November 02, 2007

Glamour Politics

Chris suggests on his blog that all those that report on politics are interested in is glamour not policy. I was quite stunned to read that, having just seen the perfect example, a BBC reporter reporting on the latest report to call into question the efficacy of the government's education spending on literacy didn't bother to analyse whether the report was right or not- oh no she dived straight into what the political consequences of the report might be. No words about how we might evaluate it, what the basis of it was, what teachers thought, why this spending hadn't worked, no real indication about how to judge it for the viewing public, just the kind of reporting that would suffice for a playground- oh there's been a supernova, that means Gordon's down and Dave's up and its all good. That report and the general gossipy tone of BBC news is a great argument for ditching the entire organisation- and sacking all those involved for doltish stupidity!

Averages

The Political Umpire wonderfully fisks Melanie Phillips's bigotry at his blog. He also points out I think something that Melanie and indeed many seem not to grasp- the distinction between an average and a definition. If for instance it were true that on average people with blonde hair are cleverer than those with brown hair, it wouldn't mean anything in terms of whether a particular blonde person was cleverer or less clever than the average brunette. If however it is part of the definition of say a dolphin to be less articulate than a monkey, then it is indeed justifiable to treat them differently. That Phillips doesn't understand that distinction is worrying. That the Political Umpire does is reassuring.

Two interesting articles

I thought I'd note two articles that have been published.

Firstly there is my own article about Leon for the Bright Lights Film Journal. Leon is a really interesting film that makes you reflect about what it means to be adult. What I would argue is that there is a teleology within Leon which is very interesting. Leon is a film in which one of the characters may die because he has fully become adult. That is an interesting and constant idea throughout human life- we talk of a full life implying that a life may be complete. We talk of the culmination of acheivements, which implies that there is such a thing. Its a very interesting mental trick that we perform- and is a thought which recurs through major philosophies and religions. The idea of culmination and an end to a process I think is about our use of the analogy of life as a task. Ultimately we tend to imagine life is something like an exam- we work to its completion. But actually it isn't- my own experience demonstrates that life is much more incomplete, much less teleological than that. Most lives end not at a full stop but mid-sentence. To imply otherwise is comfortingly incorrect.

Secondly there is an article, which thankfully is not by me. This article reflects on the scientific facts behind rumours of Vampires, Ghosts and various other ghouls. It is a very interesting discussion. The discussion of zombies in particular is interesting because it brings me to something which I think is one of the distinguishing marks of scientific thought. Ultimately in the cases of zombiefication, which these two attribute to a particular method of poisoning, the people concerned did see something which was similar to a zombie but their attribution of the cause of that was wrong. The magical explanation infers a vast other world of supernatural power- whereas actually all we need to discuss is the particular poison found in a particular fish. It isn't that the people observing are incorrect, it is that their assumption that the occurance is magical is incorrect- they assume too much to explain that which they cannot understand and don't conceive of the fact that there are more facts about the natural world to be discovered, rather than a whole other world that exists to explain ours.

Both of these ideas- teleology and magical explanation- are buttresses to much of our philosophy and religion. Both are in my view contrary to experience and consequently to be rejected, but they seem attractive. Our mental equipment is rigged for evolutionary reasons in various ways- to accept the definition of existance in anthropomorthic ways- as a task to be completed for example- which helps us survive but doesn't help us to explain the world in which we live.

November 01, 2007

The Halloween Blogpower Roundup!

I am honoured today to be rounding up some of the best posts from the Blogpower collective over the last month- Hallowe'en having just passed (thanks to the ever precise Higham for a spellcheck), we have the ghoulish and the ghostly and the downright despicable, there are skeletons falling out of cupboards, poltergeists messing with the constitution, fiends in the comment boxes and other nasty surprises. Oh yes this is one for you to read with a nice cup of tea by a warm fire as the wind whispers the names of the long dead in your ears.

And so our tale begins, on a dark and windswept night, with curious Yew Berries deposited through the forest, I made my way with some friends over to the Blogpower camp. LadyM waxed lyrical about dinners she had had in Morocco, but even she was struck dumb when she saw how Welshcakes welcomed in the winter. Everyone was feeling good: leaning back and looking at the planets with Crushed by Ingsoc, marvelling with Mutley at the decline of the Chuckle Brothers, just agreeing with Ruthie that having Little C around makes everything worthwhile and looking at Age in the Mind's snaps of Tokyo James was sitting in a corner wondering about being alone until his commenters came over with one of Tuscan Tony's ice cream black puddings- James looked quite green for the rest of the evening! To be honest I got slightly worried when all these people started chatting with Ellee about how they weren't superstitious but believed in ghosts- slight logical problem methinks and often logical problems lead to disaster in the blogosphere!

But all seemed quiet, all was pleasant and we were all settling down in sleeping bags- though Ruthie was absorbing the patter of the rain on her tent wall, self imposed insomnia she calls it whilst JMB lay dreaming of things that might have been. Suddenly there was a scream- no it wasn't Baht at seeing a last remnant of the Bradford textile industry, it wasn't even the Pub Philosopher having another nightmare as he tried to work out Gordon's Bill of Rights it was much much worse than that. It wasn't even as bad as that image of Gordon and a Badger that Harry had put into my brain earlier that evening. My bones rattle as I tell of this horror. It was the sight of a government, that doesn't and I tremble to type the words, know right from wrong.

That is right, screams clogged the frosty air as we all realised, as we all saw houses demolished before our very eyes, Ian from Shades of Grey heard a spectral voice intoning the Queen's Speech, one voice tried to lure Stephen Bainbridge away from his tent with promises of liberty, Stephen like a sane fellow was able to resist and one very odd ghost kept on turning round and round talking about the morality of marriageBut all around us a cacophony of voices were raised in mutinous tumult. All around us the threat grew- the threat we realised of dead speechwriters arisen from their graves and coming back to torment us- the Dodo team had told us of their deaths why oh why hadn't we listened and realised they might return. I felt as isolated as George Bush. In all this noise no artist could hope to be heard without aggressive marketing. Not even a dog hero or a good strategy to get us out of Iraq could save us now. Indeed now down came hordes of creepy things, personages of absolute vileness, some of us later dressed up like them and JMB got the pics- imagine those things flying out of a darkened forest on a rainy windy night!

Well as I'm sure you are all aware, the Blogpower universe has special resources. Yeah that's right some of us can give numbers and words colours, some of us can imagine a room with a view anywhere we go. While Jams wracked his brains about what we could learn from nuclear disasters when facing ghosts and Andrew stoically reminded everyone that as David Cameron has just found out a week is a long time in politics and these guys couldn't go on for ever, Crushed distracted the ghosts on Ian Appleby's site with a history of the Catholic Church's attitude to science. Just as he finished up popped Theo with a story about pilots in World War Two and how two had found each other years later. But it was a new man, on his first outing, who worked it out- suddenly the long haired hippy by my side struck his head and said "I know its those long commenters, get a code of conduct and we can drive away the trolls on whom the ghosts rely for food"- everyone nodded and we all started frantically deleting all those long ad hominem anonymous commenters! Nothing if not resourceful, Heather suddenly said hey this is just informational overload, what we need is a strategy to filter the ghosts and take them on one by one, just like the internet you can't deal with more than one ghost at a time or more than one website.

They were still attacking but now we had their measure. Welshcakes found a particularly repellent ghoul and sent him away by telling him he would repress the internet, Tony sent Jacques Delors's ghost reeling by summing up Europe in about 200 words. The Tin Drummer struck with a well aimed literary joke. The Wardman Wire punched Alex Salmond back to the ropes with a great hit. It was swinging our way! These weren't ghosts, they were just politicians armed with faulty statistics and alarmist health reports. Thunderdragon caught one of the health scares and stripped him of his white cloak and found a host of untruths hiding below. The Norfolk Blogger recognised how self interested they were, protecting their own funding. Ghosts hate generosity so when Tom Paine threw out a link to Prodicus they shuddered.We were all in accord and the ghosts, they vanished as quickly as they had come, the noise repressed, the arguments destroyed, the ghouls vanquished!

We fell to a swift slumber- and then morning arrived and time to discuss what had happened. James was absolutely clear, the bloggers have neglected the main issue again, we'd let the ghost's take over. He nominated that we all reread what Crushed said about a UK President. His Lordship pointed out that too much idiocy existed in the world, I argued that there weren't any good lists of geniuses out there. The meeting dissolved in chaos- but at least we had driven off the ghosts and ghouls- that is until next month!

October 31, 2007

John Bull can't Blog

Sunny Hundal is one of the best bloggers in the UK, and he has identified a real problem in the British blogosphere. With certain exceptions most British blogs have tended to fit, to use Matt's categories most British blogs tend to be either investigative or gossip blogs. There aren't that many analytical blogs around- though I've metntioned two of the best there are very few, and the emphasis on getting better as a blogger is on attracting readers through stories. The main focus amongst British bloggers is in finding the latest ministerial scandal or in working out the latest infraction by the European Union. The problem is as Sunny rightly says, that that means that the British blogosphere is impoverished. There aren't many British counterparts say to Dan Drezner or Crooked Timber in the States, who whatever you think of them, publish a great deal of detailed academic material and attempt to work with it.

The problem is not that there aren't any such bloggers around- I've cited both Matt Sinclair and Chris Dillow and there are more out there who could and do this kind of blogging. Part of the problem is promotion- myself and Ashok and Ian Appleby have often had discussions about how to promote analytical blogs and blogging. I'm not sure as to how to make that work- but I do think that it is something that is missing from the whole British blogging scene. The British blogging scene at the moment is little more than an echo chamber to the mainstream media- someone like Guido for all his vaunted efforts- echoes the ideas and concepts of the media. Even a blogger like Mr Eugenides who takes apart the efforts of the mainstream media still follows its agenda- real analytical bloggers are the only way to actually make this medium independent from the mainstream media. The first indication that bloggers aren't parasitic will come when the bloggers actually start manufacturing ideas which cross into the real world. Despite the critiques of Eugenides or the scandals found by Guido the real moment of independence is when the blogosphere actually becomes somewhere which manufactures thought and concepts.

We shall see if that ever happens, but Sunny is right, until then the British blogosphere remains what it has been for a long time- a rather large parasite but nothing more than that and definitely nothing of significance.

Lady Thatcher

Lady Thatcher is a genius. Like most sensible people she has decided to get a cat not a dog. One of the great divides in life is between cat people and dog people, let me say that I'm really pleased that Lady Thatcher is on the right side of that divide!

Nightmare Alley


"Is it some quality of the crystal itself or does the gazer merely use it to turn his gaze inward"

Nightmare Alley is not an easily classifiable film- it deals with all sorts of topics from alcoholism to promiscuity to psychology to the con artists at a carnival. No statement can be taken to mean what you might think it does- this is a film in which everyone is a con artist, repeating each other's cons. Indeed the line I quote above recurs twice in the film- first mouthed by an old decaying drunk, secondly by the main character as he decays into drunkenness himself. Made by the Hollywood star Tyrone Power but supressed for years by a legal dispute, the film chronicles the rise and fall of the Great Stanton, a carnival magician who rises to become an artist at exploiting and manipulating the follies of upper class Chicagans. He uses a code with his wife to guess the content of questions, the way that she accents words and the way that she asks him what the questions are gives him the clue to perform an act of translation and tell his audience what the questions are even though he has not seen them. The Great Stanton is linked throughout his career to three women, a older woman Zeena who gives him the code, a younger woman, Molly, who he has an affair with and then marries and a psychiatrist Lilith whose information he uses to con wealthy clients.

The tale involves more than just mesmerism though. It is in part an inquisition into the principle of holding an immoral job. Stanton rises by fooling and lying his way through society for the good ends of others- he offers them consolations that they have no way of detecting as fakes. Stanton suggests to them that their dead loved ones are happy, that their futures are fortunate and that their lives are bound to improve. The only accurate predictions in this film though are pessimistic- Stanford sells his prescriptions like sugared sweets to children. By the end of the film though Stan is reduced to becoming a carnival Geek, the man who swallows live chickens and beetles, who performs every disgusting act in order to curl up in a dry corner with a bottle of whisky. As Stan tells the carnival operator who offers him the job, he was 'made for it'. The revelation though isn't a revelation- he has been a Geek throughout, prostituting what he enjoys to what he needs. He needs the corner and the whisky, and in a sense all his fraudulent activity has been committed throughout to providing what a Geek provides- entertainment at the price of indignity and immorality. This criticism of capitalism reduces all employment to geekdom- as Matt Sinclair argues it is other regarding but it directs itself to the deepest wells of human immorality, the desire to see a freak eating a live chicken, the desire for fake reassurance and accomplishes those ends through fraud, deception and degredation.

The quote I just mentioned above lends itself to a further examination of the film, for this film is also all about perception. Most of the characters speak endlessly about the truth- whether its the truth of a psychologist like Lilith or of a carnival girl who believes in God and tarot cards like Molly. Both the psychologist and the carnival people are in a profession that demands that they claim knowledge of the truth. In both cases the central idea is that they are lying, betraying the truth to convince the chumps with money that they are, as Stanton tells a client, like a prophet of old. Soothing truths like balm to wounded souls, become poison as the deception is revealed- or else remain merely potentially poisonous as the truth is not revealed. Ultimately at the heart of the carnival is a certain truth- in that Molly and the others actually believe to a certain extent in God and fortune, tarot cards and angels. Whether Lilith believes anything is another matter- she convinces people that they are mad to twist them to her own ends. And as for Stanton he unites his desires to his morality, wedding them together, he persuades himself that what he wants is good and those desires are too fraudulently deceive. There are no truths here which are immune from the huxter's profession, that every boy has a dog, that every human has desires and the point is to convince them of the truth that suits them, the truth that they want and not the truth that exists. In that sense capitalism creates the lie.

The movie is underwritten by a spiritualist position which sees that lie as important. The writer of the original book, Bill Gresham (married to Joy Gresham who later became C.S. Lewis's wife) evolved from being a communist to being a Christian- I to be honest couldn't swear as to where in his evolution the concepts of the book evolved from. But definitely here there is a very sexist view of women- masculine women are to be shunned, feminine women to be embraced and there are several indications that there is some reality behind spiritual phenomena. Furthermore in the character of Molly we are offered an alternative ethical vision to the capitalist, a vision of self denying, self sacraficing love as the pillar of existance. A love for one man that only acknowledges one other obligation, that to the moral code of the creator. The film cares so deeply about the lies its characters tell in the service of their careers precisely because it considers that the truth is important- leaving open the question of whether like me you disagree with the truth advanced, you can disagree that the lie is important.

The movie is Christian in one particularly interesting way- like most Christian philosophy it places a huge emphasis on relationships. The point of the film is that all of its relationships are corroded and broken up by the economic imperative of greed. Stanford goes through three women in the film. His first relationship he enters into with an older woman to get the code that she knows to con crowds of people. He sleeps with her for that code and in the end obtains it. But because its a fraudulent relationship as soon as he gets that code he discards her in favour of the girl he really loves, Molly. His relationship with Molly is broken by the fact that he Stanton refuses to live a good life. Molly in the end deserts him because of that- though at the end of the film when all his ability to do evil is destroyed there is an implication that she returns to him. Lastly there is Lilith, who uses him for her own ends- again its a relationship where there is real passion but again the passion is overlaid by greed and again that fact means that it is doomed.

What we see with Molly is a moral individual being held up to the light of the screen. That moral individual enables us to get some anchors in the world again- otherwise we might decay into hermiticism. The problem is that really the issue here is with other people and the distinction between appearance and reality. It brings back the argument between Rousseau and Smith. Gresham seems to argue that some kind of moral principle is neccessary to living with others- some kind of 'real' other regarding or 'real' sympathy. He doesn't define this and possibly he can't. The issue though that he exposes is less a positive vision than a negative one- it is that capitalism allows even constrains us to fake sympathy and morality in order to immoral and ultimately unsympathetic ends. Matt argues that capitalism promotes morality, what Gresham suggests is that it doesn't promote morality, it promotes the appearance of morality. His point is Rousseau's against Smith, that true sympathy is not created by capitalism, only a fake sympathy. People are regarded as objects to be deceived not as entities to be loved. In that way Molly though she too works in a deception is a true human being because she still loves, but she will never be as successful as Lilith is because she has a mark at which she stops her deceits.

If Nightmare Alley propounds a view of the world ultimately that view of capitalism is very very pessimistic. Unlike Matt, no watcher of this film can be sure that other regarding actions neccessarily proceed from a system in which your value depends on others, fraud and deception abound in the world of the film not merely in the world of the carnival. Indeed there are ways in which the carnival world is more moral than the world of the upper class caricatured in the second half of the movie. Molly's tricks are less repulsive than Lilith's partly because Molly has not been captured by her tricks, wheras Lilith wealthier and more selfish has. Personally I find the spiritual dimension of the film less convincing, that's partly I think because Gresham was moving between various positions and had not yet adopted one (I'm not sure what an orthodox Christian would think of Tarot Cards!) but also because the film doesn't really explore it- there are many things which could be spiritual but also could be purely natural. And one thing the film does teach you is to beware that there could be a huxter round every corner waiting to deceive you.

This is a fascinating film- and there is much more to it than just what I have written- as ever there are interesting things to think about here which I haven't touched on from sex to alcoholism and the nature of addiction. But central to it all I think is this perception of the corrosive influence of capitalism upon our habits, that living in an other regarding society can turn us all into fraudsters and destroy our closest relationships as we seek that popularity known as profit. The point is extreme and in its extremity wrong- not all employment is geekdom. But the point that capitalism undermines true sympathy is an accurate one- and the issue that that points to in morality is a central problem that we live with constantly. This is neither a Randian individualistic manifesto (we are looking for real sympathy and not to abolish sympathy) nor is it a particularly positive manifesto (these problems may be endemic). What it does though is offer a corrective to the too easy view that if an action is other regarding, it is sympathetic. Gresham and the director and actors suggest it isn't.

Ultimately capitalism at its worst turns us from relationships to dependance, from love to avarice and most importantly from truth to deceit. The film invites us to look into the crystal of the screen and perceive there the deformation of our own eye.

October 30, 2007

Ideology and Politics

Gary Kamiya argues at Salon that one of the consequences of the Bush administration is the ideological defeat of a certain strand of American Conservatism. Kamiya is not alone in doing such analysis- many political commentators have proved over the years surprisingly inept at describing ideological change- and particularly at predicting when it will happen. That is in part because as in Kamiya's case most predictions are actually aiming for persuasion and not prediction: the pundit argues that the national trend goes in a certain way because he wants others to follow that trend. Partly and this is the case here, the commentator overestimates the impact of either conventional wisdom today or of the reputation and competence of a particular political figure.

For example, the conventional wisdom today holds that George Bush was wrong to invade Iraq and would be wrong to invade Iran. Those are both perfectly legitimate opinions- indeed I myself incline to both of them- and yet they are opinions that may well be discredited by events. Conventional Wisdom in 2003 said the opposite and was wrong and it may well be as wrong today in predicting disaster in the Middle East should the present strategy continue. We may change our minds about this historical moment- it is difficult to see in the present hour through the fog of uncertainty- and it is worth remembering that Presidents before have been unpopular only to become popular later on. Harry Truman was hated when he left office- but now is lauded by everyone across party for his policies in the Cold War. That isn't to imply that Bush's reputation will neccessarily change- and too many on the right take comfort from the fact that reputations have changed in the past (some of course did not change- Lord North is still seen as an incompetent as he was at the time)- but equally its worth remembering that in ten years or twenty years time things may have changed.

One thing though will have changed and that is this. Ten years from now, George Bush will not be the most prominent conservative politician in America. In four years time, it will be someone else who is the big issue for the country heading into another Presidential election. Politics is an unforgiving business and once you are in the past, you are history. Bush therefore won't neccessarily still be the name the public associates with conservatism in the next twenty years- other figures will emerge. And that means that some of Bush's most egregious faults- his incompetence in particular will fade from the public consciousness. We should not mistake ideological decline for the decline of individuals within the political sphere- we should not mistake the temporary effects of a bad Presidency for something longterm. Afterall it is still very possible for a Republican to win in 2008. Furthermore it is not always bad Presidencies or Presidents that end ideological dominance- Warren Harding was one of the worst Presidents of the century and yet he was succeeded by two Republicans. Herbert Hoover may have been one of the best qualified but was faced by a crisis that he couldn't deal with and so it was with his Presidency that the Republican run ended and the Democrats took the White House for the next twenty years.

Political commentators tend in my observation to believe too much in hidden historical rules and moments of intellectual confusion. In truth there are defenders even of Bush's strategy in Iraq, something that should give us pause to think. Ideological change happens often on a much more personal level- one might think in the US for instance of the way that each President gives his party a temporary brand. Margerat Thatcher was indispensible to Conservative ideological change in the UK- no great force propelled her forwards, had Whitelaw or Howe been leader the history of the party and country might well have been very different. Its worth remembering the role of accident in all of this as well- history is a chaotic set of events- as chaotic as an individual life (and its worth remembering how chaotic one's life is- one of my best mates in the blogosphere is Ashok, I met him because I was searching for a post for a philosophy carnival I was running which was on a post 1900 philosopher, did a blogsearch for Heidegger and his blog came up). That being said some ideologies are obviously vulnerable to not providing an agenda which meets the needs of a particular moment- one wonders how a depression would change the consensus around globalisation- but we should be cautious. Mr Bush's departure will change America and American conservatism in particular, but the ways that it does that are not obvious even now- and would be very different depending on whether its President Huckabee, President Giuliani, President Clinton or President Obama in 2009.

October 29, 2007

Genius!

Well it had to happen- a management consultancy has come up with a list of geniuses for us to marvel at. Save of course, once you examine their methodology more critically what they seem to have done is to have worked out who were the most famous clever people in the world and come up with a list of them and then given them points on an arbitrary list and come up up with a list of the world's top geniuses. There is something slightly imperfect about this- a hole that gapes open before the idiots who did this survey- and that is quite simple. Knowledge has become so specialised that it is hard even for those who have completed undergraduate studies in an area to be accurately aware of the merits of work done by their academics or by specialists. As a historian moving from undergraduate to graduate work I observed this. And furthermore in subjects that I know little about- mathematics or physics I have no clue about how to compare the intelligence say of a Feynman and a Bohr or even whether they would play in the same league! This list furthermore is a disaster when it comes to art- many of the great artists of a particular period only acquire recognition later. Judging the world's literature and say putting Dario Fo in the top ten, when you don't have a panel that can read all the world's languages and tell us about them seems equally foolish. To publish a list like this furthermore implies that you only need to engage with ten people to engage with the whole world, like lists of the greatest novels or the greatest music, this is intellectual suburbanisation- if you only tackle this and this you have become learned. Sorry that's not true- lets put this list with all the others on a pyre and let the smoke carry a signal out that learning doesn't stop at the margins of a list, but begins with a canon and heads through canon after canon, on an everlasting quest for an eternally unreachable comprehension of everything of worth ever done or discovered.

October 28, 2007

Best Tabloid Headline

I have been memed again! [Expletive Deleted] Dave Cole (whose fantastic blog has a new address by the way now) decided to give me this virus, anyway the idea is to come up with the dream tabloid headline, so here's mine:

Asylum-seeker, Diana's ghost and Britney Spears in Threesome: House Prices Forecast to Fall!

I'm sure that there are many of you that could come up with a better- so why don't you go for it Thunder Dragon, James, Mutley and anyone else who fancies their hand at crafting something worthy of the Sun.

Incidentally another thought for the last couple of days- which links to an article I wrote at Bits about it (guess the story before you click the link), anyway here is the headline,

Who's Jorry now: Martin's a Smartin at Spurs!

Right now before I lose all my respect for myself and others- I must leave the banks of the fetid swamp- to all you readers who have blogs, have a go yourselves at this, its quite fun!

LATER Ok I've got the bug, but this is worth it, what about

Princess Diana ate my Hamster