The Protest Survey: Gravenhurst’s Nick Talbot: On Occupy, the Election, Obama’s First Term, Climate Change, and an Aggressive Democratic Party | Under The Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Tuesday, December 7th, 2021  

The Protest Survey: Gravenhurst’s Nick Talbot

On Occupy, the Election, Obama’s First Term, Climate Change, and an Aggressive Democratic Party

Nov 02, 2012 Gravenhurst
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In conjunction with our Protest Issue we asked several artists the same set of politically-themed questions. Nick Talbot of the British band Gravenhurst, for which he is the main creative force, provided these answers. The Bristol-based band released their latest album, The Ghost in Daylight, earlier this year via Warp.

What, in your opinion, is the most pressing U.S. political or social issue?

The USA is such a complicated and extreme place, and the whole political agenda has been so successfully controlled by the Right for so long that it’s hard to know where to start. With Obama’s health care reforms Americans had the opportunity to change the ethical landscape of the country, but the Right is willing to do anything to make sure he fails; even if they agree with something, the fact that he proposes it means they have to be seen to reject it. Never before has the country been so aggressively divided, with so little bipartisan dialogue. Most Europeans look on open-mouthed, aghast at how such moderate, sensible ideas get trampled on and called “socialist.” How could it not be a good idea that in a country with no public health system, no equivalent of our National Health Service, every citizen be required to have health insurance? How can it be a good idea to leave people with the possibility of accruing crushing life-long debt because of illness? It’s hard to see how anyone could think not having health insurance is a good idea, and if it had been suggested by a Republican it wouldn’t have faced such hostility (and of course it was—ironically, Mitt Romney attempted almost identical proposals while Governor of Massachusetts). When you have a sizable amount of people who seriously think that Obama is a Muslim who was born in Kenya, when there is so little bipartisan dialogue, every political issue becomes important, because no issue is being decided on its merits, but on a totally irrational tribal basis.

What, in your opinion, is the most pressing worldwide political or social issue?

In the long run, probably climate change. In the U.K. as in the U.S. we have serious, intelligent pundits who publicly insist that climate change is a hoax fuelled by liberals with a socialist agenda, or something like that. If we are not going to attempt an alternative economic system to capitalism, then we have to find some way of making capitalism work for everyone, not just the rich, and in a way that minimizes the destruction of the planet. We have just seen that the whole world can be turned on its head by unregulated finance; this will simply happen again unless something changes. But of course it is not in the interests of the wealthiest to change it, because many made a fortune out of the banking crisis. What is so staggering is that we have just had a crisis of capitalism, yet our government has managed to successfully blame it on the Left; they’ve convinced people that the national debt deficit is the fault of the last Labour government’s social spending, when of course it was caused by the absolute necessity of bailing out the banks. When you have a crisis of capitalism, it would make sense that people would become responsive to more socialist ideas, and we have seen France, the Netherlands and some other European countries swing slightly to the Left, but that hasn’t happened here or in the USA. I think this reflects the fact that people don’t particularly like capitalism, but they’ve seen for the most part only violence and failure come from repeated attempts at socialism through the 20th Century, so they are wary of trying any alternatives. I think that the most realistic approach is to find a way to reform capitalism, but really the Left is suffering from a lack of ideas. The Communist Manifesto was written in 1848; we need to rebuild and renew our intellectual backbone. The “Third Way” approach of Clinton and Blair—of embracing the free market entirely but trying to skim wealth off the top and redistribute it—had some successes but of course was entirely at the mercy of boom and bust capitalism. If we are to escape the continual cycle of boom and bust, we have to reform the whole economic system. But people will not be receptive to violent revolution unless they come under terrible pressure, and I dearly hope it doesn’t come to that; I hope it can be done gradually, democratically, through the spread of ideas.

What are your thoughts on the Occupy movement? It’s been almost a year since it started, has it accomplished anything yet?

It’s good that attention is being drawn to the staggering gap between rich and poor, the fact that the rich have got richer while everyone else’s wages have stagnated and relative living standards dropped. While I welcome any protest that helps to educate people as to their class position and the exploitation of their labor, we need to come up with alternative strategies and disseminate them. The criticism that is always leveled at Anti-Capitalist protesters is that they are strong on accusation but weak on suggestions. This is largely true; the Left is suffering from a paucity of ideas.

What are your thoughts on how the U.S. presidential election is shaping up so far?

It’s good to see the Democrats fighting back aggressively; they’ve made massive mistakes in the past by thinking that they should just “rise above” smear tactics and dirty tricks—that doesn’t work, it makes them look weak, as though they are tacitly admitting the opposition’s points. I read a fascinating book called “The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation” by the psychologist Drew Westen. He explains how the Democrats keep losing because they think that they can convince people to vote for them if they can just get them to understand their arguments and policies—but it doesn’t work. (The Left in the U.K. makes the same mistake.) The Republicans have a genius for appealing to voters’ emotions, and instead of talking about policies, they talk about values. And it works. Westen shows why it works, using research on how our brains respond to narratives about the candidate’s character. Thankfully this book was read by Obama’s campaign team, and the Democrats finally got the message: if you keep talking policy, you will lose. People don’t weigh up the policies and vote rationally, they vote emotionally on the basis of how they can relate to the candidates character and values. The book took the political class by storm. The Left now understands that when it is attacked it mustn’t “rise above”—that looks weak—it must fight back, and fight dirty. Thank God someone finally got it into their fucking heads! We’ve watched them snatch defeat from the jaws of victory so many times, and it’s always because they make fundamental mistakes about how people think and vote. Returning to the current race, it’s unfortunate that it always seems to be Democrats that inherit a massive budget deficit, and of course the public holds the President responsible for the economy whether he could do anything about it or not. I get the impression that many are disappointed by Obama but don’t really warm to Romney. Obama’s team must keep telling people that Romney is a multimillionaire asset-stripping hawk who sells out American jobs and doesn’t give a fuck about working people. The must keep showing how unprincipled he is; they must keep talking about values, not policies. People respond to values and character; Obama has these in spades, Romney doesn’t. But who knows. The USA is fucking crazy.

Did you watch the Republican and/or the Democratic Conventions? If so, what were your impressions and did they alter your perception of either party?

I followed them in the news but didn’t watch them.

Are you satisfied or disappointed by President Obama’s first term in office thus far?

I find it hard to hold him responsible for some of his failings because he was often completely prevented from doing what he wanted to do by a massively hostile opposition. As I say, there is no tradition of bipartisan dialogue any more. He managed to scrape the health care bill through, in a mangled form. The fact that he hasn’t shut down Guantanamo Bay is unforgivable; it’s his biggest broken promise. I’m uncomfortable with his zeal for extra-judicial killings. Anyone anywhere in the world can be deemed an enemy combatant and be assassinated. Regarding bin Laden, in an ideal world he should have been captured and tried in an international court. An ugly part of me quite likes the idea that the last thing he saw was the barrel of an American rifle. And it should be said that after his death, in preparation for funeral, his body was treated with more respect than he ever treated any of his victims. But that’s my stupid, angry emotional response; in my heart I really know that we simply shouldn’t be setting these kinds of precedents. It sends out the wrong message. If it’s OK for the USA to assassinate whoever they deem an enemy, and indefinitely detain suspects, then they have no leg to stand on when they accuse others of the same thing. But like the USA has ever cared about ethical consistency! They pressed for sanctions when Saddam Hussein contravened U.N. resolutions but are willfully blind to the fact that Israel is doing it every day by occupying Palestinian territory, flouting Resolution 242 (which urges Israel to withdraw from land occupied in the 1967 War). It’s this total lack of consistency that ferments hatred of America. Obama surely knows this; he is committed to a two-state solution based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed land swaps, but how much can he actually do? Faced with so much hostility at home and in Israel it seems his hands are tied.

Do you think the United States has changed at all since Obama’s election? If so, how?

It’s made it more Right Wing, but it’s always becoming more Right Wing anyway. The crazy thing is, any success by the Right makes the Right more stridently Right Wing, and any success by the Left makes the Right more stridently Right Wing!

Does openly supporting a political candidate (i.e., Obama) represent a tacit endorsement of all of that politician’s positions (drone strikes, indefinite detention of terror suspects, etc.)?

Of course not. You can’t please all the people all the time, and in politics you are always to some extent choosing the best of a bad bunch. If you had to agree with everything a politician believes in order to vote for them, you wouldn’t be able to vote for anyone.

What role do you think artists should play in political movements? When does an artist cross the line and become essentially a spokesperson for a politician or political party?

The problem is that nobody really takes artists seriously. Artists are almost always intrinsically Left of center, liberal, so whenever they say anything people can just think “well they would say that, they’re artists.” And unfortunately quite a lot of musicians tend to say quite politically naïve and simplistic things. But I think it’s the responsibility of everyone to use whatever platform they have to communicate what matters to them; whether they are artists or plumbers. The thing that frustrates me most is when people say that they aren’t political; that is simply never true. Every decision you make has ethical ramifications, so when people say they aren’t political they are really saying that they just don’t want to have to think about those ramifications. But on the other hand, I’m sympathetic to those who find the moral demands of the modern world exhausting and party politics tedious. If you aren’t particularly switched on to political ideas, then all politicians just seem to be out for themselves. I don’t think this is true; I think there are as many decent, principled people in politics as there are power hungry sociopaths. But unless you educate yourself about the issues, and make some decisions about your political values, all politicians can appear to be alike. I’m fortunate in that I have been educated to a high level, I studied politics, sociology and philosophy, and my political beliefs are informed by sociological and political theory, but I had to choose to study those things; most people don’t. If we want people to be more engaged in politics we have to teach sociological and political theory in schools. I’m sure you could teach to 15-year-olds the basic ideas behind Marxism and Feminism, basic economics, the power structure of society, how the democratic process works. When I got to university I realized that the kids who came from private schools already knew a lot of philosophy; they had studied Plato and Aristotle at school, while the state school kids like me were coming to these things for the first time. We should teach some philosophy in schools. It’s been shown that kids are receptive to it; they like the fact that they are invited to think about ideas for themselves, because in all their other classes they are told exactly what to think, with no room for critical evaluation. But this opens a whole other can of worms: the massive failure of the public schooling systems in the U.K. and the USA. We need to pay teachers better to attract better teachers; there is no two ways about it.

Do artists have a responsibility to use their work or public platform to positively influence voters and push for change?

Insofar as anyone has an ethical responsibility to do what is right. The political is ethical. I don’t think artists have more of a responsibility than anyone else. We all have that responsibility. On the other hand, if we have a louder public voice than the average person, then yes I guess we should use it. Unfortunately this is often counterproductive, because when I hear some musicians talking about politics I find myself thinking, “I agree with where you are coming from but I don’t want you fighting in my corner, because you are making a mess of it.” Also, I don’t mean to say that the art should itself be explicitly political; a lot of songwriting for instance works better when it deals with more general themes of the human experience. I think it is better for me to use the platform I have to talk about politics than to write political songs. I talk about politics in interviews and on my blog, but it’s rare for me to bring it into songs, because it often seems trite in that format. That said, two of the songs on my latest album have quasi-political themes.

What are your thoughts on the Pussy Riot conviction?

I think they did something very brave, but I was also a bit frustrated that it takes a rock band for young people to take an interest in human rights. It’s an easily digestible outrage piece for many people in the West, while most young people in bands say fuck all about the public lashings and stoning to death of women in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan, Pakistan, Yemen, and The United Arab Emirates. Can they not relate to these women? Do we expect so little of these countries but expect so much more from Russia, a borderline fascist police state?

What is the most overrated political or social issue of our time?

In the USA it’s the things that distract from the real issues—the fact that people spent so much energy discussing whether Obama is a Kenyan Muslim instead of thinking about any number of substantive issues.

What is the most underrated political or social issue of our time?


Does a single piece of art (a song, a film, etc.) have the power to change people’s minds and create societal change?

Yes. A great example is the British film made by Ken Loach in the ’60s called Cathy Come Home, which provoked major public and political discussion of issues such as homelessness, unemployment and the rights of mothers to keep their own children. Then there is the book 10 Rillington Place by Ludovic Kennedy, which played a part in the abolishment of capital punishment in the U.K. Collectively many songs of the ’60s contributed to the Civil Rights movement, like “We Shall Overcome” by Pete Seeger, “Southern Man” by Neil Young, “The Times They Are A-Changing” by Dylan.

What is your favorite protest song?

“Southern Man” by Neil Young.

What are your thoughts on the state of U.S. political coverage (i.e., television and print media)?

The media is dominated by Right Wing interests, groups like Murdoch’s News Corporation. They not only decide how issues are portrayed, importantly, they also choose the very agenda of what gets to be broadcast at all. So the Left has to fight incredibly hard to be heard. It also means that Democrats have to move to the Right in order to get any support. It’s all part of the incredible hold that the Right has over people’s consciousness. Thankfully in the U.K. the default news provider, the BBC, is more fair-minded (though the Right always accuse the BBC of a Left-Wing bias, of course). Because the USA doesn’t have that, people have to search harder to find alternative news sources, but the Internet has helped that to some extent.

Where do you get your news in this day and age?

Me and my housemates are quite nerdy so we get The Economist and New Scientist delivered weekly, and most weeks I buy The New Statesman, a Centre-Left magazine, and I read the news on the BBC and Guardian websites.

Do you have anything else to say about the current state of politics or the state of the world?

If we continue with the current socio-economic system, we are quite likely to destroy the planet and ourselves. The old alternatives to capitalism don’t seem feasible, so the Left needs a revolution in ideas. Capitalism has had some successes in raising living standards for many people, but it has also had many failures. Unregulated, free markets will destroy the planet because corporations are not going to act ethically out of choice when their only responsibility is to their shareholders. We have to be prepared to reform capitalism to make it work for people, not the other way around. If we want something different, we need new ideas.


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