Political Remix: The Secret of Maggie and Ronald

An analysis of:

Death Valley Days: Secret Love

What is the video’s argument?
This 1984 scratch video entitled Death Valley Days: Secret Love criticises and satirises British and American politics of the 1980s, by piecing together clips to create a love story between Ronald Reagan and Maggie Thatcher, based on their shared conservative ideals.

What are its strategies?
It opens its argument simply and strongly, with photographs of Ronald, Nancy, and Thatcher framed by a heart. The video then imagines the development of a personal bond between the two heads of state, undercutting and satirising the ‘special relationship’ shared by the UK and USA by implying it is based solely on the attractions of Thatcher and Reagan, wherein Thatcher is also presented as an ideal woman who ‘love[s]’ music’ and ‘just pottering around the house’.

The video then introduces a faster beat and dance-style music over clips of the politicians interacting and phallic imagery of rockets launching and bombs dropping; to make a bad pun, the two are implied to share great chemistry or even to get on like a house on fire.

The beat is also interspersed with gunfire, underlining the fact that the relationship is built on aggressive political policies.

Is it effective?
A scratch video like this would have been shown in nightclubs in the 1980s, so the fast-paced music suits it to that purpose. However, several decades down the line, to a new generation which lacks the collective cultural memory of the Thatcher and Reagan eras, the video is inevitably less effective because the viewers do not know enough of the context – and the video itself provides very little context. As such the video would have been more effective if the occasionally-used voiceover was employed more to offer more information.

Having said that, to the modern viewer the video is powerful because it is reminiscent of the notorious interactions between Theresa May and Donald Trump; in fact, the entire video can be seen as a parallel to the modern political relationship between the two nations. With this in mind, I think Death Valley Days: Secret Love is possibly just as effective now as it was at its release.

The Dark Appeal of Hazing

Dangerous, disavowed, yet maintained in secret: the underworld of hazing seems unstoppable to students and adults alike.

My first year at university, a November night found me in the backyard of a student house – blindfolded, mushy peas sliding down my back, drinking spirits out of a hollowed onion. That same year at a different college, my sister was dressed in a bin bag with a penis sharpie-d on her forehead, and led drunkenly through the city centre.

Bad as it sounds – humiliating, degrading as it sounds – we were lucky. By one o’clock we were home safe, had showered off the gunge, and just like that we had been ‘accepted’ into our teams.

One month later, a boy at my university died from forced drinking during an initiation. Parents and the media were shocked. Not at how it happened – hazing is known for involving grim, alcohol-based challenges – but at why it still happens.

For students the issue was more divisive; those who had never experienced hazing condemned it, but for the girls on my team and I, it felt more complicated. We knew hazing was unpleasant, and in cases even dangerous, yet we had gone into our initiations willingly. We had even enjoyed it (although maybe only after the fact). And this wasn’t something that we or our friends could properly understand.

 

At any university, there are hundreds of societies for students to get involved in. Do you like cheerleading? Chess? Football? Politics? Theatre? The options are innumerable, and yet only a few of these groups practice initiations.

This small selection of groups is also similar across nations. In Canada and America, hazing is rife among sports teams and fraternities; in the UK, where greek life does not exist, sports teams, Agricultural Societies, and medics’ teams all have a bad rep.

The reflex association with initiations is drinking; toxic quantities, unpleasant methods, and gag-worthy substances. Yet, it is also apparent that drinking age and drinking culture don’t influence hazing; in America, 55% of students involved in athletics and/or Greek-letter organisations have been hazed – this in a nation where almost all students are under the legal drinking age – while in the UK, where people can drink from age 18, despite a dearth of research initiations are known to be widespread, and the horror stories which reach the media all tell of excessive alcohol consumption. The attitude of initiations is entirely distinct from the idea that drinking is subversive, and ‘cool’ in a country where it is not legal.

Jay Johnson, a sociologist who has done extensive research into American hazing, points out the link between hazing and sports:

“Athletes often describe their ‘need’ to have an initiation ceremony,” he says, “as a team bonding experience that marks the group as a “team” and its members as “teammates” for the first time.”

Specifically, initiations produce a sense of “communitas”; that is, identity as part of the group, cohesion, and a relationship with other members of the group. This explains how initiations – when done well, and it is another issue entirely whether university initiations are done well – can be a positive experience, marking someone’s welcome into the fold.

So the need outlined by Johnson for sports teams to develop a bond, to work well as a unit, goes some way toward explaining why they and not, say, the film society, haze incoming members. But there is also something more ominous at play.

In winter 2016, a rumour reached us about the initiations for the women’s rugby team at another Northern university.

The girls, it was said, had been made to sit on white towels and watch porn. At the end, there were fines for the wettest towels. This rumour remains unsubstantiated, and never reached mainstream media, but the ethos it represents looms unpleasantly over the idea of initiations.

This wasn’t simply about promoting bonding and unity through shared experience, it was about ritual humiliation. Jay Johnson’s description of how initiations “educate newcomers as to their place in the hierarchical structure of the group” doesn’t capture the brutality of this reality.

Everyone has heard of the Stanford prison experiment, wherein participants cruelly mistreated ‘prisoners’ simply because they could. In the same vein, seniors enjoy hazing freshers because it’s accepted, because they like the power trip, and because they can enact a sort of vengeance for having been hazed themselves.

This is dark and unsettling; no one wants to believe that, in John Huston’s famous words, “at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of anything.” However, the logic of this motivation is straightforward regardless of the malevolent attitude behind it.

Slightly more confusing is why first-years willingly undergo initiations and why often, they don’t see how the practice is objectionable. My sister and I could handle foul drinks and embarrassing costumes; despite objectively knowing it was degrading we had accepted that something like this would happen, and although we couldn’t articulate why, that was reason enough to put up with it – because it’s just the way things are. In his research into hazing at Illinois, John Brubacher reached a bizarre conclusion that reflects this:

“That freshmen had always been hazed seemed sufficient cause why hazing should be continued.”

 

 

Most famously, perhaps, the practice of hazing is portrayed in the 1994 cult hit Dazed & Confused, which shows freshmen girls proposing to senior boys, and freshmen boys being paddled. Although this depicts high school and not university, the film shows how ingrained the normality and acceptability of hazing is to our collective cultural mentality. Regulation may have improved since the 70s (in 2000, the University of Vermont cancelled its men’s ice hockey season following a hazing scandal), but the ethos remains. And yet, the idea of initiations in fact goes back ever further.

John Brubacher was not speaking about modern experiences in his book, but about the University of Illinois just before the turn of the twentieth century, 150 years ago. Brubacher describes freshmen being chased up telephone poles, the use of firearms, and even chemical weapons being thrown at a first-year social; hazing, it appears, is a culture as old as university itself. And disturbingly, despite being quashed, it returns Hydra-like with later generations. Students want to initiate and be initiated, and the potential danger of the process is little considered.

Eric Anderson explains, “These kids are 18 or 19 years old in college now, so they don’t remember that four years ago some girls died doing that.”

While students can and do recognise the potential dangers of initiation culture, their viewpoint is invariably more nuanced than that of researchers. For them, hazing can be fun or at least worthwhile, gaining you “respect” within the team. There is also a callous but common (and again, understandable) attitude of ‘that won’t happen to me’.

Alice, a Sports Science student at an English university, says, “basically every sports club does initiations. You only hear about really bad ones, when people die. In between that thousands of people do initiations and they’re okay.”

Jess, a student on the hockey team at another college, puts it more succinctly. “As long as no one’s stupid about it, it’s fine. Give me an onion, and I’ll eat it.”

This level of awareness suggests a self-moderation in which hazing is challenging but rewarding, a rite of passage winning you acceptance to the team without excessive humiliation – and it is more prevalent than you might think. Horror stories like the first-years sat on towels are the minority. In the UK especially, where most universities have a strict ban on initiations, procedures are frequently self-policed; unwilling to forego the fun but equally unwilling to suffer penalties and negative publicity, many clubs look out for the safety of first-years, hosting initiations which are “gross but manageable”. So for both seniors and freshers, Elizabeth Allen’s assertion that “there’s no such thing as harmless hazing” would be laughed out the door.

 

This disconnect between students and adults is probably also why hazing is perceived as such a serious danger. Far removed from the culture of college campuses, where heavy drinking and social participation is often part and parcel of making friends, parents and critics see only the irresponsibility and immoral carelessness which causes the death of at least one student per year in America.

Indeed, because initiations are so taboo, the successful ones (no deaths, no hospitalisations, no humiliating, cruel activities) are the ones you never hear about.

Who cares if novitiate skiers were given a mixture of Baileys and egg to shot? Who cares if half-a-dozen freshers drank cider through a shinpad after a hockey game? Those freshers certainly don’t.

Unfortunately, because of the potential for hazing to become so dangerous – indeed, for it to be fatal – universities cannot draw a soft line. They can’t condone mild rituals and sanction horrific excess. And this pushes all activities underground, where they can’t be regulated. Long history has shown that attempts to prevent hazing by outlawing it don’t work; not even the threat of expulsion or criminal prosecution will entirely remove the culture for good.

 

University is an environment barely understood by all the young people in it, let alone by older adults outside the culture: Hazing can be forbidden but it is intrinsic, expected, and often even enjoyed. For myself and the girls on my team, to have relinquished the prospect of an initiation that November would have been to lose a sense of achievement and community – and yet at the same time, we understood how awful the worst case scenario could be. It seems instead, that adults will simply have to continue impressing the dangers of hazing on students until the message gets through.

But no matter what happens, the practice is going to continue; and maybe it’s better if it does. Maybe it’s better if there’s a history of careful, regulated initiations – if that’s possible – otherwise years after hazing has been banned, it will return again in careless, sadistic measures and awful consequences.

Bridging Research and Audience

Carnivore’s Dilemma
/
The Astonishing Weaponry of Dung Beetles

In these articles, Robert Kunzig and Douglas Emlen translate facts and statistics into engaging articles. However although longer, Kunzig’s article on America’s beef industry is more effective at retaining the reader’s attention because he encorporates more evocative language, human interest and a personal stake.

Strategies – Kunzig compensates for the dryness of the data (how many million tons of meat; percentage of grain consumption by cattle; etc) by phrasing the arguments for and against eating beef in extremes. An example of this is his opening tagline; “Unhealthy. Nutritious. Cruel. Delicious. Unsustainable. All-American”, where the punchy one-word sentences summarise what is harder to grasp with simple facts. Kunzig also weaves in quotes and stories from men whose lives are deeply tied to cattle farming, and describes his own experience at Wrangler Feedyard in Texas. In contrast, Emlen’s only reference to a personal stake is in his introductory story about observing elephant dung in Tanzania – and, given he dates this incident to a decade earlier, Emlen does not draw the reader in so successfully as Kunzig. Similarly, although both writers establish a narrative of sorts (Kunzig of his cattle farm experience, and simultaneously of the cattle’s journey from pasture to plate; Emlen of the beetle’s progress with a dung-ball) Emlen’s narrative is less cohesive.

Audience – The papers for which both journalists write are erudite, typically attracting a middle-class, educated readership. But within this, Kunzig is again better placed to attract readers, as most Americans consume beef and therefore have a stake in his debate – whereas Emlen’s link to human arms races and the Cold War is both tenuous and distant from readers.

Effective? – As outlined above, Kunzig’s article is more effective at making his research engaging, partly because his subject matter is already of more interest to his audience than Emlen’s. Kunzig’s use of story is also more successful as he incorporates human interest, in his interview with Paul Defoor and other workers at the feedlot.

Provisional Conflict Plan

The topic I am exploring for my feature article is social groups, hierarchy, and hazing in institutions of higher education. The specific conflict is – why do only some social groups develop/practice initiation rites; what does this have to do with hierarchy and identity; and how do initiatory and non-initiatory groups locate themselves within the same culture of higher education?

My conflict plan (pictured) outlines the lines of inquiry: which social groups do/don’t engage in hazing; similarities/differences across different areas (cities or nations); hazing culture in the past; influence of social media; development of hierarchy and individual identity in adolescence/secondary school; older generations’ perception of hazing; and media portrayal of hazing incidents.

Burning Up: The Science of Good and Evil

Yudhijit Bhattacharjee’s article on psychopathy and empathy mixes emotive stories with compelling scientific research to examine how such conflicting traits can both exist in humans.

The Science Behind Psychopaths and Extreme Altruists

In The Science of Good and Evil, Bhattacharjee addresses a question which appears in the media every time a person commits a particularly awful crime: how could anyone do this? Bhattacharjee develops this into a more complex exploration of how empathy develops in the human brain, and how one species can demonstrate such extremes of evil and altruism.

Bhattacharjee initially sets out this conflict with a series of emotive images and captions, referring to well-known and recent incidents of horror or mass murder. Without explicitly asking why or how these events happened, Bhattacharjee prompts the question by simply presenting the information and photographs. He then contrasts these awful incidents with human interest stories about a woman and a man who both saved a stranger’s life; this juxtaposition sets out Bhattacharjee’s conflict and allows him to then directly address the subject of his article.

Thereon in, Bhattacharjee alternates personal stories with quotes from researchers and digestible scientific theories in order to construct a piece which is both informative and engaging. Also, he probes into related issues such as the emotional development of children and the reasoning by which people rationalise mass murder. These give greater depth to Bhattacharjee’s argument, as they link back to his initial question of how some humans can be so altruistic and some so evil, allowing Bhattacharjee to draw a satisfactory conclusion.

Timothy Kelly: A Portfolio Website

In my search through portfolio websites for a site I considered effective, I landed on Tim Kelly’s portfolio for his work in theatre, photography, and graphics. His simple design is impressive, showcasing his work engagingly and informatively with a balance of beautiful images and information.

timothykelly.co.uk

Fitting the fact that part of Kelly’s expertise is in photography, the front page of his site is simple but arresting, featuring a slideshow of images behind a bold title with clear links to his portfolio and social media. The simplicity of the font and text colour focuses attention on the images; and given also Kelly’s listed experience in web design, his portfolio is in itself a demonstration of his skills in that medium.

Within the site, drop down menus and bold, simple formatting make it very user-friendly, providing easy access to different aspects of Kelly’s work (specific shows, photography styles, and web design): Along with straightforward and digestible text, this makes the user experience enjoyable and also encourages navigation to different parts of the site.

What I especially enjoyed about this website was that the aesthetic is uniform but creative; all the photographs are bold and colourful, but don’t detract from the written information, while the writing is pared down to a minimum, allowing Kelly’s work to speak for itself in pictures. There is enough interactivity in the drop-down menus to enable easy navigation, but not so much as to detract from the information presented on the pages. As such, the site is both enjoyable and simple to explore.