has never been tighter than it is today.

When Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985, it was a literary sensation. But Hulu’s extraordinary television reimagination of the novel – now preparing for its third season, with Atwood’s involvement and blessing – has introduced a huge new audience to the dystopian world she created, and given that world a chillingly contemporary resonance. What was once a cautionary feminist tale now feels more like a deafening alarm being sounded.

Though the series was commissioned before Harvey Weinstein’s disgrace and Trump’s election, its nerve-jangling narrative has acted as an uncomfortably resonant commentary upon the pathologies of our own time.

‘Gilead is within you,’ says Aunt Lydia of the patriarchal republic in which she so fervently believes: it is a state of mind, as much as a theocratic state. This rings unnervingly true, and compels a no less unnerving question: who is buying all those t-shirts bearing Gilead’s official greeting, ‘Under His Eye’, that you can now get online? Because I’m guessing it isn’t women.

In similar spirit: if asked for a snapshot of urban deprivation and its consequences in modern Britain, I would recommend not a series of graphs or the website of the Office for National Statistics – technically useful as those sources might be – but Andrea Arnold’s compelling movie, Fish Tank (2009).

This exploration of a single dysfunctional family living in Dagenham – and particularly 15-year-old, Mia (Katie Jarvis), who aspires to be a dancer – was apparently too much for Ed Miliband when he was Labour leader (well-meaning as he was, he just couldn’t keep watching). Arnold’s relentless, unsentimental depiction of life lived day to day by normal, flawed people, given little reason to expect anything to improve, is a roar of reproach to politicians who hold forth glibly about ‘aspiration’ and ‘opportunity’.

The dashing of Mia’s performing dreams in a sleazy audition and the final scene in which she dances with her mother, Joanne, to the Nas track, ‘Life’s a Bitch’, before leaving home, are as good as anything I have watched in British cinema in the past decade. The truth hurts.

DRUGSTORE CULTURE will cover politics – check out our video interview with Ruth Davidson and Alex Evans’s remarkable piece on political polarisation, psychology and public health – but we’ll pay special attention to grassroots activism, new movements and mobilisation away from the bear-pit of Westminster.

Hence: among the first visitors at our new offices last week were Will Dry, co-founder of Our Future, Our Choice!, and Amanda Chetwynd-Cowieson a senior co-ordinator at FFS (For Our Future’s Sake) – both vigorously involved in the urgent campaign for a People’s Vote on the Brexit deal. Listening to them, we were in no doubt that DRUGSTORE CULTURE is right to throw its full editorial support behind such a vote, as we do today.

This, in turn, is an example of a much broader social change that we will cover immersively. Journalists love to identify and name generational cohorts – Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials, iGen and many more. But real generation gaps only come along once every 40 or 50 years.

The last such upsurge lasted from 1963 to the high season of punk in the late Seventies (though it had identifiable roots in the culture of the Beats and the genius of Elvis). Bob Dylan wasn’t speaking metaphorically when he sang: ‘The order is/ Rapidly fadin’./ And the first one now/ Will later be last.’ Nor was David Bowie, eight years later, in ‘Changes’: ‘these children that you spit on/ As they try to change their worlds/ Are immune to your consultations/ They’re quite aware of what they’re goin’ through.’

So, to the highest degree, are today’s under-35s. A true generation gap reflects more than shifts in style, music, writing and technological culture: these are necessary but not sufficient. The chasm opens only when core attitudes are overturned and a fundamental breach is observable between one age-group and another.

Call it a ‘youthquake’ if you like, though that clickbait description doesn’t seem to me to do justice to what is happening. Today’s young people – as our Brexit poll shows – are in no doubt that their elders have messed up, and, in this case, they have a point.

Every teenager in history has been biologically programmed to rebel against his or her parents to a greater or lesser extent: this is no more than the promptings of DNA, the completion of weaning.

But this cohort has a case to make as well as an instinct to follow: they inherit a world mutilated by the previous generation’s failure to do all that much about climate change; a global economy still horribly vulnerable to the casino ethos that caused the 2008 Crash; no plausible strategy for health and social care to deal with increased longevity; the death of career structures and the rise of the ‘precariat’; student debt on an unprecedented scale; unaffordable property; in this country, Brexit; in America, Trump; elsewhere, a parade of awful ‘strong leaders’ who offer little more than bigotry and authoritarianism. No wonder today’s young people are distinctly unimpressed by their elders.

The good news is that, from what I can see, they are a truly remarkable generation. Far from being the ‘snowflakes’ of caricature, they are much more resilient than their forebears were at an equivalent age, having grasped earlier – not least in the brutal contexts of the modern exam system and on social media – that life can be exceedingly tough.

They are forced, in the language of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, to be ‘anti-fragile’ from primary school onwards. As a consequence, many of them encounter mental health problems much sooner than their parents and grand-parents. They have learned to speak to one another about such difficulties with unprecedented candour.

Watch the last scene of Andrea Arnold’s more recent masterpiece, American Honey (2016), in which a group of teenagers in a van, exhausted from their itinerant labour selling magazines, and yet still somehow bonded, sing the eponymous song by Lady Antebellum: the camera pans with bittersweet brilliance across faces full of fear and fatigue but still seeking reasons to hope.

Sasha Lane as Star in 'American Honey' (Andrea Arnold, 2016).

This generation has little interest in hierarchy, and less in conventional politics – though they are full of commitment to the specific issues that animate them as groups and individuals. Most take for granted the assumptions of identity politics and the modern reality of gender fluidity and sexual experimentation. They are terrifyingly good bullshit detectors: if you want to sell them an idea, do your homework first.

If they have an identifiable collective flaw, it is that – as the Harvard political scientist, Yascha Mounk, has shown – they are less concerned about the preservation of liberal democracy and democratic institutions than previous cohorts. That’s now. Their opinions may change in the geopolitical trials and cultural battles that undoubtedly lie ahead.

I, for one, am tremendously optimistic about the young and fascinated by the undoubted shifts that are underway. To ignore these changes, or to resist them cussedly, would be like ignoring the weather.

In any case, the essence of journalism is to report on what is happening authoritatively and explain what it means. This is precisely what we will do, with the help of an extraordinary group of younger journalists who – I believe – have the potential to match the great essayists of the Seventies. Of course, we will feature writers of all ages.

Heeding youth must always be matched by a spot of Shintoist ancestor worship: change is always best when leavened by hard-won wisdom and the lessons of the past. There is always a balance to be struck.

But our founding premise is that we live in new times. The corollary to that all-important recognition is the distinction between change and progress. Novelty is not always an unalloyed good, and its narcotic appeal can be dangerous. We’ll address the questions posed by the contemporary landscape without fear or favour.

What does identity politics mean for free speech? Why should reporters, or artists or speakers ‘stay in their lane’? Who gets to paint the lane marking on the highway? To adapt Steve Biko: we write what we like. Facts matter more than feelings. The truth counts for more than the risk of causing offence. Civility, yes; self-censorship, no.

Let us be honest: the ‘pulverising forces of modernity’, as the US political scientist James Pinkerton has called them, have caught us all off guard in their intensity, ferocity and pace. Even as mainstream politicians bicker over immigration – as though population mobility could ever be stopped by walls and ‘taking back control’ – the much greater challenge of automation careers towards us like an 18-wheel juggernaut on a darkened highway.

Environmental crisis, the discontents of globalisation, the threat of fundamentalism, the rise of the populist Right, the thunderous impact of digital technology: rarely has there been less fixity in the global system, a greater sense of contingency and instability.

Those who see this as a glitch, and await the pendulum’s swing, are hopelessly deluded. Those who long for a Jacobite restoration of old systems, or a return to an imagined Arcadia of analogue predictability, have crossed the border between healthy dreams and pointless retro-fantasy. There has been a total, absolute and irreversible change. Adapt or die.

But you know what? There’s no necessity to frame the dilemma as quite such a Darwinian choice, as a fork in the road that offers only doom or survival. There’s no reason to assume that we are powerless in these great struggles or to take for granted that what follows will be worse.

As Alabama says in True Romance (1993): ‘I kept asking Clarence why our world seemed to be collapsing and things seemed to be getting so shitty. And he’d say, “that’s the way it goes, but don’t forget, it goes the other way too.” That’s the way romance is… Usually, that’s the way it goes, but every once in a while, it goes the other way too.’

Damn straight, Clarence. And why shouldn’t it go ‘the other way’ now?  In the past few months, as I have been preparing for this launch with our amazing team – to all of whom, many thanks – one song has been playing in my head again and again.

It is Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change is Gonna Come’. Everywhere I have been, at all the festivals I have spoken at, in all the conversations I have been a part of, always that beautiful, mournful, hopeful song. That was no accident. A change is coming, and DRUGSTORE CULTURE is going to be part of it. We welcome you. Start here.

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