Monday, July 31, 2006

Goalkeeping And Killing Arabs

Disclaimer: this post, despite its title, has nothing to do with the current conflict in the Middle East, and mostly concerns my views about how to best explain the history of political parties, in the context of my discussion with Phil Edwards here. Should you be interested in my views on the current conflict in the Middle East, they can be found, expressed in their typically digressive fashion, here and here.

Having written at the weekend about the way in which, to get a little excessively Kuhnian, our paradigms can make it difficult for us to assimilate certain kinds of information, I thought I might offer some further thoughts on the same theme.

I've always thought that there was something oddly appropriate about the author of L'Etranger having been a goalkeeper. As anyone who has played in goal enough knows, it has a sense of separation, of not really being engaged in a team sport. Typically, a goalkeeper's intervention will, if successful, prevent a goal being scored, and if unsuccessful, do the exact opposite. There's usually no-one there to save a goalkeeper from the consequences of their mistakes, which are always frighteningly immediate, and so the sense of cooperation, of working together, of a safety net, I imagine outfield players have is lacking. Responsibility gets drawn differently: whilst you alone are culpable for your mistakes or moments of brilliance, your culpability for the mistakes of your team-mates is, because in a way you do not play with them, much more limited than is typical. Something of the same spirit seems to me to lurk in the distance, the alienation of the existential anti-hero, with their inability to see others as anything more than objects in the world. I suppose though, the thought that being a goalkeeper and existential angst are in some way complements is perhaps significantly more revealing about my temperament than it is about either goalkeeping or existential angst.

As an undergraduate, I took a paper in British twentieth century political history. Because of the essays I and my tutorial partner choose to write, and perhaps because the person who taught us was a card-carrying member of the Labour Party who somewhat wistfully explained he could no longer remember the original wording of Clause Four now it was no longer on the back of his party card, we ended up concentrating rather heavily on the demise of the Liberal Party and the rise of the Labour Party. There are essentially three competing narratives about this series of events. One focuses on internal and basically personal divisions within the Liberal Party which fracture it, creating a space on the political left which Labour then, after some troubles of its own, fills. Call this the Lloyd George thesis. Another stresses the role of the First World War, an external shock which reconfigured, in a variety of ways, the political landscape to the detriment of the Liberals. Call this the Total War thesis. The last claims that, even in the absence of rifts in the party leadership and the trauma of the First World War, social changes were afoot - the gradual dissolution of an electorate based on local and sectarian affiliations into one based on class, primarily - that the Liberals would have always struggled to deal with. Call this the Class thesis.

Any sophisticated historical analysis is obviously going to draw on some aspects of all three accounts: Lloyd George and Asquith's fallings out clearly took place against the background of World War One - briefly, Lloyd George, Chancellor of the Exhequer in the peacetime government, did a deal with the Tories to shaft Asquith, his Prime Minister, through a mix of what seems to have been genuine disagreement with Asquith's running of the war and unadulterated lust for power, which resulted in the formation of a Coalition government which, although containing Liberals and led by Lloyd George, was numerically dependent on Tory votes - just as some of the later disagreements amongst Liberals were partly doctrinal, largely about how to best deal with mass unemployment - Keynes, after all, was a Liberal grandee of sorts. The question, though, is about the dominant strand in the argument: which, causally, is given greatest weight?

Now, the relevance of the thoughts about the complementarity of existentialism and the great art of goalkeeping start to become clear. One of the things about the distance between a goalkeeper and the rest of their team is that the goalkeeper tends to experience the failings of the rest of their team as somehow fated, beyond their control. If the defence fails to mark up properly, the defence fails to mark up properly, and beyond shouting, there is very little a goalkeeper can do about it. It is not their failing, but the rest of the team's, a collectivity whose doings effect the goalkeeper despite the goalkeeper having little power to effect them. Or at least, that's how I see it. Impersonal forces, not on a stage of their own making, and so on. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, then, I've always found the Class thesis most convincing as an explanation of the demise of the Liberals and eventual rise of the Labour Party. You can expect personal animosities and external shocks in politics, and a party which struggles to deal with them will need a remarkably loyal as well as numerically significant constituency to be able to survive as a serious political force for any serious length of time. Changes to the composition of the electorate, both because of external social change and electoral reform, as well as the deflation more or less inherent in property requirements, meant the Liberals lacked a loyal and numerically significant constituency. That's why they virtually disappeared, I'm fairly convinced.

The relevance of this is that, well, this operates as a kind of Kuhnian paradigm for me. If we're talking about the history of political parties, we're talking about social change, about the appearance and disappearance of loyal and numerically significant constituencies, and only really at the margins about the creation or destruction of those constituencies, at least so far as I am concerned. Political leaders are, for me, a little like goalkeepers, their actions constrained by being somewhat at the mercy of impersonal forces they can often do little more than shift slightly in one direction rather than another. That does not place them beyond criticism - how I still laugh, thinking of Tim Howard's failure to stop Kenny Miller's weak shot from slipping under his hand when Wolves beat Man U 1-0 at Molineux in 2004 - but it does constrain the criticism in a particular way.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Actually, I Am Anguished In Proportion To Suffering

On Tuesday, on my day off, I was playing a computer game called 'Shogun' - in between stints of sitting in the garden and reading a dual language edition of the Inferno, kept brief by the stupefying heat, I hasten to add. 'Shogun' is set in late medieval or early modern Japan, the idea being that the player attempts to unite the country under a single warlord through a combination of alliances, subterfuge and, most usually, brute force. In fact, there's a whole genre of games where the aim is basically the achievement of political dominance: the immensely successful Civilization series, for example. What's striking about all these games - or at least the ones I've played - is the way that they assume, in some crude sense, the state as the basic unit of world politics. Dominance is achieved either by creating a unified state, as in Shogun, or through some kind of idealised form of a unified state, as in Civilization.

This is undoubtedly partly a function both of the technical limitations of what can be done on a typical home computer and what, for want of a better term, I'm going to call the narrative possibilities of the medium. A world made up of complex, interlinked feedback loops and fuzzy authorities would be difficult to represent in a manner which would be relatively simple to interact with, and, further, would compromise the sense of agency, of overcoming a challenge, so central to the experience of playing a computer game. I think, perhaps, though, that there is something more to the etatisme of computer games. Perhaps in the Atlantic democracies particularly, because of the way that powerful centralised states emerged relatively early, there is a sense that states are not only the central actors of international politics but also that that state of affairs represents some kind of triumph, a plateau of achievement.

There are good reasons to think in both of those ways: states are typically the most powerful actors in contemporary international politics, and the simplification, the rationalisation, of systems of authority that they have achieved over their predecessors produces a degree of stability and eliminates or mitigates certain kinds of conflict within their territory. As 'Shogun' demonstrates, though, there have been undoubted costs to that acquisition and distribution of the benefits of power: the elimination, often through unadulterated force, of alternative sources of authority, with physical destruction that necessarily entails. Indeed, although clearly also having roots in concerns about the potential mediocrity of mass democracy, the highly individualist liberalism of Mill and De Tocqueville, with its worries about the loss of eccentricity, articulates a further possible loss involved in statism, De Tocqueville more explicitly: that the concentration of power that necessarily goes with the a strong, centralised state destroys the independence of mind that is the source of much of value in human life.

In this context, Mark Mazower's piece in the most recent LRB is interesting. It documents the population exchanges between Greece and Turkey in the aftermath of the First World War and the subsequent collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Although Mazower can well see why the population exchanges might have been a good idea at the time, separating as they did a variety of communities which did not have exactly peaceable relations, he is somewhat skeptical about whether the sort of forcible removal that the Lausanne Treaty resulted in would make the kind of pragmatic sense it seems to have done in 1923 now. Ethnic cleansing, however humanely administered, is, after all, ethnic cleansing, involving both the uprooting and replanting of whole communities, usually under the threat of force. Mazower ends his article by saying

[t]oday, however, the revival of older, cross-regional networks seems to point back to the pre-national age which Lausanne destroyed, with its more ample horizons and less restrictive borders. Both Turkey and Greece now form vital links on the people-smuggling routes between Asia and Europe. An estimated one million people in Greece – maybe a tenth of the population – are immigrants. Istanbul may have lost almost all its Greeks, but its Iranian population, for example, is huge. National homogeneity and its suppressive myths no longer make economic sense. Prosperity means joining European markets, and importing cheap labour. We are not exactly returning to the old imperial multi-confessionalism but we are surely emerging from the historical parenthesis represented by the ├ętatist nation-state.

In what is almost certainly not a piece of serendipity, Mazower's article is bookended first by two diary pieces on the current examples of the brutalities of power in the Levant, and then by a review of the autobiography of an French-Israeli leftist, Michel Warschawski. In the second of the two diary pieces, Karim Makdisi, predicting that the apparent stalemate produced by the IDF's inability to quell Hizbullah, despite or perhaps as a result of seeming intent on sending Lebanon back to the state it was after the last time they were there, will only end badly for Israel and its Neo-con cheerleaders, quotes John Bolton. Apparently Bolton said, attempting to quash calls for some kind of ceasefire

I’d like to know when there’s been an effective ceasefire between a terrorist organisation and a state in the past.

Etatisme does not just infect computer games designers, clearly. Blair at least could hardly with a straight face make the same kind of excuse, eliding collective punishment of an entire nation into some kind of police action, having himself been heavily involved in a relatively successful attempt to exploit a ceasefire between a terrorist organisation and a state to solve some of the underlying problems which caused the conflict. The British military, certainly, would have never the gall to bomb residential areas of Dublin as part of a cross-border pursuit of the IRA. Norm Geras' piece here - via Marc Mulholland, whose own piece on it is excellent - which exhibits what I can only describe as a kind of self-righteous blindness, seems to have made the same set of assumptions as Bolton about how conflicts are fought and how they get resolved.

Geras' central point is that the distinction between jus ad bellum and jus in bello ought to compel us to support Israel's right to attempt to prevent rocket attacks from southern Lebanon, since that is clearly a legitimate cause on which to begin a military conflict, whilst condemning particular parts of its exercise of that right, although, beyond stating briefly a couple of parts of the conditions on that exercise, he declines to state which parts of Israel's exercise are illegitimate. I don't think this distinction stands up. The conflict Israel is fighting does not seem to be to prevent rocket attacks on northern Israel, but rather to militarily destroy Hizbullah, which is a distinctly different aim. Preventing rocket attacks on northern Israel could involve a number of strategies, most obviously negotiating the prisoner exchange which Hizbullah would have clearly settled for in the beginning whilst working to strengthen the Lebanese government and address some of the greivances which motivate anti-Israeli feeling in Lebanon so as to marginalise the role of the paramilitary.

Bombing areas traditionally loyal to Hizbullah and much of the Lebanon's infrastructure, in addition to potential as well as actual launching sites, in contrast, looks like a campaign aimed at the destruction of a paramilitary force which necessarily lives amongst a civilian population. That kind of intention, because it necessarily requires acts which could not be jus in bello, can never be the starting point for a conflict which could be jus ad bellum: there are some things that just shouldn't be done, and bombing civilians is one of them, regardless of whether or not the other side shelters amongst them. The problem that Geras has, I think, is that he wants to conceptualise the conflict like that between two states, as if Hizbullah were a regular army, which could then be drawn into open battle with the IDF and immediately crushed, thereby avoiding the war crimes Geras half-admits Israel has committed. It isn't though, and so pursuing its destruction inevitably involves those apparent slips, which then of course threatens Geras' distinction between the end of a war and the means used to reach it. Etatisme as the hang-up of old Marxists, anyone?

Addendum, 30/07/06: Having thought a little more about this, I think there's maybe a little more mileage in the idea of the Decent Left being dubiously wedded to the idea of the centralised state. Think of the Euston Manifesto, which has virtually nothing to say, as I remember - like I'm going to read it again - about alternative forms of authority, or the constant refrains of the evils - which, basically, I do not question - of various disfavoured regimes, as if these were homogeneous, almost monolithic, totally and unambiguously dominant in the societies they rule over.

Friday, July 21, 2006

The Necessity Of Vice

One of the standard complaints everyone has now learnt to expect during any set of political divisive events is that the media, or some, necessarily influential, subsection of it, is misrepresenting or under-reporting some feature of the situation to the disadvantage of the position of the complainant. It's there in the Euston Manifesto, for example:

[t]he present initiative has its roots in and has found a constituency through the Internet, especially the "blogosphere". It is our perception, however, that this constituency is under-represented elsewhere — in much of the media and the other forums of contemporary political life.

Because there are no Decent Left columnists at major national newspapers, clearly, and Norm Geras, despite all his efforts, can't get a regular column in the Guardian.

More relevantly, I'd guess it's probably a feature of the majority of (blogospheric) commentary more or less every aspect of the conflict in the Middle East. It's almost a part of the background noise: accusations of under-reporting of the tactics, strategic vision behind and consequences of the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank countered by claims that both the depth and character of the hatred which is ranged against Israel are downplayed by more liberal parts of the press, and so on, with new and exciting facts that the world fails to appreciate the significance of.

Much of this is doubtless just straightforward political smear, intended to do little more than muddy the waters: "I raise your denial of access to medical treatment, theft of land, theft of water, demolition of houses, shooting of civilians, use of sonic booms as a form of population control, and so on, with the dread anti-semitism, the mere existence of which in people's minds justifies stripping them of their basic human rights" is hardly particularly convincing, for example. That is not to say all of it is though. News organisations tend to have their biases, some of which may or may not be justified, and their coverage of events will tend to reflect those biases, which, if those biases are egregious enough, presumably justifies a complaint about the coverage in question.

What's interesting about this though, is the way in which any of these complaints invokes a particular kind of conception of the ideals that journalism, at least in its conventional forms, ought to live up to. Not only should journalism tell the truth, but it should tell the truth in a manner which presents the most salient truths as just that, the pieces of information without which an adequate understanding of the events in question simply isn't possible. The point of the complaints isn't usually that what is being complained about is literally false, but that it in some way obscures or diminishes the complainant's prefered interpretation: the reason Arab and Palestinian anti-semitism is relevant for those on the right, for example, more relevant than the grinding mounting-up of little and not-so-little indignities and brutalities in the Gaza Strip and the Lebanon, is that it presents Arabs and particularly Palestinians as presenting an existential threat to Israel, an existential threat which licences conduct that might not be acceptable in other circumstances - after all, you are allowed to kill in self-defence.

This ideal, satisfied only by both accuracy and relevance, obviously presents problems for journalists, more so when the other, sometimes competing, imperatives that, depending on their role, news organisations and their members might have: a degree of political impartiality, and retaining a sufficient audience to be economically viable, for example. Despite the criticism that it receives, I think that the BBC often deals quite well with these challenges. As a publicly funded broadcaster, I think it's reasonable to think that it has a more extensive duty of political neutrality than privately owned media outlets, since it cannot regard itself as having a sub-national constituency, at least in its news coverage. Its ambivalence about the use of the word 'terrorist' and studiously neutral stance in much of its reportage, for example, seem like attempts to avoid creating news coverage which excludes any major, centrist, concerns. It reflects the way a certain kind of wind blows, certainly, but while there are undoubtedly problems with that, as an interpretation of the kind of stance required by the BBC's role, it is hardly bizarre.

Earlier in the week, I linked to a thread at Crooked Timber, discussing the relationship between Foucault and Habermas and, by extension, the possibility of a genuinely normatively empty work of something like social science. Habermas occupies something of a slightly odd position in relation to the tradition of European social theory of which he is, despite this, firmly a part. His project can be understood as an attempt to resolve the difficulty of engaging in any form of social critique whilst acknowledging that there are social processes which tend to work to reproduce that society by acclimatising its members to it, making the habits which run with it, rather than against it, semi-conscious, almost pre-reflective. Once the possibility that a social researcher, like anyone else, might suffer from forms of false consciousness exists, the question of the value, the validity of their research is immediately open, because they, like anyone else, might be reproducing biases which disguise the true nature of what they are investigating.

The problem here is that it looks like it is impossible for the social researcher to occupy a perspective from which things appear to them as they are: the presumption is that, unless some perspective untrammeled by inevitable distortions can be attained, the panoptican, the God's Eye view, the results of any investigation into any set of social processes will be skewed by those distortions. Habermas' point is that that idea depends to deprecate the epistemological warrant of actual investigations on the standards of a hypothetical ideal investigation that it acknowledges is impossible to actually achieve, yet is nevertheless able to summon up a conception of to serve as a standard of critique, something which we fail to live up to. It denies the possibility of epistemologically warranted conclusions about social life, yet nonetheless, in that denial makes use of the very resources required to make sense of the idea of an epistemological warrant. If an analysis of systems of knowledge as systems of social reproduction is to have any pretence to be an analysis in the first place, it cannot subvert totally the idea of what it is for something to be an analysis, which, in distinction from a system of social reproduction for example, includes aiming at truth and further, aiming at displaying it.

We might call this - I can't remember quite where the phrase comes from - crypto-normativity: the encryption of essentially unavoidable normative claims, to do with the necessity of having a sense of what it is for something to be true in order to criticise it as false, in a discourse which seeks to undermine our confidence in the normative acceptability of some set of practices. Normativity, it turns out, is inescapable. Ideals of honesty, integrity, responsibility and even proportionality really are in some sense embedded in our social practices, do, in some sense, provide their structure, their meaning. Please supply your own punchlines, though.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Random Linking

Things I like:

more or less everything Marc Mulholland writes. See here and here, in particular.

people talking about whether or not Foucault was a closet Habermasian (you know he was. Sort of).

That'll do for now.

The Difference Between Enough Rope To Hang Yourself And Enough Rope To Hang Someone Else

As part of the introduction to my attempt at a series of regular posts on Bernard Williams, I quoted Williams on the proper extent of fundamental rights to freedom of speech. Williams described the importance Americans attached to the defence of the permission for racial speech as a "quaint local obsession", going on to say:

I should have thought that these were matters of political judgement, above all in telling the difference between the point at which the enemies of liberalism have been given only enough rope to hang themselves, and the point at which they have enough rope to hang someone else.

This piece by Jeremy Waldron in the LRB is, I think, excellent, articulating the same kind of view on the subject. The question which is at the centre of both Williams' and Waldron's critiques, which share the same concerns about the overly analytical style typical of much academic political theory, although not the illiberalism of some thinkers motivated by that worry, is what moral features of hate speech place in it a category where it is automatically protected? The intrinsic moral interest in systematically defaming whole categories of other members of the human race on the basis of the colour of their skin or their sexual orientation seems to me to fairly categorically small, while as Waldron points out, whatever virtue there is in the confrontation of such evils is as likely served by highlighting, through legal sanction, that evil as by allowing it a space and engaging with it in the forum. Summarising Mill's argument that

the truth could not emerge except through "the rough process of a struggle between combatants fighting under hostile banners", and that even where some doctrine is known to be true, we need combat with real opponents to maintain its vitality and keep us healthily on edge in its defence. "Both teachers and learners go to sleep at their post, as soon as there is no enemy in the field"

Waldron says,

[i]f Robert Relf - a man "who had festooned the streets of Leamington Spa with posters depicting Britons of African ancestry as apes" - Frank Collin - the leader of the Neo-Nazis who attempted to march through Skokie, Illnois, home to a large Jewish population, including Holocaust survivors, and distributing leaflets calling for "Death to the Jews" - and David Irving did not exist, it is as though we should have to invent them to keep alive the sense that fascism is vile and genocide forbidden.

This seems to me rather unlikely. The best way to keep our minds sharp with the horrors of the Holocaust and other genocides is surely not to permit their existence to be denied, but to be brought to unavoidably face with those horrors, the ghastliness of the numbers, of the sheer administrative effort, of the weight of each and every individual who suffered through the attempt to exterminate a portion of the human race.

Waldron even allows himself a little jibe at those who seem to believe that hate speech is relatively costless, and hence to be protected:

[I]f [this belief] signifies anything, what it signifies is that the costs of hate speech, such as they are, are not spread evenly across the community that is supposed to tolerate them. The Robert Relfs of the world may not harm the people who call for their toleration, but then few of them are depicted as animals in posters plastered around Leamington Spa. We should speak to those who are depicted in this way, or those whose suffering or whose parents suffering is mocked by Frank Collin and his Nazi colleagues, before we conclude that tolerating this sort of speech builds character.

You do have to wonder, at times.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Headbutts, Powerplants, Bridges And Civilians

For four out of the five years I was a student, I played inter-collegiate football, and, should I go back to do a doctorate, the chances are I will again: despite not really being very good, I quite enjoy it. Due to a fatal lack of skill and fitness and a fortuitous gangliness, I play in goal, so I don't tend to get involved in very much of the on-pitch banter which seems to happen at every level of football. Still, I've sworn at people who went into challenges with me with their feet high or elbows flailing; I've abusively mocked a centre-forward as I took a touch round them and cleared; I've sarcastically clapped referees, and been booked for it; I've been repeatedly called a pederast; I've been warned that if I swear at players on my own side again, I'll be sent off, and I've been a part of a team which was, admittedly by people who lacked the authority to do so, kicked out of a league for persistent indiscipline.

Being kicked out for persistent indiscipline was, despite the formal injustice of it being done by people who did not properly have the power to do so, perhaps not unreasonable: in the last match of the season, we played a very bad-tempered and incredibly poorly refereed game against a niggly and abusive side, who had niggled and abused their way to a victory earlier in these season, which ended with two of our players sent off and resulted in a brawl as we walked off. We'd already had a player banned for four matches for refusing to leave the pitch after being sent off. The standard of the refereeing, although genuinely appalling, was at best a mitigating factor, not an excuse, and was only really mitigating because it was so clearly biased: one of the sendings-off was a straight red for singing at the referee, whilst their second and winning goal came from a foul on the keeper which led to me coming on, only to be greeted by an unpunished elbow to the face when coming for a cross.

Zidane can call on none of this mitigation. So far as I could see, the refereeing was pretty good, and the game, other than his headbutt, was hardly particularly bad-tempered. The best he can hope for is that Materazzi said something that, even in the fairly coarse world of on-field jibes, was genuinely unacceptable, but that is not in the league of a game-long conspiracy by the other side and the referee to kick, insult and rile you into a collective loss of your temper, and neither is going on television to say that you'd do it again if you had the chance the same as accepting your ban from the league with reasonably good grace.

Explaining the fairly common decision to vindicate Zidane is hardly difficult, and does not have to rely solely on morally dubious motivations. Zidane, in his pomp, is undeniably a better player than Materazzi, and even more so undeniably a better player to watch. That slaloming run and drilled finish against Spain in the last sixteen or the effortless close control, flicking the ball around and away from two or three Brazilians in the quarter-final is what we would like to remember of a player who, at his best, approached the sublime, rather than a deliberate and quite unashamed act of violence. The pressures of a particularly appealling narrative of recovery to a final triumph, both individually and as a kind of avatar for the French side as a whole, are also towards the suppression of aspects of Zidane's character which do not fit into that structure of redemption.

There are, however, as Jarndyce points out, distinctly distasteful tones to the absolution of a clear act of violence and the shifting of the blame onto Materazzi on the basis of what he must have said, even though probably only Materazzi and Zidane know what Materazzi said, and both have good reason to misrepresent it. Maybe part of it is just doing what needs to be done to sustain the sense of a final, redmeptive triumph after the disappointments of the last two major competitions for the French, and Zidane's slide into mediocrity at Real Madrid, a triumph of course already denied by actual events and so already necessarily deceptive. More of it, though, does seem to be to do with how easy it is to make Italians, and particularly Italians who had a single, almost comically bad season at an almost comically bad English club, into a kind of pantomime villian: the peasant cunning, subverting the virtuous, the true believers, with time-honoured underhand tactics, so that they leap to the defence of the fabric that sustains that virtue, in a regrettable, but nonetheless acceptable, fashion.

Personally, I would not be particularly surprised if Materazzi did use some racial slur or other to incite Zidane. Plenty of ancedotal evidence - Calderoli's comments, attributing the French defeat to being a team made up of "blacks, Islamists, and Communists", Tim Parks' account, and worrying attempts at justification, of Verona's curva sud making monkey noises at black players on opposing teams - indicates that Italian society probably is more openly racist than is commonly acceptable in Northern Europe, typically longer a destination, rather than a starting point, for migration. However, not being particularly surprised if x is not the same as knowing that x, and neither is one society being more openly racist than some others the same as all of its members being more openly racist than the all members of the others. Further, even these four things were the same, the fact would remain that Zidane starting walking away, thought better of leaving it be, and headbutted Materazzi, while Materazzi merely had a few words in Zidane's ear. The disproportion is clear.

Anti-Italian prejudice doubtless has a number of roots, but, for Northern Europeans, Catholicism, with its incense, superstition, miracles and air of polytheism, doubtlessly plays a part. Italy, for early modern Britons at least, seems to have functioned as an exotic other: think how many of Shakespeare's plays, especially those involving gender-bending, are set in Italy, and the recurring trope in Restoration drama of endemic moral and political corruption in the priest-ridden Mediterreanan fringe of Europe. Even Parks' exasperation at the open reliance on ritual, on loyalties half-concealed from a properly public gaze, is clear in his autobiographical comedies of cultural confusion, and Tobias Jones' 'The Dark Heart of Italy' reeks of it. It's a kind of Orientalism, really.

In fact, the comparison can be made more specific, I think. No-one would deny, surely, that kidnapping soldiers and holding them to ransom against the release of various political prisoners is the kind of act that would ideally be condemned rather than condoned, just as no-one would deny that some Palestinian and Arab organisations hold and voice some rather unpleasant views about Jews. People do, however, struggle to condemn the use of bombing as a technique of collective punishment. A crime is greeted by a greater crime, and we hold our hands and say, 'what can be done?', excusing the disproportion of the response by reference to the barbarism, the residence in the hinterlands beyond reason, almost beyond humanity, of those on whom it falls. Materazzi may well be a racist and was once inept in our presence and so he, in his small way, does not deserve the full protection of the rules of the game, while Palestinians and the Lebanese are, well, beyond the pale, homo sacer, undeserving of the protection even of the basic norms of human existence, for the sins of their fellows.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

A Short Commercial Break

Robert Frost allegedly said that

a liberal is a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel.

There's a knowing affection to that jibe, a kind of admiration to the insult. The fault it finds, for all the weaknesses it implies follow from it, is after all hardly a vice, in the same category as cruelty or vindictiveness, but something admirable, if perhaps hardly pragmatic. What the half-jest admires, I think, is the willingness to admit to the tensions of the awkward resting place between the private and the public, to try to tease out mutually acceptable norms of interaction in an arena where personal and political purposes are inevitably intertwined. That willingness is, of course, what Frost sees, perhaps sometimes fairly, as hamstringing the liberal: too concerned to ensure that their opponent is treated reasonably, they prevent themselves from engaging in the business at hand, a quarrel, in which winning is often at least as important as not denying your opponents a fair hearing.

There is a further stage to this though. It does not take long to see that occupying that space between the perfectly private, out of the eyes and reach of the world at large, and the perfectly public, which erases the idea that there is anywhere in particular for the eyes and reach of the world to look for, easily and quickly generates conflicts both within and across those two often amorphously-separated realms. The difficulty thus quickly becomes clear. We,then, might amend Frost:

a liberal is a man who knows he is too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel.

That awareness, of course, then almost instantly becomes almost infinitely self-reflective, opening itself up to a whole series of further refinements, where the questions of ever more meta-level conflicts reach back, in a kind of eternal reccurrence, towards the original question of balancing codes of public justifications and proclamations and private tolerances and elidings. The problems posed by this question are necessarily most obvious in situations where the stakes are higher, where the prospects of exploitation of or indifference to the agonised ethical scruples of liberalism are greater.

Both Nicholas Shakespeare's 'The Dancer Upstairs' and Orhan Pamuk's 'Snow', in their way, address, without really trying to solve, those problems. They both take place in what would once been described as second-world countries: poor enough that there is grindingly miserable poverty, and plenty of it, but wealthy enough that there is an independent middle class, a class from which the protagonist is drawn, so that the plot doesn't simply involve the relentless suppression of one political faction by the other, that there's confusion, that the spaces of loss, as well as wrong, are opened up. Both use the narrative device of the protagonist retelling the story, after the event, to another individual whose concerns then intrude into the plot, distancing themselves further and further from the actions they describe, casting more and more doubt on the ability to the narrative to avoid comprising itself. In both, the protagonist, seeking escape from the political preoccupations they find shaping their lives despite their guilty attempts to avoid them, fall in love with women who both betray and are betrayed by them. In both, this seems somewhat inevitable.

Pamuk is more open about his uncertainty, plays with it more, mocking the foolish infatuations of his lovestruck poet, his desperation, his inability to live outside the political conflicts which appear to have shaped him. Shakespeare, having the luxury of not actually living in the kind of situation he describes, has a kind of Greeneian resignation, a faith in the possibility of small, and only small, miracles, in the triumph, however limited, of the personal over the political. Both, however, are excellent.

The Postmortem

It's always very tempting to see a kind of inevitability, a fatedness, in events in their aftermath, and in the case of England's somewhat limp exit from the World Cup, that temptation is hardly as much of a fault as it often can be. Although England defended well in yesterday's quarter-final, with Hargreaves particularly impressively industrious in front of the back four, and thus restricted Portugal to few clearcut opportunities, they didn't create very much themselves: Lennon's scuffed jab at Rooney's miskick, which was comfortably gathered by Ricardo, was probably the best chance they had. This was not out of character for them through the tournament either. Generally, they defended solidly, looking unlikely to be opened up except by a clear mistake rather than the movement either of their opponents or the ball, excluding, of course, the two laughably inept attempts to clear simple set pieces against Sweden. This efficiency and organisation did not, however, translate into and indeed may have hampered invention and speed of thought at the other end of the pitch.

Eriksson must take a substanial portion of the blame for this ultimately pedestrian attempt, ostensibly to win the tournament, but more realistically to improve on quarter-final exits in the last two major competitions. Taking four out-and-out forwards, one of whom had never played top-flight football and replicated that absence at the World Cup, whilst two of the other three were serious injury doubts, was obviously a mistake from the beginning. That mistake was compounded by Eriksson's insistence on sticking with a shape in midfield which made it difficult for him to get the best out of his first-choice eleven. Lampard and Gerrard do not play well together in a conventional 4-4-2: either they both break forward, in which case the side is left short of cover in midfield, or they both sit, in which case the strikers are left isolated. They are both naturally attacking players, and it is either an unaffordable luxury or a plain waste to play both without a sitting midfielder. This is made worse by the fact that neither Beckham nor Cole can go on the outside of the opposing fullback, Cole because he is right-footed and Beckham because he can't beat a man. The centre of the field then becomes congested unless the fullbacks get up to support, which is of course dangerous unless one of the central midfielders can drop back to cover.

Eventually, against Ecuador, having learnt the lesson of the difference five in midfield made against Trinidad and Tobago - Lennon ran at the fullback, pushing him back and laid the ball off to Beckham, who now had the space to cross, to set up Crouch's goal, for example - Eriksson went to five in midfield. Gerrard and Lampard could both get forward, knowing that Carrick was covering behind them, while Carrick, theoretically, could dictate play from just in front of the centrebacks. The problem was that the centreforward, needed to hold up the ball and wait for support from the midfield, was Rooney. Rooney is not at his best with his back to goal: although he's strong, he's aggressive, petulantly really, and not great in the air. England, if they're going to play one up front, need to play Crouch: he can hold the ball up, and knock it down or lay it off for onrushing midfielders in a way that Rooney's lack of stature, impetuousity and even to a certain extent, greater skill, prevent. He is the kind of player others play off, whereas Rooney is the kind of player that plays off others, and it is the former, not the latter, that is needed to play one up front.

You could see this against Portugal. England looked a better side with ten men and Crouch up front than with eleven and Rooney in that position. They were able to hold the ball up and get runners from midfield - typically Lennon - into space, and although Portugal were pressing forward, and so leaving space at the back, for a side with ten men, they created a decent number of chances. The threat posed by the pace of Lennon helped here: because he can beat players on the outside, he widens the pitch, creating space in the centre. I think Eriksson missed a trick in continuing to use the disappointing Beckham, whose set pieces, for all that two of England's six goals came from them, were generally disappointing - think of how many times corners didn't beat the first man - rather than Lennon. If it was for his distribution that he was in the side, which was generally quite good, Beckham should have been playing in the centre, not wide, where his inability to beat a man effectively nullified him in the last third.

Obviously though, England could hardly leave a player as talented as Rooney out, which would be the apparent implication of doing as I suggested and playing with five across midfield. Rooney is, especially as he is so young, a player that sides should be built around. If England maximise Rooney's potential, you feel, they will maximise theirs. The thing with Rooney, though, is that he's not an out-and-out centre-forward anyway: he drifts, he bursts from deep, he looks to involve other players with little one-twos and to shoot from range. The best place to play him is surely off a player like Crouch, who is solid and will provide him with plenty of the ball in decent amounts of space where he can provide the most threat. In short, I'd drop Lampard, who has been disappointing anyway, and play him in the space between midfield and the strikers, dropping off and harrying, as he does so well, when we lose the ball, and then looking to break, at pace, when we win it back.

That would leave the back four as it is, Hargreaves and Carrick to fight it out for the sitting midfielder role, Gerrard, Beckham and Lampard to play alongside Rooney in the more advanced central role, Lennon and Cole on the wings, and Crouch up front. If Owen is ever fit again, perhaps that'd have to change, but for the time being, England need to adapt their system to the players they have available: an excess of talented central midfielders, a gangly striker who holds the ball up well, and a physical, burly number 10 who is at his best running at goal.