Thursday 25 June 2015

The local and the cosmopolitan

I'm not going to say anything specifically about the current drive in the USA to get rid of the Confederate Battle flag: there's too much in that rich soup of racism and local pride for an unwary and ignorant foreigner to choke on.

But combined with my current obsession with the history of Sanskrit cosmopolitanism in Language of the Gods in the World of Men, there is something more general to be said about the interaction between the local and the cosmopolitan. If one takes a broadly Burkean view of society and tradition (so, roughly, the idea that politics should be about preservation of a tradition and change about an organic development of that tradition), one is left with the worry about what happens if it seems that one's tradition is shot through with some essential corruption. (So here, putting aside any question of the truth of the claim, the assertion that the cultural traditions of the South are shot through with racism and nostalgia for slavery.)

Any worthwhile tradition has within it critical and reflective resources. So the South produces (eg) writers such as Walker Percy who is both Southern to the roots, and yet able to take (some sort of) critical stand on the neuralgic issues of race and slavery. It's hard to imagine, given human contrarianism, any large, literate region not throwing up at least some dissident voices. But the Catholic tradition does rather more than this: it institutionalizes those critiques as practices. Thus, as well as the (national) State, you have the transnational Church and the transnational Academy, each realised within a complex exchange of personnel and an international language (Latin). (This general sort of pattern carries on after a fashion well into (Protestant) modernity.)

Catholic nationalism should, therefore, carry within itself not just the theoretical possibility of an internal organic critique, but the internalisation of an external, radical critique: localism is always in a realised tension with cosmopolitanism and not just a theoretical one. Only when (or to the extent that) the nation state hermetically seals itself (by abandoning transnational religion, language and universities) is this internalisation of the external abandoned and reflection turned in on itself.

Localism without the embeddedness of a cosmopolitan critique is liable to grow dumb and dangerous. Cosmopolitanism without the local is liable to grow imperious and theoretical. So where does that leave the modern nation?

Modern cosmoplitanism is perhaps most obvious as Americanism. The language of cosmopolitanism is English. The cultural artefacts that carry cosmopolitanism are primarily Hollywood films and US TV. Putting aside the case of non-English speaking nations, Anglophone countries such as Scotland face a blurring of the local and the cosmopolitan: our values become simply those of every other liberal Anglophone progressive.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

Indeed, modern Scottish progressive nationalism seems to have created a nationalism that, unlike previous ones, is characterised by a revolt against history, an identification of the Past Scotland as the very thing to be sloughed off in favour of a cosmopolitan future. (Something similar might be said of the revolt of modern progressive Ireland against De Valera and comely maidens.) But in doing so, it loses the tension required for an internal critique: it becomes solely a city of monoglottal speech, created by words, but not tested by local traditions. Moreover, it isn't a very deep cosmopolitanism, but one founded on soap operas and thrillers.

And so one surveys possibilities, (Others are available.) The ideal of a rich local tradition, internalising within itself practices which bring in a rich cosmopolitanism and the possibility of a more than organic critique. Or a hermetically sealed culture, not entirely unable to change, but trapped essentially within itself. Or a cosmopolitanism simply of words, free floating, untested by reality or other speech, windy.

Tuesday 23 June 2015

Edith Hall and Classics for the People

The haute vulgarisation of the Classics is currently well served in the UK, and, from a very strong team, I've always rather favoured Professor Edith Hall, in part on the ground that she really does seem to care about how to bring Classics to everyone whilst herself remaining a proper scholar.

Her latest piece for the Guardian is well worth reading. But perhaps the most important part of it is not the eloquent plea for the study of the Classical World, but the claim that a key part of this is the promotion of studies of classical civilization in translations rather than an elitist focus on the study of the Ancient Greek language.

The article makes the following main claims:

a) Studying Classics is very important.
b) Studying Ancient Greece is more important than studying Ancient Rome.
c) Studying Ancient Greeks is more important than studying Ancient Greek.
d) Focusing on language rather than culture (and especially Latin language rather than Ancient Greek culture) is counterproductive and liable, especially in the State sector, to see the complete demise of any teaching of the Classical World.

Frankly, I'm torn. If the question were simply, 'Should children study ancient Greek literature and civilization in translation or have no contact with the ancient world at all?' then her argument is a bit of a no-brainer. And I think it is because she sees, for most pupils in England, certainly in bog-standard comprehensives, that to be roughly the choice, that she comes to the conclusions she does. But I'm not sure that is quite the question, and so I'm not sure hers is quite the answer.

The first thing I'd say is that this sort of dispute is a local manifestation of a wider problem: the lack of depth and quality in modern (especially secondary) education. One of my children, just embarked on a History Higher (the main Scottish exam for university entry) was bemoaning to me the lack of any option before the twentieth century. The syllabus doesn't quite support that view, but like a great many things in Scottish (and I assume elsewhere in the UK) education, the reality on the ground doesn't fit the theory: certainly my experience of history education up till now has been that it's basically Glasgow sewers in the nineteenth century and Hitler. So anything, anything which puts something odd and rich into that gray gloop is welcome, whether it's philosophy classes, Latin classes, Chinese or classical civilization. The possibility of immediate escape for at least some children is to be welcomed, and if that possibility currently exists in the form of classical civilization rather than Attic Greek, I'd grasp it with both hands.

This inspiring past of people’s Greek can help us to look forward. It is theoretically in our power as British citizens to create the curriculum we want. In my personal utopia, the ancient Greek language would be universally available free of charge to everyone who wants to learn it, at whatever age – as would, for that matter, Latin, classical civilisation, ancient history, philosophy, Anglo-Saxon, Basque, Coptic, Syriac and Hittite. But classical civilisation qualifications are the admirable, economically viable and attainable solution that has evolved organically in our state sector. Classicists who do not actively promote them will justifiably be perceived as elitist dinosaurs.

[From her article here.]

Presumably, however, her call is not just to cherish what is already there but to encourage its expansion. And it's there I'm not quite so sure. The root of the problem is what the classics are for. Professor Hall seems to (at leas at university level) emphasize the production of good citizens:

 This means engaging with literary texts fearlessly in translation plus increasing the importance of critical thinking and lowering that of language acquisition. Undergraduate degrees are supposed to produce competent citizens. Traditional classics courses are not making the most of those ancient authors on their curriculum who enhance civic as opposed to syntactical competence.

Study of Greeks is an important component of that because they uniquely (or at least at an unusually high level) embodied critical thought about what it was to be a citizen:

History, [Jefferson] proposed, is the subject that equips citizens for this. To stay free also requires comparison of constitutions, utopian thinking, fearlessness about innovation, critical, lateral and relativist thinking, advanced epistemological skills in source criticism and the ability to argue cogently. All these skills can be learned from their succinct, entertaining, original formulations and applications in the works of the Greeks.

I don't particularly want to challenge her assumption about the purposes of a humane education, although I'd rather put the emphasis on being a good human being rather than just a good citizen. And as part of that -and I suppose the turn to the historical which is part of the 2500 years or so of intellectual development since Classical Greece- I'd want to include a relativisation of that 'being a good citizen': to be a good citizen, it is necessary not just to consider what it is to be a citizen simpliciter, but an Englishman, a Scotsman, a European etc. In other words, you need to say something about the study of our history and thought since Greece. Moreover, Hall's view of Greek attitudes to citizenship is partial:

Socrates dedicated his life to proving the difference between the truth and received opinion, the unexamined life being, in his view, not worth living. No wonder Hobbes thought that reading Greek and Roman authors should be banned by any self-respecting tyrant, in Leviathan arguing that they foment revolution under the slogan of liberty, instilling in people a habit “of favouring uproars, lawlessly controlling the actions of their sovereigns, and then controlling those controllers”.

If Socrates did that, did Plato spend his life arguing that the ignorant should be subject to the wise few? Aristotle that there were natural slaves? Professor Hall has worked on the reception of Greek ideas in subsequent European history: she is well aware that they have just as often been used to justify tyrannies and hierarchies as to undermine them.

I'm am left at this point agreeing with her that classical civilisation studies is a very good thing, but not that it is a uniquely good thing. By all means, if the local situation is favourable, argue for its availability. But I'm not at all convinced that it is more important to argue for it rather than (say) Chinese or philosophy, and am equally not sure that, in fact, it will always be easier to produce students in classical civilisation than these other 'deep and interesting' subjects, even that of the Latin language.

Going back to what is ideal -what we should aim for in a slightly more idealistic way rather than scrambling to rescue whatever shards of culture we find at hand- I can't help thinking that it is the teaching of Latin that is really the crucial point. It is Latin (rather than Greek) which runs as the linguistic thread of culture throughout western history. It is Latin (rather than knowledge of Greek civilisation) which remains a charged cultural marker in our society, between those who have some Latin from a public school education, and those who have no Latin at all from a state education. It is Latin which is the language of Christendom (and thus of a whole layer of civilisation and reflective thought that encountering the Greek will leave aside).

And do we need Latin language rather than (say) a Great Books curriculum in translation? Well, we could certainly do with something like a Great Books curriculum in secondary education. But there remains, I think, something crucial about some Latin, at least for those going to something like a university level education. It is just a matter of historical fact that various civilisations have used a particular language to realise a cosmopolitan culture. By that, I mean they have used a special language to mark a culture which is not bound to the local either in time or place. (The use of Latin I think is clear enough, but the use of Sanskrit in Asia in an analogous way is addressed in Language of the Gods in the World of Men .) Now, certainly, you might wonder whether such a cosmopolitan idea is a good one, or even if having a 'designated' language is the best or only way of achieving it. I'd answer (probably) 'yes' to both questions, even if I'd struggle to articulate fully the reasons for these answers. But the very fact that such a language does exist across many different civilisations (Mandarin, Sanksrit, Arabic, Hebrew, Church Slavonic etc) should at least require a very clear answer as to why we are so sure that nothing is being lost by abandoning it.

In sum, I sympathise with Professor Hall's desire to hold onto and promote, where possible, the existence of studies in classical (Greek) civilisation in translation. But to the extent that we are mobilising our forces for a better, more ideal curriculum, I'd hold out for the wider teaching of Latin as an (almost) essential part of a proper humane education. (And if you're a Catholic, you can probably add the traditional 'and then some' onto the end of that last sentence.)

Friday 19 June 2015

Breaking Bad and the culture of family

I suppose I ought to be talking about Laudato Si', but I've still only dipped into it. On the other hand, I have recently emerged from my first boxed set immersive experience (with Breaking Bad). So let's talk about that...

I should probably say something about the effects of watching approximately 50 hours of television in a fairly solid block (plus, to be exact, the 8 hours or so of Better Call Saul, the successor series in a rather more gentle schedule). It's a bit odd, perhaps rather like being trapped in one of the Crystal Meth houses that keep popping up in the series. Reality and Fernsehenswelt blend at least a little. I found a 'spirited exchange' with a family member taking on some of the emotional colouring of Walt and Skyler's interactions ('Who the hell does she think she is treating me like this just because I cook meth?') and slight worries about unanswered emails segueing into rather more profound worries about whether the Feds would get me.

There's also the issue of cultural memory. Now that the previously ephemeral art of TV has been preserved (and putting aside connected changes in scheduling and instant availability), how will this affect our relationship to the medium?

Well, for another time. I'm just going to stick to the content rather than the form in which I viewed it. I don't think I've mentioned this before, but one of the inspirations of this blog was the film criticism of Joe Bob Briggs, both in the creation of a 'distinct' voice, and in the use of that voice to articulate truth. Frankly, vague inspiration rather than reality it stayed: my online personality hasn't turned out that different from my real one, and I've never had enough courage to engage philosophy or theology in the echt Joe Bob Briggs manner:

No dead bodies. One hundred seventeen breasts. Multiple aardvarking. Lap dancing. Cage dancing. Convenience-store dancing. Blindfold aardvarking. Blind-MAN aardvarking. Lesbo Fu. Pool cue-fu. Drive-In Academy Award nominations for Tane McClure. Joe Bob says check it out.

(From Wikipedia.)

That said, there's a lot to be said for the school of Joe Bob criticism of popular culture: it's very easy to faff around with semiotic this or that, when the real business and attraction of a cultural artefact is the quantity of breasts and 'aardvarking' (guess).

So with that in mind, I confess to being rather impatient with the sort of Catholic critique of Breaking Bad which focuses on the moral complexity blah-blah. It's really just an extremely well made thriller. 90% of the time, you're hooked in not by anything more than how Walt or another character is going to get away alive from some thug (or Fed). If I were going to be crude, putting aside the first and the last series (the first because there is some attempt to portray an existential crisis; the last because there is (rather less) attempt to show Walt getting his comeuppance), it is simply a celebration of the little man getting his own back on a world that has crushed him. I don't think it passes (or fails) the Tarantino test: is this an example of high intelligence and aesthetic sensitivity being used to give people permission to enjoy a gore fest?

Of course this is unfair. There are lots of details that could be looked at and teased out to support a competing, more detailed and more sympathetic narrative. But that's the point of Joe Bob criticism: popular culture doesn't work at the level of nuance and detail, but at the  broadbrush level of lesbo-fu and aardvarking. To pick just one aspect, I'm sure that there's a lot that could be said, based on a detailed analysis of scenes, that would support a benign view of family life and love in Breaking Bad. Certainly there is love and affection and loyalty. But the main lines of the fifty hours of viewing are that Walt prattles constantly on about 'doing this for his family' while drug dealing and murdering. It's hard to avoid the impression that the result of this is simple Pavlovian conditioning: traditional family values = high count on the vomit meter. (Any examples of non-dysfunctional families in Breaking Bad? Better Call Saul contains an all American soccer mum family at the centre of a long running embezzlement. Or perhaps the drug baron Tuco who loves his granny and makes sure she's undisturbed while he's bludgeoning his victims?)

And that I suppose is the point of this post. You can kid yourself all you want about the detail of this or that show or book, But all the best TV (and Breaking Bad is in many ways utterly brilliant) reinforces those main cultural messages. Family bad. Focus on me, good. You can do what you want. Be cool. Be a thug.

Doubt it? So who would you rather be: flabby, Ned Flanderesque Mr White? Or lean mean Heisenberg?

Thursday 11 June 2015

British Council and Irish Marriage Referendum

Many of us who'd been keeping an eye on the Irish Same Sex Marriage Referendum were dismayed by the large sum of money apparently pouring into the Yes campaign from abroad. (See also here.) Among the donors to the Marriage Equality campaigning organization were apparently the British Council.

The tweeter @CokieCM actually made the effort to pursue this a bit further via a Freedom of Information request to the British Council. Purely in the interests of getting the correct information out publicly, we've agreed I'll put their reply up on my blog. Make of it what you will. I'd simply say that I'm less than happy about any British public organization getting involved in a friendly democratic country's internal affairs even in a minor way, and that, once again, the way in which LGBTQIA+ campaigning groups have become embedded in public institutions is noteworthy.

Our thanks are due to @CokieCM for going to the trouble of doing this. I gather he's going to push on with some of the details left unresolved below. So watch this space!



Thank you for your request for information [...] concerning British Council support to the Irish advocacy organisation Marriage Equality. Your request has been handled under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) 2000 and has been passed to me for reply.

For your ease of reference, I have restated your request below in bold and have provided our response beneath each point

1.  Please tell me if any assistance (financial or otherwise) has been given to the Irish advocacy organisation Marriage Equality. If the organisation has received (or is due to receive) financial support please give the amount.

Voices of Children Workshop: 8 September 2010

We cooperated with Marriage Equality on a conference that launched their ground-breaking research, documenting the experiences of children growing up in Ireland with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) parents. The aim was to focus on some of the issues relating to the social and political challenges that children coming from LGBT families face and to provide them with a non-judgmental space in which to discuss these issues. Speakers included Helen Statham, Centre for Family Research, Cambridge University, UK and Ed Webb-Ingall, a documentary film maker based in London. Participants came from both N/S Ireland.

The event was co-funded by ESF (Progress Programme – For Diversity, Against Discrimination), the Irish Equality Authority (now Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission) and the Dutch Government.

We provided minimal support in the form of an air fare and one night accommodation, although we no longer hold any record of the amounts. Our support was for a UK filmmaker to attend the event, show a film that he has made on the subject and lead a discussion group. The event itself had nothing to do with political lobbying or changing legislation in Ireland; it was merely about helping an organisation provide a forum to air the views of an under-represented group of people in society. It is in line with our Equal Opportunity and Diversity policy and our programme of intercultural dialogue.

2.  Please give details of any other Irish advocacy organisations that have received support from the British Council.

From our preliminary assessment it has become clear that we will not be able to answer this part of your request without further clarification.

Could you please clarify your definition of an ‘advocacy organisation’? It would prove difficult to search our records for support we might have provided to ‘advocacy organisations’ as it is unlikely that that particular phrase would have been used. It would be helpful if you could provide names of organisations you would like us to focus on.

Could you also please clarify the type of support you mean?

Once you have clarified the points raised above I can begin to process this part of your request. Please note that no further action will be taken until we receive clarification from you.


Wednesday 3 June 2015

Lacking experience: on being a Catholic zombie

                                                             An ethicist writes...

A lot of talk these days about the need to respect people's experience. We need to respect Bruce Jenner for having been a woman in a man's body and now being a woman on a magazine cover. We need to respect the experience of those who have this or that sexual desire which they're very attached to and to which the Catholic Church normally isn't...

Our nature as humans obliges us to use our God-given reason to sort out moral problems in the area of sexuality, and to use this reason in ways that respect the dignity of all people and communities. We need to work together to understand the meanings and purposes of human sexuality and the answers to our moral questions in this area. As noted, natural law demands that we examine all the evidence. That means paying attention to everyone’s experiences, listening to differing and opposing opinions, self-critically examining our own biases, and entering into dialogue with others.

(from US Catholic here)

The trouble with all this is that I don't think I've had any experience in the way the word is being used. As a conservative, heterosexual white Catholic, I don't have any experiences which lead me to question the truth of the church's teaching in  way that is normally what is meant by experience. I'm perfectly happy with (eg) what's in the Catechism and the Compendium of Social Doctrine: frankly, it seems far better and deeper than anything I came across before I was a Catholic. Of course, it may be that I just haven't had experience: having had quite a wad of privilege, I may have missed out on the experience that's usually meant: a discovery that one's own deepest being simply doesn't engage with what the Church teaches. I need to listen rather than talk.

This irritates me a bit. I don't particularly want to whinge, but I've had some pretty rough patches in my life and I've seen ('experienced') quite a lot more in those around me. When I heard on a recent TV discussion on euthanasia an audience member saying that no one who hadn't experienced the (extended) death of a loved one had a right to talk on the issue (with the assumption that those who had would undoubtedly demand euthanasia), I can't help thinking that it's not that I haven't experienced this, but rather that my experience (of the way dying gets in the way of normal life, of how it generates feelings of helplessness uncomfortable to the modern mind) rather reinforced in me an opposition to euthanasia: it strikes me even more as something that springs from a vice, from a threat to our buffered autonomous selves that ought to be welcomed rather than pushed away with the apparatus of state licensed killing. When I'm told that someone knows that they are trapped in another sex's body or that they knew they were gay since the age of 3 or something, my experience prompts me to think of the power of self-delusion, of the sheer impenetrability of the depths of our self and the distorting power of lust rather than to take such talk as clearly veridical.

Again, from that above article:

When my friend is told that her son’s sexual love for his partner is “intrinsically disordered” or “intrinsically evil” because he is not made to procreate with another male, she objects that the love between these two persons is so much bigger and more complex than the question of whether their “parts” fit. When other friends hear that they cannot use in vitro fertilization because sperm and egg must meet naturally (and thus not in a petri dish), they are astounded at this narrow understanding of human sexuality.

Fortunately, none of my children have presented me with that sort of 'experience'. It's clearly a very different sort of experience from any I have had because, whenever my children do present me with something I find rather difficult to take, my first thought isn't that they are obviously right and the Church is obviously wrong. All of us seem to be living in something like Plato's Cave: I don't blame my children for finding it difficult to navigate any more than I find it easy to navigate. My 'experience' such as it is, merely reinforces that Socratic sense of wading through intellectual treacle. My 'experience' is that the Church's traditional teaching is always rather helpful in such cases. But clearly, that's wrong.

And so I am left with the conclusion that I either have no experience or that my experience is the wrong sort of experience. But others, apparently luckier than me, are full of experience of the right sort. Must be nice for them. Back to munching on brains, I suppose.