Friday, February 29, 2008
Tuesday, February 26, 2008
Sleepless in Southampton
Thursday, February 21, 2008
I don't care too much for money
Monday, February 18, 2008
|In the last few years, there has been growing talk by politicians of British Values and the nature of Britishness. This has included proposals to teach Britishness Classes in schools, the idea of a national motto and a very amusing but nevertheless official Citizenship Test for immigrants seeking nationality. Our prime minister in particular seems to think that there are a set of British Values, moral tenants about which debate and eventual consensus should be encouraged.|
I don't think this will come to much. Regardless of British values, our national character (which perhaps shouldn't be in the singular) is such that we're not going to go for this. We are not a young or recently liberated country; we don't need to wave flags and sing songs on a regular basis to remind ourselves of our good fortune or our loyalties (although we do have some fabulous patriotic songs). We must also bear in mind that the real question facing the United Kingdom over the next few decades will be whether or not we are going to remain united. Scotland and Wales now have the first real democratic opportunity to choose to break away if they should so wish. And they just might.
Which brings us to that fact that Britishness is no single thing. There are still massive geographical and class differences when it comes to sense of humour, social etiquette and petty morality. Those who reminisce about some time when there was a more defined and respected British character are usually talking about a time when an upper-middle-class, Church of England, Southern English person was the only British character represented, the only voice heard in circles of power, on the radio or in films.
So why the present focus on Britishness? Well frankly, it's a backlash to increased immigration and an increase of media attention towards minority groups (usually the Muslims) who seem to do things differently and from whom have emerged a handful of violent extremists. It is perhaps felt that if we could define Britishness and make sure everyone complied, we'd all get along and people would not fear for our precious - if totally elusive - way of life.
This is a rubbish motive for a rubbish idea. The idea itself is rubbish for three reasons.
In order for something to be British, it has to belong to Britain and the British people, as opposed to other countries and other peoples. It has to be something uniquely ours, like British Beef or the British weather. In order to have a set of values, a set of moral tenants which are unique to Britain, we must believe that the people of other countries in the world do not hold these values - or at least they don't in great number.
Therefore, in order for such a set of British Values to exist, we must be morally superior to other countries and other peoples in the world. Which we're not.
Nobody has said this explicitly, but it has to be the implication. Britishness is not a virtue, any more than being male or female is. One may be very pleased that one is British and one may love one's country above all others. What's more, there are many things things about Britain which makes it one of the best countries in the world in which to live, partly by luck and partly by design.
However, the people here aren't better than people elsewhere. Better off, maybe.
Nobody can be forced to subscribe to a set of values. If I disagreed with any or all of the British Values, then I wouldn't stop being British. I don't stop being British if I break the law either. I am not without admiration for the way that US Americans seem to be able to use patriotism to support arguments for freedom, equality and a transparent democracy, but I am baffled by the use of the term "unAmerican" (which I have seen used by all sides of political arguments). It is rather like my sister and I having an argument and one of us saying, "No member of this family could possibly think that!"
So, what's the point? The Citizenship Test attempts to question those seeking British nationality on those matters that British people ought to know. But it's mostly facts, and often facts that those born here would struggle with. It arguably forces incomers to do a little homework, but it cannot reflect a great deal on their potential as a good British citizen (strictly speaking, we're not really citizens, we're subjects, but hey) We also make them swear their allegiance to the Queen and it is all absolutely pointless.
Good citizenship is something we learn from one another, not from a book or a motto or a constitution. The government is not totally powerless in this regard, but it cannot address the matter directly; what the government needs to do is to make sure that the institutions, infrastructure and law help encourage a happy cohesive society, rather than one divided by massive social and political inequality. Now there's a novel idea...
Imagine that they had written down a set of British Values in 1950. How would these compare to the ones we might draw up today? Our country has changed. Our social and political priorities have changed. In fact, why do we need to go so far back? Imagine a set of British Values that might have been drawn up by consensus in 1980. Things have changed since even then.
Setting all but the most general values in stone for all eternity is a big mistake. The right to bear arms in the United States constitution as was written in another world has pretty much ruled out a serious debate about gun control in a country where innocent people are injured or killed by firearms every day. Is there anything which should be written down now, never to be questioned again?
The ongoing exchange of ideas is essential for any community. In a community of sixty million, with all the diverse opinions within, we can't expect any discussion to ever reach a place where everyone agrees. We have to put some things down from time to time, and there are some issues where conflict trickles down to next to nothing, but the permanent closing of any matter is a big mistake.
Even things we know to be true need to be questioned from time to time, partly to make sure it is, indeed, the truth, but partly so we remember what the issue was about and why we came to a particular conclusion. To keep our values alive and meaningful.
Unless of course British Values are something really vague; but that brings us back to point 2.
I do love my country, with all its faults and foibles, just as I love my family. Not that everyone must; some people find they don't get on with their family at all, and some people don't get on with their country. However, I'm not nearly so worried about these people as I am about those who have such a jealous obsessive love for their country that they no longer see it for what it is. George Orwell wrote a very good essay on the matter.
Tuesday, February 12, 2008
Man and Supery-dooperyman
|(Emma's theme for next week's Disability Blog Carnival is Superman. I found it hard to connect this theme to disability, so the hurried and somewhat tardy result is a little odd. One of those it's my blog, it's up to me how silly it gets posts.)|
I've never got on with Nietzsche. He is a basically a 19th century gangsta rapper; he thinks he's really hard, he's brimming over with contempt for his fellow man, but ultimately he is so inadequate that he probably thought that sportswear and chunky gold jewellery were a stylish combination (and 19th century European sportswear, the effect would be far worse). In case you are unfamiliar with his work, Nietzsche's rap would have gone a little like this;
I'm a moustachioed mother from the mean streets of Röcken,
My old man was a pastor but my faith in God got broken.
I'm not hanging in the Ghetto as I'm not too keen on Jews,
Basically, my ethics are whatever I choose.
What they call "morality" is all born out of fear,
Love and compassion can kiss me on the rear.
Human beings aren't equal; that's obvious to see,
And guess who is the best of all? That's obviously me!
I matter more than others, because I am so great,
Most people live in suffering because they're second-rate.
Whereas I am really clever and I am really strong,
And nothing that I do or say could ever be wrong.
Even if I'm violent, and shoot up all my foes,
Even if I beat up my bitch and sleep around with hos
(Although to be quite honest, my love-life is a farce,
And when I talk of women, I am talking through my arse.)
I'm sorry about the language, but foul words like arse crop up all too often in the rap music I listen to - that hardcore rural English rap as opposed to the effete American urban variety. I mean, drive-by shootings in anything that goes faster than a tractor is for sissies.
Betrand Russell said in his History of Western Philosophy in 1946 that, despite his own distaste for the chap, Nietzsche's philosophy had come into force in Europe as much as those of his liberal and socialist peers. On the positive side, Nietzsche's ideas did influence various artists and philosophers - notably the Existentialists. The assertion that God is dead was a pretty amazing one, however banal it may appear as a sentence.
However, Hitler had the hots for Nietzsche, and whilst you can't say that Nietzsche was a Nazi, he might be seen to beckon in that direction. Anyway, this was about Superman. And disability. Somehow.
Nietzsche strongly believed in hierarchy, valuing those qualities associated with being a good warrior-hero; strength of will, a certain sort of courage, physical qualities as well as ruthlessness and guile. Romanticised if not actually romantic. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, a tedious rant which I recommend you avoid, he talks about the Übermensch, translated as Superman or Overman. He writes;
The most cautious people ask today: "How may man still be preserved?" Zarathustra, however, asks as the sole and first one to do so: "How shall man be overcome?"
Man is weak and we must rise above weakness. Thus begins an idea which has persisted in medical science and cultural attitudes ever since. It's not just about saving life and making life more comfortable, it is about making man himself better.
A desire to improve oneself, one's life and one's society is ancient and widespread and entirely commendable. The only controversy is about how this might be achieved. The Superman is one particular take on this; he is innately superior, without weakness of any physical, psychological or intellectual variety. He is an uncomplicated product of what we would now call eugenics and the triumph of the will which Nietzsche is always harking on about; people doing what they want to do as opposed to what they feel to be right.
This may seem a scary and radical prospect, but are these ideas so far outside our experience? Certainly there is a strong argument that much of ante-natal screening and the elective abortions that result is not about the elevation of suffering, but the elimination of (perceived) weakness. Healthy people try to make themselves better than they really are with cosmetic "corrective" surgery and treatments and self-help gurus who promise them a competitive edge in every conceivable area of life. Despite abundant evidence to the contrary, there is increasing talk of genetic "causes" for mental and physical ill health - or being responsible for "intelligence" and personality traits. Meanwhile, this is what we're concentrating in schools all the time; to be valued, one must have a very narrow version of intelligence that allows you to pass exams and which everyone will pretend you were born with.
Naturally, disabled people are left behind in this project for all manner of reasons. It is also a futile project, however seductive it has been for some. You cannot be a better person for being intelligent, or being able to run fast, or for being beautiful. These aren't things you (or your parents, or doctors or anyone) ever get to choose, but neither do they do you or those around you any favours without your own intervention.
So I have an alternative; the Supery-dooperyman (or in German, the Über-DüberMensch).
Thus spoke the Goldfish. Strength is not a thing that the Supery-dooperyman is born with, but something he develops through experience and demonstrates through his actions. Being clever or having physical advantages counts for nothing, but the Supery-dooperyman takes whatever talents or attributes he happens to have - however modest, however great - and makes the best use he can. The Supery-dooperyman realises that fear is not at the root of compassion, but often at the root of contempt; sometimes the greatest test of our courage comes in considering another person's point of view. The only valuable hierarchies are, as they are in nature, in a constant state of flux; the Supery-dooperyman understands the transient nature of all things, including himself. The Supery-dooperyman may do whatever he likes, but in order to do so, he knows he must not always do exactly as he feels - if you punch everyone who deserves it, you're unlikely to be in a physical state to enjoy more long-term interests.
If we could all manage that, we would have overcome a great deal.
Oddly enough, the only musical reference I can think of to Nietzsche is at the end of the chorus of Blur's noisy classic Song 2, when Damon Alburn sings "All of the time, 'cause I'm never sure why I need you/ 'Cause I, Nietzsche." Go listen; I don't tell a lie.
Friday, February 08, 2008
Advice for an Archbishop
|If you're going to start a debate on Sharia Law, you first have to tell people what it is. The vast majority of the population, being non-Muslim and having had neither the opportunity or inclination to learn about such things, don't really know. Many people are inclined to associate the phrase with corporal and capital punishment for acts which we don't consider vaguely criminal, as are carried out in the name of Sharia Law in other countries of the world.|
I asked a friend if he knew what Sharia Law was and he asked, "Isn't that the woman that Tony Blair is married to?"
If you use words like unavoidable and phrases such as the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty, you must expect that these words are going to more often repeated than any of your more measured comments. This way, the story stops being about your own ideas and starts being about another innocent party; if them Muslims are more loyal to their culture than they are to the state, why don't they just bugger off. Only yesterday, no Muslim put their hand up and said that. They may have done at some other point, but yesterday it was you, head honcho in the Church of England, who spoke on their behalf.
If you are going to make a proposal which would give special treatment to a community who are already subject to suspicion and prejudice, one has to consider whether your words, however well-meant, are likely to increase or decrease the tension that already exists.
In other news, we have snowdrops!
Monday, February 04, 2008
I'm so ugly, but that's okay 'cause so are you
|Sage recently wrote a few great posts about poor body-image and the beauty industry, which put me in mind of an old friend. I'm picking up from another dip in my health so instead of a long rambling post, I thought I would introduce you to her. My mother and I met her in the National Gallery, many years ago. My mother said, "She's no oil painting." and I had to point out that in fact she is|
Mum actually bought a handbag mirror with this lady on the reverse. It was a giggle at the time, but I later thought it an excellent idea. All the time we are being subjected to images of beauty to which very few of us can aspire to. And indeed, we are often being asked to compare ourselves to them because of the nature of the sales pitch. The only comparisons that most of us can make are negative; sometimes significantly so.
However, if all this is the case, A Grotesque Old Woman must make most of feel drop dead gorgeous. Nobody reading this will be less than somewhat good looking next to this lady (although research has demonstrated that readers of this blog are better looking than average). Regard this picture, then go look in a mirror and see what you think. Cute, or what?*
And yet, if body-image so important, if we have reason to be as upset and preoccupied by it as we seem to be, then this picture must inspire tremendous pity. Only it doesn't. Ridiculous costume aside, this isn't a lady who looks like she must be without charm, without intellect, without a good sense of humour. We don't instantly imagine that this woman is without friends and it is by no means inconceivable that she may have lovers. She might receive some odd looks and sniggers, but we don't regard this painting and presume that its subject must have a miserable existence.
Which is comforting for the rest of us, when we feel down about our many and varied but really none too significant aesthetic flaws.
* I do of course realise that my opinion of this lady as a minger is subjective; some people may find her appearance much more attractive than I do. However, in my defense I couldn't think of a single living woman I considered ugly. I thought about various women, mostly politicians who are often described as such, but none of them really are. To me, this lady looks the way young actors look when they've had make-up and prosthetics to make them appear elderly when they have to age fifty-odd years in a movie; a much less flattering effect than what aging actually does.