Monday, September 29, 2008

On underestimating the enemy

David Osler in confessional mode wonders whether he hasn't misunderestimated David Cameron:
"I'm starting to suspect that attempts to dismiss Cameron - pictured above - as 'the same old same old' are as wide of the mark as the Major government's laughable initial efforts to brand Blair a closet 'demon eyes' socialist back in 1994 and 1995."
Nick Cohen also argues that the left really ought to take Cameron more seriously.

They're both right - although I think it's part of a wider problem. Even in the narrow terms of Cameron's leadership, I don't think the left and Tory opposition in general has really taken on board what Cameron represents:

1) He's lightweight in many respects but - I'm repreating myself here, I realise - he knows what is wrong with his party, what was making them unelectable. He's like Blair in this important respect. People sneer at him attempting to 'de-toxify' the Tory party without acknowledging that he was and is right about this and that it was an insight that eluded his predecessors. Brown, on the other hand, has no idea.

2) His personal qualities are a small matter compared to what his election as leader said about the Conservative party: it said that they were tired of being in opposition so they gave up that fatal habit that besets political parties from time to time - mistaking your 'grassroots' for the electorate.

But I'm wondering if there's anything new about this. The Conservatives have had a long tradition of absorbing policies and positions from their opponents starting from the adoption of much of the Whig tradition. Then there was Disraeli's One-Nationism and the extension of the franchise to working men in the towns. Since then the Conservatives have supported socialist policies such as the NHS or nationalisation if they've felt it suited their interests. And now we have David Cameron.

In this context you could argue that underestimating the Conservatives has been the default position for the parties of the left. JS Mill famously described the Tories as the 'stupid party'. The Liberals, on the other hand, were and are fantastically intelligent - it's just that they don't win elections anymore. Thatcher was underestimated, so was Major, so has Cameron been. It's also a pattern we've seen in the States too - most notably with Reagan and, I'd argue, with George W Bush. I can't think of any genetic reason why the parties of the centre-left should consistently forget that it is electorally fatal to underestimate your political opponents but they do this fairly consistently as far as I can see. It goes without saying that this is a losing strategy.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

On duty, privacy and liberty

A thought and form of words that has stayed with me was Chris Dillow's idea that public life understood as a revelation of one's own personality has profoundly illiberal implications. It's worth exploring because usually it's identified with the opposite - that there's something liberating about 'being yourself' and 'expressing yourself'. Duty, on the other hand, has long been understood as something stifling - oppressive precisely because it implies the opposite; the forced playing of a role that runs counter to one's 'true self'. If the former is really illiberal, I'm wondering if the latter is really more liberal; because it implies limits, it permits privacy in the way that the let it all hang out theory of public life does not. One gets the sense that the very notion of being 'off-duty' is alien to those who espouse this modern work-ethic - for how can one possibly take time off from being yourself?

A couple of recent event made me think of this again. One was personal. I was looking for some temp work to supplement my patchy income so posted a CV to some outfit running an educational helpline. Despite being qualified (able to form sentences; skint enough to accept shit wages) I could not take up the post because I smoke. This had nothing to do with the possibility that I may drop dead at any moment but rather because the employees were also expected to dispense advice about giving up smoking.

Various people were outraged on my behalf but strangely I wasn't. Because this isn't only about smoking but the more general idea that a job is no longer something you do; today it is something you are expected to be. This brings me to the next example, which was Sarah Brown introducing her man to the Labour party conference. Norm is rightly dismissive:
"If this isn't dumbing down for political dummies, orchestrated by the press, it's dumbing down for political dummies. So Sarah loves Gordon - what the hell has it got to do with his qualities of leadership?"
Absolutely nothing of course - but it's a symptom of this general idea of the revealed personality. Blair was never done with this what was for me pretty sick-making stuff about what he believed, felt, was sincere about - as if this should exempt him from further criticism or something.

With Brown this kind of shmultz doesn't come naturally and I for one wish his spin-doctors wouldn't bother trying to change this. As it is, I'm pretty tired of reading about what the 'real' Gordon Brown's like in private already - not least because we already know it's completely irrelevant to how he does his job. For example, we were told that Brown, because he's from a dismal Calvinist background, is 'careful with money'. Fair enough - personally, I'm sure this is true. However, since this obviously serves as no guide as to what's going to happen to tax-payer's money, I don't see how the fact that he served fairly cheap but agreeable champagne from Sainsbury's at his wedding is that relevant.

Hope you can catch the music of what I'm saying here because these ideas still haven't crystallised properly and I'm quite sure others have said it more clearly elsewhere. There is no longer the done thing - only one own's thing. It sounds vaguely Burkean but it was actually a lament that can be found in this volume. It's something to do with the idea that the private should be expressed in public - a general discomfort with the idea of playing a role and of carrying out duty in general. It tends to be expressed in a rejection of formalism in dress or procedure - on the grounds that this is less real, that it is inauthentic. It is why, for example, whenever school uniform is discussed, there is always a considerable constituency that argues it inhibits 'self-expression'.

But I'm wondering if this path we've been traveling down for the last couple of decades at least hasn't doubled-backed to our disadvantage? Bringing the private into the public has resulted in not a transformation of our public lives so much as a shrinking of the private sphere. I find it difficult to describe but it's the process by which the done thing is replaced with one own's thing, only to discover one's own thing is acceptable provided it's the company thing. What today's company expects is not merely for the worker to execute one's duty with competence and diligence. This would never do because this interpretation of one's responsibilities leaves out the need to believe - the essential prerequisite for being your job.

Against homework

On the subject of education, I'm confident that History will vindicate me and show that I was right about absolutely everything. I concede there's a long way to go here - but one does get the occasional glimpse of a zeitgeist moving in the right direction. As ranted about in the post below, the penny seems to be dropping that relentless testing and targets are smothering education. And today I've learned that it isn't only me that thinks homework is more or less a complete waste of human energy:
"A top-ranking state school has slashed the amount of homework set, saying that too much of it can be "depressing" and put children off learning.

Tiffin boys’ school, at Kingston upon Thames, southwest London, has called in all new Year 7 parents to explain that homework schedules are to be scaled back and replaced with a programme of independent learning.

"We felt that homework was taking over," Gary James, the deputy head, said. "We had boys doing three or four hours a night at the expense of sports, music practice or simply having fun. Something’s not right when a boy can’t sit down and watch a nature documentary on TV because he’s too busy doing maths. Ultimately I don’t think we should set homework at all.""
A depute who thinks 'simply having fun' is part of being young? How cool is that? Plus others agree. From the same peice:
"Martin Johnson, deputy general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, which has called for an end to homework in primary schools and a scaling-back at secondary level, said that homework had been 'mindlessly lauded by successive governments and pushy parents'."
On balance 'pushy parents' are probably better than those that don't give a damn but boy are they intense. One of the ways they express this is by being completely obsessed with homework.

"Ooh, is he getting enough?", asks angsty parent with furrowed brow.

Man, someone's not getting enough but it isn't homework and it's not your boy. You feel like saying, "Look, your indolent son only ever makes a half-assed effort at anything he's set in class - and that's with me standing over him wearing the most menacing countenance I can muster. What's the point of getting him to repeat at home the same crud he produces in class?"

But you don't, of course - because the orthodoxy is that homework is a Good Thing. More signs that this might be changing though:
"Nottingham East academy, which will have 3,570 pupils, claims it will be the first school to scrap homework. It will instead have an extra lesson and after-school activities such as sport, model aircraft-building and sari-making."
That's a ridiculous size for a school. Still, they're getting some things right. Sari-making is clearly a more productive use of pupils' time than homework. I'm serious. Saris are useful things whereas the average piece of homework is an exercise in futility. It goes without saying that while the evidence to support this view is mounting, there are still rather a lot of people in denial:
"However, Professor Dylan Wiliam, deputy director of the Institute of Education at London University, said Day was going too far. "Research shows homework does not make much of a difference, but..."
Stop right there Prof. Not really interested in your opinions on why this is so. Apart from anything else, it's rather distracting from the first part of your statement which relates a fact that is not at all well-known. Could you repeat it?
"Research shows homework does not make much of a difference."

Next thing you know people will realise that class, not ephemeral nonsense about 'faith' and 'ethos', is the key to understanding the differentiation in educational outcomes - or that completing a full game of bullshit bingo in the first half hour of every in-service day isn't helping anyone learn anything - except perhaps something rather unpleasant about the human condition. If this happened, I could almost become an optimist. But this is unlikely in my lifetime. So I won't.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Ofsted opens a department of the bleeding obvious

This is in response to an oldish article. I was going to blog on it earlier but every time I went to do so, the red mist descended and I had to lie down. Right now I'm too fucking tired to get angry, so here goes...

Bloggertarians on the subject of education piss me off in ways I can't describe. But I'm gonna try anyway. Here's my problem with them: they claim to be in favour of freedom in education - scything the dead hand of bureaucracy, decentralisation, empowering and liberating schools to do their own thing and so on - but there's just a teensy-weensy problem with this line, so teensy-weensy the unobservant and the historically ignorant might just miss it: they are fucking Tories and that bitch Thatcher they worship, followed by the genial but useless Major they didn't like but voted for anyway, centralised education services in this country to an unprecedented degree.

It was actually that nice Mr Major who was responsible for much that is evil and shitty in education today - the National Curriculum, for example - along with the whole culture of league tables and draconian inspections. But Thatcher laid the foundations with her war against local government and the public sector in general. (As an aside, I'd like some of these voucher-supporting libertarian diddies who wank over the memory of the Iron Lady to acknowledge, just once in a while, that she closed more grammar schools than any previous 'totalitarian' Labour government. It'd be nice, y'know? Inject a little reality into the education 'debate' and that.) What they don't seem to understand is that power lost to local education authorities isn't power passed to the 'consumer'; it goes - it went - to central government. Did y'all miss this? This is why - for example - the 'detoxified' David Cameron can announce that he favours, for example, 'setting' or streaming in schools, or the use of phonics in primary schools. I mean, what the fuck? Why doesn't he just actually take the classes himself? Interesting that those who seem to think this vacuous fop represents a resurgence of liberal Toryism have nothing to say about this breezy assumption of control from the centre. Ok, so it's not that interesting - just annoying.

This is not to exempt that Thatcher in trousers Tony Blair who embraced the philistine Tory centralism with great vim and gusto. So enthusiastic he was about it, he retained the pupil-shagging Thatcherite bully-boy Chris Woodhead as head of Ofsted - as well as employing the authoritarian thug David Blunkett to run the goddam education department.

Which brings us this, from the piece linked above:
"A study of nearly 200 schools found that while maths tests and exam results have improved, teachers' poor understanding of mathematics was a serious problem. Fewer than half of secondary maths teachers have degrees in maths or related subjects and there is a shortage of suitably qualified candidates.

The report, Mathematics: Understanding the score, concluded: "Many [teachers] concentrated on approaches they believed prepared pupils for tests and examinations, in effect 'teaching to the test'.""
Teaching to the test? You don't fucking say. I wonder how that happened. I have to say that since Ofsted have contributed towards a culture where the survival of institutions and the careers of individual teachers depends on the performance in national tests, it really takes a special kind of chutzpah to then produce a report complaining about it. Here's another one on a similar vein, this time to do with science teaching in primary schools:
"Children's interest in science and their understanding of it are being crushed by the compulsory tests they sit at primary school, leading professors argue today.

Pupils in England are being taught to perform well in the tests, rather than having their "natural curiosity of science cultivated and harnessed", researchers from Bristol and Durham Universities will say in a report.

All 11-year-olds in state schools are examined in science as part of their standard assessment tasks (Sats). The results are used to compile league tables, on which parents and the government judge how good schools and teachers are."
It takes a 'leading professor' to come up with this sort of breath-taking insight, you understand.

Ah, the rage, the rage. Sick to death of shit about vouchers, fucking Sweden in general, fucking 'choice' in general, crap about faith schools and their putrid discriminatory 'ethos', utter utter wank about grammar schools from journalists that are supposed to be leftwing but like to strike a contrarian iconoclastic pose by being, em, really rather reactionary actually. Come the revolution, I'm going to have every journalist and blogger who writes this ignorant crap shot like the rabies-infected dogs they are - starting with Melanie Phillips. Just saying like - so you know not to associate too closely with them. You have been warned.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The trouble with men

According to a US survey, men with sexist attitudes are more inclined to out-earn those who do not. In the same piece, Dr Magdalena Zawisza of Winchester University suggests a couple of possible explanations for this:
"It could be that more traditionally-minded men are interested in power, both in terms of access to resources - money in this case - and also in terms of a woman who is submissive.

Another theory suggests that employers are more likely to promote men who are the sole earner in preference to those who do not - they recognise that they need more support for their families, because they are the breadwinner."
Possible - but I've got a third theory, not based on any quantitative research of any kind, of course.* No-one with even a casual acquaintance with the real world believes we live in anything approaching a meritocracy. On the other hand no-one with any sense of history would deny that we have in liberal capitalism a greater degree of social mobility than existed prior to the industrial revolution. What this means is quite limited: the number of careers that are open to talent - regardless of background, ethnicity, gender, religious affiliation etc. - is much larger than it used to be. This is about the limits of 'meritocracy', I reckon. Amongst the reasons some of us think it is greater equality, rather than 'equality of opportunity', that is desirable is because we don't think it is terribly realistic for this principle to be extended that much further than it has been already. Especially when one considers what 'careers open to talent' actually means in practice: not the possession of talent per se but the willingness to push yourself with what talents you have to the front of the queue.

This willingness depends on a certain self-belief, in my experience. Not my own experience, you understand; this is based on observation - which brings me to the subject raised above: perhaps one advantage the sexist male has is that he possesses a surplus of the kind of confidence and self-belief that gets you on in the workplace. I certainly wouldn't advocate sexism but I do think that sensitive male could do with chilling out a bit and do a little less of the whole self-loathing thing. Take this example: give a journalist a slot entitled, "What women don't get about men" and what do you get? Well, some thoughtful stuff and a few good lines, actually - but also a fair bit of crippling self-doubt and confusion with the usual bullshit about the 'crisis of masculinity linked to a decline in manufacturing'.

I don't get this. I do a nice line in crippling self-doubt myself but this has fuck all to do with being a man. I'm thinking as I get older that this may be because my father served as a much better role model than I gave him credit for. He didn't present masculinity as something that had to do with lifting heavy things, playing stupid sports or any of that shit. I didn't appreciate it at the time but I do now because I genuinely don't worry about this sort of thing. I could fill a book on "What women don't get about men" but since I've not been invited to do this, I'll inflict some of this on you lot instead:

What women don't get about men

1) While the average male has a number of qualities, generally speaking telepathy is not among them. Will you stop with the whole, "I'm in a mood and you really should know why" thing? Just tell us what's pissing you off. Apart from anything else, if we were telepathic, no doubt you'd find this annoying too.

2) The behaviour modification programme y'all unveil at some point - usually in the first year of the relationship? We only put up with this because we want sex - not because we think your your lifestyle advice has some intrinsic value. If you were unaware of this, I'm not sorry to be breaking the news to you because if you think about it, you could use this to your advantage.

3) Ladies - there are so many of you who don't realise you need to give space in the behaviour modification programme for your man to do guy stuff. What this might be depends on the social context. Golf, football, watching sport in general, watching porn, masturbation, going for a pint with the lads, DIY, watching Newsnight and smoking spliffs or whatever. If you don't allow for this understand that there are only two possibilities: 1) he's doing it without your knowledge, 2) if he's not doing it, at some point he'll feel the need to do so; if you don't let him, your relationship's fucked.

4) Our attitude to our living space tends towards the utilitarian rather than aesthetic: it provides heat, comfort, facilities for making pizza - beyond that, most of us aren't fussed. It's pointless wishing this should be otherwise - unless you want a man who has OCD or is gay.

5) Yes of course we find your stunningly gorgeous friend attractive - it's really rather difficult to do otherwise, quite frankly. It doesn't mean we're going to try and shag them or anything but if you're that bothered about it, why did you introduce them to us in the first place? I mean honestly!

I could go on but I sense that the many of you out there who are stuck in an eighties time-warp are feeling a little twitchy already...

*It really pisses me off when people leave snooty comments along the lines of, "I find your thesis fanciful and absurd; this post is poorly-researched and ill-thought out". It's a fucking blog, ok? It's not my goddam job for chrissake.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Royal Society Blues - part two

Continuing from the post below. Thought I better had because what I've said so far is open to misinterpretation. This is partly because people go a bit mental on this sort of subject - see the thread below this if you doubt me. Partly also because I wasnae finished but also because I didn't really explain what I meant by the 'institutionalisation' of the discussion about creationism.

By this I mean it would be a mistake to prescribe this sort of discussion in curricular arrangements or even issue 'guidelines' for teachers on this matter because the very act of doing so runs the risk of institutionalising the notion that in relation to creationism, there's a case to answer - which there isn't. (If Reiss wasn't suggesting this, I'm even more mystified as to why he resigned because without this, he was only offering his opinion on how teachers should do their job. If this is a resigning matter, why is anyone still working?) If I could draw the following parallel: if I'm confronted with a pupil who believes the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is a historical document - which I have been - I might take the time to disabuse them of this 'worldview', explain the origins of this Tsarist forgery, point out that it is the prototype conspiracy theory, and add that like all conspiracy theories it is characterised by a) the absence of evidence b) rests on propositions about the human condition that are completely implausible.

Or I might tell them to give their mouths a rest and stop trying to change the subject. There are different ways of getting it across but the message is the same in both cases: belief in the historical veracity of the Protocols represents a fundamental misconception of history; that it also serves as a 'worldview' to some doesn't make it worthy of serious consideration or respect.

Historians can make the judgment to give space in their classrooms to deal with matters that aren't history in the way that scientists can do the same for matters of belief. But the purpose of this would be to reinforce the boundaries of a particular discipline in the minds of the pupils - to insist on the discrete intellectual space one's subject occupies - not to allow them to bleed into one another, which is what any formalisation of the discussion of something like creationism would do. This brings me to some dreadful nonsense by Peter Wilby in the New Statesman:
"My answer is to take religion out of RE lessons (or whatever they are now called) and integrate it with other subjects. It is impossible to understand history, music, art, architecture and literature without understanding the role of religion."
The comment in brackets is the key line that explains everything else about the article. Journalism I just don't get. I'm not saying it's all like this but it is profession that definitely allows space for people to flaunt their ignorance and get paid for it. What does he imagine happens in the classroom - that we try and teach the history of the 19th century whilst discretely side-stepping the role of organised religion and its adherents? Regardless of the subjects he mentions, the underpinning misunderstanding here is the confusion between theology and history. Historians are interested in religion but we are interested in it only when it impacts upon historical events. We are interested in the behaviour of Christians - but we are completely uninterested in assessing whether those claiming to be Christians fulfill the conditions for discipleship as laid down in the kerygma of Jesus or the Pauline letters or whatever. If we do take an interest in this, we have reached beyond the discipline of our subject and have moved into theology.

That Wilby doesn't get this is indicated in his suggestion that RE be abolished as a discrete subject and be absorbed into all the others. Apart from being essentially medieval (something he might have recognised in himself if he understood what history is), it overlooks the obvious fact that RE is a subject - worth studying simply because, only because, it represents an investment in human thought but something that is concerned with issues that are not fundamentally of interest to the historian, the chemist, or the mathematician.

There's a number of thoughts this provokes but if I can leave you with this half-formed one? The insistence on the limitation of one's subject is not only essential to intellectual coherence, the liberty of the pupil depends on this. Liberal education has nothing much to do with allowing the pupil to do 'their own thing' and cast off restraints; it has quite a lot to do with the idea that teachers has to understand the limits of their role. This is not to treat the student as human material to be shaped and worked on - it is to teach them a subject. A task that is going to be more difficult if people are unclear about what their subject actually is.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Royal Society Blues

Couple of related yet disjointed thoughts on this matter of Michael Reiss having to resign from the Royal Society for suggesting that "science teachers should treat creationist beliefs 'not as a misconception but as a world view'".

He wasn't suggesting that creationism should be treated as an interpretation of human development that was of equal validity to evolution - alternatives between which students should choose freely between in some kind of post-modern intellectual supermarket - so one is inclined to agree with those who have suggested that his resignation/dismissal represents a response completely out of proportion to what he actually said.

In particular, I'd agree very much with the spirit of what Chris Dillow had to say on the subject, which is - if I've understood correctly - is something akin to JS Mill's defence of free speech, even in the face of ideas and doctrines that we know are false. Against Plato he argued that the threat posed by limiting discussion by threat of legal force was greater than that of the truth being extinguished in public debate because in the former social arrangement, what can be verified with argument and evidence runs the risk of turning into a dogma that its proponents cease to defend rationally.

So of course teachers should engage with students who raise such questions. However, I'd have to add a caveat or two. One presumes that Reiss is suggesting the formalisation, the institutionalisation, of this engagement in some form? There's a problem with this of a fairly practical nature. One would be that it limits the judgment of the school and the teacher.

Lemme give you an example. In my field, one of the challenges to a rational approach to history and politics that one encounters is that of the conspiracy theory. It absolutely has to be challenged but the question is how and to what extent one should do it. It depends on the circumstances. My own approach is to deal with the whole evidence-free, emotion-rich, paranoid characteristics of the conspiracy theory. I am simply not prepared to waste classroom time arguing the toss about the specific details of the latest 9/11 conspiracy for example. I'm also disinclined to discuss things like this at all if I think the individual in question is simply wasting my time and/or is so fanatical in their beliefs as to be impervious to rational argument and evidence. It's not that uncommon. The question is, how to deal with it? Sometimes you talk about it, sometimes it's appropriate to close conversations down. It's a balance that is difficult to strike - no doubt we get it wrong on many occasions, but I have not the least doubt that any attempt to routinise the practice even in the most limited way would make this more difficult than it already is.

There's more but I'll come back to it...

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Life, eh?

[Scrubbed - seem to have imported a virus through those daft tests.]

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Three random notes

Jonathan Freedland joins the swelling ranks of those who think Obama's running for the job of President of the world:
"Of course I know that even to mention Obama's support around the world is to hurt him. Incredibly, that large Berlin crowd damaged Obama at home, branding him the "candidate of Europe" and making him seem less of a patriotic American. But what does that say about today's America, that the world's esteem is now unwanted? If Americans reject Obama, they will be sending the clearest possible message to the rest of us - and, make no mistake, we shall hear it."
I appreciate this probably puts me in a minority but I don't get this at all. Americans are supposed to vote for someone because he's popular with Germans? I'm rather dubious about Mr Freedland's claim to know the mind of the 'rest of the world' and how they would respond in the event of a McCain victory. He may be right but personally I'd have thought the 'rest of the world' would be unwise to assume that the presidential election in a country they don't live in was somehow all about them.

Here the Scotsman lists the views of twenty-five people who think Alex Salmond should drop his plans for replacing the council tax with a local income tax. I regret to say only two have mentioned what is for me the most obvious fault with it - this being that what is proposed isn't a local income tax at all.

North Korea was 60 yesterday. Anyone else come across this rumour that Kim Jog Il may be gravely ill or even dead?

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Against dogs (and their owners)

"Man's best friend." Who coined this phrase? Someone with no friends obviously. It has subsequently been taken up by other people who can't form relationships with other human beings and now it's kinda stuck.

Yet is so obviously untrue. What use are dogs? Can they make pasta, roll a joint or do other useful things around the house? No they can't. So why have them? They're completely stupid high maintenance beasts who bark and whine, fart, piss and shit all over the place. And please don't try and tell me that their existence is justified because "they make their owners happy" as if their owners deserve to be happy or something. Clearly they don't

Understand I'm making a generalisation here. Being blind, for example, scrapes by as a passable reason for owning a dog - but otherwise there's really is very little excuse for this kind of behaviour. And there's absolutely none at all for letting them shit all over the pavement like someone around my way has been doing. Or perhaps it's more than one (a 'conspiracy' of dog-owners is the collective noun here, I believe) who thinks there's a sign at the top of my street that says "Dog Toilet Facility Ahead: Please Allow Your Stupid Mutt to Shit Anywhere." There isn't one - I would have noticed! One of the dog-owning cretins even allowed his or her creature to hoist its leg and use my front tyre as a fucking lamppost. Bastards! Though it may take night-vision goggles and a crossbow, I'm going to catch one of these fuckers at it someday.

Dog and dog-owning apologists make the lamest "a few bad apples" sort of excuses for this kind of thing - a shallow attempt to evade the issue here, which is that dogs and the overwhelming majority of their owners are either completely stupid, completely mental, or both.

Certain kinds of dog and dog-owners stand out. They say dogs and their owners end up looking like each other. Probably a dog-owner that came up with this drivel. Obviously people buy dogs that look like them in the first place. There's a mental thing to do in itself. So, for example, you get these Glasgow neds with dogs that are all muscle, teeth, and anger with very short hair and call them 'Sabre' or something similar that sounds suitably well-hard and pure mental. The sort of dog that if it mounted your leg, the safest option is always to fake an orgasm.

Then there's the people you see who carry these small hairy rodent type dogs around (because this particular breed can't walk or something?) put wee jackets on them, talk to them and other weird shit like that. Mentalists, clearly. Frequenting the alcohol section of my local supermarket, as is my want, I once came dangerously close to one of the dog-carrying community who was consulting the mutt lodged in her armpit about her wine choice:

"So what shall we get then Fifi (or something)?" - in very scary 'as talking to a small child' kind of voice.

"I was thinking maybe something Australian - Shiraz Cabernet perhaps?" said the dog.

No it didn't. This being on account of the brute and inescapable fact that it's a fucking dog and therefore can't talk! It certainly can't contribute to the whole debate surrounding the relative merits of New World wines - so stop trying to involve it in conversation, crazy person!

Not that I'm a cat person, you understand. I've noticed there's a lot of cat-people in the blogosphere for some reason. I'm not one of those. Cats are preferable to dogs only due to the obvious and enormous shortcomings of the latter. Cats may be less stupid but they sleep most of the day, stay out all night, only come to see you when they want food and warmth, wreck your furniture, and generally have a bad attitude. I mean you might as well have a teenager living with you. I would agree that one thing you could say in their favour is that at least cats clean themselves. True - but then again you don't hope your cat will grow out of this phase, go earn some money and perhaps contribute to their up-keep, do you? Exactly - so why have them? Houses for humans is my motto. I may start a pressure group. Please give generously.


Your result for The How much do you like dogs? Test...

Dog Hater

You might have been the kid in gradeschool that was caught shaving dogs or kicking them for fun. I don't want to meet you, ever! You definitely don't appreciate the companionship that a hound can provide and most likely never will. You probably have some seriously deep rooted mental issues. I hope you don't cut yourself, too!

Take The How much do you like dogs? Test at HelloQuizzy

Thursday, September 04, 2008

On class, prejudice and the 'culture wars'

Brought up in a good left-wing family as I was, I learned to understand the various positions people took on the political spectrum - and why they held them: we, the left, have reasons for what we believe; they, the right, have prejudices. And prejudice, as we all know, is a Bad Thing.

Then I grew up. I can't chart exactly how and why I was disabused of this childish notion that being left was somehow to be less afflicted with prejudice than the right. Reading Burke was part of it - along with a question my political theory lecturer asked, which unsettled me greatly. He said, "How is democracy justified?" If you're like I was, you never imagined an answer to this question was necessary.

Plus there was a variety of influences. I wouldn't say I was 'mugged by reality' - not least because this is conventionally used to describe a political journey that I haven't actually taken. But in my experience, actually talking to people has a way of denting one's pristine ideological positions. Take abortion. I appreciate it's a controversial issue. In my youth I formulated an impeccably liberal take on the subject. I would like to say I was motivated by an understanding of science, of the right of women to control their own bodies and all that liberal jive - but the truth is, it was largely based on a deep sense of revulsion towards the sort of people who picket abortion clinics and who hector and harass young women who have felt themselves compelled to make this awful decision.

I don't now favour prohibition but my attitude has changed quite substantially. It may be self-deception but the thing that has changed my mind more than anything else is actually talking to women who have had abortions. To say that their account differed slightly to the Guardianista narrative would be something of an understatement, to say no more than that.

My point is that at no time did anyone challenge or dismiss my views on this subject as 'prejudiced', yet undoubtedly they were. One could multiply the examples but I'll pick one that is salient to the whole hoo hah about the selection of Ms Palin as McCain's running mate - and it's the whole issue of gun-ownership. Guns? Don't like them - partly because I have nightmares about what Glasgow would be like were these readily available in the way they are in the US. I also think the 'democratisation of weaponry' argument that is used to defend them is absurd. Buuuuut - I really don't believe that people's attitudes towards this issue in the States, or here for that matter, is decided on evidence alone - or indeed on that much evidence at all. For 'gun-owners' read 'stupid rednecks' and I'm afraid I sense a whiff of a rural-urban divide and, beyond this, more than a little class hatred. I made a comment here, which I stand by: opposition to fox-hunting had many arguments in its favour but those who opposed it were, in my view, often motivated by hatred of toffs. A lot of people may sympathise I dare say - but what we might want to consider here is whether on this issue the class hostility isn't the other way around?

Went to Texas once. Met a few of the sort of people who are not so secretly despised by high ranking Democrats, along with their fans in the British media - who tend to make rather less of a secret about it. Reality again collides with stereotype. Came across people who were church-going, fans of guns - but condemned racism and, to my surprise, were strongly in favour of what the Americans call 'socialised medicine'. But inconsistently liberal so dismissed by the sort of 'liberals' who demand that everyone become replicas of themselves. Which brings me to this from Sunny Hundal:
"The bottom line is - its time for Democrats, and the left in general, to learn how to fight and win the culture wars. Attacking Palin as a religious nut might annoy the hell out of the Republican base, but they’re not the majority of the country. It will rouse the Democrat base and also bring over the Independents - who are the ones deciding the election."
One could take issue at length with the notion that elections in the US are decided on 'cultural issues'. I seem to remember the most successful Democrat in living memory had as the focus of his campaign that "it's the economy, stupid". One could also add that the notion that elections in the US are decided on "cultural issues" is a myth; all the available evidence suggests that Democrat voters are more likely to be working class, favour welfare, "socialised medicine", increases in the minimum wage, trades union rights and so on. But they are let down by a pusillanimous leadership who are afraid to even hint at taking on the neo-liberal consensus. Here's where the "culture wars" comes in: the idea that this is where the "left" should fight is a counsel of despair because it is an acceptance of the narcissism of small differences that is partisan politics in America. Small differences that are a direct result of the Democrats' failure to adopt anything that even resembles a social democratic platform.

But beyond this, even if this were not so, there would be little chance of the Democrats and their British supporters winning any "culture war". Because any such "war" would involve - if I could borrow a rather over-used expression - winning "hearts and minds". How likely are you to be successful when your idea of persuasion lies solely in the notion that while your opponents have the monopoly on prejudice and stupidity, you have it when it comes to rationality and intelligence? Pretty fucking unlikely, I would have thought.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Hurricane Palin

This is how the Washington Post has described the media frenzy that has blown up since McCain picked her to be his running mate.

It's quite impressive - the storm has crossed the Atlantic and reached corners of the British blogosphere, which we'll come to in a mo'. Impressive because hitherto people have tended not to pay so much attention to the views of potential Veeps. I've been wondering why this is? After all, Al Gore has some fairly spaced-out views about the elimination of the internal combustion engine but I don't recall many people getting quite so excited about this. Perhaps it's a realisation through the experience of Dick Cheney that Vice Presidents really can exercise a significant influence within an administration. More likely though it's that the views of someone like Gore, while fairly whacky, can be slotted into a general position that is deemed by liberals of various hues to be on the right side of the culture wars.

Ms Palin's views, on the other hand, cannot be. Here, for example, is one self-confessed 'friend of hope' on Palin's attitude to abortion:
"Let me make one thing absolutely and abundantly and categorically clear. There is no such thing as a 'pro-life' feminist. You cannot be a feminist and oppose a woman’s right to choose. Let me repeat that for the brainwashed and hard of hearing:

You cannot be a feminist and oppose a woman’s right to choose."
Very strict, this young lady. I like that. Unfortunately the argument - actually it's just a strident assertion - is complete bollocks. While I accept there's a strong sociological correlation, there is no philosophical connection between the belief that women should be treated equally in society - in employment and relationships - and the one that insists that the foetus is merely an extension of a woman's body.

I'm not interested in defending Palin's views on abortion, Palin herself, or indeed the McCain campaign in general. I hope he loses and by extension she loses. But I get the impression that the critics here have rather misunderstood the way the American system of government works.

Roe vs Wade was a decision by the Supreme Court that based abortion rights on an interpretation of the US Constitution that assumed it gave Americans the right to privacy. Despite long periods of GOP control, of the White House and/or Congress, the twenty-five year consensus on the legality of abortion in America remains. Vice-Presidents do not determine policy in this area - nor do they do so in education, which brings us to Oliver Kamm's criticisms here and here. Oliver is dismayed that Palin a) has no apparent interest in foreign policy and b) advocates teaching Creationism alongside evolution in the classroom.

Now while I would agree with him in his identification of these shortcomings, again I think there's a misunderstanding of the dynamics of the American constitution here. It's not just that the Vice President has no influence over education policy or that she, or he, will soon have to get acquainted with foreign policy - it's that the two are related: whether Vice-Presidents or actual Presidents, those who occupy positions of power within the American executive get interested in foreign policy because they have so little influence over domestic policy. Bush Snr, Clinton and Bush Jnr were all elected promising to focus on domestic issues. But it didn't turn out quite like that, did it? I think it would be a mistake to assume that it has been purely events that have driven the course of these political careers. I'd argue you can draw a direct line, for example, from Clinton's failure to reform healthcare at the beginning of his Presidency to his involvement in the Middle East peace process towards the end.

But beyond this, I think there's a misunderstanding of political character and by extension human nature that I find difficult to put into words - but it has to do with the idea that the public life is to be a revelation of the complete personality. For reasons I feel I can't explain properly, I sense a whiff of something deeply illiberal about this. The idea that someone is either one thing or another - and if someone is irrational in one area of their life, this bleeds into every area, if someone is reckless or immoral in their private life, this has necessary and comprehensive implications for everything else; I just don't think this is true. Human beings are capable of compartmentalising to an extraordinary degree. How can we trust someone to be loyal to their country when they can't be trusted to be faithful to their spouse? Dunno - but the historical evidence would suggest that the relationship being drawn here is artificial. Martin Luther King had extra-marital affairs; Hitler didn't. Discuss.

I think the same can be said of rationality to some extent. In discussing Oliver Kamm's piece, Chris Dillow had the following to say:
"Possession of rationality is not a binary 1-0 property; it’s not something one either has or not. Instead, we are all irrational in some contexts - though rarely in all. There are no general-purpose experts."
This is dismissed in the comments as a 'relatively small point'. My own view is that it is an important point, the significance of which is frequently missed. Let me put it this way: no ordinary person is one thing - entirely rational, completely liberal, consistently orthodox. And I'd take this further and argue that those who are - or more likely pretend they are - are usually either stupid, fanatics or profoundly cynical. These are attributes in a politician that are as least as worthy of our criticism as inconsistency and hypocrisy, I would have thought.

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