Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Scotland be brave

(This is my second post on the Scottish referendum. My first, longer post is here.)

It doesn't feel like it, but we're on the brink of a national tragedy. In just over two weeks, Scotland might vote to dissolve the union. That alone is heartbreaking. That it might actually throw away so much for the sake of an ideology - one that could do so much damage to Scotland and her relationship with England - is devastating to me.

I implore any eligible voter reading this to search their conscience - honestly and without prejudice - for their sense of what is good about the Union, of who we are, what we've done, and what we could do. And then ask if it is definitely - finally and irrevocably - worth throwing that away in favour of what the Nationalists are offering.

Forget Salmond's Tory bogeymen - they might not even be in office this time next year. Short-term political feeling can't be used to justify a decision about the forever of the rest of Scotland's history. The feelings of many Scots about the Tories may well be justified, but that doesn't mean they are relevant to the decision you will make on the 18th of September. Salmond seems to me to be urging Scots to make five years of disaffection the basis on which to decide Scotland's whole future. This doesn't match up - in fact, it's a terrible, terrible idea.

A Scotland that stays will be more prosperous, more secure, more confident, better provided for, more outward-looking and connected to the world, and with broader scope to create and to pursue ambitions. Not only are the SNP's policies economically unrealistic, and overly hopeful, they look worryingly like bad medicine for Scotland's soul. There is a pinched meanness, a narrowness of vision, and a negativity to their policies - the proclivity towards shouting down, the worrying hints of the ideologue's blithe disregard for reality, and the feeding on grievance and feelings of diminution.

Politics like this isn't good for Scotland, or any nation.

Best vote 'no'.

This was my impassioned bit, below are a few more details.

1. Nationalism and anti-democratic feeling make a terrifying combination

The Nationalist argument is that independence would be a victory for democracy because it would allow Scots to be governed by parties they voted for, instead of the Conservative governments voted for by the more populous English. 

On the face of it, this seems convincing enough, especially as we currently have a Tory government. But consider this:  counting the elections backwards, we've got the Tories failing to win a majority in 2010, outright Labour victory in 2005, Labour landslide in 2001, massive Labour landslide in 1997. 

The SNP, given these facts, cannot possibly claim domination by English Tories - but they could certainly claim to be dissatisfied at not always getting what they want.

But democracy was never the promise of always getting what you want, and to believe that it should be is profoundly undemocratic - sometimes we have to tolerate the free choices of others, because democratic free choice is pinned to the individual but still mutually shared. No one gets a guarantee that their free choice will always trump others, and yes-voting Scots won't get this guarantee either.

It is not just that this has the smack of gerrymandering on a colossal scale. When combined with nationalism, and when viewed from a historical perspective, this intolerance of the mutual freedom of others is very troubling. The extremism of the 1930s didn't occur because people were converted by the arguments of Fascists and Communists, but because they lost faith that the democratic process could give them what they wanted and end the depression. It wasn't muscular or reliable enough.

Scottish nationalism had its own flirtation with Fascism in the 1930s, and it is always sensible to be wary of any nationalism - my bringing up the past may seem snide but is justified. The Nationalists are arguing for a new, strongly nationalistic, atavistic future, and they are sceptical that the democratic system as it stands can deliver it. My point is this - their scepticism will recur in any democracy that isn't a democracy of one, so we can well ask how long it will be before scepticism turns to cynicism or outright rejection.

The Nationalists' democratic blind-spot is evidenced also by their insistence that the Bank of England will remain lender of last resort to iScotland's banks (i.e. in a currency union) or the argument here  that UK research councils will continue to fund an independent Scotland's universities. A big assumption, given that they are overlooking those who will foot the bill - i.e. British taxpayers. There is no suggestion that rUK's leaders will first need to secure the consent of the populace.

2. Xenophobia

Let's do a bit of pragmatics - in an argument about whether to dissolve a 300-year-old union and spend the rest of time as an independent nation, Salmond's focus on the Tory government, elected for a five-year term, and even the comparatively brief Thatcher years, is, one would assume, surely irrelevant. It is not a coherent contribution to the debate. If he went on TV and argued Scotland should be independent because it has an 'S' in its name, this also would be incoherent, to the point we would question his sanity. 

So why don't Salmond's anti-Tory arguments strike us the same way? We don't feel them to be incoherent because, in some way or another, perhaps a discreet way, they are hitting the mark -  there must be some other criterion that makes them relevant.

It cannot be political or psephological, because we are just coming out of thirteen years of Labour government. So in what way are his supporters finding these attacks reasonable - on what frequency are they resonating?

Simple - he is angling for a wider, negative identification of the England and the English with Toryism. That is, a belief certain Scots have about the type of people the English are and always will be - arrogant, posh, supercilious, too powerful, too privileged - and Salmond is keen to exploit it. It is his trump card in anathematizing union with England.

It's a libel, of course, and it's disgusting - nothing more than class and cultural, possibly also ethnic, hatred. But who is surprised? This is nationalism! And, unthinkably, it might be Scotland's future.

3. Fear

Third problem - fear. 'No' voters are frightened to speak out. why? Because our message is, supposedly, 'reactionary'. We, all of us, automatically grant legitimacy to the peripheral voice, and reject the central one as hegemonic and chauvinistic, celebrating authority. One beneficial side effect of a no vote would be the firm rejection of this as absurd undergraduate juvenilia - it is taking away our voices and making us do our politics badly. 

Thursday, 31 July 2014

On Gaza

I just read this interview with Israeli author Amos Oz on the conflict in Gaza. It was recommended to me by friend, and author and journalist, David Patrikarakos.

Seeing as everyone else has an opinion on Israel-Palestine, I thought I should have one too.

First off, I'm a Zionist. I'm not sure why a belief in Israel's right to exist still requires a term, as if believers are agitators some sort of. Is there a term 'Frankist', for people who argue strenuously not only that France exists, but should keep on existing? Obviously not - it's too blandly obvious and universal an argument. So too we shouldn't need the term Zionist any more - history has happened, Israel exists, and the toothpaste won't and shouldn't go back in the tube.

Oz articulates pretty well why I think Israel's existence, in the face of its largely abominable enemies, is a good thing:
This morning I read very carefully the charter of Hamas. It says that the Prophet commands every Muslim to kill every Jew everywhere in the world. It quotes the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and says that the Jews controlled the world through the League of Nations and through the United Nations, that the Jews caused the two world wars and that the entire world is controlled by Jewish money. So I hardly see a prospect for a compromise between Israel and Hamas. I have been a man of compromise all my life. But even a man of compromise cannot approach Hamas and say: "Maybe we meet halfway and Israel only exists on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays."
To borrow an argument from Howard Jacobson: every time sentiments like these are expressed, the case for a Jewish state is made ever stronger. Which is rather self-defeating, if you're Hamas.

All that said, I think Israel has gone terribly astray.

The civilian body count, in this and the other recent interventions in Gaza and Lebanon, has been unacceptable for a country as militarily advanced as Israel. It is disgraceful, and anomalous, that insurgents have inflicted a lower civilian vs. combatant casualty rate than the most technologically sophisticated military in the Middle East (though, admittedly, Hamas would have killed many more civilians were it not for Israeli defences).

The IDF cannot claim innocence - by now they know what happens when you strike one of the world's most densely populated areas with artillery and air-power. It's difficult to avoid the charge of callousness.

I'm not sure the denunciation of Hamas' use of human shield convinces either, just as it didn't convince when America used it to excuse its excesses. There's no doubt that Hamas probably use it, and that it is disgraceful - but if non-combatants are killed, their deaths are still the responsibility of those who opened fire knowingly, not those at the receiving end. Arguing otherwise is an attempt to put responsibility for an action on the person about to suffer it, rather than the person committing it. Which is a terrible, bananas idea.

I wonder if the Israeli military has degenerated into callousness because it is no longer guided by any real political mission - its purpose is just to enjoy doing what the military does best, i.e. killing and destroying. The military of any country would become coarsened in this situation.

Consider this: the IDF is unarguably very good at killing terrorists, an expertise attested by the Western governments that regularly seek their advice. And yet, among developed nations, Israel is disproportionately bad at defeating insurgencies. Has Israel ever successfully concluded a counter-insurgency campaign? 

I wonder further: is this because insurgencies are almost always brought to an end by political, or at least partly political, solutions, whereas Israeli governments have little or no political will to stop fighting the Palestinians? In the absence of which, military action is liable to become just butchery for its own sake.

I don't know why Israeli governments seem happy for the fighting to continue. Maybe the reasons are understandable but misguided, maybe they are totally valid, or maybe Israel wants peace and I've got this totally wrong. But I have always thought that Israel has become, to coin a phrase, stuck in a moment it can't get out of. That is, constantly trying to relive the Six Day War and its triumphal moment of existential legitimacy, except now it has to make do with shooting stone-throwing kids and flattening houses. 

Through a sort of addiction, Israel has worked herself up into the belief that any retreat from absolute self-belief, any backsliding from her (by-now monstrous) sense of limitless justification, would spell doom and total loss of direction. When, really, Israel just has to get on with the boring stuff of being a developed nation state - compromise, diversity, and ultimately, probably, the reality of being a multicultural society (difficult to be anything else in that part of the Med).

Final word to Amos Oz:
I think not about the last 20 or 50 years but about the last 2,000 years. But I will tell you what my hope and prayer for the future of Israel is. I would like to see Israel removed once and for all from the front pages of all the newspapers in the world and instead conquer, occupy and build settlements in the literary, arts, music and architecture supplements. This is my dream for the future.
I think we must get used to, and indeed celebrate, the reality of a muscular Jewish state, not just an intellectual or aesthetically-minded one, but this caveat aside - amen to that.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Meditation on

And here's another thing:

'Barnes' latest—a meditation on memory and aging.'
Stephen Lee, Entertainment Weekly's  

'From the first page of his [Derek Walcott's] superb meditation on death, grief and the passage of time, it's clear we're in the presence of a master.'
Sarah Crown, Guardian

'Playtime: James Franco stars in a meditation on the power of money.'
Adrian Searle, Guardian

'The Snow Queen review – Michael Cunningham's poetic meditation on life and death.'
Stephanie Merritt, Guardian

'Proteus: adventure game is a meditation on place and nature.'
Keith Stuart, Guardian

'the dots join so that this plays as a single, richly human meditation on memory and our notions of who we are.'
Dominic Maxwell, The Times

'12 Years a Slave: A stunningly beautiful if ultimately numbing meditation on the horrors of slavery.'
The Sunday Times

Journalists — novels and films don't 'meditate', they plot and depict, and say out loud. If you can't have a go at summarizing what a book or film expresses, you're probably not qualified to review it. 

Perhaps it is baldly literal and obvious to state that a book is 'about' something, and as a reviewer you would rather avoid it — but if so, wouldn't it be better to find something more interesting and insightful to say, rather than saying the same thing but in a flashy, superficially intellectual high register?

The word I am looking for is meretricious.

REVISIT: Furthermore I struggle to see how it is possible to speak about 'place', 'nature', 'life and death', etc. without also saying something about these things. If there is a subject, there must also be something subsequently that the subject does, or is, or that is true of that subject — otherwise a novel would just be a one-word heading, 'nature', 'life and death', etc. Isn't it logically impossible to just say about something — you have to say something about your topic, and if you're saying nothing about it then you're not doing any meaningful or worthwhile saying whatsoever.

Now a novel could potentially predicate so many things of its subject that it ends up being contradictory and directionless. If the film Playtime proposed (in whatever way it is that fictional narratives propose — a different topic) that 'the power of money is good' and 'the power of money is bad', and 'the power of money is important to our lives' and 'the power of money is irrelevant', and 'the power of money is a political question' and 'the power of money is like the smell of napalm in the morning' - then we'd be defeated in our attempt to summarize what was said of the subject 'the power of money', and we'd say the film amounted to a contradictory, directionless meditation on that topic.

But in almost all cases we don't need to worry about this, because films and novels are plotted, and the degree of contradiction above (note, contradiction — not ambiguity) is impossible in a plotted narrative. Each event in the narrative follows as a consequence of the previous one, and these causal relations are susceptible to a limited set of meanings and interpretations — the story of the Wolf of Wall St getting rich and then becoming dissolute as a result leaves little room for the interpretations 'the power of money is good' or 'the power of money is irrelevant'. Narrative sequence will inevitably have some degree of moral meaning — this is all basic Aristotelian stuff.

Ok, granted, there doubtless exist avant-garde works in which the plot is so disjointed that the work in fact does express the propositions 'the power of money is good' and 'the power of money is bad', and 'the power of money is like the smell of napalm in the morning'. But these are purposefully experimental and exceptional. They also make heavy weather for the reader or viewer.

The plotted coherence of narratives means that in most cases we can, if only we think about it, extract some sort of notion of what a film or novel is all about. That notion might be contestable, of course, or propose merely an ambiguity — but our attraction to ambiguity is usually why we bother to read novels in the first place.

Ambiguity is the result of possible interpretations that are in contention with one another. If we say that narratives are mysterious 'meditations' and leave it at that then we cheat ourselves out of their true, thoughtful value. 

Thursday, 10 July 2014

The ticking bomb

Apparently an academic called John McCullough has published a book on the TV series 24 and its politics. The review in the TLS says it 'popularized - even mythicized - the idea of the "ticking bomb", the short-term emergency during which any measure was legitimate.'

I must say, it always struck me that the Bush administration's use of the ticking bomb scenario could only come from fiction. And not just because that administration had a worryingly slender grasp on reality.

Government agents, according to the scenario, would only use torture as a last resort. At the start of the War on Terror, for instance, the situation was desperate and much better methods (i.e. human intelligence) were unavailable. The ticking bomb scenario, however, presupposes that the spooks already have intelligence data telling them there is a bomb somewhere, and that the person in custody knows about that bomb. Further, they have arrived at this critical juncture in their investigation by successful use of non-violent investigative methods. 

Therefore, far from being a 'last resort' measure, the ticking bomb scenario is premised on the security services being in a fairly advantageous position – they know quite a lot already and have reliable sources of information. In fact, if the intelligence services are doing their job so well already, they surely would not need to use torture, given that it is a notoriously unreliable method that might yield false leads ('I'll tell you anything if you make it stop') or outdated ones ('my comrades changed their plans the minute they knew I'd been arrested'). 

So, if the spies have progressed so far already without torture, using instead surveillance, interception, and human intelligence, they are almost certainly well beyond the point of having to resort to torture. How then can it possibly be reasonable to switch to a worse investigative method at the point of gravest danger? 

Conversely, if the spies are so desperate for information that they have resorted to torturing a suspect, they probably don't have solid proof that the suspect is even connected to terrorism in the first place – certainly not solid enough to mock-drown a suspect. And again, if they do have solid proof a) that the suspect is a terrorist b) that there is a primed bomb somewhere and c) the suspect knows where it is, then they are clearly running a Rolls-Royce data-gathering operation and would jeopardize public safety by reverting to a tool as crude and indiscriminate as torture at this point.

Torture's alright, Bush and friends told us, when it's done on bad guys - but since when did we trust absolutely the authorities to get it right on that score? It is a perfect recipe for brutalizing the innocent. There may well be some argument, out there, that justifies torture, but the ticking bomb scenario cannot justify torture as a rational thing to do. It is a canard.

Monday, 7 July 2014

With wandring steps and slow - morality without God

A couple of nights ago I started an argument in which I proposed that the success of American academia, and the failure of continental European academia (just look at the league tables), might be the result of Europe's banishment and eventual murder of its Jewish talent. The Jewish intellectual tradition took new root in the States, to the eternal impoverishment of us on this side of the Atlantic.

My argument inevitably boiled down to the claim that Jews are by and large smarter than other people. I'm happy enough with this as a philo-Semite, though the others seemed to find it somewhat offensive and off-colour, which gratified me greatly.

Later, after I had dried out a bit, I carried on the debate with my girlfriend Kate (who blogs here). After a few twists and turns, the issue became this: how could we defend a belief as morally necessary if we also knew it to be factually untrue?

(Incidentally the original racial argument is irrelevant to this - any area of human science that encroaches upon a moral question would do. But it was a recent topic of conversation, and I had earlier been set to thinking about it by a BBC article about the most controversial pages on Wikipedia, one of which is on 'race and intelligence').

Ok, to rewind. I'll assume we agree that belief in equality between races is morally necessary - i.e. it is not necessarily a proven truth, but we know since the Holocaust that unless a society adopts it as a basic principle it probably cannot be a decent or civil one.

I'll also assume we believe that scientific method, done well, is able to get at the truth of things.

Here's the test. Let's say some hypothetical scientist - a geneticist, whatever - discovered cast-iron proof that race A is 'better' than race B in ways that threaten our commitment to equality (better at doing certain tasks, more intelligent, stronger, better inter-personal skills, whatever fits the bill). How would we maintain our belief in equality as morally necessary when we knew it to be ungrounded in fact?

The religionist would be able to maintain her belief in the necessity of equality, because God says that equality is good. That makes it a revealed truth that can withstand any challenge from empirical truth. She has premises, and they remain unshaken foundations in this instance.

I, as a secularist, would reject this approach - 'God says so' is not good enough as a reason. But I'm not sure I have any way to maintain my belief in human equality without falling into the errors of the religionist. I still hold that society can only be decent and civil if it is structured, in its laws e.g., as if all humans are equal, but I now know I am making myself believe in a fiction. And then, how can I make myself believe in a fiction without resorting to some sort of arbitrary say-so (a God, perhaps) that overrules my misgivings about its falseness or even makes it magically true? 

One solution would be to censor the work of scientists, but then we would end up with a secular version of the Vatican's Index Librorum Prohibitorum. Moreover, who is the moral elite who gets to decide what we can see and what we can't - wouldn't this have to be based on their having an absolute notion of what is good for us, i.e. would they not basically be a priesthood?

Another solution would be to say that scientific research can go whatever it likes, but must avoid certain areas - i.e. taboos. But then this isn't this prejudice? We are saying that we know in advance what answers we want from science, have already decided what we want the truth to look like before it has been discovered - which is exactly what the religionist says.

Or we could just allow the scientists to keep on working unmolested, but shout them down or put our fingers in our ears whenever they tell us that our laws, policies, and morals are based on a fundamental misapprehension of how the world is. But then again, we would be just like the religionist, complacently cocooning ourselves from the harshness of reality by living a conscious, cynical lie.

So what would we do? How can we find grounds for moral necessities that are strong enough to sustain them even as counterfactuals? How can we find reasons that are, in a sense, purely moral reasons such that they could sustain our moral beliefs no matter what is factually true of ourselves or the world? Would we even want our morals to be like this, or should they be contingent, to be abandoned in a trice if proved false, like scientific theories?

I don't know have an answer to any of the above. It is likely that a moral philosopher does (likely too, unfortunately, that no moral philosopher does because it was an ill-founded question in the first place that didn't need an answer).

The problem is this - at least with religion we had grounds from which to hazard an answer, and argue for our moral beliefs in situations like this. They weren't good grounds, but surely better than none, which is what we have now. Isn't it bad that most educated, reasonably intelligent people would have no way of reasoning themselves towards a viable answer to this question? We have ditched religion, good, but not put in its place anything that will allow us to test if our moral beliefs are sound and well-grounded.

We should not assume that science, and the human sciences especially, will only ever give the good news about humanity. Someone once described Freud's theories as 'kakangelic' - delivering the bad news about human nature. We survived that assault, because the theories were proven unsound - by scientists. But what happens when the scientists are the ones we need to defend our moral beliefs against, when they don't disprove their own theories for us? What will we do with the bad news then?

Richard Dawkins - a clever sixth former who has just worked out not only that God doesn't exist, but that mater, pater, and his housemaster are frightfully thick for believing that He does - won't be much help. Scientism, the naive inability to see that the death of religion left a huge gaping hole - is part of the problem.

The only solution I can see, and one I am increasingly convinced of: teach philosophy to all schoolchildren. 

Sunday, 6 July 2014

In defence of the union

This one’s about Scotland.

I’ve been thinking about the independence debate for a long time. It is something I feel strongly about. I can’t say much about the economic arguments for and against independence, though I’ve no doubt of the sheer, stir-fried madness of building an economy around oil – while the price may fluctuate unpredictably, there’s one true thing you can always predict of oil, which is that it will run out eventually – and currency union with a foreign government cannot be in the interests of either.

But there are other arguments beyond the economic ones, so here goes with my notion of why the UK should remain together.

Why the union is a good thing

I unashamedly love my country, and believe Scotland’s departure would ruin something I love. So let's start here: the union is a good thing, and independence is bad because it would destroy a good thing.

First, the union's success is proven. Scotland and England are bound by the most successful political union in modern history (the Americans fouled their own strong claim to that honour by fighting a colossal civil war). The Nationalists have yet to give any convincing proof whatsoever that the relationship has become dysfunctional or unsustainable.

Gordon Brown is currently doing a good job of arguing that the relationship works, and can continue to work, because it redistributes wealth, shares risk, and so makes social-democratic government possible across the UK. I agree with that, and it is sensible politics, but more central to the union, I believe, is talent-sharing – Scotland produces more talent than it can provide opportunities for; union allows the UK to benefit from Scotland’s unusually deep resources of innovators, thinkers, and doers, while Scotland benefits from the broader canvas its larger and more populous neighbour can offer.

It is no surprise then that the Scottish contribution to the union so often seems to be institutional – the BBC, the Bank of England, and the Oxford English Dictionary are all in large part the bairns of south-bound Scotsmen. Parliament and the army are similarly Scot-heavy – a mere fifty years after union, a quarter of British Army officers (i.e. not just rankers) were Scottish. So it seems clear that ambitious Scotsmen saw in England, and still do, stable and growing institutions that can offer good prospects for advancement to the talented.

This is where the union faces a problem. It is a union of elites – a stitch-up between lousy parliamentarians without a care for the common man, if you believe Rabbie Burns, and even if you don’t it is abundantly clear from all those Burns Night suppers at Oxbridge colleges and on board HMS What-nots, probably attended by English-sounding Scotsmen with names like Sandy or Rory, that the union is closer at the top of society than it is at the bottom. No middle- or working-class English family or workplace, for example, would celebrate Burns Night.

I think this does leave open a chink for the nationalist argument that the union always overlooked the larger population of Scotland, and that this sense of alienation reached a climax during the Thatcher years. But I’ll turn to that below. In short, it seems to me that Scotland has with its only neighbour more common understanding, more shared experience, and more familiarity than it will ever have with any other nation. The Nationalist habit of hunting for exemplar nations that an independent Scotland could imitate – as I discuss below – is bogus.

Why independence would be a bad thing

I also love Scotland greatly, and so reject independence as something that would do harm to something I love. Here is why I think it would harm Scotland, and so be a bad thing.

As is often pointed out, and recently in a staggeringly reasonable intervention by John Major, independence would really amount to the substitution of one union for another – the main difference being that the new union with Europe would be one in which Scotland would have vastly less influence. Nor is the present a good time to be a small nation in Europe.

Further, Scottish nationalism exploits and incites the worst forms of political feeling. Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP said quite openly that (I’m afraid this is from memory as I can’t find the link) vocal anti-Scottish feeling in England is absolutely welcome because it will only drive the Scots further away from the union – if you’re a nationalist xenophobia is always good for business. The constant claims of 'bullying from Westminster', like this one, never quite seem to be spoken with disappointment or regret, but more with relish. For the Nats, it's good for Scots to feel bullied. Anything that causes them to feel alienation from or hatred of England is good.

Similarly, Salmond may claim that Cameron declines a televised debate because he is ‘feartie’ (God those laboured Scotticisms) but Cameron is surely is right to refuse to debate with someone whom he cannot trust not to appeal to the worst forms of political feeling. With the SNP trying in every other sentence to associate all England with Toryism, it seems almost certain that Salmond would use a TV debate to entrap Cameron as an English toff, and label him once and for all as a person, ethnicity, culture the hatred of which he can profit from politically.

For God's sake Scotland, choose carefully.

While Salmond deserves credit for trying to tackle head-on the problem of sectarianism in Scotland, the project is doomed to failure because he could never accept that that same general wellspring of negativity and self-destructive anger, which makes a Glaswegian protestant hate a Glaswegian Catholic, also feeds the anti-English sentiment that he turns to electoral advantage.

This is not to say that all nationalists are bigots – but enough of them are, and the SNP cannot feign ignorance of the fact that anti-English prejudice accounts for a portion of their vote. The Scotsman who blames the English for all his problems is no more reasonable than the Burnley bigot who votes BNP because it’s all the fault of the Pakistanis. (If you imagine the two can be morally differentiated because Scotland is more ‘marginal’, less ‘hegemonic’, then you suppose that two wrongs make a right, and you are a fool). Scottish nationalism’s flirtation with Fascism in the 1930s, and Salmond’s recent fawning over Putin, are no anomalies.

And then, and then – what happens if an independent Scotland were to find that its problems persist? The English would no longer be to blame, but how likely is it, really, that this would result in a sudden recanting – ‘we blamed another nation before, but now the buck stops with us’? What politician (and Salmond is a supreme politician) and what nationalist would turn their back on a proven escape route that leads from blame and embarrassment to blessed vindication? In a new nation whose very existence vindicated the politics of grievance and blame-pointing, I suggest that this just would not happen. They couldn’t blame the English this time, of course, but there would be others to carry the can – Jews, Pakistanis, the Irish (again). The nationalist genie would be well and truly out of the bottle.

The perils of secession

I realize I am being pretty much as negative as one can be about the SNP, and maybe I should be fairer. I have, for instance, totally overlooked the electoral argument for Scottish independence – that is, that Scotland should secede because of an irreconcilable democratic deficit that sees Scots shackled to Tory governments (including Thatcher's) that they didn’t vote for.

This is, on the face of it, a strong argument – an irreconcilable difference and hence grounds for divorce. But only on the face of it – if what follows below is right, it soon crumbles like shortbread.

First off, yes, Scotland sometimes gets lumbered with Tory governments that they didn't vote for – apart, that is, from all those occasions where they don't and Labour get in instead. We all suffer governments we didn't vote for - living together and in freedom means we sometimes have to endure the choices of other, equally free citizens. This is not just the price (worth paying) of democracy, but the price we pay for being part of a larger, richer, more powerful whole.

And there are serious problems with secession as the solution to democratic deficit.

Let’s say the residents of my street (every one of them) were so annoyed at voting Green every election but never getting what they voted for, that they decided to split off from the UK and form the People’s Republic of Acacia Avenue. It would be guaranteed that our votes would always count, but in turn we would pay the price of living in a much smaller, weaker state that would struggle to find its way in the world. Maybe we’d be happy with this because, whatever the cost, we’d still be the sort of body politic we wanted to be – but even so we’d surely wonder if our new weakness inflicted on us a much greater disadvantage than the democratic deficit that was the original problem. Realistically, we’d have little chance of realizing our democratic wish to make the world greener because our tiny size would limit our ability to change it.

In other words, we would have swapped one democratic deficit for another, possibly equally bad one.

So far then, The People’s Republic of Acacia Avenue is obviously equivalent to an independent Scotland:  one that is in hock to an English currency union, and hopelessly at sea in a perennially unlistening EU. This also underlies Brown’s argument – ditching the UK in the name of social democracy is a bad idea for Scotland because membership of the UK makes that goal more achievable.

But there’s another problem. Secession really solves the problem by a process of atomization, and this is bad for democracy. Acacia Avenue would have pruned itself down into a politically homogenous state in which debate becomes pointless because there are no longer any meaningful political differences. The Nationalist argument falls down because it assumes that the narrow consensus in Scottish politics is a good thing that should be prolonged by independence, when really independence would prolong a strain of political sclerosis that is definitely a bad thing.

Chopping up the body politic into lots of new, homogenous, one-party units won’t work because, after all, amputation isn't much of a cure. The proper solution to calcified regional voting must be renewed courting of the vote, change in the political parties, or the formation of new political parties. The nationalist solution, on the other hand, is essentially defeatist.

My comparison between Scotland and Acacia Avenue has a problem of its own, however, and you might accuse me of being dishonest. The two are not equivalent because Scotland already is a separate political unit by dint of historical, cultural, linguistic features that far pre-date the death of the Scottish Conservatives. Acacia Avenue on the other hand feels itself separate only because of its voting habits, and to make into a separate entity on this basis alone would be artificial. Scotland forms a homogenous unit quite naturally, and the current Nationalist movement is long preceded by a feeling of difference totally unrelated to electoral science.

In other words, the Nationalist would argue that Scotland’s different voting pattern adumbrates and is symptomatic of a wider split between England and Scotland. Even if she departed citing electoral reasons, an independent Scotland would hardly constitute an artificial political construct.

The identity problem

So the Nationalist would argue that the problems I outlined above are irrelevant, because the nature of Scottish identity and Scottish national feeling totally differentiate it from my hypothetical street in north Oxford – I’m comparing apples and oranges. This doesn’t end the argument however – it is still valid, I think, to ask whether Scottish identity is a sensible reason to risk everything I described above. The Scots are free to do what they like – but we are free to scrutinize their reasons, even ‘private’ ones such as national feeling.

This takes us into new territory. I was at a talk recently where Vernon Bogdanor, the constitutional historian, argued that the economic case against Scottish independence is neither here nor there – all that matters is whether or not the Scots themselves feel they belong to, and are compatible with the UK. As he said – no economic argument in 1916 could have persuaded the Irish to remain part of Britain.

This feels like a clincher – no one can tell the Scots how they should feel about their national identity. It is by definition their business and no one else’s. I think this explains a certain reticence in non-Scottish unionists – weighing in on this matter feels intrusive and inflammatory, and possibly inappropriate. How can we tell nationalist Scots that what they feel is wrong? Surely there is no arguing how someone feels?*

And there, bingo, is my objection. Unarguable arguments have no place in our political debate. Politics just is the process of coming to decisions by reasoned and public argument -  an issue that cannot be argued publicly and mutually is by definition not part of political debate. As Scotland's place in the union must be determined by political debate and that only (and not by the media, or by football, or by arm-wrestling, or whatever) am I not right in saying that we therefore must put Nationalists' feeling of Scottishness to the test? Otherwise we'd be in the absurd position of saying that the reasoning behind the greatest upheaval in modern British constitutional history is not a matter for political debate.

The comparison of the break-up of the union to a divorce is common, and very apt – it realizes the truth that a mutual union can only be dissolved from within that union. The process of breaking up is another one of those shared processes that constitute a union, like a joint bank account and carnal knowledge.

So our anxious notion that we should steer clear of Scottish national feeling as grounds for independence is misguided – this is our business. In open, democratic societies, anything political is everyone's business always.

Moreover, I said before that I believe Scotland’s departure would harm my country - as I love my country and am concerned for it, is it not therefore right that I should ask why my country is being harmed, and whether these are good reasons for harming my country? I have a stake in this. Given that differences of identity and their reconciliation are integral to this union – part of the common ground on which it came together – how can it be right to then say that an identity becomes the business of exclusively one member of that union when talk turns to separation? According to Bogdanor, mutuality goes out of the window as soon as identity is invoked as grounds for divorce – but isn’t this an arbitrary turn given that previously we pooled identity? When does ‘none of your business’ kick in within a union?

Identity politics as a whole, I believe, are poisonous to our political process because they falsely divide the shared space of public debate and grant a portion of it to one party exclusively. Moreover identity politics can only be bad, because they have the potential to make bad ideas unarguable – ‘you might think it unreasonable to destroy a 300-year-old union and impoverish forever its former members, but because my reasons are of the identity kind you cannot contest them.’

In fact I wonder if this belief in exclusive reasoning, and in unimpeachable private justification, explains the bad behaviour and terrible reasoning of the Cybernats. Dashing sallies into flagrant, steaming unreason are par for the course when you know neither reality nor reasoning can ever be called on to examine your arguments. Just witness, for example, John Swinney on Standard Life:

'Standard Life's comments [that they will relocate to London in the event of independence] show exactly why our proposals for a formal currency area are the right proposals, why they are in the best interests of business on both sides of the border and why that is what will be implemented by both governments.'

The illogic is staggering: currency union with England is the right choice, because it will remedy the damaging consequences of independence. This is an illustration of why independence is the wrong choice in this context, i.e. due to its damaging consequences. You could easily establish beyond doubt that a pack of frozen peas remedies a black eye, but this would be no argument for why you should punch me in the first place.

This is to say nothing of the malignancy directed at J. K. Rowling and the unsettlingly bizarre response of MSP Christina McKelvie of the SNP.

Fake ID

So appealing to private sentiments of national feeling can never be decisive in matters of public, political debate. If you agree that the Nationalists’ notion of their own Scottish identity is up for argument also, you’ll grant me permission to say that, as I see it, Salmond wants to dissolve the union in the name of a small-minded, wretchedly ungenerous concept of Scottishness that is utterly dishonest and confused about Scotland’s past and present.

And this is what I’ve wanted to say all along.

The thing that has always nagged at the back of my mind is that Scottish nationalism, as also the Welsh sort, is just so luxuriously sentimental. It doesn’t seem to have arisen as the solution to any problem – indeed the Nationalists have yet to come up with any convincing argument that there is some urgent problem that only independence can solve. Rather Scottish nationalism seems to have emerged from a society sufficiently removed from economic exigencies to indulge in a strain of pure political emotionalism. In the words of George Orwell:

What is perhaps less obvious is just why the leading writers of the ’twenties were predominantly pessimistic.… Was it not, after all, because these people were writing in an exceptionally comfortable epoch? It is just in such times that ‘cosmic despair’ can flourish. People with empty bellies never despair of the universe, nor even think about the universe, for that matter.
(from ‘Inside the Whale’)

To enjoy success at the ballot box, Salmond need only encourage the lavish expenditure of sentiment; constitutional and economic matters are secondary and anyway can be fixed around the sentiment as an afterthought.

I don’t know why I find this so objectionable. Rationally, because this is an absurdly trivial reason for destroying the United Kingdom. But on a more emotional level, it is because it strikes me as utterly phoney and ersatz – plastic. 

More importantly, however, Salmond’s grandstanding masks some serious equivocations over the nature of Scottish identity and history, which on closer inspection suggest an independent Scotland would eventually face a massive identity crisis.

First off is the constant sounding off about exemplars an independent Scotland could imitate – Ireland! (a call that has gone silent post-2008) Iceland! (ditto) Scandinavia!

Here’s my beef – isn’t it strange for a nation state to conceive of its destiny in terms of other countries? President Obama would never say ‘a few more years, guys, and this country could be just like Canada’. Similarly, France would never aspire to be Germany, despite her long and frequently inglorious history of collaboration with that country.

This is because nation states are founded on a fiction of their own uniqueness. The Nats’ inability to create or believe in this fiction is telling – it not only defeats one of their main arguments for independence (viz. that Scotland has a long history of distinctiveness – I agree, but if that is so then why is her future to be found in other countries, according to the Nats?) but it also speaks of a reticence about just who Scotland would be once divorced from the UK. I suggest this reticence is in fact prevarication, brought about by Nationalists’ silent discomfort with the realities of Scotland’s history, the high points of which are all inextricably embedded in the union.

The confusion is illustrated by Salmond’s professed desire to challenge the idea that ‘Scotland was a poor, wee deprived place that had never had a fair kick o’ the ball.' Isn’t this exactly what Nationalists try to convince us of? That is, that Scotland a) is inherently a wee country (more on this below) and so can never be truly reconciled with the ambitious, bully-boy English, and b) has never had a fair kick of the ball, due to the constraints of the union? In fact, don’t the Nats need the second point to be true for their policies to have any traction?

We often see in Scotland a rather strenuous effort to convince Scots that theirs is a small country that minds its own business – almost as a dishonest attempt to slough off all those years where Scotland was in fact a big-thinking, expansive, ambitious country with every intention to play with the bigger boys (see Niall Ferguson’s argument that Scotland really has a cultural swagger rather than a cultural cringe). It seems that even in the early years of the union, it was often said that poverty in Scotland was caused by Scots being too ambitious and adventurous, unlike the humble, stay-at-home crofters of the Nationalist imagination. He may have been repeating a mere stereotype, but Daniel Defoe seems quite certain in his view that Scotland could prosper if only Scots would stay at home to improve their country, rather than expanding overseas to seek greater fortunes. And who can forget Hardy's Donald Farfrae (i.e. 'far frae haim') in The Mayor of Casterbridge:

Donald himself shared it, his voice being distinctly audible in the street, giving strong expression to a song of his dear native country that he loved so well as never to have revisited it.

When I lived in Scotland there was an anti-racism campaign on TV – ‘A small country. Not a country of small minds’ was the slogan. Something has always struck me as odd about this – since when do countries go to such lengths to identify themselves as ‘small’. Isn’t it always somewhat pejorative? Great Britain is called so because it is the 'greatest' in size among the British Isles, but in popular imagination it denotes a different sort of 'greatness'.  I don’t know, maybe it’s just because Scotland as 'small country' clashes so directly with 80’s group Big Country and their punch-the-air vision of misty lochs, pipes, and other-such noble things.

It is almost as if Scots are being told to take their medicine – browbeaten into believing in a phoney Scottish meekness, all fiddle-dee-dee, we’ll just modestly look after our crofts thank-you-very-much nonsense. And all this because the nationalist argument requires it, and because it does away with the nasty ambiguity of the real Scotland’s high-rolling, frequently colonialist history. The other option is to avoid entirely the tricky bits of post-union Scottish history and opt instead for Disneyland visions of medieval Scotland – hence Bannockburn and vast, ludicrous importance of Mel Gibson to modern Scottish politics.


Let's be honest about the Scottish role in union. Make a list of eminent Scots, on paper or in your head. I’m willing to bet you a crisp one-pound note that aside from the national leaders (Wallace, the Bruce, Rob Roy) they are all post-union figures. This is not because Scotland is weak without England. It is because put together the two formed the world’s winning team, resulting in an explosion of talent and creativity that vindicates forever the benefits of fellowship and mutual respect. Unless, that is, the Nats manage to convince their countrymen instead of the virtues of divisiveness, grievance, and narcissism.

Salmond’s Scotland already feels a little like an ideological theme-park – nationalist monomania means nothing can happen north of Carlisle without it being reduced to Scottishness one way or another. Such is life when you decide to cohabit with ideologues. The always brilliant, always humane Howard Jacobson said something very true of far-right Australian nationalists:

The fact that the party is called One Nation tells you all you need to know about it. Why would anybody want only one anything?

The Nationalist project can only diminish Scotland. Can only make it pettier, less diverse, less entangled with the world that exists beyond its own self-imaginings. The choice of Bannockburn not just as a marker point for the date of the referendum but also as an anthem, in 'Flower of Scotland', tells us all we need to know – what else but a spiteful and false vision of Scotland disregards her triumph in engineering, conceiving, and fighting for the modern world, and celebrates instead a passing victory against her neighbours in the pre-modern period? This is bread-and-butter for the nationalist – but anathema to any patriot.

Scotland, please vote yes to the union.

* (You can see me trying to put this to Bogdanor at the talk itself here, at 32.20. Watch it through to the end to see the moderator ask me to shut up).

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Reparations: the case against

Today I read 'The Case for Reparations' in The Atlantic. It is well-written, but far too many of its 15,000 words simply describe the injustices faced by black Americans, rather than argue the case for reparations as the only reasonable and right response to them. Here then are some of the problems that I believe inevitably undo any argument for reparations.

The impossibility of proper justification

Reparations would entail either 1) seizing money from businesses that profited from slavery, or 2) the disbursement of taxpayers' money by consenting governments. To preserve rule of law (circumstance 1) or democratic accountability (2), both actions would have to be justified by a standard of proof that is impossible to attain in judging a 150-400 year-old crime. That is, it is a burden of proof that historical research could not realistically bear - company X made a bundle from slavery, lost it in the Depression, and then built up a new fortune from scratch - how much do they have to pay? what about African-American Y who has suffered misfortune and injustice totally unrelated to race and slavery? Never mind the complex calculations, how to gather all that data?

The problem is in making a mixed argument - seeking a political and legal end using historical proofs. The historian cannot provide evidence strong enough to justify a legal decision to seize money, or a political decision to spend taxpayers' money (though I admit the last is debatable).

Reparation is thought justifiable as a form of redress, but it is also a punishment and one for which justification is no longer attainable. We could always disregard the question of justifiable punishment, and say we must pay reparations as a moral imperative, but doing so would damage rule of law and democratic accountability - given their historically proven value as defences against slavery and inequality, this would risk being self-defeating.

Money can't buy everything

Making a society pay for the sins of its ancestors is plainly absurd - if we have to take the rap for their crimes we should also get the credit for the good they did, so I deserve a medal at the very least for great-great-grandfather Hywel's bravery at Sebastopol (he didn't exist really). The reparation argument is saved from this absurdity because it says we should pay only for those crimes that still affect our society.

But this is another example of a muddled argument. Seeking restitution for a past wrong is not the same as reforming society, and I'm not sure the one segues into the other. In fact, this move takes the argument from the frying pan into the fire. 

Consider that if the effects of crimes are monetized, the effects of good deeds should be also. So the reparation amount would have to be abated proportional to the positive things that have been done to mitigate the legacy of slavery, e.g. the Civil Rights Act, affirmative action. As the reparationist's entire argument is based on the premise that deeds can be translated into dollars, she would have to agree that it would be unjust for US taxpayers and companies to pay the full price of the crime of slavery, because at least some deeds have been carried out to reverse its effects.

But something strikes me as very wrong here. We would have to factor these reparatory deeds in to the reckoning, only so as to convert them into a reparatory monetary value - but isn't this last calculation redundant, overlooking the very real value the Civil Rights Act and affirmative action already have as reparations? As they already work towards the same end as reparations (justice for black America) why not continue this process and carry out further such actions in the future? Why bother with the extra monetary calculations? 

To illustrate. Let's say a judge decided slavery warranted $100 trillion in reparations, but that the Civil Rights Act and affirmative action amounted to $5 trillion restitution each – after all, no one would deny that slaves in the 19th century lived worse lives than black Americans today. If that reduced the debt to $90 tn, then further acts of social justice would surely, eventually reduce the debt to $0. So on the reparationist's own terms, through social reform alone we could clear the debt of slavery, create a fairer society, and avoid entirely the problems of reparations detailed above. This would always be the better, most rational choice.

At this juncture we would surely feel that monetary reparation does not get at the heart of this matter. We intuitively want to take money out of the equation, I suggest, because paying off individuals as a solution to a social problem would be a mistake from the very start. Social dysfunction is remedied by social change (driven by e.g. law, as with the CRA), not by paying off for their troubles those afflicted by it, and leaving the dysfunction in place.

So as soon as the reparationist shifts the question - from restitution for a past crime to social reform in the present - cash payment becomes the wrong answer. It just doesn't answer the kind of problem that social injustice is - if the government tomorrow said it would tackle inner-city poverty by paying damages to poor families by way of apology, we'd think it not merely odd but incoherent, logically inconsistent. It would be, I think, a category mistake (there's a further argument to be made for why it is a category mistake, an argument that I perhaps misconceive, but I'll leave it for now - I think it's something to do with the fact that it is difficult, maybe impossible, to identify consistent moral agency across a society changing over time, but necessary if a claim for reparations is to be valid). 

Complete redundancy

So slavery must be atoned for because of its enduring legacy, and to do that we must reform the society that it created. If I am right that this can really only be done by government action, education, better morality etc. then the reparationist's argument becomes indistinguishable from that of the liberal (and indeed the vast majority of reasonable people) who says that we should try to create a fairer and more fulfilling society for all its members. 

So if that's where we end up, why bother with the case for reparations at all? For all the heat and noise generated by its rhetoric, the case for reparations, rationally conceived, proposes nothing that isn't proposed by everyday, vanilla-flavoured liberalism.

This does not exhaust the pro-reparation argument, but neither does it exhaust the anti-reparation argument. There is much more to be said and I'm open to challenges.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Against critical theory

[This post was previously titled: Philosophy to the rescue? A credo, or something like it]

It’s time I stopped prevaricating and laid out some basic beliefs. So this one’s about what I think is wrong with the humanities (and therefore us graduates schooled in it), why I think philosophy could be a remedy, and why I have misgivings about my own remedy.

(I'm avoiding giving examples for brevity's sake, but will provide if challenged. Update - see here instead for an excellent, and highly amusing, close analysis of an example of theory talk).

To lay out where I stand in all this – I studied English lit. in a theory-heavy English department joint with classics in a traditional, ‘philological’ classics department. I also did some linguistics. Afterwards came a doctorate in classics, accompanied by a side-interest in philosophy that fed into my research; finally (and coincidentally) I ended up working as an administrator at the Philosophy Faculty in Oxford.

My conclusion from this petty odyssey in academia is as follows. Critical theory is:

  1. drek
  2. junk
  3. cack
  4. and balls

Now this won’t do as an argument at all, but at least it gives you a taste of my strength of feeling on the matter. More delicately, then, here is my gripe on how we have been harmed by critical theory (a field in which, he huffed pompously and not a little defensively, I am reasonably well-versed and have achieved some success).

Ceci n'est pas un philosophe.

Leg before wicket and a fair shot

First, a large portion of recent generations of humanities graduates have been taught not only that clarity is dispensable, but also that lack of clarity is a likely sign of a greater intellect than their own at work. 

How did we ever come to this pass? What tailspin into utter, abject debasement has led us to think that understanding one another is not important?

For it seems, how you say, clear that clarity is in fact vital and precious – like the leg-before-wicket rule in cricket, it allows your opponent a clean and fair shot at the argument you are presenting as a target. Now of course, of course, ‘fairness’ is merely a metaphysical construct that can easily be shown to contain fatal internal contradictions… But if we cannot get at each other’s arguments because they are locked away in opaque or nonsensical language, what are our chances of improving them or detecting and rejecting fallacies? And if academia isn’t the business of trying to make arguments better, then what is it? 

This is to say nothing of the toxic, hierarchical notion that students should blame their own deficiencies for the bad arguments of their theoretical elders and betters. It gives a sense of what a stillborn turkey the theory industry really is – it offers an education integral to which is the student’s constant awareness that he is incapable of and unequal to what he is learning. Just as bad, an education that leaves the student feeling unable to tell whether or not an argument is sufficiently clear.

(I’m trying to keep it brief, but I’ve always thought that this degeneracy, this outrageous regressiveness in a supposedly progressive endeavour, is a result of the wider failure of the theory project: while the original theorists had sought to incorporate social-scientific method into literary studies (psychoanalysis, Marxist economics, linguistics) later theorists balked at the democratization implicit in scientific method – that is, the process in which an author’s ideas turn into paraphrasable theorems and principles and thereafter cease to belong to the author, no longer depending on his or her original formulation of them (how many physicists working right now have read Newton’s Principia I wonder, yet how many use his ideas in some form?). Not liking this at all, the post-structuralists retreated into a viciously regressive, oracular prose that resisted paraphrase or methodization - to study Derrida you need to sit at the very feet of the hierophant himself, or near as damn it. Dead as the author may be, the theory industry does a good job of keeping him alive and well.).

The timidity of the blind

So the student of critical theory is punished into timidity, and like a bullied spouse assumes the faults must all be his or her own. It is also the timidity of the blind – being told that truth, falsity, and reason are naïve fictions to be disregarded is a bit like attending a terrifying dinner party governed by strict and totally arbitrary rules of etiquette – fumbling in the dark, with no sense of what the rules are, most would decide it’s best to say nothing at all. Which, funnily enough, is exactly what happens at most seminars.

The acolyte is stripped of her life-long tools of thought and argument (as I remember it, with a certain relish on the part of the lecturers), and given in their stead bad, shoddily expressed, and poorly reasoned maxims. Which explains those silent seminars - we all would avoid difficult questions and ambiguity if we no longer possessed means of arguing and reasoning our way to answers and resolution. Again - any academic discipline that causes its students to shun difficulty and ambiguity is not an academic discipline.

It is noticeable too how the initiate, stumbling blindly through total arbitrariness, tends to grab hold of anything apprehensible, indifferent to how the bit he has grasped belongs to the larger argument (if indeed there is one). In the absence of true understanding, and probably true reasoning too, he usually clings on to the injunctions and prohibitions of critical theory, in the manner of the medieval peasant who knows what heresy is even if he doesn't understand the theologians' arguments. This is the reason, I suggest, why the fervour with which many literature students reject authorial intention, say, is vastly greater than their actual understanding of those writers who rule it out and their putative reasons. Amidst all the babble and confusion, a retreat into a taboo mentality at least offers some security.

In fact, clinging on to whatever paltry certainties can be salvaged, and never abandoning them, is a vital survival tactic - say the wrong thing and the secret and mysterious workings of theory logic (the profound truth of which, like the words of a Sibyl, is confirmed by their obscurity) will show the student to be making the argument of an essentialist, or an intentionalist, or a capitalist, or a metaphysicalist – maybe even a Tory. Given that the danger of denunciation is ever-present and, in the absence of logic, always unpredictable, it is understandable why theorists and their students shun equivocation and exploratory argumentation in favour of reductiveness. 

Indeed, one of the most boring things about theoretical interpretations of literature is that they so often come round to the same, safe conclusion whatever the text under interpretation. This is either because the theorist advances a theory that is true but only trivially so; or because a myopically reductive vision of the world inevitably  makes the things in it look blurred and samey. Or both.

The bad news

The bad news, if you ask me, is really quite bad. A significant portion of our highly educated young people have been schooled in theories that fail entirely to describe the lived experience of being a self-conscious, cognitively rich human being. To be human, the theorist tells us, is to be little more than economically determined, ideologically driven, intrinsically political trash. 

These graduates also have an aversion to reasoned argument, and the inability to do it well when ventured. Theory seminars, in my experience (with the exception of a course taught by cultural theorist John Frow), were rather sorry and sterile affairs, largely because argument becomes impossible when your opponent can always disclaim any intention to say something true, when any potential shared premise can be rejected as arbitrary, and when the absence of clarity means that the very subject under discussion is not clear.

They are timid in confronting differences of degree, as opposed to absolute difference, and unsure in reasoning through their own intellectual ambivalence.  Fatal is any complexity, but particularly moral/political complexity, that cannot be banished by oracular assertion. Acknowledgement of ambiguity and paradox is avoided – as above, speculative reasoning can only lead to further alienation, and possibly ideological deviancy and subsequent denunciation.

Another corollary is the continuing rude health of the absurd and harmful postmodern notion that the difference between the centre and the margin is a moral one. That is, the relativism that says our moral criteria should vary according to identity. Not only is this arbitrary and unreasonable (how is what-I-am organically linked to judgement of the rightness or wrongness of my actions?), toxic (know me by what I say and think, please), and self-defeating (isn’t it racists, reactionaries, and chauvinists who reduce us to what, not who we are?), it also tends to lead us to censure unfairly and oppress those at the centre, while mindlessly indulging those on the periphery. 

The obsession with identity politics, despite its intellectual poverty, is lamentable. That something as important as gender equality is served by the thin and unthinking arguments of modern-day feminism is a howling outrage. And we can lay it right at the door of Kristeva, Irigary, Butler et al.

Given that these ex-students constitute a large portion of our intellectual and cultural elite, the question arises – come the day our way of living is seriously challenged, do we want them to be the ones to defend it and argue its value? Would they even be capable? 

It might be objected (or more precisely, insinuated) that I’m clearly reading the Telegraph too much and making ‘England, summer of 1940’ an arbitrary focal point for all moral and political debate. But then the Second World War is already of moral and political relevance to critical theory, which after all was spawned by a generation of variously defeatist, dishonest, and downright treacherous French authors (though this is unfair to Paul De Man, the deconstructionist who spent the war penning elegant solutions to the ‘Jewish problem’, as he was in fact Belgian).

The good news

But there is good news! On the face of it, it feels callously wasteful and almost nihilistic to say that the solution lies in junking decades’ worth of research and writing. But it does lie there, and we should remember that academia is only valuable to us as long as it is able to turn on a dime and reject its mistakes. Alchemy is no more valid and grounded in truth for all the time and effort it swallowed up, and the academy’s willingness to turn its back on its mistakes is a reassuring sign of a lively resistance to dogma. So in the rejection of all those glossy tomes would be the consolation that we are not damned eternally by our errors.

If the problem with critical theory has always been that it ‘is inept philosophy applied to literature and culture’ (so Denis Dutton), is it possible that the remedy is again in philosophy, but this time philosophy done well. By ‘philosophy’ I mean, totally unapologetically, analytical philosophy – dry-as-dust, Anglo-American, ‘if p then q’ philosophy. And I emphatically do not mean the continental drek that helped get us in this mess in the first place.

Actually, by ‘philosophy’ I mean the kind of philosophy-lite that I dabble in myself and incorporate into my literary research. Here’s why I think it can stop the rot:

  • It will teach us how to argue again;
  • It will teach us to be properly reflective again;
  • It thrives on difficulty and paradox;
  • Beyond academia, it will give us the tools for moral debate needed in a post-religious society;
  • Having rigour and method, it interfaces well with science (esp. maths & physics) – the future of the humanities looks dim without some reconciliation with the scientists taking place;
  • More boldly - all academic pursuits taken to their highest level of abstraction turn into maths, physics, or philosophy. Why not give as many students as possible a head-start in making that climb if they want to try it?

I am not saying that we should make all students into analytical philosophers. Rather, if we wish to theorize what we are doing, we are better looking to philosophy than critical theory. Now here are my misgivings:

  • My idea requires the cooperation of philosophers, and they may have no wish to ride to the rescue of the rest of the humanities;
  • I almost certainly over-estimate the clarity of the analytical tradition – in fact, I know for myself that I do, and have been told as much by a philosopher working in the field . Philosophers have their own love of excessive technicality and jargon;
  • I overlook the many others working in the humanities still uninfected by theory - those practising such rigorous skills as textual criticism, archival research, close analysis, and the like. I overlook them mainly because I find them less interesting, too atomistic, and also because they have little truck with the world of ideas (I'm a classicist - experto credite).
  • The division between analytical and continental philosophy is not as hard and fast as I make out, and prominent philosophers of the former stripe are trying to reconcile the two.

And the main misgiving: it is almost certain that I am a little awestruck, and more than a little gauche in the presence of philosophers. Partly because for some time I’ve been a philosopher manqué, which became embarrassing when I started working in a philosophy faculty (fawning fan-boy). The epiphany was watching philosopher of mind Ted Honderich give a talk in Edinburgh around 2002 – the focus, mental acuity, commitment, and aggression of the Q&A that followed the talk were a revelation. They behaved as if something was actually at stake! It made it immediately obvious to me (or maybe even more obvious than before) that I had to abandon the flaccid sterility of critical theory. My original plan was to digress into linguistics, and then return to do a thesis in Eng. Lit. informed by proper rigorous method. Classics intervened, but I hope I ended doing something not too far off the original plan.

Finally, it is only fair that I  say that Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia, which I gave a bit of a slagging in a previous post, is actually excellent on the impostures of theorists, especially in the chapter of Walter Benjamin. Also, it’s probably clear that my picture of a theory-poisoned humanities undergrad resembles quite closely a certain type who writes for, comments on, and reads the Guardian. This foreshadows my next big post, which will be on the failure of the modern left.