Friday, 25 February 2011

A Decent Perspective

A while back I came across a blog by a young man who claimed to be a professional writer and whose hero was Cristopher (sic) Hitchens. I'm not connecting to his blog because I never want to visit it ever again, but I was curious to see that new decents are still sprouting up.

Of course, decency never died; to paraphrase Frank Zappa it just smells funny: just look at Te Graun's constant attack on the Russians for not electing an oligarch-friendly regime. For those lucky enough not to know what a 'decent' is, it's someone who claims to be left wing. Just that they support American Imperialism and often support neo-liberal economics.

However, there is actually a really thin line between decents and a vast section of the left. In a sense their major crime in the eyes of other left-wingers is to ally some left wing ideals (hatred for religion and patriotism blended with an apocalyptic view of a preordained moral order that is unavoidable for any country) to the neo-conservative goals of a Pax Americana.

In some ways this isn't as daft as it sounds, especially if you take the historicist view that Western values are universal and that secular economic and social liberalism are unavoidable destinies for all nations. In fact I thought during the Bush presidency that Pat Buchanan and The American Conservative actually put forth the most convincing arguments against neo-conservatism, avoiding the fool's game of how many corpses would be on either tab but arguing that the Christian West has ideals that are not common elsewhere, that invading a sovereign state is wrong, that killing is wrong, that using state violence is wrong and that respect for one's country and respect for other countries are two sides of the same coin.

It does seem to me by contrast that the mainstream left failed for trying to play the utilitarian arguments against military intervention when it was all up in the air. However, going deeper I'd say that for all its hatred of religion, the mainstream left has a profoundly religious mindest which makes it an ally of fanaticism, both Islamic and Neo-Con: the axiomatic view that all manifestations of all religions are all uniquely bad and stupid. Subsequently the complex history of faith, reason and politics in the West are just simplified into a morality fable where 'we' (meaning people who've achieved very little) have defeated 'the religious' and managed to find art and science ex nihilo in the 19th century.

You might think that this is drifting a bit from the topic of decents, but in fact this is a core plank of decency: that the Nosferatu of faith will skulk way when the bright light of atheism appears: maybe this bright light will need to be white phosphorus, but a bright light nonetheless.

The problem is that if you sign up to this historicist view, then you are signing up to a view of history which is very similar to that of the decents and of the neo-cons and (for opposite reasons) the fundamentalist Christian right.

It is because I cannot share this view of history as a morality play that I tended to think of myself as a conservative who supports cradle to grave welfare, nationalised industries, nationalised land, full negative liberties for all minorities, generous immigration, freedom of speech, opposition to censorship, employee's rights, skepticism about the power of the state to control drugs, trade unions and tight regulation of banking.

Whilst I think it's quite a bit simpler just to call myself a Christian leftist, I do wonder indeed if being 'left wing' really does carry this curse of historicism. Of course the mainstream neo-liberal right not only is more historicist, it is also more influential whilst the paleo-con right has its own flaws and indeed seems to have gobbled up the majority of decents. Still, whilst the most prominent decents have either repented or jumped ship, I do think that the left needs to really rethink its views on the philosophy of history and whether all the nations on earth should be forced to 'progress' towards a culture created by white guys who speak English.

Saturday, 19 February 2011


Checked some of my favourite culture blogs this morning. Then, in the resigned mood of visiting a rubbish charity shop in the nothing-to-lose hope of finding a rare book, I checked te Graun. The creator of 'knob brick' is apparently like William Blake.


What this emphasises is the ambivalence about economic and media liberalism.

Liberalism is in some ways seen as synonymous with the free market, and the free market with a kind of economic Darwinism.

In which case why is fat, greasy tit Jonathan Jones employed to write such utter rubbish, whilst so many interesting culture blogs are amateur works?

You could say that Jones is superb at writing for a certain group: those who are incapable of appreciating genius or skill or beauty but who can discern ambivalence in utter crap painting. He just helps give them the confidence they need that the 'knob brick' Michaelangelo is really a genius not a talentless poser who milks gullible bourgeois idiots.

And the peripheral audience who loathe (rather than despise) Emin and will re-read this article, bumping up the hits.

Yet, I do wonder if this is really economical on the longterm? Personally, I wouldn't buy any newspaper. I think they're all crap and even if they occassionally have some excellent foreign correspondence, their habit of subsidising opinionated oafs like Jonathan Jones really deters me from pumping money into the system.

I'm not someone who likes to rail against 'modern art'. From a modern perspective the mass media allows us all to see the entire history of Millennia as a snapshot.

Yet the 20th Century saw a revolution in art. The 21st Century's painting does seem chained to the past, and to me tedious abstract art is anything but 'modern' but rather a plodding homage to a movement that was started at least 70 years ago. But then, I think that the camera (the film camera especially) has taken over from the canvas partially because it is a more democratic system and our increasingly sophisticated mass media can give us information on anything from Spaghetti Westerns to Soviet era surrealism, whilst art is dominated by ostentatiously smoking drinking leathery wannabe tweenagers.

And, by today's standards, it is their very desire to shock both in content and in form that is so bourgeois and conformist.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Trapped in the Past

I've had a busy weekend so no time for much posting. But I wanted to share this with readers. As I've said in my last post, living with an elderly person has really been an eye-opener to how lucky I think we are today. And it really made me reconsider this clip from 'The Trap' which I thought was vastly exagerated when I watched it a couple of years ago, dealing with RD Laing's radical views on bullying in domestic relationships.

For someone of my generation, 'bullying' is a fairly blunt term: generally it makes you think of a barely civilised neanderthal who shouts a lot and confuses noise with profundity or cleverness.

And certainly, I don't think that any society or culture has ever lacked such people. Our modern Britain certainly doesn't. However, I think that this highlights the weird paradox of modern Britain: we have a 'mainstream culture' that doesn't have the confidence in itself that everyone should really conform to it.

I guess if anyone wanted to know my place in British society it would probably best be the affable slacker films of Simon Pegg. Not that I'm a massive fan, but I do quite like the fact that someone reflects this offbeat and indefinable culture. Oddly enough, within this culture I think there is a golden age of good manners in Britain. This might seem odd given how informal we are, but those who have spent time with older middle class people will also know that barking 'what' at those they consider socially inferior is taken for granted.

A culture incidentally, which isn't for everyone, but which survives largely tolerated.

But it was not always so. The British mainstream society did not always take the view that its own views were incidental or optional. Which brings me back to bullying and the video I've linked to from Adam Curtis's excellent series 'The Trap'.

As I said before, people of my generation would tend to think of bullying as a personality disfunction. But in a genuinely bourgeois society, it is a fairly integral part of existence. Not so much aggressive bullying but emotional bullying.

This is most evident from opinions. When a bigmouth ventures their opinion (no bully worth their salt of any kind has ever doubted that they are a fount of knowledge) then they force the lucky recipient of their vast wisdom to either show cruelty of their own in rudely rejecting it, or else appearing submissive.

And then there are the so-called 'stupid questions'. Which aren't questions at all. But in recent months I've discovered that 'do you really like/want' actually means 'You shouldn't like/want'.

I am just so grateful this wasn't my world. Modern Britain has its problems but it seems to me that the left really has to accept that many features that we take for granted in our society are not default social settings but aspects that we'll have to proudly claim as our own: whilst condemning the truly hideous features of economic liberalism, the intellectual shortcomings of the banking economy and addressing the potential that modern Britain has to create lonely and depressed consumers. It's ironic how some people on both left and right will hint that we have Maggie and Norman Tebitt to thank for social liberalism: two cold and repressed Middle Class Brits who wouldn't even want the compliment.

And it is a compliment, though eclectic consumers might not think so: thinking instead that in those days you could have your pipe and slippers and when the wife was out playing bridge you could say you're going to watch Dam Busters, but then whip out Dawn of the Dead or a Lucio Fulci boxset and sit there puffing contentedly. No chance, back in the day. Not because the wife would give you a knock with the rolling pin but because your own inner bourgeois nosey parker would prevent you from watching anything without the Radio Times seal of approval.

And, whilst my left wing economic arguments are usually founded on how much we can learn from France and Germany, in this case, I don't think the left can necessarily look to the continent for ideals. Take it away Jean.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

How I learnt to stop worrying and love economic liberalism (in a very, very limited sense)

Posts will possibly be sparse for a while due to ongoing care concerns. However, I would say that living with someone born in 1920 should be pretty much compulsorary for anyone (like me) who was given to idealising the past.

Don't get me wrong. It resulted in some wonderful Ladybird books. Must have been sound being a bloke back in the day. No Calvin Klein models flexing their six-packs on every bus, no Sex and the City harridans giving the missus ideas. Just nice family life with your pipe and brown suit, a newspaper to read aloud to the wife as she does the housework and a pair of slippers to wear on warm nights or to quieten the sprogs if they interrupt the wireless. Pretty sweet, eh?

Well, no. I think if I were transported back to the fifties I'd scream like a schoolgirl and try to wangle my way into a 'Lunatic Asylum'.

Go to bed before 11PM? You go to bed TOO early. Wake up before 7PM? You wake up TOO early. Not good at staying awake when making smalltalk? You speak TOO little. Like chatting about philosophy/ ideas? You speak TOO much. Have a job involving reading and also like reading for pleasure? You read TOO much. Unless there's one and a half litres there, there's TOO little water in the kettle.

The only thing you can't have TOO much of is food. No, wait. You can have TOO many vegetables. But you can never have enough fried meat, only TOO little.

Maybe I am being harsh. I guess the thing is that my relative was the son of a town grocer. He's like one of those lower middle class clerks in 1970s costume dramas set in the Edwardian times. Utterly well-meaning and incessantly offensive always striving to instill mediocrity in others and trying to put them in their place if they seem to want to get above their station. If you accused him of being patronising he'd probably ask what that word meant and upon being told say 'Isn't that what white middle class men are supposed to do'? He seemed pretty horrified to see me learning a bit of Latin. The old Romans are good enough for coffee-table books, but their lingo isn't for the likes of us.

I got a bit of flack here a while back for not calling myself middle class when I've got a desk job. I certainly wouldn't be ashamed to call myself middle class if current employment is the sole criteria. In which case I may well be part of an underclass menace 2 society if Cleggeron's grand pan to boost GDP by slashing employment is anything to go by. But I guess my strongest feeling is that we have choice as never before which has largely destroyed the class system and this is not something to be sneezed at.

For example between them I can blether with two of my closest Brit friends about 80s action movies, 60s avant garde rock, Ancient Rome, 70s horror films, French New Wave cinema, Sammy Franco fitness, Columbo, HP Lovecraft, retro-Brit comedies, Bill Hicks, Noam Chomsky and numerous other niche interests. Their place (and mine) as relating to the means of production really isn't none too important.

I have another good friend (proudly Northern English and working class) who is a hexagenarian Orthodox Christian who shares my fondness for Dostoyevsky. I always like to pump her for gossip about Ennismore Gardens. So much for 'religion' v liberalism. I can't imagine my petit-bourgeois east coast forebears would like me keeping such company.

What really strikes me most is how mainstream Anglo-Saxon culture really was in a bit of a cul-de-sac in the mid 20th Century. Like a lot of teenagers I read 'A Clockwork Orange' as a teenager. Then had the slightly surreal experience of looking out other Anthony Burgess novels and discovering appalling, flatulent, middle-brow works with laughable delusions of profundity. Yet he regarded ACO as an embarrassment and thought his widely praised middle class middle brow snoreathons were where it was really at.

And he was one of the better writers. Who now could stay awake reading Iris Murdoch, John Braine or Kingsley Amis?

And the music. Please, let's not talk about white Anglo-Saxon music in the early 20th Century. What's that? The only guy who ever tried had his tongue cut out and thrown to a pool of piranhas? OK.

But then, there is the great irony that African-American culture (an oppressed people who had been largely neglected by their government) had a really huge impact on post-war Britain. Until I spent time with my elderly relative it never really occurred to me just how vastly alien this culture must have seemed to early-21st Century Brits, given that they'd probably guess someone was foreign if they didn't like warm beer or if they drunk coffee. I'm sure numerous German spies must have been rumbled after setting the toaster TOO high or TOO low.

One thing that struck me as weird, seeing a documentary about Enoch Powell, was how calm and quiet a lot of his fans were in contrast to the contorted English Defence Leaguers. I couldn't help feeling they weren't too bothered that Indians would import Sutti or Thuggees. It was more like they were worried they might have haddock rather than roast lamb for Sunday lunch. Or maybe drink tea that was TOO strong for Blighty.

I guess whilst they can't help but be paradoxically humbled by their mountainous reputations, Lennon and MacCartney must have decided that black musicians showed a way out of the world of corned beef and steak and kidney pie (though speaking of post war cuisine, there seems another paradox that the generation that hated vegetables seemed to love that most unlovable of vegetables: the brussel sprout).

And then there was also the cinema. Quite something to think of how few years separated Night of the Living Dead from The Guns of Navarone. Yet this was another aspect of popular culture which really threw some pretty exhilarating ideas to the population.

Even on the one issue where my views would be regarded as 'right wing' (despite the fact they are more prevalent in working class Catholic rather than Middle Class East Anglian culture due to lack of interest in Britain's own recent history, obsession with the USA and secular anti-intellectualism) which is my view that unborn children have right to life, pro-abortion legislation was largely voted in by the post-war generation and something of a formality anyway given that backstreet abortion clinics were widely tolerated.

In saying these things I don't take back what I've said previously that I think modern popular culture has lost the way: that films like 'Saw' and 'music' or 'TV' involving Simon Cowell are a betrayal of any ideas or ideals that popular culture often claims for itself. Our younger rock stars seem more white and middle class than UKIP. As for the older ones, whilst I acknowledge that the fox-hunting ban is hypocritical given the existence of factory farming, I do find something vaguely dubious about the Countryside Alliance lineups given that they were howling with rage against the haves not so long ago.

For all that I am grateful that pop culture kicked down so many doors. And, though it is difficult to admit this, I am sort-of grateful for SOME aspects of consumerism: even though I suspect that modern day fans of 70s slasher picks could have congregated quite well without Norman Tebbit, thank you very much.

The question as always is 'what must be done'? I think it is tragic that so much of the good things about the post-war-settlement are declining. But will my generation be able to do anything about it? I feel optimistic in a sense. Not wildly so, but I do have some optimism.

Irrational Atheists

Whilst I'm pleased that Philip Pullman is speaking up for the library service, I could have done without the glaring historical error in his first paragraph:

'others have hacked into theirs like the fanatical Bishop Theophilus in the year 391 laying waste to the Library of Alexandria and its hundreds of thousands of books of learning and scholarship'.

Ok, I suppose what I really meant was I dislike the bigotry, but find it interesting that a myth from Georgian England, itself one of the most intolerant societies on earth, has resurfaced in a spokesman for rationality and liberalism.

Similarly the myth of Hypatia (pictured above in a Victorian artist's conception of her 65 year old birthday suit) was nurtured in a conservative era of British history. I've heard they've recently made a film about her about which I know little but I think I can guess if she is stripped of her clothes she won't be acted by a 65 year old*. Hypocrisy easily leaps from generation to generation.

Similarly the self-righteous bigoted pseudo-history of devout philistines destroying the priceless pagan heritage of southern Europe was inherited from Georgians and Victorians (whose own societies owed much of their learning and knowledge of the classical world from Byzantine exiles in Italy) by our modern atheists who are both theoretically and practically wrong about the relationship between early Christianity and the Classical world. Johann Hari similarly writes about the Christian destruction of the Alexandrian Library and the works of Sappho without seeming to realise the irony that someone who blabs cliches about free thought and empirical research is just going along with un-researched Victorian cliches which are wrong in theory and practice.

Theoretically they are wrong because they write as if the 1st Millenium Christians had the works of Darwin, Einstein and Bohrs at hand but decided that they'd have to burn all this stuff, and all that Aristotle and Plato rubbish as well. Or as St Andrew's History of Mathematics puts it:

'What certainly seems indisputable is that she was murdered by Christians who felt threatened by her scholarship, learning, and depth of scientific knowledge'

This definitely maybe certainly seems a load of rubbish from an entirely secular viewpoint. Both theoretically it is wrong and practically it is wrong. Not only did the Ancient Byzantines copy the works of the Ancients, but they also incorporated their style and ideas by osmosis because this was science at the time. Is this more similar to Protagoras or Genesis? And I don't think Apostolic Christians have ever feared science in its purest sense of empirical research. Drawing any very coherent philosophy or ethos from science is an entirely different issue.

And even then, do they know when and where the earliest parchments of the Ancient Texts originate? If they think that 2,500 year old manuscripts of these texts have been dug up by archaeologists then give me the comparatively modest claims of the 'new chronologists' any time.
Of course there is a great irony that that great pagan defense of savage censorship, The Republic, was copied by Christians.

And relatedly they are very wrong if they think that pagan Greece and Rome were paragons of any kind of virtue. Aesthetically I'm fairly pagan in my tastes, but orange vases and Corinthian architecture doth not an ideal society make. Yet I don't think that many of the 'new atheists' can escape from the solipsist worlds they inhabit to even imagine a perfect world.

*Quick check: Rachel Weisz, born 1970. Quarter of a century too young.