Thursday, July 31, 2008

Now No Longer Just Pretending

Although I heard a while ago that the submission had been accepted, I can now point to the functional website of a genuine academic journal which lists an article I wrote amongst its contents. Partly because I had to take it out for blind review purposes, and partly because I guess he's not likely to read the paper unprompted anyway, I don't thank Phil for putting up with the semi-trolling which ended up, through somewhat tortous series of events, in the paper in its acknowledgments. So, thanks Phil.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

On What Ought To Be Offensive

About this time last year, when he found that the prospect of being shouted at by a grumpy Irishman whilst playing for a side likely to get relegated in a town not known for its cosmopolitan lifestyle was not as attractive as he'd like to professional footballers, Roy Keane complained about the influence of players' wives and girlfriends over their career choices. He called men 'soft' and 'weak' for taking into consideration the happiness of their partners when choosing where and for whom exactly to work, and allegedly consequently deciding that, on balance, Roy Keane's Sunderland didn't seem like quite the right place to be. Now, there are presumably a number of things to be said about the politics of that statement: there surely has to be some buck-passing going on somewhere, since I doubt as a matter of fact that professional footballers would not drag their wives and girlfriends with them to Sunderland if they really wanted to go. Exactly who is lying to whom about what is not clear, but I would be genuinely surprised if the whole truth is being revealed by Keane.

There's also the recurrence of the stereotyped of the hen-pecked man, who just wants to live a life of honest toil, determinedly living out the virtues of his chosen profession - which of course as far as Keane is concerned is exactly the sort of vindictive, entitlement-driven ambition you'd expect from one of Alex Ferguson's lieutenants - whose shrew of a wife drives him into some form or other of moral turpitude. It's only in that sort of understanding of the relationship between men and their wives or girlfriends - where what the woman wants is the wrong thing for the man and often just plain wrong - that Keane's comment makes sense: it rests on the denial of a unity of interests between a pair of lovers, or at least a unity of interests where both partners have an input. What was particularly shocking about it was that the standard defence of footballers produced in response to Keane, where they were defended, seems to have been the denial that they paid any attention at all to the desires of their partners. Of course the man properly gets to decide where a couple live, was the response: the question was whether footballers were being bullied by their domineering wives into staying in London, presumably in between beating back the hordes of nubile young things offering themselves up for various sordid goings on in hotel rooms.

This didn't just extend to sportswriters, whom you might not expect to be particularly enlightened, but apparently to moral philosophers, one of whom I saw arguing in favour of Keane's position. Even without considering the transparent sexism of Keane's claim, it's so profoundly illiberal: it is not for you, footballer, to make decisions about whether your career or your lover's happiness is more important, but for me, Roy Keane, to attempt to strip you at least some of your dignity if you do not weight them in exactly the way I prefer, which happens to be the way which benefits me. That seems such a tin-eared judgment to me I'm now rather sceptical about any first-order normative judgment the person in question makess, because if they can't be trusted to see that you shouldn't automatically sacrifice what your partner wants in order to further your career, then they can't be trusted to see anything whatsoever. They've all the moral judgment of Roy Keane, and he deliberately broke a man's leg, destroying his career in the process (actually, apparently Keane didn't cause the career-ending injury Haaland suffered: see the entry for 14.05.01 here; not that that makes having the same moral judgment as Keane any better).

There are other ways in which someone can make me sceptical about their ability to make basic moral judgments. I recently encountered a Labour party member, another graduate student in political theory, who, when defending pieces of etiquette strike me as forms of delineating and excluding people from various forms of privilege, was prepared to deny that class had anything to do with what counts as polite. That kind of blindness to the way in which power relations structure and run through social life is frankly bizarre on the academic left, as if despite having studied politics for years, no-one had ever raised the question of systematic injustice, as if it were just a question of technocratic tinkering around the edges; as if Marx didn't exist. They did seem to be a party loyalist, I suppose, but to lack a sense of the way in which a social system structures opportunity differentially and yet be a member of the Labour party; incomprehensible for a political theorist. It's the same kind of error that I thought Peter made here: of course chav and toff shouldn't be as offensive as each other, because you want to have a derogatory term to describe the beneficiaries of injustice whereas you don't want one to describe those who bear its costs. You don't stigmatise people who have already been treated unfairly, whereas of course you ought to be able to stigmatise those who have gained from that unfair treatment.

Peter seemed to think this was stepping beyond the proper realms of the political, engaging in a class politics which cannot help but exclude some from its ambit and so deny them the explanation of its attempt to gain the state's coercive power that politics properly owes them. He's right about the class politics, but wrong about its exclusivity. Public reason is often thought to embroil its advocates in the problems of trying to justify the institutions of a democratic state from within various profoundly illiberal world-views, but as Burton Dreben said, you don't talk to Hitler, you shoot him. The point about public reason is that it is structured by the idea of a public, a citizenry with certain moral properties to whom a justification is owed made up of all those who live their lives under the coercive power of the state, and, in a certain sense, to be profoundly illiberal is simply to deny that; to deny that women, gays, blacks, the poor, suffer under the burdens of the coercive power of the state in the same as men, straights, whites, or the rich do. Anyone who can't see that a society as marked as ours is by class and other hierarchies must fail to offer an adequate justification of its coercive power to those at the bottom of those hierarchies is in effect denying that those at the bottom of those hierarchies are not owed a justification; they have stepped outside the bounds of public reason. As such, they are no longer owed a justification in the same way: although you don't have to shoot them, you certainly don't have to talk to them.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Accidental Death Of An Anarchist, Or, A Difficult Job To Do

Yesterday, I went to see Black Watch at the Barbican. It's an excellent play, excellently performed: the range of registers it manages to find, the way it gives a dignity to what it would be easy to dismiss as only a brutalised and brutalising life and the often rather brutal men who inhabit it. I'm not sure I've ever seen a scene as moving as the one in which the soldiers receive letters and one by one break off to read them, dropping the paper to the ground and turning away from each other to perform strange little repetitious movements, half-caught representations of the contents of the letter; the privacy of it, the escape, was nearly heart-breaking. That wouldn't work, I think, without the contrast with the physicality, the machismo, of much of the rest of the performance: that it's not cloying is partly because of how carefully it's done - one man comes on with a bundle of letters, takes his, and lets the others be taken by another man, who steps away, takes his, and lets the rest be taken by another, and so on - but also because these are not men given to admissions of an inability to cope; problems are confronted, often in the manner which they are most used to, with camaraderie and the threat of physical violence. Appropriately, the play is full of physicality, often relying on it to create a sense of context: men running, jumping, fighting, performing military drills, being shaken about inside armoured vehicles improvised out of pool tables.

It'll be interesting to see, though, how it stands up in five or ten years, when the political controversies which inevitably form its backdrop now are less fresh. It's difficult to tell how much it relies on those to create the sense that there's been some kind of breach of trust, the sense that this isn't quite what it was supposed to be like, that it uses to give dignity to the lives it's trying to document. For a play mostly set in Iraq, it's not really very directly political: obviously, there's a thought that the military are owed better than this, and an awareness of and respect for the culture that the squaddies come from, but it's not really an attempt to indict the war, either in execution or conviction. As one of the characters puts it, the job is bullying. That's not a criticism, although for some it might be: it's not supposed to be a comment on British foreign policy, but a reconstruction of the lives of some of those who end up carrying it out, and it can remain neutral about the backdrop against which they are tasked.

That's in stark contrast with another play I was thinking about today, Dario Fo's The Accidental Death of An Anarchist. Fo's play is a piece of standard though pretty good agit-prop: at least in the production I saw, the Fool outwits the police who are holding him at every turn, except the one which matters most, where wit isn't what matters anyway. Although dull and brutish force wins out in the end, the lesson to take away is that it is dull and brutish, that it is only through a kind of regression, a backwardness, that the laughing grace of the Fool can be destroyed: in a way, it's the ultimate triumph of what Nietzsche called ressentiment, the internalisation of a system of moral rules which disfigure capacities for self-expression. The Kantian in me bristles at that a bit, and so maybe that's why I found it difficult to take away quite the right message: the Fool's not quite the right kind of truth-teller, because honesty would get in the way of his self-expression. But he is supposed to be a kind of truth-teller, just as the play is. One wonders, though, how much of an example of libertine self-expression Guiseppe Pinelli was, whether he ran verbal rings round, played the jester to the police before they threw him out of a fourth storey window, or whether, as seems rather more likely, he behaved like most people would when falsely accused of a terrorist bombing, denying, clamming up, frightened.

The attempt to mythologise the immediate aftermath of the Piazza Fontana bombing suffers, for me at least, because it is so obviously a myth: it lacks the right narrative structure to fit with what one must assume actually happened. Pinelli wasn't some trickster god, brought crashing back to earth by mortals incapable of understanding his grace, but an ordinary man with ordinary vulnerabilities killed in a quite ordinary way by other ordinary men, who presumably found him uncooperative in their attempts to frame him. Unfortunately, there is nothing miraculous about agents of the state, and perhaps particularly the Italian state, being willing to use a little more force than is strictly necessary: a slip here, a slip there, a chokehold and maybe a kick to the ribs here, a truncheon blow there, it's all so bloody quotidian.

After all, as a spokesman for Tony Blair said after the Italian riot police half-beat to death, falsely imprisoned, denied medical treatment to, and ritually humiliated 93 peaceful protesters - most of whom were preparing for or in bed when the police arrived at the school building they were staying at around midnight - at the anti-G8 protests in Genoa in 2001, "The Italian police had a difficult job to do. The prime minister believes that they did that job." Presumably that's why none of the officers involved in turning makeshift dormitories into something which they themselves described as looking like an abbatoir will serve any time. As Nick Davies' description of the attack and its aftermath makes clear, it took advantage of people's embodiedness, of their ordinary physical vulnerability: its violence was not a last resort, but the first. It didn't fuck about with phone calls and attempts to get confessions, but instead went through a building beating its occupants with truncheons and boots until they were all lying on the floor in pools of blood. There's none of the confusion or incompetence of the state's agents that marks Fo's play: this is the efficient application of overwhelming force in order to utterly crush opposition. That's how these things work; that's why, I think, Fo's play - or at least the version I saw - doesn't quite work.

But of course this isn't really about Fo's play, or Black Watch. Maybe Black Watch will carry the same charge it has now after the Iraq War is forgotten. Maybe it won't. There's a scene in it where the soldiers are watching the Americans obliterate something or other in the middle distance, planes roaring over their heads, screens replaying grainy black and white footage of cross-hairs hovering over dull rectangles which then erupt into clouds of what looks like dust but must be rather more colourful than that. They seem ambivalent about this use of massive force on what later turns out to be a couple of probably empty houses: it somehow doesn't feel right to them, a kind of cheating. It's presented without a context, and without a casualty list, so it's difficult to judge it. But Diaz Pertini does have a causalty list. Non lo dimenticare.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Appearance Is Entirely Misleading

Just to demonstrate that this blog is not moribund, the Philosopher's Magazine has an interview with T. M. Scanlon. Unsurprisingly, in it, he says two things I very much agree with: first, that the traditional Humean division between reason and the emotions is much over-stated and distorts our understanding of ourselves and our moral lives; second, that if you're going to do moral philosophy, you need to do a kind of psychology, to be able to tease out the motivations which underlie our everyday living out of a moral existence. I'd add to the second that you need to be able to do a kind of anthropology, to understand not just individual psychologies, but the social practices in which they are embedded and which partially constitute them. But those two thoughts, which together bring moral philosophy back to the problems it is supposed to deal with, how to make sense of and so regulate the interactions of reflective animals, rather than the disembedded, disembodied problems which can seem to characterize far too much of the discipline, are ones I like. I don't think he's that difficult to read either.