Comment:- The Necessity of Hitchens

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Auditioning for the role of Shane MacGowan in the new Pogues biopic?

The long-expected, or if you are the National Portrait Gallery egregiously pre-empted, death of polemicist and writer Christopher Hitchens occurred today. Hitchens had been diagnosed with terminal end-stage oesophageal cancer in July 2010 and in a recent interview with Richard Dawkins, it was increasingly obvious that the disease had been taking its merciless toll. Despite this it is indicative of the sheer vitality of Hitchens ire and indignation, that even whilst riddled with cancer he was able to produce high quality writing, with his trademark polemical clarity, incisiveness and scabrous wit. It is the snapping anger of the man that will be most missed, particularly the way in which he tended to meet pomposity with pomposity, never-failing to address the rapidly accruing modern-day shibboleths within our globalising culture.

Hitchens dedication to critiquing the various different disguises that totalitarianism might take made him a prolific columnist for the likes of Vanity Fair, The New Statesmen and The Nation. Notionally a Marxist socialist with Trotskyite internationalist leanings, Hitchens, in later years, increasingly drifted toward the classical liberal socialist positions of people like George Orwell or Bertrand Russell. Many colleagues and like-minded commentators felt somewhat betrayed by Hitchens uncomfortable fawning around the Bush Administration’s post-9/11 War on Terror. However, despite this blind spot when it came to Bush, Wolfowitz, Chaney and Co., Hitchens remained incredibly cogent when it came to arguing against those who would sacrifice necessary ‘freedoms’ for the implementation of doctrine.

Quite late in his career Hitchens earned his largest public following for his very public criticism of the ‘totalitarianism’ of organised religion. His 2007 bestselling book God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, argued for an atheistic understanding of human existence and attempted to puncture fatal holes in organised theocratic thinking. It’s a perfect exemplar of the articulate, powerful, but curiously insubstantial manner in which Hitchens best polemical pieces seemed to operate.

Until recently I had failed to grasp the importance of a figure like Christopher Hitchens. Having been exposed to the powder-puff conservative paranoia of his younger, more hawkish, brother Peter Hitchens, I’d frequently adopted the habit of zoning both Hitchens’ out of my consciousness, as if they were in fact one, and the same, person (now a little more portly, now a little more angular and avian). Such benightedness was really unforgivable, as the two Hitchens, on closer inspection, seemed to share little more than an uncanny physical resemblance, a penchant for arguing and a relatively stern conservative upbringing as the offspring of a socially mobile father. Of the two siblings Christopher was always more enamoured with the flamboyance and panache of his mother’s personality, something that seems to have been a defining difference between his brother and himself, making him a far more appealing transatlantic personality.

I actually began to tune in to Christopher Hitchens far more receptively after having read his thorough dissection and ritual disembowelment of Tom Wolfe that featured in Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in The Public Sphere (London:Verso, 2000). Hitchens was here asking, nigh on demanding, that the careful reader observe a two-way connection between writer and politics. Most people would accept to some degree a writer’s personal politics will dictate their sphere of interest in terms of writing, but what Hitchens argues goes further, demonstrating that a writer’s work then engages with the political process, either implicitly or explicitly, by lending support to dominant ideologies, or through critiquing them. This was all very Saidian, but for Hitchens the distraction of ideology being a politically left concern was one of the fundamental flaws in the formulation of the political as something distinct from the cultural or aesthetic. With the increasing relativism, both cultural and moral, applied to criticism at the end of the twentieth century, Hitchens was strongly arguing for a necessary space in which the political could enter back into the aesthetic and cultural as a means of demonstrating, or possibly prompting, engagement with the essential ideas and issues of the times. This is perhaps one of Hitchens most important points, as it addresses a way of considering the world that has drifted out of fashion since the days of Orwell, namely that there is a continuum between political conviction and aesthetic creation, with both navigating their way toward some kind of notion of ‘truth’.

Far from agreeing entirely with Hitchens every vituperative polemic, I have found myself at least challenged to consider where my own ideological complacencies lie, vis-a-vis whatever the issue is that he is writing about, or discussing. Individuals like Hitchens who so jealousy guard the right to write or say anything well are a rare commodity, nowadays. The danger of any public life is that it ossifies the individual leading it, making the political everything and thus castigating any perceived incoherencies in a person’s positions and pronouncements. The very necessity of public critics and intellectuals like Hitchens lies in their unwillingness to simply toe the line and hold fast to the ideas of the past, whilst simultaneously ensuring that a critical voice isn’t diminished in these times of liberal-conservative political hegemony and post-Capitalist cultural disconnect.

 

The Best of Hitchens on the Web

1) The Hitchens Zone – An exhaustive assortment of articles, videos and general information resources, featuring Hitchens lengthy radio doc on George Orwell.

2) Vanity Fair Index – Christopher Hitchens contributed to VF for many years and the magazine has done its best to collate much of that material and other media on their website.

3) The Guardian: Books – The literary section of The Guardian newspaper has done a good job of catalouging their love/hate relationship with Hitch.

4) The New Statesman – The left-leaning weekly news and opinion digest has frequently published Hitchens work down the years and has an extensive on-line index.

5) The Daily Hitchens – A well maintained unofficial website, that does a good job of covering his material on atheism in particular.

Comment:- What Answer Are We Expecting When We Ask Why?

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Yesterday I posted up a relatively objective article looking at the death of the Welsh national team manager Gary Speed. On average my blog has pulled in approximately 30-35 hits a day for the past month, mainly from a core group of fellow film blog writers keeping up to date with what is being said about film on-line. The Speed article however managed to gather up over 200 hits and counting. I’d normally be rejoicing that my writing had managed to get out to such a wide audience, but having a closer look at the statistical information about how the article was accessed I feel a little less euphoric.

The number one reason why most people were being drawn to the page yesterday was through a Google search – no surprise there. More distressingly people appeared to be most frequently searching the terms ‘gary speed gay’ (147 people, thus far). I’ve therefore a pretty good idea that those 147 people, clearly looking for a juicy piece of gossip strictly on the QT, were probably disappointed to come across some rather bland prose outlining the neglect of mental health issues in football finished off with a spot of pseudo-existential philosophising on the impossibility of really knowing anyone. In fact I’d go as far as to hazard a guess that few of those in search of a bit of prurient titillation hung about beyond the opening paragraph – and in some ways maybe that is gratifying. I wouldn’t like to suggest that there is something outright objectionable about people scouring the internet for a bit of salacious gossip, after all that is what us human beings do all too well. I’m just staggered that in light of Gary Speed’s tragic demise so many people resort to the default setting of wondering whether the suicide is the result of some forthcoming public ‘outing’.

Whilst talking about Speed amongst friends yesterday, a couple of rather heated discussions spilled forth. One person found the whole cavalcade of media and commentary generated by Speed’s death to be frankly disturbing. The question that they asked was as a direct result of what I had written yesterday and what the news media has likewise been covering, namely why are people so shocked about the suicide of a football player. To contextualise this question, the example of Amy Winehouse was given. A few months ago Amy Winehouse appears to overdose on booze and pills and yet few people were as shocked by her death as they are by Gary Speed’s. What was being suggested here was that people had made a tacit assumption about Speed’s suicide based on what they know of his professional life (even in the case of players and managers, they have only really spoken of the professional figure, the man they worked alongside), in the same way that people made tacit assumptions about Winehouse based on what they knew of her professional life and what parts of her private life had been made public. In the case of Speed there is a glaring absence of private life information for we the chattering multitudes to get our teeth into. In this vacuum of information, people are clearly searching around for answers anywhere they can find them, almost willing rumour to become fact, hearsay to become evidence.

Such behaviour reflects badly upon the mental health of large swathes of humanity. The media circus prompts us to trample upon the privacy of individuals who have chosen to do nothing more than a publicly visible job. When it comes to popstars, actors, sportspeople, we feel as if we are entitled to answers, as if we are not just a fan, but somehow a friend and family member. Nowadays, with such events as a suicide we are insinuated into the media coverage, with its insistent need to understand, to know, to explain how other people feel. An awful BBC interview with Robbie Savage when the news broke about Speed’s suicide, saw presenter Clive Myrie trying to cajole a clearly upset Savage into giving insights into something he patently knows very little about, namely the mental state of Gary Speed. What is the purpose of such endless probing? What more would any fellow football player be able to bring to the discussion other than a few choice anecdotes and a restatement of how shocking the death was and how ‘great’ and professional a guy Speed was? The only person who knows why this death occurred is dead. The only other people who may be able to shed a pale ray of light on the matter are understandably grieving the loss of a loved one. Meanwhile, we the gossiping masses, offer up our condolences whilst trawling around the echo-box internet looking for some anecdotal evidence that Speed might be gay.

As fans we may well have a depth of affection for Speed which made his death genuinely shocking, but, as I wrote yesterday, we did not know the man. Not even the likes of Robbie Savage knew the man. Savage at least played with the man, drank with the man, chatted with the man, but he still didn’t know the man. Hence all of this talk about how implausible his suicide seems, how out of character it appears to be, is really rather futile. In fact all of these why’s just promote this furtive game of Chinese whispers that rumbles on in the vacuum of genuine knowledge (I think here about Fran Lebowitz comments on modern news and journalism in Public Speaking, news is facts, what we have now isn’t news it’s opinion).

Suicide confronts everybody it touches with a sickening sense of mortality and it is in ourselves that we rummage around for the answers as to why, rarely appreciating that in such occurrences there are never going to be any answers, or certainly none that are straight-forward enough to be carried in the attention deficient modern media. A crudely simplistic notion of ‘gay’ outing is a suitably reductive answer, allowing the overly curious general public to go ‘ach, that’s why alright’. It nullifies any attempt at considering the greater problems that lead someone to choose death over public recognition of their sexuality. It also assumes that the invasive nature of a ‘public outing’ is something thoroughly acceptable and right – but then this has been a historical problem attached to certain moral views for a long time. If any such information does come forward in the next few days, I guarantee it will change absolutely nothing with regard to why Gary Speed felt the need to kill himself, so thus it serves merely as a palliative to us terribly wounded voyeurs out there.

Crucially, such a reductive answer to ‘why’, also restores a sense of order to the world, as at least we have an answer, we have something we can point to as a reason, we have an explanation. This makes all of us ‘feel better’, but once again does nothing to change the situation, or to take into account those who are genuinely grieving for the loss of a person who was important within their lives. Ultimately, it is a far scarier proposition to peer into the utter blackness of a galaxy-sized hole and realise that there is nothing in there that we can know, understand, or comprehend. After all, isn’t it the unknown where all of our worst nightmares reside?

Gary Speed:- Assumptions of Knowledge

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It would appear that in the early hours of Sunday morning the current Welsh national football team manager, Gary Speed, chose to hang himself in his Cheshire home. Suicide is certainly not an uncommon occurrence amongst high-profile public figures, or celebrities. In fact in some areas of our popular culture a perverse glamour has attached itself to such displays of self-negation, particularly in the ‘live fast, die young’ arena of rock music and the potentially dangerous self-analytical processes of a certain type of literary creation. What is quite striking about Speed’s apparent suicide is the fact that it comes from a sportsman, and in particular a football player/manager.

Now it is not that sportspeople are incapable of committing suicide, but rather that the number of active sports stars who do commit suicide is considerably lower than any of the other pop cultural public careers. Amongst the sports with the highest number of suicides is the performance sport of Wrestling, which has far more of an affinity with the more turbulent acting profession than with fellow combat sports such as boxing and the various martial arts. Football, as in soccer, has had comparatively few incidences of suicide among the major team sports. In recent years the only notable examples would be the former Nigerian international Uche Okafor and the German international goalkeeper Robert Enke. The former death was found to have taken place in suspicious circumstances and has since been reclassified as a murder, whilst the latter was thought to be connected with Enke’s long history of depression. When thinking of British football players who have taken their own life, you would have to go back as far as 1998 to the tragic death of Justin Fashanu, who had been harassed for many years for having come out in 1990 as an openly gay footballer (something that still seems to be firmly taboo).

There have certainly been as volatile and seemingly self-destructive individuals in the world of football, as you would find in many other areas of popular culture. Yet the likes of George Best and Jimmy Baxter chose the slow-poison of alcoholism, whilst Paul Gascoigne and Diego Maradona have stubbornly clung onto life despite their very best efforts and their seemingly blackest moments. Many footballers, as with other sportspeople, do seem to experience an appreciable difficulty adjusting to life away from football, once their playing careers have drawn to a close. All the players mentioned in this paragraph, thus far, experienced some form of depression when they were no longer able to do what had come so naturally to them for so many years. The three British players all turned to the self-anesthitising powers of the demon drink, whilst Maradona went through numerous drug and food problems, before finding some kind of sanity as a coach and a television figure back in Argentina. This highlights one of the key issues in sport, namely what does a sportsperson do once their career is over, usually somewhere around their 35th birthday, if not sooner.

Part of the reason why so many sports reward their professionals well nowadays is due to this problem of career brevity. Yet money does not solve the problem of purpose. Where possible, sportspeople tend to reintegrate themselves back into the game in some kind of coaching, or promotional capacity, particularly with team sports, such as football. Outside of this, due to the growth in professional sport incomes, many former sportspeople move into the business sphere with increasing ease, if not success, upon retirement. The competitive instincts that have been sharpened for many years on the pitch, court or field, tend to be prized by industry leaders, with some suggestions also being made as to their generally positive psychological benefits. Problems seem to arise amongst sportspeople when this competitive instinct is aligned with a compulsive, or addictive, personality that leads to the development of certain dependencies in a bid to sustain dwindling powers and stave off the rapidly approaching obsolescence of an post-sport life.

Returning to the specific issue of British footballers, it is abundantly clear that there has been for a long time an aversion to any real analysis of the psychology of players. Until very recently there was the assumption that players were being paid to do something that they enjoyed, so what could possibly be wrong with them. The dominant stereotype of the British game, with a particular focus on English football, is that its players have traditionally adopted a ‘no-nonsense’ approach. This ‘no-nonsense’ approach has then been extended to the coaching side of the game, as well as to the commentators and supporters attitudes toward the game. In this environment that, until the arrival of the likes of Arsene Wenger, made English football seem like the last bastion of that famous ‘British’ policy of the ‘stiff upper lip’, it is unlikely that issues of mental health are going to be discussed in a measured, open and constructive manner. Far from it in fact, with the tendency being for footballers to either engage in the tried and tested addictive remedies of years gone by, or simply suppress whatever issues may be plaguing their minds.

As a result of this complex nexus of institutionally sustained ignorance, a general lack of understanding, or willingness to understand and a traditional mistrust of the therapeutic approaches for treating psychological problems, the British public’s perception of a footballer’s situation tends to be more than a little skewered. This disparity between what the public think of a player and what the player is actually experiencing is further complicated by the overly self-aware modern media culture we all now operate within. When narrative arcs can be sculpted from players psychologies to demonstrate a human failing that has been superficially acknowledged and brushed aside with the ease of a sugar-pill treatment, all for the benefit of extra publicity and the insatiable lust for column inches, then it only helps to trivialise otherwise intensely serious medical conditions.

The death of Gary Speed seems to have left a number of people within football, and a number of people who follow football, feeling somewhat numb and confused. Unlike many modern footballers Speed seemed to be a grounded, level-headed and particularly unassuming man. During a twenty year playing career, pretty much entirely played at the highest level, Speed won domestic honours, represented his country and was a consistent and highly professional performer for every team that he appeared in. Having prepared himself in advance for a transition into the coaching side of the game, his recent successes managing the Welsh national side, after a disappointing spell in charge of Sheffield United, seemed to suggest he had a bright future in the management side of the game. Unusually amongst the clique-ridden world of modern English football, Speed was a universally liked man, who had a particularly positive effect on the training ground, where he led by example, exhibiting extreme dedication to fitness and avoiding many of the temptations that crowd around football players later in their careers. Even people who had worked alongside Speed for years, the likes of Ryan Giggs, Alan Shearer, Howard Wilkinson and Craig Bellamy, could offer little insight into what might have prompted Speed to take his own life.

What Speed’s death has confronted both the general British public and the football establishment with is a painful, but simple, truth. We may think that we know someone, in particular as partners or close friends we might even assume that we have an understanding of the way they work or the way they operate, but in fact as individual’s we are all pretty much inscrutable islands upon which the most enigmatic and esoteric of thoughts and impulses run amok. Perhaps the only times that we are ever truly revealed is in our moments of action, which very often are all too fleeting and final. If Gary Speed had been suffering from a long-suppressed depressive condition, then that reflects poorly, to some degree, upon our incapacity to treat psychological illness with the seriousness and concern that it warrants. Whilst if it has been some much more sudden situation that has compelled Speed to take such drastic action, then, unless it is something akin to the hounding which rode Justin Fashanu to his grave, we can only wonder what drives another to take their own life. What may linger most in the memory of Speed’s passing is not necessarily the gifted and committed professional football player and coach that he was, but rather the certain and numbing knowledge his death confirms, that all our assumptions about the lives of others come nowhere near their elusive inner reality.

Thoughts Out Loud, No.1:- Lines of Beauty

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This is the true essence of what Apercu was meant to be. A repository for the fragmentary, unworked and inconclusive outpourings of my idle mind. Thoughts Out Loud will be a series comprised of rambling idea-pieces, so please do not hold these writings to quite the degree of scrutiny of other material on the site. These pieces will reveal far more of my flaws than I could ever hope to chronicle.

 

I was recently challenged by the book review published  in The Economist, August 27th 2011, entitled ‘The line of beauty’. Three recent academic publications were put under the microscope: Beauty Pays – Why Attractive People are Successful by Daniel Hamermesh (Princeton University press); The Beauty Bias – The Injustice of Appearance in Life and Law by Deborah Rhode (Oxford University Press); Honey Money – The Power of Erotic Capital by Catherine Hakim (Allen Lane). The review focuses on the central ideas put forward in these books, amongst which are: the implicit notion that beauty is a measurable and quantifiable asset; the idea that beauty, power and wealth form an irresistible triumvirate in our modern world; the sense that beauty is a great, if not the greatest, source of injustice and inequality within our societies; and the idea that beauty can be harnessed as a commodity for the transference and enacting of power.

 

For some it will be an abhorrent notion that beauty be reduced to either a mathematical equation (The Golden Ratio), a logical/rational system (Zeising and Fechner), or a formal series (Vitrius and Pacioli). It becomes more distasteful then to consider beauty, or at least our shared ideals of beauty, as something defined by economic value and power. After all in a highly individualised free-market capitalist democracy (if that conglomeration of terms is even vaguely plausible) it would be expected that a coherent and unifying sense of beauty is unsustainable, if not undesirable. When the very notion of ‘society’ is being challenged by a kind of Randian fixation with the individual self, what room is there for preconceived and idealised notions of beauty? In such a ‘reality’ surely beauty becomes the epitome of subjectivity?

 

A lot of weight is given to the idea that beauty is something inherent in ‘nature’. This, at first, seems to soften the focus of an overly humanistic understanding of the concept. In crudely reductive terms the fact that we find the sight of a mountain peak ‘beautiful’, or that we consider a tree-fringed lake to be a ‘beauty spot’, suggests that beauty stems from something ‘purer’ and more ‘unifying’ than our commerce-fixated modern world will allow for. To some it becomes an expression of the hand of God, a clear demonstration of the genius of creation, beauty and divinity are, in this reading, inextricably linked. However the inescapable interpretative core of any idea of beauty is humanistic, even this obsession with beauty in nature.

 

Classical conceptions of beauty permeate our own modern ideals. The sense of the harmonious apogee of forms is something that we either actively seek to define beauty by, or against. Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man is modeled on the rational proportioning of Vitruvian architectural/engineering theory, whereby the body is seen to be solid, robust and strong. In this strength and the balanced motion through which this strength operates we apprehend the usefulness of the organism, the human form. Yet Vitruvian Man is assumed to possess beauty as part of this nexus of attributes. How do we know that beauty is to be observed here? Does every human apprehend beauty in the Vitruvian Man? Can beauty manifest itself in non-pleasing forms?

 

These concepts of proportion, balance, harmony, are also at the heart of mathematical attempts to define beauty. The idea that what we perceive as beautiful in ‘nature’, works along the same basic principles as that which we perceive as beautiful in humanity, is one that emerged in Classical thought, but was recalibrated for modern consumption in the early Renaissance period. There is a sense that in proportionate, symmetrical and balanced forms you are beholding the manifestation of health and vitality. As we age, decay and wither, our bodies take on the distorted forms of disease and damage. In many ways our bodies become the repositories for death, maps of pain. Likewise in ‘nature’ the change from summer to autumn sees the decline and deformation of forms that have begun to die. Growth propels us up toward an apex from which we must then fall away into decline. There is a deterministic mode of thought that suggests we intuitively respond to those attributes that are most conducive to the continuance of a healthy offspring. In which case our obsession with beauty could be nothing more than an implicit acknowledgement of what is considered optimally healthful.

 

I’m wary of these assumptions though, as it appears difficult to extrapolate the personal from the ‘normative’, or perception from ‘conditioning’. Human civilisation has a tendency toward hard encoding specific cultural notions (such as the contemplation of the harmonious as preferable to the chaotic) to such a degree that it becomes difficult to think outside of these terms, so that they can be inferred as ‘natural’. In some ways this is why I give more weight to the abstract verification of a mathematical principle such as The Golden Ratio, because it becomes merely a formulation of things apparent within our experienced reality, without necessarily needing to be given any greater value significance, other than it is found within many ‘natural’ forms. The fact that we then might see these natural ‘forms’ as pleasing, is neither here nor there in terms of the mathematics underpinning our apprehension. This, for me, is where the true difficulty lies with the idea of beauty.

 

If beauty were a consistent presence in our reality, then I would argue that we could understand it within universal abstract frameworks, such as can be found within mathematics. However, does our own appreciation of what is beautiful not show a tendency for inconsistency, a lack of the harmonic? Were mountains always a source of scenic wonder and beauty? Have bodies of water always given humanity a pleasing feeling of appreciation? Do healthy forms always attract us? Do human bodies with high degrees of proportionality appear more satisfying to the eye, than those which do not? Most importantly of all, in our mobile modern times, can we honestly say that the Classical conceptions of beauty that informed Renaissance thought and by extension European mercantile and colonial thought, are applicable universally and transcend the boundaries of culture (and geography) that existed for the best part of 6,000 years?

 

This isn’t meant to be an organised and structured assessment of beauty, merely a collection of witterings that have been chiming away through the nether regions of my self-contained little mind. I found it difficult to fathom how a researcher like Hamermesh could compare the quantifiable (i.e. wages earned, earning potential, annual budgets, GDP) with a concept of ‘beauty’ that is surely only verifiable through a particularly narrow aperture of ‘normative’ behaviour. What exactly is Hamermesh presuming to quantify when suggesting that ‘handsome’ people earn $230,000 more over their lifetime than ‘plain’ people? I appreciate that you will carry out surveys and collate statistical data from those surveys, but like any data set how representative is this of an idea that often has the currency of a ‘universal truth’ like beauty?

 

Rhode’s theory seems potentially more problematic, whilst being quite perceptive. In Rhode’s idea beauty is a divisive attribute that fundamentally underpins inequalities within our societies and our systems of law and governance. The perception of physical beauty, or in this case, the perception of adhering to a ‘normative’ sense of the physically pleasing, infiltrates all the key decision areas within our societies when it comes to the dispensing and management of power. Whereas Hamermesh connects beauty to an economic power, Rhode appears to connect beauty with economic power as a means of warping the notions of ‘fairness’ and ‘justice’ (a whole different array of questions to be raised). Beauty is then a complex construct, that merges together ideas from various periods of history and civilisation, crucially incorporating that commercial/cultural border-hopper that is ‘fashion’, thus establishing specific conditions against which we base our own judgements, either positively or negatively, about what we see as beautiful. A society can thus pass judgement on ugliness, by placing it against what is considered the ‘normative’ of beauty, whilst still having room for individual expressions of dissent.

 

For a final thought consider that supposed relationship of beauty, power and wealth. Which way round do we correlate things? Does beauty lead to power and wealth? If that is the truth then how do you explain a majority of the worlds powerbrokers and commercial leaders, the Donald Trump’s, Bill Gates’ and Silvio Berlusconi’s of this world? If power and wealth attracts the beautiful, then again we have issues about why beauty isn’t more dominant in the boardrooms and halls of governance. The ‘normative’ beautiful in the Anglo-saxon world seem to be associated with those areas of media that are considered fashionable: film, music, fashion, art, etc. Once again, however, there is a need to see that all of these things are merely predicated on a ‘normative’ sense of beauty and the real question perhaps should be what drives this ‘normative’ (or questionably ‘objective’) idea of beauty. I’d argue that you will find very different ‘normative’ conceptions of beauty in the various ‘cultures’ on this planet. I’d also mention before closing, that the appeal of the beauty, power, wealth nexus is a strong one, however what about that return to the natural, with all of that Romantic ideology freighted into our poetic resonances with landscape? Isn’t it the case that when it comes to ‘nature’ our understanding of the ‘beautiful’ becomes far less dependent upon the commercially desirable wealth and power principles espoused above? How do we adequately place anything other than an aesthetic and experiential ‘value’ on observing a thick coastal fog as ‘beautiful’, for example?

Power-To Disap-Point

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Article Prompted by:- The Political Party That Wants to Ban PowerPoint (Julie Bindel, The Observer, Sunday 28th August, 2011)

I occasionally worry if Orson Welles (as Harry Lime) wasn’t really on to something after all with his wonderful justification of amorality from atop the Ferris wheel of Vienna’s Prater amusement park. Switzerland occasionally bursts into the public consciousness with global projects like the LHC, but more often than not it drifts about in a willfully decadent obscurity of its own making, seemingly disconnected from the global events that besiege other wealthy nations. This belies the fact that Switzerland tends to do a fairly good job of tackling social crises’, such as their growing urban heroin problem in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Far from being an unresponsive and sluggish politics, the Swiss approach to national governance, with its tendency toward direct representation and reasoned consensus, actually seems to do an admirable job of empowering its citizens, given them most of what they want, whilst managing to ensure economic stability. In many ways it is a shame that Switzerland doesn’t take a more vocal role upon the international stage, where for many, it is nothing more than the low-tax playground for the privileged and the pompous (Phil Collins, anyone?).

How irritating then that the one story involving the Swiss political landscape that does get a bit of serious media mileage, is the almost too laughable tale of Matthias Poehm, a former-software engineer turned experienced public-speaking trainer. Mr. Poehm has seen fit to try to establish a serious political party around one of the most pressing issue of the day – the overuse of Microsoft’s PowerPoint presentation software at conferences, seminars and public-speaking events. For Poehm, who is at pains to highlight on his website the fact he is “organizing the most expensive public speaking seminar in Europe” (penis envy, anyone?), the scourge of modern society is Microsoft’s all too-handy presentation utility, which reduces even the most enthralling talk to, as Bindel puts it, an exercise in boring an audience to tears “with fiddly slides consisting of flying texts, fussy fonts or photo montages”.

Whereas Bindel, in her article, is actually highlighting a more crucial issue, namely the wastefulness of many an ‘academic’ conference, in terms of the money required to front the proceedings and the likelihood that said conference will actually generate any stimulating work, beyond that which could have been printed on a blog, or in a journal/book, Poehm seems to be more obsessed with the idea that the software itself is responsible for a CHF 2.1 billion loss in the Swiss economy. Poehm puts together his economic theorem by pulling a whole lot of statistics out of the ether (4.1 million employees in Switzerland, including school children; 11% of whom are involved in PowerPoint presentations regularly, at least twice a week; 85% of participants in these presentations are demotivated by them, the swiss average hourly wage is CHF 56.30). As you can see this ragbag of statistical data lacks even the slightest pretence at contextualisation. How are school children employees? Where does his ‘conservative’ estimate come from? How can he regulate for presentations twice a week? Where is the economic model to quantify the damage of demotivation? Oddly this impressively vague and random assortment of information, actually makes one wish that Poehm was more versed in presenting statistical data, using software like PowerPoint, as an example that comes quickest to mind.

Bindel’s justifiable ire at the shoddy state of much academic discourse (particularly in the Humanities), conducted through the flawed medium of the Conference, has somehow attached itself inscrutably to a kneejerk neo-Ludditism and found something of resonance in Poehm’s frankly farcical political campaign. In many ways Bindel and Poehm’s complaints are nothing more than the blaming of one’s tools for the poor quality of work one produces. Is it not far more likely that the poor-standards of presentation are perhaps more to do with the poor quality of the ideas behind them, or even the inability to execute the presentation of these ideas properly using the software selected. Rather than talking up a relatively politically pointless Anti-PowerPoint agenda, perhaps we should be targeting the more serious ineffectiveness of multiple conferences, presentations and seminars, or the poor standard of computer skills training within many institutions (particularly of the educational variety) and companies.

What confirms the absurdity of Poehm’s position is the solution that he floats, as if it were something people had never considered doing before, of utilising a flip-chart in presentations. Bindel stands by her man here, by claiming that she turns up to conferences nowadays with “a set of index cards on which I have jotted down key points”. What, both Poehm and Bindel, genuinely seem frustrated with, is the notion that a person can get up in front of a room full of people and stumble through a flashily animated computer presentation, without having devoted any time to what they wish to achieve with the presentation. They are right to suggest that there is more to public-speaking than some computer-generated fireworks, yet their obsession with PowerPoint, or more broadly computer technology, as an obstacle to direct human communication, strikes me as more than a little fallacious, knowingly or otherwise. The absurd statistic that Poehm produces, and cannot even justify in his video address, that 95% of PowerPoint presentations would be as effective, if not more effective, if delivered on a flipchart, is just another reason to deeply mistrust the political ethos at work here.

One area in which Poehm’s agitation does seem to be appropriate is with the idea that PowerPoint has become an enforced requirement of presentations within schools, academies and workplaces. Here he is absolutely right to criticise the fetishisation of Microsoft software (and similarly Macintosh products), particularly by educational institutions who should really be resisting applying such restraints on creativity. In his own rather silly way, Poehm is stumbling upon a key reason why Microsoft has managed to achieve such market hegemony in the computer software sector. Alas, after repeated viewings of his political address as President of the APP, I can’t shift the sneaking feeling that this is all some sophisticated (and impressively po-faced) piece of Swiss satire, as Poehm seems to be wishing nothing more than “wanting only people to talk about it”. If not, then I return to my Orson Welles opening and suggest Harry Lime may well have called it right, in discussing the CUCKOO clock.

Armand Traore on a Train to Auschwitz?

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holocaust n 1 great destruction or loss of life or the source of such destruction, esp. fire. 2 (usually cap.) the Also called: Churban, Shoah. the mass murder by the Nazis of the Jews of continental Europe between 1940 and 1945. 3 a rare word for burnt offering

Sometimes it is important to start an essay with the lazy, or overly literal, students favoured opening gambit, namely the dictionary definition. Before discussing some of the truly simian outrage that has greeted Tony Cascarino’s use of a word, even a word that is showily hyperbolic, I’d just like to fall back on the students favoured follow-up, the etymology of a word. The etymology of the word holocaust, is from the Late Latin holocaustum, meaning whole burnt offering. Which in turn was derived from the Greek holokauston, which is Holo + kaustus (or kaiein), meaning to burn the whole.

I have to begin in this manner, as those simian yelps and howls make it really, really difficult to focus, so apologies if you actually know the rudiments of the English language. Now granted Tony Cascarino, during Sky Sports News’s coverage of the Arsenal vs Man Utd match, is maybe going a bit far semantically (that hyperbole) when applying the noun to the following sentence: “Poor Traoré at right-back is having a holocaust because he’s finding himself against Nani, who’s literally running him from everywhere and Arshavin’s just not tracking his runners.”. However, can anyone truly say that Cascarino is making a wantonly historically ignorant remark, that is truly offensive to people in a directly harmful and hurtful manner, like Ron Atkinson’s more furtive indiscretion? Apparently they can, as the internet has been abuzz with the kind of jive-talk that seems to come up whenever there has been a dearth of sensation in the media.

Marcus Dysch stated that: “Tony Cascarino said Traore was having a ‘holocaust’ against Utd??Fantastic. I’ll enjoy ending Mr Cascarino’s career this wk at work.”. Nice to see Mr Dysch, a journalist for the Jewish Chronicle, taking a reasoned approach to Cascarino’s utterance. Whilst Steve Busfield, took a slightly more attenuated position, claiming: “Arsenal’s performance was bad, but Tony Cascarino’s “holocaust” description is stupid”. Steve Busfield being the Sports Blog Editor at the Guardian was generally bucking the trend of hysterical condemnation, that the usual suspects from the red-tops, as well as the Daily Telegraph, were all too eager to embrace.

As someone with more than a passing interest in keeping the idea of The Holocaust at the forefront of societal collective memories, I actually take offence at the apparent willingness of commentators to leap to the assumption that there is something overtly racist, tasteless and/or politically loaded in Mr Cascarino’s outburst. When looking for live comment from ex-football players it is rare to hear them do a credible job of anything more than describing the action. Cascarino on the other hand, in a similar way to Pat Nevin and Lee Dixon, has tended toward the insightful, if occasionally impassioned, in his reportage and his columns for The Times. Do I think that Tony Cascarino is seeking to make an equivalence between the organised slaughter of six million people (predominantly of Jewish origin) in Europe during 1940-1945 and an aberrant display from an Arsenal squad football player, positioned on the left-side of their defence during a mauling from Man Utd at the weekend? No, I do not. Do I think Tony Cascarino was utilising the term as an acceptable, if overly hyperbolic, way of describing the devastation Traore’s performance was causing down Arsenal’s defensive left-side? Yes, I do.

If Mr Cascarino had said something like ‘Armand Traore is playing football like a Jew trying to escape The Holocaust’, then I would have been jumping in with the condemnation myself. As it is, he didn’t even prefix the word with ‘The’, suggesting we perhaps shouldn’t be reading ‘Holocaust’, where it may well have been ‘holocaust’ that was intended. To demand a pundit’s head for such a remark only highlights the modern tyranny of ‘fixed semantic interpretation’, that seems to make a mockery of more serious and verbally wounding outbursts. In policing the ways in which we talk freely, on air, or otherwise, we are merely creating a futurescape in which thoughts lead to actions, with very little discussion, or reasoned debate – in fact not so dissimilar a set of social conditions as that which existed in Fascist Italy or Nazi Germany. Our freedom of speech should be what we protect robustly, not the questionable sensibilities of the eager-to-be-scandalised.

Attempting to side with some of the sensation-hungry out there, I’ll go along with this condemnation of Cascarino’s use of a ‘word’ (a word that clearly must only ever now be used in one, historically accurate, context) and let Cascarino be fired by his employers, despite his apparently contrite apology (his more stupid move, if you ask me). In the future live sports broadcasters such as Sky, the BBC and ESPN, will then need to ensure that all broadcasts are scripted and vetted as the action unfurls and the Gareth Southgate’s and Alan Shearer’s of this world can then be safe in the knowledge that their teleprompter will never let them stray into the choppy waters of poor word selection.

Alternately, you could condemn Cascarino with the questionable grammatical accuracy of his noun selection and read Martin Gilbert, Hannah Arendt, or Primo Levi, safe in the knowledge that The Holocaust hasn’t suffered a significant devaluation in meaning. Oh and spare a drop of sympathy for the recently immolated Armand Traore.

Whose LOLing now?

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As a 17-year-old Suffolk teenager is slapped with a 12-month internet ban, 120 hours’ community service, a 12-month youth rehabilitation order, a 7pm curfew and absolutely no Domino’s pizza (probably), for what amounts to some poor-taste pratting about on Facebook, I ask whether the British government has learnt anything from the last 10 days?

At the start of this week David Cameron addressed a news conference from a youth centre in his parliamentary constituency of Witney. The idea of Cameron declaring a ‘war upon gangs’ from this quaint little West Oxfordshire market-town,  a location, socially and politically, a million miles away from most of the sites of civil unrest, shouldn’t really have got past the ‘suggestion’ phase of whatever inner-circle brainstorming session the Conservative Prime Minister and his coterie of advisors were engaged in over the weekend. The fact that it clearly seemed like such a good idea to Cameron and his cronies gives us a little bit of an insight into just how detached our chief policymaker is from the affairs of his nation. Granted Cameron was standing in front of a graffiti-daubed wall that proclaimed a single word ‘Base’ (a perfect match, perhaps,  for Cameron’s gung-ho call to arms) alongside a cartoon ‘hoodie’ (again probably meant to evoke the cuddly ‘hoodie’ hugger of old), but surely it would have leant a bit more ballast to his bombast if he’d taken his press conference onto the streets of Tottenham, the provisional ground-zero of the rioting. Instead the routinely patronised ‘general public’ are presented with what could be more cynically interpreted as an expression of that easy idleness that has formed the waspish sting of so many attacks on the riots, the rioting and the ‘underclass’ of rioters. Why bother traipsing off to London town, the Midlands, or the dreary North, when you can far more easily squeeze yourself into a press conference next door to your constituency surgery?

During the press conference Cameron talked up his long-held desire ‘to mend our broken society’, talking of a ‘social fightback’ to coincide with the ‘security fightback’. He made a point of highlighting the necessity to confront ‘the moral collapse’ of British society, as well as pulling the discussion of the underlying causes of the violence away from ideas it was linked with poverty and deprivation, choosing instead to focus on the terms ‘behaviour’ and ‘responsibility’. In perhaps the most irritating and empty piece of rhetoric, Cameron talked up a culture of selfishness and irresponsibility that left:

Children without fathers. Schools without discipline. Reward without effort. Crime without punishment. Rights without responsibilities. Communities without control.

The simplicity of this listing technique, as if Cameron had just reached into his back pocket and pulled out the shopping list, begged for some sense of issues that had been grappled with over the last few days of analysis and reflection. Instead Cameron gave the glib assurance that he wouldn’t be ‘found wanting’ when it came to confronting unspecified ‘issues’ with the determined voice of his people.

Despite the best part of a week to contemplate what exactly had got so many young people’s knickers in a twist, the best that Cameron could do was tell the public that he would definitely do ‘stuff’ and he’d wage war on gangs to do it. It appeared that upon the etch-a-sketch (come on it was actually an I-Pad,  you know) William Hague, Theresa May and himself had been constructing their analysis, they’d realised that these ‘youths’ were organising themselves using the most sophisticated, cutting edge and ‘clandestine’ of new technologies, like the BBM.

After his press statement on the riots, Cameron did visit Tottenham, but under a partial media-blackout. Cameron was happy to have the cameras rolling alongside him whilst he visited leisure centres, sat down with police and emergency services and turned up at a fire station. However, the cameras were not allowed to follow him into the homes of the 50, or so, families he visited, who’d been victims of the violence in the area. Now this could be Cameron simply being respectful to members of the public, as we know how his caring Conservatives always try to avoid unhelpful and reductive generalisations that may be perceived as  disrespectful and unhelpful by large sections of the population (sorry, it’s mean, but I couldn’t resist). On the other hand it could just be a certain reluctance on his part to advertise to the nation his inability to even come close to placating the anger of people who may have more pressing things on their mind other than a ‘war on gangs’.

Regardless of all this, the ‘social fightback’ began in earnest today however, with the first convictions of teenagers who had been implicated, via their Facebook profiles, in inciting the ‘gang’ violence and rioting that had taken hold of Birmingham, London and Manchester.  One of these ringleaders, who received the punishments listed above, was able to potentially provoke looting and pillaging from that hotspot of social unrest more commonly known as Suffolk. According to the Bury St. Edmonds magistrates court that passed sentence on the 17-year-old, he had posted messages on Facebook that stated “It’s about time we stood up for ourselves for once. So come on rioters – get some. LOL.”. Now am I alone in thinking that this may not necessarily be quite the organisational genius David Cameron’s ‘war’ suggests it should be? Wasting the magistrates courts time with prosecution of a dumb sentence or three, seems almost as foolish as the comments themselves. The fact that the prosecution made reference to the boy having over 400 friends on Facebook, some of whom replied to the message just to call him an idiot, only further compounds the ludicrous show of pantomime paternalism from a government that wants people to start being ‘responsible’. The boys defence pours further scorn on the pursuance of this government policy, when he claimed rather plaintively “I meant it as a joke which is why I wrote LOL at the end.”.

There we have it then, not only has David Cameron routinely underestimated the scale of the violence, the alienation and disenchantment of certain urban populations, the general tenor of public outrage and the aspects of the violence which have struck the strongest chords with citizens of the communities most affected (it’s not like that in Witney, though), but it also seems his government is so out of touch with the youth of Britain that it can’t even discern a joke when it reads one. Even a joke with the prerequisite acronym signposting of ‘LOL’.

The fact that today barrister, and former anti-terror adviser, Lord Carlile has been speaking out against the way in which Cameron’s government have appeared to ‘lead’ the law courts toward tougher, harsher sentences for those involved in the riots, can only make Cameron’s response to the riots look as kneejerk and nonsensical as Bush’s rail-roading of civil liberties for his ‘war on terror’. The major difference here being that whereas Bush, however foolishly, was declaring a ‘war’ upon enemies of America, it would appear that Cameron may have embarked upon a ‘war’ against his own people. Without the sense of a considered and reasoned analysis of the riots, any such ‘war’, whether genuinely directed toward ‘gangs’ (however they may be defined) or not, can only end with further unrest and a repeat of this po-faced farce.

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