Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Fort Hood and history

I hope it isn't too soon to grind on abstractly about this story (update: and this one), given that both are very real disasters.

The shooter was, apparently, a soldier suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. Which got me thinking - why does this sort of craziness seem to happen in the United States more often than other developed countries? Which in turn led me to the improbable answer - because of historical exceptionalism and the denial of empire.

That is: if America faced up to its de facto imperial status, then the stresses of constant warfare, the projection of power, global responsibility, etc. would be both predictable and rationalizable. However, because America believes itself to be an exception to the historical pattern of empire, the consequences of its actual imperial position impact the national psyche as unexpected and irrational traumas.

And madness ensues. 

Ok - it is probably bad taste to say that this is why the Fort Hood shooter did what he did, and so greet human disaster with mental masturbation. So I won't go that far. I will, however, point out the following.

Against historical exceptionalism, one can say that a nation's main advantage in conceiving itself historically is that it allows it to make the analogies that constitute self-recognition and understanding; and from that, to build heuristic models. If I can see by means of comparison that I am this or that type of power, I can also see what is likely to follow as consequences of being that type. We don't always need history to make analogies, but superpowers usually do as only one or two major superpowers exist at a time - you might need to go back a bit to find a useful comparison.

Imagine, for instance, that I didn't know I was middle class. My life wouldn't just be unpredictable, it would be a series of disjointed, unexplained, and terrifyingly odd consequences - why do they insist so urgently that I watch Scandinavian TV programmes? do they all imagine that food is so very interesting? who or what is Yotam Ottolenghi?

So one advantage of putting oneself in the right category, or of doing the semantics right at a national level, is that it turns events into entailments and so makes experience more predictable and less traumatic.

A further advantage is that it allows for cultural conditioning, including at the level of the individual. I think this is something America understood in its past specifically with regard to empire building - life on the frontier colonizing the West was hard and violent, and so this way of life was built up into the armature of the cowboy archetype. These discomforts were not anomalous or irrational, no matter that they felt so to the person undergoing them - they were entirely in place and more than that, the meaningful building blocks of a bigger cultural project. Trauma was made bearable.

The same goes, I have heard it said, for Australian 'mateness' - comradeship was necessary just to survive and expand in such a hostile environment, but the notion grew (or has grown) into a unifying idea of Australianness. 

I do not at all see that the modern United States has anything to hand that could condition its national psyche for the reality of maintaining its foremost place in the world. The Davy Crockett type is now a mannerism and a fiction. And despite a much more warlike attitude since 9/11, there still seems to be a common feeling that the boys should be brought back home, and that having men fighting overseas is somehow un-American. But the world being such as it is, the trauma of constant warfare and violence is entirely congruous with being world superpower.

I am being simplistic here, I realize. The British empire, for instance, wasn't as automatically keen on fighting wars as one might assume - parliamentary debate in the 19th century could be surprisingly anti-war: it was costly to the Exchequer and bad for trade. But I’d be very surprised to hear that imperial Britain ever suffered a trauma like Vietnam - not just a trauma of lost life, but a trauma of irrationality ('why is this even happening?').

The notion that without these basically deceitful cultural accretions, war can be seen for what it is and therefore avoided is clearly untrue in this instance.

Consider Kipling's remarkable Recessional, written 1897 at the zenith of British imperial power to celebrate Victoria's diamond jubilee:

Far-called our navies melt away—
On dune and headland sinks the fire—
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!

The equivalent moment in the equivalent period of US history may well be George W. Bush in that jump suit, on that aircraft carrier (with that banner). America's decline, if it happens, will be long and slow (hopefully) - but I wonder if it has the psychological means, or even the will, to prepare for decline. The benefit of embracing empire is that decline becomes a corollary instead of a shock. It happened to Nineveh and Tyre, it happened to the Brits, and now it's happening to us.

Without this, the trauma will surely be more traumatic than it needs to be.

Saturday, 5 April 2014


A thought about the teaching profession.

Everyone is in agreement about the importance of the profession, or should be. It barely needs stating why – education makes social equality possible, teaches us how to be citizens (even if indirectly), and makes us smarter.

Still broadly accepted by most, but not quite as unanimous, is that teaching is a difficult job. It requires an all-round, all-defining commitment of time, character, and ethos.

Fine – agreed.

More contentious is whether the difficult, possibly vocational nature of the job means that outsiders – specifically ministers and civil servants – are not sufficiently qualified to tell teachers how to do it.

Many teachers, it seems to me, believe that those on the ground know how to teach, whereas ministers can only make under-informed, and therefore probably damaging, interventions.

I can see some truth in this position. But I think the teaching profession by and large has taken it too far – to the extent of disastrously misunderstanding the nature of their role. 

Important jobs are often difficult to perform. But important jobs are also the ones that need the most oversight and accountability. Don’t like getting a hard time from the management about standards? Then you shouldn’t have become a nuclear safety officer / air traffic controller / teacher.

These jobs are difficult because they are important. With so much at stake, more than usual needs to be done, and more carefully, by those doing it to avoid failure. And with so much at stake, and the possibility of adversely affecting so many people, more oversight is needed from government to make sure the public are protected.

So the teaching profession’s argument that the difficult nature of teaching is why government should keep its nose out simply cannot wash. Its difficulty is a symptom of the same factor that necessitates government oversight – proof, that is, of the opposite of what the profession argues.

‘You’re the one who chose to become a Marine .’

If you want to do one of the most important jobs in the country – and I’d say that guaranteeing the UK’s future as a decent, thoughtful, and prosperous place is hugely important – then accept that with this comes scrutiny as well as kudos. Scrutiny, standards, and the very real possibility of bollockings.

The thing with being a public servant is that you don’t get to define your position –the public does. And the public in this instance is represented by the elected government rather than the teaching unions. Which sounds about right.

Ok – counter-argument. Governments tread lightly around, e.g., the issue of an armed police force – as far as I know, there is no statute saying British police will not go armed. Commissioners could decide to arm their constables if they wished, and the government allows this decision to remain with them because the government doesn’t have the right to take out of policemen’s the right to decide for themselves what is proportionate self-defence.

Same goes, to an extent, with the armed forces.

So does this justify the teaching profession’s ‘hands off’ attitude? Not really – the police and armed forces are still regulated to within an inch of their lives (rightly), and besides no one’s actually going to get killed, hopefully, in a classroom. Also important, I’d say, is that the armed forces at least are more effectively self-disciplining: superiors must keep their subordinates in check, not least by making sure they behave according to the aims and laws prescribed by the government. 

I don’t think headmasters or the teaching hierarchy behave as a cross-check in any comparable way whatsoever.

When I worked as a teacher (I wasn't very good at it) I replaced an unwell but also outrageously time-serving teacher who (a colleague of the teacher told me) over fifteen years teaching philosophy produced not one single teaching resource.

An utterly tame inspection system meant she got away with this. Although, in fairness, she was eventually constructively dismissed, she went on to bring a case against the school, which she won, naturally. I doubt they counted at the tribunal how many students she had let down over the years.