Sunday, 30 November 2008

The folly of EU grants

It will probably all stop now that so much wealth has gone up in smoke, but up to now there has been wave after wave of EU funding for various projects in Greece. They all seem to be organised in the same way and backed up by the same line of thinking. One example: grants given to the thousands of little private schools in Greece to help them connect to the internet and gain a presence on the web. It works like this: There is a short list of things the grant scheme covers, schools pay for those things and then fill in an application form to have the cost covered by grant money minus the VAT (sales tax).

Does that sound sensible? Does that sound like the best way to raise educational facilities?

In practice, what happens is that everyone simply sees a great opportunity to cash in instead of being inspired to fundamentally overhaul the way teaching and learning is organised. The typical school, I imagine, finds a way to get a web site made, but has little idea how to use internet technology in the educational process. The scheme seems to assume that with the financial incentive schools will take an interest in new technology and somehow educate themselves. But no. The web site is made; the grant money is gratefully received; and the school goes back to teaching in the way that it has done for decades before the idea of the hypertext transfer protocol ever dawned on the likes of Tim Berners and his team. A lot of money for very little gain.

And in Brussels (or wherever these schemes are hatched) do they not see that they are setting things up for a huge scam? In a country like Greece (perhaps the same as elsewhere) every self-respecting businesswoman can find someone to sell them IT stuff and write a receipt for twice the money they actually paid. And the sums are large. A little school with only three or four classrooms can make thousands of euros in this scam. The computers will find their way into schools, but the EU will have paid a massively inflated price for them.

My only conclusion is that the people in Brussels (if that is where they are) overlook this massive and predictable financial loss because of an ideological commitment to a half-baked free market philosophy. The money must be given directly to individual business people as a spur to private enterprise (in practice: pocket-lining) rather than give it to some public sector group, which would smack too much of socialism.

But wouldn't it have been so much better for education (and supposedly advances in education were what was really at stake here) to do just that: use the money to set up public sector initiatives: free seminars and workshops organised locally for school owners to find out about all the useful things that can be done with new technology (including all the free things that can be done - another oversight of a scheme which assumes that progress can only be made by purchasing things). And as for the hardware, the state could have set up its own bulk-purchasing organisation and bought everything for a quarter of the price the EU finally paid for it, and then give it to the schools for free - to schools that have attended a few seminars and workshops and shown that they are most probably in a position to do something useful with the hardware.

Would that be socialism or just common sense?

The persistence of religion

Back at the University of Essex in the 1980s religion simply wasn't an issue for us. I suspect that there were a few (more?) quietly religious people attracted more to Heidegger, Derrida and writers talking about the Other with a capital "O", but they never made their faith, or faith as such, into an issue. It just never came up for discussion, as far as I can remember.

In truth, religion persists. Take a short walk from the academy in any direction and you will soon meet people for whom there is more than can be grasped by the modern mix of science, epistemology and the dubious ethics within the limits of modern rationality (Kant, Rawls, Habermas, et al).

The question is: is this a sign that the Enlightenment didn't drive its message home hard enough and really sweep away the last vestiges of medieval mysticism or is the persistence of religion a sign that the Enlightenment was lacking? I used to believe the former but slowly I have come to feel that the latter is where the truth lies.

One issue is death. For the Enlightenment death is passed over in silence or left as a fact among other facts (perhaps being lumped in with an understanding of how organic matter is composted). Is it necessary to argue that this is a failing, that it is just plain unacceptable when seen from the standpoint of someone whose loved one has died?

The shortcoming is evident in Marxism. Does Marx anywhere concern himself with the death of the worker? How will the worker die? What will his/her death mean? How important is it that the culture (any culture worth affirming) embrace death and give it significance instead of ignoring it or treating it as just another moment in a cycle that is adequately described by organic chemistry?

Saturday, 29 November 2008

A hunt saboteur beyond good and evil?

Actually he had no intention and no interest in becoming a hunt saboteur in the beginning. He was angry but he tried to speak to the red necks in fatigues in a polite way - as polite as possible given how worked up he was and how out of breath after rushing up the footpath - asking them to move further away from the house because the sound of the shots was so irritating (disturbing, actually, for someone who retreated to the countryside for the quiet only to find a few months later when the hunting season started that almost every evening and weekend in the winter grown men with guns and with their sights set on the quivering breasts of birds that are barely more than two mouthfuls big make you feel that you have been transported back to Sarajevo during the siege). He thought there might be an appeal to the idea of respect for others. No need to bring animal rights into it, so he emphasised the nuisance, the annoyance they were causing to others, and how it would be so easy to remedy the situation by just walking further away from the house. He could point to a huge sweep of land stretching all the way to the hills in the far distance, without houses or roads - seemingly just as suitable for blasting lead pellets into the soft flesh of our winged kin. No, they would not budge an inch. No, they were not causing a nuisance to anyone, they said. They and their fathers and their fathers' fathers had been hunting at that very spot year in, year out for literally ages. Bang! They carry on hunting, and the sound is deafening. (And those pellets are made of lead by the way. The European Union has gone to such lengths to ban lead in petrol, but it remains permissible to spray the countryside with lead pellets - especially worrying when it is on our side of the watershed.)

A man with a dog that shows no interest in barking faced with a red neck with a gun who refuses to stop shooting feels an acute mix of frustration, impotence and rage. As he walks back down the hillside with the gunfire behind him and the pellets audibly falling around him, he feels something has to be done. Action must be taken. A protest must be made. It is an imperative from the guts (one is tempted to say from the blood, but maybe not).

For the record, he phoned the police, who - it turned out - saw nothing wrong with shooting so close to the place where peace-loving people live. Just out of interest, he asked if the policeman was a hunter. Yes, he was.

Since then he has become a hunt saboteur. Reluctantly and with a bad conscience, but he has done it.

The problem now is the pricks of his conscience. If he had to justify it, could he? He wanted to feel he was on some kind of moral high ground - that there was some kind of moral/ethical justification for these little, hamfisted acts of sabotage. But it soon seemed as if there was no moral justification. Sabotage goes beyond morality, does it not? The moral life presupposes what Kant called in the Critique of Judgment (admittedly not about morality) the sensus communis (a shared background of values). Without that, the person for whom morality is an issue and who objects to hearing the few remaining birds being shot has two choices: passive resignation or amoral action.

While trying to get things clear the image of Habermas floated into view. There must be dialogue, together with a respect for everything that a good dialogue presupposes, like letting the best argument rule the day. Hmmm. But what if the red necks refuse to enter into any kind of meaningful dialogue? Suddenly it seems that Habermas takes dialogue for granted. If the other refuses to discuss the matter, dialogue breaks down and further talk is pointless. The red neck is convinced he is in the right (it is a tradition here, after all, for grown men to put on camouflage clothing and shoot animals for fun in their free time). He and all his fellow red necks, however, see absolutely no need for the distressed resident to be convinced of the rightness of what they are doing. It is all well and good to argue that communication is a privileged locus of morality because there are principles implied there that map so nicely onto the Kantian paradigm, but if the bastards refuse to communicate, what do you do? You inevitably have to break some rules, destroy a few things, make the lives of some others difficult. This is to throw Kant out of the window (even if the hope is that after you rush downstairs you may later be able to go outside and pick him up again).

He wonders: Does anger not have its right? If you keep pushing me and angering me, eventually I will respond in an unpleasant way. Is this not life (our sort of life)? Is it not a denial of this life to turn the other cheek? (And in this case what would it be to turn the other cheek? "You shot that bird. Hey, shoot another bird."?) It is not as if this could ever melt the hard heart of the hunter, so nothing would be gained. (Not that this saboteur on his own really believes that there is something to be gained.)

So is the hunt saboteur not, in a sense, beyond good and evil? He acts in the name of morality but is acutely aware that what he is doing is unjustifiable in the present circumstances. (And how horribly those paternal echoes of "Two wrongs do not make a right" ring in his ear.)

And then a Kantian thought: If he were not alone in this reaction, would the sabotage not help to clear the ground for a new evaluation of things - a new sensus communis that would marginalise the hunter and make him lose his narrow-minded cockiness?

Is this, though, an abandonment of morality for the sake of morality or an abandonment of it simply because one just has to get something off one's chest?

Friday, 28 November 2008

Driving with Hegel on my mind

A couple in a car. Lost. He from a gloomy part of northern Europe. She from sunnier parts much further south. Married long enough for the hours of silence to have ceased being an issue. He - driving, because he is expected to drive but also because he wants to drive, because it is less boring and it takes his mind off the fact that there is so little to be said now - reaches for the map, again. She notices, sleepily at first, then says they are lost - that he doesn't know where he is going. Immediately she sits up and urges that they ask someone. Pull over and ask that man over there, she says. Every fibre of his being resists the idea. He tries to ignore her insistence and looks at the map. If he can only work out where he is, he will be able to find the route they need to take. A little time, a little searching is all it will take. Patience. Calmness. We/he/I can find the way. She loses her temper.


Back at home. It is cold but not very cold. She curls up on the sofa under a duvet and complains of how cold it is - of how it is so very cold and how she cannot stand it. Won't you light the stove, she asks. He cannot remember a time when she lit the stove.


He is a skeptic. She has found the path that will hopefully lead to spiritual fullfilment. There are spiritual leaders who show the way - leaders who can even predict the future, it seems. The Turk will lose Constantinople. The writing is on the wall. It is only a matter of time.


Thinking back to "The Phenomenology of Spirit" and watching his wife, he feels that something in the dynamic of this relationship is absent from that intriguing (if ultimately incomprehensible) book - something that ought really to be there. That oh-so famous master-slave dialectic now seems more dubious than ever. Was it really supposed to sum up THE wellspring of history? But it seems to assume that humanity strives for freedom, autonomy, dominance - all of humanity. The slave was one who wanted to be the master but who gave up first in the struggle. The man who reaches for the map and who lights the stove and who is so skeptical sees a woman who chose heteronomy before the struggle even started. Surely there are many, many more who are only too happy to be led - who want to be led - who do not want to drive - who do not put a priority on their independence? Does this not reveal a little psychological blindspot on Hegel's part, or is it I who have missed something?

Is it fair, though, to call this heteronomy? It implies a lack that could just be a figment of the imagination of the one who refuses to wind down the window and ask for help. With a great intellectual effort he can just about glimpse the suggestion that she wants to ask because it is enjoyable to do so. She has a reason to speak to a new person - a new person who might add a new shade, a new touch, a new story to her already rich social world - her personal world. He is not completely immune to that, but it has long since ceased to be an instinct (if it ever was). There is something in him that denies it - that refuses it. People are met, of course, despite this. And after the fact he appreciates it. But the feeling is weak and never manages to connect with the springs of action in the future. He will always prefer to reach for the map instead of wind the window down and ask the stranger.

At the end of the day, which of the two is to be found lacking?

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

A Paradigmatic Pessimist

Psychologists - I have been told - occasionally put a glass half full of water on the desk and ask the patient to describe what they see. The pessimists are said to be those who see not the visible plenitude but the lack, calling the glass half empty.

I confess: Show me a glass that is full to the brim and overflowing and I will say: "Hah! The glass is full now, but it won't be long before it is half empty."

Protectionism: the power of a suffix

As political leaders feel the sand slip between their fingers and start to panic, pronouncements are made about what must not be done. An oft-heard soundbite is that there must be no return to protectionism.

What amazes is how this very word has acquired a power to close off debate. There really is no need for debate once it has been uttered. If something can be called protectionism, it must simply be bad - very bad. Isn't that just obvious?

Hang on, though. Isn't this a bit odd? Protectionism is about protecting things and isn't this - prima facie - good? Since the verb "protect" is not short of positive connotations, how have they managed to make such a closely related noun into a word that sounds so bad?

An odd sort of language game (would Wittgenstein recognise it as such?) is being played which puts the onus where it ought not to be. Because it is so easy to label a policy protectionist without any argument to justify such a slur, the onus immediately falls on the person who would protect - they have to justify curtailing economic liberties (known simply as "freedom" - another dubious identification that has also been pulled off by another linguistic sleight of hand (strange how spin gets so firmly sedimented in language)). The game is set up in such a way that there is no assumption about anything being worthy of protection. "Protect what?" The forces of this dubious "freedom" are on the offensive - they set the terms of the debate - and who are you to stand in their way? "A detour? Why? Justify yourself? Try and justify diverting the course of world history?" The attempt to justify it has come to sound almost blasphemous.

This was a topic that came up very briefly yesterday in a paintshop. Somehow my joking complaint about the price of five litres of undercoat (25 euros) touched off a short exchange about globalisation and the free market. The shopkeeper indicated gruffly that he was having none of it. The spin had not got to him. But he was a man of very few words - very firm opinions but with little to say about them. Perhaps those most affected are those who play the language game - those who inevitably have to accept the terms of the debate that have already been established by the mysterious forces of linguistic imperialism (hegemony someone said - was it Laclau?).

At the risk of mixing up too many metaphors, the shoe should really be on the other foot. If people are in work in a country and feel some sense of security and some sense that life is not the bitch that elsewhere it is said to be, then whoever wants to throw the borders open and make a mess of the situation ought to be grilled long and hard and forced to come up with a bloody good explanation for why this is necessary. Why does this not occur? It is simply announced that these are the Forces of Freedom and it is taken for granted that the gates must be opened.

Despite the recent harranging of that blackguard protectionism, it is to be hoped that the present catastrophe will provide an opportunity for the terms of the debate to shift somewhat. The promise of unending economic growth, which was always twinkl ing in the eye of the economic libertarian, has proved to be a deceit. Greed has lost its theoretical underpinning and is now seen for what it really is. Is the ideology not going to collapse? Is the table on which the language game is played not going to be turned?

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Returning from the monastery

Wouldn't it be better to dwell for ten or fifteen minutes upon eternity instead of switching on the telly to see the news?

The believer will argue at great length about the Truth of what he believes in, but it is almost certainly the case that this argument has no connection whatsoever with the reasons why he is such a passionate believer.

How can people pursue their own salvation so calmly while the rest of the world is damned? ("You are in our prayers," though.)

What angers the Orthodox Greek is not so much atheism as Catholicism. The stranger walks by unmolested while an unholy row goes on within the family.

How odd it is that some people can still talk in all earnestness about sin when, for so many others, the word is little more than the echo of a myth.

Although it sounds somewhat trivial on his lips, John Lennon's "Imagine" is not entirely unconnected to the message of Christ. Was the "Good News" not supposed to spread the message of peace and harmony? If so, what are we to make of the total lack of progress in that direction over the last 2,000 years? Is that not time enough to judge whether the Christian ideal of selfless sociality can lead anywhere?

Is it not said somewhere that the meek shall inherit the earth? If earthly inheritance matters, is it wise to put everything off until the apocalyptic day of divine intervention, which might mean having to wait another 2,000 years or perhaps a lot, lot longer?

It is interesting to listen to believers telling each other about the various miracles. They listen so eagerly. This is what they want to hear. They must believe that miracles have occurred. Above all, they want to hear, not about icons that weep, but about the miracles performed by those with an unshakeable faith. The subtext is: Faith is salvation.

The message today was: humility is far more important than doing good deeds. The introversion of the Orthodox Church is remarkable. Society really is left to rot.

What would be more difficult for a Protestant: entertaining the idea that the Orthodox dogma concerning the Holy Spirit might be right or kissing an Orthodox icon? Isn't the dogma more of a balcony than a corner stone of the religious edifice?

The skeptical world-weary Protestant can sense an echo of a lost significance in an Orthodox Church with its dark interior and the oil lamps flickering before the glimmering icons and the chanting in a language that goes back to the time of Saint Paul. There is a real pull. Even the atheist is moved. But how all that evaporates as soon as the theological discussion begins over coffee and biscuits in the Arhondariki. How repulsive the beating of that dogmatic drum is.