June 8, 2007
The only moral act by a nation is self-defence. The UN cannot morally authorise force against any of its member states without also authorising the defence of said member, a contradictory stance.
Naturally that is specific to his (or possibly ‘our’) notion of morality. It would be alien to Genghis Khan or Julius Caeser. Being a citizen of the ‘first’ world post-1945 I tend to share it but would ask a qualifying question about UN obligations in the event of a government inflicting deadly force upon its own population? That was the argument used finally and after the fact by government leaders of the so-called coalition of the willing.
This could be regarded rightly as laughable. Since the UN formed, governments have continued to cause mass suffering and slaughter upon their own people and others: Mao, Pol Pot, Pinochet, Simoza, Suharto all caused various holocausts or mini-facsimiles of same without intervention from the UN. Saddam Hussein’s regime itself used gas on Kurdish people directly after the first Gulf War to suppress an uprising encouraged and then disowned by Bush the first. Moreover the UN’s response to the Balkans mess of the 90s was tardy and half-assed.
And there are countless other instances of nasty repressions not to mention invasions of one kind or another by one country on another. The UN has been powerless to stop these. Considering that, by example, one of the great mass-murders by state was committed by one of the privileged five UNSC members, the People’s Republic of China, considering that she sponsored another (the Khmer Rouge atrocity) this is hardly surprising.
Such a situation leads Brendan I suppose to state:
The UN is a pointless organization and should be abolish as a non representative totalitarian organization that legitimises similarly totalitarian member states.
There is a much stronger case for an expanded NATO to strong arm totalitarian states and exclude membership to immoral regimes.
There is a fairly significant section of the right supporting this view or some variation thereof. The neoconservative viewpoint is largely distinguished from so-called paleoconservative principles by the desire to spread democracy around. Old school conservatism believes that it is not the business of the United States (or wherever) to expend resources and lives in the pursuit of better things for foreigners. Cynically rendered this translates as the famous “he might be a bastard but he’s our bastard” quote usually attributed to Franklin Roosevelt. Neoconservatives confronting international terrorism and treacherous ex-pet bastards like Saddam, inspired by Ronald Reagan’s mythic legacy are fired up to change the world. Forget the UN they say, let’s round up a posse and go after the varmits ourselves. Nothin’ beats good old American know-how.
Please excuse the glib allusions but in the light of the half-baked nonsense that the US has made of building the new democratic Iraq I’m afraid it’s warranted. They knew how to smash a regime, they haven’t worked out how to make a new one.
I don’t believe Brendan is advocating the posse stratagem. He’s suggesting an alliance of nations admitting only ‘moral nations’. There is no suggestion that the US would be the leader of this alliance nor would it stand for anything but mutual defence. Its mission: self-protection not evangelical democracy.
But what is morality? What universal moral code are we to apply and how flexible is it? Take the death penalty for example. We in Australia tend to regard the death penalty almost universally as barbaric. The US does not, the PRC does not, the Islamic Republic of Iran does not. Each of these nations execute. However the types of crimes that carry capital punishment and the process by which such punishment is deemed appropriate vary greatly. The US does not believe that it is moral for a teenage girl to be killed by hauling her up by crane from the neck because she killed a rapist in self-defence. Needless to say Iran does. They are both equally convinced of their righteousness.
Naturally we can argue that the US is a democracy, hence moral. That NATO nations are likewise democratic, hence moral. In the US the death penalty carries the authority of popular consent hence moral, etcetera. We could regard as moral, nations that have a functional democracy.
But what about the relations of that nation with others? Democracy has many enemies created by the hypocritical behaviour of its avatars. Consider the case of Nicaragua. I do so because to me it seems relatively free of the usual murk. Here is a nation that has belaboured under the usual reactionary oligarchs vs. modern oligarchs tussle that characterises Iberian American political culture. Here is a nation which has laboured under a particularly unscrupulous and corrupt oligarchical family supported by the United States. And when a bunch of ratbags comes along and overthrows this state of affairs the US spares no expense trying to spoil the party.
As much as I like PJ O’Rourke’s work I found his article on the 1990 Nicaraguan election “Return of the Death of Communism” patronising, snide and propagandistic. Well he’s often patronising and snide. But that’s cool; he’s funny doing it. But out and out agitprop gets a little irritating. There’s the comparisons by association to Hitler, the reference to the ‘Birkenstock Bolshies’ US college kids there to support Ortega (who had been the lefty poster boy of the early 90s), allegations of electoral irregularities etcetera. Naturally PJ’s never really even pretended to be objective:
What was I going to say about a loathsome Sandinista victory? I suppose I’d have to natter on about the unfair advantages of using state resources for party ends, about how Sandinista control of the transit system prevented [opposition] UNO supporters from attending rallies, how Sandinista domination of the army forced soldiers to vote for Ortega and how Sandinista bureaucracy kept $3.3 million of US campaign aid from getting to UNO while Danny spent three million donated by overseas pinks and millions and millions more from the Nicaraguan treasury.
Give War a Chance
Serious allegations if true but hardly as bad as the Somoza regime that preceded the Sandinistas. Somoza’s elections were straight-up rigged if held, he treated Nicaragua like his private farm and stole disaster relief funds from overseas. To quote from an equally partisan but contrary source:
Following the earthquake, the United States gave $57 milllion in emergency aid to Nicaragua; but the Nicaraguan Treasury reported receiving only $16 million. By April 1979, with Somoza near the end of his reign and now bombing his own people, he received a loan of $40 million from the International Monetary Fund. There were no binding conditions. A few weeks later the IMF, urged on by the Carter administration, gave him a further $25 million. After Somoza fled to Miami, the Sandinistas found less than $2 million in the national treasury.
I’m quoting journalists of opposite dispositions on comparable things. I’m doing so because I don’t want to get into that argument: Sandinistas? Good guys or bad? Perhaps it’s a little unfair to pit the most serious of left-wing journalists against the Gonzo humorist for Rolling Stone but I think it’s worth stating that Pilger’s article has numerous referenced sources. O’Rourke’s is rather light there. Pilger’s article does contain (very light) criticism of the Sandinistas. O’Rourke makes them sound like Stalinists. Both views are skewed and both are essentially partisan propaganda. But Pilger wins largely because, on balance, he’s correct. What O’Rourke fails to do is to mention the FACT that the Sandinistas pushed Nicaragua further along the democratic road in eleven years than they’d ever been. He also fails to mention that the United States did everything it could to fuck it up for them. “He’s a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch”, said Roosevelt of Somoza the elder. Under the Somozas the Nicaraguan people suffered military dictatorship, illiteracy, poverty and corruption. The Sandanistas may or may not have been much better but two things happened when they took charge: 1/ people learned to read and 2/there were elections and the opposition won. Never would’ve happened under Somoza.
Still the States supported old Somoza and tried to nix Ortega.!!!!! Oh the headaches history students will get a hundred years from now.
I digress, I know. But I have a reason. The United States and its dalliance with the internal affairs of its neighbours is a subject of hot debate: Allende vs Pinochet, Castro vs. Batista. But in Nicaragua we have a revolution that instituted a relatively humane and democratic regime. And the US tried very, very hard to kill it. I don’t mean to demonise the Yanks. They’re not to be singled out for abuse or evil empire accusations. They’ve got power they originally didn’t want. And they’ve got to swim in the same realpolitik sewer all powers do, great and small. Take the bad with the good. And compared to their partners on the UNSC permanent members club let’s face it they’re practically St. Francis of Assisi.
But moral? Moral Brendan? I put it to you that there is really no such thing as a moral nation. If such a thing exists it does so only by comparison with greater evil. Even then that is a subjective assessment. Those Muftis in Tehran’s cafes don’t regard 9/11 as immoral. They regard it as heroic. Immoral? Angelina Jolie, Paris Hilton, Sundays spent at the pub: that’s immoral. It’s one morality competing with another and in the absence of any new and universally appealing prophets or messiahs the deciding factor regarding the relative merits of this morality will be this.
I’m sorry but I think I’m pretty much a legal positivist insofar as I believe rights are bestowed by law, by convention, by the state. Much as I sympathize with a natural law position I’m unable to agree that rights, to free speech, to property etcetera, are carved in cosmic granite by God or whatever. In relations to the rights of nations I considered this issue at my place in an article entitled The Right To Nuke which considered whether or no Iran has a ‘right’ to nuclear weapons.
Under a legal positivist framework you have to conclude that the rights of nations to bear arms, to start wars of aggression etcetera are problematic. In a nation-state a citizen’s rights are defined legally by constitution, bill of rights, statute, common law and the like. Even if one believes, as the American founding fathers did, that certain rights are self-evident truths it’s not got going to help you much if the local authorities disagree. Shout all you like about freedom of religion and speech in the PRC, you might find yourself on an involuntary organ donor. Most probably God will not intervene.
Brendan states that UN is a pointless organization. I’d retort that it is not a pointless organization. Its point is clear enough – to provide a institutional modus by which nations can resolve conflicts peaceably. However there are many problems-
It is a massive bureaucracy which is also not a government in the sense that it has no real legal authority. It is analogous to a parliament whose laws are obeyed if the citizenry happen to feel like it. Contrary to what Brendan has said, the UN is not totalitarian. Unlike genuine totalitarian government it’s actually been proved pretty easy to ignore.
But it does, as he says, legitimise totalitarian regimes. When the Australian representative speaks s/he speaks at least notionally for 20 million people. There is some accountability as our UN ambassador is responsible to an elected government. This cannot be said of North Korea whose ambassador is responsible to one man. In effect Kim Jong-il has equal representative power to our entire population. So does Castro, the House of Saud etc.
The other major problem is the UNSC, particularly the veto rights enjoyed by its five permanent members. These nation-states are also the only such ‘authorised’ to bear nuclear arms. This is de facto an oligarchy which tries to set in stone the geopolitical chessboard as the end of the second World War found it. In the era of the European Union it is difficult to understand why the UK and France would have permanent seats. It is difficult to understand by what ‘rights’ any nation-state should be able to exercise veto over the ‘crucial’ UN body.
There are other problems. But they boil down to the fact that the UN does not do what it is supposed to do effectively and that this is due to a structure that is both undemocratic and inefficient. And also that it is a hazy sketch for international governance without universal acceptance that such an idea is desirable.
The UN has no authority because it is not a government. If the UN security council is required before a country can invade another country for whatever reason how does it enforce that authority?. It can’t. International law likewise has limited authority because there is no police force to back it up. As I’ve argued elsewhere how does one lock a whole country up in jail?
In the current global situation where conflicting notions of the good life are coming to a head perhaps Brendan has a point about a union of moral nations. Although I would argue that it would be a military alliance based on common interests and values. Morality and democracy might be welcome bedfellows when we democratic nations start tolerating burgeoning democratic movements in the shithouse nations even if those movements advocate policies contrary to our interests.
That would be truly moral.
Until then we have a leaky and very flawed global institution or the old fallback to military alliance risking another global war. What path will we take as a planet, what path should we? I don’t know. Perhaps we need a third catastrophe: let’s see how good our new technology really is at decimating populations and making cities vanish. The first two precipitated great accelerations in human civilization albeit at the cost of millions of lives. The first two also produced proto-world governance, the second an improvement on the first.
Third time lucky????
* This post began as a response to Brendan Halfweeg’s comments during a recent debate at Catallaxy. Actually that particular post was supposed to be about whether or no Andrew Norton the recent winner of the ALS Best Solo Libertarian blog poll was a libertarian. Somehow it morphed into a shitfight about the legitimacy of the Iraq war which I joined in to let off steam. I entered my first serious comment at 174 if you’re interested. Brendan comes in at 200 and it’s 205 which prompted this.
May 22, 2007
Postmodern, postmodernity is I think a word is a word deployed by people attempting to historicize their own era. This is an odd thing to do as history is obviously written retrospectively. I once quipped that postmodernism was coined by intellectuals convinced of impending nuclear holocaust and desperate to put themselves into history before it was too late. That was glib but maybe there’s something in it.
The ‘postmodern’ historical period began after the Second World War. Or at least this is how it has been commonly referred to. Many will disagree but I’ll just place it on the table as a useful term of reference. The postmodern period is for many adherents of the concept still going. I myself would argue that the ethos of the 20th century could be divided in two: from 1914-1945 (the modern period) thence from 1945-1989 or thereabouts) the post-modern period. Prior to 1914 the spirit of the 19th century was still intact and, after many phenomena including and most especially the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the spirit of the 21st century emerged.
I had a lecturer at Uni who taught literature and art and worked as a journalist. He’d interviewed a lot of the significant ‘postmodern’ writers like Samuel Beckett, William Burroughs etc. He said that modernism was a project in which the values and assumptions of Western culture were attacked and post modernism was where they were ground into bits. He was profoundly ambivalent about this process.
Postmodernism, for want of a better word, is not restricted to what Rafe Champion has termed the “convoluted verbal labyrinths” produced by the Humanities academy nor the literary and artistic avant-gardes that compliment them. It also refers to the profound changes in culture since the Second World War. Everything new since ’45 is postmodern. Samuel Beckett’s Watt, William Burrough’s Naked Lunch, the films of Peter Greenaway and Alain Resnais are all postmodern but so are Star Wars, Big Brother, Starbucks and McDonald’s.
Undoubtedly these changes as a whole have been good. But they have also been disorientating and destructive of old moral assumptions and the structures that underpin them. There is a sense of disconnection between the present and the past which is becoming a global phenomenon. Possibly this cannot be expressed in concrete terms but the malaise is there. It is felt. And it can be expressed in art.
Here I’m thinking of the films of for example Wong Kar-Wai especially: In the Mood for Love and 2046. The former, set in the 60s, charts the breakdown of ‘old’ Chinese culture in Hong Kong. This is evidenced by the break-up of the protagonists’ marriages, the fragmenting of communal family life and the technological and economic forces underpinning this.
The rice-cooker is central to this. Innocuous and convenient as it is, the rice-cooker aids in the breakdown of communal life as the characters drift away from eating together and switch to getting take-out meals that they eat with rice cooked quickly in the new gadget. This is of the essence of the freedom of liberal society. The characters are independent economically (via their jobs) and socially (they no longer need others to help prepare their meals. Their freedom is as much from one other as for themselves. Something is unravelling here.
By the second movie (2046 the sequel to In the Mood for Love) the male protagonist Chow Mo-wan is incapable of forming deep emotional attachments to women. His relationships are superficial and based on temporary gratifications. For a living he writes science fiction and part of the film is dedicated to his literary conceptions. In the future year 2046 nothing changes. Reality is portrayed as an endless train ride. The characters a neo-hippie man and an android woman are together but apart. Not just perpetual strangers but prototypical of two divergent species. These two films chart a transformation of the human species from a dirty yet sociable world in which there a clear and stifling rules to a clean, technological global matrix of permanently disconnected individuals.
The unravelling of the disciplines normally associated with Humanities: clear writing, sophisticated reading into the opaque miasma that is currently lampooned as ‘postmodernism’ is a symptom of this contemporary negative nihilism. It is also attacked by a small but significant faction of the left including Nick Cohen and Ophelia Benson.
In the face of the rise of a new world brought about by science and technology particularly IT and (soon) biotechnology what can we salvage from our traditions and or assumptions about what it is to be human, to be a person in a community etc. Things don’t work the way they used to. In this new world of increasing choices about where and how to live what exactly is the community?
It’s understandable that people would latch on to ‘neoliberalism’ as the beté noir of their ills. The left do it for the same reason that the far-right pick on Jews. It’s someone or something to blame. It makes things nice and simple in a complicated world. Libertarians such as Rafe Champion and Jason Soon are at pains to point out that liberalism is not the same as conservatism. They also argue that so-called neo-liberalism is simply classical liberalism reasserted onto the global agenda after a periodic flirtation with command economics.
Rafe Champion’s summary of liberalism is (see the link above):
(1) a range of freedoms, including the freedom to exchange legal goods and services with people in other lands, (2) the rule of law, including property rights and (3) a robust moral framework including honesty and compassion.
The economic system known as capitalism evolved organically from a diffuse range of sources. Liberalism was a retrospective ideology that sought to ‘codify’ the raison d’etre of this new system. Other ideologies precipitated by capitalism: socialism, communism, social-democracy, anarchism, fascism etc. were all reactive to the emergence of capitalism and liberal values. One way or the other they each sought either to pursue an improvement on and/or a reaction against the new way of doing things.
“Progressive” ideologies like communism and socialism, which attempted to create a better system, were doomed to fail in my opinion. Capitalism took many centuries to develop. This development was partially cultural, partially economic and partially technological. To imagine a better world and to try to impose a half-cocked design based on the inevitably myopic conjecture of a central committee would be to ignore certain truths about human nature and the scope of what is possible. When Lenin and his cohorts took an essentially feudal empire and tried to create a communist system from above they ended up creating a high-tech version of ancient despotism. Hitler and his fellow travelers can be distinguished from the communists because they intended to create a high-tech despotism. They intentionally reacted against the Enlightenment and all that followed (apart from the gadgets).
The communists did not intend to do so. Certain vicissitudes of liberalism (like free speech) were enshrined in the Soviet constitution but they weren’t worth the price of the ink used. Without the ‘bourgeois’ political framework of free elections, property rights, separate powers and the rule of law any constitutional guarantees of human rights were fatuous. The communists tried to create their future now. They did not realize that the values of the Enlightenment would take time to permeate thru a populace and that it was not possible to create a ‘worker’s paradise’ (assuming it’s possible to create Utopia at all) by legislative proclamation. Note that all communist regimes took hold in culturally backward countries. Totalitarianism in the ‘bourgeois’ states took on the character of wholesale rejection of liberalism in places where this latter set of ideas had a tenuous hold. Fascism was a rejection of the Enlightenment; communism was a corruption of it. The results were near identical.
So what does this have to with postmodernism?
Postmodernism, postmodernity are rallying cries for elements of the ‘New” Left. Recognizing the nightmare that their Marxist dreaming had wrought and faced with the evident post-war wealth of ordinary people in the capitalist world (during the heyday of the social-democratic era) the Left fragmented. The old Marxists looked increasingly ridiculous. Trotskyites who claimed that the Soviet Union would’ve been great if only Leon and not Joe Steel had been in charge looked dumb especially as they replicated Stalinist type errors in miniature. A “New” Left emerged which was dedicated more to the emancipation of oppressed groups within society: women, non-whites, homosexuals. Part of the postmodern project has been to address hidden histories of these groups, expressing their hithero concealed contributions to society.
Initially this was both a good thing and successful. Modern societies see an unprecedented level of racial and sexual equality and tolerance of cultural including sexual diversity. In this the Left of the twentieth century was successful. However as this sort of social emancipation is entirely compatible with liberalism and because activists for same were not exclusively of the Left, the Right now tend to regard their contribution as negligible. This is unfair and untrue. But the Left has it coming in many ways because there’s a large section of it that (academically) seeks to disregard the progress that has been made and at the same time for reasons of self-interest to perpetuate notions of oppression to ridiculous ends.
This has resulted in intellectual ghettoes within universities where common sense is suspended and paragraph long sentences designed to mystify easily intimidated undergraduates are the new rulers. This Left has drifted away from the territory of concrete issues of justice toward the playing of word-games around unsubstantiated claims of cultural oppression and linguistically enforced power relations. Part of the fault of this lies with a fascination with certain French intellectuals called post-structuralists who’ve collectively analyzed the relationship between knowledge, language and power.
Some of this work is useful. Here I’d cite Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu is not really a post-structuralist. After all his writing is comparatively clear and he engages in extensive empirical research. My post-graduate work was about taste and the distinctions between high culture and popular culture. Bourdieu’s work is essential here and while I was made to feel somewhat marginal (Bourdieu wasn’t considered ‘cool’) I feel vindicated now.
Foucault’s writing is largely theoretical, that is to say it makes interesting points that should be tested against empirical evidence. Unfortunately this hasn’t really happened by and large. What has happened is that Foucault has become a new god whose words and ideas are used to justify notions about subjects about which he himself wrote little, like the arts. There is also very little critical reflection on him at least by his supporters. I wonder often, when hearing an address by some Foucauldian art critic whether or no s/he realizes how utterly authoritarian the man essentially was. That said he does describe power relations in an interesting way: a kind of synthesis of Marxian history, Nietzschean genealogy mixed with a large helping of Durkheim’s sociology.
Those guys aside there’s a catalogue of famous intellectuals whose books read like a catalogue of four-syllable words assembled via Gyson and Burrough’s cut-up technique. To be sure an interesting experiment in poetic composition (David Bowie being, I think, its best exponent)
but for expressing clear ideas about culture? Not so good. Still that’s the point: Derrida, Iriguay, Lacan and the spectacularly useless Jean Baudrillard have captured and soiled the minds of a generation of arts graduates who have been systematically taught to ignore common sense and their own critical facilities in favour of composing sentences like the following from Judith Butler that practioner of the supremely incomprehensible:
The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.
Ninety-four words, one sentence, three commas and one full stop! What the fuck is she on about, ‘ey?
Fortunately there is hope. At the end of University having given up on the incomprehensible postmodernist clique and switched more and more to the canon of dead white males (like Aristotle and Machiavelli) I encountered Sexual Personae the first book of the perpetually controversial Camille Paglia. Here was my first (post-Tertiary) example of a modern cultural critic, someone hip to the power and depth of popular culture, not caught up in the traps of word-game obfuscation or the knee-jerk rejection of the past as the province of dead white males. She was postmodern without being opaque, contemporary without being historically illiterate. Importantly she reinserts nature in the human condition as a major player. Consider the compelling and rather grand opening sentence for Sexual Personae:
In the beginning was Nature from which and against which our ideas of God were formed.
The opening chapter to the book “Sex and Violence or Nature and Art” was issued as a Penguin mini-book. I bought it on a coach ride from Brisbane to Sydney years back and read it several times. It contains the infamous sentence long taken out of context by the considerable orthodox feminist camp in revolt against her that stated that if women ruled the world we’d all still be living in grass huts.
Paglia avoided the tendency to extreme cultural relativism that had come to characterize the modern humanities academy. Under this regime the Taliban were as morally justifiable as liberal democracy and the White Pages (to borrow from Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom) was the literary equivalent of Hamlet. Paglia made several assaults on the modern humanities academy most famously in her essay ” “Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders” which set Foucault in her sights. I both agree and disagree with her dismissal of Foucault but I wholeheartedly agree with her return to common sense, to the traditions of literary criticism as embodied by her mentor and her observations that Arts intellectuals have strayed so far from the logic of science and the Enlightenment as to make themselves irrelevant. For this she has been unfairly labelled a neoconservative (a charge she rightly labels as ridiculous) although she could be considered a libertarian. I cannot comment on this. Socially she is libertarian, economically…? Whatever else she might be she is what Judith Butler is not, original and provocative possessing an elegant prose style that expresses the ability to think for herself. After being immersed in the tedious ‘avant-garde’ quagmire of stuff praised because it was impossible to understand she vindicated my instinctive and internal denunciations. She made me go: “Yes!!”.
So what is the point of this post?
It is inspired by several things. Rafe Champion’s recent Catallaxy pieces on the intellectual drought amongst the Left and a similarly themed book from Nick Cohen first brought to my attention by Iain Hall, (see listening to right-wingers can be good for you.) Rafe argues that the:
… intellectuals of the left can be depicted as a great forest of trees that have all been sawn though at the base. The ideas are dead but the forest keeps standing up because the branches of the trees are intertwined.
…looks forward to the time when the left produces some thinkers and activists who are so imbued with the imaginative and critical spirit that they will investigate the resources of classical liberalism and weigh them up, without fear or favour, against the ideas of the left.
Right now he’s busy tearing up the new edition of Beyond Right and Left by David McKnight. Whilst I’m not going to comment on the veracity of Rafe’s critique I have to say that McKnight does make some interesting points about the direction that the Left should follow. Of these I have my own criticisms (and will follow up eventually).
But this post is already too long and meandering for that.
At the end there is simply the dead wood of the postmodern project and the related dead end of left-leaning intellectualism to consider. I tend to agree with Nick Cohen that the left is in a confused place at present. Its failures economically and its successes culturally have left it nowhere to go. Still it presses on flogging a dead horse.
Culturally it’s still pursuing the emancipation of oppressed groups by paradoxically apologising for non-Western cultural practises which continue to oppress said groups. (It should of course be understood that this is not indicative of the whole left but rather of the cultural and radical left.)
Economically there is a certain illiteracy which persists; the result of many left-wing intellectuals pursuing arts-type studies at the expense of the ‘harder’ disciplines. Still there is a call for a critique of the ‘neoliberal’ agenda which is often confused with the neoconservative agenda. Leftists would do well to realize that there is as much diversity and fragmentation on the Right as there is on the Left. The Right encompasses such diverse ideological tribes as conservatives, neoconservatives, libertarians, neolibertarians, paleoconservatives, classical liberals, anarcho-capitalists as well as a fringe where all sorts of religiously and racially motivated anti-Enlightenment lunatics abound. When there is call for analysis and critique of the neoliberal agenda I take it that what is meant is analysis and critique of modern global economic practise. They are not the same thing.
Perhaps the Left should shift its focus from economic demonisation (a Marxist leftover) and perhaps concentrate on point 3 of Rafe Champion’s classic liberal agenda: the robust moral framework. This is what McKnight in his book is getting at essentially. Rightly or wrongly (both?) we live in a world of shifting and uncertain moral fabric. There is a widespread disillusion with institutions and a kind of neo-tribal attitude emerging resulting in a myriad of postmodern and anti-modern subcultures. These are the result of increased economic and personal freedoms and also a reaction against the nihilism implicit in aspects of the brave new world. On the one hand you have Korean breakdancers busking on Swanston St, Sunday afternoons. On the other you have various forms of religious fanaticism that seek to destroy modernity, science and liberal society in the name of the ‘good’. They are both features of postmodernism. Osama bin-Laden is just as ‘postmodern’ as a rave or an internet chatroom. Those seeking to articulate the moral fabric of globalization must ask themselves what membrane will unite the various tribes of the new world against the enemies of modern liberal society.
Whatever direction the Left takes from here it needs to move away from the foggy-brained nonsense that clogs the arteries to its collective mind. I believe we need a critique of ‘globalisation’ one that is based on hard facts and a clear understanding of the economic theories and practices involved. Former Marxists should read Hayek and give him a go, not just scan The Road To Serfdom for incidents of unfeeling economic cruelty. In philosophy and art there needs to be a rediscovery of tradition and an acquisition of hereto unfashionable philosophers like Karl Popper.
Ultimately there needs be an understanding that what is past is past. And what has happened has happened no matter how unsavoury or distasteful it appears. Learn from your mistakes. That is crucial. Individually and collectively progress is impossible if one does not do this. Society needs a ‘left’ and a ‘right’ in that it needs viable alternative sets of political and cultural ideas. I would rather that the sports-team organization of ideas were a thing of the past and that individuals decided these matters independently. This is not yet to be. So at best it’s best that the Left gets its shit together. Like a viable Opposition in the House it’s essential to political freedom.
May 2, 2007
So who the fuck was Cho Seung-Hui? Anybody know? It’s been two weeks and we know about as much now as we did then. We know what he looked like. We know he was an English major at Virginia Tech. He was known as the “Question Mark” kid because that’s how he signed in at one of his classes. We know he never said anything, never talked, never smiled and hardly ever took his shades and cap off. We know he wrote macabre stuff for his creative writing classes. He was from South Korea. He had a sister who worked for the State Department. His parents run a dry cleaning business.
And we know that on the morning of April 18th, 2007 he shot 32 people dead and then blew his face off.
Why did he do it? Almost instantaneously the blogsphere lit up with arguments by various people who had an opinion on gun control. The more gun control people were adamant that a kid with a history of psychologically disturbed behaviour should never have been able to buy two guns so easily. The pro-gun people were equally adamant that if the many responsible gun owners had been allowed to carry their weapons onto campus one of them would’ve been able to take Cho out before he did much damage.
The second tier of arguments had to do with America. America the blood-soaked, America: the land of the lone psycho. Blame American, don’t blame America. Germans shoot people too.
The arguments went around guns, guns, guns. America, not America. But why? Why did Cho do it? There, there wasn’t much by way of insight. We still don’t know him. We only know that he and thirty-two other people are dead now. Cho remains the Question Mark kid.
Our first exhibit is from a series of photographs taken by Marina Oswald in March, 1963. One of these photos (not this one) has become famous. The photograph of the man who shot Kennedy holding the rifle he did it with and copies of the magazine ideologically aligned to the political philosophy that inspired him to act. There was speculation that these photographs of Oswald were forgeries a charge denied by Marina Oswald herself. One of the prints sent to a shady acquaintance of Oswald’s George de Morhrenschildt was inscribed on the back (by Marina) with the words: Hunter of Fascists Ha Ha Ha! written in Russian. The much debated Warren Report’s notes on Oswald’s motives for assassinating Kennedy were thus:
It is apparent, however, that Oswald was moved by an overriding hostility to his environment. He does not appear to have been able to establish meaningful relationships with other people. He was perpetually discontented with the world around him.
While I personally have some sympathy with those who question the veracity of the Warren Report I can’t say that Oswald was simply a patsy in the Kennedy assassination. The most believable account of Oswald’s story I’ve encountered thus far comes appropriately enough in fiction.
This is the room of dreams, the room where it has taken him all these years to learn that his subject is not politics or violent crime but men in small rooms.
Is he one of them now? Frustrated, stuck, self-watching, looking for a means of connection, a way to break out. After Oswald, men in America are no longer required to lead lives of quiet desperation. You apply for a credit card, buy a handgun, travel through cities, suburbs and shopping malls, anonymous, anonymous, looking for a chance to take a shot at the first puffy empty famous face, just to let people know there is someone out there who reads the papers.
From Libra by Don DeLillo. Viking Press: New York p. 181.
Libra is one of my favourite books. It’s take on the Kennedy assassination is that it is the result of a half-baked conspiracy originally designed to provoke Kennedy into renewing his efforts to oust Castro. The assassination attempt is supposed to fail.
The portrayal of the conspiracy unfolds side by side with the story of Lee Harvey Oswald a lonely kid who joins the Marine Corp, becomes a Marxist, attempts to enter the world of espionage and fails miserably. Delillo’s Oswald is the flipside of the American dream. Oswald’s prime motivation is to be somebody, to be important. His radical anti-capitalism is ironically the product of the capitalist ethos perverted. Oswald defects to Russia tossing in his American passport at the US embassy in Moscow. He tells the embassy receptionist that he’s willing to reveal the secrets he learnt while serving at the USAF base in Atsugi. Later when discussing this with the KGB this is revealed as worse than useless:
“And these secrets, which you’ve carried all this way.”
“I was in Atsugi.”
“Which is a closed base in Japan.”
“We’ll talk further. I wonder, though, if these secrets become completely useless once you announce your intention to reveal them.”
Is Oswald a patsy? Yes and no. As far as the conspirators are concerned he’s a fall guy. Set him up as a Castro sympathizer, have him take a shot at Kennedy but have real marksmen there to do the job proper. Rendezvous in a cinema and shoot him. But Oswald shoots Officer Tippit on the way. The cops nab him. He fucks it up. A patsy? Yes. But a compliant one. He takes a shot at Kennedy and misses. He’s involved.
But I digress. This post isn’t about the Kennedy assassination. It’s about men in small rooms. The second exhibit comes from the closing moments of the twentieth century, lunchtime in a high school cafeteria. Two kids armed with shotgun, Tec-9, Hi-Point carbine. Dressed to kill these kids. What goes on?
Then as now there were the same debates re. guns and American culture. Michael Moore got a hit film out of it. In 1999 the same phenomena: the Time magazine cover, the collective American soul-searching, the condemnation of guns. Klebold and Harris were goth-nerd types the classic stereotypical targets of Jocks in the high school heirarchy. On the 20th of April 1999 they declared open their rampage, stating: “All the jocks stand up, anybody with a white hat or a shirt with a sports emblem on it is dead.”
Much was made of the tyranny of Jocks during the Columbine aftermath. The supposedly Nazi jock Rocky Hoffschneider was mentioned in several articles on the subject. Strangely enough neither Hoffschneider nor any of his friends was killed by Klebold and Harris that day.
Other scapegoats were touted. Video games like Doom; rock stars like Marilyn Manson. Manson was for a short while so associated with Columbine that he wrote a reasonably articulate piece for Rolling Stone in self-defence:
America puts killers on the cover of Time magazine, giving them as much notoriety as our favorite movie stars. From Jesse James to Charles Manson, the media, since their inception, have turned criminals into folk heroes. They just created two new ones when they plastered those dipshits Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris’ pictures on the front of every newspaper. Don’t be surprised if every kid who gets pushed around has two new idols.
By the end of the year the whole thing had been forgotten. It was time to celebrate the new millenia, time to cross our fingers less the Y2K ‘bug’ should bring civilization crashing down, time to go out and party…
Eric and Dylan who…. ?
There have been massacres since. Ironically the last one at an Amish school of all places. Try as you might to escape the violence of modern society. It seems it’ll find you out.
And then in April again (is there something about April) a terminally lonely kid who barely spoke to anyone kills 32 people at his university. What follows? The same Time magazine cover story. The same collective soul-searching. The same reasons: it was popular culture, it was lack of gun control, it was video games.
But there was something slightly different at work here. Cho’s actions in many ways mirrored those of his predecessors. He prepared for the day buying his weapons well in advance. He dressed for the occasion. But he also took time to record a diatribe on video, to take photographs of himself and to mail these to NBC the morning of the massacre. In addition to the catalogue of images of Cho wielding his guns, Cho holding the hammer, there’s plays by Cho. Poetry even, a novel.
The package from Cho to NBC is now labelled his manifesto.
Cho’s manifesto!!!! A manifesto of what? Read his plays and what strikes you is not the violence which is pretty unremarkable. It’s the vapid stupidity. Perhaps the guy took a long hard look at himself and realised that with such a complete lack of talent his one shot at fame was to shoot someone famous, or a whole lot of people who weren’t famous.
Take a chunk of the ‘manifesto’:
Do you know what it feels to be spit on your face and to have trash shoved down your throat? Do you know what it feels like to dig your own grave? Do you know what it feels like to have throat slashed from ear to ear? Do you know what it feels like to be torched alive? Do you know what it feels like to be humiliated and be impaled upon on a cross? And left to bleed to death for your amusement? You have never felt a single ounce of pain your whole life. Did you want to inject as much misery in our lives as you can just because you can?
Do I know what it’s like to be impaled on a cross, have my throat slashed from ear to ear, be torched alive?
And neither did Cho.
Time magazine ran a series of articles. There was a lot of the classy black and white photography it normally reserves for coverage of Oval office events. The cover featured 24 of the victims’ faces. There were several articles in the issue. General coverage to soul-searching essay. Much the same thing in the local press. The coverage in the Herald-Sun was similar in content tho’ much less classy in tone. A field day! Pages and pages of stuff. Who was this Cho character? Is it guns, is it pop culture. One of Cho’s plays is named after a Guns n’ Roses song. Maybe we should blame Axl Rose.
So much talk and not much said.
During one of the online forums I was making cracks about how Cho’s actions were simply an ambit by the mediocre and plain in the search for fame. Someone reminded me that doing dastardly deeds deliberately to make a name for oneself has ancient precedent. Herostratus set fire to the Temple of Artemis so he would be remembered. In retaliation the authorities banished his name in an attempt to wipe him from memory. Obviously it didn’t work.
In the modern world fame has become the supreme state next to which all states are pale and worthless. Shows like Big Brother are emblems of vacuous fame. Fame for nothing. Big Brother is an annual ritual in which people will exchange their dignity for fame. They do so casually like shallow and spiritless persons selling their souls to the devil for a movie ticket and a bag of peanuts. They got a bargain. What’s a soul? We don’t use it. What’s dignity?
And for Cho and his bretheren what is life?
Marilyn Manson maintains that he started his group as “a criticism of these very issues of despair and hypocrisy.” But he fails to mention that he’s adopted the last name of a celebrity mass murderer. That each member of his band is named after a screen diva and a famous killer. The celebrity of death is the supreme kitsch. Oh how clever and ironic! The spectacle of violence and its irony twists in itself Mandelbrot style. We have Natural Born Killers, we have people copying Natural Born Killers, we have them turning around to sue Oliver Stone because he made Natural Born Killers and Natural Born Killers made them do it. People have committed odious acts in the distant past for fame yes. But has it ever been such a widespread phenomena?
Perhaps in the future mass murderers will be catered to by their own niche in the entertainment business. In the 22nd century equivalent to today’s sci-fi set yuppie bars: “Oh what do you do”, goes the question. And the answer: “I’m a killer rep. Literally. I represent killers: got my own web page. Thinking of topping your school, workplace, university or Church? Contact me and I’ll get you an i-book deal, product placement, interviews on 60 Seconds and Good Morning Western Hemisphere. Advice on the best times, the best weapons and the best look. I’ll get you a makeover with the top stylists. Maximise your media impact. Here’s my i-card.”.
In the movie Se7en a serial killer commits a series of mind blowing murders, spectacular executions of the macabre imagination. The irony is that these killings are done in the name of God, in the name of stern moral purpose. Toward the end the killer John Doe who has effectively obliterated his own identity tells one of his captors that the detective should be grateful because after this he’ll be remembered. He asserts that his crimes will be read about and studied forever. The detective disagrees: “you’re a movie-of-the-week, you’re a fucking t-shirt at best.”
The fame is guaranteed. What is debated is the extent of it. Like John Doe, Cho Seung-Hui was adamant that he was righteous. That his acts were the fault of nasty old society. Many agree in a round about way: gun culture, pop culture, hip-hop, video games blah blah blah. Maybe it’s as the preacher says in the cult flick Heathers: “What can you expect of a society that tells its youth that the answers can be found in the MTV-Video games.” Or maybe it’s as JD (Christian Slater) says at the end, strapped with high explosives: “it’s because no-one loves me!!” Or maybe it’s both at the same time.
So who the fuck was Cho Seung-Hui? He was the two-gun virgin: the Question Mark Kid. And the answer to the question is a question: Who Gives A Fuck?
April 26, 2007
Silent enim leges inter arma
– Cicero 52 BCE
Maybe the weather had something to do with it.
I have to be fair. Last time I was here it was that dry desert heat that makes a Melbourne summer, 40 degrees celcius. Well it wasn’t here it was Fed Square last January maybe. My laptop cooked in the air so bad I had to turn it in at the NGV cloakroom and pretend to be interested in Charles Blackman so the circuits wouldn’t morph into silicon jelly. It was the same issue but it was hotter. Hotter: literally and metaphorically. The issue was a man named David Hicks.
David, or Mohammed to his new friends, for those who’ve been living under a rock the whole century, is an Adelaide guy who decided to play war around eight years ago. He headed off to the shredded pile of rubble that used to be the Yugoslav Republic, well Albania anyway. He joined the Kosovo Liberation Army and trained with them. He must’ve liked it because he came back to Australia and tried to join the army. But they wouldn’t take him. He’d only been as far as grade 9.
Didn’t stop our David. He converted to Islam. Why? Maybe it appealed to him for the same reasons religion appeals to so many. Directionless? Lonely? Inadequate? Here’s a ready-made solution: someone important loves you. No matter how wretched, how poor, how ugly, how stupid, how inconsiderate or socially inept. You are loved. All that someone asks in return is fanatical devotion and a healthy slice of whatever meagre paycheque you might be bringing home. No questions asked.
And remember that works both ways. We won’t ask questions and you definitely don’t ask questions. Ever.
Anyway our Dave picked Islam. Maybe he loved Allah. Maybe he realised there was a certain slice of the Faithful that’ll give you a rocket launcher. We won’t know for a while because Dave can’t talk to the media for a while. You see since that hot day in summer he cut a deal.
I can’t pinpoint the exact time when the rhetoric of our government shifted from defiance of criticism to, well, not quite capitulation but suggestions that Hicks should enter into a plea bargaining arrangement. Several times last year the Foreign Minister and the Attorney General had made the suggestion. At some point between 2004 and 2006 public opinion about the Hicks case shifted and he became a liability for Howard. The Attorney General had even gone so far as to write a defence of the government’s actions in The Age. Sometime last year I read mention of a guilty plea by Hicks in return for a reduced sentence, consideration for time served.
And I thought: they’re going to cut a deal and make this all go away.
I should say for the record that I don’t in fact know there was a deal. But if I had to bet on it and the truth was coming out I’d bet on a lot of phone calls between the Australian and American governments. Now that Britain seems to be backing out of Iraq Australia are the US’s final and most steadfast allies. John Howard is Bush’s most steadfast ally. Bush needs Howard insofar as he needs anyone. It’s in his interest that Howard stays and if Hicks was allowed to become an election issue this mightn’t happen.
In any event the guilty plea was most convenient for the government.
The saga naturally goes back to the capture of David Hicks by Northern Alliance forces just months after the September 11 destruction of the World Trade centre by al-Qaeda terrorists. Back then there wasn’t much sympathy for old Hicks. The Howard government okayed the US detention of Hicks along with other terror suspects at the detainment centre in Guantanamo Bay Cuba asking for certain guarantees:
– No death penalty
– That he’d serve his time in Australia
– If desired he’d be appointed an Australian lawyer subject to security clearances and the approval of the military commission.
– That discussion between said lawyer and Hicks wouldn’t be monitored by the commission.
– That Hick’s trial would be open subject to military restrictions.
– That Hicks would be allowed contact with his family.
Howard was returned a couple months after 9/11 with a larger majority and three years later was handed (in alliance with Steve Fielding) control of the Senate. Hicks was not an election issue in 2004 and the result was attributed to then opposition leader Mark Latham’s bad credentials economically.
I think the tide slowly turned during 2006. The Australian public became aware that Hicks had been incarcerated without charge for four years. The government’s response to this was that this had been a result of the challenge to the constitutionality of the commission set up to try Hicks and others. The Prime Minister said as much in May of that year:
Well we want Hicks brought to trial as soon as possible. … What’s holding it up at the moment is not the American Administration or the Australian Government. It’s a court challenge within the United States which has the sympathy and the support of Mr Hicks and his lawyers and until that court challenge is resolved, the Military Commission trial can not go ahead, and that challenge has been responsible for about at least a year’s delay in Hicks being brought to trial.
But the Hicks issue refused to go away. Major Michael Mori assigned as Hicks defence council in the States had become a familiar figure on Australian tv especially Lateline. Amazed that the Australian government would just let one of its own rot in legally dubious circumstances Mori toured Australia in August of 2006 giving lectures and speaking at rallies on behalf of Hicks. The spectacle of a US marine leading a march on the Foreign Affairs minister’s offices must have been something that Howard has never envisaged.
Perhaps the watershed in public opinion regarding Hicks was the interview conducted by Andrew Denton on the 14th August 2006. Here was a US marine stating categorically that Hicks would not get a fair trial:
…until there is a change, until his situation is re-evaluated. There is no hope that he’s going to get a fair trial next week, next month. If the administration gets through the Bill they want dealing with Commissions, it will not provide him the basic protections that he deserves…
It was more than that. According to Mori the government’s assurances that Hick was not being mistreated were bullshit:
I believe he’s been mistreated and physically assaulted, and, through my investigation, I’ve confirmed it. What’s interesting, it came out and became an issue with the Australian Government, and they of course, are only relying on the assurances by the US administration. I’ll give you an example, because they conducted an investigation. One of the allegations was that David was with a group of other detainees that were taken from a ship to a piece of land, they were hooded and bound at the time, and that they were randomly beaten. So then they conducted their investigation and spoke to other detainees that were there that had been beaten as well and said, “I was hit,” as well. But that didn’t support David’s story because they were hooded and they could not see David being beaten. You see, they can always try to find some way to support that doesn’t confirm what happened. Any logical person would say that if five people go out and all five people say they were hit at this time, that that supports that.
There was graphic description of Hicks’ treatment:
ANDREW DENTON: Terry Hicks, his dad, alleges that at different times David has been beaten and that he’s had objects inserted in his anus. Are you aware of anything like that?
MAJOR MICHAEL MORI: Yes.
ANDREW DENTON: That has happened?
MAJOR MICHAEL MORI: Yes.
The reasons for the situation’s unfairness were plain. The military commission which was neither a court martial nor a civilian criminal trial dissolved the separation of powers which underpin fairness in the Western legal systems. As Mori told Denton:
MORI: What you found out was, the people that created the system are the same people that were responsible for fighting the war in Afghanistan, setting up and choosing Guantanamo as the detention centre, approving interrogation techniques and being in charge of the interrogations that were going. So what you was a system of, sort of like, the investigators and the gaolers also being in charge of the supposed trial system. There was no independent check and balance on it. Unfortunately they needed to set up a system that would justify what they had already done.
ANDREW DENTON: What is the key difference between a Military Commission and a court martial, the system you were expecting?
MORI: I think it’s the independence, the independence of a judge, a judiciary that is in control. Once someone is charged, the independent judge takes control, and that goes from both the trial level and through the appeal process. In the Commission system, it was set up – they created this person, sort of an appointing authority, and I think in Australia maybe more like a DPP. Yet that individual – if I made a motion to dismiss a charge, it would go not to the presiding officers who were on it, but it would have to go to the appointing authority. So it would be like letting the DPP rule on defense motions here in Australia, and that’s not a fair system that anyone can support.
Mori’s description of Hicks as just an Aussie guy, his outlining of the censorship of Hicks’ mail including deleting the word love from family letters and his refutation of the official depiction of Hicks as a madman bent on destroying Western civilization…
…he has more in common with the Alabama National Guardsmen outside his cell than the guy locked up next to him. David doesn’t hate Americans. He doesn’t, you know.
…must’ve served powerfully contrary arguments to the Howard government’s image of Hicks as a terrorist who’d earned his just deserts and was being treated to all due process at the hands of the American Military justice system. After all if a US marine would come out and speak of a system of ‘justice’ prejudiced to find Hicks guilty, an incarceration regime that included beatings and rape with blunt instruments and even refuted the basic allegation that Hicks was an anti-American zealot….
Well it raises questions. Doesn’t it?
As Tim Bugg, the President of the Australian Law Council said late last year:
David Hicks’ treatment has been entirely inconsistent with the basic principle of innocent until proven guilty and the Australian Government has been 100 per cent complicit in denying him this fundamental right. First, it publicly demonized him from the moment of his arrest. Second, it initially endorsed his indefinite detention without charge. And now, after five long years, the Government is not calling for an immediate review of the legality of his detention by a independent court; not for his immediate release either absolutely or on bail; not for an expeditious and fair trial before an independent and impartial court; but instead the Government is calling for the US authorities to be given a second chance to try him before a fundamentally flawed military commission regime which has already been ruled illegal once and, after David Hicks is left to rot for another few years, will probably be judged so again.
I believe this was at the centre of the Fair Go For David campaign. It was also at the heart of my exacerbation at various vitriolic attempts to sledge the man and his supporters over the previous few years. His guilt or innocence as far as I can tell has been lost in the political tempest. From the scraps of information gleaned from his letters and things he’s supposedly said I take him for a cowboy, someone who joined the Taliban because the Australian Army’s education standards were too high.
In a letter to his father Hicks was so stoked that he…
… got to fire hundreds of bullets. Most Muslim countries impose hanging for civilians arming themselves for conflict. There are not many countries in the world where a tourist, according to his visa, can go to stay with the army and shoot across the border at its enemy, legally
Reports of his diatribes against Jews and the West, his boasting that he wanted to crash a plane into a building and go out with a big adrenaline rush make him sound like more like a yobbo dickhead than anything else. Claims that he was al-Qaeda’s golden boy were, I think, spurious. After all are you really going to leave your golden boy guarding a tank while you take off for the caves? I don’t think so. If Hicks had been a crackerjack Jihadist he probably wouldn’t have been left to the mercies of the Northern Alliance. My guess is that if he’d had half a brain they would’ve hung on to him. A nice white boy would be an asset to any suicide bombing scenario.
Late last year the attorney General stated:
What we know is that in the United States they believe in the rule of law as well and if people want to challenge the lawfulness of procedures sometimes these matters are outside the hands of governments, they’re in the hands of the courts.
But the whole process surrounding Hicks’ detention was designed to get around the rule of law. The use of categories like “unprivileged belligerent” which as Mori said had been invented for the purposes of the commission. The fact of the matter in law I think is that Hicks was not guilty of anything. To be fair this must have concerned the government. After all the guy was in Afghanistan fighting on behalf of the Taliban. And the Taliban were behind al-Qaeda? Still does this justify subverting such cornerstones of the Common Law system like the presumption of innocence and habeas corpus. I don’t think so. Neither did most of the world’s legal professionals.
But it doesn’t matter now. Hicks pleaded guilty (after pleading not guilty and maintaining innocence for five years). His plea was carefully constructed in such a manner as to make it difficult for him to claim coercion after the fact. That and the year’s silence imposed upon him after his release from prison at the end of this year ensure that anything he eventually says will not be an election issue in Australia or the United States.
Which brings me back to the weather.
That blistering January day there must’ve been a thousand people packing the square. Out there in the hot sun listening to the drone of a long line of speakers one of whom was an ALP union hack who began every sentence with David Hicks and somehow managed to get around to Howard’s industrial relations laws a few words later. The crowd didn’t let her get away with that one. The best part of the whole shebang was a guitarist from Bob Marley’s Wailers. If only all rallies had some big Jamaican guy with a voice like fine whisky maybe more people would come. More music, less speeches, please.
Last weekend (the 21st) there was another rally for David Hicks, same time, different place. Besides location two things were different. It was cold and it rained and there was maybe a hundred people there. I hadn’t been planning to go. I mean: what was the point? I’d seen the posters plastered around town but they were part of the regularly forgotten background noise of urban life. I remembered the whole thing when I arrived at the State Library (the rally’s venue) to do some research. The entrance obstructed by the haggard and bitter faces of journalists and the roly-poly arses of their image takers. They formed a circle around the familiar and lanky leader of the Greens Party nationwide: Bob Brown. I looked at the baggy-eyed, lumpy journalists fiddling with their bits of silver gadgetry. Is there any such thing in the world as a healthy reporter?
Well Bob gave his lines. His first riffs were about the water crisis, the drought and how for eleven years John Howard’s done fuck all to fix the environment. Funny that. Then he started in on Hicks. The same stuff as before. The Howard government had let Hicks rot in an American dungeon for five years without charge. The Howard government had sacrificed the national sovereignty of Australia by letting the Yanks do what they like with an Australian citizen. The war is bad, George Bush is bad – ba-blah, blah, blah.
As I was listening to this I looked over the ‘crowd’. The last time most of the people there had been the so-called mums and dads – ‘ordinary Aussies’. As in: people without a political/ideological barrow to push. Ordinary people pissed off at some the government had done or in this case had not. What many of the ‘Hicks should rot or be shot’ lobby hadn’t realised about the “Bring David Home” campaign is that it had been supported by these people increasingly the last half-decade.
Today the crowd exclusively consisted of the stereotypical left. Everyone held a sign aloft.: The Greens, Socialist Alliance, Resistance, The Australian Democrats etc. The rain had abated temporarily and I sat at some distance watching this spectacle. Next to me some Indian business student sat waiting for one his contacts while the Socialist Alliance geeks flitted about like the seagulls looking for crumbs.
A couple of ‘em accosted him, a boy and a girl of university age. Their Socialist Alliance magazines accessories in their extended teenage rebellion matching their nasal piercings and dreadlocked pseudo-proletarian attire. The girl explained to the Indian guy that they were opposed to the ALP’s recent watering down of its pledge to wipe Howard’s workplace laws off the page:
“What we’re kinda sorta trying to argue is that..umm these laws are going to kinda sorta disadvantage working people in this country.” she hesitated, “Oh wait. Are you from this country?”
The guy shook his head, no.
“Oh well. This is happening all over the world. And we’re sorta trying to kinda protest…”
The guy bought the magazine to get rid of ‘em. A moment later the contact he’d been waiting for arrived and they began to discuss some business they were going to do. Business that would probably utilize the very channels of globalization that the girl and her silent boyfriend spent so much time opposing for reasons they sorta kinda understood.
Anyway the rally droned on. Bob left his journos and mounted the podium lambasting the ALP for not being there. Terry Hicks and a whole bunch of other people got up and their voices echoed distorted and fuzzy off the walls. Two things were different, the weather and the crowd. Did the size of the crowd have to do with the weather? Or was it because Hicks had cut a deal and pled guilty to the one remaining charge: providing material support to the enemy.
I think probably the latter. The deal worked. Hicks will be free a year from now and as far as most of us are concerned the matter is over. Only those who devote considerable time to opposition either of Howard of US foreign policy or both are still bothered. In legal circles there might be shaking of heads. But the matter’s been dealt with. It’s over.
I guess I should count myself as one of those who’ve half-forgotten the whole thing. I hate rallies and will only go if it’s really important. I attended last January. Last week-end I attended accidentally staying out of curiosity. But on reflection the matter shouldn’t really end there.
Most of the discussion about this issue has concerned the character of Hicks himself. If he’d been on trial in Australia there would be a certain restraint. After all he’s entitled to the presumption of innocence isn’t he? But over in Gitmo the opinions of the Australian citizenry had no bearing on the machinations of the process that would decide Hicks’ fate so all manner of character assassination was entered into: he was a deadbeat Dad, an anti-semite, a bloodthirsty gun freak, a fanatical terrorist. True? Maybe. I reckon he was just an Aussie dumbarse and if he’d managed to complete high school he might be fighting in Afghanistan this minute wearing a slouched hat.
But that doesn’t matter. What matters to me is that the Australian and US governments subverted basic structures in our legal system. It is these structures that underpin the freedoms so lauded by the patriotically correct these days. And it was the patriotically correct that were willing to overlook, to ignore, this subversion of our freedoms in the name of freedom. To me this seems a decadent loosening of our understanding and commitment to democracy as a people.
Our leaders forgot or just didn’t care about some fundamental aspects of democracy. A lot of us didn’t either. And I find that much scarier than David Hicks.
March 1, 2007
This article was written by me around seven years ago in response to (now head of television at the ABC) Kim Dalton’s preliminary report into the patchy state of Australian screenwriting. It was at the time lauded as an inciteful breakthrough into the problem. I begged to differ.
I tried publishing it in the two available magazines at the time: Inside Film and the now defunct Cinema Papers.
The editor of the latter told me that as it was an opinion piece and as I was nobody it didn’t rate, so forget it. The editor at IF told me that I was misinformed. Neither bothered to comment on the veracity of the case I was trying to make. I could be thought self-interested and cynical but as both publications drew public money I reckon there was a fair amount of don’t rock the boat behind the refusals. It didn’t matter. I didn’t get expect to get the piece published for that very reason. It was at the time my swan song to writing.
Anyway I recently dug it up and considering not much has changed I thought it worthwhile publishing as was. Apologies for anything out of date.
The film industry’s in crisis, or was. Five years since Pricilla, Queen of the Desert made a big splash in world waters the perception’s been that a string of youth-orientated ‘dark’ feature films have cost a lot and earned a virtual zilch. The ‘solution’, as always, comes in government-initiated bureaucratic action: an investigation into the crisis. Earlier this year the partial finding were given to the National Screenwriters conference: orally by AFC CEO Kim Dalton.
Development Practice in Australian Film Industry brims with charts, comparative percentages and allocated funding breakdowns. Its history, Dalton explains, starts with a report requested of the AFC by the Federal government in response to the film and television industry crisis. This report, presented to the minister in October last year, predictably denied a crisis, but indicated some ‘fundamental issues’. One such issue was script development. Hence eleven months down the track the newly appointed AFC CEO delivers a paper which is part of a ‘large scale investigation on development practice’ that is still incomplete.
Meantime the crisis in the Australian industry is over because we’ve abandoned the dark and gloomy phase and returned to the safer territory of ‘quirky’ comedy. Result: the industry is back in the black with several hits in 2000. All whilst the large scale investigation into industry practice continues, not yet delivered to the minister.
Although Dalton’s Development Practice paper has useful things to say there is a lot of padding and ill-drawn conclusion that say more. Firstly it is part of a still to be complete process responding to a crisis that’s past. Secondly the main thrust of argument is that Australian development practice is ‘inconsistent with world best practice’ yet its decision about what such practice constitutes is arbitrary and blunt. And third while it does articulate certain definite problems and implied solutions, it also makes a lot of assumptions based on premature conclusions and fails to get to the real heart of the problem: lack of quality writing.
To address these three criticisms in more detail
The length of time taken to respond to the crisis is typical of public sector practice. The public sector suffers from what I term the irony of accountability. This means that the public sector is rife with elongated processes and structures designed to ensure that public money is well spent. Ironically it is these processes and structures that gum up the works and cost far more than if the activity had been carried out in the private sector. With the protocols of public service to contend with, organizations like the AFC cannot respond immediately to industry ‘crises’ the way they would in the private sector.
As Dalton writes, the Australian industry is not run by large corporations, but by small production companies that can’t ‘fund film development profitably’. This necessitates public sector involvement and presents the problem that if development is in the hands of the public sector, that is: if the first step to writing a script is to apply for a government grant, then development might be slowed down by the same factors that slow activity in the rest of the public sector down.
The paper never considers the involvement of the public sector as a factor in development. It states that one reason for the fractured development process is the draft by draft assessment delay. That is development investment is subsequent to approval of a previous draft before investment in the subsequent draft can occur. The delay period is unspecified. But the paper does say that whilst writers are subject to a ‘three month delivery timetable’ the average development period is 4.8 years! If writers are required to redraft a feature script in twelve weeks why does the process take half a decade?
Elsewhere in the paper we read that the average development budget on a FFC feature film is $141 439 of which $79 234 was the writers fee! Given that development means paying someone to write a screenplay who gets the $62 205 left over?
Let’s leave these rhetorical questions to the conclusion and move on.
Development Practice is a paper that bases its authority largely on comparison between the domestic film industry and ‘world best practice’. Well what is world best practice? Hollywood and Europe of course!
As the paper acknowledges, the major US studios are the most ‘powerful and successful film businesses in the world’ so we must grant that they are strong contenders for world best practice. But why Europe? Or to put it better where is Asia? The US has the most successful film industry but India comes second as the only other entirely self-funded film business in the world. What about Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and China? Each of these industries has placed gems on the world stage these ten years past so why is France world best practice and Hong Kong not? And of all countries Canada probably resembles us most culturally and industrially, but there is no mention of it?
In addition to the rather arbitrary manner in which world best practice has been elected there is also the blunt tools with which Development Practice decides to dissect them. For example on page three we are told:
“in Hollywood, project selection begins with a decision by key people to work together, followed by a choice of a strong idea for the project.”
Evidence from the annals of Hollywood anecdotes reveal that there are many ways in which a film can get realized.
Reservoir Dogs for example started as a project Quentin Tarantino was going to shoot self-funded on the fee he received for True Romance. Dumb and Dumber started with a script written by two outsiders who’d read Syd Field’s classic how-to text. Raging Bull started with Robert De Niro’s interest in boxer Jake La Motta. Star Wars started with George Lucas watching B picture sci-fi during the fifties. Movies made in Hollywood have various origination paths and there is no evidence that one generic method of arriving at a project is superior to another. Blunt statements like the one above assist no-one.
Then we get:
..in Europe there has been a deliberate policy emphasis on teams working solidly on drafts until a project is as good as it is likely to get..
Exactly what does that mean? What does it tell us about the way European screenplays are written which could be of use? In ‘examining’ US and European screenwriting methods the paper makes blanket generalizations summarizing a vast and diverse array of practice into practically meaningless short paragraphs and never generating any evidence that links this or that method with success.
The two major conclusions drawn of comparison with US and European methods of development are these: one is that the percentage of applications we choose to fund are comparatively much higher and the second is we too-much favour the writer/director. The former is the major contribution of the paper and illustrates better than any other thing the comparative inefficiency of public sector development. In order to decide that funding 23.5% of applications is too high requires a report on industry crisis, a paper delivered to a screenwriter’s conference a year later and a ‘large scale investigation’ not yet completed. How many years must pass before a decision that could be made now will be made?
The other point is the predominance of the writer/director in Australian filmmaking. The report states that in Australia the writer and director are the same person 68% of the time, whereas in Hollywood this happens only 27% of the time.
Close examination of these statistics reveal these to be exaggerated conclusions. ‘In Hollywood’ means studio pictures. That is movies developed in-house by major US studios. ‘Studio’ is a misleading term that really means corporate subsidiaries that were studios in the days of the studio system. Most ‘Hollywood’ films are developed by smaller concerns somewhere in the huge latticework of various organizations worldwide that constitute ‘Hollywood’. According to the broader statistics in table four: the writer/director actually accounts for 54% of US films.
The comparison with Europe is similarly biased. For some reason in comparing films made by writer/directors with films made with separated roles the paper only indicates the UK where writer/directors account for 49% of movies made. The percentage would be, I’d wager, higher if figures for the other five countries considered elsewhere in the paper were also included here.
Somehow the writer/director issue is supposed to be a major factor in the relative quality of films made. But no evidence is presented demonstrating the relevance of this issue. There is an implied assumption that, if we encouraged role separation, Australian films would be more successful. US studios separate the roles, the US is successful therefore separation of roles leads to success. This is Ionesco’s comic syllogism: a cat has legs, Socrates had legs therefore Socrates was a cat.
A cursory examination of the last two years dispels the prejudice that writer/director films are commercially less viable. Consider Titanic, script and direction by James Cameron. Or The Blair Witch Project, history’s most profitable film, made by two men who did everything but act.
The paper concludes that:
we are taking too long to develop projects … allowing too many people to develop too many projects [so that] limited resources are being spread too thinly” and our “funding programs are favouring a combination of the auteur, the new and inexperienced while … asking them too choose from an unsustainably large producer community.
These fifty-four words are the essential argument of the twelve page address by Mr. Dalton. There are three basic points: too much project development is bad, too many producers are bad and inexperienced auteurs are bad.
The first point is a basic business observation that an adequate system would rectify with a simple memo not a large scale investigation and three or four papers presented to various conferences across the space of two or three years.
The problem of inexperienced auteurs presents two separate issues. According to the paper few first feature writers get two screenplays produced. Fewer still make it to three. Those that do, move on to others. The paper never examines cases of where one-time screenwriters fail to get another produced. Perchance was the first bad enough so why make two?
The auteur notion is supercilious. Writing and directing does not an auteur make. True many filmmakers considered auteurs do write and direct. But many don’t, Hitchcock for example. If Dalton is arguing that the powers that be shouldn’t regard a first time writer/director as an embryonic genius well that’s just common sense. But stating dogmatically that the writer of a script should not direct is as bad as saying that they should.
The unsustainably large producer community is neither here nor there. The paper says that statistics reveal 132 feature film production companies exist in this country but the trade directories state there are more. So what? Anyone can register a business and get some cards printed calling themselves ‘a film producer’. It doesn’t mean anything. Such activity entitles nobody to any money anywhere. If people insist on entering a crowded marketplace what are you going to do? Pass a law? Anyway, one hundred thirty-two production companies or one hundred thirty-two thousand production companies. It makes no difference to the quality of writing.
This is the real problem with the Australian film industry: the lack of quality writing. The one issue the paper makes very little attempt to address. Bad screenplays. One of the reasons that our most successful output is comedy is that comedy has a certain inherent quality control attached to it. It’s either funny or it ain’t. One cannot develop sociological/film theory based arguments to legitimize a comedy that isn’t funny. If it isn’t funny it doesn’t work. When we stray from comedy we get into trouble.
With writing, funding allocation is a lesser issue. Unlike just about all activities behind camera writing requires very little capital investment. To be a director, a producer, a production designer, a composer etc, one needs resources that might prove beyond the means of private individuals. An adequate word-processor and printer isn’t beyond the means of most people. The capital isn’t paramount, but the idea and the skills to bring it to fruition are. That is what’s missing. And it’s a problem that will never be solved by restructuring the subsidy system.
There are three things that can be done to improve the standard of Australian scripts.
The first it to reform the film industry’s public sector infrastructure so that its officers can make quick decisions and take risks like their counterparts in America, with the attendant penalties. That is make it more like showbusiness and less like policy development. Kill the committee.
The second is to replace esoteric theory with hard skills in universities. If first year film students were required to write a good film noir scene as opposed to an essay on Barthes’ view of film noir we’d have more good films and less boring conversations.
The third is to pay better. The paper states that writers get around $70 000 for four to five years work. McDonald’s pays better. And if you’re a really talented writer you can earn far more in advertising or in America.
There are many reasons that the United States has produced the world’s most successful films. Many of these have to do with industrial strangleholds on global distribution networks etc. But before it reached world dominance, America’s showbusiness culture had stringent standards best illustrated by Oscar Wilde’s anecdote about a wild-west saloon in the 1880s. He was amused that above the piano there was a sign, said: please don’t shoot the piano player he is doing his best.
Filmmaking is showbusiness. Hard, hard, hard! It’s not nice to shoot piano players but if you do, the rest play better.
February 19, 2007
The films of Quentin Tarantino caused a stir back in the early nineties. In rapid succession he established himself as new and unique voice in American cinema: Reservoir Dogs, True Romance, Natural Born Killers and finally Pulp Fiction all displayed an idiosyncratic style that continues to mark later films like From Dusk ‘Til Dawn, Jackie Brown and Kill Bill Vols 1 and 2.
I remember as a film journalist having a couple brief differences of opinion with other people working for the then fledgling Inside Film magazine. One in particular with an editor who bluntly refuted my suggestion that he was a moralist: “He’s totally amoral”, she said, something like that anyway.
As Australian film criticism is essentially practical: is it a good film or alternatively how do you make a film. I never had an opportunity to elucidate my assertion. This piece attempts to do that.
Reservoir Dogs came to this country in ’93. One year out of the academy’s warm bosom I had a lot of trouble getting work and was still writing film reviews for student rags. During these few months the (arthouse) market was flooded with a fistful of independent and gun-crammed projects all tagged with critical superlatives about this or that writer-director’s claims to be Scorsese’s heir.
Mostly they were boring cliché plagued tripe riddled with the clumsy references that film schooled disciples of Godard mistook for cleverness. I began to hate the Thursday morning tedium of this stuff and sitting in the dark waiting for Reservoir Dogs to begin I was supremely jaded, irritated by the cheesy soundtrack pouring thru the sound system. Here we go. Another next Martin Scorsese. Not!
“What is this stupid fucking music.” I grumbled wishing I was somewhere, anywhere where I might get paid more than thirty bucks for the skills acquired thru years of education.
The cheesy shit was Harry Millson, from the first famous Tarantino soundtrack: he put de lime in de cocoanut and drank ‘em bot’ up….
The curtain rose and within thirty seconds I knew this was going be something different. Before the black switched to a picture you heard the voice of the man himself : “Let me tell you what “Like A Virgin’s” about. It’s all about a girl who digs a guy with a big dick.
I was paying attention.
Reservoir Dogs had everything: Tarantino’s pulp culture riffs, his cheesy-cool soundtracks, his off-colour sexual humour and the ultra-violence that is at once stylised and highly realistic. This is well-established.
Typical attitudes to his films are expressed by, say, Daniel Kane comparing Pulp Fiction to Titus Andronicus:
For example, in Quentin Tarantino’s film Pulp Fiction, atrocities are committed for a variety of barely articulated reasons, and time itself is subverted when characters we thought dead unexpectedly reappear in unannounced and unarticulated flashback sequences. The ‘point’ in Pulp Fiction seems to be pure stylization, where violence is presented as spectacle without an underlying moral message.
(from “The Virtue of Spectacle in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus” in Connotations.
Or again from the conservative National Review Online, Rich Lowry asks us to consider:
…the iconic film of the 1990s, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. It includes a scene of the rape of a man imprisoned and kept as a sexual slave, which prompted laughs in theaters. The victim, ‘The Gimp,’ became a figure of fun. Tarantino’s latest, the Kill Bill movies, present the same romance of power and violence, arbitrarily and stylishly wielded. Cruelty, Tarantino tells us, can be fun.
This is the standard take on Tarantino. He’s the visual gangsta rapper. Riffing off cool lines and spectacular kills for the blood-hungry. The thing is whilst that’s true the idea that the whole thing is a pointless exercise in visceral thrill is untrue.
So let me tell you what Pulp Fiction’s about. It’s all about three guys who do a good deed. But the deeds are unequal. In each story the hero puts in a righteous performance but his motivation for doing so and the nature of the deed ascends each time in its nobility.
The first three scenes of Pulp Fiction set up the nature of its moral universe. It’s a violent, selfish and decadent place. Pulp Fiction begins and ends in a restaurant. Two lovers discuss their future. It’s apparent that they stick places up for money. Despite this they’re genuinely in love and polite. The woman sincerely thanks the waitress for refilling their coffee. She smiles when the waitress corrects her lover’s cry of “garçon” ordering more. “Garçon means ‘boy’”, retorts the waitress, surly. A little snippet of the soul-destroying dignity assault of hospitality work, indicating perhaps the motivation of Pulp Fiction’s dramatis personae to their lives of crime. “What then day jobs?” asks the woman when the man insists they stop robbing liquor stores. “Not in this life.” he replies.
But liquor stores? Too risky he says. One of his objections is that although he doesn’t want to kill anyone the liquor store situation is going to end up putting them in a position where it’s us or them.
So he suggests restaurants. She likes the idea and spontaneously they hold the place up.
The next scene features two gentlemen discussing the finer points of European culture: “They’ve got the metric system they don’t what the fuck a Quarter Pounder is”, “in France you can buy a beer in McDonalds” and most especially “it’s legal to buy it, it’s legal to sell it, it’s legal to carry it but that don’t matter ‘cause get this. In Amsterdam it’s illegal for the cops to search you.” And for those who haven’t seen the flick (see it if you want to get this piece) the ‘it’ is hash.
They then discuss an anecdote about their employer having dropped an associate out a high story window for giving his wife a foot massage. They argue about whether a foot massage means something. Then they enter an apartment and proceed to slaughter people!!!!
Moral movie?? I’m nuts right?
Pulp Fiction is stuffed to the brim full of criminals. No-one in the entire movie is not somehow complicit in or associated with crime, betrayal, killing, all of the above. Not one of them live according to the codes of normal behaviour. No-one is innocent. This universe is a place of self-indulgence, lawlessness and naked power unchecked by modern ideas about justice. There is however a moral code. This code is made clear in the second scene of Pulp Fiction’s first episode.
Jules and Vincent walk into an apartment where three college-looking guys are eating breakfast. These guys, by appearances, actually do live in the normal world. But they’ve stolen something of Wallace’s and have hence crossed into the moral universe of Pulp Fiction. Far from immoral, this world is Old Testament. An eye for an eye: a world ruled by power.
In the American system of justice the accused has a right to defence, to reasonable doubt. The judge and jury will take into consideration extenuating circumstances. If condemned to die a prisoner has a long appeals process, a chance for clemency and at the very least a last meal. All denied to the college boys led by the big-brained Brett.
Jules enters, eats Brett’s hamburger, drinks Brett’s beverage and when Brett tries to explain “how fucked up things got between us and Mr. Wallace.” Jules answers by shooting his friend.
He then pronounces judgement. “You were saying something about best intentions?” He asks. Brett’s intentions don’t matter as they might in a modern court of law. There are no witnesses and no appeals. Jules recites the famous “Ezekial 25:17”:
The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you.
Then he shoots Brett to death.
The violence of this scene is not so much exhilarating as terrifying. Normal suburbanite types seeing this picture in their local multiplexes, air-conditioned and snack-stuffed, will identify with Brett and his friends. These are the closest any of the characters get to people they know. The others, plucked from the underground pantheon of American mythology, are beyond their experience of reality. These people are facsimiles of the violent world of crime that suburbia seems designed to insulate its inhabitants from. In the event that a nice, normal middle-class boy gets himself into trouble there’s always the expectation that he will be able to talk his way out of serious retribution. He’ll get a suspended sentence, a slap on the wrist or maybe some community service.
When Brett tries to enter into civil negotiations with Jules he gets no such indulgence. Jules replies: “My name is Pitt. And you ain’t talkin’ your ass outta this shit.
The essence of ancient justice: no mercy.
- The First Story: “Vincent Vega and Mrs. Mia Wallace”.
After hearing that Wallace threw Tony Rocky Horror out of a window for massaging Mia Wallace’s feet we get the idea that Wallace is the jealous type. Therefore Vincent, who Wallace has asked to take Mia out while he’s away on business, has reason to be nervous.
This story is a kind of musical sequence. Mia and Vincent meet and go to Jack Rabbit Slim’s a restaurant catalogue of 1950s simulacra: Buddy Holly the waiter, Ed Sullivan the MC etc. It’s the 1950s without the associated innocence, Vincent’s taken smack and Mia’s snorting coke. They hit it off and win the twist competition or at least get the trophy, later in the film a radio announces that it’s been stolen from Jack Rabbit Slim’s.
Back at her place the fun continues and Vincent wrestles with his conscience in the bathroom. This story resembles old chivalric romances. A knight motivated by unrequited (or at least Platonic) love for his Queen is motivated to perform all sorts of daring do. However in Vincent’s case the motivation is more self-preservation. Mistaking his heroin for coke she snorts it and overdoses. Vincent’s actions are the desperate and comical endeavours of a man who’s trying to avoid becoming a ‘grease spot’.
Anyone familiar with drug ‘culture’ particularly the sub-variety of smack enthusiasts would be amused to see the eagerness with which Vincent’s drug dealer and his wife strive to assist Vincent in this endeavour, not! Both of them are completely unconcerned for Mia’s welfare and simply want her out of their lives. This story illustrates the iniquities of the selfish. The omnipresent power of Wallace is their motivation, his power illustrated by Mia’s willingness to keep mum about the incident: “if Marcellus knew about this incident, I’d be in more trouble than you.” Vincent’s good deed is ultimately the one that saves his own arse.
- The Second Story: “The Gold Watch”.
The prequel to this story is Captain Koon’s monologue to the young Butch Coolidge. Koons presents Butch with his birthright, a gold watch first bought by his great-grandfather before setting sail to fight in World War One. The watch is passed from father to son in a series of wars until it finally reaches Coolidge via a period being concealed in the rectums of his father and Koons. The episode lifts the tone of the story from one of pure power and hedonistic indulgence to the realm of honour. Although the sense of honour isn’t delivered sans irony. Major Coolidge died of dysentery concealing the watch up his bum undermining the great chain of warriors story with toilet humour suggesting maybe the macho trip isn’t exactly what it thinks it is.
Then we see Butch start out of his dream-recollections. It’s the night of the fight. As we’ve seen by now Butch has been paid to take a fall. This mythological riff straight from the 30s is reinforced by his name ‘Butch Coolidge’ suggesting tough early 20th century American machismo is contradiction to his claim that in America names don’t mean shit.
He’s been paid to dive but he doesn’t. Instead he kills his opponent and jets in a cab. On the way to a motel on the outskirts of town he stops at a payphone and we know his motivation. He spread the word about the fix and then bet large on himself. He’s cleaned up.
He makes back to the motel where his girlfriend Fabienne is waiting for him. This is his soft spot. Tarantino described this character as basically an arsehole except when he’s with his girl. The next morning he shows us how true this is. Discovering that Fabienne’s forgotten to collect his gold watch and he throws a fit tearing up the room. He calms down and goes back to his apartment to collect the watch.
It’s here that the theme of this episode enters the picture. Honour. It’s not just a watch but a symbol. The original script describes an Olympic silver in Butch’s apartment. That isn’t important. The watch is. It’s the embodiment of his honour, his birthright. Thus he risks death going back to his flat to retrieve it.
It’s at his flat that the second theme of the episode comes into the picture: power. Power is never absolute. It’s relative to the situation. In the first scene in which Butch appears, he’s insulted by Vince Vega who’s higher up the food chain than Butch. The insults are unprovoked and undeserved. Vega’s just throwing his pecking order weight around and he pays for it.
Back in his flat Butch gets his watch and makes breakfast only to notice a machine gun on the counter. He picks it up as Vega comes out of the toilet. One wonders: if Vega’d been more polite would Butch’ve killed him. The question’s academic. Vega dies as he’s lived – by the gun.
The situation dictates the power. Butch gets into a fight with Wallace in a pawnshop run by the rednecked psycho Maynard. Maynard knocks ‘em out and both men end up trussed up, S&M style. Wallace is first selected for rape by Maynard’s dominant mate Zed.
Butch escapes but cannot leave Wallace to his fate. Honour. The honour is brought into high relief by his choice of weapon: hammer, baseball bat, chainsaw? No. This deed requires a weapon of comparable nobility: the katana.
Butch’s decision to rescue Wallace earns him a reward that he has no right to expect. He rescues his worst enemy out of a sense of justice. He has become “he who shepherds the weak thru the valley of darkness”. No reward is to be expected, it is, however, given. Wallace tells him: “there is no you and me. Not no more.” The good deed has been done but on a higher level. Butch performs the deed not for self-interest. He potentially risks the opposite. This is strictly an ‘in the name of charity and goodwill’ task. The essentially Christian motif: love thy enemy, is underscored by the fact that Wallace, is, for a short while anyway, the Weak. The most powerful cat in Pulp Fiction’s fucked-up world is also its most pitiable victim.
- The Third Story: “The Bonnie Situation”
This story brings around back in a circle. All of the action takes place, in ‘real’ time between the end of the first story’s second scene and it’s third. It climaxes back at the restaurant of the prologue.
We open up when Jules is giving his Ezekial 25:17 speech to Brett. But we’re in the apartment’s bathroom where another college boy is scared to death and wielding a huge gun: the legendary .357 magnum.
The boy bursts in on Vince and Jules and unloads on them hitting nothing. He gets blown away. Jules’ ally, the informant Martin, another preppie type albeit black is freaked out by the happening. Vince wants him to shut-up. This is all normal as far as the Pulp Fiction universe is concerned. What isn’t, is Jules’ revelation. He believes that he’s still alive because “God came down and stopped these motherfucking bullets”.
Vince doesn’t believe him. And the argument continues in the car where Vincent accidentally blasts Marvin in the face. At this moment we’re back in the amorality of the surface of the life in Pulp Fiction. Marvin’s death isn’t tragic. It’s funny.
Far from being upset about the loss of his friend Jules is simply concerned that they’re going to get caught: “Cops tend to notice shit like you’re driving a car drenched in blood.”
They go to Jules’ friend Jimmy’s house and here the power relations are inverted once more. Jimmy, a suburbanite looking guy has the power. It’s his house. He tells Jules’ off: when you came into my house did you notice the sign out the front that says dead nigger storage? Jules, unflinched by white Jimmy’s use of the ‘N’ word replies: “No, I didn’t.” Jimmy says: ”That’s right. ‘Cause it ain’t there. ‘Cause storin’ dead niggers ain’t my fuckin’ business!
Once again and for the rest of the flick Marvin’s death is comic. He simply doesn’t matter. Jimmy’s big concern is that he doesn’t want to get “fuckin’ divorced”. He’s not interested in the whys and wherefores of the dead nigger.
The story raps up with Winston Wolf helping to solve the problem. Vega, in this story demoted from hero to comic sidekick, is the essence of the buffoon. Having caused the problem, he exacerbates it by soiling Jimmy’s towels with blood and then objecting to Mr. Wolf’s curt orders.
But problem solved. The car is cleaned up and disposed of. The episode is a display of professionalism by Jules and Wolf as against Vince’s clumsy egotism. Morality is suspended for most of the third story. After Jules’ revelation Marvin gets shot creating the type of problem that crime has become organized to solve. Escaping retribution. However the theme of the story is resurrected when Vince and Jules have breakfast together.
The subject comes up when Jules gives his spiel about not eating pork. “Pigs eat and root in shit. I don’t eat anything that ain’t got sense enough to disregard it’s own faeces.” In reply to Vincent’s question about whether dogs, also eaters of shit, are filthy Jules makes the witty reply that dogs have personality and that a pig would have to be ten times more charming then Arnold on Green Acres to cease being considered a filthy animal.
The conversation then turns from light to serious.
Jules has decided to give up ‘the life’ and walk the Earth. Vince thinks this means he’s decided to be a bum: “without a job, a residence or legal tender that’s what you’re gonna be. A fuckin’ bum.” This alludes to the materialist aspect of morality that Tarantino would address in his next picture Jackie Brown: how can you be good when you have to make a living in a dirty world.
Nevertheless Jules means it and what happens next proves it.
‘Pumpkin’ and ‘Honey-Bunny’ hold up the restaurant. They go around collecting wallets and when they get to Jules he gives up his wallet but declines to let them have Wallace’s briefcase. The result is a Mexican stand-off with ‘Pumpkin’ held by Jules at gunpoint. Once again the power relationship has been inverted. ‘Pumpkin’ and ‘Honey-Bunny’, love-crazed armed bandits encounter a truly bad motherfucker. Ironically in their endeavour to rob restaurants thereby cutting down on the hero factor, they’ve stumbled into the face of a deadly hitman. Lucky for them he happens to be going thru a transitional phase.
He asks ‘Pumpkin’ if he’s read the Bible. Answering the predictable no, Jules recites Ezekial 25:17 confessing that he’d never given much thought to what it meant. Now he contemplates. Maybe your the righteous man and maybe I’m the shepard and it’s the world that’s selfish and evil.
Maybe we’re the good guys and the bad guys are out there. This is in essence the quasi-moral stand of so-many pseudo-religious fire and brimstone types in the world. Scores of them thump broadcast Bibles on Sunday morning for large cheques whipping their fans up into a frenzy of we’re the good and out there it’s them who’re the bad.
But as Jules says that shit ain’t the truth.
The truth is: “you’re the weak. And I’m the tyranny of evil men. But I’m trying Ringo, I’m tryin’ real hard to be the shepherd”.
This is the final and most noble deed. The act of mercy from the man who’s felt the touch of God and submits before Him. Having been confronted with his own mortality and been given a second chance contrary to the rules he’s always played by he switches from the Old Testament code of vengeance to the New Testament , American style. He who walks the Earth with a Bible and a gun. I can’t wait ‘til Tarantino makes the sequel.
People might argue with me. Yeah alright but that’s just Pulp Fiction. It’s just your interpretation man. I never said it wasn’t. I still think I’m right. Jackie Brown’s about a woman trying to make it in the evil world, Kill Bill’s about fundamental justice that is to say revenge and Reservoir Dogs?
Reservoir Dogs plays on the conflict between ethics and morality. The thieves’ code – don’t tell me your fuckin’ name – is broken by Mr. White out of empathy for his wounded comrade. Ethical codes are often set-up to counter the general human dictates of morality (think the obligations of a criminal defence attorney). The thieves’ code is set up to ensure that operations go smoothly with minimum risk of incarceration.
White breaks the thieves’ code and goes so far as to challenge his boss’s correct surmisation that Mr. Orange is an undercover cop. The film climaxes with Orange breaking his own code to tell White the truth resulting in their deaths.
Honour, codes and morality are constant themes in Tarantino’s work. They lie under the surface of the ‘ain’t it cool’ exterior. I don’t mean to say Tarantino sets out to write moral stories necessarily. He’s an intuitive artist who follows his own notions of what’s cool, deploying a pastiche style suggested by Godard and filled by the realm of video store titles untrammelled by a University lecturer’s notions of good taste. To Tarantino Pierout Le Fou is the same as Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Love Song or Enter The Dragon. His approach to movies is the same as his approach to music. His taste is the naive discrimination of the autodidact.
But movies are stories. They follow the same thematic motifs of stories throughout time. Thru them we work on the contradictory questions of life. What is good and what is bad. How do we make our way uncorrupted in a corrupt world. The biblically inaccurate Ezekial 25:17 passage in Pulp Fiction actually comes from a Sonny Chiba film. Tarantino understands movies and hence he understands their themes. His movies do for the modern audience, stripped of its innocence by media, what more wholesome fare did for our forebears.
Sure violence in his films is cool. It’s fun. This is a fact that crusaders for moral cultural products refuse to confront. The world isn’t like a Frank Capra movie and we know that now. You can’t bullshit us. In response to the accusation that gangsta rap makes crime look glamorous the consumate, original gansta rapper Ice T. once retorted: that’s because it is.
February 6, 2007
There is a war between the left and right
A war between the black and white
A war between the odd
And the even.
“There is a war”
Sometimes I don’t speak too bright
but yet I know what I’m talking about
Why can’t we be friends?
“Why can’t we be friends?”
I first became aware of blogwar when I received two comments at my blogger site. One was from Iain Hall (whom I’d never heard of) paying me complements on my earlier piece re. cultural studies, the other was from ‘bourbon-boy’ who informed me that Iain’s plug was the ‘kiss of death’.
Now up ‘til that point I’d pretty much ignored the blogsphere. I started this as a way of getting over an entrenched and prolonged block. It never really occurred to me that there were a million blogs out there all expressing political views and that the heat of normal political debate manifested in cyberspace also.
Anyway so I looked up Iain’s blog and was pleasantly surprised to see that he was a conservative. This is because tho’ I’m not I think it important to be able to communicate across the battlelines of the political spectrum. Ideology often acts as an inhibitor to the exchange of ideas. Ideas, ideologically organized, are soldiers in an army. One army fights the other. It doesn’t matter that some ideas are worthy and some not so much so. It matters not likewise that if this army’s idea were combined somehow with the idea from that army good might result. What matters is defeating the enemy?
I think this a problem.
The necessary precursor to accomplishing inter-ideological ceasefire naturally is to get them to listen. If a conservative liked my stuff then I was at least getting them to listen.
I then went to bourbon boy’s site, known as HALLWATCH. This site is dedicated to shitting on Iain Hall!!! I thought this a bit strange as Hall is not a major media figure exactly, he’s a bloke who blogs. Still HALLWATCH is dedicated to tearing old Iain a new arsehole. It’s not so much a debunking of his views (like Boltwatch) but simply an all out effort to humiliate the guy.
An example of the kind of thing you get there is:
This is a good example of just what an arrogant fuckwad Iain is, when I read stuff like this then I feel no guilt about running Hallwatch and focusing on this big mouthed rural jerk off from Queensland (where men are men and women are usually men too.)
According to Bourbon-boy: “HALLWATCH represent a growing trend of decent bloggers who are unhappy with Iain and his actions on the Net.” Bourbon-boy has a small crew who all express the view that the man deserves to be skewered with a scud missile. It’s funny in a playground fashion. But there’s the inevitable hypocrisy. HALLWATCH a site objecting to the bad ethics of one Netizen responds with comparable tactics. For example: Bourbon-boy accuses Iain of being, amongst other things, a stalker however he continually makes reference to Iain’s personal life!
There’s a whole history involving Iain’s crew and Bourbon-boy’s crew going way back to I don’t know. I won’t go into it because I don’t want to get into it. If you guys are reading this I am not taking sides. For others if you want to check it out, check it out.
But I must ask: if Hall is so evil why doesn’t he just write him off, block his commentary ignore him? What is the point?
This sort of stuff’s all over the place. Consider an otherwise sober site (that shall be nameless here). Normally the debate’s quite civilized. But there’s been a running rant/counter-rant between two gentlemen (also to go un-named) who, I guess, purport to be scientists arguing about climate change. The following is a selection of their oratorical eloquence:
Give us one in your own words liar.
“Bird-brain, Have you actually read Lomborg’s book?”
What award are you going for. Jack-ass of the year 2007?
Fuck you, you filthy faggot.
You are blowing hot air out your arse,
Bird-brain. Of course I’ve read Lomborg’s book stoopid, whereas you obviously haven’t. You should learn to shut your fat gob when you don’t know what you’re talking about.
Since you have an intellectual capacity inferior to slime mould it would be pointless providing you with evidence. Now why don’t you go to the gym and shed some more of the disgusting walrus blubber that insulates your repulsive person
Get to it fatso- run, run run! .
Now I suspect that these guys really enjoy shitting on each other. I reckon they look forward to it all day (do Bourbon-Boy, Iain Hall and co?). But as much fun as this is – I have learned nothing from it.
In a recent interview for Esquire biochemist James Watson stated that he’d “turned against the left-wing because they don’t like genetics, because genetics implies that sometimes we’ll fail in life because we have bad genes. They want all failure in life to be due to an evil system.” (Esquire “What I’ve Learned” Jan 2007 p. 90). Indeed this underlies in terms of Watson’s own field the problem many have with the left these days; the dogmatic adherence to allocate a social explanation for everything.
Elsewhere Watson says that “new ideas require new facts.”
But new ideas require more than new facts, they require the capacity to face them. New facts can be unpleasant. Genetics as Watson (a formerly left-leaning Democrat of the libertarian mould) poses facts unpleasant for those of us with egalitarian ideals. But facts are facts. For those of us who enjoy our cars arguments for the necessity of drastically reducing human carbon emissions might also be unpleasant.
Much of that argument at present between scientific camps as between journalists, politicians and others is a wrangling between world-views that select facts to suit themselves. This is potentially disasterous either way. To drastically reduce emissions means reducing growth implying unemployment and the perpetuation of pre-modern lifestyles for much of the world; to do nothing when action is required to avoid catastrophe is likewise potentially lethal.
We need facts and solidarity not devisive point-scoring. The same thing I’d suggest goes for terrorism. The left taking the knee-jerk oppositional stance to the chauvanistic posturings of the US administration take the view that one should side (or at least sympathize) with al-Qaeda. Absurd!! This is an organization which would like to sweep aside most of the social progress that Western leftists have fought for over the last two hundred hears or so.
That’s not to let the right off the hook so easily. There’s a whole catalogue of discourse that vilifies Muslims as barbarian hordes all too eager for war. Ironically enough much of this vitriol is expressed in barbarian war-mongering terms. Either/or. Either kill ‘em or go to bed with ‘em. It never occurs to either side that al-Qaeda might actually piss off a lot of Arabs. For a ‘left-wing’ Palestinian who hates terrorists check this out.
This “Jew-hating terrorist” devotes time and money to the following anti-Semitic endeavours:
I just got off the phone with a good friend of mine that was on my Thesis Committee (A 75 Year Urban City Plan for Jerusalem). He is the Rabbi of the third oldest congregation in America. He liked the idea a lot and is not only willing to help but thinking of coming himself. If anyone else would like to come or help shoot me an email.
Following in the footsteps of a very courageous idea, we are going to begin funding the temporary swap of Arab and Israeli bloggers… Let me explain. Rabbi Belzer is the founder and vp of an organization in Ireland that brings Palestinians and Israelis together to develop understanding… a beautiful objective.
The project’s called “meet your cousin”. What a barbarian!! And being against the death penalty (unusual for a bloodthirsty Palestinian I guess) here’s his reaction to the death of a leading al-Qaeda figure: Burn in Hell: Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
You “learned” ladies and gentlemen from either end of the political spectrum in this most “civilized” and Christian Commonwealth of Australia this attitude doesn’t exactly compute. Does it? Here’s a Palestinian (and a critic of Zionism) who doesn’t like terrorists and is friends with Rabbis!
See? The world is not that simple. What makes it simple is people who reach for one piece of information with which to explain a complex issue and then roll it up and spend the rest of their lives beating others ‘round the head with it. To those of you inclined to do this I’d just like to say, quietly, over a quiet afternoon cup (doesn’t have to be latte or even coffee): I’M SICK OF YOUR FUCKING SELF-RIGHTEOUS RANTS!!
The scientist vs. scientist diatribe above concerned the famous “skeptical environmentalist” Bjørn Lomborg who, as I recall was spat upon at Oxford for debunking some environmentalist claims. Lomborg had originally been trying to debunk a conservative assertion that most of the problems cited by ecologists in the 1970s had been favorably dealt with. The environmental lobby had vigorously refuted this. Lomborg suspecting they were right set out to attack the conservative position. He found that it was the environmentalists who were wrong about a lot of things. How much I can’t say because Lomborg’s research has also been questioned. He did as I remember state that global warming was still a major problem.
The veracity of Lomborg’s research is immaterial. What is relevant here is the reaction of environmental activists. They attacked him for disproving their propaganda. My perspective at the time was why? He seems to have shown that we can deal with whatever environmental damage we have caused. Surely this is a good thing.
For many environmentalists (and I wasn’t at the time much concerned with those sorts of things) Lomborg’s book was good news. A lot of the opposition came from people so dedicated to the fight, to the hatred of the other side that they considered him a traitor. This is not to infer that environmentalists are a pack of liars. They aren’t. But there are liars and fools on both sides of the fence: left and right.
Pertinent to twentieth century issues this might pass. But the twenty-first century is potentially both a much more dangerous place and a much better place. Terrorism. Environment. Peace and sustainability. Stakes are high. If we win, we really win and if we lose…
In the process of winning a never-ending rhetorical battle we lose the capacity to absorb the new facts that they might present. I believe the growing rift between the left and right and the corresponding loss in capacity for self-criticism, reflection and old fashioned courteous listening is dangerous, literally. It’s not like we can ever be a big happy circle dancing around to the same tune. Our taste in music is different. But we can endeavour to be a tad more respectful. Surprisingly it doesn’t cost much.
What is required now is a putting aside of the bulky twentieth century dogmas and prejudices. Begin again with basics. What was it you really believed in again. What’s going on? Truly. And, that old and timeless classic…
What is to be done?
February 5, 2007
Now I’m not much of a philosopher but I’ve been having this problem with ideology lately. I mean: what the hell am I?
I’m not a socialist because I don’t think you can run an entire economy like the Department of Public Works without rendering reality a greywash’d yawn stuffed full of a million unnecessary forms.
On the other hand I don’t think that just ‘cause you’re born rich you should have carte blanche access to the best education and career paths. And, let’s face it, that’s exactly where this country’s heading. The argument comes: well if you’re poor and smart you can get a scholarship.
Why should you have to? Why should some Toorak dumbass become a barrister just ‘cause her/his daddy/mummy was and so on back to viscosity? My view: if you have the brains to be nothing but a bull-wanker then be a bull-wanker regardless your place on the social register.
And more: if you’re rich and you get a rare disease you have access to the best medical care. If you’re poor, then sorry your policy doesn’t cover it – kindly fuck off and drop dead. Why? How is that justice?
So in that respect I am a ‘socialist’.
But wait. If I want to start up some kind of business I really don’t see why I have to get permission to do so from some state authority. Sure if I’m feeding people or delivering their babies there are standards to be met. But what if I’m just offering to ghost-write their life stories. Is that anyone’s business save that of me and my client?
Maybe I’m a capitalist.
So I started taking some online tests. I mean that’s gotta be reliable yeah? These days they have this nifty new map structure. One such, the political compass rightly asserts that:
The old one-dimensional categories of ‘right’ and ‘left’, established for the seating arrangement of the French National Assembly of 1789, are overly simplistic for today’s complex political landscape. For example, who are the ‘conservatives’ in today’s Russia? Are they the unreconstructed Stalinists, or the reformers who have adopted the right-wing views of conservatives like Margaret Thatcher ?
Furthermore in Stalin’s day were his rigid supporters conservatives? After all Stalinism was the status quo. So were those opposed to him ‘left-wing’?
It’s a funny old world.
People and systems don’t fit neatly into categories. And as the site asks: “how do you distinguish leftists like Stalin and Gandhi?”
The quiz presents you with a map divided by two axes. Along one is the standard left-right economic criteria: government control, intervention, moderation, laissez-faire. The other axis regards personal freedoms: free speech, sex, etc. I guess we can call these the capitalist-socialist axis and the authoritarian-libertarian axis.
In the centre territory there is a circle representing the intersection. On some political tests this central territory is labelled ‘centrist’ on those sites obviously pushing a libertarian barge this territory is labelled ‘statist’.
Questions differed from test to test but I pretty consistently scored on the libertarian side and slightly to the left of the capitalist-socialist axis. I’ve been classified a moderate, liberal or left libertarian.
This would alter depending on the questions some of which were specific to another country (eg the US), some of which were irritating either/or scenarios. My favourite in this latter category is:
What do you think is more important?
A/ Controlling inflation.
B/ Controlling unemployment.
Well as they’re inter-related aspects of the economic cycle they’re both important. High inflation leads to high unemployment which ‘cause no-one’s got nothing to spend tends to bring prices and wages down so then they get jobs and start spending and the prices go up and around we go again.
That’s how it works in the textbook. In real life, that can be another story.
How ‘bout option C: Thinking one’s important and the other isn’t, is dumb. There was no such option C.
Another example of this is on the Liberal Democratic Party’s site. Question two of the ‘social’ side of the test asks:
2) What should the governments role be with regards to issues of sex such as prostitution, pornography, sexual orientation etc?
a. There should be no laws with regards to issues relating to sex
b. Pornography, prostitution and sexual choice should be allowed and slightly regulated
c. Some pornography, prostitution and sexual choice should be allowed, but slightly discouraged
d. Some pornography and sexual choice should be allowed, but discouraged
e. There should be strict laws banning prostitution and pornography and controlling sexual choice.
Okay I picked option b. But that’s not exactly what I meant. Pornography, prostitution and consenting sexual choice are different things. In the case of the latter, it’s the business of those who’s loving (or just makin’ mo’ better). The government and everyone else butts out.
Pornography? Well some people don’t like it and some do. Therefore I believe that you should be able to get it if you want it but you should likewise be able to avoid it if so inclined. That’s one aspect for regulation, there are others: no kids, no chainsaws.
In the case of prostitution you are dealing with an industry that can and does become very ugly if unregulated. So, whilst I’m inclined to let business be business, in the case of prostitution and other industries where the absence of regulation is disastrous I think maybe um… some rules.
But the point is given multiple choice answers to decide your politics is an over-simplistic guide to ideological (read doctrine driven) thinking. I’m …ist, therefore I believe a, b, and c are good and x, y, and z are bad – always no matter what. This way of thinking, or avoiding thinking, is something I’m deeply allergic to. Just writing about makes me feel itchy.
You can tell you’re slipping into this trap when you answer every question in reference to someone who never really had a job: Marx said this, Hayek said that, Chomsky said so and so but Foucault says blah blah blah and Nietzsche etc. Not to impune the work of these gentlemen but remember:
THEY”RE ALL WRONG!!!
So the test, or mode of tests is not exactly bullet-proof. I’m not trashing it just saying you can take a much more nuanced stand on something particularly if you know whereof you speak. And remember: mostly you don’t – there are questions that baffle. The first question on the aforementioned quiz relates to how much government control of what percentage GDP. There was no option X: How the fuck would I know?
Still it’s really useful to be able to summarise my myriad and oft contradictory thoughts with two words. When I go to parties and people ask my politics I can say I’m a left libertarian. Great. Now no-one will like me.
There was a recent discussion on Catallaxy in which the subjects of Gandhi and the path of non-violent resistance were broached, (scroll down to comment 191.)
For those who can’t bothered many of the commenters wrote Gandhi off as an impratical mystic who precipitated more damage than good. Whilst I’m not certain I can agree I am in agreement with Orwell’s criticism of Gandhi’s rather impratical advice to the German Jews in 1938:
what has today become a degrading man-hunt can be turned into a calm and determined stand offered by unarmed men and women possessing the strength of suffering given to them by Jehovah. It will then be a truly religious resistance offered against the godless fury of dehumanised man.
The whole text can be found here.
Needless to say the Jews on the whole did not/could not resist the Nazis and we know what transpired. However Gandhi’s adherance to pacifism is certainly impractical and as Orwell has said a fact unacceptable to pacifists is that they can only “‘abjure’ violence because others are committing violence on their behalf”.
Orwell reflections on Gandhi can be found here.
Perhaps the new political maps cited above are as yet incomplete. We have the authority/liberty axis, the command/laissez-faire axis. On this map I appear quite close to Gandhi. However I would not have advised Jewish people to non-violent action in 1938. 1938 was too late anyhow. In 1933 or earlier I would’ve said: Get out and/or get a gun. These people are out of their minds!!
I don’t like (non-fictional) violence but sometimes you gotta fight. To finally get to my point maybe a third axis is required: idealism/pragmatism – a three dimensional political map. Hard to design I reckon, but liable to be ultimately accurate.
February 5, 2007
Politics is war fought by other means.
I remember this oft quoted axiom (from Prussian general and strategist Carl von Clausewitz) being cited by one of my more intimidating university lecturers in conversation with a colleague of mine at a book launch one Friday afternoon. The colleague had had the misfortune to involve herself in campus politics during a rather savage era and had that bitter emptiness that often ensues. War, the lecturer continued, is easy to make. It’s peace that’s difficult.
Difficult indeed. How difficult? Here we are the world at the brink of a possibly global catastrophe caused by of all things religion. Who’d have thought in this most secular, technological and humanist of ages that the medieval mentalities that prevailed for almost a millennia prior to the dawning of the modern era would reassert themselves in such a fierce and uncompromising manner.
Of course it’s really about territory. When the layers of self-righteousness are removed all wars are about territory (and/or resources). In this case the so-called Holy Land has once again taken centre stage. This article does not pretend to offer magical solutions. There are none. The agreed upon solution – the two state idea – is generally thought to be right one but the parties involved will not stop shooting and bombing each other long enough to give it a chance. When there is a calm moment someone finds a way to sabotage it and snatch conflict from the jaws of peaceful co-existence.
This article seeks instead to illustrate the obtuse attitudes that are pervasive when it comes to this conflict. My way of doing this is to examine the variety of things said regarding the film Munich.
I chose this film for three reasons.
First: the kidnapping and subsequent assassination of eleven Israeli athletes, the film’s starting point, is generally regarded as the watershed in which the Israel/Palestine conflict morphed from conventional territorial conflict to that form of barbaric guerrilla warfare known as ‘terrorism’.
Secondly the film is by a Zionist liberal Jew: Steven Spielberg who made it in an attempt to bring understanding to the terrible cycle of bloodshed and thereby contribute to bringing the whole nasty business to an end.
Third: I haven’t seen it and therefore don’t have an opinion as to the film’s impartiality nor it’s success or failure in accomplishing what it sets out to do. The film for my purpose is not important. What is interesting is the fact that so many mutually exclusive points-of-view have been expressed about it.
For the purposes of this article the term Zionist denotes any person who supports the existence of Israel regardless of their political stance otherwise. Pro-Palestinians are likewise persons who tend to side with the Palestinians.
Are these people watching the same film?
Let’s start with Messrs. Massad and Krauthammer:
Charles Krauthammer complains in The Washington Post that the“ … Palestinians who plan the massacre and are hunted down by Israel are given — with the concision of the gifted cinematic craftsman — texture, humanity, depth, history.” (Krauthammer “Munich, The Travesty”,Washington Post Friday, January 13, 2006; Page A21).
Alternatively Joseph Massad argues that “Spielberg … humanizes Israeli terrorists in Munich but expectedly not the Palestinian terrorists who are portrayed as having no conscience. It seems that unlike their Israeli counterparts, Palestinians shoot but do not cry! (Massad, “Munich or Making Baclava” cited in The Electronic Intifada, 3 February 2006).
Krauthammer says the Palestinians are humanized. Massad says they are dehumanised. Who’s right?
It seems on both sides of the debate there is a problem with the portrayal of the humanity of the ‘other’. Most writers argue either that Munich doesn’t take sides or it takes the wrong side. New York Times columnist David Brooks, for example, says that “by choosing a story set in 1972, Spielberg allows himself to ignore the core poison that permeates the Middle East, Islamic radicalism. In Spielberg’s Middle East, there is no Hamas or Islamic Jihad. There are no passionate anti-Semites, no Holocaust deniers like the current president of Iran, no zealots who want to exterminate Israelis. There is, above all, no evil.” (Brooks “What Munich Left Out” New York Times Dec 11 2005).
On the other side As’ad AbuKhalil thinks that Munich “could easily have been a paid Israeli advertisement for its killing machine. In fact, it could be a recruitment movie for Israeli killing squads. It is a celebration of Israeli murder of Palestinians. When Israelis kill, it is always moral, and always careful, and always on target.” (AbuKhalil “Munich: Spielberg’s lies and cover-ups” matrixscreamer.com) For AbuKhalil there is evil, Munich promotes it.
These people are so divided they are incapable of seeing the same film. The film is filtered through an extensive prejudgement process before the thinking starts.
On the blog sigcarlfred.blogspot.com the writer a self-proclaimed psychotherapist and admirer of Freud, Jung and Adler compares Munich to Hirschbiegel’s The Downfall, a film that depicts Hitler’s last days in the bunker. The blogger objects to this film because it attempts “to portray Adolph Hitler in a human, albeit flawed, light.” Somehow this strategy is supposed to let the German people off the hook for letting the bastard take over.
Having seen that film and corresponding documentaries covering the same subject I have to say the film is a pretty good portrayal of what was happening in that place at that time. That is that supporters of the maniac Nazi command were confronted with the irrefutable truth that these people were ultra-selfish death worshipping psychos. But yes Hitler in The Downfall is human. Hitler in real life was human. Unpleasant but a fact nonetheless. Terrorists and assassins likewise are also human.
But this is the problem that the sigcarlfred.com writer has. For him “Munich attempts to give credibility to a failed, destructive and evil society and indeed, what is an evil and failed culture.” It is not simply terrorists and/or their acts that are evil but the entire society itself. Palestinian Arabs are evil, their culture and society is evil.
So for Zionists Munich fails because it fails to grasp the inherent evil perpetrated on the Jewish people by Arab terrorism. However on the pro-Palestinian side as mentioned Munich fails for exactly the opposite reason. According to Canadian writer/filmmaker Julian Samuel Munich is racist the way D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation is racist: “Palestinians have become [for Spielberg] what blacks were for Griffith: Dark, threatening creatures to be eliminated with extreme prejudice.” (As cited on http://www.dissidentvoice.org/Apr06/Samuel04.htm)
I must add that it’s misleading to infer that all the Zionists I canvassed were critical of the film. Heather Robinson believes that “Munich depicts civilized, decent men who can–and do–give the terrorists what they have coming.” (Robinson “What’s Right With Munich” opinionjournal.com 8/2/06). The overwhelming majority however, did.
Palestine and Israel: Morally Equivalent?
Many on both sides find fault with the film not for its partisan stance but it’s moral equivalency Colin Andersen on the same website argues that in regards to the Israel/Palestine conflict “we’re dealing not with a level playing field, but another variation of the clash between a European colonial-settler movement, in this case Zionism, on the one hand, and an indigenous non-European people, the Palestinian Arabs, on the other.” (Andersen “Munich and moral equivalence”, 2/2/06 http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/ )
For Andersen the evil is Israeli (read European imperialist) aggression. He calls the Palestinians indigenous but makes no mention of the fact that Jews occupied that territory until Vespasian came along. Nor does he explain how a people who have been displaced, marginalised, enslaved and nearly slaughtered by various European states can be described as agents for European imperialism. Kate Wright argues the same way from the opposite direction. Her article includes a catalogue of associations between Nazism and the Arab world that predate the establishment of Israel and concludes “Spielberg seems convinced by moral relativism, the position that there is no comprehensive moral truth or truth value, that only personal subjective morality, deriving from social convention is truly authentic”. Ms. Wright doesn’t consider the possibility that the advocacy of peace can be a cornerstone of moral truth.
And let’s not forget: love thy enemy. Who said that? Jewish lad I believe.
Both Wright and Andersen have the same problem with Munich; it, they think, equates the Palestinian and Israeli position each as morally equal and they are not. Mr. Andersen believes it obvious that the Palestinians occupy the moral high ground and Ms. Wright believes the opposite!
So Zionists in general condemn the film because either it’s pro-Palestinian or it sits on the fence. Those pro-Palestinian condemn the film likewise as either an advertisement for Israeli aggression or again because it sits on the fence. What does this demonstrate?
Well as someone who pays some attention to Middle East ‘developments’ it demonstrates the hopelessness of the situation is due to the utter refusal of both parties to understand that the other side might have some justification for their beefs and furthermore the use of violence will precipitate return fire.
On those rare occasions when I see advocates of Palestine and Israel on the same show stating their case the result is always the same. Confronted by draconian measures against Palestinian civilians the Israeli spokesperson will change the subject to Hamas and suicide bombers. Asked about suicide bombers and the anti-Semitic stance of organizations like Hamas the Palestinian always changes the subject to Israeli policy.
It’s always their fault.
Each side believes the only way forward is for the other side to relinquish its stand and take sides with the enemy against the militant parts of their own people. This situation is exacerbated because the unreason is infectious. Throughout the Western world one cannot discuss the subject without someone frothing at the mouth: a situation made painfully obvious in the Munich discourse.
Consider the partisan historical analysis brought into play.
The aforementioned Ms. Wright for example cites Jerusalem’s “Grand Mufti … inciting violence against Jews through the 1920s, and as Nazism spread through Europe, Jews fled to Palestine.” And the Arab’s “next move … to make overtures to Adolf Hitler”. But she makes no mention of Likud’s overtures to the Nazi high command in the same period to give them client sovereignty over Israel.
Many pro-Palestinian writers cite the Lillehammer affair in which the Moroccan waiter Ahmed Bouchiki was shot whilst on holiday in Norway because he was mistaken for a PLO operative. They are outraged at the death of an innocent civilian but do not comment on the morality of shooting Olympic athletes.
David Brooks criticises Spielberg for choosing to portray an events that took place in the early 70s because then one avoids the anti-Semitism of modern Arab organizations like Hamas. He fails to mention that that is because these organizations were not anti-Semitic at the time. Until relatively recently there was a clear distinction made between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism which is now sadly forever smudged. He fails also to ponder whether anti-Semitism would be such a feature of contemporary thinking in the Muslim world if Israel’s actions had been different. Indeed by declaring anti-Semitism the Middle-East’s “core poison” he is inferring that Arabs are primarily motivated by Nazi ideology. The legitimacy of Palestinian objections is discarded.
The racial politics of Europe are not the racial politics of the Middle East. Arab leaders like Anwar Sadat admired Hitler in the 1930s not so much for his racial theology but because he stood up to the British Empire which controlled Egypt at the time. Sadat also admired Ghandi whose philosophy was mutually exclusive with Nazism. The Holocaust denials and anti-Semitic diatribes of many in the Muslim world might be the very unfortunate result of the simple dictum: the enemy of my enemy is my friend. This has become tragically comic with events like Iran’s holocaust denial conference attended and addressed by characters like KKK Imperial Wizard David Duke.
Moral relativism again? No, the opposite of moral relativism. Each side is attempting to assert moral absolutism. Iran has conducted a holocaust denial conference in order to undermine Israel’s claims to legitimacy. From the other side comes the assertion that the Arab world consists of, in the words of a recent blogsphere commentator, “fascist monsters”. Around and around it goes. According to the pro-Israel camp the Palestinians and their alllies are Nazis, according to the pro-Palestine camp it’s the Israelis who are the Nazis. If I was visiting Earth from outer space I’d think the whole situation laughable. But I’m human and humans are killing other humans. It’s not funny.
I’m not sure questions of moral relativism are constructive. If one excludes the mandate of God one is left with a case of ironic historical tragedy. Jewish people, persecuted in Europe, try to escape this by setting up a country in their traditional homeland. Can one who was not tortured maniacally by the Nazis during the 30s and 40s sit in judgement on the people who migrated to Palestine determined to find refuge from persecution?
I cannot and do not.
However there were people living there and the results are that they have been marginalised and oppressed within their own country. The notion that Palestinians can simply become citizens of one of the neighbouring Arab countries has been rendered nonsense. Most such countries have consistently refused to grant the Palestinians citizenship.
In this case the either/or scenario is simply wrong. The establishment of Israel cannot simply be written off as another case of European colonialism. The problem in the first place was that Jewish people were not accepted as European. Neither can the Palestinians be expected to pay the price for the Holocaust. They were not there, they didn’t do it regardless of whatever contact Hitler may have had with Arab leaders.
Evil deeds may have resulted (by and upon both sides) but one cannot write one side off as completely and irretrievably reprehensible. If that were the case it would be easy. I suspect the reason for so much selective myopia is probably that people want a clear cut case and the simplest way to accomplish that is simply to ignore the wrongs wrought by ‘our’ side and amplify those of the ‘other’ whilst simultaneously ignoring whatever good case one’s enemies might have and emphasising one’s own righteousness.
The reactions to Munich amply demonstrate these phenomena. There were of course praises for the film’s brutal honesty. Mostly these came from writers of the disinterested liberal sort. Persons with no connection to the conflict. But one commentary did give me reason to believe that perhaps peace is not impossible.
Karim Elsahy contemplates the reason for the fighting:
“people on my side are fighting for what they lost. Fighting for a home, a land, and self determination”. [But the] “same goes for the Israelis. If I were a Jew I probably would have been just as adamant about Israel. A chance to live under their own rule after millennia of Diaspora and persecution?”
“What if we (the Arabs and the Jews) were the ones that didn’t get it? Securely wrapped in the confidence of our own self-virtue what if we are the ignorant. What if there really is nothing worth fighting for.”
Well maybe Spielberg got thru to someone after all.
During a marathon session mostly concerning Israel/Palestine on Catallaxy I (no sleep, drunk on my good friend Samson’s rum wrote the following bit of facetiousness:
Amazing!! Still going.
Wouldn’t you rather watch Star Trek?
Spock: “If only we could harness the hatred and teen angst bullshit of the Israeli/Palestine conflict, Jim we could power a million Enterprise missions and go truly where no-one has gone before.”
Dr. McCoy: “You inhuman, greenblooded, cold minded …”
Spock: “And your logical point is ? Doctor.”
Dr. McCoy: “These are human beings Spock.”
Spock: “A highly over-rated and illogical species”
Dr. McCoy: “HUMAN BEINGS, SPOCK. Don’t you understand they are in pain and anguish twisting themselves into a pile of useless knots over a conflict that they have no control over or influence upon.”
Spock: And your point being?
Dr. McCoy: Damn your logic Spock. Don’t you understand? In the late nineteenth century a certain section of an oppressed European diaspora attempted to return to their traditional homelands.”
Spock: “Indeed Doctor and yet people, related to them but estranged culturally were already living there under the hubris of a decaying empire.”
Dr. McCoy: “Yes Spock and those people attempted to thwart the Europeanised relatives plans to return.”
Spock: “That is correct but the inefficiency of the controlling imperial force was unable to thwart the return and then of course there was a big war.”
Dr. McCoy: “And the empire’s enemies made a deal with the local tribes: help us and we’ll give you self-rule.”
Spock: ” Yeah, yeah and then as soon as the war ended they were told to go fuck themselves.”
Dr. McCoy: “Bad mistake. Those people have long memories Spock.
Spock: “Then there was another war Dr. and this time the long exiled relatives were almost annihilated.”
Dr. McCoy: “Yes Spock. And this time they decided to return to their traditional homeland and anyone who gets in the way: FUCK YOU.”
Spock: “Illogical but highly understandable Doctor.
Dr. McCoy: “Yes Spock but the natives didn’t like it much.”
Spock: “No they didn’t Doctor. As shithouse as the genocidal mania was, the natives did not feel that they had to pay the price as they weren’t responsible.
Jim: “No Gentlemen they weren’t. And the fighting and killing continued. On and on for XXXXX years.”
Spock: “Yes Jim. It’s a wonder your species ever managed to evolve past the early stages of high technological development.”
The whole shitfight can be found here, enjoy.
February 5, 2007
Late last year whilst participating for fun in the blogwars I had the great fortune to spar in a debate re. the legacy of General Auguste Pinochet. This issue prompted three posts from the blogger and pages of cyberpaper crammed to the brim with insulting tête-à-têtes between left and right-wing readers.
Although the blogger (crafty devil) did not actually come out and say anything himself re. Pinochet, he quoted long stretches of other writers’ work which implied that Pinochet wasn’t such a bad guy. The rationale for this argument was two pronged: first Pinochet wasn’t so bad because his predecessor Salvador Allende was much worse and second: Chilé was an economic shambles before the General put things right.
The blogger never went so far as to endorse any redemption of Pinochet but simply stated that he may deserve less condemnation than previously thought. This was a red flag to drooling leftists who howled for blood and walked right into a trap designed to make them look like doctrine driven robotic idiots.
The blogger had a field week with the issue and his supporters had great fun putting the boot in. The final post on the subject challenged the left to make a counter-argument without “vilifying, making wild accusations, misrepresenting or lying?” (A good one coming from him.) He largely tagged many of the critical posts with ‘fail’. Rightly so. He didn’t however bother to acknowledge the many posts that actually managed to rise to his challenge. Nor did he correct his supporters when they were guilty of vilification, misrepresentation or just plain stupidity.
What became apparent during the debate was the way in which the term “Marxist” is being transformed into something bearing similar connotative qualities to ‘Nazi.’ For example consider this quote from the Michael Radu piece cited in the Pinochet blog:
“But while leftists choose to remember Allende as a beneficent democrat, history provides little support for this view. … On the contrary, Allende’s regime was so radically Marxist that its most “moderate” element was the Communist Party.”
The inference here is that Marxism is inherently anti-democratic, always and without exception.
This had been a notable thread in the blog running back a few months. The same week as the first Pinochet post there was another in which journalists from The Age were implicitly vilified as “Marx-quoters” as if to cite the man was an indication of criminal tendency.
This opposition to Marx, not just philosophically but morally is curious. To listen to some, reading Marx is akin to viewing child pornography: an inherently immoral act, something intrinsically tainting. I am reminded of an ultra-conservative and sartorially-challenged National Party Club President in my student days proudly declaring that he’d managed to avoid Marx in the five years it took him to complete his Bachelor’s degree in Asian politics. I thought he’d managed to stunt his own education: how much can you know about Chinese politics if you avoid Marx and Marx-related topics? He believed he’d come through Satan’s lair and emerged pure.
This kind of group think, dangerous in itself, bears exacerbating resemblance to the bleating of people today who call themselves Marxists and try to prove it by spending week-ends at dreary lectures on various topics relating to Left-wing history as distorted by the senior members of their Romantic Revolutionary Social Clubs. You can always see this kind of thing plastered over spare urban spaces in the form of photocopied simulacra of constructivist styles. One recent example being the hysterically inane: How Marx Became a Marxist.
This is of course why the word Marxist has become so useless. Most ‘Marxists’ have never read a word. They’ve been to a talk in which some dumbed down version of a pamphlet bearing slogans quoted from a stupid book of dogmatic verse has been badly delivered and, having run out of haircuts with which to annoy their parents, they become ‘Marxists’. Marxism here is part religion part sub-cultural fad. The Goth look for geeks.
But these are irrellevant here. Here we’re discussing Marx’s use intellectually and pedagocially.
The argument against Marx will be based on one thing: the anti-democratic nature and economic failure of Marx-inspired states. That Marx himself is not responsible for this and likely would have disapproved of them is one of those historical complexities that simple minds are determined to ignore. The argument for Marx will always be met by emotive anecdotes from the Soviet Union. Funnily enough China, which boasts a market economy and a totalitarian state, will probably be overstepped.
The reason Marx is ultimately demonized is that despite him being often wrong he’s often right. A quick scan of various Marx quotes will demonstrate this:
“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e., the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.”
This is something that Rupert Murdoch (once a self-professed Marxist) would rather not make it into the daily papers. One day he’ll buy Fairfax out and make it so. The reason he’d rather we didn’t read it is because it’s true. The reason that he stands a fair shot of eradicating Marx from all but the most obscure cultural corridors is the same.
Then there’s my favourite:
“that peculiar disease, a disease that, since 1848, has raged over the whole continent, “Parliamentary Idiocy,”–that fetters those whom it infects to an imaginary world, and robs them of all sense, all remembrance, all understanding of the rude outside world.”
Parliamentary Idiocy. I don’t care who you vote for, you just gotta love that phrase. And it’s perfectly true. Anyone who’s disappeared up the fundament of intense political activity, emerged to tell the tale and is honest with themselves will admit the truth of it. Regardless the author, this concept most definitely should be taught in schools: part of the strengthening of democracy via the cultivation of a healthily skeptical citizenry.
The facts of capitalism are built into the system. You don’t need Marx to breed discontent with the system just a long stretch of unemployment. What Marx adds is analysis. Consider:
“The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all nations into civilization.”
Is this not a description of globalization? I’m amused by the ‘anti-globalization movement’, particularly the ‘Marxist’ elements. If they’d actually read him they’d understand that this globalization phenomena is part of the capitalist process: that the global bourgeoisie will give rise to the global proletariat. That is to a world of working people who, unfettered by cultural divisions associated with ‘nation’ etc, will come to understand themselves primarily as a class with common interests.
I can’t say for certain that this will happen but if I was a Marxist I wouldn’t be wasting my time protesting globalization. I’d be fostering international links within the Labour movement.
I’m not a Marxist. I’m loathe to put myself in any category that follows a name with the letters i..s..t. To treat any individual as the oracle of everything is stupid and lazy. I don’t mean this to describe all work inspired by Marx or others. Eric Hobsbawn is an historian whose method and subject matter are ‘Marxist’. His work is excellent. But one of the reasons for this excellence is that he does not lose sight of his obligations as an historian whilst deploying Marx’s principles in writing it. He does not fail to see the history for the theory.
The fact is like it or not Karl Marx is part of the intellectual history of the world. And like it or not he made contributions. The irony that his ideas would fuel the Soviet nightmare (one of history’s most oppressive states) is one example of the ironies that history is stuffed to the brim with. Marx’s most unfortunate phrase: the dictatorship of the proletariat was a romantic slogan chasing an ideal in which the lower classes would prevail. The Soviet Union might have declared itself to be the dictatorship of the proletariat but only became the dictatorship of a proletarian namely one Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili better known as Joseph Stalin.
To blame the iniquities of Marxist states entirely on Stalin would be a bit much. Stalin after all opposed the Communist revolution in China led by Mao Zedong who would transform into quite a killer himself. Stalin can’t be blamed for Chinese massacres, the ideology must itself be held accountable. It is accountable because it was a political philosophy that justified the concentration of absolute power in the hands of the few or the one. Any ideology that does so will bear the same results. But Marx himself is not accountable for twentieth century totalitarianism. He wasn’t there. There is a distinction to be made between his writings, the intellectual quasi-faiths that these inspired and the nasty business ensuing.
Marxism as it developed during the twentieth century bears a tenuous relationship to what Marx wrote. Nietzsche by comparison was much lauded by Nazis and other psychopaths for his ideas about the superman, master vs. slave cultures etc. That Nietzsche himself would’ve been appalled by the Nazis is evident to anyone who’s read him with any understanding. His discourse on the master and slave mentalities in The Genealogy of Morals is a direct contradiction of the master race perversion that Nazi intellectuals eventually made of it. This is now understood. Marx however is still demonized.
The reasons for this I suspect is that Marx is still relevant despite declarations to the contrary. After all he was the first to crystallize a theory of history based on class struggle. With this, as with other things, I believe he was over-simplistic. But he did outline the view that human society had developed along certain lines underpinned by an economic mode, that the social structure enabled by that economy was based on a class hierarchy which afforded a leisurely life to the ruling class and that significant (fundamental) change in the political structure of society was only possible after the economic mode had first advanced.
Marx was a fundamental materialist in this respect. He believed that ideas, culture, art and all the rest were a product of the economic structure. Ideas don’t change things, economics and class struggle do. There is argument to support this view. After all serious notions of a society founded on equality have existed at least since fourteenth century France but the political shift from a society ruled by an hereditary class (feudalism) to modern democracy was underwritten by the organic development of the capitalist system. Only after the merchant class had made itself the engine of society could it then demand political power.
An overly simplistic view, but the simplicity of his views does not discredit them. It is part of their value. Stripping phenomena down to bare essentials is very useful particularly if you are casting something in a new light. The error occurs when you rigidly adhere to the simplicity and then try to apply reality to it and not the reverse.
Marx’s materialism has been challenged notably by Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism. Marx’s ideas have themselves precipitated change in the development of Marxist states, another delicious irony. The Marxist states arose from backward and feudal societies thus contradicting Marx’s proposed itinerary of societal development: slave, feudal, capitalist, socialist, communist. Most of the Marxist states paid lip service to his theory whilst leap-frogging one or two stages of his theoretical development or at least attempting to.
Again I’m not a Marxist. I don’t endorse Marx’s claims to social prophecy. However I do believe that human society, in a shaky two-steps-forward, one-step-back, fall-down-drunk and stagger-up-again kind of a way, does get better. I believe we can and will do better than we are now. This will not happen by applying the implied theories of one man to everything from factory organization to skateboarding but it will likewise not occur if we censor ideas either.
Thus my argument is more akin to Voltaire than Marxist I am for the free exchange of ideas. For that to occur an idea cannot be censured simply because it’s by such-and-such. It must be considered on merit according to facts and relevance regardless the name on the title page. Much of what Marx had to say about capitalism and class society is as true today as it was when he wrote it. A lot of it is wrong. In that respect he’s just like myriad other thinkers throughout the ages. This is not an excuse to demonize him or exclude him from his rightful place in canon of thought.