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.