Friday, April 28, 2006

Aren't Y'All Just Hired Killers?

Bill Hicks is, I think, something of a touchstone for a lot of the blogosphere. There are good reasons for this. The first one is clearly that he is, at his best, really damn funny. That's not enough though: there are lots of really damn funny people out there though, not all of whom have been taken up as exemplar with the kind of enthusiasm with which the blogosphere has adopted Hicks. More reasons are needed. I think the key is that there is a fairly good fit, both sociologically and ideologically, between much of the blogosphere and Hicks.

Much of the blogosphere is, after all, populated by people with much the same kind of profile as Hicks': slightly socially marginalised, disenchanted, reasonably well educated middle class white men, typically in their late twenties or early thirties. There's a politics and aesthetics which can go with that sociological profile, a kind of resentful anti-authoritarianism, a disappointment at neither having managed to live out the not-quite forgotten ideals of youth nor gained a firm and accustomed hold on the compensations of comfort and security. Think of both the recurrent motif of Hicks' politics - that exasperation, that sense of obvious moral truths which are typically simply ignored and need to be somehow rammed home, of himself as conducting, against various entrenched opponents, a moral crusade - and the self-understanding bloggers have that they are railing against the biases and lacunae of the mainstream press and political classes. Indeed, Hicks fits well with the internet as a whole, its libertarianism, the frontier mentality.

Understandably, those politics have a particular kind of aesthetic associated with them: vituperation, rant, accusations of hypocrisy. That style has faults: it magnifies failures, seizes on what might be genuine mistakes and makes them damning, deliberate acts, can be too quick to judge. It's too sure of itself, brooks no compromise, tends towards the intolerant, doesn't appreciate the shades of grey endemic to moral discourse. The result is, of course, that people tend to shout past each other, or get dismissed as cranks. It isn't that I mean to excuse myself from these faults. I too am a somewhat socially and politically marginalised, slightly over-educated white middle class man in his twenties, and have on occasion sacrificed the nuanced view with a view to the decisive blow. Mea culpa.

Equally, there is much to be said in favour of that style of critique. For all that moral discourse does have greys, it is not without its more clear-cut cases, and when confronted with them, the uncompromising, relentless scorn that characterises much of both of blogosphere and Hicks is both appropriate and helpful: it concentrates the mind and quickens the blood. But it's not always the best stance to take: its self-righteousness, its sense of absolute disenfranchisement, its willingness to polarise, to create a demonology, is often both crude and disabling. It lends itself to distortion and the fetishism of small differences, to the queering of a moral compass in the pursuit of some kind of ideological purity.

So, in a way, for a piece of internet-based political activism, the motherhood and apple pie of much of the Euston Manifesto has much to be said for it. I too am for democracy, not apologising for tyranny, human rights for all, a greater degree of social and economic equality, the harnessing of globalisation for these ends, against mindless anti-Americanism, for a two-state solution in Israel/Palestine, against racism and terrorism, for internationalism, dialogue, truth, freedom of expression, easy access to and respect for intellectual capital. Beyond perhaps the fourth, seventh, ninth and thirteenth items in this list though, there is virtually no one in the political mainstream in the Atlantic democracies which would not, if asked, sign up to these goals. On the left, at least in Britain, one could go even further: none of these aims are really controversial.

This presentation of the goals of the Manifesto is in a way the obverse, the gentrified suburb to the teeming metropolis, of the Hicksian tone of much of the political discourse that goes on on the internet. Rather than coming right out with it, accentuating disagreement, excoriating its opponents, the Manifesto smoothes over differences, seeks to accomodate, placate with vagueness, even dissembles, as if it is trying to be as uncontroversial as possible. Clearly though, something beyond singing the undoubted virtues of the leftist versions of motherhood and apple pie is intended by the Manifesto. Its second sentence, after all, claims that the document proposes "a fresh political alignment", which, as any political alignment does, requires something to be against. Understanding what and whom the writers and signatories of the Euston Manifesto are setting themselves up against is, I would suggest, crucial to understanding the Manifesto itself. As is so often the case, the devil is in the detail.

From the second item:

[w]e draw a firm line between ourselves and those left-liberal voices today quick to offer an apologetic explanation for [tyranny].

From the third:

[w]e reject the double standards with which much self-proclaimed progressive opinion now operates, finding lesser (though all too real) violations of human rights which are closer to home, or are the responsibility of certain disfavoured governments, more deplorable than other violations that are flagrantly worse.

From the sixth:

[w]e reject without qualification the anti-Americanism now infecting so much left-liberal (and some conservative) thinking.

From the ninth:

[w]e are opposed to all forms of terrorism... Terrorism inspired by Islamist ideology is widespread today.

From the tenth:

[b]ut if the state itself violates this common life in appalling ways, its claim to sovereignty is forfeited and there is a duty upon the international community of intervention and rescue. Once a threshold of inhumanity has been crossed, there is a "responsibility to protect".

From the eleventh:

[d]rawing the lesson of the disastrous history of left apologetics over the crimes of Stalinism and Maoism, as well as more recent exercises in the same vein (some of the reaction to the crimes of 9/11, the excuse-making for suicide-terrorism, the disgraceful alliances lately set up inside the "anti-war" movement with illiberal theocrats), we reject the notion that there are no opponents on the Left.

From the fifteenth:

[w]e reject fear of modernity, fear of freedom, irrationalism, the subordination of women...

From the elaborations:

[t]he many left opponents of regime change in Iraq who have been unable to understand the considerations that led others on the Left to support it, dishing out anathema and excommunication, more lately demanding apology or repentance, betray the democratic values they profess.

This is how the motherhood and apple pie gets cashed out, in snide little jibes at the various, unnamed, parts of the left which have disagreed with the authors. This is the territory of left-liberal voices, of self-proclaimed progressive opinion, of left-liberal thinking, of left opponents of regime change in Iraq. The evasiveness extends beyond actually stating what the Manifesto is in favour of, to what and whom it is against, as if it were afraid that, in naming names, points of disagreement would have to be made clearer, the language would have to be tighter, and a facade of consensus, of being uncontroversial, would suffer, slip, begin to crack, under the strain.

For anyone who knows the background of the authors and the signatories, the political disputes they refer to, reading the auguries is not difficult though, which makes you wonder why they bothered, to what extent the affirmation of those pieties was a necessary psychological support for the less consensual parts of the document. The quote from the second item, for example, is aimed at those who, drawing on centuries of scholarship about the sociological preconditions of a free society, express skepticism about the wisdom of forcibly exporting democracy through the barrel of a gun. That from the third, in demanding an unattainable universalism of concern, castigates those who believe that criticising states which have institutional mechanisms ostensibly designed to provide accountability to public opinion is a more profitable use of their energies than those which lack them. That from the ninth, in drawing attention to terrorism motivated in one particular way, diverts attention from other actors, with other motivations, who are also engaged in the distinctly reckless use of violence. And so on.

It is as if the temptation to get the hits in first can't be resisted, as if, however pleasant and ecumenical you would have liked to have been, the desire to really twist the knife, to lash out at whoever you fancy, just can't be resisted. The resentment, the sense of exclusion, of thwarted entitlement, just wells up, escaping in little jets however hard you try and hold it in. Well, in that spirit, and with what I hope is a degree of appositeness, I offer Bill Hicks on gays in the military:

You never see my attitude in the press, that's what bugs me, you never see my point of view. For instance, gays in the military... Here's how I feel about it. Anyone dumb enough to wanna be in the military should be allowed in. End of fucking story. That should be the only requirement. I don't care how many push-ups you can do, put on a helmet, go and wait in that foxhole, we'll tell you when we need you to kill somebody. You know what I mean... I'm so sick... I've watched all the fucking Congressional hearings, and all these military guys and all the pundits "oh the espirit de core will be affected, and we are such a moral..." Excuse me, aren't y'all just fucking hired killers?! Shut up! You are thugs and we need you to go blow the fuck out of a nation of little brown people, we'll let you know... Until then... Where did the fucking military get all this (military voice) moral, we are the military, is that a village of children and kids, where's the napalm? (burning noise) I don't want any gay people hanging around me while I'm killing kids... I just don't wanna see it.

Just let it all out, lads, let it all out.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Whose Is The Invisible Hand?

One of the basic tenets of liberalism and various other progressive political moralities is a faith in humanity, a form of mielorism. Well, not quite a tenet, but a kind of ill-filled out assumption, lurking somewhere in the shadows and periodically being gestured towards. It does a lot of the legwork in justifying the idea that, insofar as is possible and once they have the resources to make the best of themselves, people ought to be left to their own devices, since it is only if people are generally responsible and well-meaning that this kind of attitude makes much sense.

That 'generally' of course can cover a lot of sins: it's not that liberals believe that people never act with malice aforethought, but that it is the exception rather than the rule, a deviation from standard practice which requires explanation. For example, an explanation of some social phenomena which relies on the claim that some relatively large group of people consciously and deliberately do evil is likely to be difficult for liberals to swallow. It runs directly counter to the thought that people are basically if not good, at least well-intentioned, and that as a rule of thumb, it is only as a result of misinformation and various cognitive biases that people do evil: call it the accident theory of wrongdoing.

This leaves an obvious problem though. People clearly do do bad things, often in very large numbers. Not only that, though, but often they either carry on doing them or otherwise repeat the mistakes of their fellows. Both of these things require explanation, for, if people basically do not want to do wrong, how is it that not only do they do wrong, but carry on doing wrong? After all, 'it was an accident' is a time- and frequency-limited excuse: there comes a point where it is negligent to have not learnt from your mistakes. What liberals, and perhaps to a lesser extent other progressives, need is an error theory, some explanation which will bear the weight of repeated failures to do the right thing by fleshing out the ways in which essentially well-intentioned people can repeatedly do the wrong thing without calling into question their essential well-intentionedness.

Conservatives don't need such a theory. They think that people are basically not to be trusted, are, as Burke put it, "afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small" (via). Natural social heirarchies, perfected by the wisdom of the ages, contain man's baser instincts, while confining women to domesticity and the role of the music which soothes, rather than enrages, the savage beast. If you think people are basically corrupt and self-serving, then you don't need an error theory for the occassions when they behave in a corrupt and self-serving way: that's how they'll always tend to behave.

I've written before about Lord Acton's Dictum - that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Although the dictum can certainly be read as a quasi-liberal defence of constitutional checks and balances, I think it's probably equally well and clearly more simply understood as a conservative claim resting on basic human venality and corruptibility. It, for example, is not difficult for conervatives to understand why the attraction of ethical ideals might well fade when they stand as obstacles to the achievement of more worldly ends, because, after all, people only really want those worldly goods. A liberal reading of the dictum has to defend a theory of power not merely as providing the opportunity for corruption, but also as creating its motivation, in the form of some kind of intellectual or informational defect for which its victim is not wholly or even mostly culpable. That is significantly more difficult, although by no means impossible.

The difficulty is to strike an adequate balance between first, explanation of the processes of belief formation by which beliefs which lead to wrongs being committed, and justification of the wrongs which are committed, and second, explanation of the processes of belief formation by which beliefs which lead to wrongs being committed, and the denial that anyone ever deliberately commits wrongs. Some kind of invisible hand mechanism, which magnifies and multiplies the results of a few either poorly-thought-through or actually malevolent acts, would seem to be the kind of thing you'd want. So this, by Chris Dillow, is interesting.

The idea is that, much like various Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, New Labour is largely made up of people who have made uncomfortable compromises in situations they thought that they did not control. Rather than destroy a system they can see some positives in, and which all the alternatives to seem to be at least as bad, these people have been forced, by various non-culpable problems of the distribution of information, into a Faustian pact with a regime that in an ideal world they would disown. I have some sympathy with this story, perhaps because, as a Londoner who studied politics at university, is a member of the Labour party themselves, and has parents who were once Labour party members , it is rather personally exculpatory.

It can't be the whole story though. There's a point in the explanation where Chris declines to give details:

[b]ut by the time he became an MP, the party had changed. The party he joined was that of the underdog and civil liberties. It became the illiberal mouthpiece of plutocrats.

What is not clear is how the Labour party became the illiberal mouthpiece of plutocrats in the first place. What is the casual mechanism? Whose is the invisible hand?

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Midweek Linking

First, Phil makes some entirely sensible points about this. The law, as presented on the Today programme at least, applies to those born abroad. Thus, it would seem to allow - and I don't know the details of exactly how decisions on deportation are made, although I do think that those without the right to remain are automatically deported if convicted of a criminal offence - people who have settled permanently in the UK, married, raised families, bought property, contributed to the tax system and so on to be summarily deported on completion of a criminal sentence, which, for those like them in every other respect apart from their place of birth, results in being released back into the community at large. That strikes me as an obviously bad law, so, beyond quite generalised and relatively low-level 'the law should be enforced, simply because it is the law' concerns, I'm hardly particularly troubled by the Home Office's failure to enforce this law. It may be indicative of a general problem of incompetence, in which case by all means highlight that, but it is, of itself, hardly the proper grounds for a national panic. Indeed, as Phil points out, the rationale behind the measure seems disturbingly authoritarian - that the suspicion that an individual might commit crimes is a just ground for the suspension of some of their civil rights - and one which civil libertarians, however indirectly, should not be supporting.

Slightly less seriously, I offer this, this, this and this. The first two are Cirdan giving a level of careful consideration to arguments for hereditary monarchy which I would not have the patience or sense of humour for, and worth reading as examples, if not quite exemplars, of how analytical philosophy is done. The third I include mainly because it contains the full text of a speech given to what seems to be the official forum for apartheid apologism and nostalgia Alex found whilst investigating something quite different. The content of the speech has to be seen to be believed: I found it something of a struggle to convince myself it wasn't a hoax of some sort or other, it's so comically over the top. Lastly, Rochenko provides an example of why it is not a good idea to combine alcohol with philosophical argument.

Monday, April 24, 2006

It Only Takes Five Fingers To Form A Fist

Bourdieu once described sociology as a contact sport. Clearly, there are a number of ways the analogy can be read, depending on whom one takes the contact to be with. The two most obvious candidates, at least reading off from Bourdieu's own practice of sociology, are perhaps other sociologists and society at large. He was particularly critical of those whose studied, calm, allegedly revolutionary post-Marxian tracts presented no obstacles to their smooth ascendance to the security of an assured place in a self-referential academic pantheon. This was, of course, a particularly obvious form of aporetic slip, since his own post-Marxian, philosophically-inclined studies were as effective as forms of accumulation of symbolic capital as any of those he criticised. Its transparency is something Bourdieu may well have relished though: the perfect illustration of the enduring power of the habitus. Indeed, there is the temptation - which should almost certainly be resisted - to understand the contact in sociology as being with onseself: the prisoner making a project of the exact description of their cell.

Games were a recurrent metaphor for Bourdieu, a sign of his Wittgensteinian inheritances. Somewhere in The Logic of Practice, he compares the "conditioned and conditional freedom" provided by the habitus as similar to that offered to the player by the rules, formal and not-so-formal, of football. There are a variety of tactics available at each moment - to pass the ball short, long, square, down the line, to try and sell the dummy and so on - each of which takes its place in an overall strategy, and is, like it, chosen, but only from a particular set, pre-determined by the ways in which football is played. Some are preferred to others, just as some are more successful than others. Personally, the obvious aspiration of Wenger's Arsenal to play such open, fluid, attacking football redeems them even when, as they inevitably do, they fail to reach the standards they have set themselves. I am able to ignore all kinds of faults - the vulnerability at set-pieces, the tendency to fruitless over-elaboration, the apparent inability to score scrappy or headed goals, the periodical petulance - because of the simple combination of the glory of their footballing ambitions and their closeness to achieving them.

All this is notwithstanding that, after all, football is a contact sport, and that, until this year, Wenger's Arsenal were at their best with one of the most combative midfielders I've seen play. Vieira broke up play all over the pitch and drove the side forward. Now he's gone, Gilberto does a more sedentary version of the same job, sitting in front of the back four, winning the ball back and passing it on to the more artistically-inclined of his colleagues to go and weave their magic upfield. In a way, this is a version of the problem of dirty hands: in the absence of force, violence, a willingness to let the end justify the means, little can be achieved, and so, inevitably, the question of compromise arises, of how far to let ideals be dirtied by the mucky requirements of the world as it is. A world that last season included Blackburn for example. Just as it is true that you can break an awful lot of eggs with making an omelette, it is also true that you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs.

One of the criticisms levelled at Bourdieu here, connected to that of his lack of reflexivity about his own academic career, is basically that he was surly, insufficiently grateful or gracious to those around him. Maybe, and maybe it was in self-justificatory mode that he claimed that sociology was a contact sport. If it is a contact sport though, its Vieiras are surely a precondition of its Henrys. Bourdieu may well have been bruising at times, and does indeed seem to have had a "a reductive sense of human nature as motivated only by self-interested competition for status" - he once claimed, referring to his American admirers, to believe "that anyone… who introduces [an] author to another country has some ulterior motive", relying on a conceptual opposition his own work disowned - but his adoption and adaptation of Wittgensteinian ideas of social life as game-playing were genuinely innovative, and should not be dismissed as "nothing more than coining a term and quarreling more or less violently".

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Promises, Promises, Promises, Or, David Hume And Charles Taylor

Traditionally, for liberals, the central problem in political philosophy has typically been the problem of political obligation. Because of their concern with liberty, and hence the proper limits of state power, liberals have tended to be particularly interested in to what extent citizens are obliged to obey the demands of the institutions of the state. And indeed, the question of political obligation ought to be central to political philosophy. A political philosophy which somehow evaded the questions of what legitimacy the coercive power of the state has, if indeed it has any, and of what conditions are placed on that legitimacy would be in serious difficulties. It would have to either admit its incompleteness or struggle to explain what made it distinctively political, since a central feature of politics, that of the claimed legitimacy of political arrangements, apparently fell outside its scope.

Such a philosophy would not be able to explain when, if ever, resistance to an established power is acceptable, and how far that resistance might go. It would make it unclear whether we should regard the taxman as any different from the thief, or the magistrate as any different from the kidnapper. Arguments about exactly what the state should do may be all very well, but they all rest on and indeed return to the assumption that the state should be in a position to rely, as it must, on its citizens to cooperate in any of its projects at all. That assumption requires justification.

Explaining obligation generally has of course been of significant importance to moral philosophy more generally. Promising, as a generally uncontested source of obligations, has been a typical example. Some explanations have focused on the evolution of the practice of promising. It is clearly useful for members of a group to be able to reliably bind themselves to completing some future action: it builds bonds of trust and allows the completion of cooperative tasks, otherwise impossible because of the uneven distribution of rewards and hence incentives across time and individuals.

Because of this utility of the practice of promising, there is a temptation to regard the obligations which arise from promising as derived from the benefits of the practice as a whole. That, however, seems to be a mistake: to promise is to be bound by something more than the usually fairly small possibility of the undoubtedly significant benefits derived from the practice as a whole disappearing. There is, after all, a sense in which to promise is to deny oneself the possibility of calculating the general moral benefits and costs of fulfilling or not fulfilling the promise. Someone who I had promised some money would typically not be impressed if I had given the money to charity instead, where, let us assume, it would do more good, and rightly so.

Utilitarianism's account of political obligation seems to make the same mistake as its account of promising. It dismisses the liberal concern with a justification of the coercive power of the state by sidestepping it, refusing to see any problem as distinctively political, since the demand to act so as to create the greatest happiness of the greatest number applies across all actions, from both the highly personal to the deeply political. As with promises, the utilitarian explanation of any obligation relies upon the utility, in the strict sense, of that obligation, and so long as political obligation is useful, in that strict sense, the citizens are appropriately obliged.

Likewise, conservatism, by downplaying the importance of individual freedom and stressing that of social heirarchies, sees less to worry about in the state's coercive power than liberals do, as long as that power is exercised in favour of those heirarchies. Libertarians, both of left and right, tend to veer in the other direction, denying the state any legitimacy whatsoever, beyond the protection of sets of prior property rights, either to the full products of one's labour or to whatever one can appropriate. Liberals, though, however they may periodically beg, steal or borrow from these other traditions, tend to regard the question of what grounds the state's authority as central. One might even describe it as one of the marks of liberalism, at least as a political philosophy, even if that does produce odd outliers like Mill, as it certainly captures the centrality of social contract theory, like that of Locke, to liberalism.

The social contract assimilates the relationship of state and citizen to mutual promisers: as long as the state does not violate certain guarantees it made, the citizens are obliged to obey it, and likewise. The problem for such theories is at least two-fold. Firstly, they need to locate the promise in time and space, and secondly, they need to both explain and justify its terms. The first can be got round through implied consent - by failing to remove oneself from the state, or by accepting its benefits, consent to the coercion of the state is given - but the second then looms all the greater. Hume I think once compared inplied consent to demanding that a drowning man promise to be your slave before rescuing him, and then expecting that he regard that promise as binding.

Promises extracted with the threat of force, which of course includes instances of failure to aid, are not binding as promises, as Hume's argument explicitly acknowledges. They might be binding for other reasons - duties to minimise harm, for example - but they are not binding as promises. Whether or not the gunman holding my family hostage extracts a promise from me to rob the nearest bank is surely irrelevant to whether or not I should rob the bank. If I should rob the bank, it is because I have a duty to prevent harm to my family, not because someone was able to exploit their threat advantage to coerce a promise from me.

Indeed, in the absence of a suitable alternative, depreciating the role of voluntariness in creating the obligations of a promise seems to make it hard to understand the importance of the actual act of promising in creating the obligations which we seem to believe flow from it. It makes it hard to understand why, for example, we would regard those who uttered the words 'I promise' whenever an electrode was touched to a particular part of their brain by a torturer as free from any obligations which might, under other circumstances, result from saying that phrase.

The objection that can be derived from that observation is, for a pure social contract theory, fatal: the burdens of refusing to promise are so high as to make not promising nigh-on impossible, and so the idea that consent, in any meaningful sense, to the state's coercive power is granted in such a situation becomes ridiculous. As with promising, which consent may well be a subset of, the problem is, fairly obviously, that consent requires that the consent be given voluntarily - involuntary consent is, after all, something of a non sequiter - and when the result of not consenting is probable death, it is difficult to understand the decision to consent as voluntary. Contemporary liberal political theory tends, where it confronts this problem, to deal with it by arguing for whatever arrangements would be consented to under idealised conditions designed to remove the possibility of coercion. Thus the tagline of this blog: to each according to his threat advantage is not a principle of justice because to each according to his threat advantage is coercive.

Of course, to each according to his threat advantage may be a perfectly acceptable principle of prudence. Prudence, however, is not the same thing as justice. It may well, for example, be prudent to avoid making a song and dance of trying genocidal ex-tyrants, and indeed we may have an obligation, perhaps of justice, to those whose suffering would weigh heavy in that calculation of prudence. I, though, would be incredibly wary of making such judgements: history, after all, has a nasty habit of not running entirely according to plan, and discerning the effects of any one action may well be a mug's game. It is, let us not forget, too early to judge whether the French Revolution was a good thing or not.

However the calculation were to come out though, it would tell us nothing about any obligations we might have to those tyrants in particular. To narrow the focus even further, it would tell us nothing about any obligations we might have to those tyrants in particular as the result of promises they extracted through the threat of the continuation of their reign, quite literally, of terror. Those obligations would seem to fall under the scope of justice rather than of prudence, thus, of course, ruling out appeal to to each according to his threat advantage as an appropriate distributive maxim.

Attempts At A Desert-Based Theory Of Justice

Crooked Timber has asked for suggestions of "must-read articles in political philosophy from the past 25-30 years". I'm too lazy to be bothered to put together a list personally: all that trawling through old reading lists, trying to remember exactly which articles were not only good, but actually ground-breaking, seems far too tedious. I link though because someone mentions a friend of mine's DPhil thesis here. I went for a drink with him yesterday to celebrate his submission of the magnum opus, and although it is good, I suspect that expecting epoch-defining articles to be carved out of it may be a little much. Still, kudos to him, getting mentioned on Crooked Timber comment threads.

In other news, as Phil details, Silvio Berlusconi apparently thinks that clinging to power in a manner which has gone beyond undignified and is increasingly quickly straying into the megalomaniacal is a good idea, presumably because he fears that, stripped of power, he'll no longer be able to so easily deflect the consequences of being widely known to be about as corrupt as they come. One wonders if in fact he's not frightened of going to jail, but of becoming surplus to the requirements of some of his less savoury associates once he loses the trappings of power, since, even for a man as brazen as Berlusconi, this has a definite air of desperation. It seems implausible that this kind of open defiance of the will of the electorate is going to play well in any elections should the left coalition collapse, even in an electorate which seems to be more susceptible to the man's dubious charms, so it looks otherwise increasingly inexplicable behaviour. Anyway, more distribution of kudos. Alex thought he wouldn't go, even if he lost. Everyone else thought that was a bit much, even for Berlusconi. We were wrong, Alex was right. Kudos to Alex.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

I'm Not Racist But...

John Harris has an article in today's Guardian, riffing off from Prince William's appearance dressed as a Chav at some Sandhurst passing-out do. He charts, quite sensibly, I think, the rise of what he calls New Snobbery, in which it has become acceptable to smear the working class generally as a collection of workshy, scrounging, semi-literate and morally dubious layabouts, Little Britain and its cheap and nasty stereotypes being his archetype. Marcus at Harry's Place perhaps predictably has got all contrarian about it, saying that it is a typical whining middle class liberal gripe to think that there's something objectionable about smearing large groups of people. After all, it is so patronising to think that people might prefer not to be lumped together with some other people who, after all, they despise. He even makes Harris' point for him, thinking he's dealing the fatal blow:

[o]nly if you think most of the British working class are 'white trash' Mr Harris

Well, since Harris is complaining about the appearance of a stereotype of the working class as white trash, presumably he doesn't think it's accurate, or else he wouldn't be complaining. Bizarre.

On the other hand, just to show the indecent can be as unwise, a whole load of properly left-wing bloggers have taken up this suggestion by Daniel Davies. Not a good idea, it strikes me. The use of 'gay' as an undifferentiated term of insult is I think fairly clearly homophobic. It associates gay people with undifferentiated badness, which is obviously homophobic. Mockingly using 'anti-semitic' in the same way, whilst clearly attempting to make a valid political point, would, I think, probably be anti-semitic by serving to propagate the idea that there is actually no anti-semitism. Better to try and call each case individually. There. Lashings of political correctness all round.

WTF? (II)

Bangladesh are now 124-5 in the second innings at the close of play on the third day, a lead of 282. Barring the weather, surely there will be a result in this game. Australia obviously aren't out of it - if they can clean up the Bangladeshi tail sharpish tomorrow morning, which I wouldn't bet against, then with their batting lineup you'd have to have them as favourites - but if Bangladesh can bat reasonably sensibly tomorrow, get to a lead of over 350, occupy a bit of time - say till a bit after lunch - so Australia know they're going to have to batting for a good while on a final day pitch, it's all up in the air.

No, Sei Il Coglione

After having been threatening Rachele - who went home to vote - with the spectre of 1992 for the past month or so, it seems, however close it came to that, Berlusconi has lost. Just, but he has lost. Prodi's Coalition seems likely, unless something spectacular happens in the recounts, to hold both Houses of the Legislature, thanks to a little help from overseas voters. Surely the first thing on their schedule has to be dismantling Berlusconi's corrupt and corrupting media empire, something the left singularly failed to do last time it was in power. Not only would this morally the right thing to do, but it would also be politically expedient, since about the only thing which seriously unites Prodi's Coalition is hatred of Berlusconi, and would thus both help hold the Coalition together, whilst seriously damaging its opponents. Whatever else though, thank f*ck! The end, to mangle Baldwin's attack on Lord Rothermere, of rule by the prerogative of the harlot.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

One Loud Noise And It Is Gone

Having seen and enjoyed 'V for Vendetta' on Thursday, I decided to re-read the graphic novel, which I had but vague memories of whilst watching the film. It is fairly unambiguously superior to the film, due in no small part to the absence of the bowdlerising Hollywood tropes which the film, despite generally being quite good, suffers from: the obviously tacked-on love story and sub-Matrix final fight scene, for example. Some people have criticised the film as not entirely faithful to the graphic novel, which it is indeed not, but I think that, as it always does, misses the point slightly: the point is that the film, as a film, isn't as successful as the graphic novel is, as a graphic novel. Even though the film would have perhaps been better if it had been more faithful to the graphic novel, it would have been better not because it was more faithful to the graphic novel, but because it would have had the features which it lacked and the graphic novel possessed: a greater degree of sophistication, most obviously.

One of the points where this is most obvious is in the two versions' politics. The film is basically blandly anti-totalitarian whereas the original is explicitly anarchist, perhaps best demonstrated by ambiguity about where the responsibility for the crimes of the imagined fascist state lies which is present in the graphic novel but not in the film. In the book, V clearly lays part of that blame at the feet of the people who did little to resist it, cossetted by the promises of a restored order, whereas in the film, those promises seem like a exculpatory justification for that failure. Thus, the political implication of Evey's forced transformation is lost in the film, becoming the achievement of a privatised Zen-like state of higher consciousness rather than the realisation that freedom has its costs, a realisation which explicitly condemns all those who have thus far been unprepared to bear them.

That said, there's something of a tension in the politics of Moore's version. It is caught between the affirmation of unadulterated people power and the necessity of V's use of both the machinery of the state and supernatural powers to create not only an upswelling of popular discontent but also the conditions in which that discontent can decisively remove the remnants of a state he has already ravaged from within. When V says

[i]t does not do to rely on silent majorities, Evey, for silence is a fragile thing. One loud noise and it is gone

the problem is that without him, the silent majority would have never stirred. Thus, for all the endorsement of the Humean claim that all states rest on the consent of those who live in them and the drawing out from it a set of quite radical implications, the story of the book is one of how only one man, using all the instruments of the state and inhuman power, can remove that consent. Someone else has to make the loud noise, and then questions surely must be asked about agency. So, in a way, in its lack of political sophistication, the film, with the surely hopelessly idealised ending of crowds of masked people pushing through lines of confused soldiers, avoids a problem which the original struggles with.

This is relatively minor quibble with the book though. It's essentially excellent: a political manifesto set in an appropriately seedy, grimy world, perfectly drawn, with an ingeniously subversive hero bringing about the downfall of a realistically portrayed fascism. The film, for all its faults - and it does have them, most obviously the sentimentalism and clumsiness which creep into the plot at times - is not only pretty consistently stylistically impressive, but does about as well as one can expect for a Hollywood adaptation of a anarchist comic book, making its political points reasonably well while avoiding most of the traps of sensationalism.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

John Reid And The Burdens Of Morality

Things have changed. There is no longer an adequate fit between international law and the threats that we face. In a globalised world, we can be struck at at any time, by any one. International law needs to adapt so as to allow us to take action on the basis of the view that shifty-looking people are, generally, shifty and no doubt up to something, just like we adapted domestic law to do the same. After all, bad people do bad things, and when we're fighting them, it can sometimes be necessary to adopt tactics which bear certain operational similarities to those that they use. Because they are criminal, we may need to be criminal to fight them. Some might think that by adopting such tactics, we become like them. I disagree. I think our willingness to compromise the very values we are fighting to protect demonstrates precisely how committed to them we are.

Some may further say that international law codifies principles of restraint and purposefully sets the bar of justification high so as to avoid the death, destruction and suffering that inevitably arrive with any declaration of war. This may have been true in the past, when, in fact, one dead civilian was equal to ten of today's dead civilians, but the world has changed, and so the moral principles which used to underlie international law are now archiac and outdated. Our world has become globalised, and so innocent people's lives are now worth less. In line with this step-change, we feel that international law ought to allow us to discount the burdens of morality appropriately. I have three changes in particular in mind: I want to be able to boil people alive; I want to be able to bomb places because I feel like it; and, as a figleaf, I want to be able to send in troops to rescue the starving millions.

Update, 6/4/06: Jim Bliss has a longer piece making much the same points, which also has some links to some other comments on Dr Reid's pronouncements, and Jarndyce points out that having broken international law, the British government is hardly in the best position for proposing alterations to it.

An Elegy

During my teens, I wrote poetry. Most of it was predictably bad - full of a sense of self-importance, really rather melodramatic - but I vaguely regret no longer having copies to hand of all of it, so carefully prepared, yet ultimately really rather sad, terribly over-cooked. Some of it I think was alright: I like to think I periodically had a decent turn of phrase, the ability to undercover an arresting image, but I may be deceiving myself. What really marred it was the temptation, which I could never resist, to lay it on with a trowel. There was no lightness of touch, no sense of the ridiculousness of the whole enterprise of writing poetry, no understanding that far more skillful others had been there first. It wasn't even really in the prose itself but in the choice of topics: whatever else one might think about the lines, and I retain some affection for them

But it never seems we get what we want,
So don’t come and see me and my colostomy bag.
Shut your eyes to see me as I was,
As I wanted to be,
As I wanted to remain:
Help me cheat death


they do not lack a sense of their own significance. That may well be endemic to adolescence, but I had a particularly chronic case, I suspect. It's not like I didn't realise this. The poem from which those lines are taken is, as the quote quite clearly suggests, about the unavoidability of death, full of a sense of the tragic futility of it all. This was something of a recurrent theme. There is another, later poem, written during my entirely accidental gap year, which, like that quoted above, trades heavily on the gap between the possibilities of life and the certainty of death, and I half-remember writing or trying to write others, doubtlessly even more cack-handed. It was basically that or politics.

Keep smiling, please keep smiling,
Because without that saccharine appeal,
That dilution of fire into warm piss,
That debasement of gold into shit,
That destruction of ideals,
That abandonment of principles,
That dishonesty about everything,
That theft from all the wrong places,
Without these and so many more,
I could not hate you.


Those lines were written in 1996, before Blair even came into power. This party is a moral crusade or it is nothing indeed. I've always had a weak spot for the rhetorical power of repetition, for accumulation and reinforcement, evidently, because, quite apart from the reappearance of this stylistic tic in my writing here, sometime in 2003, well after I ought to have known better, I thought that this was an integral part of the best way to express my disapproval of our dear leader's Mesopotamian adventures:

The same day, a mosque is seized;
Soldiers ambushed; missions flown;
Mosques bombed; children killed;
Mines exploded; roadblocks formed;
Cities attacked; sieges begun;
Supplies cut off; reinforcements called for;
Risks calculated; reinforcements sent;
Plans pursued; strategies handed down;
Orders given; hierarchies obeyed;
Weapons loaded; shots fired,
Discriminately, indiscriminately;
Blood split and lives ended.


I flatter myself though. These are amongst the better results of my delusion that I had a serious poetic talent. I also thought I could draw, but, thankfully, almost all the results of that conceit are definitely consigned to the scrapheap of history. The point of this though is twofold. I wanted to express both an admiration and a sadness, each of which colours the other. The sadness first. Whatever remains of the desire

to have arrogance and intelligence preserved beyond the morgue

it is atrophied, quiescent, when compared with its former strength. That is a loss.

I once sought to inscribe fire here,
An incandescence of words,
A lighting of the way forward.
Subtlety has overtaken me now


Well, quite. The sense of infinite possibility and of certain finitude are doubtlessly initially deeply reciprocally implicated. Both are gone, dissipated by each other and by time. Not vanished, maybe - the urge to generalise, to draw a grand conclusion out of everything, may well be unavoidable - but diminished, too aware of themselves, of their brazenness. At the beginning of 'Apocalypse Now', Martin Sheen's character gets paralytically drunk on leave in Saigon, and ends up standing on the bed in his hotel room, throwing stumbling face-high kicks at imaginary enemies, all to the quasi-prophetic sounds of the Doors' 'The End'. Time was I couldn't hear that song without wanting to be standing on a bed, paralytically drunk, throwing stumbling face-high kicks at imaginary enemies. Not, or at least not so much, any more. The world doesn't seem so open or so dangerous. I have become settled, and something, something I do not admittedly generally regret the loss of, has been lost.

So, now the admiration. A relative of my mother's died last autumn. He was a very settled man, content in himself, having lived the majority of his life in a small, isolated Scots fishing community. In the best way possible, he died as he lived, carefully, with the minimum of fuss, with concern for both his dignity and that of others, without any grandiloquent gestures, in fact, doing his very best to keep them away. He had a near-perfect sense of the harm such gestures could do to others, of the limits we live under, of exactly why you shouldn't be standing on a bed, paralytically drunk, throwing stumbling face-high kicks at imaginary enemies.

I may have got the admiration and the sadness the wrong way round.