Saturday 25 February 2017

Plutarch on post truth


And why should any one be astonished that men of wanton life lose no occasion for offering up sacrifices, as it were, of contumelious abuse of their superiors, to the evil deity of popular envy...?      To such degree, it seems, is truth hedged about with difficulty and hard to capture by research, since those who come after the events in question find that lapse of time is an obstacle to their proper perception of them; while the research of their contemporaries into men's deeds and lives, partly through envious hatred and partly through fawning flattery, defiles and distorts the truth.

Plutarch, Pericles, 13 (here) (Greek text: here)

Quanquam quid attinet admirari homines instituto vitae satyricos, quique obtrectationes potentium invidiae vulgi, tanquam alcui malo genio, consecrare solerent...? Adeo difficilis investigatu res est historia vera, cum posterioribus praeteritum tempus, cognitionem rerum praeripiat, qui vero aequales sunt ejus, cujus vitam aut actum describunt, ii partim invidia odioque, partim gratificandi studio et adulatione corrupti, veritati officiant.

(Latin translation p192 here)

Notable for the tendency relatively absent in modern discussions to attribute the difficulty in finding truth largely to personal vices. Again, there is an emphasis on the general bad character (rather than occasional loss of control) of those standing in the way of truth, as well as a hint of idolatrous worship of the δαίμονι κακῷ/malo genio ('evil deity'). Moreover the role of 'fawning flattery' is raised: I suspect the role of this desire to please others is an often overlooked part of online dogpiles. (The phrase 'virtue signalling' for example emphasises our expressiveness rather than trying to please the person(s) signalled to.) And, of course, no modern discussion would countenance the idea that much of this is directed against those above us in an objectively existing hierarchy: the Greek uses the word 'blasphemy' (τὰς κατὰ τῶν κρειττόνων βλασφημίας).

The point of quoting this...? Well, the general suspicion that viewing the present through the prism of antiquity can provide a healthy corrective to our own smallmindedness. (And providing a Latin translation...? It's incredibly unlikely that we're ever going to recover the level of familiarity with Greek that previously existed amongst educated people. But a certain familiarity with Latin and a willingness to get more I suspect is achievable, certainly among Catholics. So here's a stone in that particular cairn.)

Wednesday 15 February 2017

Modern politics as entertainment: just for the lolz



Although the general claim that  modern politics is becoming part of the entertainment continuum has often been made, I don't think I've come across the specific claim that I'm going to make here: that much of the alt-right phenomenon is at least analogous to (and perhaps even caused by) that broad laddish stream of comic flyting and insult found in comedy rap artists such as Eminem and (the Welsh) Goldie Lookin Chain. (I appreciate there's a difference between the two in that comedy is merely part of Eminem's modus operandi while it pretty much exhausts GLC's. It's a difference I'm not going to address.)

I confess that, although I find much of the performance of the alt-right etc at best trivial and at worst downright dangerous, I don't generally find it shocking. (Well, sometimes. The anti-Semitism often strikes home as unusually crude.) Part of the reason for this, I'm beginning to suspect, is the fact that I rather enjoy -and I'm slightly ashamed to say this- artists such as Eminem and GLC.

For example, if you examine Eminem's lyrics for * My Name is... (1998) or * Just Lose it (2004) you'll find a sort of comic, overdeveloped male bravado that would leave most progressives gasping. GLC's * Your Mother's Got a P***s (2004) is again simply a mickey taking of transexuality that probably doesn't go down well these days outside Newport. Now certainly, you can argue about the details of this (not all features of the alt-right exist in these artists, and there are other 'laddish' peformances (like the now defunct Loaded) that would also have to be mentioned in a comprehensive argument. But whatever the differences, there is a certain tone of bravado and mickey taking that links these performances with alt-right politics as performed by Milo Yianopoulos and even Donald Trump. (I'm not going to overpush the argument by suggesting that the relatively high UKIP and Brexit vote in Wales is linked to GLC however tempting that might be.)

Why's this important? Well, I'm not completely sure -which is why I'm putting the idea out there for further exploration. But here's a first stab. The self image of the age is that progressive values have triumphed and that only tweed clad homophobes of a certain age entertain nostalgia for the past glories of Alf Garnett etc. In particular, the world of the arts and culture in general is supposedly dominated by progessive values and sensibilities. One explanation of the above might be that that was (roughly) the early 2000s and things have moved on. Possibly. But that note of male mockery (and even female: the gross out comedy of Drifters is an example) still goes on, hidden in plain sight. It's not exactly conservative: there's an enjoyment of crudity and subversion that is profoundly unconservative. (But then, is Trump a conservative?) But what there is is a chaotic subversion of everything, of every pomposity, standard and even (especially) of taking oneself too seriously that doesn't sit well with the bien pensants of (say) Radio 4 comedy.

There was much talk a while back of South Park Republicans: I have seen at least one article since then which identifies them as a precursor of the alt-right.The usual description of them is as libertarians, but this mistakes what I take to be a consequence of their views as a foundation for them. If the correct analysis is of a movement based on a tone or attitude (basically being wind up merchants of conventional pieties) then that attitude is certainly going to push you towards demanding liberty of speech (and to a lesser extent action), but the tone comes first.  If South Park Republicans are a precursor of the alt-right, then they are that less because they are Republicans and more because they are part of a grand tradition of wind up and sneering that goes through Beavis and Butt-Head and exploitation movies and ultimately to the old desire of épater la bourgeoisie.

If you think the culture war is between Shakespeare and Elvis, then Elvis has won. If, on the other hand, you think the culture war is between the modern pieties of progressivism and lewd anarchism, then I'm not so sure there has yet been a victory. But if Trump etc truly has emerged from that background, then it is a background that has not so much been hiding among the critter eatin' backwoodsmen of Swamp Town America, but in the light of day of the catalogues of multi-national entertainment giants.

And given that this attitude has been hiding in plain sight, why are we so surprised when it has obvious political effects?

[NB: Update: I've had this as a draft post for quite a while. If I were to rewrite it, I'd probably make it less based on rap and more on wider cultural performances including Grindhouse movies. But the central point remains: that there has been hiding in plain sight for a number of years a cultural movement whose rebellious, anarchic tone is not progressive and which may well be a key factor in current politics.]

For the strong (see above warnings about language etc):

Friday 3 February 2017

The protester as hero

The recent 'troubles' both worldwide as a result of Donald Trump's election and within the Catholic Church as a result of Pope Francis' actions made me think quite how powerful the archetype of The Protester (and of his cousin, The Rebel) has become within modern culture.

That's rather odder than might appear. Disagreement is an inevitable part of human societies. But it's hard to think of many other cultures which privilege 'protest' as the appropriate reaction to such disagreement. The quadricentenary of Bishop Sancroft's birth recently reminded me of the non-juring attachment to passive obedience. I confess to a long standing irritation with the fame of the suffragettes as opposed to the relative neglect of the suffragists:

The NUWSS adopted a peaceful and non-confrontational approach. Members believed that success could be gained by argument and education. The organisation tried to raise its profile peacefully with posters, leaflets, calendars and public meetings.


Since the 1960s, there has been a gradual increase in the sense that protest, particularly violent, highly emotional protest, is the proper way to settle disagreement. I can quite understand that many people object to Donald Trump as US President. But that disagreement was subjected to a democratic test and Trump won. Whatever path the losers of such a test now follow ought surely to take account both of the democratic result and the need to preserve the order of the American republic: in short, if everytime you dislike your leader you 'protest' and 'resist', it's hard to see how a republic can survive.

Protest, particularly mass public protest suffers from two main defects. It is disruptive of order, and civic peace is perhaps the main desideratum of public life. Moreover it tends to be blunt: I'm not at all sure what the Women's March recently was objecting to precisely (besides losing the election), still less what it proposed to put in its place.

I suppose (though I'm not completely convinced) that there is a place for The Protester. But I'm sure it's not so great a place as is currently given. If we are to have a pantheon of political role models, let's emphasize a bit more those who conform for the sake of peace, those who bite their tongues and those who compromise.  That goes for both 'sides': if a boorish, expressive individualism characterises much of the reaction to Trump, it also characterises much of the Trump phenomenon as well.