March 15, 2008

The surreal comedy of cricket commentary revealed again

This is partly for the Umpire, who must be feeling dire given the situation New Zealand are in. Listening to the cricket commentary on Five Live Extra- I've just heard Mr Boycott give a great quote (in addition to yesterday's comments about how great Ian Botham was, a man Geoffrey told us whose success derived from a big good backside- you have to wonder!), you have to hear this in a Yorkshire accent for it to go down precisely right, but here is Mr Boycott's wisdom

When you get into bad habits, it becomes normal.

It does indeed, Geoffrey! Thanks for telling us.

PS Sorry just heard yet another great Geoffrey moment: 'Andrew Strauss needs to take my uncle Algy's advice', if only he'd listened to Geoffrey's uncle Algy there wouldn't be a problem- again the quote has its best effect when said in a Yorkshire accent! They are now discussing Uncle Algy, apparantly he played for Ackworth, had one eye and smoked under a tree at the end of the over. He was a 'good line and length bowler' and bought our Geoffrey 'pop and crisps'. And now he's off on a real jumpers for goalposts moment.

Cricket commentary is a surreal comedy!

PPS They are now discussing cappucinos in New Zealand!

March 14, 2008

American History X

American History X is a more important film than it is a good film. Its political attitudes are more important than its storyline- something that places it beneath films with a message that work as films. The mastership of a craftsman like Bergman was that he was able to say something and tell a story- American History X cannot do both. It has one central character who is realised fully- Derek Vineyard- a Nazi skinhead who becomes through the course of a prison sentence a more tolerant and humane individual. Its the story of him attempting to rescue his own brother from the same cul-de-sac that leads through the white rights culture down into the morass of prison and resentment, of hatred and fear and curses and death. Its a nasty subculture that the film portrays, a nasty, unpleasant, horrible and vicious culture filled with darkness- and in this case a particularly excruciating scene.

That culture comes under the microscope here- together with the reasons that some people might enter into it. The culture on the streets of America as portrayed in American History X is violent and brutal- its filled with bullying gangs and rife with problems. From murder to single motherhood in poverty, every blight on the urban landscape of modern America is here and there is little chance of redemption. These characters are locked- often accidentally locked into a cycle of violence, deprivation and poverty and Naziism gives them a reason to throw out their hatred to the world. Racism in the film is a scream from those who are deeply cut to their cores, whose brothers are murdered, who are forced off basket ball courts and beaten in the gent's toilets. In such deprivation it is easy to develop hatred and to develop not the better angels but the worst of our nature, it is easy to turn resentment into the hard currency of slogans and fear, into the harder coin of murder and violence.

As a political thesis, that has much to commend it. Of course support for extremism is much more complicated- I have dealt with some aspects of it myself in other places. The real point though about this film and one that it makes fairly and well is that those feelings are real. Those feelings of hatred and fear are central to the way that some people experience their lives. The fascist characters apart from Derek and his brother here are cardboard cutouts- but there is no denying the reality of the thrill that fascism gives to their lives- that it gives to their wandering egoes. Nor can there be any doubt that liberalism, personified here by teachers, is weak in dealing with these problems- a world in which there are simple problems is also a world in which there are unfortunately no simple answers and the complicated, nuanced points of a liberal can sound like blethering.

Ultimately American History X comes down to make a simple and important point- a point that I think has a lot of merit to it- which is about anger. Anger can be productive- it can lead us to build schools and hospitals. But it can be unproductive and if it takes over lives and obliterates sympathy it can be very unproductive and lead to real disaster. Anger can corrode our sentiments for our fellow human beings- we can end up so angry, so embittered with our situation and the world, that we never take a step forwards. To some extent anger in this way becomes a counterpart to depression, a mood that inhibits the natural cycle of human life, the natural attempt to build something for the future, for your family, for an ideal of goodness. Anger however directed feeds on itself- Derek makes the point continually that anger in this film is something that devours but never satisfies. Political anger is a kind of philosophical masturbation- it never satisfies, never produces anything but an itch to do it more and more- it might releive the instantaneous tension but can never supply an answer.

This film is preachy, it lacks subtle characters and there is a bit too much caricature for my liking- its quite possibly a bad film with a good message. Even the message could be improved- there are more things to be learnt and curiously for a film against racism, many of its black characters are even more cardboard than their white counterparts. But its a film from a point of view and it does succeed in conveying that point of view. More than that, it is a film about an idea and whatever we think of the stuttering delivery, the idea about the psychology of anger and the way it feeds extremism is a useful analytical tool. Its expression here is limited to the way that anger feeds off poverty, and the conversion of its leading characters is managed too easily- most neo-nazi teenagers don't take a night to convert back to tolerance- but its a worthy effort.

The Murder of Regilla

'A murder charge ws brought against Herodes in this way. When his wife Regilla was eight months pregnant, he ordered his freedman Alcimedon to beat her for trivial reasons. She died in premature childbirth from a blow to her abdomen' Philostratus

Philostratus was writing a life of Herodes when he wrote those lines. Herodes was one of the richest men in Greece and Rome in the 2nd Century AD, he was a philosopher, a tutor to and friend of Emperors and a massive donor of public art to the cities of Europe, Asia and Africa. He stood at the apex of Roman society- and his biographer honoured him as a man of impecable learning and taste. But of course during this process of exaltation, Philostratus mentions a fact that neither Herodes nor his powerful friends might wish us to dwell upon, that Regilla, Herodes's wife died in suspicious circumstances. Furthermore Herodes was accused of murdering her by her brother and the case went all the way to the Roman Senate before it failed for some reason that we don't quite know. The whole tale is sketched out by Sarah Pomeroy in her book which takes not Herodes, but his wife Regilla as the main character and attempts to sketch out the drama of a life unjustly curtailed.

Regilla was born in Rome to one of the highest families in the Empire- she was related to the Imperial Antonine house. We know almost nothing about her upbringing- though we can presume it was typical for a Roman girl of her day. Though the typical Roman girl or woman is not a subject about which we have vast ammounts of evidence anyway! Pomeroy is the first historian to actually write a chapter on what a Roman girlhood would have been like and she provides fascinating details of that life. She would have had a dozen slaves, trained in childcare to look after her, and several different wet nurses. The nurses' characters would have been examined- Romans believed that a wetnurse gave her charge not merely milk but also character through the milk. Most nurses and many of the other specialist team of childminders would have been Greek- the Greeks were the adknowledged experts on childcare in the 2nd Century. A Roman senatorial daughter would have had massive powers to torment and command her slaves. She would have been taught Greek, though her younger brother Bradua would have had a larger retinue and a more extensive education. Even so, Plutarch informs us that Roman girls could expect to learn mathematics and other authors inform us of a curriculum that would include the classics and dancing.

This kind of detail is fascinating and its what comes through again and again in Pomeroy's account. As a primer on what a Roman aristocratic woman could expect there is no better book around, that I have read. For instance Pomeroy talks of life expectancy (mid-30s), of the number of pregnancies (normally around 6 or 7- data born out in studies of slavery fertility) and the differences between Greek and Roman marriage. Greeks tended to favour endogamy- in Athens only siblings by the same mother were forbidden to marry and in Sparta by the same father. Herodes own family had instances both of half siblings and first cousins marrying. Roman law on the other hand was much stricter- under Roman law noone (excepting the Imperial family) could marry closer relations than first cousins. The difference had an impact as Plutarch noted on the ways that Roman and Greek marriage worked- the fear of the girl's family meant that a Roman marriage afforded more protection than a Greek marriage where the family of the couple were the same people. Herodes had a reputation for his temper before he married- he had violent encounters and Pomeroy implies that he probably beat up his wife. Not to mention the fact that for Herodes his wife, in Pomeroy's view, was definitely less important than his two catamites (to whom he dedicated numerous statues and monuments) and that she was a mere political alliance.

For the distinction between Herodes and Regilla was not merely sexual- it was also political. Herodes may have been rich, but he was Greek and he also was a new man. His father had built up an empire of business connections- probably unscrupulously- and Herodes had legitimised it, rising to become a senator and a magistrate. But to turn that legitimation into acceptance by the Roman aristocracy, he needed to ally himself with an ancient family. Regilla's family were ancient- both her father and brother were consuls and her family went back to the early days of the Republic. The rich Greek and the noble Roman were made for each other politically and whilst we do not know what precipitated the marriage, we can be pretty sure that that was uppermost in most people's minds. Equally Pomeroy is right to emphasize that Herodes did something rather extraordinary when he got married- he went back to Greece taking his young bride with him. Few Roman women travelled far outside Rome- almost none left permanently (exile from Rome as any casual reader of Ovid will know was thought of as a fate worse than death). Regilla travelled to Greece and furthermore she left permanently. Pomeroy speculates about the psychological effect that this might have produced upon her. She also uncovers interesting evidence of the role that Regilla played in Greece- she was appointed a priestess in two temples (one Herodes constructed for the purpose in Athens) and played an important political role in public life. She also had a number of children- two girls and a boy- also confusingly named Bradua, whom Pomeroy asserts that Herodes hated unjustly. Again we have no evidence that Herodes's hatred was unjust, though he seems to have made scant effort to remember his son in his will.

Now we come to the murder. Simply put- all we have is the account with which I began this chapter, suspicions in the ancient sources about Herodes's character, the fact that Regilla's brother began proceedings and the way that Herodes behaved after her death. None prove in my view that Herodes murdered Regilla- its quite possible that as Pomeroy argues he did murder her- but there is no direct evidence that he did and we do not know why the senate refused to convict. Probably there wasn't enough of a prosecution case to convict upon- normally Roman slaves would be tortured and then pressed into giving evidence, in this case Herodes's slaves were far from Roman justice. There were enough rumours in Rome about Herodes's treatment of his wife for her brother to prosecute. The simple plain truth is that we probably will never know. Pomeroy argues that Herodes's massive building program after his wife's death was due to some guilt complex or to a desire to dispel suspicion. Again there is no way of knowing- and its always dangerous to impute motives to people when its perfectly reasonable to imagine other thought processes going through Herodes's mind- afterall if you can't boost your own prominence, why not boost that of your wife. The quote by Philostratus, who was one of Herodes's supporters, implies that there was some domestic violence involved- but why Alcimedon was never punished despite Herodes been found innocent has never been adequately deat with. The truth is that the pieces of evidence we have in our hands as to the murder are contradictory and don't clearly indicate anything save that there was a tragedy- we don't know enough about any of the principles and our sources are not good enough to conclude much. (Another review that takes a similar line to me is here and has further good reasons to be sceptical.)

The real value of Pomeroy's book lies not so much in its treatment of Regilla and her murder- despite my title- as in her discussion of ancient women. I am cautious as to whether there is much that we can really say about Regilla- all we can probably say is that somehow in that house in Greece a tragedy occured- and probably that that tragedy was related to domestic violence in some way. What happened though is veiled in mystery. Far more fascinating is the insight from this reconstruction of the life of Regilla, we get into Roman women as a group. It is probably impossible to do anything more than Pomeroy in attempting to reconstruct Regilla- but it seems from what she has written that there is plenty more to be done on Roman women. This book is a wonderful introduction to the subject as it sketches out a plausible vision of what a Roman aristocratic female life might have been like, based on the best evidence. We may not know how Regilla died, but thanks to Pomeroy we know much more about what her life might have been like.

March 13, 2008

Globalisation and the Welfare State

Most people on the British left are free traders or fair traders- we do not oppose globalisation and do not expect it to make real differences to the way that government policy in the UK works. That might seem counter intuitive. Afterall competitive pressures you might assume will lead to arguments for diminishing the welfare state to become more powerful over time. Essentially the welfare state often supplies through its payments a floor to the kind of wages and conditions that companies can offer, and as cheaper labour comes to the market, you would expect governments to adjust welfare provisions downwards both to enhance competition and to lower tax rates. Well that's not actually true. A study by a set of German academics (A. Dreher, J. Sturm and H.W. Ursprung) for the journal Public Choice (pdf*) finds that globalisation has made very little difference to the composition of public spending. They suggest that we might have over-estimated globalisation as a phenomenon and that some of its effects may be blurred. However they also argue that this lack of consequences stemming from globalisation for public expenditure, arises because there is a compensatory effect- that politicians are rewarded for compensating their constituents who fall out of work and who might fall out of work. The fear of the consequences of globalisation mitigates those consequences in a paradoxical way. Its an interesting finding- it doesn't alter the way that the economics of globalisation- but it does remind us that that does not determine what we do about globalisation.

The point is that economics does not always lead politics, especially in a democracy. Democratic power, manifested in the ballot box, creates incentives to mitigate the consequences of loss and I would argue that demonstrates not merely the justice of democratic systems but also their stability. It is because of a democratic system, that some measure of equality is preserved despite the inegalitarian consequences of competition. In this sense the argument about globalisation is part of a larger argument about the way that democracy goes hand in hand with a just and stabalising social policy. It would be interesting to see whether that's true and whether the spending policies of dictatorships and democracies say in Latin America are very different and also to see what impact compulsary voting has upon the way that governments spend money. Overall though, because this is a dual study of policy in the OECD and in a larger collection of countries, I think its possible to say that the responsiveness of politicians to electorates has led to different policies being created. The fact that most current governments see their legitimacy as rising from the people, not descending from some other authority, leads them to a situation in which they are constrained in their actions.

Ultimately when it comes to globalisation, the constraints to appealing to public legitimacy seem to cancel out the constraint of global market pressure.

*The article is only free for a while, so it may become unavailable at some point in the future.

Crossposted from here

March 12, 2008

Ben Ohlen's economics

I found this summary of the work of Ben Ohlen, a Harvard junior fellow, fascinating. There are several interesting ideas in there- for instance that as you decrease the number of corrupt officials, the price of a bribe rises. But the one I found most interesting was what Ohlen found in his work on democracy- that when you assacinate a democratic leader that makes almost no difference to the future of the country concerned. Economic growth and political stability stay roughly constant. Its when you assacinate a dictator that things really change- assacinating Mugabe say in Zimbabwe would change things much more than assacinating Gordon Brown in the UK. The point I think that is contained within this argument is a crucial one and reflects a central truth that few in public life articulate because it would diminish their importance: politicians in a democracy are expendible, institutions are not.

Niall McKeown The Invention of Ancient Slavery

As a PhD student, you sit for hours and sometimes days trying to work out how a set of evidence fits together and becomes a theory. Hopefully you find yourself a way out of the morass, and put together something which can be vivaed and be the starting point for an academic career. But always lurking in the background is a suspicion that what you are investigating actually doesn't exist or even worse, that its impossible to find the answer of the question you have set yourself. I used to wonder a lot about writing an anti-PhD thesis- a thesis that demonstrated that there was no answer to this particular conumdrum, that this particular question was just impossible to resolve without some surprising discovery and a proof that future scholars need not follow in my wake. A destructive PhD you might say and yet there is more merit than just fortifying a depressed PhD student in doing that kind of exercise: because it demonstrates that there are some questions that are incredibly hard to answer, some problems that we may never solve and some ideas that though attractive cannot be proved.

Dr. Niall McKeown, a lecturer in Ancient History at the Birmingham University, has taken my half imagined possibility and converted it into a book. His study analyses the history of Roman slavery- how many slaves were there, who were they, how were they treated, what did they think of slavery, what were their relations with their masters and each other. McKeown examines several answers to these questions from a variety of scholars from the past hundred years. His history of the historiography of slavery starts in the decades just after the Great War and continues roughly to the new millenium. He analyses people who he asserts (and others will have to verify this) are typical of historians of slavery: we have racist interpretations of Roman decline through ethnic mixing, communist interpretations that see class war with slaves continuing throughout Roman history and different national interpretations- German, French and Anglo-American- which perpetuate other ideas. McKeown also moves to consider how specialists from other fields- literary and demographic- have considered slavery and how they too have put forward interpretations of the institution and how it functioned.

McKeown takes us through these different ideas about what ancient slavery was- and does it brilliantly. He summarises their arguments and then demonstrates how the same set of evidence, used by those scholars to make one point can be turned around to make another. He points to the ways for instance that rhetoric in Martial or Juvenal is highly difficult to understand- these were the comedic writers of the day and we don't really 'get' the joke. Afterall would you use Blackadder as a guide to British eating habits in the First World War- were all British soldiers eating 'rat o'van' (rat run over by a van). Comedy exists to exploit what may be unusual or just funny situations- and without knowing a culture inside out it is hard to separate the funny joke from the context. McKeown skewers various historians who take too literally the words of literature- he also suggests that all historians are limited b what they study. For example, great German historians have put a lot of effort into studying the words of slaves to Oracles- but that is obviously a self selecting sample or it may not be? But we just don't know.

This point of ignorance is made again and again. When Bradley, the great scholar of slavery in English, argues on the basis of Roman legal documents that there were a great variety of crimes committed by slaves and therefore that slaves and masters were antagonistic naturally to each other, Mckeown pulls him up. Afterall the legal texts that he examines give no guide to the frequency of the crimes that they discuss. Furthermore those crimes might be merely interesting legal problems created by law and of interest to intellectually minded lawyers. Its fascinating to think about what happens should a slave commit a crime and then be freed, should he be tried as a slave or freedman? That might just have been a Roman lawyer trying to solve a specific if rare puzzle or even a Roman law lecturer puzzling over a particular problem: it doesn't mean that there were armies of slaves out there trying to murder their masters.

Evidence is difficult to work with and Mckeown demonstrates some of its problems. But this goes further into the work say of demographers. He is very good at exposing the fact that demographers work on the basis of assumptions. Most modern demographers of Roman slaves work on the basis that 10% of the Roman population was enslaved. McKeown points out that there is basically no evidence for this figure- beyond a survey of 1000 people over three centuries in Egypt which produced a figure of 11% as slaves. But those 1000 were biassed- they lived in Egypt- furthermore even within the sample we can tell that there were biases- in the city 13% of the population were slaves, in the countryside 7% and it happens that our sample is biassed towards urban areas. If say 5% of the Roman population were slaves then it changes all of our calculations about how many were indigenous, born from slave mothers, how many of them were abandoned children and how many were born outside the empire and then caught and captured and brought to the Empire.

This doesn't mean that McKeown is relativistic- far from it. Its because he accepts there is such a thing as evidence that he can suggest ambiguities within it. The work he provides is positivistic in that it assumes that there is such a thing as an eventual absolute truth- its just that it might not be accessible, that the limitations within the evidence might make it difficult to get to that absolute truth. There were slaves and they did live in a particular way- its just that its very hard to get to the generality of slaves because they left no records behind them and because the records of the slaves we do no about are atypical, precisely because they are recorded slaves. We can deceive ourselves as well- and Mckeown is very conscious of the way that we can imagine pasts which go way beyond the evidence that we have in front of us. Another image I have from my Phd is that evidence in the dark whilst you are dreaming up your theory seems to coalesce, turn the light on and it scatters in front of you- anyone who has honestly done historical research knows that feeling and McKeown brings it back to life at least for me.

Its an interesting problem that we face. On the one hand there are definite historical truths- or rather there are definite historical falsehoods. Were I to say that there were no slaves in ancient Rome I would just be wrong, categorically and unquestionably wrong. But its much harder to say much more that is definite about those slaves. In the end history is about piecing together evidence using imagination- and there is always the danger that the imagination, the art of history, takes over from the evidence collection and begins building houses on sand. Furthermore what McKeown provides us with is evidence that there will always be legitimate contestation within history about the meaning of evidence- Michael Oakeshott said in his essay on history that the past had left us artefacts out of which historians created narratives. And Oakeshott was right- the problem is that the artefacts can be connected in other ways. If you deny the presence of the artefacts from the past, you are talking in falsehood- but there may be several ways to understand the past.

In that sense, McKeown's book sits less readily with the extreme post modernist relativism- the kind of sentiment that argues that there is no truth- than with a doubting scepticism about the validity of interpretation. Relativism is a stupid policy- but scepticism is a sensible one and it allows one independence of mind and also the readiness of self criticism that is the mark of the true historian. Furthermore the kind of scepticism that McKeown in this book creates is scepticism based on the evidence- not a generalised cynicism- but a specific scepticism coming out of genuine problems in the detail. In that sense his work provides a useful corrective to the over imaginative historian- and indicates a way forward- a waryness about our own capacity at intellectual discovery and a commitment to the dry work of evidence collection that is thoroughly to be welcomed.

March 11, 2008

David Willets at the LSE

The Fast show had a sketch where a character every week sitting with a group of middle class friends made a social faux pas and ended the sketch by saying 'I'll get me coat.' The Sketch illustrated a principle that David Willets's lecture at the LSE on 20th February attempted to elucidate in more academic and less amusing way. Basically Willets argued, rightly, that law is much more than just an act of government. Law embodies convention. In some sense what is written in the law is an expression of the conventions by which we operate. As Willets demonstrates for reasons to do with game theory and also evolution, such conventions are neccessary to maintain a stable functioning society. He does not really go farther than making this point- and its a sensible point and his talk is well worth reading, but I think it leads on to some important consequences particularly for us on the liberal left.

The first consequence is that leglislation is not the be all and end all. It is important to obtain leglislation in many areas- one being for instance safety at work where leglislation creates a normative equilibrium using which companies compete. But it also reminds us of the virtues of doing things which are not leglislated. Take my example from above for a moment, I think one of the most important advances in life in this country during my parent's lifetime and partly during my own is the advance of equality- sexual, racial and between sexual orientations. The evolution of attitudes on those matters has not been something only produced by government- its been produced as well by people changing their behaviour and that has often come about because they have been shamed into changing their behaviour. Campaigning works. I've been in rooms where people have argued that explicit consent isn't needed for sex or that homosexuals are worse than heterosexuals- and seen the distancing that everyone else in the room does from those people. The intake of breath, the slight contempt in the voice, all those things tend to create an unwritten but still powerful social consensus that operates to constrain what people can and cannot say. In reality this is what we mean by political correctness- its a code of convention and for the most part its a sensible code of convention.

You can see it in other ways as well- but it gives us on the liberal left a challenge. Because to have recourse to government action to repress attitudes is the easy but ultimately flawed way of doing things- it doesn't work in the end. Governments can leglislate against discrimination in the workplace, against all sorts of tangible crimes but attitudes are hard to change by the blunt instrument of leglislation. Rather it is social stigma and generational change that changes a society's mores. We can do little about the second- but we can do a lot about the first. Its why campaigning say against sexist advertising is so important because it sends out a signal that this is unacceptable. We have done a lot of good work in the past on this- but we need to keep up the fight say against perceptions of black people as physically strong mentally weak individuals. And its also why some of the right's counter attacks- from semi-racists like Mark Steyn- are so worrying because they enable people to think that this sort of language- and ultimately this attitude is a legitimate one when it isn't. Its immoral.

What we on the left have to continue to do is what American political scientists call framing. Framing means making the debate fit into our norms by using things like this website and other avenues to say that racism, sexism etc is not merely wrong but that its immoral and to be condemned. By doing that we create conventions. But we also have to be alert to other people manipulating the discourses of society- for example the religious claiming that they are discriminated against- when they actually are not. Being forced to treat others equally is not being discriminated against, it is being coerced and such coercion may be justified. Also we on the left can really get to an important dimension of citizenship and fellow feeling- equality. A society riven by class hatred is a society which cannot sustain recipricocity in its values, it cannot sustain in the long run the kind of world that David Willets wants to produce. Ultimately such a society devolves into one where the people's allegiance is bought by politicians and where class becomes such a dividing line that people feel no sympathy or empathy across it. Mr Willets's logic leads one to put a priority on equality as a means to social cohesion and to democratic stability.

One last point deserves emphasis though, because although Willets's arguments do not naturally prescribe a moral system- there are indications in there of what a moral system that would fulfill his conditions looks like. Game theory relies upon the idea of trust: I break my word with those that break their word and I keep my word with those that keep their word. We all prosper more in a society which does the latter rather than the former. And that involves of course the most important moral sentiment within our consciousness- sympathy. If you think of the moral advances of the twentieth century- from the emancipation of women to the creation of a welfare state- they have all depended upon the extension of sympathy to a class of people who previously did not receive it in the same way. Sympathy is the centre of any system of morality which prioritises the way that we behave towards others- and as Willets discusses there are good evolutionary reasons to be sympathetic. Far from suggesting that we need to embrace a Christian world view as the basis of our normative thinking or ushering in a reign of relativism, Willets's arguments lead us to a position where sympathy, in classical Scottish enlightenment terms, becomes the basis for our moral position in society. Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, they all maintain sympathy as a moral value but also do much more: if we are to seek the kind of minimalistic moral concern that will satisfy everyone and make the law best reflect the way that people think, then working off the basis of sympathy gives us some clue as to how that could happen.

That also gives us clues as to how to argue and what to argue. It refocuses the debate upon the real issue between us and conservatives of every hue: that is what we do about equality. Ultimately we argue that in an unequal society the bonds between people, the productive equilbria in game theory, are disintegrated by the mutual distrust produced by massive inequalities. Ultimately should some people or classes of people have better access to law, Parliament, the instruments of power in the market etc, that delegitimates the games that we play. Either we end up with a population which quietly accepts and does not engage, or worse we end up with a situation involving rising criminality and fear. Willets is right to target the way that we see each other and the way that we behave each other as the best avenue to pursue in understanding the productive synergies that we produce in society: he is entirely right in appreciating the force of convention in changing behaviour. Where he is wrong is to underestimate and not even to mention the effects that inequality can have on all of this. Inequality is most often economic inequality- but it can also take the form of glass ceilings which may not show up as easily in statistic. However understood, inequality is corrosive to society and corrosive therefore to the productive externalities that wider cooperation between us all can produce.

Crossposted from the Liberal Conspiracy


Dave has got an interview with Ken Livingstone, mayor of London, over at his website. Its a short interview but it is interesting- partly of course to see how far any London mayor has to work around the limitations of his office. Livingstone can't raise redistributionary taxation so has to work in policies of redistribution in other ways. It is also interesting to see how far the campaign is already negative- Ken spends a lot of time answering Dave's questions which mostly invite positive answers with comments about Boris Johnson and Livingstone is getting a fair degree of hate on Tory websites. More than anything though I think this marks the fact that Dave is one of the better Labour bloggers around- to get this kind of interview demonstrates his reach- and his articles are always fascinating and interestingly couched. Its a pity he didn't get longer with Livingstone because its my opinion that people like Dave Cole and David Hill sometimes would ask more interesting questions than the professional journalists.

Francesco, Giullare di Dio

"a monument to stupidity... never before have Christianity and cretinism been so close to one another" Martin Oms

The tale of St Francis is one of the most central of the Catholic saints to Christian life. Roberto Rosselini directed a film based upon St Francis's life in the 1950s- a follow up to his trilogy about the end of the war (Roma citta Aperta, Paisa, Germany Year Zero) took the theme of the Christian renounciation of the world and attempted to create an alternative to the war, greed and genocide which had dominated his era. St Francis and his disciples in this movie are held up as an alternative- a Christian folly- against the worldly wisdom of the dictators who had deformed the modern era. This film is an attempt- like Robert Bresson's work about Joan of Arc- to reclaim the values of a medieval saint and install them in a modern era. It is a utopian film- but its utopia is the utopia of personal spiritual fulfilment- of rebirth through Christ, the utopia of what St Francis calls perfect happiness, the renounciation of everything, even happiness itself for the beatific vision of God acheived through suffering.

In that sense the film rejects the whole basis of modernity. From first to last this is a film that revels in folly and stupidity. Its heroes are the mad and the starving- its power lies in its reinvention of poverty. Similarly to the Christians studied by Peter Brown in his magnificent study of Poverty and the Church, Rosselini wants us to remember that wealth is independent of virtue and indeed can be opposed by it. Possessions in this film are an absolute evil. Villagers who love their pigs and cows not as brother animals but as possessions let them obstruct their own salvation. One of the monks, Ginepro, is so foolish that every time he goes out he manages to lose his habit, or rather he grants someone else the privilege of taking his habit from him. That happens three times- the last time the Monks are being visited by Sister Chiara and they have to drag the naked Ginepro off to a bush to reclothe him using some plant stems and a coat. Ginepro's naivety and his lack of property though are of a piece- worldly wisdom is all about the collection of possessions, Ginepro has no idea about how to function in a world of possessions. Give him a load of wood and some vegetables and you'll find him as likely to allow the wood to be cooked and the vegetables to be used as material for the fire as anything else- indeed you can expect him to not realise that food goes cold and rots with time.

Poverty is a virtue here- but so is laughter. St Francis laughs himself throughout the film- he finds things absurd and funny- the title translates as St Francis, God's jester! The monks laugh repeatedly and joy is something they often express. But its the object of their laughing and their joy that Rosselini wants us to observe. Joy proceeds in this film from comradeship. Everyone is everyone else's brother. Poverty has abolished property and even a sense of individuality. Everyone follows St Francis and Francis himself follows his congregation- allowing them to take major decisions- and of course the living God. Francis declares himself the leader because he is the greatest of sinners and invites, nay orders his own followers to place their feet upon his face and neck because of his manifest and multiple sins. This response to every question is echoed by his followers- when Ginepro is captured by the Barbarian King, he too uses the response, telling the King that he Ginepro has deserved death because of the way that he has betrayed God and submitting to any torture with a stare that signifies his increasing saintliness. Hence Francis in a conversation later in the film tells one of the monks that the only way to Christ is to suffer for him- in suffering man abases himself, wipes himself clean of sin and comes closest to the Christ of the cross. In wordly happiness, man is furthest from that Christ and lives in sin- even if he loves Christ, so long as he is rich or powerful or even content, he cannot acheive full happiness, wallowing in the mud he can.

But that's not to say that pain does not hurt or touch these monks. Rosselini wants us to see that- and in perhaps the film's most important scene which is almost silent he does. In the nighttime Francis prays on his own to God, and as he prays a leper comes along almost silently beside the dwellings of the monk. Francis watches the leper through the trees, observes the man's bloodied and emaciated face, his infected hands and his doomed limp. He moves up to the leper, almost level, the leper slowly moves away. Francis keeps following the man, then deliberately he stands in front of him and hugs him, blessing him in hugging him. Of course we are meant to know what this means. Leprosy in the Middle Ages was the most infectious disease of them all, the most feared disease. The leper moved away to spare Francis, Francis embraced him to remind the leper and himself of the man's common humanity. Perhaps the most important shot of the whole film is at the end of this sequence, the leper moves on and St Francis filled with shame and horror collapses weeping to the floor. As a piece of cinema it is incredibly powerful, not a word has been spoken and yet the central Christian themes of compassion and abasement, of the centrality of morality, the sadness of fallen man and the hope of salvation have all been expressed wordlessly in the actions of a Christian saint and a disfigured human being.

And this is a film that we can take in this way. Originally it was preceded by shots of medieval art work. Even in the form we see it in most normally today- it is a story told like a medieval religious chronicle. There is no story- and the most important aspects of St Francis's life and order- his commission from the Pope and his preaching are left out. This is a story rather about what makes a saint, it is a story whose message is spiritual and not secular or historical. Whereas as a historian my film would concentrate on St Francis, the Pope and the Emperor, this film concentrates on St Francis and his comrades, their charity, their foolishness and comedy. That has a more profound message though for our times- Rosselini's film wants us to refocus. For too long he is telling us we have focussed on politics, for too short a time on ethics. To renew society after the experience of total war it is ethics though- it is the personal and sainthood that can reach something that no ammount of political theorising can. In a sense this is self criticism- Italy had of course sustained a Fascist dictatorship and Rosselini had worked for it- when he talks of sin, Italy's sin must be at the forefront of our minds. But this is a deeper film than a mere examination of a personal and national moment- Rosselini wants us to refocus our attentions, politics is not enough, only ethics can save us now is what he seems to be saying.

Martin Oms considered this film to be the marriage of Christianity and cretinism- his comment missed the point. This film exalts cretinism to be the foundation of a truly Christian life. Such a vision is incompatible with almost any modern philosophy of government- to laud the beggar and the preacher on the street over the responsible member of society, the senile old man over his children who want their cow to build families not be fed to religious simpletons, the monk who robs a peasant of his pig in order to feed a sick comrade over the industrious farmer. It puts all our heirarchies upside down and reminds us of how different the Middle Ages are from our own time in terms of mental outlook. Rosselini was to pass in later films, as Martin Scorsese argues, to considering the Dosteovskyan question, is idiocy truly possible in the society that we have built or is there no place for the holy fool in our world?

Regardless of our answer to that question, this is one of the most powerful portraits of the holy fool in western cinema- there may indeed be nothing else much like it. It is a beautifully shot film- as a non-Christian I do not agree with its message but I cannot but marvel at the power with which that message is expressed.

March 10, 2008

Britney Spears: the perils of instant judgement

Columns like this one in today's Guardian worry me. For all I know the author may be right- but her argument seems to me to be unrelated to any fact. Basically she asserts that Britney Spears and her decline and fall can be accounted by the society that she lives in. The fact that Britney has problems is a result of our expectations in attempting to control her and our attempts to describe those problems in terms which we would only use for a woman and for a mother. She suggests that Britney does not have problems, its we who have problems, not seeing a rebellion against the celebrity system as a natural phenomenon, but as the psychotic aspect of a woman who has betrayed motherhood. I'm not saying that Lisa Appignanesi is wrong- she might be right. But I would say that I know nothing about Britney's psychology and I don't think that Lisa Appignanesi does either. I don't know why Britney has done the things she has done. I don't know what has prompted her father to take control of her affairs, I don't know the content of her relationships with her husbands or her children. I can only hope that the best things are being done for and by her and her family- but without closer knowledge who am I to say anything.

Lisa Appignanesi seems to me here to be making a real mistake- she has a set of assumptions about the way that psychiatry works, as a tool here for sexual oppression. She then finds an instance and shows that it can be seen as fitting with her thesis- and then she proclaims that her thesis is true. Anecdotal evidence is always hard to assess- but its harder still if there are ways of conceiving of the evidence in a different light- Britney may be a victim of mental illness, we don't know. We don't know why her doctors have made the judgement they have made. Caution is always a good principle when thinking about other people's lives especially when you don't have the fullest information set- scepticism is needed from the writer as well as the readers. I don't think that Appignanesi has demonstrated either scepticism or caution here- and it makes it very difficult to take what she says in the future seriously.

March 09, 2008

Garden State

Garden State is a film that everyone wants to hate- there are lots of 'really' and 'like' in it- too many for my comfort. The characters are self referential and not profound- they are awkward and need to make unique moments in human history in order to reassure themselves. They are self important but meandering in the morass of life in the twenties- they are filled with the angst of lives lived in comfort without real problems. But the film still charms. Maybe its Zach Braff the lead who manages to act an impassive mid-twenties young man with utter conviction, maybe its Natalie Portman whose performance in this film puts her yet again at the height of her proffession as an actress, maybe its a wry cast of supporting characters, maybe its Braff's meandering direction- he is filled with the incidental in life- maybe as well its his writing which is equally zany and all over the place. Maybe its the fact that the film knows that it is incidental- that 'real life tragedy' is more important than other things- or that its worth enjoying life to the full no matter what your position. Garden State isn't a major film but it defines the very essence of whimsy.

Nowhere is this clearer than Sam, the character that Portman plays and the main love interest of the main character- Andrew Largeman. Sam is a whimsical character in her very essence. The pretty girl who falls in love with a man that missed a kind of normal kid things: she is willing to sit on the steps with him whilst everyone else goes off leaving them alone. She wants to be original- and so she dances and does a silly noise when she feels too conventional. There is a sense of fun about her- and Portman captures a girlishness which is both appealing, vivacious and also laced with a kind of compassion. She could be cruel- but only through carelessness and ignorance of convention- she would not hurt deliberately and has no calculation in her personality. She naively asks questions because she does want the answers: at one point Braff's character says that she is like a 'little detective'. She gets to the bottom of his character more than anyone of his original friends do, partly because her naivety is laced with compassion.

Compassion is the key to this film- whimsy is made up of it- whimsical comedy is based on having compassion and affection for the characters. Part of the reason that Garden State works as opposed to being irritating is that all the characters are portrayed with an understated affection. Less is said than often could be said and conversations are closed off rather than opening out to revelation. When revelation does come the film becomes clumsy- it was not meant to string out such grand narratives but it conveys incidental detail and the growth of a love, that is not spoken because the characters feeling it do not have the articulacy, but is still very real and based on mutual affection and regard. There isn't so much a meet cute in this movie as a meeting followed by a growth of cuteness.

Cuteness saturates this film- sometimes it irritates but often it charms. Its insubstantial but its basic good naturedness, affection for its characters and the charm of its performers manage to make it a minor, but still fun, film. This is life acted out and not observed- there is a great scene about being disconnected at a party, there are great little moments but also there are mawkish ones which don't work. Its a piece which works if you see it for what it is: a small vignette that means nothing, but is fun and lit up by some good performances. A little slice of indie fun and games amidst the grimness of life.