Not Saussure

May 30, 2007

Politics, Religion (and some recommended light reading)

Filed under: Books, Politics, Religion — notsaussure @ 6:40 pm

Apologies for not posting yesterday; I was sitting in my new satin pajamas engrossed in John Connolly’s latest noir thriller, The Unquiet, and very good it is, too. He’s back on form, I think, after The Black Angel, which I thought overdid the supernatural elements, rather. He’s at his best, to my mind, when you’re never completely sure whether they’re actually supposed actually to exist or are a suspicion — no more than that — in the mind of the first person narrator, Maine Private Eye Charlie Parker, haunted as he is both by the murder of his first wife and child and by the dark areas of his soul — and those of others — he keeps on discovering as he plies his trade as investigator of particularly nasty cases.

If you’ve not come across Mr Connolly, and you like noir thrillers, you’re in for a treat. I’d suggest starting with the first of the series,Every Dead Thing, and reading them in sequence.

Then, having finished The Unquiet, I started his other new book, The Book of Lost Things, which is a delightful, though still very dark, riff on some well-known (and some not-so-well-known) children’s fairy tales. It explores the same sort of territory as did some of the late Angela Carter’s re-workings of Grimm.

Anyway, back today. When I haven’t been reading John Connolly, I’ve been thinking about a very interestig discussion over at Stumbling And Mumbling, where Chris Dillow considers — and finds himself in broad agreement with — Johan Hari’s worries about Gordon Brown’s Social Christianity; says Hari:

I think faith is a dangerous form of bad thinking – it is believing something, without evidence or reason to back it up….Yet at the same time, when there are so many Murdochian pressures on a British Prime Minister dragging them to the right, pressing him to fellate the rich, isn’t it good to have a countervailing pressure to help the poor – even a superstitious one? If religion drives Brown’s best instincts and whittles down his worst, should we still condemn it?

I can’t, I fear, resist noting that whatever Johan Hari relies upon is clearly even worse than faith, since it leads him to believe things not only without evidence but despite evidence; he’s under the impression that ‘Jesus said to follow “every jot and tittle” of the psychotic Old Testament,’ which, quite simply, He didn’t, at least not if accurately reported by Matthew 5:18; He there refers to the Ten Commandments, and in the context of explaining that the Sermon on the Mount isn’t a replacement for them but, in fact, is a summary of them and an extension of their implications.

Anyway, Mr Hari’s inability to verify his sources aside, Chris argues that Hari is right in that religious arguments play, or should play, no part in politics; says Chris, (more…)

April 4, 2007

Campaign for British Reparations: A Public Service Announcement

Filed under: Bloody Yanks, Books — notsaussure @ 8:23 pm

You know how Americans notoriously don’t do irony? After all, their most reasonable conservative is on record as thinking

Young people (and many adults) often don’t have the capacity to determine the difference between funny and unfunny so I think that we need to start teaching our youth about comedy in the schools. They need to learn that the number one rule of comedy is that a “joke” should be funny. They need to be taught the difference between laughing at and laughing with someone. And they should be taught to avoid satire, which only confuses people and saps the national will. I don’t think, however, that we should teach young people how to be funny, because I don’t think they are ready for that, so I propose that we fund Abstinence-Only comedy classes.

Well, some British bloggers, to whom I won’t link because I like most of them most of the time, have become rather upset about an American campaign, www.britishreparations.org, which purports to be

a global network of citizens who have suffered injuries at the hands of the British Empire over the last five hundred years. We’ve banded together to ask the United Kingdom to compensate the world for all the damage they’ve done.

To further this end, this global network of citizens is circulating a petition containing the following modest proposal:

We, the undersigned citizens of the world, demand reparations payments of £31,960,000,000,000 from the British Monarchy and government of the United Kingdom. This money will compensate us for the profound injuries we have suffered over the last 500 years from British brutality, negligence, malevolence, crimes against humanity, and other heinous and atrocious forms of misrule. It is far from enough to make us whole, but a necessary first step in the long process of British coming to terms with its historical guilty and reconciling itself with global opinion and international law.

Should anyone require further and better particulars in support of this claim (amounting to about £4,600 for every living person on the planet), they are referred to a book, The Evil Empire — 101 Ways That England Ruined The World, of which number 99 is that we made Elton John a knight.

Should anyone require still further and still better particulars of the claim, they’re advised to read an interview with the book’s author, a Mr Steven A Grasse, that appears on the same site before taking it all too literally. Mr Grasse, by the way, is an advertising executive in his day job, and seems to know a thing or two about viral marketing, though being an American he’s obviously not very good at irony;

Like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.

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March 23, 2007

Pedants!

Filed under: Books, history — notsaussure @ 11:35 am

Via Westminster Wisdom, a review in The Times by Andrew Scull of a new translation of Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation; the previous translation was apparently a greatly truncated version of the original French text, and this new edition restores several missing chapters and all the footnotes.   Gracchus explains,

What Scull does is demolish the factual basis upon which Foucault’s work rests- he goes after Foucault’s footnotes- it is a fine example of the way a thesis can be destroyed by a historian just going through the empirical work of examining the citations. The overall thesis and historical image once detached from reality then become not meaningless but useless as an analytical tool to understand the past with- their empirical basis undermined they float off to join the suggestions that Arthur conquered Burgundy, that Alfred burnt the cakes and that Britain was founded by Brutus,

though this does not, as Gracchus notes, necessarily invalidate the philosophical points Foucault seeks to make.    Foucault, however, has found some defenders in The Times, one of whom tries to make the perfectly reasonable point that Foucault’s trying to study what people had to say about madness at particular times rather than determining whether or not they were accurately describing social conditions.     That’s a perfectly fair point, but Andrew Scull’s complaint is that Foucault frequently goes further than this and treats the material he discusses as accurate statements of fact; it is, to use Gracchus’ analogy, one thing to discuss the idea that Britain was founded by Brutus (not the Et tu chap, but a mythical character, Brutus of Troy) and the importance of this pseudo-historical fact in the Middle Ages.   It’s quite another to write as if you think he did, in fact, found Britain.   

This, it it seems, is the mistake Foucault frequently makes; he moves from a perfectly justified examination of the significance of descriptions Bedlam Hospital in Eighteenth Century writing, and what these descriptions tell us about ideas about madness and sanity at the time, to various conclusions based on the demonstrably false premise that these descriptions were in any way accurate accounts of  that institution.       It’s one thing to study British social attitudes about asylum seekers from the way they’re reported in the popular press; it’s quite another to believe everything you read about them in The Daily Express.

Consequently, it’s rather unfortunate that one of people commenting in The Times, Paul North, of New York City, USA, comes out with the observation

In fact, Scull’s insistence that he check his facts is a symptom of the same progressivism that Foucault critiques.

Insisting he check he check his facts!  Quelle effronterie!

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March 20, 2007

His finger on the pulse

Filed under: Books, Politics — notsaussure @ 7:27 pm

Attempts by Gordon Brown and those around him to present Mr Brown as being in tune with popular opinion and taste have not always been wholly successful — the Arctic Monkey débâcle springs to mind, particularly when it turned out he meant Coldplay (an easy mistake — Arctic, Cold … all these beat combos the young people like so much sound pretty much the same to me, too) but he’s gone some way to redeeming himself.

The news that he has a very cynical view of his cabinet colleagues and that he treats them ‘with more or less complete contempt’ does no more, to my mind, show that he is, after all, capable of perfectly normal human reactions. (On the subject of which, Devil’s Kitchen — who, if anything can unnerve him, is probably slightly perturbed to find himself in agreement with the Chancellor — has found a wonderful, and not at all safe for work, video comment on Peter Hain)

I can’t even get particularly upset about the news he has a ‘very cynical view of mankind’ and not just because it would be a tad hypocritical were I to pretend so to be.

Ask yourself, would you feel more confident to learn that the man who’s almost certain to be our next Prime Minister had spent the last 10 years working with most of the people whose governance we’ve had the good fortune to enjoy — in particular Mr Blair, of course — had come through the experience confirmed in an idealistic view of his fellow men and women? Come to think about it, would you feel that confident any Prime Minister known for his trusting and idealistic view of people’s motives?

That doesn’t, of course, mean that he should himself necessarily behave cynically. Obviously it would be insulting to compare a fictional detective with the Chancellor; Raymond Chandler would be spinning in his grave if I did (as, come to think of it, would my late father, who always recommended Philip Marlowe to me as a fair model of conduct in a difficult situation), but I think Chandler’s ideal private eye —

Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor– by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things.

He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks — that is, with a rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.

— sounds a far better man to trust than most MPs. And who could deny the country would be a better place were most of the government to catch a blackjack right behind their ear, find a black pool open up at their feet, dive in and find It had no bottom?

Justin, at Chicken Yoghurt, is, I see, thinking on rather similar lines (about Brown rather than the blackjack, but he may well agree about that, too).

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March 15, 2007

The Unknown Citizen

Filed under: Books — notsaussure @ 8:11 pm

I seem to be in a poetic sort of mood at the moment, what with Robert Graves yesterday and now this. But the poem’s kept on nagging at my memory ever since I watched The Trap last Sunday and its nagging was redoubled by reading about the new plans for monitoring every stage of an infant’s development.

Auden’s poem perhaps now seems a bit dated both in its references (not surprising, since it was published in the collection Another Time (1940) so I assume it was written between 1936 and ’39) and in how little is known about JS/07 M 378 by his well-intentioned government. We’d certainly have known considerably more about his children, their educational attainment pre-school development, would we not?

The Unknown Citizen

(To JS/07 M 378
This Marble Monument
Is Erected by the State)

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint,
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.
Except for the War till the day he retired
He worked in a factory and never got fired,
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.
Yet he wasn’t a scab or odd in his views,
For his Union reports that he paid his dues,
(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)
And our Social Psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.
The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day
And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.
Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,
And his Health-card shows he was once in a hospital but left it cured.
Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went.
He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation.
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their
education.
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

March 14, 2007

The Persian Version

Filed under: Books, Iran, usa — notsaussure @ 4:21 pm

I see from The Guardian that

Hollywood is already firmly established as a source of cultural decadence in Iran’s pantheon of hated western symbols.But now the country’s Islamic leadership has accused it of “psychological warfare” over its depiction of the battle between the Greeks and Persians at Thermopylae in 480BC, regarded as a key event in the birth of western democracy by some historians.

Well, of course. I’ve read my Robert Graves, and know

The Persian Version

Truth-loving Persians do not dwell upon
The trivial skirmish fought near Marathon.
As for the Greek theatrical tradition
Which represents that summer’s expedition
Not as a mere reconnaisance in force
By three brigades of foot and one of horse
(Their left flank covered by some obsolete
Light craft detached from the main Persian fleet)
But as a grandiose, ill-starred attempt
To conquer Greece – they treat it with contempt;
And only incidentally refute
Major Greek claims, by stressing what repute
The Persian monarch and the Persian nation
Won by this salutary demonstration:
Despite a strong defence and adverse weather
All arms combined magnificently together.

Yes, I know that Thermopylae was 10 years after Marathon, but it’s still a good poem, and I’m not waiting till someone makes Marathon as a sequel prequel to 300. They should be grateful no one’s made a movie of Aeschylus’ The Persians (Πέρσαι), is all I can say (and they should be even more grateful they didn’t have to translate it at school, along with sodding Horriditus).

March 7, 2007

To do today

Filed under: Blogroll, Books, UK, War on Terror — notsaussure @ 11:16 am

Via Chicken Yoghurt, three things to do today:

  • Read this, by Rachel;
  • Sign this (should you think it appropriate (and I suspect you may);
  • Pass on the two suggestions above.

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February 22, 2007

Another Downing Street Petition

Filed under: Books, Education — notsaussure @ 10:56 pm

Don’t know if it’ll do any good, but I’ve been asked to publicise this.

We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to keep the British Library FREE of charge to users! Don’t cut its budget!. More details.

Submitted by Joanna Bryant – Deadline to sign up by: 07 June 2007 – Signatures: 10,620 (as of 22/2)

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January 18, 2007

In search of the great white whale

Filed under: Books, Iraq, usa — notsaussure @ 1:36 am

Garrison Keillor has been re-reading Moby Dick:

Bush’s white whale | Salon.com

Jan. 17, 2007 | Captain Ahab assembled the crew of the Pequod and told them that they could not afford to fail in the quest to kill the great white whale and so he had come up with a plan. The Pequod lay becalmed on a glassy sea, the sails hung loose, the ship drifting with the current. The Captain had mulled over the recommendations of the Moby Dick Study Group and rejected them. “If we turn back to New Bedford now, as the Old Ones suggest, we risk the loss of the high seas.” And so he had decided to put 10 oarsmen in a longboat and to row ahead, towing the ship, “surging” it forward.

More

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January 16, 2007

‘Christian fascism’: What’s in a name?

Filed under: Blogroll, Books, Politics, Religion, usa, Wingnuts — notsaussure @ 6:56 pm

Interesting post by Gracchi (pleonasm again) complaining about the labels Islamo-Fascism and, now, ‘Christian fascism’, as applied by Chris Hedges to right-wing Christians in the United States. Gracchus’ thesis, with which I wholly concur, is that fascism properly refers to an identifiable political ideology, specifically that of Mussolini’s Italy and by conventional extension to Hitler’s Germany, Salazar’s Portugal and Franco’s Spain. Gracchus is possibly rather more dubious than am I about whether it’s applicable to Franco’s Spain, but I’m hardly an expert in that period of history so I’ll willingly concede the point.

Quite rightly, though, Gracchus (sorry, I have to write about him in the singular) complains that it’s now being used as a term of abuse for any particularly illiberal political movement and, as he notes, ‘not being liberal does not make you fascist’. To my mind, it’s there primarily as a signifier of the attitude of the person who uses it rather than to describe a particular movement or ideology. (more…)

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