Tuesday, 13 December 2011

The Biggest Question

The story is not recent, but it still helps to illustrate the biggest question.

It was a sunny Wednesday morning in San Francisco, at the height of the summer of 1985. Kenneth Baldwin, 28, dressed in his work clothes, got in his blue pickup truck and began the 3-hour drive to the Golden Gate Bridge. He parked the car and strolled along the pedestrian walkway above the river. He stopped at the centre of the bridge. Waiting until he was completely alone and there were no boats on the river below he counted to 10. He lost his nerve. On the second count he lost his nerve again. Finally, the third time, he lept over the handrail.

The bridge is 225 feet above the river. Since it opened, almost 1,300 people have jumped from it. Only 26 survived. Kenneth Baldwin was one of them.

Looking back at the event, Kenneth says that the jump changed everything. Before the jump he says he was utterly self-absorbed – consumed by depression – feeling trapped in a life that seemed worthless. When he regained consciousness on the deck of the boat that rescued him, he says he felt an intense gratitude for life, which has never left him since. “I'm almost a completely different person now. I know now that I'm lucky to be alive. I may have had a crummy day at school [Ken is now a high school teacher], but I have my life.”

Another survivor describes a similar change of outlook: “It's beyond most people's comprehension. Now I appreciate the miracle of life - like watching a bird fly - everything is more meaningful. For the first time I experienced a feeling of unity with all things and with all people.”

These people are both unusual and very ordinary. It is not normal to be depressed and suicidal, but it is normal, in our culture, to live inside a narrow little box where the windows are papered over and on one of the walls is a huge screen showing brighter-than-life images of air-brushed models, and we watch them over and over again and lacerate ourselves. I remember reading an interview with a woman in her 40s on a diet. She was in tears realising that for decades she had put her life on hold, waiting until she was thin before expecting to enjoy being alive – a period of waiting in which her youth had come and gone – a period in which the miracle of life, if it had ever flickered, had been immediately snuffed out.

The really big question is how the myriad petty anxieties can fall away and people can really appreciate the miracle of life beyond the papered-over windows without having to jump from a great height.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Occupying the mind

No criticism of the Occupy Movement intended. Just highlighting the point that there will be no real change until we can occupy something a bit closer to home.

I was pouring milk on my Sugar Puffs at breakfast and had visions of the Honey Monster from those childhood cereal ads. Oh no! So I bang my forehead repeatedly against the kitchen cupboard. It works.

The Monster is gone. So I walk over to the table. To my horror the Scooby Do song starts playing in my head. Shit!

It's not so much that such a large part of my childhood was wasted in front of the telly, it's that I feel my mind has been stolen, or rather invaded, and the enemy has dug in and built elaborate military bases in every cerebral corner, and I can't see any prospect of kicking them out.

I recall the mountaineer Joe Simpson who fell and broke his leg in the Andes and had to drag himself down the mountain for days and only just survived. He described teetering on the brink of a freezing cold death, sliding in and out of consciousness, while hearing Boney M singing "Brown Girl In The Ring" over and over - and he had never even remotely liked Boney M.

That would have been no way to die.

This is no way to live.

Occupying the high street is easy. Occupying my mind is a bit tougher.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

When is an egg not an egg?

Answer: When it is a political act.

On the 25 of September 2011 Marina Demetriades took aim at the head of her local member of Parliament (Mr. Othona) with an egg. She did not miss.

This occured in Rethimno, on the island of Crete, during a severe economic downturn. Many people were angry about the failure of the government to keep its promises to protect public services, and angry about the drastic cuts in wages, pensions and rights. On the monring in question Mr. Othona was speaking to a crowd. He had chosen to speak about the importance of the bicycle.

On the 10th of October Marina appeared in court and was sentenced to five months in prison - a sentence that was suspended for three years. The charge in Greek was εξύβριση, which translates as insult or abuse. During the 8-hour trial Mr. Othona did not appear, and the court raised no objection to his failure to appear.

After the incident Marina set up a website to post her defence - a defence that she was not allowed to read out in court. It is a long defence with a long and detailed list of Mr Othona's broken promises, quoting the fine things he had said as an opposition politician, and contrasting them with the recent policies that he was supporting and (as a member of the government) was partly responsible for.

Her blog has attracted a very long list of comments. Reading them, we see that another ugly battle is raging - a hermeneutic battle - a battle to decide how Marina's act is to be read.

What did she do? To her sympathizers she was expressing the collective rage of citizens who were being treated badly by the government and who were being denied a voice in any meaningful democratic process:

"I believe your act expresses a huge part of this downtrodden populus"

"Με την πράξη σου εξέφρασες μεγάλο κομμάτι του ταλαιπωρημένου λαού μας πιστεύω..."

To her opponents her act was childish:

"Citizens acting like impetuous 10-year-olds and 'revolutionary' dreamers..."

"Πολίτες με θυμικό δεκάχρονου και "επαναστατικές" ονειρώξεις. Σας απολαύσαμε από το καλοκαίρι στις πλατείες. Μεγάλο κίνημα, σπουδαία παραγωγή ιδεών. Lifestyle και άγιος ο θεός. Και μετά απορούμε γιά τα χάλια μας."

Or the act represented a rejection of democratic principles and was tantamount to Fascism:

"I disagree with your act and find it clearly Fascistic ... every form of totalitarianism has begun with a denigration of the institutions of democracy and of the people representing it."

"Δεν συμφωνώ με την ενέργεια σου, την οποία βρίσκω καθαρά φασιστική. Σαν ιστορικός θα έπρεπε ίσως να σκεφτείς πως όλοι οι ολοκληρωτισμοί ξεκίνησαν με την απαξίωση των δημοκρατικών θεσμών και των προσώπων αυτών που μέσα από δημοκρατικές διαδικασίες τους αντιπροσωπεύουν."

On the whole, both the sympathisers and the critics see the act as political. By contrast, to the court (if I have understood correctly) the act had no political significance whatsoever. It was simply an act which insulted/abused/attacked another individual (and it was presumably supposed to be irrelevant that the individual in question was a member of the government).

Marina, herself, seems to be troubled by these different readings and is not sure how to interpret her act. Near the end of her home page, after the long defence of her act, she says:

"There is no way I would recommend egg-throwing as a form of social/political opposition. And, to be honest, I don't know how to react when people stop me and congratulate me in Rethimno especially since I have done other things that I consider much more praiseworthy than egg-throwing, although those acts have gone unnoticed."

"Σε καμιά περίπτωση δεν προτείνω την αυγοβολή ως πολιτική στάση και μορφή κοινωνικού αγώνα! Και πραγματικά δεν ξέρω πώς πρέπει να αντιδρώ όταν με σταματάει κόσμος στο Ρέθυμνο και μου δίνει συγχαρητήρια, τη στιγμή που θεωρώ πως έχω κάνει πιο αξιόλογα πράγματα από το να πετάξω ένα αυγό και δεν έτυχαν ανάλογης υποδοχής!"

This hesitancy after such a bold act is surprising, especially in the light of the fact that Marina is a historian. History is a bloody story, and the history of modern Western democracies is no exception. How many were established by a polite and peaceful transfer of power?

Is Fukuyama correct, and does the current status quo represent some great historical end point, beyond which nothing better can be hoped for or fought for?

If this is not the end of history, then there may be one or two revolutions to come before the Earth heats up too much and becomes uninhabitable. It would be nice if those revolutions could be polite and respectful and bloodless, and even eggless and yoghurtless. It would be nice if the oligarchs could be politely persuaded to step down and allow a new form of democracy to flourish. Perhaps they will. It would be nice, for instance, if the bankers could be persuaded to let the whole business of printing and distributing money come under democratic political control. Perhaps they will. It would be nice if the mulitnational corporations and the "markets" would listen attentively to the arguments of the new democrats. Perhaps they will. But the lesson from history is that they probably won't.

Democracy (if it is not to be a smokescreen for oligarchy) needs a public arena in which the most articulate voices from the grass roots can be heard, and in which voices can be given to the forces for change in society. As it stands, that public arena has largely been closed off. Walls have been built with heavy doors guarded by armed men. An interesting comment Marina made in passing was that on the day of the demonstrations she was disappointed to see how reluctant the TV channels were to let any of the demonstrators speak. The floor was given to journalists, politicians and other talking heads who speculated about what the demonstrators might be wanting and what the protests might mean.

When voices are excluded from the democratic process by high walls and doors guarded by armed men, true democrats will feel the historical need to have those doors opened. Of course, we must first ask politely for the people inside to open them and politely persuade the guards to let us in. If they refuse though...

Thursday, 24 November 2011

It's like a jungle out there...

The police use pepper spray against peaceful protesters at the University of California.

A history professor at the university made this comment:
"The police officer with the pepper spray, identified as Lt. John Pike of the UC Davis Campus Police, looks utterly nonchalant, for all the world as if he were hosing aphids off a rose bush."
In response to the incident Ira Socol asks the question: "What have we been teaching, in our schools, in our homes, in our churches, in our everyday lives, that has allowed so many completely amoral people to not just be among us, but to rise to positions of responsibility?"

Ira's post is spot on and I have no criticism to make of it, but I can see a risk in the discourse that springs up in reaction to events like this. The problem is when we see only the people involved. In the photo of the pepper spray incident we see the policeman - a campus policeman who obviously spent every working day around the students, and who may have known some of the protesters by name - and we wonder how he could be so insensitive, so inhumane, and we start to think about what was lacking at the schools he went to and in the family he grew up in.

The trees are obvious, but can you see the wood? In this case the wood is the institutions that we live in and that live through us. The police force is one institution. School is another. Arguably, language is a third.

An institution is more than the sum of its parts. When a man puts on a uniform, and a dignitary pins a medal to his chest and puts a pepper spray in his hand, he becomes a different kind of being - a being animated by the institution. At the same time, the institution comes alive in him. Something new, and potentially very ugly, is born.

It makes me think of the Baka tribespeople in central Africa, where from time to time the men disappear into the jungle and then reappear some time later dressed in masks, singing and dancing. To their wives and daughters and sisters and mothers they are no longer familiar relatives. They are the living presence of the spirit of the jungle. The voice of the jungle can be heard in their song.

The policeman is the living presence of the spirit of our jungle. He does not sing, but we can hear the drumming of his truncheon on his perspex shield.

Surely if people are brought up by their families and schools to be nice they would never spray pepper in the faces of protesters? We would like to think so, but Philip Zimbardo's famous Stanford Prison Experiment showed how easy it was to transform otherwise nice students into brutal agents of a totalitarian regime. The experiment had to be abandoned early. Why? Because the students playing the role of prison guards were getting carried away. Carried away by what? By the dark spirit of that particular institutional jungle.

What is clear from Zimbardo's experiment and others is that the darkest institutions take on the ugliest forms of life when they allow their minions to act with impunity. The basic rule is that the people doing the dirty work are not to be held accountable. If I am given a uniform and a pepper spray and told to spray it in the faces of the students, it is also made obvious that I will never be held accountable for my actions (as long as I do what I am told to do). Dark and ugly insitutions - like mobs - thrive on personal irresponsibility.

If we don't change our institutions, the atrocities will continue regardless of how nice people are before they are whisked off to the jungle.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Lady Gaga and the ape

During my TV dinner I just caught a glimpse of Lady Gaga presenting a book of photos (photos of herself - what else?). She mentioned something she had learned. Shame is obselete, she said.

Nietzsche wrote two sentences about the ape in "Thus Spake Zarathustra":
"What is the ape to man? A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment."
Along with Darwin and Lady Gaga we accept with perfect equanimity the idea that the ape is there at the top of our family tree.

The inability any longer to be ashamed of the ape that still dwells within us is nothing to brag about.
"Alas, the time of the most despicable man has come - the one who is no longer able to despise himself. Behold, I show you the last man."

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

The Happy Shopper

It seems that some people in rooms adjoining the corridors of power are arguing about the ends of social policy. Two voices can be distinguished. The loudest is arguing that the hard and unambiguous facts of economic growth are the only ones that politicians should pay attention to (although doubtless the policies will need sweetening slightly to stop the riots getting out of hand). The other voice - weaker and unsure of itself - is arguing that happiness should also be the object of good government. Economic growth is a means to an end - it says - and the end is human happiness. And in order to make its point more persuasive it insists that happiness is something that can be measured as accurately as the GDP.

Clearly some of those in the second camp have managed to win the ear of the politicians, and so in the UK a body called the National Statistician has been given the job of framing four questions which will be put to 200,000 Britons once a year to find out how satisfied they are with their lives. Christian Kroll - one of the timid young men involved in the project - insists that the "resulting figures will provide both decision-makers as well as the general public with key information about how we can tackle the most pressing social issues of our time."

The disturbing thing here is that people like Christian Kroll seem to think that this breaks new ground. It doesn't. It simply re-presents the old and dubious polarity of the individual subject with her oh-so subjective feelings and goals and ideas on the one hand, and the hard objective data of economic life on the other.

To remain within that old polarity is to miss so much that is important. Above all, you miss culture. What is in decline in Europe (and this is the real crisis) is not the index of individual happiness. It is the integrity – the vitality – of a culture that could draw people out of their monadic consumerist bubbles and put the economy in its place again. But that would not be good for business, so let’s just stick to tweaking the happiness index.

I'm off to the shops. Maybe that'll make me feel less depressed.

Monday, 14 November 2011

A history lesson in the chicken pen

Too many chickens turned out to be cockerels. There were three of them. Two too many. They had to go. But I put off making a decision until one morning I saw that all three cockerels had somehow forced their way out of the pen and were gathered nearby fighting. The head and neck of the smallest one were covered in blood. Now I knew who would survive.

The nicest survived. The two merciless fighters perished.

I felt then that on our little bit of the hillside social Darwinism had been decisively trashed. The idea that the strong are necessarily in the right is a lie. Strength is not in itself good. It is the opportunity to do good - an opportunity that might be taken or might be missed.

How I prefer to kill

My first thought was to raise the chickens tenderly. I stroked them every day and had a clear idea from the beginning how that stroking would help matters at the end.

When the time came, I was able to gently carry the first chicken to the block. It lay in my arms in complete trust, and it didn't object when I stretched its neck ever so slightly over the wood. Then with the reassuring hand still on its back I brought the sharpened axe down swiftly. With a single blow the head and the bloody stump of the neck fell to earth and I watched the lid of the upturned eye close peacefully.

However, I have since discovered a better way to kill.

The cockerels didn't let me stroke them. They were fighters. Whenever they saw me coming their neck feathers would rise, and they would stand as tall as possible, open their wings and prepare to rush at me angrily. It got to the stage where I could no longer enter the chicken house. I would open the door just enough every day to throw in the grain.

When the time came round again, I was ready with a heavy iron bar in hand and the axe at the ready. I opened the door, jumped back and waited tensely for the attack.

It is not easy to kill a chicken in mid flight with an iron bar. It is a noisy and messy business. The first blow just makes the bird angrier and more determined to attack, and it comes back again lunging at my chest. The squalking becomes more furious, but two or three blows later the bird is on its side on the ground where the axe can finish the job off.

I now maintain that it is better for the chicken to go down fighting.

A meat licence

A suggestion to reduce the level of hypocrisy in society: meat should only be sold to people who hold a licence to buy it. To get that licence they would have to pass a test.

They would have to kill their food themselves - with their hands.

There would need to be lessons. They should definitely not be conducted in school. Young people would meet individually with tutors outdoors in the evening. Tutors who are more like priests than school teachers or butchers. The neophyte would learn how to become an agent of death, and learn how to approach the axe and the block and the animal with all due gravity and respect. And after the killing there would have to be a ceremony to honour the dead.

If we insist on eating meat, let us face up to the killing it involves, make it part of our culture and learn to do it with respect.

The truth about eggs

The statement that meat is murder is a truth that has worn thin with repetition.

A truth less thin is that eggs are also murder.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Lessons from the Baka Pygmies

The Baka are a tribe of Pygmies living in central Africa. These nomadic hunter-gatherers live in the central African forests and have one of the oldest surviving cultures in Africa, certainly older than that of their taller black neighbours living on the open plains. They are endgangered - more in danger than the whale (which makes me wonder why I have never yet seen anyone walking around with a badge declaring "Save the Pygmies"). But we should call them the Baka, not Pygmies. The name "Pygmy" was coined by foreigners, who have generally behaved despicably towards these people, which is why the Baka prefer to be known by their own name.

From time to time white people think there is a question that needs to be answered - the question of what it is that makes us different from (other) animals. The most common answer the white people come up with is that we are beings with Reason. In contrast to the animals lost in a world of thoughtless instinct, we can think rationally. How would the Baka answer that question? I imagine they would find it a very strange question because it assumes that we are set apart from the natural world, whereas they believe themselves to be a part of it. However, if pushed (because the white people are very good at pushing) the Baka could well answer: "What makes us different is our singing." Singing is a huge part of their culture, and they sing brilliantly. If they have to do someting as a group - say, going fishing - one of them will start singing, and slowly the others will join in.

Listen to the women singing HERE.

I have just been to the tax office - and the taxation system is one of the achievements of the rational mind. It was not a pleasant experience. It made me think of the Blake poem describing the marks of woe on the faces of the passers-by and the "mind-forg'd manacles" that Blake saw . The employees were at their desks - one each. The walls were white and blank, save for a large poster of a wild green landscape. No one was singing.

Of course our white culture still gives a place to singing. Two places, actually. There is singing as spectacle, which is also singing as commodity - as an industry. But to find communal singing among fully-fledged adult citizens, we have to go to the football ground. Do those songs bear any comparison, though, with those of the Baka?

Baka culture has very nearly been destroyed. While they were left to themselves the Baka and the other Pygmy tribes managed to sustain a way of life that dates back to way before the time of the Pharoahs. The whites and the Baka's black neighbours, the Bantu, have driven the Baka out of what remains of the forest, and forced them to live in villages. Paul Raffaele has written an excellent first-hand report of how the culture of the Baka and other Pygmy tribes has collapsed, suffering exploitation, harassment, neglect, disease and drug abuse.

We - as a culture, as a civilisation - can no longer sing, but surely we should be able to see the inestimable value of neighbours who still know how to live through song - neighbours who help to keep alive what we have lost. The Bantu, who consider themselves civilised, despise the Baka and consider the Pygmies the sort of thing that they can own. Are we any better? Are we doing anything to help the tribe survive in a world which is more threatening than anything that previously lurked in the darkest corners of their forest?

To see what we might be doing let's pop over to the UNESCO website where there is lots of material about protecting our World Heritage. Let's put "pygmy" in the search box. We find a page about a West African forest which is now a national park, where the pygmy hippopotamus can now live unthreatened, together with "11 species of monkey which are of great scientific interest". The park dates back to 1926, when it was declared a Forest and Wildlife Refuge by the French. It became one of UNESCO's World Heritage sites in 1982.

The pygmy hippo is safe. What of the Pygmy people, though? The UNESCO website has only three lines about them. Apparently a 3-day conference was organised in Gabon in 2002 to discuss how to "include the pygmies in the development process". The fact that "pygmy" is written with a lowercase "p" is revealing. There is no news of what conclusions the conference came to or what is being done to help the Baka and the other Pygmy tribes. UNESCO have, though, compiled a CD of Pygmy music, just so that it is not lost forever.

The forests, which are full of things of "great scientific interest", are to be protected by being made into national parks. What this usually means, though, is that the indigenous people are expelled, as the Baka have been in Cameroon. Presumably these indigenous people and their amazing culture are not part of our World Heritage.

Within the space of 6 years Paul Raffaele witnessed a massive erosion of Baka culture. Am I mistaken in thinking that it would be so easy to help them survive so that they could hold their own and learn how to resist the threats both from the white and the black worlds?

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Happy times at school

The sun is shining. The cat is stretched out asleep on the warm stones of the balcony. I am wondering if I haven't been a little too negative in the things I have written about school. I get up, walk through the sunshine and say to the cat: "No, I am not against school. There were some happy times." And the memory of one of them floods back.

When I was six and seven I was at a little school in Manchester: the St John's Church of England Infants School. It was quite a long time ago, in the days when children were given free milk in glass bottles with paper straws in the morning break and the toilets were outside in the playground. At the end of the school day all the other kids would noisily jostle out and head off home. I would walk down the corridor to another classroom where my mother was the teacher. There I would wait for a quarter of an hour or so while she tidied up after the day that had just ended or prepared for the day that was to follow. I would sit on one of the pupil's chairs or wander around the room and walk over to the large windows and stand and look out at the empty playground. Stillness and quiet lay everywhere like some huge warm blanket that one could hide under to escape the cold. Those were happy times.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Watching the hit and run

At the weekend in a narrow street in China a two-year-old girl was run over by a van. She lay bleeding and motionless in plain view in the road. The van driver drove away without pausing. A second van going in the opposite direction drove over the girl's already broken body. He, too, continued on his way. One after another 18 people walked by her. They carried on their way. The 19th person was a garbage collector. She moved the girl out of the way of the traffic and called the ambulance. The girl was still alive. She was rushed to hospital and operated on. The doctors could not save her.

This is not a Chinese phenomenon. Not so long ago in Boston a 78 year old man tried to cross a busy main road. His first name was Angel. He was hit head on by a car sending his body high in the air to land on the road where he lay bleeding. The driver did not stop. The scene was recorded by a nearby traffic surveillance camera on the highway. The old man's body was in the way of traffic. Nine cars slowed down and drove around him. They did not stop. A man on a scooter circled around the man before driving off. Some passers-by stepped off the pavement to get a better look. No one went to his aid or tried to stop the traffic. Quite by chance, a police car drove by, stopped and called the ambulance.

I recently read a long article by an academic arguing how peaceful the world is now compared to the distant past. The article presented statistics and graphs showing the decline in bloodshed. To be honest, I could not read the article. There was an obvious tone of self-congratulation, not for the author personally but for us as.. as... as what? As a civilisation? As people who are now so much more civilised than our forefathers back in the middle ages when a public execution was certain to gather a large crowd? How much more civilised are we if we can see people suffering and just stand and stare and do nothing?

I recall footage of a scene in the states after a passenger plane had just crashed into a river only metres from a highway bridge. The bridge was low. It was lined with a large crowd who had gathered. A helicopter was hovering overhead, dangling a line for a woman who was in the water. It was winter. The water was freezing. The woman tried to hold onto the line. She couldn't. It seemed clear that her arms were too injured and she was too overcome by the crash and the cold to hold on. She was going to drown. What was shocking was that it took an absolute age for one man on the bridge to run down to the river and dive in to save her. Only one man made the effort. Everyone else stood and watched.

And tonight we will turn on the news (if we can bear it any longer), and we will see more images of suffering and avoidable distress, and we will sit and watch and wonder if it might be a nice idea to have another slice of pizza before we go to bed.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Fuck Yeah Revolution

The crisis is deepening and in places here and there people are taking to the streets. At the forefront in the US is the Occupy Wall Street movement. There is an excitement among groups on the far left that here is a movement from the grass roots that could acquire historical dimensions. The movement at the moment is a loose association lacking any clear leadership. You can see people from the far left, though, elbowing their way forward clutching the blueprint that would transform the motley crowd into a spearhead for a genuine revolution.

I want to find out more about the budding leaders. I find snippets of statements excitedly posted here and there on the web. One I find on a website with the title “Fuck Yeah Marxism-Leninism”. Every page on that site repeats at the top the following quote from Chairman Mao.
A Communist should have largeness of mind and he should be staunch and active, looking upon the interests of the revolution as his very life and subordinating his personal interests to those of the revolution; always and everywhere he should adhere to principle and wage a tireless struggle against all incorrect ideas and actions, so as to consolidate the collective life of the Party and strengthen the ties between the Party and the masses; he should be more concerned about the Party and the masses than about any private person, and more concerned about others than about himself. Only thus can he be considered a Communist.

Mao Zedong

Perhaps it is a coincidence but the colour scheme of the website is black and white – a stark and dramatic contrast. Appropriate since for Fuck Yeah Marxism-Leninism everything is black and white. The Party is good. The private person (at least insofar as she might insist on a life that is independent of the Party) is bad. The masses are good, so anyone who is not with the masses must be bad. Communists are good; the rest are bad. A life of principle is good; a life shaped by attachments to things and people and places is bad. The future is good; the past is bad.

The philosopher Theodor Adorno said something about the philosophy of history – about the sort of thing also known to those of us conversant with the post-modernist lingo as the grand narrative – the sort of sweeping summary of history that any movement needs in order to have an idea about where it has come from and where it is heading. He said that grand narratives need to be construed and denied. It strikes me that the same needs to be said of the political party that might help us move forward: it, too, must be construed and denied.

The problem is that that idea of construing and denying something at the same time finds no place in a black and white, fuck-yeah view of the world.

I left a comment to this effect on the Facebook page of Jay Rothermel. I don’t think Jay has any direct connection with the Fuck Yeah website, it was just that his FB page included a link to that site, which was how I found it. Jay replied to my initial comment thus:
Adorno spent most of his career writing off the working class in the imperialist countries as bought-off and stupefied by consumer culture. And no one today needs to affirm the party mentality that I or Fuck Yeah Marxism-Leninism have expressed in our blogs. A united front means striking together against the common enemy, not being in programmatic agreement on everything, or even most things.
Jay clearly has a more nuanced view of the Party, but still the mentality is the same. There are the good guys (the working class) and there are the bad guys (the enemy). Of course, if we are to fight for something better, we will have to have a view of who or what we are fighting against (let's call that the enemy), and inevitably it will be a simplification of a situation whose complexity we cannot do justice to without becoming paralysed – a paralysis that would simply allow the false status quo to perpetuate itself. But we need to be careful because some kinds of simplification have lead in the past to people with good intentions being sent to the gulag.

Being of the left and having grown up reading enthusiastically about things like the Solidarity movement in Poland and having gone from door to door in Birmingham helping to raise money for the striking miners, my sympathies are definitely with the workers. Jay’s reference to the working class prompted me to add the following comment:
I once worked as a porter in the British NHS before it was torn to pieces, and I worked with a bunch of guys who were the most stereotypically red-necked, fuck-yeah, working-class people I have ever met. I wouldn't say they were stupefied, but I would say they were damaged. I am also damaged. Adorno was aware of how damaging it is for people to be confined to the role of worker or to the role of intellectual. I would fight for a world less damaging. It wouldn't be a fuck-yeah world, though.
One of the difficult things we need to do is to see and admit the way in which we are damaged. Only then will it be possible to glimpse the vague outlines of a better life – a life that is less at war with itself – more reconciled. If we insist that the only problem is with the enemy who are over there on the other side of the barricade, the chances are that after all the enemies have been shot we will find that we have just replaced one kind of damaged life with another.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

All you need is love and an iPad

Before John Lennon sat down in 1967 to write the lyrics for “All you need is love” I doubt whether he had been reading Hobbes’ “Leviathan”, but the question that Lennon was implicitly answering in his song was actually the exact same question that Hobbes set out to answer some 300 years earlier: What might bring people together – and hold them together - in a peaceful society where life would not be nasty, brutish and short? Hobbes’ answer was fear and prudence. Lennon disagreed. All we need is love.

But a love of what, though? Here are three objects of love.

Did Lennon have any of those in mind?

The song repeats a number of words. The word most often repeated is “you”:
…nothing you can do that can’t be done,
Nothing you can make that can’t be made,
No one you can save that can’t be saved,
Nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be.
It is all about you, so the message (or one of the messages) is: Learn to love yourself.

One doesn’t normally associate pop with metaphysics, but “All you need is love” has a metaphysics. Lennon is implying that there is an immutable order in the universe that determines what can be done and made and saved, and that determines where we are meant to be. The implication is clear: to properly love ourselves we need to love our place within that big cosmic order. So this is not a narcissistic love of our appearance or status. Rather it is a love that goes beyond the superficial realm of appearances.

However, perhaps it is a mistake to look too closely at the lyrics. There is nothing you can sing that can’t be broadcast, and when it is broadcast it might take on a slightly different meaning from the one you had in mind when you sat alone writing the lyrics.

John Lennon’s song was first broadcast as part of the first big international TV show, which was called “Our World” and which occurred on June 25 1967. The event was originally conceived by the BBC. The idea was to do what could be done with the new telecommunications satellites – satellites that made it possible to link up different broadcasting companies around the world so that people in different countries (31 were able to receive the signal) could watch the same TV programme at the same time. It was broadcast live with participants from 14 different countries. The participants included people like Maria Callas and Pablo Picasso. The Beatles got the last slot in the two-and-a-half-hour event, and in the end their piece proved to be the most memorable.

It is worth watching the first few minutes of the broadcast as it was seen by viewers in Canada.

The presenter makes the obvious point that what is connecting people around the world is the technology of the “completely new communications age”. He is filmed in the control room so that viewers can marvel at the vast array of technology that has been amassed there.

That YouTube clip is an interview with Marshall McLuhan, who was then the biggest talking head with something vaguely interesting to say about the communications age. The interviewer is a bit of a loose cannon. After pointing out how the broadcast is supposed to bring the world together he suggests to McLuhan that perhaps the new technology actually achieves the opposite: a new divide opens up between those who have access to the programme on TV and the majority of the world in 1967 who had no hope whatsoever of singing along with John Lennon and the rest of the Beatles. Marshall McLuhan completely misses the point of the question and thinks he is being asked about an older generation in the West who don’t feel at all excited about pop culture and TV. For me, that is no accident. Among those infected by the excitement about the shiny, new hi-tech world the human being in all her unshiny humanity gets forgotten. The human beings who are supposed to be united in Our World fade into almost complete obscurity, overshadowed by the technology that is said to be uniting them.

In the end, the message in Lennon’s song proved weaker than the message in the medium itself. The world is no more united now by the sort of love that Lennon envisaged than it was then. There is, though, a pseudo unity around the world with all of us who are sufficiently affluent owning the same high-tech hardware. This gives us something in common, but it doesn’t really unite us. We are no closer to learning how to love ourselves and our world in a way that would prove once and for all that Hobbes was wrong – that we can overcome the worst instincts in ourselves and establish an order that is not based on fear and compusion and petty self-interest.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Samarakis: Naked Among the Clothed

A favourite book cover:

Although I have had this book for over 15 years and although I read it ages and ages ago, it is only this year that I realised what the cover photo depicted. Perhaps it was the fact that earlier this year a stray goat wandered onto our field and we tried to look after it. A couple of days later it became obvious why the shepherd had never come looking for it. It was ill. It died. Another sad loss. I buried it, taking care to ensure that the grave was covered well enough with a pallet and heavy stones so that the dogs would not dig it up again.

When I next came to pick up the book by Samarakis, I seemed to see for the first time what was on the front cover. I already knew the boy was Peruvian. There was a note to that effect in the book. Now I saw that the baby goat must have just died, and the boy is desperately trying to blow the breath of life back into it. It suddenly looked like one of the most moving images I had ever seen. And still is.

I re-read the short story bearing the same title as the book. It was first published in 1954. What is striking is that nothing essentially has changed.

In the kafeneio the protagonist flicks through that day's paper: stories about the government deficit, a kidnapping, a rape and three suicides - two for financial reasons. Later in the paper the section about what used to be called high society, with reports of how elegant and chic the ladies were the previous evening.

"He ran his hand through his hair, and wiped the sweat from his brow. He was perspiring, although it wasn't hot.

"The war, the hydrogen bomb, the suicides for financial reasons, high society... What a panorama of life!

"Nothing had changed for the better since the war. Things were just as they were before. Once he had hoped, as millions all over the world had hoped, that after the war, after so much blood had been spilled, that things would change. That peace would come, that the nightmare of war would never again cast its shadow over the earth, that there would be no more suicides for financial reasons, that...


"In the mirror opposite he caught sight of his face. A very ordinary face. Nothing indicated the turmoil within."

Then on the next page, when the protagonist finally admits to himself that he no longer feels that there is any hope, there is my favourite passage:

"It suddenly seemed a terrible thing to be without hope. He had the feeling that everyone in the kafeneio was looking at him and others in the street were thinking and whispering to each other: 'That man there has no hope!' As if it were a crime. As if there were some mark on him making his guilt obvious to all. As if he were naked among the clothed."

Now, as then, the times have some of us thinking about the "dark face of life". Some. Not so many it seems. And we walk about feeling like the naked among the clothed.

Yet we do not completely despair. There is some hope - however dim. We know there must be, if only because there once was a boy in the hills of Peru who desperately tried to blow the breath of life back into his limp infant goat.

In Defence of Home Logging

A confession: We are home loggers. We are fortunate to live on the very edge of civilisation, beyond which the land stretches as far as the eye can see without human habitation. Although that wild area is classified by the local authorities as forest, it is not exactly what ordinarily comes to mind when people hear the word "forest". For the most part it is filled not with tall trees but with a sort of bush - the prickly-leaved pournaria that abound in Greece. Generally, they don't grow to much over head height, but in the hollows where the richer soil allows, there are a good few thickets within easy walking range where the pournaria manage to develop into trees over three metres tall.

Well before winter sets in we hike over to those thickets with a rucksac, a hand saw (because although we have a chainsaw, we prefer to keep a low profile in the forest) and a pair of thick gloves (because those pournaria are damn prickly). Now we don't fell thoughtlessly. For a start off, we always leave the tallest trees. Of the less tall trees we choose which are the best to cut so that the remaining trees have space to grow unhindered. What gets felled is cut into lengths about a metre long, packed into the rucksac about 30kg at a time and carried back to the cottage. In my opinion the practice is utterly sustainable.

In today's local newspaper there is a headline on the front page calling on the authorities to clamp down on the "thieves" operating in the forest. I read on and I see that the paper is actually repeating a call issued by a local ecological group. Now, in general we are very sympathetic to the ecologists, but we object to this blanket characterisation of home loggers as thieves. Am I a thief? Whose property have I stolen? If it is the case that other home loggers are cutting trees indiscriminately or if there are places on the mountain where people are filling large trucks with logs, rather than carrying them home on their backs, then I agree steps have to be taken to protect the forest, but let's not start a discourse calling anyone who cuts wood to keep his shivering family warm in the winter a thief, especially in these times of crisis when some families may have no other option.

If we are thieves, here is a photo of our loot.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Walter Benjamin's angel of history

Walter Benjamin (born 1892) lived through the First World War and its aftermath in Germany. Following the rise of Nazism he fled Germany in 1933 (to escape persecution as a Jew). He fled to France. After the occupation of France in 1940 he had to flee again. He made it to Marseille and managed to get on a freighter bound for India, but he was discovered and put ashore. Later he decided to walk across the Pyrenees to avoid border patrols. He had an American visa and hoped eventually to make it to the States to join his colleagues Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. He managed to cross the border into Spain. While staying at a hotel in the Catalan town of Port Bou he was betrayed by the hotel owner. On 26 September 1940 he was found dead in his hotel room. The circumstances of his death remain mysterious.

A few months before his death he wrote “Theses on the Philosophy of History”. The ninth thesis is a meditation on a drawing by Paul Klee called “Angelus Novus” – a drawing which he had bought in 1921 and which remained one of his most prized possessions.

Here is the drawing by Klee.

Here is the ninth thesis by Benjamin.
A Klee drawing named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

Walter Benjamin
(Below is an edited extract from an insightful piece by Raymond Barglow.)

The intensity of Benjamin’s description here suggests that he experienced the condition from which the Angel of History cannot escape as a personal as well as a political impasse. Although he did not go to prison or suffer any other severe repression on account of his beliefs or activities, his outlook on life is inseparable from his perception of history.

Like so many of his generation, Benjamin experienced the First World War – the bloodiest conflagration in human history up to that time – as pointless and horrible carnage. But the revolutionary upheaval that occurred in its wake, in Germany, Russia, and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, seemed to represent a turning toward social emancipation as powerful and promising as any that had ever been experienced in the past.

That promise was not realised. The revolutionary movement faded, to be replaced first by a cynical nihilism then by fascism.

Like Klee’s Angel, Benjamin felt caught in history’s tangle – propelled forward, yet incapable of disengaging from the past. He was acutely sensitive to everything going on around him, seeming to live without the normal defensive mechanisms that block out the horrors being perpetrated around us.

In the historical project of liberation, Benjamin represents the Angel of History as being on our side – the angel wants to intervene but does not have the power to do so. Do we? Benjamin criticizes the pessimism that regards fundamental change as impossible and that tells us that historically, utopian dreams have been losing propositions. As an antidote to resignation, Benjamin proposes “the gift of fanning the spark of hope [that was] in the past,” as if memory could ignite a kind of blaze of aspiration across the generations.

Yet Benjamin could not figure out how to join with others to put such a memory-based politics into practice. Although he enjoyed the company of his friends, he conducted his life quite privately, independent of any political association. Alone, feeling too deeply the catastrophe of history, he was himself destroyed.

Our footnote

A suggestion: The angel depicted by Paul Klee has died. It signified the hope of a utopian impulse. Benjamin's Theses on History are a dialogue with historical materialism, which for all its faults, retained the utopian impulse, and insisted that there could be a decisive break with the bad history of the past, and there would be some kind of redemption - it wouldn't all have been for nothing. Is there any discourse like that now? Are we working together – struggling – fighting perhaps – for a better world?

In a sense history has died. Here in Europe at the moment the only talk in the corridors of power is about balancing the books. I don't hear any visions of a better society that might become possible once the books have been balanced. If I raised the question to an imaginary European bureaucrat once the debts have been paid (assuming they can be paid), I imagine being told: "You can shop. What more do you want?" And he leaves before I have time to speak because he is convinced that the question is unanswerable.


Henry Giroux’s article on Walter Benjamin’s angel of history reads it in the light of the contemporary situation in America. Here is the crescendo:
We no longer live in an age in which history's "winged messengers" bear witness to the suffering endured by millions and the conditions that allow such suffering to continue. Thinking about past and future has collapsed into a presentism in which the utter normalization of a punishing inequality and the atomizing pleasures of instant gratification come together to erase both any notion of historical consciousness and any vestige of social and moral responsibility owed as much to future generations as to the dead.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Back to school with Spark Notes

I have just been helping James launch his Quintessence of Dust blog – whose title borrows from a Hamlet speech that – ideally – an educated Englishman ought to have pretty much off by heart. I didn’t, so when James wasn’t looking I Googled "quintessence of dust" to make good the lack. The link that caught my eye was to Spark Notes. I clicked it.

In a plain font in black and white, there was the snippet of the speech:

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in
Reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving
how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals! and yet to me, what is
this quintessence of dust?

Here - I take it - there is a reason to pause and reflect upon the ways that we puff up a ridiculous conception of ourselves and our place in the scheme of things - a conception that prevents a more humble appreciation of the realities of our situation. What do I mean? I admit that more needs to be said, but to the right and left of the white box with the Hamlet speech there are large photos of smiling attractive teenagers jumping in the air. I mouse over those photos in a moment of distraction (because it is impossible not to be distracted), and see that those photos link to a page entitled Back To School. I allow myself to be distracted further and click a photo of a smiling, air-borne boy in a check shirt.

Despite the photos, because this is Spark Notes, because I associate (perhaps wrongly) Spark Notes with literature, and because I have just been reading a piece of sixteenth century English drama on the Spark Notes website, I am expecting this Back To School page to be full of things to help students get (back) into literature, or at least back into studying, back into learning, back into a deeper engagement with the wider world.

I was wrong. Here's the list of topics on the Back To School page:

1. The Pros and Cons of Being Brunette

2. First Day of School Pics!
(With a photo of Sabrina and the caption: "We love Sabrina's multicolored shoes—they give her uniform personality!")

3. Thrifty Back-to-School Outfits
"It's that time again—backpacks, schedules, SCHOOL! But first and foremost, it's time to go shopping for back-to-school outfits."

4. The Pros and Cons of Being Blonde

5. Shivani Explains Makeup: Concealer Edition
"Concealer is foundation’s fraternal twin sister; they are very similar, but possess key differences."

6. 10 Best Things about Feeling Healthy
(This is actually about losing weight.)

7. Shivani Gives Her Wardrobe a Makeover

8. Everything You Need to Know About Body Piercing

"Fraternal twin sister" jars a bit for me, but that is the least of the problems here.

This is all aimed at girls. Perhaps Sparky people have done some research and found that boys don't figure much in their target market. But which young lady - after starting to worry so much about her skin, her hair, her figure and her clothes - would be at all inclined to click back to the page with Shakespeare's profound words and muse a while longer about human vanity?

Quintessence of dust indeed.

We are absolutely and completely fucked.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

The Suicide of Nikos Kerasiotis

On September 25, 2008 there was a demonstration outside the New York Stock Exchange protesting the massive Wall Street bail out. One of the demonstrators carried a banner saying: "Jump You Fuckers". As far as I know, no one jumped.

The crisis that began on Wall Street only hit us here in Greece hard much later, and it hit hard first in the construction sector. Masses of people who had been earning a living on building sites lost their jobs. One of those was Nikos Kerasiotis, aged 34. He lived in a tiny two-roomed cottage next to the river four or five fields below us.

At about 10.15pm on September 8 2011 Nikos shot himself in the head with a hunting rifle and died instantly.

I don't want Nikos to be treated as just another statistic. He was a friend, and in this dry, Greek valley with only 14 or 15 households, he was the only real friend we had. He was the only person who came round for coffee or sometimes for a meal, not often, but when Flora - my wife - passed him occasionally on the road, she would invite him up and sometimes he would come. He never came empty-handed, even after he lost his job. The bottom drawers in our fridge are still full of all the apples he brought with him the last time he came to see us, and above them the six cans of beer we never got round to drinking.

The really sad thing is that on any measure of what constitutes a good person, he ranked way up at the top, which must sound like the sort of thing anyone would say of their friend at a time like this, but in Nikos's case it is true. In this backwater of rural Greece where there is so much nastiness and back-biting and mutual hostility, Nikos kept himself way above all that. He was a tall, strong man who had had special forces training during his military service (still obligatory here in Greece), but he never seemed to allow himself to become aggressive when he was wronged. And in a society where corruption is rife, he struck me as incorruptible. Certainly in this little valley outside the city of Volos, there was no one who could be called virtuous apart from Nikos. The best among us has now died, so unnaturally, and unnecessarily.

Why did he do it? It is painful to hear people say - as I heard them today - that he was crazy - psychologically ill. There is something shockingly cold and cruel - almost violent - in pigeon-holing Nikos in that way. However disturbed he may have become, that fatal shot was the result of a long history that deserves respect - a history that must surely have become unbearably painful.

Nikos grew up in much the way that his father must have grown up, spending a great deal of his time in the forest helping his family make charcoal (karvouna), managing huge earth-covered piles of smoldering wood - kaminia - that could never be left unattended for months on end lest the fires get out of hand and the whole forest go up in smoke. As soon as was legally possible, his parents wanted him to work full-time at the kaminia, and so he was taken out of school despite the protests of his teachers who insisted that the unusually bright boy ought to be allowed to continue his education.

I first saw the family one summer about 12 years ago. I had ridden up the mountain for the first time on my motorbike, hurriedly looking for a children's camp that I was supposed to start work at. Somewhere near the camp high on the mountain I took a wrong turning, went up a dirt road in the trees and suddenly came upon a soot-covered couple busy outside the rudest of shelters made from branches covered with old plastic sheeting. I could have asked for directions but I am ashamed to admit that the sight was so unlike anything I had seen before that I quickly turned the motorbike round and sped off back to the main road.

As it turned out, Nikos's family had close ties with the children's camp - they were lending the camp a donkey to help ferry supplies - and soon I got to know them.

Nikos must have been about 20 or 21 then. When I sat down to have coffee with him and his parents in the forest he didn't seem at all bitter or frustrated. I imagine the frustration set in years later, when Nikos moved to find work in the city (Volos) following the retirement of his father and his decision not to continue the charcoal business (where conditions, in any case, had already been undermined by the influx of cheap Albanian labour).

Nikos found work, first in a factory and then on the building sites of Volos, and with that came his first taste of economic independence. The city must have been both liberating and tormenting. The torment seems to have been most acute around the issue of women. Back in the sexless forest I imagine Nikos became accustomed to celibacy, and I imagine him feeling he was saving himself for the woman of his dreams. Among all the smoke and the soot, shoveling earth, packing charcoal and watching over the kaminia, I imagine Nikos dreaming of the tall, proud woman who would become his wife.

Nikos never found that proud woman. A few weeks ago he told us of a day he had just spent working picking pears. While he was in the trees there was an attractive woman from a nearby village packing the pears neatly in boxes. When they met in one of the breaks, Nikos - who had a car - asked her if she wanted to go for a ride with him after work. "I wouldn't give you the honour," she said (the word "honour" sounds old-fashioned in English and not the sort of thing a village girl would say, but the Greek equivalent - timi - doesn't sound at all out of place). In retelling the story, Nikos made it sound more like a joke, but I bet those words were a dagger to his heart.

There seemed to be lots of other stories along the same lines. Just this morning one of the local shepherd's sons - with whom Nikos spent more of his free time - told us another. When his village - Pouri - had its annual festival this year, Nikos invited the shepherd's sons to go with him. They walked into the village cafeteria, where there happened to be a large gathering of the local girls. As soon as they saw Nikos they started laughing. I know that he had spoken in the past to at least one of them and asked her out, and had been refused with the excuse that the girl wouldn't go out with a karvouniaris (charcoal maker).

Now I have never spoken to the shepherd's four sons (aged between 17 and mid-30s) about this, but it seems clear that if a man comes down from the hillsides around here to the city, and is a cheerful bloke with money in his wallet and untroubled by high romantic ideals, he can find female companionship sufficient at least to satisfy the needs of the flesh. The shepherd's sons, despite their father being a ruthless blaspheming tyrant, are a very cheerful bunch who are clearly not having to struggle with celibacy. From what he told us, Nikos went out partying with them a number of times, but could never quite join in the fun. He had his romantic dream and I am sure he didn't want to ruin it.

Nikos just might have made his dream come true, despite all the idiotic prejudices in provincial Greece, if he had been more able to communicate with women. Growing up in a forest with a younger sister whose greatest affections were for the family mule can't have helped. Women seemed to remain for Nikos another species whose behaviour was unfathomable. Hence his tendency to rush clumsily at things when he met a woman he found genuinely attractive.

I doubt though that the romantic problems on their own would have pushed Nikos to commit suicide. While he was in work there must have been an apparent chance of making enough money to rise above the ridiculed status of the karvouniaris. But after being made redundant and having to scrape around for a little money picking pears here and a little money digging a cess pit somewhere else, he must have felt trapped in poverty, and lumbered forever with the status he had been ridiculed for.

Because Nikos had somehow picked up a good working knowledge of English (and it was amazing that he managed to do that without any formal lessons and without anyone to speak to in English) we suggested he go abroad and look for work. From what I gather, he did seriously consider the idea, but somehow could never muster the courage to leave. He did go to the capital - Athens - to look for work, but either he didn't find any or things went wrong in the big city, and he returned to his tiny cottage by the river (where, by the way, there is only water on the very wettest days of the year).

Now I am left with an awful sense of guilt at not having seen the signs and not having done anything. On the last couple of occasions that he visited us he did keep mentioning guns and referring back to his experience in the army as an outstanding marksman, but those references always seemed to crop up in the middle of discussions of political corruption and economic collapse here in Greece. It made me worry a bit that I might someday see news of an assassination and then see footage of Nikos in handcuffs. It never crossed my mind that he might be thinking of turning the gun on himself. But it should have crossed my mind. It was obvious that Nikos was being far too hard on himself. No one criticised him more severely than he himself did. Fit and tall with fair hair he was a "fine figure of a man" as they say, but he would always say he was unattractive, and flail his long arms around in the air to emphasize the point. He did occasionally allow himself to speak angrily about how his parents had wasted a large sum of their life savings buying him a car without speaking to him first (and choosing a car that really was useless for someone like Nikos) and also speak angrily about his sister (with whom there were disputes about family property, apparently), but at the end of the conversation the impression was always that he blamed no one more than himself.

Turning against himself I imagine that he had allowed the condescending laughter of the stupid girls of the village to play incessantly in his head like a broken record. Perhaps there was no way out, but someone should have tried to help him find a way out. I don't think anyone did. The last time he visited I suggested going hiking together (something he had never done before). I meant it, but looking back, the suggestion probably didn't sound very serious, and to get him to agree I would have had to really insist and encourage him. I didn't do any of that.

I am also ashamed to admit that I never actually went to his cottage to visit him. He invited us over once when he rebuilt the roof and wanted to show us his handy work (or we suggested going over to see it - I forget which), but after that he didn't invite us again and I never took the initiative to call on him. It did cross my mind, but I always doubted whether he would want me to call, because of my own stupid hang-ups, but also because, despite my fondness and admiration for him and my wish for us to be friends, there was always this feeling that we were worlds apart. I never stopped to think that he might need someone to call, because now that I think about it, I don't think anyone ever called on him.

On Thursday evening I went by on my scooter at about 8.30 pm. After coming over the little stone bridge I was only about 100 yards from his cottage and it would have been easy to make a right turn and call in on him. I did look up at his cottage. There was no light on and I didn't see him. I just carried on on my way up the hill to our house. About two hours later he shot himself.

Sunrise over the valley where Nikos lived.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

A philosophy of EFL?

In the post today I got an invitation to the International Publishers Exhibition in Athens and a free copy of one of the Mary Glasgow magazines. The exhibition is a kind of conference, and I see from the programme that there are 31 talks. 14 talks deal specifically with exam preparation. Talks dealing with classes at a lower level tend to emphasize things like "fun activities for juniors and seniors," and "exciting" materials for A-C classes, although the excitement there seems to centre around new technology like the whiteboard. One talk title mentions teaching methods, but it is actually about how to use interactive e-books in the classroom, not about methodology as such. Another talk is about how to make education more "effective", reducing "teaching sessions to only two periods per week". Only one talk mentions the word "philosophy", but the subtitle is: "a totally new philosophy for preparing students for all higher level English language certificates" – clearly not much philosophy there, though. Someone with a more thoughtful approach to the business of teaching English has to wait for the last (the 31st) talk given by Cliff Parry from the British Council – a talk entitled "Values in Education", looking at teachers as "models of values" and asking the question: "What are values and how are these reflected in the classroom?" I want to go to that talk (and only that talk), and I find myself wondering if it is entirely a coincidence that Cliff was sent to the back of the queue. Did he do something wrong?

Let's have a quick flick through the Mary Glasgow magazine. Now, I just assumed that Mary Glasgow was ever so slightly radical. Hence my disappointment on flicking through the magazine (bearing in mind that this is the Crown magazine, aimed at pre-intermediate level). Cover topic: money, illustrated with photos of Bank of England notes that have the faces of smiling kids superimposed on them. Plus a star: "Britain's top tennis star, Andy Murray". Page two: a photo of Lisa looking happy in her bedroom surrounded by her collection of 12,000 Pokemon toys. Page three: pumpkin lanterns with faces carved out of the skin – the five faces being those of four famous Hollywood actors and actresses plus the singer, Madonna.

Past the two-page spread about Britain's top tennis star onto page six, which is about money, with more photos of children smiling out of Bank of England notes, supplemented with a big photo of a tall pile of pound coins with the face of a girl in the background staring anxiously at the top of it almost as if it were some sacred totem pole that she must pay homage to. Then flicking over to page seven where there is a piece about a rap star and how he became rich. Following that an interview with a "real British teenager" talking about his pocket money and spending habits. After the English coach clarifies the correct preposition to use when telling the time, we have another double-page spread, this time about Cheryl Cole, who wasn't good at school but who became famous as a singer and talent show judge. The two last pages are almost in black and white, and tell us about the "amazing life" of Florence Nightingale. In one of the frames from the cartoon we see the compassionate Florence reading about thousands of British soldiers dying in Turkey and saying: "I must go to the Crimea – I can help those poor soldiers!" She is appalled by the conditions in the makeshift hospital. "Come on ladies. We must feed these men good food. We must dig toilets. We must wash the floors. We must open the windows," she says to the other nurses.

After all those stories about people becoming rich and famous, and photos of people smiling out of banknotes, and all the concern about money and what to spend it on, I wonder what sort of impression the story about Florence Nightingale might make on a young mind. It's the only story in the magazine about anyone who actually does anything good. It's right at the back of the magazine. The colours are all sepia tones, and the story is about a woman who has been dead for a century. There are some pretty powerful and rather dubious subliminal messages there.

Part of the message comes from the juxtaposition. For instance, children closing the magazine after reading about the "amazing" life of Florence Nightingale, thinking perhaps about how thin and underfed she looked, or wondering if they could ever bring themselves to dig toilets in Turkey, can't help but notice the back cover, which is devoted to sending multi-coloured birthday greetings to Super Mario – "a famous video character". The huge gaudy photo of the obviously well-fed Super Mario must surely obliterate the pale memory of Florence Nightingale in the minds of all but the most sensitive children.

Perhaps Mary Glasgow seemed quite radical back in the 1950s. According to the Wikipedia entry about her she proposed "abandoning the whole apparatus of grammar, replacing it with a simple course in conversation, greetings, courtesy phrases… with songs, cross references to cookery, sport, geography, railway posters and fashion."

Although railway posters haven't caught on as a foreign language teaching aid, Mary Glasgow's more general approach to producing "fun" learning materials has now become pretty much mainstream.

What does this have to do with a philosophy of EFL? What I want to suggest is that we might be able to appreciate the need for something like a philosophy of EFL by reflecting a little on, for one thing, the materials we are using and the subtle messages they might be conveying. If this magazine is anything to go by (and I admit that a sample size of one is a bit limited), by handing out Mary Glasgow materials we are lending support to a mindless celebrity culture. Unwittingly perhaps at first, we are promoting those values, going from one activity to another centering on the lives of the rich and famous. If we are not happy about promoting those values, then we need to start thinking about what values we should be promoting, and that is the kind of thinking that would lead to what would be called in everyday language a "philosophy of education".

But we don't have to begin by looking critically at teaching materials. We could begin by taking another look at things like seating arrangements, whether we encourage students to work on their own or in groups, how we praise and assess them, the way discipline is imposed, etc, etc.

There is lots to be discussed here, and in a two day conference with 31 talks it is a topic that deserves to be discussed in more than one of those talks, and it is definitely not a topic to be relegated to the final talk, when lots of people are probably a bit tired and anxious to get off home.

Does it matter if we don't have a philosophy of education, and if we leave before the Cliff Parries of this world have had a chance to speak? Yes, it matters massively. There is absolutely no hope for society if the educators allow themselves to become unthinking cogs in the commercial machine. Perhaps I am seeing things too bleakly, but my impression is that things have sunk so low that I am cheered just to see that someone has a bit of a philosophy – it really doesn't matter what sort of philosophy it is. Any old philosophy – as long as people are thinking about it and discussing it – is way, way better than the current intellectual self-abnegation on the part of teachers.

In closing, let me just touch on one issue: fun, and giving students material that they want to read and work with, which is presumably the idea behind materials like the Mary Glasgow magazines. Now if we could resurrect Mary Glasgow and ask her to justify this, she would doubtless articulate the sort of progressive approach that David Deubelbeis neatly summed up in one of his blog posts:

Progressives believe that "the teacher should try to arouse student interest and motivation through the use of student centered activities and interests in the classroom. The curriculum should in no way be prescribed and should come from the "interests and needs of the students." It should in no way be imposed upon students from above."

Now the reason why we are called Torn Halves is because the world is full of stuff that is torn in half, and the progressive concept of education is no exception. Of course, we must try to arouse student interest and motivation and work with students as they are, with all their strengths, weaknesses and idiosyncracies, but we must also insist – and find clever ways of getting this across as much as possible – that there are things – values – more meaningful than the bling of pop culture, with all the greed, manipulation and profiteering that goes on behind it. We must insist, for instance, that Florence Nightingale gets put somewhere near the front of the magazine, if not on the cover, and when someone suggests we include a fat, happy Super Mario, we tell them very firmly that Super Mario has no place in the English classroom. We don't object to children whiling away a little of their freetime playing mindless video games, but lets not create the impression that the virtual stooge in a plumber's overall has any right to stand shoulder to shoulder with Miss Nightingale.

The progressives would be more in the right if students arrived directly at the school from lots of little houses on various prairies, each bringing interests and needs that are genuinely their own. That is far from the case. Children arrive with interests and needs deviously whipped up by cynical marketing managers dangling gaudy baubles in front of them. Teachers need to see the school (as I am sure most of them do) as a refuge from the barbarism of commercialism, and their work as an antidote to the pernicious nihilism of business. In such a context it is equally important to have a clear vision of what we ought to be doing, instead of just letting the kids carry on running after those gaudy baubles and patting ourselves on the back for being oh-so child-centred. Another word for that sort of clear vision is: "philosophy".

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Blogging as a social indictment

Very interesting "Farewell" to blogging statement where John Duff (academic) announces the end of his blog and includes some provocative thoughts about the blogging phenomenon, amongst which he says that blogging...

testifies to the the absolutely incredible inability of our current society to make something of people's intelligence, skill, time, and desire to be useful: we have to ask ourselves what is going on when our society has to create a massive virtual repository for less professionally oriented intellectual work, give it none of the material benefits of the actual world of letters or make it subject to the same restraints or regulations, and then even have the gall to call it "self-publishing."

Spot on. In the recent past there has been a flurry of claims floating around the media about the "revolution" taking place on the internet (even appearing incongruously and repeatedly on such totally unrevolutionary channels as BBC World). Under certain conditions (primarily government crackdowns on other forms of communication and social gathering) things like Facebook and Twitter can become key instruments for social movements but that doesn't make them essentially revolutionary. It would be possible to argue that under normal conditions in a fairly liberal regime blogging, micro-blogging and all the social networking systems effectively divert energies into an arena where people can express themselves and let off steam (if necessary) without this having any impact on the central dynamic of the rest of society. The problem for social radicals is that nothing really changes - we remain bricks in the wall, in a sense, but each brick now has its own avatar and a page on FB. The broader problem, though, is that all those energies are going to waste. People are keen to express themselves, to read and form an opinion, speak out and get involved. It is a sad indictment of the current social order that those energies, interests and abilities are not able to become part of a richer, more democratic public life.