December 29, 2007

The Legend of the Holy Drinker

Joseph Roth is a novelist who is less appreciated in the English world than he ought to be. Roth's fine novella- the Legend of the Holy Drinker- is the story of Andreas, the drinker of the title, and his miraculous progress towards death. Roth himself was an alcoholic, meandering like his character through the streets of Paris as he wrote this novella- and knew that whereof he spoke. The novel though accomplishes two things- one less profound but which lies in a tradition which runs backwards through Oscar Wilde of using the lives of the poor, reconfigured as fairy tales, to reinforce lessons for the rest of society. The other more interestingly adopts the point of view of the poor saint to remind us of the ugliness of human kind and the redemptive quality of a good soul. Andreas is cut off from human society, served a prison term for a murder in defence of his mistress, is a drunkard, unwashed and with a torn shirt and yet he is a saint- without malice or forethought- who lives in a present generosity, a figure of true amour de soi, he aims for his own good without attacking the good of others and he is, as he constantly says a man of honour.

This trope has been used before- Dostoevsky's idiot, Prince Mishkin has some simularities to the artless drunkard Andreas. But Roth wants us to see how Andreas's story relates to our own stories, our own thoughts- fairy tales have meanings and we need to understand Andreas at a deeper level in order to appreciate what Roth is saying. Andreas's drink frequently we are told drives his memory away. Memorylessness is a key feature of his character- Andreas doesn't change though the world around him does and drink is his instrument to drive his memory away. In Roth's story drink is the weapon that the saint uses to obliterate his own memories- his sense of self. Furthermore it obliterates his artfulness- Andreas is not artful and loses money to wasters and to theives- he is easily diverted by a pretty face or ankle and easily conned. He is so easy to con, so easy to deceive and persuade though precisely because of his attitude to life. He does not act but merely flows through life- like a river he can be diverted but he follows the course that the valley sets for him. And he uses drink to control any temptations not to follow it.

Consequently the unnatural aspects of the fairy tale- the fact that Andreas keeps accidentally coming across money which sustains him is a feature of the character examined. Like everything else, sudden riches just crop up in Andreas's wake. He is improvident- but is so because he just expects more to pop up and to generate a life for him. Life for him is not something that is thought through, examined and analysed but something that just happens to him. That perception of life means that he avoids all kinds of comparisons (though not jealousy of the girl he loves)- he is natural and unaffected. Roth portrays him as such but also leaves us in no doubt that Andreas is incapable of living in modern society- like a Skimpole without the lie he leaves a trail behind him of destruction and improvidence. The point is that because he is a saint he cannot be a citizen- because he is a Christian, he cannot be a consumer. Roth's tale takes place in a dreamingly Catholic Paris- St Therese is central to it and at some point I will return to this tale to discuss its theology. But at the centre of it is this character and ultimately this character's strength which is also his flaw- his saintliness which leads to his inability to live as a modern citizen. Roth though leaves us in no doubt that this failure to survive in modern society is not a downfall- for Andreas events all have the same character- even death. When he dies, he goes to sleep without concern- the consequence is that whereas he has lost everything that we might think matters- none of it does matter to the Holy Drinker.

Like Mishkin he points out to us the illusion of society and the difficulty of living a moral life within the world- the Holy Drinker is a standing rebuke to the way we live now.

Apologies

Apologies for slow posting- I have a tempramental internet connection at the moment and am sorting it out- I've got a post to go up right now but for the next few days things may be slow.

December 26, 2007

The Children's Crusade

In Chartres, amidst the calls for knights and noblemen to go to Spain to fight against Islam, a group of shepherds led by Stephen of Cloyes one of their number, got up and started marching to deliver a letter from Christ to the King of France. Months later in Cologne Nicholas of Cologne set off with a group of German adolescents to take ship to the Holy land and recover the true Cross and with it Jerusalem. The movements may have been related- we don't know. We don't know though we can guess who took part, we have little knowledge of what happened to those that did take part- and we know only three people's names who were on the expeditions- Stephen and Nicholas referred to above- and an Otto who petitioned the papal curia in 1220 to be releived from his vows to crusade. And yet these crusades have become famous, passed from chronicler to historian, from poet to philosopher, from novelist to children's novelist, until they became part of the common currency of our times. The Children's Crusade is one of those events that shocked Europe at the time- yet had almost no consequences- it survived as a myth- a rumour- a disquieting revelation about human nature that kept the leaders of the Church and the doctors of the enlightenment awake at night.

What were the Children's Crusades? Well firstly there were as I said two of them. On both medieval chroniclers say that 'pueri' (latin for 'boys') took part. Some historians beleive that those pueri were a social group- marginalised young men on the edge of medieval society- some beleive that they were an age group- the young. Gary Dickson who has produced the most authoritative modern treatment suggests a mixture of the two- that the pueri were most likely shepherds and the dispossessed- young men before their marriage who left their homes and went to join these movements. The crusades happened in the Chartres region of France and in Germany. At our best guess, the crusade around Chartres developed after a request was sent out to the churches of the Chartrain to furnish soldiers for Christian armies under pressure in Northern Spain. The Chartres crusade arose out of processions around the great cathedral at Chartres- our best guess is that Stephen of Cloyes, mentioned by a chronicle from Laon, went home and was inspired by those processions to mount his own procession to bear a letter from Christ to King Phillip of France at St Denis. We know that that excitement led to perhaps hundreds and maybe thousands (numbers are hard with our limited information) to go south to St Denis. After St Denis, for some reason the remnant of the crusade headed off into the Rhineland- we have them recorded in a document at St Quentin, 140 miles north east of St Denis and a possible eye witness account by Renier of Liege at Liege in the first fifteen days of July 1212. From there they went onto Cologne where the movement seems to have grown in size. Dickson comments that fewer shepherds and more young people seem to have been present because the references in the chronicles emphasize the youth more. Nicholas of Cologne's group passed from Cologne southward- over the Alps and into Italy heading for the meditereanean- before attempting to board ships at various ports down the coast, culminating we think at Brundisium on the southern coast of Italy.

A spontaneous popular movement like this is not something that passed without comment. Monastic chroniclers were terrified of its implications- angry at the outburst of enthusiasm and fearful of the ways that the pueri had deserted the authority in particular of their parents. But nor was it unusual in the medieval world. There were movements before this- that behind the crusade launched by Peter the Hermit in the 1090s for example (though his movement did attract aristocratic support which the Children's Crusades didn't) and later movements like the Shepherd's Crusade of 1251 for example also had a popular nature. Popular revivals of religious sentiment were a feature of European religious history right up until the reformation and beyond: in 1457-9 thousands of French youths headed for Mont Saint Michel to pray and chronicles talked of the countryside emptying, similar things happened in the sixteenth century for example John of Leiden roused his supporters behind a manifesto of equality and free love based on the scripture. Such upheavals were the price society payed for a surplus of young men who were unemployed and ready to be roused to a biblically literalist interpretation of Christianity. They had other effects too- Dickson the author of the latest study of the Children's Crusade argues that one of those effects was mass migration. Effectively the pueri moved from Germany down to Northern Italy and many of them stayed behind within Italian towns- legends still connect many families in Genoa with the families of pueri who stayed behind, and Otto our petitioner to the papal curia was himself an emmigrant to Italy. Furthermore Dickson argues the effect of the crusade was to popularise the discourse about Crusades and hence about identity within medieval Europe: the call to crusade, made by Pope Innocent in 1213, was the first to address the people of Europe as well as its princes.

The Crusade has passed latterly into fiction and fairytale. Many of whose elements are unreliable- we have little evidence that there were mass sales into slavery at the end of the crusade- its not that likely that babies took part as one rather inspired chronicle has it. Nor that as medieval writers asserted the whole thing was a dasterdly plot by the Old Man of the Mountain or by Stephen of Cloyes's father who had sold his soul to Satan or for that matter by anyone else. Protestants in the 17th Century accused the Pope of selling out the crusaders and loved the self inspired nature of the movement. Voltaire in the 18th Century thought of it as a testament to his new doctrine of a socially contagious mental disease- religion. Victorians imagined it as the march of the innocent- H.G. Wells thought it was a 'dreadful affair'- Bertolt Brecht saw it as an analogy for wartorn central Europe and even a historian whose credentials were as impressive as the British Byzantist Sir Stephen Runciman couldn't resist gilding the history. The truth is though that the movement was a revivalist movement- launched from within the lower classes. We don't know an awful much about it- but what we do know makes it more fascinating than any myth would have it- we have a group of people marching away from their homes in the service of a living God, a God who breaks up authorities and family. The God of truly radical religion- not radical in our sense of the word- but radical in a much more profound sense- the God that destabilises.

The Children's Crusade is a useful marker in that sense- and Dr Dickens's book a useful testament- to the power of religion.

December 25, 2007

MERRY CHRISTMAS

Merry Christmas everyone, I will raise a glass to you all this afternoon over my Turkey and Christmas Pudding, I hope you have a really good day and loads of great presents! Sorry about the shortage of posting- too much shopping for presents!

December 23, 2007

Religion and Politics

Oliver Kamm has a great article up about the separation between the two here- afraid I won't post much more today- too much Christmas shopping- but there may be an article tommorrow.

December 22, 2007

The Professor's House

He had made something new in the world- and the rewards, the meaningless conventional gestures he had left to others.

Professor St Peter is the hero of Willa Cather's novel- the Professor's House- he is the hero of a novel in which nothing much seems to happen. The novel dwells on death repeatedly- St Peter himself beleives that he is dying, his best student Tom Outland died in the Great War and St Peter sees old loves and old attachments die around him to- he is he says transported back to his childhood, transported back within himself with neither his daughters nor his wife to keep him company. He has completed the work for which he was placed on the world- a history of Spanish adventurers in the Americas- and now all he sees is mindless games of conversational convention- the sport of furniture and clothes which fascinates him less and less.

Professor St Peter's book has gained recognition and the wealth that that provides enables his family to buy a new house- but the elderly academic wishes to spend his days inside a study in the house that they have left. A cold and bare study but one in which he can remain in solitude and think- where the ornaments of the room are signals to inspiration. For him the study remains a sanctuary, and its inhabitants- two clothes models- are as sacred as any other emblems of his own individuality. Emerging from the study, the Professor finds society outside tiresome and trivial. There is something he cannot grasp in the fascination his wife and daughters feel for small things- something he cannot appreciate about the way they interrupt the internal scholastic monologue.

His student Tom Outland shared that inclination. Outland was a country boy and part way through the story in the novella amidst the romain (as A.S. Byatt who provides an introduction to my edition charmingly calls it), Outland narrates his own tale- of how he discovered out in the south west United States an abandoned Indian village. What Outland tells us though is more than that process of discovery- he tells us about the pleasures of loneliness. The pleasures of sitting on the Indian tombstone and communing in the quiet with the intellectual idea of the past. The sense that Outland is more fundamentally disturbing than that- for going to Washington he realises that all the inhabitants of the capital are slaves. They are slaves to work and office, slaves to desiring lunch, slaves to desiring more and more and more- endless items to satiate an endless desire. A desire created by society.

For Outland and the Professor, such solitude finds society. However they both need society in order to thrive. Outland never looked happier than when playing with the Professor's daughters. The Professor's chief happiness came when Outland arrived- but also during his early marriage, when his children were growing up, when the sweetness of a child too caring of her father to disturb him, sitting outside his study for hours with a beestung finger charmed him. Furthermore he has genuine affection for his daughters and wife. He has a genuine sense of style as well. The story thus isn't simple- it isn't just that withdrawel from society is reccomended- happiness could not be found by St Peter in the hermit's cell, no less than official Washington, the cell would be barren of what provides human excitement. Convention may be the enemy but conversation is a good.

The Professor's withdrawel from the world is in part the withdrawing of a man who has become weary of the world, his lament over his vanished youth (visualised in those lines I quote above about Outland) is just as much a cry of weariness, of tired resignation as it is a point about the way that the world works. Death Cather implies is a renouncing not of the self but of company, a desire for death is a desire to be alone to meditate. Nobody interrupts in a grave. The irritating skin of society gets worse after time- after acheivement- after life has passed. There is no balm for existential doubt. Furthermore resting in that alienation is the alienation of someone who had been far away when his favourite son had died on the Western Front- its the angst of a society that has been shaken by death that is reflected on the page of Cather's novel- despite it never been mentioned, the shells of the Somme shake the Professor's living room.

We all struggle ultimately with other people- they are as Sartre said hell, they are as Bergman implied our only route to God's existance. Cather's novel places other people and the self in contradiction- it tends to no easy answers- but it demonstrates an acute power of observation is at work within its pages. The world, that old Christian bugbear, is very much with us- its impact upon us all is the subject of almost everything we do- even when we renounce- and failing to acknowledge both its danger and its pleasure is the mark of folly.

December 20, 2007

Religious Bigots

The Muslim Public Affairs Committee is an organisation with a long history of odd behaviour- they have over the last few days excelled themselves. They published last week a call for the names of the researchers for Policy Exchange's recent report to be given to them- they wanted Muslim activists to ring up their offices and tell them who these eight researchers were. MPAC accused these researchers- and the whole Sufi community in the UK- of being fifth columnists for a zionist neo con cabal who were intent on destroying Islam and then the world...... fill in the blanks. They suggested that these Quislings should be reported to them so that MPAC could "dig deeper and expose every last detail of the Sufis who tried to destroy their own community." Having been called up on this language, MPAC are now asserting that their interest was purely in the researchers' credibility as researchers- given that they advertise this operation as being "A Hunt for 8 Sufi Zio Con Frauds"- I'm not entirely sure that their interest is in research methodology.

That's particularly true given the rest of the content on their website. They have published articles which argue that Sufi scholars collaborate with the Pharoah of our time George Bush and that Sufism is a trend in Islam that promotes a passivity desired by the zio con forces of evil. They have also published articles defending Sufism but it definitely seems to me that MPAC beleives that this is a legitimate debate- its strange that they don't have any articles saying that any other strands of Islam aren't Islamic! Furthermore their official statement, 'The Hunt' supports the anti-Sufi case- they state there that the Sufis have been used throughout history as a weapon in the arms of Russian and British and now American imperialism. The slurs on Sufism are absolutely and completely ridiculous. Anyone who knows an iota of the history of Islam- obviously noone involved in MPAC can be listed in that category, knows that Sufism is an old and established trend in Islamic theology.

For the benefit of MPAC, it might be worth rehearsing some of the contributions of Sufism- and others can add to this- in stimulating Islamic theology and political thought. Plenty of sources see Sufic communities going back right to the beggining of Islam- into the eighth century. Muzaffar Allam in his study of Indian Islamic political thought argues that Sufis have been present in India since the 11th or 12th centuries. As Richard Eaton demonstrates in his studies of the growth of Islam in India- Sufi movements provided many of the missionaries that spread throughout India to convert communities to Islam. Indeed David Cook shows in his studies of martyrdom and Islam that Sufi movements were also central to the growth of Islam in Indonesia and in many other places around the world. Great Sufi poetry and art has animated Islam: think of the Persian/Turkish poet Rumi whose work provides inspiration for art in the middle East right up until today, where its often quoted in the novels of Orhan Pamuk. The thesis that Sufis have never done anything for Islam- implied by MPAC- is just plain wrong and perhaps the organisation would like to withdraw its slurs.

Quite frankly though this goes further than just that. Because MPAC in reality are saying something else. They are saying that they have the right to define what Muslims ought to do or be- Muslims can't support say the invasion of Iraq. What utter nonsense! It is not for MPAC to define the essence of Islam. Muslims have been throughout history a group with a wide variety of beliefs just like Christians and Jews and Hindus and all other faiths. MPAC demands the names of these researchers because ultimately it wants to publish them and expose them- it doesn't want to argue or discuss (afterall they are Zio Con quislings) it wants to condemn. It doesn't want to examine why some Muslims might decide to help Policy Exchange- that they do convicts them and means they are irrelevant- they don't need to be talked to, they just need to be condemned. That stance fits into a general pattern- whereby their rhetoric is violent and conspiratorial- they don't seek to understand, they don't take on other arguments, they just want the luxury of an easy assertion that everyone else is evil. Their rhetoric avoids unhelpful facts- how can the war against Islam be a verifiable fact when Tony Blair bombed the Serbs out of Kosovo. How can it be a verifiable fact when the West repeatedly attempts to do things for Darfur and when westerners put their hands in their own pockets to help victims of the Tsunami? Has MPAC ever looked at the amount of aid that the EU gives to Palestine? Have they ever considered the support that America has always given to Pakistan?

MPAC want to define Islam and define certain people out of Islam. They seem to want Islam defined politically. Their politics is bizarre, conspiratorial and has a tangential relation to reality. But it goes further than that- in reality their conception of Islam excludes many Muslims from its definition. They basically argue that Sufis are quislings- they basically say that they would junk the entire tradition of Sufism because of the closeness of some present Sufis to politicians that they don't like. They are apocalyptic in their language. They are aggressive in their abusive calls for the silencing of those that disagree with them. If there is one thing likely to make me sympathetic to Policy Exchange in this whole debate, its the attitude of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee. I still feel that there are legitimate questions about the reporting in Policy Exchange's work and I have no problem with critiques of it: but as Liberals we should stand, as our enlightenment predecessors did, against religious bigotry. And religious bigotry is what MPAC peddles against Muslims who don't back their political line and against plenty of others as well.
Crossposted at the Liberal Conspiracy

Lermontov A Hero of our Time

Mikhail Lermontov's "A Hero of Our Time" is a book which boasts its irony in its preface. The book focuses on Pechorin, a Russian officer in the 19th Century Caucasus, who Lermontov beleives is typical of his age- hence the title. Like Dosteovsky's Raskolnikov, Pechorin is a symbol of the alienation of 19th Century Russian youth from Russia and the spiritual traditions of orthodoxy. Pechorin is a superfluous man- cut off from history he has a Faustian sense of his own ability to control history and other people. Pechorin like so many other Russian heroes before and since, like Onegin for example, is a creature of cynical intelligence- purposeless he strives to manipulate the purposes of others. He sees through the subterfuge of society, sees through the elaborations of human deceit down to the rotten core of the human heart. It is symbolic that for Pechorin, marriage- the ultimate in sincere emotional commitment within any human life- is a signal, according to an old gipsy prophesy, of ensuing doom. Sincerity leads to downfall, love to instant loss.

Lermontov's tale illustrates his central character episodically. We see five main stories develop around Pechorin- three of which concern romantic endeavours in which he is involved- two of which concern his relationships with other men. Throughout the stories various ideas run like lines to demonstrate to us the kind of man that Pechorin is. He, we are assured by his own voice (three of the stories are told from Pechorin's point of view as part of an unpublished journal), is a creature who feels lust but not love. He is able to appreciate and admire female beauty but he strives always to value it. Most of his emotions are common to most of mankind- he hankers after girls that he doesn't have and then grows bored of them- but the distinction is that Pechorin never moderates this passion with reason or religion. He follows his appreciation callously leaving behind in its wake those whom he discards. He applies the same logic to friends- seeking after beauty he discards the instances of beauty. In that sense he operates as a pure Platonist might- looking for the ideal and discarding the real instances of it.

Pechorin's outlook is moulded by romanticism. The entire novel is shot through with Byronic overtones- there is an explicit reference to Rousseau and the narrator indicates that this memoir is what Rousseau might have written, had he not been writing to be heard. At a deeper level though the novel is about the triumph of sentiment over reason in the human soul. Sentiment drives the plot in all the stories. Characters are unable to control, unable to master their passions. As an essayist in human psychology, Lermontov suggests that there is nothing more to us than our passions and where they lead us. Patterns of passion, Pechorin assures us, are not to be trusted- they do not exist. Instead the demands of desire are essentially random- Pechorin seeks to understand them, not to tame them but to exploit the passions of others to fulfill his own. A classic Don Juan, he seeks to manipulate both men and women for his own ends- and yet ultimately Lermontov assures us that this leads Pechorin empty. As he says at one point within the novel, he is the cause of much unhappiness whilst also being the unhappiest of men.

This tale is rooted of course within a historical situation. Russia after the reforms of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great was a place undergoing massive change. A vast bureacracy had taken over from the ancient aristocracy of boyars and state service became the only method for advancement within society. Furthermore as Russian authors chronicled Russia felt a cultural inferiority to things further West- but also felt that those societies to the West lacked spirituality, lacked a centre. You can see this theme running through the great Russian authors of the 19th Century from Pushkin to Chekhov, through Turgenev, Herzen, Dosteovsky, Tolstoy and its here in Lermontov as well. Part of Pechorin's characterisation is about the position of Russia after the reforms of the 18th Century- Pechorin is a hero of his time- like Russia he has been modernised and stripped of his spirituality. He is like modernity, angst filled, power driven, successful and spiritually empty. He cries out for a God that he cannot beleive in and does not even mention.

You cannot take away the Russian anchor from Lermontov's tale. Its filled with the colour of the Caucasus. You see the customs of the frontier tribes of Chechnya in the 19th Century, their brutal society of bands and frontier theft. There is an orientalising vision at work here- we are instructed that these tribes are primitive and yet their members, the artless beauty Bela for example, understand better than the civilised Pechorin the demands of passionate morality. Part of the charm of the novel though is the taste of this society- a society where a Circassian raid on a country house would not be unexpected- a society which lies on the northern border of Islam, on the southern border of orthodoxy. There are wonderful descriptions of rides through the Chechen mountains. Descriptions of small spa towns, embedded outposts of Russian colonialism amidst the barbarism of the frontier. That description in one tale gives you a real sense of the nineteenth century- I suspect that though Lermontov is describing the Caucasus, he could be describing somewhere near Kinshasa, Calcutta or Kansas.

And yet for all the local colour, the underlying theme of the book is universal. It comes back to that great question of the 19th Century, phrased with typical bluntness by Nietzsche, that when God is dead you have to find something else to fill his gap. Philosophers from Rousseau to Kant to Hegel to Schleiermacher struggled with the position of God in an age of materialism- they all came to different and distinct answers. Lermontov's work is a sceptical recasting of the question- he asks what happens to the unmoored human being and in a sense he comes back to Rousseau's answer. God may not exist but he is neccessary for human beings to turn amour propre into amour de soi. He is neccessary for human beings to anchor their passions around. Without God men will still anchor their passions, but as with Pechorin they will anchor them around an egotistic attempt to control others, with God they anchor them around an egoist's love of the divine which sees that as more vital than human attachment.

Whatever you think of that stance, its novelisation is a fantastic feat- and provokes a lot of thought. The character of Pechorin provokes and intrigues in equal measure as an exempla of how a particular vision of humanity works.

December 19, 2007

Just a little point about comments

Just a little point on comments- generally I don't delete comments unless they are abusive or obviously spam. I've got two comments over the last couple of days which have basically been compliments with the web address for a gaming website affixed. I'm afraid I treat such comments as spam and do delete them. If you want your comments to stay up, then don't reccomend completely out of context a gambling website at the end of the comment.

December 18, 2007

Nick Clegg

So Clegg has won the LibDem leadership contest, not knowing much about the man I can't really say much about what this means, but it might be worth casting an outsider's eye on it just because I am precisely the type of person, in this case, who the Libdems will want to appeal to (someone who doesn't know as much as he should about their party). The only thing I really know about Clegg is this- he is young and fresh and new. He won't frighten anyone and looks presentable on TV- basically he is David Cameron with a yellow rosette in presentational terms. The problem I have with that is that it will be interesting how he separates out his profile from Cameron's. LibDem leaders have often done best at times when the major parties are in meltdown like the nineties or early 2000s- and its possible that Clegg if he makes it to the next election or the one after next will be in that position again visa vis Labour. But LibDem leaders both in the late nineties and early 2000s were distinct from the new young things in the party doing well- then Tony Blair. Paddy Ashdown's action man image and Charles Kennedy's understated and self deprecating Scottish burr were a thousand miles away from Blair's evangelistic glamour- in a sense more than any policy platform the identity of the leadership meant that the Libdems established a national profile. Clegg worries me in that sense for the Liberals- and I wonder whether the more cerebral Huhne might have been a more distinctive choice. With Clegg you get the feeling that the voters might decide they want the real nice clean handsome young PR boy and vote for Cameron.

Its a minor worry and a mere thought- but I do wonder whether the LibDems made a collossal mistake when they got rid of Kennedy, who is one of the few natural communicators left in politics- the sort of bloke you'd meet down the pub, a bit like Ken Clarke. Neither Cameron nor Brown has that appeal and I'm not sure that Clegg does either. It'll be interesting to see how they differentiate Clegg's personal story from the "liberal conservative" sitting just down from him in the House of Commons.

December 16, 2007

The Manuscript found in Saragossa

Our understanding of the enlightenment in popular culture is driven by a perception of it as the age which lighted up Europe after centuries- millennia- of barbarism. The philosophes of the Enlightened Age- Voltaire, Gibbon, Hume, Rousseau, Spinoza et al- were successors to Lucretius and Cicero- masters of science, economics and philosophy, sages who advanced the arguments which led to modernity. Of course part of that picture is right: but the Enlightenment was a much broader and deeper phenomenon- nourished not merely from the springs of philosophy but also fortified in verse and sustained by the birth of the European novel. Think of the Eighteenth Century and it isn't merely the shades of Hume and Smith that return to haunt you, but those of Samuel Richardson and Fanny Burney. The explosion of the public sphere led not merely to the economics of Riccardo and the horrific events of the Terror, but also to the novels of Jane Austen and the poems of Byron. The Enlightenment was far broader and more vast than the pens of intellectual historians can traverse, as a moment in European history it encompassed so much more.

Jan Potocki, the Polish political adventurer, ethnologist and egyptologist, was one such typical enlightenment figure. From the 1790s onwards he prepared a vast manuscript- the Manuscript found in Saragossa, which tells the adventures of Alphonse Van Worden, an officer in the Walloon guard in the mid-eighteenth century, as he attempts to travel from France towards Madrid. Its scale is stunning- Van Worden's journey is interrupted by a series of characters who each tell their own stories. Those stories inclose other stories and they are told by a wide variety of people. Their subjects are even more vast. Potocki wrote of all frames of human experience- we have touching reminiscences of the past counterposed with humourous almost Quixotic accounts of the danger of Chivalric honour. We have accounts of the construction of the universe in a deeply Spinozistic way- even at one point a Hobbesian account of the soul as motion. Those are set aside deeply erotic tales of seduction by Moorish ghost princesses and by aristocratic grand ladies in Spain. We have love and horror. Characters return in different contexts as the story's mosaic takes in Italy, France, Spain, England and Austria. The strength of this is Chaucerian in its love of life- Potocki sees virtue in absurdity.

Throughout the tale, Alphonse Van Worden grows. We read it through his account and consequently we read his response to what he finds out. Often we hear him comment on stories- particularly those which affront his sense of honour (Van Worden's father was a world renowned expert on duels) and Christianity. Throughout the book, Van Worden though becomes exposed to different ideas- to exotic thoughts that he did not deem existed. He has to recognise them and deal with them- and while he is not converted, he is changed by his experiences. The last section of the book deals with his later career and definitely it seems that Van Worden realised that the conventional life he lived after his adventure was dimmed by the glory of the strangeness he encountered. Potocki definitely leaves us in no doubt that variety is to be treasured- to use Isaiah Berlin's distinction this is the novel of a very wise Fox who knows many things.

Variety here is not merely the variety of experience- though that's there, Ian Maclean, the editor of my edition, suggests that the novel is like a Spanish inn containing all social sectors of society. We also see the variety of culture. For this Spain is a successor to medieval Spain- the Spain of Maimonides and Averroes as much as of Charles and Phillip. The novel is filled with the occult- characters like the wandering Jew and the Marquis of St Germain make appearances. Indeed the whole book is bound together, the story is even created, by a vast conspiracy run secretly from caves amidst the Spanish mountains. Everything is revealed eventually to be the creation of this conspiracy- like a Newtonian universe, the exterior of the story is mysterious, but its interior workings are as logical as clockwork. The interest in conspiracy though is typical of an era which was buttressed at one end by the controversy of the Rosy Cross and at the other by rumours of the influence of Freemasons. In that sense Potocki is a child of his times, seeking a mechanism even in the fertile abundance of his novel that will equate to the mechanisms of nature.

And neither are they neglected, for one of the characters, Velasquez is as interested in the enlightenment that we know of as any of our intellectual historians are. He unfolds the design of the universe to his willing (and unwilling listeners- one of the great pleasures of the book is the number of times people go off and say they are bored by other people's tales! There is a reassuring humanity to these characters) listeners. He even manages to seduce a girl to be his wife through his skilful geometrical unfolding of the Cartesian world. And his understandings are based upon the solid foundations of enlightenment science: he gives us a little tour of the world of enlightenment thought from Herriot to Newton, from Locke to Leibniz. That tour is yet another attempt to read the universe's hidden logic- to illumine that which is darkened. To use Kant's phrase, he and Potocki both dare to know.

What is so astonishing about this book is that you come out of it without one clear idea- the fox here has definitely won over the hedgehog who knows one thing very well. Its a book that breaks up impressions into shards- and confutes its own attempts to rationalise its progress. Like the Canterbury Tales, to which its been compared, its pleasures and beauties lie in its minatures- in haunting tales of gothic melodrama, in subtle comic take offs of false chivalry and in the constant humanity of many of its principal narrators (particularly the wry Gipsy King Avarado). Its hard to sum something of this size and complexity up save to say that it is huge and complex- but to some extent I think that's the point. It demonstrates that despite the best efforts even of the Enlightened philosophe, our intelligence cannot sum up the whole of existance in a set of laws or any idea of God. Existance is too vast for us to ever totally grasp, and all our theories can only be proved by their incompleteness and their imperfection.

Potocki's life and his work are filled with vitality and colour, they can't be captured even on the canvass of a blog post, go and read the book.

Little Dieter needs to Fly

Teddy Roosevelt once said that in order to govern, any senator or congressman or President ought to serve in the United States armed forces. Watching the documentary, Little Dieter needs to Fly, one realises why TR had that view. Dieter Dengler was a naturalised American who came to the US in order to fly planes- he came from Germany after the war where there was no airforce or commercial airline and ended up joining the US navy and flying missions over IndoChina. Dengler was shot down and captured by the Vietcong- he was taken through the jungle to a prison camp and held there with eight other prisoners, including one other American, till he escaped and by chance, heroism and endurance managed to get himself rescued.

Dengler's story is amazing- his grandfather was a resistor to the Nazis in Germany- paraded through the local town where he was the only person not to vote for Hitler in national plebiscites. He grew up in postwar poverty- beaten by a local blacksmith to whom he was apprenticed. When he arrived in the States he began by peeling potatoes and eventually hauled himself through night school and a variety of military jobs, until he reached the planes. But of course it was the planes that were his real love- and one of the things that instantly strikes you is the way that Dengler found his exhileration in the skies above Indochina. He talks on the documentary about the way that to him the bombing of Vietnam was an exercise- it was dislocated from what was happening below. After he returnhed to his base, he found he couldn't sleep save for in the cockpit of a plane- that was the only place where he could find peace from the horrors of war.

And there were horrors aplenty. Dengler's stay in captivity should disabuse anyone who thinks that the Vietcong were some cuddly sixties protest cause. Whatever the rights or wrongs of American presence in Vietnam, Dengler and his fellow prisoners were treated horrifically by the Vietnamese. Before getting to the camp, Dengler talks of being dragged behind water buffalos, kicked on the ground, hit with rifle butts and various other indignities. Placed in a camp, shackled together, allowed only two minutes a day to go to the toilet (in an exercise that involved Vietnamese soldiers shooting at them for fun), effectively sitting in each other's dysentry and diarhea for six months, with nothing apart from rotting meat (with lice crawling over it) to eat, the prisoners were treated abominably. Dengler tells stories about the way that the Vietcong behaved in villages- it reminds you of stories from Apocalypse Now, only the casual brutality happened. Dengler's escape was owed to errors by the guards- they left the prisoners unguarded for two minutes and the prisoners fled.

Dengler and his friend Duane Martin ran off together, attempting to find a river and escape to Thailand. Conditions again were awful. They had one shoe between the two of them and their feet were cut to ribbons by the jungle floor. They escaped drowning several times. Duane was eventually killed by a villager, Dengler was fortunate to escape and eventually was rescued by a keen eyed US pilot who saw him signalling SOS from a river bed. He was emmaciated and haunted by dreams of the horrors he had seen. For Dengler, the death of his friend Duane who whom he had shared the experience of escape and who was closer than his wife, than his mother and family touched him to the quick. You get a tremendous sense throughout Dengler's account of that standerd emotional reaction of people serving in the armed forces to conflict- the bond that they develop between each other and particularly from the living to the dead. Asked by Werner Herzog whether he feels a hero, Dengler responds that the only heroes are the dead.

In 1982, when Margerat Thatcher prepared to go to war to recover the Falklands, she turned to the two men in her cabinet who had previously served in the military- Lord Carrington the Foreign Secretary (who resigned over the war eventually) and Willie Whitelaw. Their experience proved vital to the Prime Minister over the insuing weeks. Roosevelt's statement about war and the neccessity of service is of course wrong- in that there are great politicians and great leaders who did not in any way serve their nation in war- but even so it captures something important. Too often we are too blase about the positives of war, that it creates a good situation, forgetting the costs to people, costs which endure long after the wars are over. This is not a pacifist point at all but a prudential one- in order to order troops into combat, you have to be aware that there will be Denglers, there will be those whose lives are ruined completely by the experience. Being too keen on war as it promotes the muscularity of a generation is a cowardly posture: in order to properly comprehend what you are doing in ordering troops into battle you have to understand what Kurtz calls the horror. You have to see the viciousness of the combat and the terror that you are committing young men to experience.

Sometimes that is neccessary- but its always worth remembering that war has massive costs. Dieter Dengler's story reminds us of that constantly.

December 15, 2007

The Virtue of the Right

Alex Hilton infuriates me. His latest article in the Guardian repeats one of the most dangerous nostrums of the politically partisan, whilst conceding intellectual ground that I think he ought not to concede. Hilton has said in the past that he hates Tories- now he says he hates the right. He hates them because he sees the right as pursuing a self consciously selfish aim and beleives that there is no such thing as principled right wing politics. Of course Mr Hilton's assertion is manifestly untrue: most of the rightwingers I know may be in error but one thing they are not is unprincipled.

But this goes further than that statement. Lets for a second presume that the right are in the wrong and are in error. There are some errors that deserve hatred- for instance racism etc deserves hatred (though I would not ban the expression of racist views). The right's errors though lie in various areas which aren't in my view ipso facto immoral- the right puts too much of a value on a misconstrued notion of freedom, too much value on authority providing safety and security and too little value on equality and real freedom. There are other values you might place alongside that- but overall those ideas and arguments have a long pedigree, are respectable intellectual positions and do have good ends in view- even if the biproducts of those ends would be evils.

Mr Hilton seems not to recognise that- and to be so swallowed up in the bile of partisan hatred, trade union war mongering and spite for 'hoorays' that he has lost his sense of proportion. Furthermore whilst doing that he himself has moved into the territory of the right. His partisan anger has blinded him to the fact that to be rightwing is not to have an accent but to espouse a set of ideas- one of those ideas is that absolute poverty matters more than relative poverty. On that argument Mr Hilton is on the side of the Tories- I don't want to rehearse the argument again- but there are good reasons to think that poverty is relative as well as absolute- arguments Mr Hilton neglects. The perils of partisanship are such that you arrive at a position where you embrace your opponent's worst positions because they are popular, just because your fundemental cause in politics is not your ideas but hatred of your opponent.

What Mr Hilton has forgotten is that the real end of any political argument isn't to win, but to persuade. However hard that might be, there is no future in political arguments which exclude either the left or the right for snobbish reasons- we can both learn from and hope to persuade each other- and if we don't, then our politics is dishonest and is about winning, not getting things right. The day that one can't admit to error, is the day that one dies as a serious person.

December 13, 2007

Responding on Pester Power

Matt's response about pester power is a very interesting one. He misreads my post, or perhaps I miswrote it, because he assumes I was accusing him of backing corporate punishment, I wasn't at all. My argument was that the power of pestering had grown because parents had become more unwilling to exercise discipline against their children. That unwillingness stemmed from an increased sympathy with their children. Symbolised by campaigns against smacking and caning. Matt thinks that this represents the rise of relativism- I don't see that it does. I think it represents the rise of a sympathetic morality as against the principle that the parent's authority justifies them doing what they want to to their own children. What I take issue with Matt on is him calling this phenomenon relativism- and maybe I wasn't clear enough about that. It isn't that parents or government are losing their moral sense- it is that their moral sense is changing- and that that undermines their authority. That isn't relativism- strict relativism is an idea that moral principles are all much of a muchness and that there is no such thing as right or wrong. If I beleive that hitting my child is wrong, how is that relativistic.

I think that this discussion has really started on the wrong foot. Let me lay out two alternative things to discuss- one of which I think Matt was interested in and the other of which I am more interested in. Should parents have authority over their kids to stop them buying sexy dresses et al? In Matt's view and my view they should. I can't see any argument there against that authority- and like Matt I agree that parents should stop their children dressing up in these ways. But there is a second and more interesting question, that in a clumsy way I was trying to get at? Why have these trends happened- why is it that parents are under pressure and feel themselves to be coerced by their kids to buy these things- I think that's a much more interesting question and it shouldnt' be conflated with the first issue. I think that question comes down to two related factors- one of which is the growth of different kinds of moral understandings of childhood and its relationship to adulthood and the other to economic conditions which strengthen the position of children in relation to adults.

The moral conditions are the increase in the notion that kids themselves should be respected as autonomous agents. That means that if I hit a kid or behave authoritarianly to a child in some sense I am hurting it. That leads to me being more cautious about the way that I behave to my children, becoming less authoritarian, less willing to quickly shut them up with a clip round the ear. I don't think that that is neccessarily a bad thing- neither do I think Matt thinks it is. But I don't see it as a rise in relativism- it is a rise in moral sentiment if its anything. The argument is a moral one, you should respect the child as an autonomous being- it isn't a relativistic one. Ultimately if I say that smacking is wrong, I am not being relativistic because a relativist doesn't believe that anything is wrong. Rather I am arguing that the moral conditions of punishment have changed. And I think that argument is strong- but it has consequences and one is to shift the balance of power within a relationship between parents and children towards the kids.

Secondly we have the economic conditions. Advertising here is key because it gives the child an advantage in terms of knowledge. So too are other features of modern society. One of which is the length of time parents work and hence their guilt about how their child is being parented. Its quite frequent for both parents now to need jobs in order to maintain a standerd of living and also to maintain self esteem- again that is a wider trend in society which has to do with all sorts of other economic and social developments. It leads to parents attempting to buy their child's affection- so consumption becomes an indicy of how much you love your child and hence the power of the pester, which in this case is the child calling out for attention and for love. The diminished time that parents and children have together is a vital and ignored factor in all of this because it strengthens all the other trends.

What I accuse Matt of here is not moral error- I think that he is right that we should resist kids who demand the latest video game- what I am accusing him of is not understanding the processes which lead us to this point. I think that they are much more complicated than just the growth of moral relativism. I don't see that growth. Rather I see the roots of this lying in the growth of the idea of a child as an autonomous agent, so the adoption of restrictions on parental authority and various economic conditions (both in terms of advertising and decreased parental time spent caring for kids) which lead to that development. There are good reasons why those three developments have happened. There is a too simplistic conservative point of view that suggests if only we were more authoritarian the problems of the world would be solved: I think that conservatives need to think more about both the moral and economic reasons why authority has eroded before discussing what should happen to bolster it. Perhaps I didn't express myself clearly enough in my last post, but this is the argument that I was trying to get at.

December 12, 2007

Classical Kissing


Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred, then another thousand, then a second hundred, then yet another thousand, then another hundred. Then when we have made up many thousands, we will confuse our counting, that we may not know the reckoning, nor any malicious person blight them with the evil eye, when he knows our kisses are so many. Catullus

Catullus was one of the great Roman love poets, and his series of poems to his mistress Lesbia are justly amongst the most famous in the world. This passage is interesting though because it throws into sharp relief the importance of the kiss in the ancient world to their conceptions of how love was expressed. A recent article in Leeds International Classical Studies by Richard Hawley (PDF) deals with the subject of the way that kisses are described by classical authors in more detail and what Hawley describes is interesting because it demonstrates firstly the ways that kissing has changed its function since antiquity and the ways in which kissing changed its function within antiquity.

A kiss has always been a symbol of erotic desire. What we see though in the sources is an evolution and a distinction from modern erotic desire. Kisses in early antiquity, amongst the drinking parties held in Athens in the 5th Century BC and frequented by Socrates and Alciabedes, were often between equals: Socrates warns one kisser about the danger of kisses as a prelude to love instead of a part of love. By kissing the idea is that one might fall in love with the recipient of your kisses. By the Hellenistic period, the expression of kissing in poetry and in philosophy has become much more erotic- erotic fulfilment arises from the participation in a successful kiss. In Roman times this erotic kissing is no longer an expression of same sex relationships- but of male desire for women, the kiss becomes something you do to your girlfriend not your boyfriend. From Socrates's fears about the effect of kissing a boy on his friends to Catullus's evocation of lying in bed with Lesbia kissing her repeatedly as part of an erotic performance is actually quite a distance.

It also symbolises though another crucial difference and distinction. A kiss was a mark of power in the ancient world- erotic power. To French kiss someone, insert your tongue in their mouth as you kiss, was seen as a type of domination. Older lovers would french kiss their boyfriends. Women would be kissed by men. Women who kissed men were looked down on- its no surprise that the Greek word for prostitute derives from the Greek word for kiss. And there were different words for the erotic dominatory French kiss than for the kiss shared between equals and lovers. By the time of Ovid, a kiss is used as part of Ovid's lover's ensemble of force to conquer women into granting sex. Kisses here are almost blandishments to rape. What one sees in Augustan Rome therefore is a much more imperial style of sexual relationship where say in Ovid the domination of a woman is actively praised as the end for which the lover seeks.

This trend is mirrored in the way that kisses are used in non-sexual connotations as well. Again its worth thinking about vocabulary- whereas we have one word for kiss, the Greeks and the Romans had a couple- and they had words which denoted the social kiss, the kiss of greeting. Mostly such kisses were exchanged within family groups- you would kiss in greeting your brother, sister or particularly mother. Children were often kissed, by holding them by their ears and kissing their faces. Kissing outside the family seems to have grown and extended during the Roman Empire- kissing non-relations or non-friends was seen by many Greeks as something that Persians did. There are wonderful stories in Xenophon about lustful Persian governors kissing boys that they fancied in order to savour the sexual pleasure. During the Roman empire, kissing became more of a universal phenomenon.

That was backed by a second trend. We have noted before that kissing is used as a mark of domination- the conquest of another's mouth by one's tongue so to speak. Social kissing though could also be a mark of domination. The Greeks noticed that Persians kissed the floor in front of their kings. Refusal to let someone kiss your face, instead letting them kiss your hands was a sign of submission. Priam does it to Achilles when seeking the body of his son Hector. Universal kissing of feet or carpet in front of someone was seen as a mark of power, or imperium, and consequently as the shades of the Republic were abandoned in Rome such kissing becomes more important. We see it in the age of Diocletian for example, where imperial dignatories would kiss the floor in front of Emperor.

A kiss for the ancient world was therefore never just a kiss- it always meant something more. Its interesting to try to imagine the way that manners have changed over the years- the subtle languages of signs by which we orientate ourselves. By examining the Greek and Roman kiss I think we can see how much the way that humans behave within groups has changed- and changes even between eras of the past- its an interesting study and one can only hope that Richard Hawley succeeds in his ambition of completing further work.

Jesus Christ my personal saviour or saviour of Mankind

Bill Scher mentions a Mitt Romney dogwhistle to the Mormons in his recent speech and describes something about Mormon theology here- its an absolutely fascinating couple of seconds- well worth watching.

History's Judgement

Political leaders and Journalists always make me laugh when they talk about history. (For a fine recent article which provoked this outburst see here.) Perpetually leaders talk about the judgements that history will deliver upon them, how for instance a Nixonian reputation for corruption will in the end turn into a Nixonian reputation for foresighted peace making (it is ironic that they don't understand the two judgements can be true of the same person). American historians unfortunately reinforce such hubris but compiling lists of great Presidents- evaluating Washington against Reagen (as though it were possible to compare a ruler of a small agrarion republic to the ruler of a vast multicultural complex state). One of the reasons that politicians make me laugh is that they claim that their reputations will be assessed by history- and that they will pass some grand examination in the future at which dons, sitting like schoolmasters, will award passes and fails.

Actually there never will be such an examination. People tend to presume that there will be because they tend to presume that historians will know in the future things that we don't know now. We can now see that Harry Truman's policy of containment was a successful strategy to combat Soviet Russia, we can now see that Neville Chamberlaine's policy of appeasement was a failure in combatting Hitler's Germany. Neither of those judgements were so obvious at the time. But equally there is much that historians are ignorant of, that those close to events or even those contemporary with events do know. Most importantly because historians do know what happened, they don't know what it was like to be there- to take the decision. Even I have a better idea of what Tony Blair thought in 2003, because I was there and had to think about what I would have done. A historian can't do that, his art lies in imagining himself into that position but he can never be there. Furthermore so much of life happens casually. Think about it this way, imagine you died tommorrow and all memory of you was purged from the world- all we would have of you would be the documentary traces you left. We wouldn't know what you were like- we would only know what others thought you were like, and even then only what they would commit to paper or film about what you were like. Uncertainty is the lot of the politician, it is also the lot of the historian.

And that uncertainty leads to another factor- its seldom that those stentorian dons are ever in accord. You can hold a poll and get a result- but that's like an election and historical fashions change. Since the 1960s the English Levellers have gone in the history of the civil war from being close to Karl Marx to being close to Billy Graham. Since the 18th Century, empires have waxed and waned but so have their reputations- for Gibbon's contemporaries empire caused corruption, for Kipling's it represented a civilising mission, for ours it seems brutal and constraining and we all use Rome as an example. Putting your trust in the judgement of history is like putting your faith in fashion remaining unchanging. Yes its difficult to imagine for instance that anyone sane will ever think Adolf Hitler was a good thing, and equally that anyone sane will think Winston Churchill was a bad thing- but the majority of politicians don't start genocides or fight brave lonely conflicts. The majority of politicians make mistakes and misjudgements, and have good intentions- and the balance between their error and their success is a fine one. Clement Attlee's reputation in England depends on where you stand politically, as does FDR's in the US. Its a very odd politician that is everyone's hero or everyone's villain.

That doesn't mean that we shouldn't judge politicians- but we should remember that we judge them not against the standerds of some abstract historical tradition, but against our own moral sense. History will render no judgement on Blair, Bush or Nixon- the discipline of history allows us to evaluate different versions of what happened and why against the evidence, its then for us to come up with the moral judgements. Historians are not Gods but human beings. As there is no view from nowhere- and politics is all about balancing competing moral needs- a historian judges, just like anyone else, by his moral compass the ethics of a politician's behaviour. He might know more facts: but his moral judgement is just the same as any one else's.

Cross posted at liberal conspiracy.

December 11, 2007

Advertising and consumer hierarchy

Matt's post about adverts and kids is a fascinating one- I'm pretty sure that I disagree with it whole heartedly- because I think it inverts many of the relationships that we see in present society and misunderstands them. Matt argues that pestering from Kids to parents works, because parents have lost their moral sense and are basically weaklings, unable to withstand a childish tantrum. He also suggests that a good old fashioned bit of discipline is what children need and suggests that these modern day liberal parents are too morally flaccid to apply it. Ultimately in Matt's view advertising responds to but does not shape demand.

I think all of those statements are wrong. Lets start with the idea that the power of pestering represents the decline of morality- I think its worth distinguishing in this area two important concepts: morality and authority. The power of pestering represents the decline of the second of those concepts, but not the decline of the first. If for instance, as Chris Dillow argues, sympathy is the basis for secular morality (and Matt lest anyone need reminding is an avowed secularist- in that he does not decline his morality from theology) then acknowledging the power of the pester and relinquishing authority may be a moral response. Beating children is not something which modern society finds easy to tolerate for instance- even though it would be a good way to disarm the pester. Furthermore there is the argument that morality to be moral must be consistant: and how can it be consistant to call hitting an adult with a stick assault and hitting a child with a stick discipline.

The decline in authority and the growing morality of a society, in terms of both empathy and consistency, (and the decline of a morality based merely on the words of a tyrannical God) have created a new issue which is the increased power within the family unit of children. But something else has also created that increased power. Matt as a good economist will know that much of economics is not just about the distribution of wealth, but about the distribution of information. The facts of the globalised world- which include advertising- create demand by displaying products. Those products are displayed to anyone who participates in the global media market- and consequently it undermines the role say of parents as the sole providers of information to their children. In that sense advertising helps undermine the authority of the parent and creates thus a situation in which the kid will want to look like Christina Aguillera and play Elvis Presley.

Information creates a situation where the child knows the exact cost of something, its proportion to the family budget and its benefits. He or she also knows that the commodity in question is lauded by adults- particularly those advertising to him or her. The adult community has fractured before its eyes. Furthermore adults who crave their time with their children as relaxation time, to fortify them within the family unit, are rewarded with affection for giving into their child's cry for the latest commodity. Information creates power, sympathy creates a tie of power- all those things contribute to strengthening the child and weakening the adult.

Ultimately this reflects back on a much older process- the process by which the child converted from being unpaid labour on a peasant farm- to being a precious entity by which its parents are evaluated. In that change swinging through the centuries, we can see the roots of Matt's angst about declining authority. Advertising's role in this story has been in modern times to strengthen the child's control over information- there are other changes as well that have gone along with that- but as I argued above many of them are in a wider sense goods. But ultimately the strength of pester power comes from two sources- the rise of sympathy for children which gives them a power over their parents- and also the creation of a root to information which is uncontrolled by their parents, through advertising and television.

December 10, 2007

The Shipping Forecast

Seldom do I agree 100% with a blog post, but this is one of those occasions.

The Power of the New

Political commentators tend to divide into two: cynics and optimists. It is too easy to predict new eras, and too hard to identify novelty when it arrives. In 1979 Margerat Thatcher's manifesto gave few clues of what a radical Prime Minister she was to become, in 1932 Roosevelt came in promising to balance the budget- the opposite is true as well, Edward Heath came in on a truly radical manifesto in 1970 and Harold Wilson promised to revive a sluggish Britain with the white heat of technology in the sixties. When people expect not merely policy novelty but a change in the political culture, its even harder to predict which elections and which personalities will bring about the closing of an old and opening of a new epoch- partly because a political culture turns upon not just the behaviour of one person, but the behaviour of several.

The next Presidential election in the States is often seen as one that will change the culture of politics in America. Andrew Sullivan for example definitely argues that depending on the candidate we could see a softer more analytical political culture. Sullivan argues that if you have a race between Obama and McCain, you'll see the development of a real civility in politics. I'm not sure he is entirely right. Obama and McCain are probably more civil than the Giulianis and Clintons of the world- but equally it isn't only the presidential candidate who influences these things. The tone of political dialogue on the web for instance is becoming more polarised and not less: that's especially true if one considers the development of blogging, Drudge and Kos are not going to put down their weapons on anyone's order and both are highly partisan. If Fox news stops calling Barack Obama Barack Hussein Obama or alleging he went to a Madrassah as a kid then perhaps I'd argue that a new era of non-partisanship is going to break.

This isn't to disaparage any of the candidates running for President in 2008- many of them on both sides have impressive accomplishments and records behind them both in the private and public sector- but the fundementals of American politics seem to me to be the same now as they were in 2000 when George Bush was supposed to reunite everyone behind compassionate conservatism. It is surely no coincedence that in every second term since Dwight D. Eisenhower left the White House in 1960, Presidential and Vice-Presidential aides have been arrested or questioned by the police. Congressional investigations of Presidential conduct have become de riguer and quite how a smily face in Washington will alter that I'm not sure. Perhaps some things could alter it- there might be ways to take the sting out of particularly contentious national issues- but I doubt that a new politics and a new dawn will really open whoever sits in the White House in two years time.

December 09, 2007

Britblog roundup

The Britblog roundup is back. I realise this is early to post it, but I have urgent news, anyone preparing for Breakfast don't eat it in St Pancras, eat it at Sylvie's in New York- that comes straight from the London Review of Breakfasts! Now we have the urgent stuff out of the way, I'm imagining you sitting down to that perfect Sylvie's breakfast in New York, unfurling a copy of your favourite paper. Its got updates about the debate about the ethics of libertarians in the blogosphere from one of their critics, Paulie, and from an objective observer, Larry Teabag. Cassilis provides an emmaculate dissection of claims about New Labour's effect on the state and casts scorn on those who believe that Brown is Stalin. In the left hand corner of the page, there is a nice chess problem from the Brixton and Streatham Chess Club (the solution is over the page). Talking of problems your eye is caught by a perceptive leading article about Islam- brought by the Wardman Wire.

So much for the paper, what about the important question of the day- food. Well there is first the question of whether to eat a peach- Claire would agree its a vital life changing question. After last night's Respect meeting in North Manchester (if you want to remember it John has some details here) not to mention getting lost on a hike earlier because you hadn't taken Dave's advice about how to use a map, you need a good old fashioned English breakfast. You are like the Labour party, you don't need a whippersnapper of a thirty year old, but an old veteran like Lord Whitty to take control in your stomach. Don Paskini would agree. Well, well, well that looks like an unappetising sausage. You are starting to feel resentful: almost as resentful as Lenin does about dress down Fridays. Staring out the window though, you realise you aren't suffering as much as that tree that the Constant Gardener is trying to help.

And as the sapling is deformed by gardening, we are deformed by capitalism. You are an architecture student, that makes money on the side from reading movie scripts- time to refresh your memory for those vital commandments of script reading, anything to forget the frustrations of architecture classes (poor Alice yesterday having to redo her designs again). As you rifle through the pile of scripts, remember at least you aren't a scheduler, it was only yesterday that the cinephile was telling you all about his traviles in that business. Time to attend to that porridge, its very stodgy today, not so good for a sound stomach- like Echo you've found that fewer oats makes a calmer pony or person. I'd turn back to the newspaper, as James Hamilton the wise philosopher says, in the end all that remains of us is our blogs and articles, the rest is whimsy.

Turning back to the paper, what's this yet another humurous article from Vino, apparantly the right in America are plus zioniste que le premier ministre d'israel! Over the page, there is the debate section and those comments are ferocious- especially on Sunny's article about Muslim being the new black. You hadn't realised it but this is one of those controversial papers- that aims to get a reaction- Chris Dillow's discussion of star power, Dave Osler's article on Christianophobia and Matt Sinclair's mixture of Stoicism and Nietzsche are all fascinating and provocative. Its funny reading all these articles but suddenly your mind goes back to the illogicality of the English language- as the Thunderdragon said how can we expect foreigners to understand it, when even we can't sometimes. Well, well, well life is illogical- I mean as the Croydonian joked last week only 97% of Catholics say that they believe in God, yup there are 3% of the Catholic population wandering round, going to Church who don't believe in God, that's not to mention Atheists who do! Time to focus, afterall you are the lay preacher giving the sermon today, and it might be the only day that someone comes, what are you going to say to reel them in- consider it carefully.

You try but of course your mind keeps wandering, where is that cup of tea! Does the footballing future really belong to London and Plymouth Argyll, was Dave Cole right to love Erik Ringmar's study of Blogging so much, how can Grendel be right that more Americans beleive in hell than evolution, the world is filled with dilemmas to think about on a sunny Sunday morning. Ahhh and so much to look forward to- from the Lions going to the Southern hemisphere in 2009 to JMB's digest of the latest from the Blogpower collective. Its been a good week overall- the football game on Saturday was great- well refereed as well- JK even produced a match report saying why he didn't give that penalty (it was cast iron from where you stood). And last but far from least, it was the Dandy's birthday- who'd have thought that according to Christopher your early copies of the comic would be so valuable now.

Ah well, time to glug down that last gulp of tea- you have work to do- another Sunday, another week- and next week of course another Britblog!

December 08, 2007

Grizzly Man: Company in the Wilderness


Grizzly Man is a film about Timothy Treadwell- a man who went out to live with bears in Alaska and was eventually after about 12 years eaten by a bear, along with his then girlfriend. Narrated by the great director, Werner Herzog, the film takes the form of interviews with people who knew Treadwell and were involved in the story of his death and alongside that videos that Treadwell took of himself in the wilderness with the bears, foxes and other animals. The nature footage is astonishing. Treadwell 'tended to want to become a bear' according to one source and therefore he got incredibly close to them- right up metres away from them, and hence his footage is extraordinary. The sound too is interspliced, we have Herzog's commentary and we have Treadwell's own descriptions of the bears that he lived with- whom he called names like Mr Chocolate, Melissa and Sergeant Brown.

Herzog tells us towards the end of the film that Treadwell's story tells us something about ourselves- the film is not so much a film about bears as it is a film about human beings. As Herzog describes it the stare of the bear is blank and bored, looking for food but seeking neither understanding nor feeling from Treadwell. Their brutal strength, their wild exhileration, emerges through the footage but as Herzog keeps reminding us in his commentary what doesn't emerge is any sense that the bears have an identity to relate to. Treadwell imagined they did. He imagined that the bears liked him, he talked to them as you would talk to a human child, coaxing them and rebuking them. There is a wonderful section of film where he tells off a fox for running off with his cap- but of course the fox can't hear him, the fox doesn't care, the fox is foreign- a blank canvass upon which Treadwell has drawn the marks of intelligence.

When we relate to the world, we draw upon it features. We are creators of our world- assigning to it names. I think no film gets closer to that reality than this documentary. When Herzog tells us at one point that nature is chaotic and violent, he refers in part to this. Part of this attempt to explain resulted in the creation of Gods, nymphs and spirits in ancient mythology who inhabited fountains and streams- part of it results in the creation of regularities and laws which we observe (this is not to imply equivalence between the two attempts- no more than the attempt to eat cardboard and to eat bread are equivalent though they meet the same need). The point though is that as humans we are inspired to give meaning to the world, to assign regularity to the world and to attempt to suggest that we understand it.

Treadwell out in the wilderness, abandoned and abandoning human society, sought to give the animals he had met a meaning, a regularity in their behaviour. He said he could control the bears and live with them- ironically he said it days before he was eaten alive in a spot just metres behind where he stood as he declared his security with the bears. Escaping human society was in a way his escape into this world of illusion. But escaping to the world of bears was almost more than that- it was an escape to a world where he knew that he was not alone. We seek company in order to escape the torture of our own loneliness, Treadwell sought that resolution not in the face of a hostile world, which he hated, but in the world of the bears which he loved.

Love becomes in this sense something that is given, and not neccessarily taken. Treadwell's image of the world was strange- but it reassured him. Frequently in his diaries he left the impression that he found human society difficult- he said repeatedly that he found it difficult to maintain longterm relationships with women, he was a failure as a student and as an actor, took drugs and drank too much. In his films what emerges is his rejection of society, rejection of its norms and his distrust of human beings- he sought fulfilment in a second life. He could begin again socially with the bears and furthermore he could and did treat them as dependents upon him. The bears could not object to his love- because ultimately they did not wish to understand it or him- he could offer it to them and imagine their grateful receipt. He did not have to harmonise the image of an individual with the imperfect reality- for within a bear rested no contradictory impulse. No object objects to being objectified.

Treadwell's life in some senses reveals something about the nature of humanity- for like most mental illness, Treadwell's problems were not ahuman but rather essentially human. What Treadwell struggled with was the problem of loving other minds: as soon as you love another mind you admit the possibility of dissapoinment, frustration and contradiction. We all love images that we have created out of discreet data points- points of experience, we love not people but the paintings of people that our minds create by connecting the dots of our mutual experience. But people are always there to contradict the paintings that we have drawn- to behave in different ways, to force us to redraw the picture. Treadwell never had to meet that contradiction, until he was eaten, because there was no reality to challenge the image he had created. The bears were a calm offstage presence onto which he could graft the image of a character- talking to them about their relationships and about their world as though it was a relationship or a world instead of an endless unconscious desiring present moment.

The last moments of Treadwell's life illustrate to us the nature of his mental illness- the illusion by which he lived. But until then he had the consolation of living with the bears in his own world- a world unconnected to reality, unchallenged by the words of another human being- uncontradicted. For him the moment of contradiction was a moment of consummation- his life's vision had become so distinct from reality that it led him into death.

December 07, 2007

Lacking the Heavyweights

Iain Dale has a rather good piece up about how few possible Labour leaders there are in the present cabinet save for Brown. Its an interesting issue- the Tories have a similar problem- I can think of only (apart from Cameron) four or five Tories that would make a good alternative leader. Dale is rightly interested in comparing it to the past- I wonder if there is something in the idea that two things have diminished the presence of heavyweights around the cabinet table. The first being that we seem to have longer times in government for each party- so the opposition are comparatively less experienced coming in. I dealt with some issues about experience recently on Wednesday- and I think those points hold.

Something else though strikes me as important and its an idea I mean to develop more fully at some point- its the old Denis Healey point about hinterlands. Politicians I think lack something if all they know about is politics. One of the reasons that my favourite opposition frontbench spokesman is William Hague is not just the fact that he is one of the wittier speakers around, but also that Hague wrote, admittedly not a very good, biography of the younger Pitt which seemed to engage with some of the evidence. I do think and its a precept on which this blog runs, that to understand one part of life you need to think quite deeply about other parts of life. Its a vague sense and at some point I want to write it down more fully- but I do think that engaging with other bits of life strengthens you as a politician. For a start it reminds you that the Westminster game is ultimately not the centre of the universe- nor is someone's political orientation or career the only way to judge them.

Mitt Romney and Atheists

Apparantly Mitt Romney's spokesman declines to say whether the Republican Presidential candidate sees any positive role for Atheists or Agnostics in America. Another blow for tolerance in the States!

December 06, 2007

Considering Condi

A really fascinating Bloggingheads diavlog on Condi Rice, Bush's National Security Advisor and then Secretary of State, its well worth watching for several reasons. The inter agency politics of the Bush administration- Bush telling Andy Card you are the Chief of Staff get a cheese burger or the way that Cheney took charge at the National Security Council. Furthermore there are fascinating insights into the personalities- the effect of Karen Hughes who came along and made the State Department respond much quicker to rumours in the Middle East. Condi Rice also seems focussed on the first Bush administration- it went well then, so the argument is that it the same policies that worked on Germany would work in Korea, or that the same democratic flowering in Eastern Europe would work out in the Middle East. Furthermore Rice has consciously immitated the style of Jim Baker, Bush 1's secretary of state. This is a truly interesting insight into the minds of the current administration- well worth watching.

Press Bias: are blogs in danger of repeating it

Press Bias is something that we on blogs talk about endlessly: its interesting to note in that connection what Dan Bartlett, George Bush's speechwriter said recently about press bias:

I don’t think they’re purposely doing it. Look, I get asked the question all the time: How do you deal with them when they’re all liberal? I’ve found that most of them are not ideologically driven. Do I think that a lot of them don’t agree with the president? No doubt about it. But impact, above all else, is what matters. All they’re worried about is, can I have the front-page byline? Can I lead the evening newscast? And unfortunately, that requires them to not do in-depth studies about President Bush’s health care plan or No Child Left Behind. It’s who’s up, who’s down: Cheney hates Condi, Condi hates Cheney.

Bartlett is entirely right: the real problem with press bias isn't a bias to either side but a bias towards the contemporary and the relevant- and away from the complicated and the historical. Consequently almost all reporting on the Israel Palestine crisis is wrong because it never sets the conflict within a context. If a journalist has to choose a story- they would rather write as Bartlett says about Cheney and Condi and how they dislike each other or in the UK about how Mr Blair can't stand Mr Brown and finds his decline funny, than analyse the precise reasons for the collapse of Northern Rock. The real bias in journalism is not towards the left or the right but towards the headline.

That prompts though a worrying reflection about blogging. Because we are often told that blogging will wipe away the sins of the mainstream media- but often it seems to me we don't. For instance of the four top UK blogs reported by Peter Franklin, two of them Guido's and Iain Dale's are concerned mostly with following the press, following and seeking headlines. The political world is of course fascinated by the undulations of particular political careers- and many blogs are so closely tied to the political world that all we get is the Westminster Village- valuable yes but how does that really supplement the media that we already have. Ultimately blogging has to offer something more than Nick Robinson does- and I wonder whether part of the answer is in Bartlett's formulation- that what blogging can offer is analysis- whether through fisking or normal analytical writing- of the kind that journalism driven by headlines can't offer.

And that makes me wonder about audiences for blogs. The Iains and Guidos of the world are lauded for their vast audiences- and that's fair enough- but in reality they should be compared against what their real competitors which is the gossipy bits of the rest of the media are providing. Analytical work requires more patience on the part of readers and writers so I wonder if analytical blogs will be the tortoises in this race- slowly building up readers rather than avelanching them at the beggining. Definitely I think that blogs should now be judged by genre and not against each other- Devil's Kitchen is much more similar to Ministry of Truth than either are to Iain Dale. Chris Dillow has more in common with Matt Sinclair than Matt has in common with Guido. Perhaps when bloglists are done in the future- genre of blog rather than persuasion of blog ought to be the way that they are listed- that might create more diversity and also allow people to search out sources of information that don't just do what the mainstream media does.

Facebook and Privacy

Reading James's latest post about Facebook and having seen a recent Bloggingheads episode between Jim Pinkerton and David Brin, I think that Brin is right and that there is a changing attitude to privacy on the internet symbolised by the fact that my generation are relaxed in sites like Facebook and MySpace. Privacy is obviously a problem in these sites- I realise what James is talking about- ultimately you are committing information about yourself to the internet where anyone can access and see it and where others can monitor it, save it and store it for the future. The real question though is what kind of information you are submitting and how worried should you be about another person knowing that information about you.

Facebook is a website for those who don't know it which basically provides a social linkup service- a facebook page provides a list of people who have accepted being your friends (that list may not be contiguous with those who are your friends in real life- or even those who are on facebook and are your friends) and allows you to keep in touch with them. I've used facebook to meet people that I haven't seen for years and years and years- and its often been quite fun to reactivate friendships. Facebook can if you want it to hold other details about you for others to look at- things like your favourite film and favourite book and there are a variety of ways that the site can take more information from you (you can do a test to establish your film taste) and you record there basic demographic data- your relationship status. People put photos up there too- I had one of myself with Hans Blix for a while- some of the photos are more embarrassing, taken when people are drunk etc. I hope though that everyone gets the idea- Facebook is basically like a University common room noticeboard which documents the activities of all its members- some are juvenile, some are embarrassing but through providing contact details it facilitates social contact.

James and others are worried about privacy. There is some reason to suspect that Facebook has been installing cookies on its members' computers tracking their activity around the internet and tailoring their advertising to meet the activity seen therein. Obviously there was a lot of anger about that amongst those who use the site. But its worth getting things in perspective: Facebook may indeed have violated corporate ethics (it admits to having done so), but that's a seperate issue to the whole point of a social networking site. Ultimately the thing about Facebook and Myspace and other sites like them is that they symbolise the growth of a new attitude to privacy I think amongst a new generation. Basically people don't care anymore about their antics being broadcast. Part of this has to do with the growth of celebrity culture- if I am willing to comment on Princess Diana's marriage then why should I care if my own love affairs are out there. Part of it is a sense that if everyone is doing it, it doesn't matter as much- ultimately there is anonymity in quantity. There is also anonymity in quantity of information- talk to most modern historians and they throw their hands up in despair about what historians of the future will do with all the information contained on the internet, how will anyone ever work out how to categorise or understand it.

The last point I suppose is James's real point, which is that by providing the information to the world on Facebook, information which will not be deleted (either by Google cacheing it or by Facebook retaining it) the government has automatically more knowledge and hence more power over us all. I'm not sure that is actually true. Governments have always been able to find out about their subjects- and more about their subjects than their subjects have known about each other. Yes this probably makes it easier for the government to know whether you had a lesbian fling when you were 19 or that you got horribly drunk when you were twenty two and embraced a lamp post and declared ever dying passion to said lamppost (don't laugh one of my mates at Oxford was once left hugging a lamppost on St Giles!) but the point is so does everyone else. Information is now not solely the governments- it is the collective's and I suggest that makes things slightly different. Furthermore just as in the 18th Century society evolved to meet the new needs for the defence to be made more powerful after the creation of a police force, so do I beleive society in the twenty first century will evolve to meet the facebook phenomena. We can see it already happening: David Cameron will be I think the first of many politicians to argue that his youthful indiscretions are of no matter besides his later claims to office.

We'll see but in general like David Brin I am an optimist about the transparant society- I don't think that we will end up in Big Brother partly because we all have this information about each other- there isn't a monopoly of information handled by the state and partly because I think information becomes less powerful as there is more of it out there about everyone. I might be wrong- but human life is a grand experiment and the internet is part of it. Ultimately the internet facilitates this kind of exposure- whether through blogs, facebook, myspace or whatever other kinds of website you think about- and I think that society will evolve ways to cope with it.