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!