A great man who didn't broadcast many songs- here live singing of Werner von Braun. A great song as well- take it away Mr Lehrer!
August 31, 2007
Dr Stuart Derbyshire writes intelligently in Spiked today about a subject that deserves more attention than it often gets, the way that the brain and the mind are related. He suggests that there is something distinct about the way that the human mind and human brain are related that separates us from animals- the example he gives is cows, but no doubt other examples might be given. He posits that something within the brain registers sensation but then that the division of sensation into experience and the cognitive ability to learn through experience are made up of what he calls inquiry. Dr Derbyshire's line of argument deserves attention- and is interesting and I reccomend a read of the article whose subtleties I have neither the space nor the expertise to probe here- but there are two large chasm like problems that I see emerging should we accept Dr Derbyshire's analysis. The first being what then is inquiry and where is it located- what kind of faculty is this that produces mind out of brain. The second being why should it have been created- the processes of evolution one would think lead to purely biological constraint, why introduce this new factor so called mind into the equation. Why did we get here. It isn't that Dr Derbyshire is neccessarily wrong- but that he needs to explain further how his logic progresses and what he means by inquiry and how that faculty would tie into a coherent account of human evolution.
Conservatives today are fond of rhapsodising about the dangers of welfare dependency, the abilities of charity and the way that the class structure benefits those at the bottom as much as those at the top. Market forces we are told will bring the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate everything they might wish for or need without the interposition of a clumsy and inept state. Should agencies be required, we are informed that charitable inclination will supply that agency. The case against socialism has been made cogently time and time again, in the textbooks of economists and on the stomping grounds of politicians. In the House of Commons, the Inns of Court, the byways of Fleet Street (or should that be Wapping) and the counting houses of the City, the case against welfare dependency is obvious and certain. The case against socialism though wasn't so obvious a hundred years ago when the Chartists ranged through England seeking votes for working men.
Often it takes a play to remind us that the pieties of the free market leave people behind. My first encounter with serious left-wing thought was seeing the play an Inspector Calls which affected me deeply and still does- every time I see Alistair Sim's eyes in the film version bore into the family of industrialists he visits I wonder about myself sitting in their places. Similarly Holding Fire is a biting attack on the world of the early 19th Century. It chronicles two different stories- the first romantic and the second political and the first provides the rationale for the activity of the second. It chronicles them against the backdrop of the hungry forties, a decade in Ireland especially of unmitigated hardship and against the backdrop of the disastrous mid-Victorian state- a state whose treatment of the poor scandalised contemporaries like Charles Dickens and forced gradually a reevaluation of the condition of the working classes, forcing the introduction after fifty years of education services (1870) and health provision and pensions in the early part of the 20th Century.
The first story concerns young Lizzie and her life. Thanks to a fortunate encounter Lizzie is taken up by a kind upper class woman as a member of the deserving poor, deserving of help that is, the upper class woman makes her a servant and Lizzie goes to live in a great country house near Bradford. There she encounters all the abuse that one might expect, her fellow servants treat her with scorn, internalising the values of the system they look down on her as the girl at the bottom of the heap. A neighbourhood pastor, Mr Morgan, makes a pretence of saving her soul, but attempts to rape her. Lizzie meets in the house a manservant with whom she falls in love- however she knows that should she refuse to consent to having sex with Mr Morgan then her place will be lost, her boyfriend is more assertive and kills Mr Morgan on finding him in flagrante delicto with his wife and hence they flee across country.
At the same time as we see this story, we perceive another story develop. The story of the early Chartists, led by William Lovett and Fergus O'Connor, representing the alternative moral force and physical force sides of the movement and their struggles. Essentially those struggles as we see them are about the condition of the working people. In the text of the play, Lovett and O'Connor believed that by giving people the right to vote, workers would be able to access all kinds of benefits and the asocial values of the ruling order would be blown away. Where the two of them differed- and increasingly it becomes revealed differed mightily- was in their strategy. Lovett beleiving in moral persuasion- O'Connor in riots. The play implies that Lovett was incredibly personally brave- and he was, going to prison for a year in 1839- but slightly less fairly that O'Connor was a coward, O'Connor was imprisoned twice though by the end of the 1840s he was becoming mentally unstable.
The two stories are strengthened by their connection. The first without the second would seem mere melodrama, without the second though the first would lack relevance. Because we can see a real poor couple suffering and suffering harshly, because we see the horror of working class life we can appreciate the reasons why the Chartist campaigns were so important- if that is they could ever deliver what they promised.
And that ultimately is the issue. Because today 5 of the Chartist's 6 points have been implemented- all accept for annual elections are the policy of most governments in the West (though equal electoral districts no doubt might be argued about) but what has changed. Well in most of the West people are no longer able to starve on the streets, rape is no longer something that a girl in service need expect without redress, the worst grinding poverty has gone as have the workhouses which promised hungry people food at the price of their liberty. But much still has to be done and there is much that seems to have no possibility of changing. Inequality is high and getting higher. People live in poverty. Healthcare is almost everywhere limited- dental care say to people with the money to afford it in the UK and it is true that birth in certain postcodes means that your life will be shorter, your education worse and your prospects lower than a contemporary born in a more advantageous location.
At two points in Holding Fire, Lovett the great Chartist becomes involved in a fictitious argument with Frederick Engels, Marx's friend in a London pub. The situation is contrived but isn't impossible. Engels presents communism to Lovett and listening to Lovett's response one can hardly feel that Engels has proved anything- and yet, Engels too is right for the charter was achieved but the poor are still with us. The economic structure of the world did not turn on its head as Lovett and O'Connor promised it would, the poor were not saved but are still with us, beggars still inhabit the London streets and like in their day often they are ex soldiers down on their luck. Democracy ended up through the creation of the middle class, becoming a ballast to the establishment- Hillaire Belloc's famous lines, from a later more cynical time, that
The accursed power which stands on Privilege
(And goes with Women, and
Champagne, and Bridge) Broke—
and Democracy resumed her reign:
(Which goes with Bridge, and Women and Champagne).
Never seem truer than when watching Lovett and his allies discourse about how democracy can redeem those at the bottom of the pile. What they never realised was that for many they are too demoralised to vote, and even if they could vote, they might well be outnumbered by the majority in the middle who are fearful of change. Engels was wrong but so was Lovett.
Suffering on the scale of the 1840s hopefully shall never happen in the West, and soon in the rest of the world ever again. Technological change and the development of welfare states hopefully mean that that is true (though economic crisis might put pay to that rude optimism). But if so the hope held out by Chartism for democracy was misplaced- democracy can prevent the worst evils but promises no revolutions in the condition of the poorest. Equality of Opportunity does not exist today. The last century showed that the main alternative to liberal capitalism- state socialism- did not work- that it led as Lovett in this play prophetically says it will lead to, to the destruction of freedom and the human spirit. Isaiah Berlin looks to have been a good historical analyst in this case- he faced us with the dilemma- either freedom or equality and we still have not squared that circle.
Political issues are the very soul of this play- they run through it but the play lends them, as the best drama tends to do, a human context. The hope that democracy might bring is shown as the alternative to a religious faith which at times in the play is shown to be so much bunkum resting upon priest-craft from lecherous old ministers. What the playwright captures as well is the particular intensity of the Chartist and one has to say early Labour rhetoric- the way that it had more Methodism than Marxism about it, the Bible and Biblical promises about the end times, from revelation in particular, crop up again and again. The language of radicalism is the language of the bible, of scripture, of natural right, not the language of socialism.
It might appear apt therefore to refer backwards to the Bible in concluding this piece, this is not really a socialist play, but it is a deeply Christian play. The play is another call, in the tradition of the early Christian writers, to rethink poverty. Moral Force Chartism, much more than physical force Chartism, is the Chartism given voice in this play and it sought to advance through consent the lot of working people. The most obvious way of doing that for the 'moral force' Chartist was to give men the vote- but also it was to change society, change character. Rather than seeking like Engels a development of a beehive, the Lovetts of the world sought to contain freedom together with equality, to bring them into a marriage. That marriage of conscience and community is something that we still struggle with- rightly the West rejected communism, wrongly we have not dealt with equality and the promise of the Sermon of the Mount, that the meek shall inherit the earth, remains even now unfulfilled, the other significant prophecy of Christ, that the poor are those we shall always have with us, looks like being the truest word spoken by either human or divine agency in history.
Because we still have failed to square that circle the end of this play is curiously problematic. One feels as the last character is hung and the last speech is given that the audience will go home, the Chartists failed to bring about the changes in working life, the poor are still with us despite ameliorations in their lives and the dilemma still remains- how do we ultimately give everyone a life worth living and still maintain human dignity and freedom. Is the price of freedom the failure of many to attain it.
Crossposted at Bits of News
August 30, 2007
There is a lot of competition (Neil Clark's archive is always 'interesting' to read) but this article by Lawrence Donegan must rate as one of the most stupid ever published on the Guardian's website. Lee Hughes was a football player who played for West Bromwich Albion and Coventry City over several years- then he was convicted of driving whilst drunk, killing a man and absenting himself from the scene of the accident. Hughes deservedly got a sentence of three years- there may be doubt that he should have got longer but he was given three years and has been released. He has recently been employed by Oldham Athletic as a striker. Donegan argues that Oldham should not have employed him, that his employment is a kick in the teeth for natural justice and that essentially to follow his logic through noone should be employed after committing a crime. Donegan obviously doesn't get the central principle that after one has done one's time one has served one's debt to society. Personally Hughes should never forget what he did- but equally now that he has served his sentence it is not for any of us to stigmatise him. A judge decided he should go for prison for three years as punishment, that is the end of the matter insofar as this case is concerned. If you disagree with that sentence write an article about that- but this principle holds over all sentencing that once the sentence laid down at the time is served- the person is discharged back into society and can earn their way legally as they choose- which is exactly what Mr Hughes is doing.
Sadly, at least in my view, many of these low-profile dwellings, so redolent of the South of Russia, are slated to be demolished, so that shiny new apartment blocks, which could go in any country in the world, can go up in their place. Now, it's easy for me to grumble, I don't have to live in these houses, some of which still have very basic facilities.
Others, though, have been made very comfortable; they are clearly still usable buildings, so why waste their embodied energy by tearing them down? Well, and again this will hardly be news, the land they stand on, close to the centre, has rocketed in value. Developers will get a much better return on the many apartments they can build on the footprint of just one such house.
Another issue is this:
The Russian legislature passed laws forbidding non-Russians to hold market stalls, the vast majority of which were indeed run by other nationalities. The law worked as a sop to the increasingly xenophobic tenor of (ethnic) Russian nationalism, but because there was not, for some reason, a rush of Russians to take up the new business opportunity - indeed, at least in Krasnodar, Russians who made living staffing market stalls for non-Russian employers have been hit quite hard - the law also had the happy side-effect of freeing up a lot of prime real estate.
I can't comment further on this because I'm too close to the process myself here but let's put it obliquely:
I just walked back to the main road to get a car and passed through a huge canopied market of the old kind. Nearly all of these have now been knocked down to make way for centralized mega-marts one has to drive to, to reach. Now this market today, on Pionerskaya, is wondrous - all vegetables and fruits in season are here.
Yesterday, the Min and I were discussing arbuz or watermelon and everyone knows you can get them in late June but they're full of nitrates. The time to buy arbuz is right now. Three weeks from now will be too late.
There's something satisfying in buying in season, rather than the irradiated product all year round. It might be prejudice but the Russian housewife is not a fool when it comes to food and she says that natural tastes better. Everything here was [and this I feel follows the point Ian was making] closer to the earth - you were in touch with reality and lived within your limited means.
It was perfectly fit for purpose. There is a danger of all that being lost.
August 29, 2007
The Thunderdragon is one of the rising stars of conservative blogging- but being a youngster within blogging tempts one to ask the question upon what basis can one criticise anyone else's views given their more extensive experience of life. The Thunderdragon provides some thoughts as to what those answers should be in a guest post here. His answer is interesting- and basically takes the form of a suggestion that whilst he accepts his limited experience compared to those who are his elders, he still thinks that the perspective of someone young deserves to be heard. As a twenty six year old blogger I am tempted to agree with him: but I think there is something else worth adding to his comments.
It isn't merely the quantity of experience that can furnish someone with an aid to understanding politics, but also the quality of that experience. Knowledge and experience are related but they are not neccessarily equivalent. To take a simple example there are plenty of seventy year olds who have less understanding than I do of economics, the science of a changing situation than I do, partly because they have never studied calculus. There will be plenty of 18 year olds with a better understanding than mine because they studied economics for longer than I did. It is not merely experience but the type of experience that matters as to whether you understand politics.
What kind of experience furnishes you with the ability to understand politics- that is the kind of question that we could spend a thousand years debating. Obviously reading vast numbers of books about history and analyses of the past helps. Obviously working in political organisations furnishes you with another kind of wisdom. Watching films and absorbing culture allows you another kind of valuable perspective, as does understanding the sciences and social sciences like economics furnishes you with another perspective. The problem is that no one of these competing experiences is enough really to sort out the whole of politics- but each allows you to have an understanding. As throughout life the more of those experiences the more you can understand- but it does depend on the type of experience you have. Watching football matches, despite the fact that is what I'm doing right at this moment, won't furnish you with much direct knowledge of politics but there are many activities which will.
Because it isn't the quantity as much as the quantity of quality experience that matters- if like the Thunderdragon, myself, Matt Sinclair or Vino Sangrapillai you have spent a long time thinking about these matters your views matter and you can even teach sometimes those who are older than you. It is also worth remembering that fetishising experience over intelligence is also a failing- a canniness and ability to think logically matters as well- training in various arts and sciences can help in that. In the end, we are all in the position where we are losing and old or young the real moment when you can tell that you have lost the ability to transmit experience into useful knowledge is the moment at which you beleive yourself not to need to learn.
August 28, 2007
Letter from an Unknown Woman is as romantic a tearjerker as they come. The movie apparantly concerns the heartbreak of a young girl deceived by a serial seducer, made pregnant by him and then later meeting him as a married woman whilst still in love with him and having an affair with him. The film is told through the means of a letter that she sends to him the night before he is to duel with her husband, as she herself mortally sick is about to die. Tears coat this film, and Ophuls makes the whole impression more emotional through a subtle and thoughtful use of music, suitably for a movie set in Austria the music of Strauss, Mozart and Liszt dominates the entire film- as Alexander Dhoest argues music in this film provides a context to the descriptions of the story.
Tearjerkers are not normally profound, but this is an exception. Ophuls definitely anchors his story in the conventional realities of the early 20th Century- Lisa (our heroine) sleeps with our hero on their first night of meeting- she conceives a child whilst he unaware floats away. Her feelings are those of a young and inexperienced girl, she beleives that when men vow their eternal devotion they mean it. Whereas Stefan (our hero) is remarkably callous: he takes and she gives, she wishes to be the one woman who had never taken anything from him. Her only other passion in life seems to be her son- she loves her son with such devotion that she would marry for him to live a prosperous life. In a sense this is a film that such a luminary as Dennis Prager might find something to find joy in, all the perceptions of men and women are devoutly traditional and all the archetypes are those of the fifties and earlier periods of time. Women seem here to be soft and failing types, always reverting to love and not understanding cynical men, whereas men seem always to be toying with the emotions of women and frivolously seeking to sleep with them.
Of course such a perception is wrong and we now know is wrong, women and men are individuals with different desires and needs. The films of the forties with the figure of the lusting femme fatale was undermining it at just the point that Ophuls made his film and this film too has elements which display that this condition is a condition not of the sex but of the character. For two characters violate the Prager principle that women are innocent and loving and men are vicious and horrible. Fontaine's husband is a caring individual who treats her illegitimate child as though he was his son. Fontaine's mother is cynical and wants to get married to fortify her and her daughter's position. Whatever the truth at the time, what this film does is explore something much more interesting than the confrontation between the sexes, the confrontation between innocence and experience, feeling and frivolity.
Fontaine made a living out of playing girls who looked inexperienced and young- and in a way her performance here is very similar to her performance in Rebecca (reviewed on Bits here). What Fontaine conveys is a continual kind of tentativeness- Hitchcock made that the signature tune of a symmetrical drama of the loss of innocence and gains in power- but Ophuls is more interested in the actual substance of innocence. There is something Jane Eyreish in both Fontaine's character and Jourdain's pianist- he is Rotchester to her Eyre, crushing her with his charisma. The degree to which he has power over her is revealed when he asks her not to leave, and he responds that she will not be the one who leaves him.
The collision between the two realities is controlled by the female character. In reality its the collision between her dreams and his reality- Ophuls here gives the female character the privilege of writing her own story, she actually tells the story, all we see of the male is that he is a cad and a bounder. Lisa imagines that Stefan is truly in love with her, that he truly desires her because of some connection between their characters. Ophuls reinforces this by not letting Lisa age because she is imagining and reconstructing her history from the age of thirty backwards and so its a thirty year old woman who always appears in every shot. Until right at the end she professes that she doesn't see through his foppish exterior to the cad beneath, doesn't see that his feeling is a lie, that his descriptions of true feeling are but a folly. Symbollically at the moment her esteem for Jourdain dies so does her son, the outgrowth of that love dies at the moment that that innocence of love dies and she has to die then herself. She tells him in the letter that her life began with his entry into it and ends with his exit and her son's exit from it.
In this way Ophuls of course is subverting and playing with that notion of innocence- because of course this is Lisa's tale and has a subjective point of view. For Stefan she is one more body- but for Lisa she sees herself as the angel, the woman that is key to him. The point about the madness that Lisa endures is that her act of agression is one of silence- she allows Stefan to beleive that he is a cad- allows him to assume that role because she never says that he isn't. The courtship that she has with an officer is very different to the courtship that she has with Stefan, the one is equal, the other unequal and she seeks the masochistic. In this sense she crafts her own death.
For Jourdain the moment he receives the letter is a moment of realisation of the accuracy of Lisa's impression. It gives him a story. Throughout the film we hear of Stefan's listlessness, his inability to focus himself on music, to focus on a woman, to focus his talent and his brain on things worthy of him. Honour a code is something that he deserts at will. But of course the letter gives him a focus, it gives him a moment and a story to tell someone. Strangely the moment of his emergance into the film is the moment of his emergance into life- the moment of consciousness that Lisa says was marked by Stefan's entrance into her life is marked for Stefan by her exit.
In many ways the film therefore is a description of suicide, a double suicide predicated on strangerhood. Both characters play aggressive roles- one as the aggressive mute (the butler as a signal is a mute)- the other as a seducer who encounters on his voyage through the world a woman with a delusion about the world in which she is a powerless victim, a romantic heroine- a true Jane Eyre (who manages to have a job, snare a rich husband and all the rest).
The interplaying of innocence and experience, overlaid upon each other like interlocking patterns, is crucial to the film. Ultimately its a film written and crafted by a professed innocent, to snare an innocent villain. Ultimately what it reflects is the way that passivity is really aggressive, it attempts to make a calim upon the attention of the world as much as any attempt to wrest that attention to it. Lisa's ultimate death is as much a lunge at Stefan, as if she hd actually lunged at his all too human flesh.
Lisa ultimately is destroyed by Stefan, Stefan is ultimately also destroyed by Lisa- that is the heart of this film- the aggressiveness of innocence something everyone from either sex should heed.
Crossposted at Bits of News.
August 27, 2007
Ashok wrote a post a while ago about tact in which he presented an unconventional and you might think unsympathetic (to this blogger at least) argument that tact was often less useful in human relationships than one might think. The crux of Ashok's argument is in this passage:
In most cases I have found that stepping back and letting someone have their pride creates a relationship that is mediocre at best. After all, you're the one striving to find common ground, to be nice to others, to give the benefit of the doubt. That you wouldn't be given a similar generosity is a problem: it means that you have to placate someone else's ego to be let in their "lives."
Ashok I am sure like this blogger would say that most relationships are filled with give and take, most relationships between friends, families or lovers are filled with compromise and compromise is all about giving up things that you would like to do for the sake of another- what Ashok's critique seems to be concerned with here is asymmetrical concession particularly at the beggining of a relationship which establishes a pattern.
To demonstrate where I agree entirely with Ashok, I want to turn to one of the most acute things said about relationships ever by one of the most acute observers of human foilibles I have come across. C.S. Lewis was a bad philosopher but a good reader of character- some of his insights- that dieting is a form of gluttony are ones to which I refer all the time. Lewis occasionally said stupid things but some of what he says is very perceptive and particularly this is true about relationships.
One of Lewis's best books concerns the tempting of a human soul by a junior devil who is being advised on how to do it by his uncle a senior devil called Screwtape. At one point the human they are trying to tempt, falls in love with a girl and Screwtape is faced with the mystery of human love, this passion that breaks down all before it in a kind of dew of human kindness. The devil of course is horrified by it: but he has a strategy, he encourages his minion to tempt the man concerned to conceding at every moment, tempting the girl to accept concession as a fact of life. Setting up a scenario which once the first flush of love has departed, will lead to endless conflict between the man who has reverted back somewhat to his selfish self and the girl who expects the norms of their early relationship to survive. Things don't quite go in that direction- but the danger that Lewis points to, that relationships can be corrupted by the expectation of future kindness based on past tact is very valid.
Essentially what Lewis and Ashok are advocating within reason is that to lie that you are kinder than you are upon entering a relationship ends ultimately in tears because it creates an obligation, an expectation in the other parties eyes. That's different from arguing against kindness itself- but its arguing for reciprocality and equality in relationships, there is no point in abandoning one's self in order to serve another if one has no intention (and very few have) of living as a servant for the rest of one's life. When two very conservative (and exceptionally intelligent) writers remind one of the importance of equality and reciprocality in one's relationships its worth listening.
August 26, 2007
Alistair Cooke, the late famous BBC reporter from America, once opined that writers and intellectuals should be more cautious about lampooning the political actions of those in government. Cooke understood what so few others have: that government is an art which very few of us have mastered- often there are good reasons for doing what a government does but they involve long research and deep thought that most of us have not the time or inclination for, involved as we are in long research and deep thought within our own specialisms. Cooke's thoughts came to me this weekend.
As some of you may know this weekend I went up to a wedding in Edinburgh- whilst there I managed to see three shows at the Edinburgh Fringe. Two of which (Love's Labours Won and Not in my Name The Trial of Niccolo Machiavelli) were attempting amongst all their other points to make some rather complicated political points. Love's Labours Won was a farce set along Shakespearian lines about relationships and the way that men in particular relate to women, played by an all female cast it was comic and well played, but right in the middle there was an unjustified (in terms of the plot) little riff on the evils of George Bush. The Machiavelli work was really a pretty good historical lecture on the life of Machiavelli- a pretty basic one but even so a good introduction on the way that Machiavelli had lived to my mind- which turned in its last twenty minutes into a prolonged rant about George Bush, how evil he and America was and were and how we should all unite against the 'Great Satan'.
In both plays I consider that the politics either in the case of Machiavelli ruined or in the case of Love's Labours Won spoiled what apart from that was a good performance. In both performances the politics spoiled the integrity of the work of art which had as its focus something else (significantly the third act of the evening was also political but the expansion from a female comic talking about herself to talking about the difficulties of coming out in Tasmania was much more natural than an expansion from a comedy about love to a disquisition in iambic pentameter about Afghanistan.) Ruining a work of art is of course irritating- especially when one can see how without that there would be a whole which would be worth contemplating- but both pieces of art indulged in something else that worryingly some artists tend to mistake for political activism.
Both were a smug rant. There are many things wrong with George Bush, and any reader of this blog will know that I throw up my hands in despair at the Texan every day- but he deserves as does any politician to be treated as a serious individual. Bush did not invade Iraq because he is a demon, neither did Dick Cheney. They beleived possibly wrongly that that course of action was right. That idea has persuaded many intelligent men and women as well- doesn't mean that they can't all be wrong but just to rant in the smug knowledge that everyone righteous is on your side is both wrong and arrogant. It is profoundly arrogant because it assumes a perfection that is not yours to assume. To argue and to express through a work of art say the suffering of Iraqis at the moment is fine, but to tag on a paranoid twenty minute rant against Americans to a lecture on Machiavelli is both wrong and immature. It reveals the idiocy of its writer whilst for this viewer for a moment it concealed the misdeeds of George Bush.
The truth is that art of course can and should be political. But it should recognise that politics is not easy but difficult and complicated, that politicians are human beings who make wrong decisions often for the best of motives, that rants are unattractive and that works of art should retain an integrity, a single or divided vision that doesn't whirl off into a stupid and simplistic attack on a political stance.