Rory Hamilton – January 27th, 2022
Following on from our team chat about Adam McKay’s film Don’t Look Up* on the podcast last week, I’ve been thinking about other programmes, podcasts, books which have intrigued me and either have given me hope or I feel have accurately diagnosed the ills with society. So I wanted to share with you my top three recommendations for things to get into to start the year off right.
*First of all, I cannot recommend Don’t Look Up enough – listen to the podcast to cover the full range of emotions and opinions it aroused in its Common Weal audience, but as a satire on the collapse of humanity, and a ‘parody’ of climate change, it certainly provokes a lot of food for thought. Indeed, I recommend all of McKay’s political commentaries: The Big Short – his retelling of the housing market collapse which led to the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. Not only is this visceral as it is funny (just as Don’t Look Up is), but it also helps talk through some very complicated things that happened to plunge the world into crisis at the same time as re-exposing the brokers and managers who stood to benefit from exploiting the poor. And Vice which looks at (the life and) vice presidency of Dick Cheney with Christian Bale, as the title character, masterfully portraying the evil of Cheney and the politicking behind events like the Iraq War, all of which paint a pretty bleak picture of US politics. I still think The Big Short is the crowning jewel in this political trilogy, however, Don’t Look Up’s immediacy and relatability run it a close second. Give them all a watch and tell me what you think.
So what to watch in 2022…
Inside by Bo Burnham – This Netflix special by US comedian Bo Burnham was released last year after being produced during the height of the pandemic. Written and filmed entirely by Burnham in his house, for some it might be a too harsh look back at life in lockdown, however, I found it a cutting edge take on society’s problems. I was at first hesitant to watch the special as I never used to be a fan of comedy songs, however, I heard too many good things to put it off any longer and I’m so glad I reserved my judgement. Burnham is both funny and relatable with political takes as well as some more light-hearted material. The double-entendre of the title accurately reflects the self-reflective style of comedy which questions the role of comedy in a bleak world as well as the enduring strains of the pandemic on Burnham’s own mental health, something I’m sure we could all relate to. Burnham will make you laugh your head off with songs and skits like ‘Comedy’, ‘Shut the F**k Up’, ‘Problematic’, ‘Don’t Kill Yourself’ and ‘Welcome to the Internet’ centring on our obsession with our phones, social media, influencer culture (something I will be writing about in the coming weeks), and our general self-obsession in modern society.
The use of comedy to break down these issues really cuts closer to the bone that most academic papers I’ve read, asking questions like, do we really need to voice our opinions on EVERYTHING, what good is that doing other than generating profit for algorithms? Burnham’s writing articulates the links between mental health issues, the global corporate structure, social media – including how we have ‘anything and everything all of the time’ – and how we treat each other in society (our preference for living our lives virtually rather than in the outdoors). This self-reflective style is outstanding and helps address cancel culture and our own problematic behaviours and privileges. The first half is certainly more light-hearted and the satire is more evident in excerpts such as ‘How the World Works’, ‘Unpaid Intern’, and ‘Thank You for Watching My Content’. However, the second half is undoubtedly darker and certainly towards the end the more visceral aspects come through over the laughs. Netflix describes it as a dark comedy and it certainly gets dark but don’t get me wrong, when Bo Burnham tackles dark subjects he teaches you to laugh about them. (If you enjoy Inside, I would definitely recommend going back and watching some of his previous specials, what. and Make Happy. what., in particular, continues themes addressing social media and particularly why millennials/Gen Zs are such performative generations. I would also recommend Frankie Boyle’s 2019 show Excited for you to See And Hate This, which is distinctly more political than some of his past performances but has some great social analyses in there – I think there’s a pirated version on YouTube somewhere!!).
What to read in 2022…
Human kind by Rutger Bregman – This book will reaffirm your faith in humanity. You might have heard of Rutger Bregman after his appearance at Davos a few ago calling out the tax avoiders in the world, and more recently Tucker Carlson’s explosive rant against him for exposing Fox News’ hypocrisy. The central theme of the book is the worldview that humans are essentially good. Bregman’s optimistic view attempts to break down histories and psychological studies that appear to portray humans as inherently evil or inclined towards exploitation, standoffishness and anti-social behaviour more generally. The book is very digestible and a real page turner and I constantly found myself wanting to read more – “tell me how good we really are”. It is the medicine for our ages.
In it Bregman takes apart pessimistic views on society such as Lord of the Flies, debunks studies like the Philip Zimbardo experiment at Stanford University, and even addresses how we seem to end up with so many shitty leaders. For me, the real payoff comes for those who wait out the book to its final chapters, where Bregman uses some contemporary examples (his constant use of examples to prove his points is one of the book’s strongest points) of people in the world doing things differently and doing them with an altruistic sense of purpose. For those with a keen interest in business, the examples of Buurtzorg in the Dutch care sector and the French manufacturing company FAVI, will show you how to restructure your organisation to be both effective and to put the wellbeing of your employees first. If you’re interested in education policy the Agora school is a striking example of learning how to fully equips students for life.
(A side note, its principles of learning through play remind me a chapter in Gerry Hassan and Simon Barrow’s book A Nation Changed? in which Susanne Zeedyk looks at the SNP’s policies on play, well worth a read).
And finally, if justice is your thing, then the Haldon prison in Norway serves a fantastic example of rehabilitation – a very timely read if you consider the request for parole by far-right terrorist Anders Behring Breivik in the last few weeks. Bregman ends the book with some great suggestions for living your life more positively with this view of humankind. (His other book Utopia for Realists explores other ideas such as Universal Basic Income, and Bregman has appeared on numerous podcasts, and programmes including TED Talks, and is well worth listening to).
And finally, what to listen to in 2022…
Reasons to Be Cheerful with Ed Miliband and Geoff Lloyd – Former Labour leader Ed Miliband and radio host Geoff Lloyd’s podcast has it in the name really – reasons to be cheerful. Much like Bregman, their takes on key issues are intriguing and help inform your views with a wide range of opinions and speakers on the issues they tackle. In particular, I really recommend trawling back through the archives to find the COP26 specials where Ed breaks down the events of the days and puts some really quite complex negotiations into easy-to-handle terms. Although, his position on independence differs from ours, his views on a Green New Deal certainly come much closer so I wouldn’t discard the former Labour leader too quickly. Again, like Bregman, their guests come from a wide range of backgrounds and highlight real working examples of policies which provide a reason to be cheerful. A favourite episode of mine was one in 2018 on rethinking economics with Icelandic Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, who has since featured regularly on the pod. In fact, the calibre of guests and the broad of places they come from is extraordinary – from Presidents to US representatives, it really brings policy to life and restores my faith in humanity.
Of course, all these bit pieces of pop culture can help support your reading, listening and watching of Common Weal’s own policy podcast, our frequent policy papers and explainer videos, all of which I highly recommend (I’m biased I know). Let’s hope these podcasts, books, and films either give you hope that you’re not the only one out there feeling like that, or they inspire you to find new ideas and explore new thoughts. Or they might even reassure your faith in humanity as things seem ever so bleak.