Sunday, 30 December 2012

H.L. Mencken and life's end

The central aim of life is to simulate extinction.’ H.L. Mencken

Henry Louis Mencken (1880-1956) was a journalist very much of the old school, which is to say, he combined immense erudition with an ease and facility of language that makes even the most trivial of matters deeply engaging. The words of Homer, Socrates, and other ancient Greeks meander through his writing as if just uttered in a casual conversation by a good friend; Kant appears to make some profound pronouncement from time to time, while Spinoza jostles with Hobbes to a get a word in. And then there are the literati, the great wordsmiths through the ages, observing on this and commenting on that, adding their lustre to the bright light Mencken’s words possess as naturally as a tree has leaves.
They don’t make journalists like that now, and perhaps they didn’t even make them like that then. He was certainly a rare bird, perhaps even unique among his kind. In fact, Mencken was really no journalist at all; he was an observer of the human condition with eyes like laser beams, who just happened to publish his thoughts in the newspapers.
Time passes and we forget much. Some of the tomfoolery and chicanery – particularly that of the booboisie, as he styled them - that caught Mencken’s eye means nothing to us now, yet his writing is so captivating it retains an immediacy, as if we are reading today’s paper. Others, such as the Scopes Monkey Trial, are famous in themselves, and will always warrant our attention. Finally, there are those of his writings which treat of timeless subjects, his musings on mortality, for instance. These will always speak to us, so long as we retain our human concerns.
Mencken - life as a belly-aching laugh.
His writings are filled with a bubbling joie de vivre, a genuine amusement at the circus of it all, even as he gazes, unblinking, into the great abyss of meaninglessness at its heart. A wry smile lurks behind everything he wrote. And behind much of what he wrote there is a belly-aching laugh.
Like many of those who think more than cursorily about life and what it’s all about, Mencken thought long and often about death. And he wrote about it well and often. In the end, he concluded, in all that we do, we seek to obliterate the awareness that we are. There are times when literary paradoxes are little more than party tricks, the verisimilitude of profundity standing in the place of actual profundity. But in this instance – as in so many others – Mencken was not dealing in cheap prestidigitation; he was merely speaking the profoundly mundane truth.
In the still hours of the night, we all become aware of our essential nothingness, a dreadful awareness that assaults the misguided but persistent sense we all have of our own significance. Fiercely conscious, as I am, of my Self, I cannot accept this Self is quite literally without meaning. The Self asserts its own importance, and so we await the dawn, when we can rise and busy ourselves with myriad trivia, dressed up as matters of much meaning, so that for a time at least we are no longer aware of pointlessly being. In other words, by busying ourselves with all we can conjure, we strive to achieve the same state we will enjoy when we are dead – a state of being in which we are no longer troubled by the awareness of being, and the fruitlessness of existence. We are ostriches with our heads buried deep in the existential sands. It is an unsurpassable irony that our awareness, however subconscious, of the pointlessness of existence – and all that we do while we exist – leads us to give meaning to all that we do. It is the means by which we hide from ourselves what we could not otherwise face. It is, wonderfully, a paradox of the most sublime truth, the sort of sublime truth that brought a great and knowing smile to Mencken's face.

Friday, 28 December 2012

Pigs on the high street

Strolling along the high street in the days after Christmas, one has the disquieting sense of having wandered unexpectedly into a pig farm. With their snouts snuffling away in the trough, all the little piggies are hard at it, buying, buying, buying. Of course, just when a degree of moral superiority threatens to elevate you above the jostling pigs, you discover that you’ve become the biggest porker of the lot. You gobble your swill and reflect on how much sheer, unalloyed pleasure is to be had from purchasing something that’s on sale. So much pleasure, in fact, that you start buying things you couldn’t possibly need or use. Take me, for instance. Among other odds and ends—a gadget for peeling bananas, an inflatable pillow you can use to take a nap on your desk, and something which might be a screw-driver, but I can’t be certain—I bought a pair of lady’s lacy black knickers, size small, which is utterly ridiculous, because I’m definitely a size medium. But there they were, on sale, so what could I do?

More happy shoppers on the high street.

In praise of democracy

Like everything else in this life, we expect too much from democracy. Like children who believe their parents can make everything better, we think politicians can solve all our problems. And like parents who tell their children soothing stories to get them to sleep, our politicians whisper in our ears that everything will be all right. And we believe them. Or we pretend that we do. At a certain point, children stop believing that Santa brings their Christmas gifts, but they don’t want to give up the sweet notion, so they try to stay as long as possible in a state of belief-unbelief, knowing-yet-not-knowing. And parents, too, can see when this has happened, but they play along, trying to keep the illusion from dissolving, trying to keep the innocence of childhood for just one day more.

And that’s what we’re like with politicians. We know they can’t really deliver us to the Promised Land. We know that half of them don’t even really care, just so long as they get to enjoy that sense of being important, that sense of being someone who matters. As if they matter any more than the rest of us. So we know they are whispering empty phrases, meaningless phrases, phrases as hollow as a hangman's laugh, and they know we know, but we all go along with it, just to keep the illusion going a little while yet. But not to worry, we’re pretty good with illusions—and delusions—so democracy isn't going to come unstuck any time soon. We’ll just keep right on believing—and not believing—and all will be well.

Oh, and those sad saps who don’t vote because they think it’s all just a vile cesspit of corruption? Pity the fools, for they also think that Santa doesn’t bring them their Christmas gifts.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

The Mayans and the End of Days

As we stand poised on the abyss of annihilation which has apparently been foretold by those particularly perspicacious folks, the Mayans, I would like to humbly suggest that, in my heart of hearts, I think I should be planning to have something to do on 22 December. I don’t mean to be rude or dismissive of such an august culture (or those who presume to interpret it), but I just have a hunch we’ll all still be here the day after tomorrow. But I have a hunch, also, that while we will still be here the day after tomorrow, we may struggle to stick around the day after tomorrow (which I mean figuratively, as in, a hundred years or so from now), if we don’t clean up our act. Let me explain.

Collective action problems abound in this world of ours. We may individually be brilliant, there might even be the odd genius in our midst, but collectively we tend to be, as often as not, imbeciles (which gives us a nice collective noun for any group of people, ‘an imbecility’). There are problems of commission ('The amount of pollution coming from the exhaust of my car is negligible, so why should I give up the comfort when no one else is doing so?' thinks every one of the several billion drivers on the planet). And there are problems of omission ('Why should I go to the effort of recycling when no one else does?' thinks every one of the several billion consumers on the planet). In essence, it’s someone else’s problem, not mine. And this is a problem. For us all. Individually and collectively.

Why is this such a problem? Take the vexing problem of climate change, for instance. At present, fossil fuel CO2 emissions continue to rise dramatically. In 1990, they stood at about 21 billion tonnes. By 2010, they were approaching 32 billion tonnes (the only blip in this magnificent ascent was in 2008 when the financial crisis briefly slowed production). And the rise is showing no signs of slowing down (if anything, it’s speeding up). In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggested that these emissions would lead to our planet experiencing a 4°C rise in temperature by 2100. This is considerably, if not drastically, above the 2°C rise which the Panel said should be avoided if we wished to go on living in the manner to which we’ve become accustomed (or, as will be the case in some places, just living). As it happens, that prediction was made using an antiquated model. Thank goodness for progress! Now we know that it is much more likely that the temperature rise will be between 5–6°C by 2100, and there’s even a 10% chance of a rise of 7°C. Much as some people might think they would like to see a slightly warmer climate, one doesn’t need to be a rocket (or climate) scientist to appreciate that none of these figures are good. They’re bad. Very, very bad. Now, to do anything whatsoever about this requires collective action. And that means we need to act individually, as a collective, to reduce our emissions. But as long as everyone thinks it’s someone else’s problem, then we’ll do nothing, but slowly roast (or freeze, or drown in the deluge, or be blown away by yet another oversized hurricane).
Another imbecility of people.
And the rising temperatures are not all there is to be concerned about. They’re just one part of the very big, complex and rather unnerving situation we now face (read all about it, it's wonderfully gripping, in the New Scientist, 17 Nov 2012). So the end of days is not likely to be tomorrow, I am willing to wager, but if we don’t cease our collective denial (the one thing we seem to be able to do collectively reasonably well), the end of days just might not be that far away.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

The Right to Bear Arms

I do not wish to speak directly of the dreadful calamity that has befallen the people of Newtown, Connecticut. It is a tragedy, and like all genuine tragedies, words are profoundly empty vessels when confronted with such loss. But I would speak generally of the United States, for there is much that might be said here.

The United States of America is a remarkable country. For those of us who witness it from afar, it is all too easy to point out its manifold shortcomings, our smug criticisms an expression of the resentment we feel in the face of a country so much more powerful than our own. But like all the easy positions and attitudes we adopt, it is egregiously flawed. We like our views to be simple, easily held in the mind, but the reality is that reality is not like that - it is complicated, uncertain, changeable. We pass over the facts that do not fit our preconceptions, but as we do so, we also pass over any possibility of actually understanding the world as it is. So, too, with America. It exhibits, quite literally, the very best and the very worst that humanity can do. It is a country stretched taut with contradictions, and as now one, and now another, dogma is in the ascendant, the country shifts itself heavily from side to side. And all the world moves.

Among these contradictions, there are few as fundamental as America's relationship to guns. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were the founding ideals of this great country. But the country was also founded, quite literally, at the point of a gun, whether it was held by a patriot confronting a loyalist, or a settler expelling natives, or a Yankee against a Confederate, or the United States itself against one of its neighbours (even if it later tried to make this look like a reasonable sale and purchase by giving Mexico a certain sum of money).

No other country I can think of has such veneration for the gun, its place in the collective psyche enshrined in the Second Amendment to the Constitution. Yet no other country I can think of has been hurt so much by the gun - in peacetime, at least - as has America. And as tragedy follows tragedy, its collective psyche is again and again traumatised.

The Second Amendment is as the Gospel for those who carry guns in America. Yet despite the perversity of certain Supreme Court Justices, it is clear enough that the framers of the Constitution intended only that arms could be borne for the purposes of serving in a militia in the defence of the nation. In the absence of a need for such a militia, the right to bear arms itself evaporates. There never was a freedom for anyone and everyone to be armed in the United States. And thus, this is perhaps one contradiction that the country would do well to resolve sooner rather than later.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Labour Party infiltrated by agents of the right

The Labour Party has clearly been infiltrated by moles, sleeper agents, call them what you will, slyly doing the bidding of their masters, the nefarious and shadowy fiends who control the National Government. That, at least, can be the only explanation for the Labour Party's almost heroic dedication to ensuring it is never again elected to office. Well, I suppose it could be put down to a degree of stupidity and political naivety not seen since Chamberlain returned from Munich to say what a nice chap that Adolf was, but I think it more plausible that agents of the right have succeeded in sinking the cause of the left.

The most signal achievement to date of these agents is the selection of David Shearer as the Labour Party's leader. Is there anyone less inspiring, less articulate, less likely to win a raffle, let alone a general election? Shearer is, undoubtedly, a very nice man. His heart, as they say, is in the right place. He has worked to bring the light of humanitarianism to those who suffer all over the world. And that is admirable.

But humanitarians don't win elections, at least, if they do, it's not because they're humanitarians. Elections are won by those who inspire and have a vision, who are articulate and charismatic, who can convince the people that, if only they follow, the Promised Land will be theirs. Being nice is not enough. Being clever is most definitely not enough (indeed, it can be a positive hindrance). Having a clear grasp of all the details of all that's happening in the world is not enough. What matters is that you sound like you know what is happening, that you appear authoritative, that you act as one who was born to lead. The average voter hasn't the time, nor the inclination, to be concerned with details. The collective citizenry vote with their instincts, not their heads, and their instincts are rather blunt instruments. Thump them over the head with the message that you'll best represent their prejudices, and their votes will be yours.

One of the moles that has infiltrated the Labour Party.

John Key may mumble, but even his mumbling is articulate enough to pass muster, and besides, his smile is so reassuring, one hardly notices the mumbling. We're too busy basking in the reassuring glow of his smile. Until the Labour Party comes to its senses, ejects the agents of the right, and chooses a leader who can actually lead, they will languish in their haplessness.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Exciting new government initiative!

Hot on the heels of the government's exciting announcement that many of those currently unemployed in New Zealand are enjoying a 'different kind' of unemployment, the news broke recently of another ingenius government initiative aimed at helping the unemployed find work. Evidently thinking way, way outside the box, and having taken all the excellent learnings from previous failed policies, the government has been flying job-seekers to Australia, because at the end of the day, what matters going forward is that we reduce New Zealand's unemployment rate, any old how.

In a rare show of modesty, it was not actually the government itself that announced the policy, perhaps in fact because the policy was initially implemented under the previous government. So, in a bid to gain the recognition it feels it deserves for having come up with the ingenious idea in the first place, the opposition party brought it to everyone's attention. 'It was our idea, totally ours, you know, we thought that if we could send all of those currently unemployed somewhere else, then, well, we wouldn't have any unemployed, would we!', said Jacinda Ardern, barely able to conceal her pride at being associated with an idea so dashed clever!

Not to be outdone, however, the government has signalled its intention to launch a new policy under which all poor people will also be sent somewhere else, possibly Antarctica, thereby immediately and dramatically raising New Zealand's median household income. What will they think of next!

Another party of NZ job-seekers about to head across the Tasman.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

A stain on Chelsea's reputation

Good news, at last, for Liverpool FC. While they continue to be utterly mediocre - even if they do make a fine reality TV show which rivals the Kardashians for sheer gripping drama - they at least can now watch as Chelsea FC suffer through all that they themselves have previously gone through. I am sure, sure, sure, that Rafa Benitez is a very nice chap - avuncular, sort of bouncy with a bonhomie that no number of losses seems able to deflate - but he clearly has no affinity for football. And this is an unfortunate trait in someone who tries to pass himself off as a football manager. It's as if the Incredible Hulk (or even Hulk, the incredible Brazilian) thought that putting on a little black dress would be enough to pass himself off as a lady of easy virtue. Or even just a lady.

So, we can all sit back now and enjoy watching an entirely different Chelsea team take to the field, week in, week out. His selections may not be consistent but, as with Liverpool, the results will, no doubt, be easy enough to predict. Rafa is so keen to make use of everyone in any way connected with the team - being, as I said, such a very nice person, he doesn't want anyone to feel left out - we may well see the chap who does the team's laundry make an appearance. Mind you, perhaps it wouldn't be such a bad thing. I mean, he does the laundry, they might at least keep a...wait for it...clean sheet!

'You did the shirts in a hot wash!?'

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

On Socrates, pigs, and happiness

‘For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.’ – Ecclesiastes 1:18

John Stuart Mill would rather have been Socrates unhappy than a happy pig. Or even a happy fool. We are taught, rightly enough we think, to venerate knowledge, and that is the point underscored by Mill. It is the summum bonum, the greatest good. But the obverse side of that particular coin is that knowledge is to be desired, whether it brings happiness or no. But is that right?

It's hard to look good without make-up.
(Vanitas, Pieter Claesz, 1630)
Ecclesiastes. We should never forget Ecclesiastes. I still have no idea how it found its way into the Bible – it’s hardly in keeping with the spirit of the enterprise, so to speak – but  it is perhaps the greatest text ever written. In a single line of verse, everything you ever needed to know is revealed. Vanitas vanitatum, omnia vanitas. And so, if that is the case, are the fool and the pig, pace Mill, actually better off?

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

(Ig)noble suffering and the persistence of faith

'I have suffered too much in this life not to expect another….All the subtleties of metaphysics will not make me doubt the immortality of the soul for a moment; I feel it, I believe it, I want it, I hope for it, I shall defend it to my last breath.' - Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Noble suffering we can endure. Perhaps it is for a worthy ideal that we suffer, perhaps at the hands of a brutish tyrant who would crush our spirit and vanquish our will. In the face of such suffering, we stiffen our resolve and harden our hearts and know that we will not be broken. We know that the pains we suffer today will be rewarded tomorrow with glorious redemption. Our suffering will be recognised as worthy and righteous. And knowing this, we can endure it.
But most suffering is nothing like that. Most suffering is appallingly mundane. Maliciously quotidian. Disastrously ordinary. Bills must be paid. Rent found. Mortgages kept up. We make our weary way to work. We are anonymous among the anonymous crowd. Our fellow-sufferers. We toil at our jobs, unsure why. We make our way home, our minds numb, our souls worn.
None of this produces the obvious signs of suffering, of servitude, of punishment. There are no marks of the lash across our backs, no chains about our feet, nothing to suggest that here is noble suffering. There is nothing noble in eternal tedium and the knowledge that tomorrow will be unrelentingly like today. And this simply makes the suffering harder to endure. There is no promise of redemption, no promise that one day someone will say, ‘See how he suffered for his cause. See how he endured and how he fought for freedom or justice or something decent on the TV’. There is, that is to say, no point to our suffering, and it is this – this abject pointlessness – which so strips it of anything noble. The worst malady a human can suffer is an abiding sense of pointlessness. Without a reason why, the smallest pin-prick can become a torment worse than anything imagined in Dante’s hell. But give us that reason, explain to us why, and then we can endure.
Those like Richard Dawkins or the late (and tediously boorish) Christopher Hitchens who shriek hysterically about the evils of faith are like an excitable teenager who has just discovered Nietzsche and goes around daringly proclaiming to the world that God is dead. While it’s excusable in a teenager, it becomes less so once a person is of more advanced years, say twenty. From the comfortable and lofty heights which zealots such as Dawkins proclaim their message, it is easy to be unbowed by the meaninglessness of it all, but if your life is not quite so privileged, or yours is a disposition – unelected – which simply can find no comfort in science and reason, then faith may be all you have to make this life bearable. And so be it.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Amazing Grace

This week the Australian Prime Minister, Joolya Gillard, announced that a royal commission of inquiry is to be held to investigate the abuse of children in the care of the Catholic Church. Responding to the announcement, the Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell, spoke in the only way a man in his position could do: with grace. Acknowledging that the church might have something of a problem with the apparent proclivity of many of its priests to take more than confession from parishioners, he then suggested that the church was hardly alone in this regard. ‘It’s not like we’re the only ones fiddling the kids,’ he said (or words to that effect). Then His Grace, deftly slipping from one defensive manoeuvre to another like a well-drilled Prussian regiment, turned on the media, exclaiming that none of this furore would have happened if they had done the decent thing and not gone snooping around where they didn’t belong. Now, this is the kind of defence that even a nutcase like Radovan Karadzic wouldn’t have bothered with, but the Archbishop wasn’t done yet. Not only were the media responsible for this – rather than, say, I don’t know, the rampant paedophilic tendencies amongst the church’s clergy? -  but they were responsible for further traumatising the victims of the abuse by dredging up suffering from the past. Now, at this point, you really begin to think the Archbishop has some balls – if you’ll pardon the use of that expression in this context – even if he clearly has not a shred of decency or good sense.

This, of course, is the same man who suggested that because the confessional is sacrosanct no matter what revelations(!) are aired, priests should refrain from hearing the confession of their fellows suspected of committing abuses. This amounts to an admission that it is more or less common knowledge amongst the clergy that some of their members have certain tendencies (‘Oh look, Father O'Donnell, there goes Father Gerald O’Rafferty, now you know he likes the boys, wink-wink-nudge-nudge….') best not shared in the confessional (because if that happened, then the father-confessor would be put in the invidious position of knowing of abuse but not being able to do anything about it other than recommend many, many, many Hail Marys). But just one second there, old boy…that means that knowing that a certain priest is committing abuse, you should refrain from hearing his confession lest you find out that he’s committing abuse….


George Pell, His Grace, the Archbishop of Sydney - he's amazing.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Wellington Phoenix need marquee player

It was suggested recently that the Wellington Phoenix football team needs to purchase a marquee midfielder to strengthen the squad. If the team is successful in acquiring such a player, here's how I reckon we should line up....

The Phoenix could play the classic 6-1-3 formation, taking advantage
of the presence of the marquee in the midfield.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

With an ideology clasped to your bosom....

 Another word for ‘ideology’ is ‘faith’. And the tremendously convenient thing about faith of any kind is that you don’t have to worry about anything as absurd as how the world actually is. With an ideology clasped reverently to your bosom, you can confidently step out into the world knowing that, whatever the reality, you have an answer for every question, wherever there is doubt, you have certainty, and where there is darkness, you’ll have a torch. To change t(r)ack, when one is imbued with the fierce flames of ideology, it is as if one is the boiler in a run-away steam train, hurtling uncontrollably down the tracks, destined to crash through the walls of reality as they loom one by one in front of you. And because you have faith, it just doesn’t matter!

Prime Minister John Key takes a moment to reflect on how much
the government's policies have increased his personal wealth.
All that is by way of saying that – yet again – New Zealand finds itself the passenger aboard an out-of-control ideologically-driven steam train, with a government shoving coal into the boiler with the furious intent of a madman. Hell-bent on pursuing the prescribed economic policies of yesteryear, the government is giving nary a thought to the possibility that, just perhaps, what they are doing is destroying whatever chance this country might have of salvaging the last vestiges of a functioning economy. But don’t take my word for. Take Bernard Hickey’s – for one thing, he’s very clever, and for another, his writings have all the pungency of sheer good sense. Read his article, and then look aghast at the shameless jib-jabbering of this government as it crashes through yet another wall, laughing the hysterical laugh of the ideological zealot.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Better not to speechify too sweetly

‘My fellow Americans. The road is long. The path is steep. Our legs are short. Our sandals are silly. But we shall overcome. Because I have a dream. And so it shall be. Together we will walk that road. Together we can ascend that path, no matter how treacherous, no matter the obstacles. In unity is our strength, our bond is our faith. Four score and twenty minutes ago, you were there. And now we are here. Because we have faith. And each other. And together we are. Glorious will be our kingdom, for we shall beat our swords into ploughshares and reap as we sow. So join with me. Come with me. Abide with me and we can do this, together we can, as one people we can, united we can, you know we can! Who can? We can! God bless!’

This is the speech Barack Obama gave just two weeks before the election in 2008. Actually, that’s not exactly true. In fact, it’s not even vaguely true. But you can almost imagine him giving that kind of speech. You can hear his strangely staccato cadences, his stopping. And then. Starting at. Odd points. But it’s so deeply effective, and people are swept away by his rhetoric. They feel as if in the presence of something transcendent, something great, something special. A new dawn is breaking, a new world is being born, and they are witness to this moment. Amen and hallelujah. And all this because someone like Obama is so fine at the art of speechifying. He can take words and turn them into lightning bolts that strike deep into the hearts of those who listen. He can conjure images from the depths and prestidigitate phantasmagoria from the ether. He can convince us that truly something good will come to us, if only we go with him. Yes he can.
And that’s a problem. Because he can’t. Between the fantasy world the orator creates with words and the real world a President lives in (along with the rest of us), there is a chasm that can never be crossed. And as the great orator’s words soar into the stratosphere, so too do the expectations of those listening. They actually believe that the words spoken will become deeds done. But unlike the words which can keep flying forever – and if they never return, so much the better for the orator – at some point those expectations will have to return to earth, and the landing is unlikely to be gentle.
So what is to be done? Take a leaf, I suggest, from those who ingeniously temper their words so as not to raise expectations to a fever pitch. There’s no disappointment when your President says things like this: ‘I'm the commander -- see, I don't need to explain -- I do not need to explain why I say things. That's the interesting thing about being president.’ Or this: ‘I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family’. When  George W. Bush opened his mouth and the words fell out, people knew what they were getting. He offered incomprehensible idiocy, and that’s what they got, and you can’t blame a man when he delivers on what he promised.

'What am I saying? How would I know?'

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Are we too damned civilised?

Having, as I do, a neurotic aversion to dirt and grime of any sort, I naturally enough could not help but watch a programme last night called Filthy Cities. This particular episode was looking at just how filthy Paris was during the French Revolution, and things were well under way when I tuned in. It was really filthy, particularly in light of all the heads that were being removed from all the bodies. The presenter – a youngish man with a boyish charm and a certain swagger – was at that point describing, with great glee and animation, the sound the guillotine would make as it sliced its merry way through yet another appendage of skin and bone and muscle and blood. Apparently it made quite a thwack! But in case we didn’t get the idea sufficiently clearly, a wonderfully animated depiction showed us what it was like (I’m assuming it was animated, but given the lengths to which shows will now go to achieve verisimilitude, perhaps it was real), complete with a close-up of the blood running out of the basket and onto the street. Then a close-up of a dog – actually, it looked more like a wolf – greedily lapping at the blood, complete with greedy slurping sounds. Then the presenter was standing in the Place de la Concorde (ironically enough) or somewhere equally grand, surrounded by what looked like a passing group of tourists who had all suddenly fainted – no doubt overcome with the thought of all that blood – but who were, I think, supposed to represent some of the guillotine's victims (although given that they still had their heads on this bit wasn’t very convincing). ‘The oldest victim was 93’ – here the presenter was almost shaking with excitement at the information he was imparting – ‘and the youngest was just 10!’ – by this stage I think he was actually beginning to foam at the mouth. Then, having asked us to imagine how much blood comes out of a body when it’s just had its head lopped off, he grabbed a bucket and tossed its contents onto the street to illustrate the point. A red liquid with what looked like little chunks of meat in it (surely we don’t have bits of meat floating around in our arteries, do we?) washed across the pavement. And then the dog – or wolf – again.

We then cut to the spot where mass burials of all these headless bodies had taken place. Even Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette had been tossed in here – disgraceful! All the while the presenter was getting more and more excited. ‘Can you imagine,’ he breathlessly asked, ‘just how bad the smell was at the height of summer?’ Pretty bad, I imagine, but luckily there was now an expert to help us in case our imaginations weren’t up to the task. The expert – who had apparently attended actual mass graves and so knew of what he spoke – said this to the presenter: ‘Well, you know what the smell of rotting meat is like….’. I have to confess that at this point I turned it off.

A European grey wolf watches in anticipation for the fall of the guillotine.
So, this is what I was wondering. Here in the blessed civilised world, are we beginning to feel too civilised, too peaceable, too averse to a decent bit of murder and mayhem to satisfy our primal urges? Is that why we need this kind of thing – I say ‘need’ because presumably someone’s watching it if they’re showing it – to address this gap in our lives, this absence, this appalling gentility which frowns upon guillotining 300 citizens of a weekend? And have we become so detached from reality that it seems perfectly normal to be asked to imagine the smell of rotting meat so as to become better acquainted with the stench of decomposing corpses? Are people actually watching this kind of thing and going, ‘hmmm, yes, interesting, I guess that is what it would smell like’? Really?

Friday, 9 November 2012

The bonds of knowledge

Somewhere amongst the pure and exquisite prose of Thomas Mann – perhaps in Death in Venice but I am not sure – there is a rumination on knowledge, what it means to have knowledge in terms of its impact on how we live our lives. There is the suggestion, striking us as almost paradoxical, that knowledge ultimately forms a bond stronger than any ignorance and from which we cannot break free otherwise than by jettisoning that same knowledge, an expulsion which can only be achieved through the crudest of means, death or its surrogate. We say, ‘but this is paradoxical,’ because all our lives we have been told that knowledge will liberate us from the tyranny of ignorance, that the dark ages were dark and as prisons because people suffered through their days without knowledge, but that once the path to knowledge was discovered, then light and freedom entered, growing in harmony with the growth of knowledge.

So how is it that Herr Mann can tell us that knowledge is a bond and expect us to treat such a statement with anything other than scorn, indeed, to read it and know that he is right? Certainly, in a particular and quite quotidian sense, his statement is absurd and we would not wish to dwell on it for any longer than it takes to pass the eyes across the words. Certainly knowledge has enabled us, people, to achieve great things, to build vast monuments to our brilliance. But this is not the kind of freedom of which the sublime stylist is writing. The freedom of which he speaks is the freedom of the mind, the freedom of the spirit and of the soul, the freedom to know right from wrong, good from evil. So then we must ask, but how does knowledge bind the spirit, how does it bind the soul? Surely knowledge is the key to open the door of the cage so that our souls might take flight. But that is not, in fact, what happens when we gather knowledge and hold it sacred, that is, that knowledge which is scientific and rational and which is not interested in our opinions but is only concerned with what is. In this sense, Mann is as concerned with the insidious way in which such knowledge, covertly and beneath an appearance of benign regard, shackles our very selves.

What happens when we have explained ourselves to ourselves with a formula that brooks no dissent? Quite simply, we no longer have the solid rock from which we can confidently go forward into the world of action and affairs, into the world of moral choices. For Mann, ‘knowledge can paralyse the will, paralyse and discourage action and emotion and even passion, and rob all these of their dignity’. And if, despite the sovereign destruction of the moral base which is wrought by knowledge, we steadfastly hold to a moral position, then this: ‘moral resoluteness at the far side of knowledge, achieved in despite of all corrosive and inhibiting insight – does not this in its turn signify a simplification, a morally simplistic view of the world and of human psychology, and thus also a resurgence of energies that are evil, forbidden, morally impossible?’ The anarchy which threatens chaos and disorder as we shed our moral certainty for absolute knowledge, is of a kind which arises when we abdicate the responsibility which freedom of the will demands in favour of the predetermined, the fated, the inevitable act. If there is no freedom, there is no responsibility, and there can thus be no right, no wrong. And so, we must choose: to live according to what we genuinely believe to be true, and thus to hold no one responsible, neither to blame nor praise, or to accept one thing as true but live as if another were the unquestionable law. To live, as Augustine said, as if each act we did were by ourselves alone willed, whilst at the same time accepting that God or fate or destiny has determined all, that is the latter choice.
I think what I am trying to say, clumsily and heavily, is that rather than bringing the certainty which we might like so that we can live at peace with ourselves, knowledge very often brings only uncertainty and agitation, an unsettled mind which is no longer sure, no longer calm. Mann has his protagonist choose to repudiate knowledge, to renounce all moral scepticism, and to live according to precepts he will hold as timeless and impregnable. And that is the choice we must make.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

A different kind of unemployment

As news broke today that the number of those without work in New Zealand has increased for the third quarter running, there was yet a glimmer of light in the darkness. The Minister of Economic Development announced that what these people are experiencing is a ‘different kind of unemployment’. In a display of political gymnastics so dynamic the likes of it surely hasn’t been seen since the virtuoso performance put on by Donald Rumsfeld (‘…as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know….’), the Minister danced around the issue majestically. Here he was pirouetting on a series of figures and statistics rattled off at mind-numbing speed, then without a pause, he was deftly vaulting across a raft of principles and promises before nailing a perfect landing right on top of the opposition parties. It was breath-taking.

Now, I’m no expert on unemployment, and certainly no expert on employment (always doing my best to avoid it whenever possible, as I do), and I have to admit that the Minister lost me a little as he effortlessly floated across the parallel bars, but it seems to me that a different kind of unemployment has to be a good thing. It is surely irrefutable that if being normally unemployed means not having a job, then being differently unemployed must, by an act of inescapable logic, mean that you mustn’t not have a job, although at the same time it obviously doesn’t mean that you do have a job. It’s a sort of employment limbo, if you will, or a purgatory where you pay penance for your sins (no doubt the normal unemployment was the consequence of some kind of sin, so it’s only fair some kind of penance is paid). I might be hopelessly wrong on all this – I’m no expert as I said – and perhaps the Minister will enlighten us at some point as to the details, but in the meantime, it’s nice to think that all those people without a job have finally had some good news.

Knowledge and the Soul

And what, Socrates, is the food of the soul? Surely, I said, knowledge is the food of the soul.

Plato (a really long time ago)

I am furious at being entangled in a confounded philosophy which my mind cannot refrain from approving and my heart from denying.

Diderot (not quite so long ago)

Adenine, guanine, cytosine and thymine are, it is true, not words many people are familiar with, and yet we are all familiar, so very familiar, with their manifestation in the physical realm. They are (obviously enough to those who study them) foundational elements within the structure of the DNA double-helix– technically known as nucleotides - helping to maintain the stability of the helix and thus, we might say, the stability of life forms themselves. Linking arms across the divide that separates one DNA strand from another, adenine hangs on to thymine, while cytosine clings obdurately to guanine, and together they are but one necessary part of a complex of chemicals which are the basis of life. Ensconced within the spiralling strands of DNA, they are both beautiful and wondrous, and it takes but a moment’s contemplation to feel awe in the face of such exquisite complexity.

But it is not given to everyone, it seems, to feel this sense of awe, to observe the beauty and the wonder of our world and its chemical constituents. Many are those for whom, so it appears, the world of atoms and elements, chemicals and compounds, and, at the other end of the scale, the vastnesses of space, do not inspire any sense of the majesty of existence. Instead such observers are left indifferent, or uninspired or, even worse, dismayed that the mysteries of existence should be thus explained in such seemingly prosaic and phlegmatic ways. Rejecting science as, at best, simply one alternative way of knowing among many (where no alternative can claim pre-eminence), or, at worst, a manifestation of the West’s ceaseless pursuit of hegemony in the world, such observers turn instead to other explanations of their world. Many and varied are these competing ideas, but they are united in their rejection of science as a way of knowing and their advocacy of systems of thought which emphasise the mysterious and the magical, the spiritual and the metaphysical. They seek transcendence out of the quotidian and into the realm of angels, a transcendence, they believe, that science cannot bequeath.
But let me return to my four nucleotides, to adenine and guanine, cytosine and thymine. I should not wish to give the impression, misleading as it would be, that somehow these four are, in the scheme of life, more important or significant or monumental than any of the other numerous chemical elements which form the basis of life. I have picked them in a somewhat haphazard and random fashion, and I might have chosen any of the multitudinous chemicals of which we are constituted to illustrate the point, to shine a small light on the utterly and bewilderingly magical nature of our existence. Indeed, that is perhaps the essence of this seemingly miraculous thing we call life, the intricate weaving of such a multitude of strands, so very many parts which must all be present, which must all function in their own fashion, if life is itself to function at all. And perhaps, further, we might here discern a possible explanation for the resistance of so many to the evidence of our senses, to the knowledge we have gained, as to how it is that life comes to be. Those things beyond our ordinary comprehension, we prefer to keep in darkness; if the road we must travel is too difficult, it is better not to attempt the journey, but instead to remain looking out from our lonely hilltop to that point in the distance whose magnificence we are content to dream of without every really knowing it. If the sheer complexity of existence as science has thus far shown it to be overwhelms us, if the numbers are too large and the parts are too small, the distances too vast and the length of time too immense, then it is better, seemingly, not to know at all, but instead to turn away and to place in the stead of knowledge myths and stories of our own devising which, because we are the artificers of them, we can comprehend.
But perhaps, too, the poetic sensibility struggles against and resists the insistent demands of science, the seemingly arid and joyless discipline of rational inquiry. This is the view which gained such currency as the Age of Enlightenment (that is, of reason) gave way to the Age of Revolution, the view of William Blake who believed that ‘a robin redbreast in a cage, puts all heaven in a rage’, the view, indeed, of Goethe’s Mephistopheles:
When scholars study a thing they strive
To kill it first, if it's alive;
Then they have the parts and they've lost the whole,
For the link that's missing was the living soul.

Thus, does not science destroy in order to dissect, thereby dismembering and disfiguring what was once beautiful, sublime? In subjecting life and the universe to the cold and disinterested movement of our reason, do we not lose something precious, a sense of awe and mystery, of profundity and significance, without which we stand bare and defenceless on the precipice of existence? Does it not, we might say, leave us with nothing in our hands with which to fend off the dreaded realisation that we exist merely because we do? It is impossible, we think, that the ‘I’ of whom I am constantly and always aware exists only by chance. It is impossible that this ‘I’ should ever cease to exist. I know myself as eternal and all encompassing, and anything which might undermine this must be rejected, disbarred and prohibited as a threat to the order of existence.
So the thinking might go, but such thinking is misguided, callow. Such thinking does not see that we can know the same thing in many ways and from different vantage points. The technical knowledge of science, the knowledge of numbers and signs and symbols, does not preclude at the same time another kind of knowledge of the phenomena of life, the sort of knowledge which is not necessarily expressed in words but is understood and perceived by the intuition, the sort of knowledge which is experienced rather than known, felt rather than comprehended. That I know the sun to be a mass of roiling gasses, a constant chain of fusion reactions converting hydrogen into helium and producing a surface temperature in the order of 5,505°C in no way diminishes my capacity for being enthralled by a majestic sunset or soothed by the feeling of the sun’s warmth on my skin. With Kant, my mind is indeed filled ‘with ever new and increasing wonder and awe’ by the starry heavens above me, wonder and awe that is only augmented by my knowledge of the vastness of space and the distances that separate us from the twinkling lights (and, further, by the knowledge that the vastness is so very great that I cannot, in the end, comprehend it, but must make do with simply knowing that the vastness will escape any feeble human attempt at capturing it in the mind’s eye – such knowledge makes us humble). And if we look backwards through the lens of life at the tiniest constituent parts of life itself, at chemicals and their bonds, my knowledge that water requires the happy conjunction of two hydrogen atoms to one of oxygen cannot deplete the sheer human pleasure I feel when my burning thirst is quenched by water gathered from a cool, mountain stream.
In the face of the edict to know ourselves, why is it that so many persist in not knowing themselves, in deliberately obscuring their own vision of how the world is? Why this desire to remain in ignorance? We are, in the final analysis, nothing more than a magnificent concatenation of chemicals, a miraculous enough occurrence of base elements united in myriad ways, nothing more, and yet surely this is more than enough to satisfy the demand for wonder. If we let our minds explore into the tiniest corners of our universe, and up and into the widest expanses of space, how can we not feel anything but transcendence, that sense of being part of something so very wondrous? ‘There is grandeur,’ Darwin famously observed,‘in this view of life’, and so there is.


Wednesday, 7 November 2012

The Mass Production of Individuality

We live in a wonderful age (well, those of us in the 5% of the global population who have plenty of everything – the rest of the world might not see it in a such a rosy way, but then they probably don’t have an internet connection, so I’m guess I’m not talking to them). One of the wonders of our age is that we can indulge our passion for consumption while at the same time indulging our passion for ourselves. Indeed, consumption can become the means by which we proclaim to the world just how very interesting, unique, creative, and worth getting to know we are. You can buy shoes lovingly hand-crafted according to your most particular specifications (right down to the bons mots stitched by a cobbler who chuckles as he admires your clever witticism). You can have a cover for your i-Whatever that fairly shouts to the world, ‘This is me!’ And you can even have your own column with which to dazzle readers, not only with your verbal dexterity, but with the carefully-chosen surrounds which similarly proclaim to all who come hither the creative fire which rages inside you like an end-of-days conflagration. Or something like that.

And this is pure genius. It taps into that deep psychic tension which grips us all – the desperate need to belong and be part of it all, on the one hand, and the equally desperate need to be an individual, to stand out from the madding crowd, to be seen as gloriously different, unique, special. We want it all, and luckily for us, the purveyors of all quality goods have stepped up to the challenge. Now we can be unique. But like everyone else. When mass consumption goes bad, people feel as if they are losing their souls. Too much sameness and we all just become faceless consumers with nothing but a dollar sign stamped on our foreheads. To give us back our souls, we need to be made to feel that we’re not partaking in a ceaseless and futile process of mindless consumption, but that we are instead engaging in a creative endeavour by which we will announce ourselves to the world.  And this is what the mass production of individuality offers. Genius.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Voting for the President? Best not to think about it.

In just a few hours, Americans – possibly as many as eight or nine of them – will be going to the polls to elect a new President. Much hangs in the balance. As the political divide in the United States has widened, the choice of either Obama or Romney will mean a very different world in a variety of ways in the years to come. Global warming and climate change, the management of an economy in tatters, America’s response to conflict abroad and the rise of the Chinese dragon, all these hugely important matters will be dealt with so very differently by these two men. And so the question I would like to ask is this: how much thought will the voters who bother to turn out give to their decision? And the answer I would like to offer is this: stuff all.

It’s rather harsh when put so baldly, so let me substantiate my baldness. Following the sudden interposition of Hurricane Sandy into the into the presidential race, much speculation followed as to the effect it would have on the swing voters yet to choose their favoured candidate. Would it encourage them to vote for Obama, or would they turn against him and give their vote to Romney? According to a political scientist (who shall have to remain anonymous because I can’t remember her name, but trust me, I’m not making this up – I’ll tell you when I’m making it up), history suggests that when natural disaster strikes, people blame whoever’s in office. That’s right. Earthquake? Blame the President. Hurricane? Clearly the President’s fault. Heat-wave? The President again. Cool winds with a  slight chance of rain? You get the idea. So, without going into the reasonableness of attributing to the President powers of changing the weather or moving the earth, the basic point is that, if something bad happens just before an election, it’s not normally good for the incumbent. Why? Because people look out the window at the rain falling and think, ‘Useless bloody President’.

Now, the fact is that, like most democracies, in America most voters already know who they’re voting for. They don’t need to think about it at all because if you’re a Democrat, you’ll vote Democrat even if your guy is waxing lyrical about the virtues of rounding up all short people and putting them into gulags, while if you’re a Republican, you’ll behave similarly with respect to your man, even if he is suggesting that raising taxes and increasing welfare spending is a good idea (actually, in that case, it might not be true, but again, you get the idea). This means that something like 80% of voters (and here I am making the numbers up, but I reckon they’re about right) don’t have to think about their choice – they just vote (or don’t vote, as the case is with most of them). This leaves 20% who haven’t decided, but will apparently decide solely on the basis of the following methodology:  Step 1 – did a bad thing happen before the election? Yes? Vote the new guy in. No? Vote for the incumbent. Step 2 – if a bad thing didn’t happen, choose some equally banal reason for making your choice. The fact that the outcome will have a profound effect on the country and indeed the planet is no reason to give it any more thought than that.

That suggests, of course, that I think Romney will steal it (I mean that figuratively, obviously - no one would steal the American presidency...). But I don't. I think Barack will still win. Why? Because there is, in fact, a third possible step in the voting thought process: Step 1(a) did a bad thing happen but the President's done a swell job of sorting it out? Yes, vote the incumbent. And that's what I think will happen. 
Irrational? Of course it is, but then that’s  people for you. And lest anyone think I’m picking unfairly on Americans, let me assure you all of this stands for voters in any country (and for my views on irrationality, see my column 'Whoever said we were rational?' in which I describe my irrational love for my desk).

The gift that is Kim Dotcom

His face is that of a cherub, yet more cherubic than any of the cherubim ever beholden by the prophet Ezekiel (he who sat minding his own business on the banks of the River Kebar before being rudely disturbed by visions of God and cherubim). This is perhaps not such a remarkable fact itself: the cherubim Ezekiel saw had four faces, four wings, and the kind of feet that would look more appropriate on a cow, while he who is our concern here has a face upon which one cannot look without a silent tear rolling down the cheek. Looking upon his countenance, we are overcome by the knowledge we are in the presence of innocence most holy. For such is the face of Kim Dotcom and now that he is come among us, we must gird our collective loins and fight with what strength we can muster, down to the last feeble thrust of the pike and the desperate parry of the sword, to keep him upon our shores. When fate once brings you the rarest of jewels, it is a dullard who would trade that jewel for the world, or even for favourable terms of trade with the world’s most powerful economy. The jewel is without compare; no price can we place upon it, for its value is infinite and its beauty is boundless. Such is the man we know as Kim Dotcom.

When once we have walked long enough upon this earth, it will come to us that one moment more than any other defines our brief transit here among the living. Some remember where they were when man first walked upon the moon, others when the angelic Kennedy was taken from us, while yet for others that defining moment is when Philip ‘Phil’ Taylor won his record-breaking 15th world darts championship (o rapturous day!). For me that singular moment occurred when first I heard the name of Kim Dotcom uttered upon the air-waves. It flew like a magical chariot upon the ether and came to me down the wires. I knew not what had happened, but that for one moment the time was out of joint. I felt the strength go from my legs. My mind swam and my vision blurred. Nothing would ever be the same again. This alone I knew to be a solemn truth and in reverence did I bow my head.

But let us examine more closely the gift Mr Dotcom brings. It is, above all, the gift of colour, of light, of contrast, that Mr Dotcom offers us. We have lived too long in cold shadows. We have suffered too long the dull, grey, dreary figures who tiresomely perambulate through our newspapers and tediously hold forth on our televisions. Like the Israelites we have wandered too long in a wilderness bereft of signs of life, the only sound the echoes of our own cries. We have been subjected to an interminable parade of the all too desperately finite, the chosen few who have numbered themselves among the elect and then been presented to us for our delectation, when in reality each repeated exposure is like being poisoned slowly, drop by single drop of bitter arsenic. Among them like a colossus has he come, a prophet to revive our wearied souls, to raise us from our spiritual anomie, to give us succour in our time of direst need.

And so we are intrigued, beguiled. At once are we fascinated and revolted. His is indeed the face of innocence, but in his breast what nefariousness lurks? His smile promises sweetness, but in his eyes, what madness can be seen? This is the gift he brings, the gift of strangeness, of madness, of ambiguity and multiplicity. He is many and he is one.

Just recently, we have heard the lamentations of Mr Dotcom, weeping like the prophet Jeremiah, sighing unto his breast at having been forsaken. For this week did he speak of the treachery he has suffered at the hands of one of those dreary little figures who populate the monotonous dreamscape of our political world. Like Peter denying Christ (vide. Matt. 26:33-35), so too did John Banks deny Kim Dotcom. ‘I don’t know him,’ said Peter, and thus did John Banks also murmur with the stabs of betrayal in his heart. Perhaps somewhere in Parliament a cock crew, I cannot say for sure, but then did Mr Dotcom know what it is to be without a friend (I would hasten to add that not for a moment do I mean to suggest that, wondrous as he is, there is anything Christ-like about Kim Dotcom - for one thing, dare I say it, a man of his stature would not be so easily placed upon the cross, even if he might feel at the present that he is being rather crucified, to speak figuratively).

Yet now the leviathan that is America would take from us that which but recently we have found, and we might again soon hear the laments of the forsaken. Our dreary and insipid country, bereft of colour and life, needs Kim Dotcom; the Americans positively do not need Kim Dotcom. That country suffers from the condition the polar opposite of our own; it is too bright, too colourful, too overblown with dazzling arrays of light. America has long since loosed its moorings from the piers of reality and drifted helplessly away into the vastnesses of an imagined existence which it fancies the truth. Its people already blinded by the tumultuous visions they behold, the presence of Kim Dotcom would surely drive them into the hinterlands of madness. But we here, in our dark and lifeless land, we have an urgent and fretful need of such a one who can bring light into the shadows and a floodtide into the stilled veins of the nation. Let us not lose what the beneficence of chance has brought among us.

Politics as an empty gesture

In the wake of the Royal Commission of Inquiry’s report on the Pike River mining disaster (the result of so many failings on the part of this country that we should collectively all go off and take some time to reflect on what we’ve been doing to ourselves for the last 30 years or so), the Minister of Labour, Kate Wilkinson, resigned her portfolio, declaring nobly that as it had occurred ‘on my watch’, resignation was the only honourable course open to her. Noble indeed, the sort of falling on your sword act of one who believes that while not being to blame, one can still be responsible. Soberly we should, no doubt, applaud her actions, the dignified manner in which she has laid claim to the mea culpa. But perhaps I’m not sober because I don’t find myself applauding her actions at all. Instead, I rather suspect this is just another crass attempt to curry favour without actually bearing any real cost.

Now, to be fair, I don’t know the minister and perhaps she is genuinely riven with contrition. So it behoves me to justify my claim. Here, then, is why I find it so pathetically disingenuous.  If she doesn’t think she’s fit to be a minister for one portfolio, why is she fit to be minister of others? If the motivation behind the resignation were genuine, she would have resigned all her portfolios and gone quietly to the back-bench, there to sit with her head down in penance. Instead, all this resignation amounts to is a handy reduction in paperwork – one less thing for the minister to think about. As an added bonus, the government gets to present itself as responsible and caring and honest and all manner of worthy epithets. At a time when even John Key’s smile has failed to save the government from one piece of idiocy after another, coming over all honourable and responsible like this is a jolly good move. You can just imagine the government strategists nutting it all out and then giving each other self-satisfied high-fives for being so dashed clever. Perhaps I’m wrong, grown jaded by too much engagement with the world. Perhaps.

Whoever said we were rational?

My desk is too high. Too high for what? you ask. Too high for me, or more precisely, too high for my arms when I’m typing. As a result, my forearms ache when I type for more than a few moments at a time, and I am already contemplating the exercises the physiotherapist will prescribe for my occupational-overuse-repetitive-strain-self-induced-what-an-idiot injury. So why persist with a desk that is too high? Because I like it. It appeals. It is, in a word (or two), aesthetically pleasing. It’s wooden, which immediately raises it in my estimation above those that are plastic and metal. It’s worn and used, hinting at hours of worthy literary endeavour (or possibly finger-painting, given the assorted paint blotches over it). It has three delightfully pokey drawers into which I can ram all sorts of papers and pens and assorted other stuff (a cloth for cleaning my glasses, a cork, some cash – hardly worth breaking into the house for  – a pocket-knife with which to defend said cash, some cuff-links for the day when I finally wear a suit, a watch that doesn’t go, a plastic crucifix from a junkie in NY….). It doesn’t have the stench of mass production (or if it was mass produced, its siblings have long since disappeared so that it can present a faรงade of uniqueness). It doesn’t have the operating-theatre sterility of the ergonomically-sound desk which I would have if I cared about my arms. If there is such a thing as the Platonic desk, the ideal desk, this is it.

If I were rational, however, I would not be sacrificing the health of my arms for aesthetics. In the event that my arms have to be amputated, will my desk still bring me pleasure as I contemplate its wooden loveliness? Possibly, although the pleasure might be a little diminished (like my arms).

The desk, incidentally, cost $10. Plus the $180 it cost to ship it here. Again, reason would suggest I should have acted otherwise, but aesthetics demanded that I shove my reason into a cupboard and lock the door. And so I did. And so I have my desk. And it’s beautiful. And my arms are sore.

Taking myself as the exemplar of all humanity, I can then make the universal observation that we are a thoroughly irrational species, supremely adept at the sport of rationalisation, and wonderfully equipped for the past-time of self-delusion. We follow our heart’s desire and then rationalise the idiocy of our actions so that we can delude ourselves into thinking that we are rational. And because this column is supposed to be vaguely philosophical, if you think my generalising from myself to all of humanity a little hubristic, then I suggest you read the most wonderful philosopher of the 18th century, David Hume, and see if you can find it in your heart to deny his reasons.

Naturally enough – and here comes the punch-line – I have to stop writing now because my arms are aching….

Monday, 5 November 2012

Vox pop - an insidious disease

Insidiously it has been coming, slithering on its slimy, scaly belly into our living rooms and kitchens, our offices and our cars, wherever we have a radio or television, wherever we read a newspaper or magazine. The loathsome creature to which I refer is the vox populi, or – to give it the name it would be given by the vox populi – the vox pop. Dressed up all flash and fancy in a Latin phrase, the vox populi might sound innocuous enough, indeed, it might even sound positively erudite, learned, a source of profound insight into the human condition. Maybe.

But of course it’s nothing of the sort. In fact, come to think of it – and to switch metaphors – dressed up all flash like that it actually sounds very much like a disease, the sort of thing a doctor regrets to inform you that you must have picked up on your last trip to some poverty-ridden developing country you raced off to with a view to bringing civilisation and higher stands of hygiene. ‘I’m afraid, young man,’ sighs the doctor, ‘your good works have been repaid with, ah, how can I put this delicately, oh heck, I’ll have to be blunt, I’m afraid it’s a case of vox populi, I’m dreadfully sorry.’ And with that he hurries you out the door and bids you much luck. That is what vox populi is like, and when you get a dose of it – whether across the airwaves or in your local rag – the nausea sweeps through you, your head swims, your legs weaken, and you feel a desperate need, there and then, to take the water cure at Bath. Or at the very least to have a lie down.

Am I perhaps over-reacting? Is it instead the ill-prepared bouillabaisse I ate last night, rather than the vox pop, that has me feeling so poorly? No, no, and a thousand times no! It is the vox pop, and this is why it irks me so. We are told by the media that the vox pop is about democratising the news, making us a part of what is happening, giving us the opportunity to be participants, not merely observers. That is the purported and wholly admirable justification for this pestilence, even if, were it true, it would still be misguided. But of course, the truth could not be more distant from such a claim. The simple truth is that in this age of budget-cutting, it’s much cheaper to ask the first punter on the street ready to offer some thoughts on the latest financial crisis or political shenanigans or global warming-induced super-storm, than it is to spend time (and thus money) to do some actual research, which actual research could then actually be reported. In one fell swoop, the media presents itself – fairly bursting with sincerity - as interested in the views of its consumers, while using those very vacuous views to fill the gaping chasms in its own reportage. And all the while, those foolish enough to have tuned in or picked up the paper, instead of being informed in a meaningful way about what’s happening in the world, learn that ‘Barry from Nowheresville’ thinks it’s disgraceful that fuel prices have gone up again. A fascinating insight, Barry, much obliged.

It’s easy enough, I know, I know, to carp on about the ills of the world – amongst which I obviously include vox populi – and much harder to suggest a cure. But I have one, so hold off on the finger-pointing at me just one moment. If funds are so tight that we can’t afford to fill the columns and the airwaves with quality reporting, then let us fill it with…nothing. Silence. Blank spaces. The radio announcer, for instance, could intone, ‘The time is ten minutes before the hour, and we will now enjoy some silence because we have nothing else to offer.’ It would have the virtue of being more honest and, at the same time, less of an assault on the intelligence of those poor misguided souls who still think the media is there to provide us with informed and thoughtful reporting on the stuff that matters (and the stuff that doesn’t matter is something I’ll get to at a later date).