Friday, June 27, 2008

That, Boys and Girls, Is How You Play Football

Although I didn't see much of the first half, Spain looked very impressive in beating Russia yesterday evening. Their sheer class and the gap between them and the Russians was typified by the build-up to the third goal (see from about 7.50 on here). The Russian midfielder Bilyaletdinov took a ball inside on the move, mis-controlled it, and was dispossessed by Capdevilla, who then worked a neat, quick, effortless triangle of one-touch passes with Senna and Alonso, bewildering a number of Russians. Senna then rolled the ball out to Iniesta, who lifted a perfectly weighted pass in behind the full-back who has pushed up on to him for Fabregas to scamper onto. Fabregas ran on with it, up to the edge of the penalty area, looking up all the while, and threaded a pass between two Russian defenders and into the path of David Silva, the winger who has drifted into the centre-forward position. He takes a touch out of his feet, and finishes calmly low into the corner, another Russian defender diving across him as the ball hits the back of the net. Alright, so by that point the Russians are demoralised: they know they're beaten. Still, though, although there's a kind of ruthlessness to it, it's not efficient: it has too much poise and grace for that. The subtlety of the weight of every one of the passes, their range, from the back-spun chip for Fabregas to the lay-offs in the triangle between Senna, Alonso and Capdevilla. It's all done at speed, but no-one's ever hurried. That, boys and girls, is how you play football; that, boys and girls, what I am hoping against hope will beat the Germans on Sunday.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Nothing To Lose But Your Pre-Phylloxera Claret

A while ago, a friend and I had a quite heated discussion with Chris Brooke about discussing ticking bomb cases; not about ticking bomb cases themselves, since I think we all agreed about ticking bomb cases and their total irrelevance to any actual empirical case of torture, let alone any empirical practice of torture. Chris' point was that it is, given the actually existing political climate, quite wildly irresponsible to even discuss ticking bomb cases, since by undermining an absolute prohibition on torture in the real world, such discussion legitimates instances of torture in the real world, instances which are of course nothing like ticking bomb cases. Indeed, part of the point of raising the cases is often to legitimate practices of torture. I know that Chris feels much the same about discussions of when abortion might be legitimate: rather than thinking about highly artificial cases which might help us to expose and find the proper weighting for all the considerations that might be in play in the discussion of abortion, Chris thinks that anyone on the left should hammer the point that what is at stake is women's rights over their bodies. I think Chris may be on stronger ground with the ticking bomb case: I suppose what I feel we ought to do there is concede the case itself and repeatedly, in as strident tones as possible, point out their total irrelevance; ask awkward questions about how the torturer is supposed to have acquired the ability to break, through physical violence, the will of a determined terrorist, and not just that ability, but also the ability to know when they have done so, wonder loudly about whether such tightly constrained moral permissibility implies anything about the legal status of a whole class of acts, and so on. Abortion, I think, is a less obviously closed question - which of course does not imply that reductions in current time limits on it would be justified. The other obvious point is that in both cases, the cat is out of the bag: an argument has been made, and it needs to be confronted.

Chris' complaint, though, is broader. I've also heard him say - and objected when he did so - that part of the motivation for the retreat into increasingly abstract theorising, distanced from direct political relevance, in analytical political theory - what gets called ideal theory, being the theory of what we'd ideally like - is an unwillingness to confront the collapse of actual political support for the political programmes of the sort most analytical political theorists endorse. It's no accident, he thinks, that a whole generation of social democrats who came of age under Thatcher and afterwards have ended up trying to work out what some imagined perfect bunch of enlightened social democratic technocrats should do: it's a compensation for the fact there are no such technocrats, and that the chances of there being any in even the medium term are next to zero. Political theorists, he thinks, are insufficiently concerned with getting the kinds of political institutions they favour created: despite the dominance of the academy by social democrats of one sort or another, most Atlantic democracies have got noticeably less socially democratic since the publication of A Theory of Justice. Having and winning the argument amongst yourselves is all very well, but what are you going to do about it? It's not just Chris either: there's active debate inside the discipline about the role of ideal theory, what it is, and why we do it, if we should at all.

I'm all in favour of ideal theory, partly because I don't think when done properly its conclusions are quite as distant from practical political problems as some others think it is, because even when its conclusions aren't practically relevant, how they are argued for can illuminate what is practically relevant, by revealing how we ought to weigh the various considerations against each other, and also because I like doing it; I find the challenges it presents ones that I enjoy attempting to resolve. That fact, that I like doing it, is ironically especially relevant I think given that it is so apparently distant from practical political concerns. The reason it is so distant, after all, is that our world is unjust, partly because lots of people have views about their obligations to their fellows which are basically quite unreasonable. It, I think, would be quite unreasonable to expect people to bear a massively disproportionate burden, compared to the numbers of people who ought to bear parts of that burden, in the task of creating just institutions. Why should I bear more than my fair share of the weight of correcting my fellows' injustices? They are, after all, their injustices, and it is not like I can correct them alone. One's obligations of justice are not the same when everyone else does their bit as when they do not, so I think I am entitled to not do all I could, and indeed probably quite a lot less than I could, to bring about just institutions. If I want to think about ideal theory rather than how we might make concrete improvements in the here and now, then I may.

That I may, of course, is no argument that I should; a right is a right to do wrong. Indeed, I'm vaguely embarrassed that I don't do more. A mutual friend of Chris and I's today asked me to vote for them in the internal election of a left-wing group he had supposed I was a member of, and I had to tell him, regretfully, that I wasn't; effectively, that I can't be arsed. Similarly, last night, I was trying to defend a trait I think many moral and political philosophers have, that they are unwilling to try and describe their research to non-philosophers, by pointing out that explaining can involve explaining a whole philosophical background only against which the questions they're interested in make sense. Reasonably enough, one of the people I was trying to explain this too then asked what the point of research that was inexplicable to anyone not already interested in it was. Political philosophers in particular ought to make more of an effort to make their conclusions comprehensible to non-specialists, esepcially ones who claim to believe in public reason. Anything for a quiet life though. And that's also part of the problem: the failure of political theorists to engage in public discourse likely only makes it more difficult for political theorists to engage in public discourse, since that discourse is not one which they are playing any part in shaping, nor do they systematically acquire and reinforce the skills necessary to play a part in shaping it. The alarms and surprises only get worse.

That thought, that political theorists often don't really have the skills necessary to engage in public political discourse - and there are exceptions - is what started me off on this, prompted by this piece by Timothy Burke. Of course, that thought can be read a little too narrowly: you can exercise influence without direct engagement in public political forums; teaching for one thing, but also private conversation, not necessarily on topics directly related to one's research, but on questions where the skills and insights gained through one's research can be illuminating. I think, maybe wrongly, that there are certain injustices I see much more clearly, and can make others see, that I wouldn't see otherwise. I think I'm much more sharply aware of gender and status inequalities than I once was, for example: I remember being sent a link to the members of and positions they held in Berlusconi's newest cabinet just after the election, and pointing out to the person who sent it, who'd complained about there being a minister for simplification, that there were virtually no women, and they all held positions associated with traditionally feminine activities; equally, my views on class ought to be familiar. Still, it's not perfect. Not everyone has to be able to do everything; all moral universes contain loss, and all that. I suppose the thing is to see that it is loss.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

The Normal As Monstrous, Or, Because I Liked Night Watch, OK?

The other particularly noteworthy piece in the most recent LRB was this, by Nicholas Spicer on Elfreide Jelinek. Although I'm not sure it really made me want to read any Jelinek, it certainly did make the experience of reading the early parts of Tipping The Velvet, with their carefully coy but ultimately unashamed descriptions of a young lesbian's burgeoning sexuality, a more thought-provoking one. BTW, if anyone can explain to me how the hell Tipping The Velvet managed to get made into an apparently mainstream BBC drama and not some kind of Caligula-esque soft porn thing, I'm all ears.

Drunks With The Radio On, Or, If Only Michael Freeden Hadn't Said He Liked It

In his piece in the most recent LRB, David Runciman acknowledges that his initial preference for Clinton as the Democratic presidential candidate has shaped the way he has understood the subsequent race. Since as every good Quinean knows, you need a theory to interpret a piece of evidence - to decide even what counts as a piece of evidence - it is of course for different people to interpret the same piece of evidence quite differently, and in Runciman's case, as he details, various pieces of evidence that could have cast doubt on the rationale for his support for Clinton were interpreted in such a way as to mean they did not. The failure and eventual abandonment of various different Clinton campaign strategies were not, for example, evidence against her electability, but rather of it; she was indefatigable, a hard-nosed political operator, able to change tack as and when it was needed.

Both Runciman's dislike of Obama and his willingness to be candid about the less-than-rational nature of his political preferences is, knowing anything about his work, not entirely surprising. Of Obama, he says that his

rhetoric has always sounded phoney to me, much too good to be true: so sweetly sincere as to be obviously insincere about the hard grind of daily politics.

Given that Runciman has just written a book about the necessity of hypocrisy in politics, which I saw, and was very impressed by, presented as lectures in a slightly earlier form, that is exactly the sort of complaint you'd expect him to make about Obama, who can easily be understood as denying that politics is at root about conflict and potentially violent disagreement. In a cerain way, that's a kind of hypocrisy all by itself, a hypocrisy about hypocrisy and how endemic it must be in order for politics to function, since as Runciman is at pains to stress, one of the ways in which politics avoids lapsing back into the violence it is supposed to remove the need for is through hypocrisy. If we can all get along fine if only we're goodwilled enough, then we don't need to be hypocrites who smooth out differences by lying about them, since we're goodwilled enough to overcome them. But if we were goodwilled enough to overcome those differences, then we wouldn't need the apparatus of politics to do that for us: the fact that politics exists proves that we must be hypocrites, and to deny that is to engage in a particular pernicious form of hypocrisy, a hypocrisy about hypocrisy itself. That kind of hypocrisy cripples our ability to be hypocrites in the ways which we must if we are to remain within the political and not slip into the various disasters that accompany the difference it contains breaking free. As such, it is an incredibly dangerous hypocrisy: it effectively threatens to plunge us into the Hobbesian state of nature.

It was under Runciman's influence that I was prepared to defend David Cameron's hypocrisy about cannabis. Of course politicians are hypocritical; that's the price of doing politics. Critique the policy on its merits rather than by appealing to a moral standard which, if applied universally, would destroy the possibility of doing politics at all, especially when the policy seems to me obviously ridiculous on the merits. Or at least so I thought: maybe we should be hypocrites about our attitudes towards hypocrisy when it is to our political advantage. Either way, I think Runciman gets Obama wrong, because Obama hasn't got hypocrisy wrong in the way that Runciman thinks he has. His political programme is based on hypocrisy, because the only way that it's possible to get to the kind of common ground that his campaign is claiming to try to find is by being a hypocrite, by abstaining from saying what one really thinks. That kind of public reason cannot but be schizophrenic, since it requires that people do not bring their full set of personal commitments to the public sphere, and that is certainly a kind of hypocrisy.

It's a more morally motivated hypocrisy than Runciman I think is comfortable with; it's not for nothing that Runciman invokes Schumpeter, who found the idea of a politics of the common good quite ridiculous. After all, when Runciman argues that political discourse makes little difference to political outcomes, that, for all that not all blogs are "hideous, rambling screeds", that the quality of the debate around the election has been in general high, "the hard truth this time round is that most people are voting with the predictability of prodded animals", he is parroting Schumpeter. For him, just as for Schumpeter, the last thing to say on the matter is that

the psycho-technics of party management and party advertising, slogans and marching tunes, are not accessories [but] the essence of politics.

But we might wonder whether Schumpeter was quite right about that. For all that Runciman talks of the way in which there are definite and distinct social groups who have consistently preferred one of the two Democratic candidates to the other, he adduces no actual social scientific evidence that this is the case. He is scathing about the standard of polling in American elections, so maybe nothing that would count as evidence either way exists, but I would like to see the evidence that the discussion that the campaign has spawned has done nothing to alter anyone's views on any issues or on even on which of the candidates they prefer. That, and that alone, would show that political debate is as ineffectual as he claims. Otherwise, presumably it's all so much hot air.