October 17, 2010 1 comment

Recently I have been reading and thinking about the remarkable bravery of the men in my previous post. They died during a protest which they knew would end in their deaths. Their aim was political status, simply for recognition from the British Government that they were not ‘common criminals’.  They failed, but succeeded in their goal of showing the world how brutal the British government was towards the people of Northern Ireland. I want to be able to say something about this story, but feel that it is very hard to do the protest justice without romanticising it, being a bleeding heart liberal. I also want to acknowledge the brutality of the British state in this series of events, which is not a surprise to me, but what I find uncomfortable is the fact that on a daily basis we all tacitly consent to a system capable of such brutality (and worse).  What does this say about us?

The magnitude of the story of the 1981 hunger strike has never really been fully appreciated here in the UK. The republican protest of the late 70s and early 80s, including the blanket protest and the hunger strike is such a sensitive subject and I am not sure whether we, who stood by while it happened whilst being fed biased news reports, are ready to face up to the more degraded, immoral behaviour of our elected representatives and the British state. We all know it happens, but we don’t want to know that it does. This particularly dark period of modern British history is a painful reminder of what we tacitly agree to when we pay our taxes, vote or do nothing to change what is.  Essentially Thatcher – who was Prime Minister at the time when the British Government was doing battle against the republican movement in the North of Ireland (whilst having secret talks with them to end the stand off)  – let Bobby Sands, a member of the British Parliament, die of starvation because she refused to acknowledge that there was a political problem in Northern Ireland. Essentially Bobby S died because the Thatcher government refused to reinstate political status to the protesting prisoners.  Many at the time thought the government would give in at the last minute but they did not. It was truly shocking.

I was seven years old when this story exploded round the world. I remember seeing the H blocks and the blanketmen on the news, and seeing reports when Bobby Sands died. I remember asking who he was, and why there were people living in their own excrement in prison. But I have had to seek this story out myself. This story is not something that Britain would like in its national consciousness. Perhaps one day there will be an apology / reparation of some sort from the British Prime Minister, but this will not happen for many years because it is for many reasons still clearly politically sensitive. We should be ashamed. It was Thatcher’s 85th birthday this week and David Cameron threw a party for her at number 10.  The ‘great and the good’ were there, including Kelvin Mackenzie, as former editor of the Sun (1981 – 1994 – interestingly around the time of the hunger strike) one of the great opinion formers of the last 30 years (he was interviewed for the news outside no.10 looking slightly worse for wear) I have tried to get hold of the guest list for that night as it would make an interesting post but it isn’t available.

I wonder if any of the people at the party thought of Bobby Sands or of the other hunger strikers, or their families, or of how the people in the north of Ireland have suffered because of the UK’s policies towards them.  Unlikely.

In my mind it is very hard to write about the 1981 Irish republican hunger strike.  I have been meaning to for a while but haven’t ever found the words. I am not an expert on the politics of the situation, or the history of Ireland and its struggle with the British and am afraid of retarding the story with over-emotion and cliché, failing to do even a small amount of justice to the people who suffered. So perhaps it is a mistake to write anything at all and I should have just let the pictures in yesterday’s post speak for themselves.

In the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus the philosopher Wittegenstein writes ‘What we cannot speak of, we must pass over in silence’ (‘Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen’).  Wittgenstein is essentially saying that some things can’t be said and is making a point about language and the ultimate meaninglessness of philosophy here. However, I think that it is easy enough to view what Wittgenstein says in an ethical light, and as such the phrase reminds me of TW Adorno’s much-hyped and misunderstood claim that there can be no poetry after Auschwitz. What Adorno means is how can we possibly do justice to the victims of the holocaust in art, or in language?  For instance think of the holocaust films that Hollywood is so fond of – the stories that these films tell can never articulate the horror of that period of Europe-wide industrial mass killing.  All they really do is dilute its magnitude.  We will never be able to attend to the suffering of the victims or do justice to their memory with words (or films), as there are no words to describe what they experienced, there is no way to explain it or talk about it, or even respond to it at all.  And as such Wittgenstein would say we should pass over it in silence because we can’t speak of it. However if we don’t speak of it, we fail to do justice to the victims – we fail to give them a voice, the horror is forgotten, and where is the impetus to keep it from happening again?   I think that the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in central Berlin captures this dilemma very well.  It is a truly sensitive and thoughtful piece of public art. (well done Berlin Town Planners for allowing that valuable piece of land to be used for a public memorial rather than sold off for development).

I would argue that sometimes, not always, but sometimes art, in this case cinema, can do justice to suffering.  I watched Steve McQueen’s ‘Hunger’ a while ago and afterwards there was a talk by Seanna Walsh who was on the Blanket and he was utterly moved by the film – for him it captured the experience remarkably well.  Of course Steve McQueen is actually an artist and it would be interesting to see what he thinks about whether art can attend to suffering in any significant way.

Here is a trailer for Hunger, if you haven’t seen it I would recommend it:

And here is an article by Seanna Walsh on Bobby Sands:

So although I find it very hard to write of the 1981 protests in any coherent way, I am doing it anyway, despite my inadequacies.  So why is it so hard to understand the actions of these men? They actually decided that if they had to they would die in order to expose the barbaric behaviour of the British state towards the Irish people. This decision was clearly not taken lightly, it was a last resort.  They had nothing to fight with, so fought with what they had left – their bodies. During this time, there were many men on the blanket protest.  With little support from outside they lived in their own shit, without any clothes, in cells with broken windows in the freezing cold, being beaten by the screws and subjected to constant harassment including internal examinations – all of this and more for up to four years. I just cannot conceive of this.  The men who were on the blanket talk of how tough it was, and how their camaraderie got them through, their Irish lessons, their political education, their gallows humour.  However it is beyond my comprehension how they stayed committed, strong enough to keep going. Part of their motivation was their bloody-minded determination to beat the British Government when they had themselves so many times been beaten and humiliated by its policies.

Although I am trying to say something about the protest, others can say it better, particularly with regard to why it happened. If you are interested in why, here is some background to the protest, from :

If you don’t want to read what follows, the point is that the political status of republican prisoners was taken away and the prisoners began the protest to reinstate their political status.

‘The events surrounding the prison protests, and culminating in the fast to the death of ten I.R.A(Irish Republican Army) and I.N.L.A(Irish National Liberation Army) volunteers began in 1976 when the British Government introduced a policy which was an attempt to portray Irish P.O.Ws as mere criminals. This policy became known as Criminalisation. From the 1st march 1976 any sentenced volunteer would no longer be afforded the rights of a political prisoner, a right that was won after a hungerstrike by Belfast man Billy Mc Kee in 1972,but would be treated like any other O.D.Cs(ordinary, decent criminals), as they were known. For the prisoners this would mean, wearing a prison uniform, doing prison work and a restriction in the amount of free association with their comrades inside.

This shift in policy by the British was seen by republicans as not only an attempt to criminalise the prisoners, but as an extension of this, a well thought out plan by the British government, to break the liberation struggle in Ireland. The prisons would be used as a breakers yard where the prisoners would be de-politicised, and therefore no longer a threat to the British state. The P.O.Ws had other plans. The first prisoner to be sentenced after the cut-off date was a nineteen year old Belfast man, called Kieran Nugent.He refused to wear a prison issue uniform telling the screws(warders)

“if you want me to wear a convict’s uniform you’re going to have to nail it on my back”.

His civilian clothing was thus taken away, so he sat almost twenty-fours hours a day wrapped in nothing but a prison blanket. The blanketmen, as they became known, were born. The tension within the H-Blocks soon heightened as more prisoners joined the protest, beatings became a daily occurence as the I.R.A and I.N.L.A volunteers refused to yield to the full might of the British state in Ireland.Their spirits were bowed but unbroken.

While all this was going on within the prison, the republican movement was piling on the pressure on the outside with rallies and protests in defence of the blanketmen. Rallies were organised throughout Ireland and further afield. On the military front the I.R.A had begun to target prison officers, killing several including a deputy governor.

Again the situation inside escalated and because of the severe beatings and forced mirror searches, in which prisoners would be forced to squat over a mirror in order to have their back passages probed, the P.O.Ws refused to leave their cells, unless to use the toilet. The beatings, which often led to prisoners being left unconscious, and the mirror searches, were seen by the prisoners, as a further attempt by the prison authorities to degrade them and force them into submission. A further development came when the prison authorities refused to give the prisoners an extra towel to cover themselves when they used the bathroom facilities.

This led to the no-wash protest which later became the dirty protest when prisoners, because they were being severely beaten every time they left the confines of their cells, refused to come out even to relieve their bodily functions. As a result volunteers were forced to smear their excrement on cell walls and funnel urine out the cell doors. The screws would often come along with a mop and force the pools of urine back under cell doors soaking bedding material which by this time was on the floor because all the furniture had been removed from the cells as a further punishment. After many months of living in their own excrement in scenes which the primate of all Ireland, Cardinal Tomas O’Fiaich had described as “similar to the slums of Calcutta” the prisoners decided that enough was enough and that the only way to resolve the issue was by the age old Irish weapon of last resort, the hungerstrike’.

The hunger strike was staged in order to get maximum publicity for the aims of the strike and each volunteer would start when the previous one was at death’s door.  This is the list of the prisoners demands, the aim being to get political status:

1.The right not to wear a prison uniform

2.The right not to do prison work

3.The right of free association with other prisoners, and to organise educational and recreational pursuits

4.The right to one visit, one letter and one parcel per week

5. Full restoration of remission lost through the protest

Bobby Sands, who became a member of Parliament for Sinn Fein during the hunger strike, volunteered to be the first and he lasted 66 days. Thatcher didn’t budge, despite condemnation from all over the world.  A further nine men died before the strike was called off. Eventually all of the demands were met, but the government never officially granted the prisoners political status.  As far as I am concerned this was truly criminal.  

In a sense it is the non-violent nature of this protest that makes it so significant.  Particularly since these men were IRA / INLA volunteers who would have known their way around weapons more instantaneous than their own bodies.

The question here is will I ever be able to understand the need to do something like this? Would I give up my life for the greater good? For a cause that may never win?  Would I ever fight like this? For instance like recent Iraqi ‘insurgents’, if my home were invaded would I would become an insurgent myself? Would I really? Would any of us?   We are the rich, the comfortable early 21st Century globalised middle classes who knowingly exploit the lives of those others whose hard work and short life expectancy make our comforts so immediate, so gratifying, so fun. We are terrified of losing what we have, despite knowing that what we have is corrupted by the suffering and exploitation that can be found all through the supply chain of the goods and services we consume.  We are sold a myriad of protections from chaos and death – insurance for this and that, beauty products that we are told defy the ageing process, we in the UK even pay for Trident because we (ok, some of us) choose to believe it is integral to the world’s perception of a strong Britain (without it we could be, or at least be perceived to be weak, not whatthe mightly Great Britain once was).  Our existence is essentially founded on a dialectic of comfortable conformity and fear that (without ever explicitly intending to, or without me really knowing it) the massive, complex system (TW Adorno calls it the ‘Verblendungszusammenhang’ – the social web of ‘blinding coherance’)  works to constantly reassure me and when it needs to it placates and distracts me. This happens because the very nature of things is that they perpetuate themselves.  There is no conspiracy – there is just continuation of what is. The fact that I am aware of the way in which my conformity works makes my cowardice even more obvious to me.

As human beings we are programmed at the level of our DNA to avoid death.  But these men stared death in the face, and gave in to it.  It could be argued that this was because they had nothing to lose – not so.  They had just as much to lose as anyone else, along with the constant temptation of giving in and being able to eat / have a clean cell/ warm clothes and so on,  but they never gave up.  And they did it for the greater good.  They did it to hold up a mirror to the British colonial machine and its practices. To shame the British state. Bobby Sands wrote ‘our revenge will be the laughter of our children’.

Despite the fact of the utterly inspiring courage of the republican prisoners, the fact that it is so hard to say no to the system that oppresses you is key, I think, to why so few people do it.  However, if we all took responsibility and said no, it wouldn’t be as hard. It is unlikely that this will happen however, with our many comforts, fears and distractions.  The system won’t let us go, and we don’t want to fight it. But it is our moral responsibility to honour the sacrifice of the hunger strikers and do what we can.

Our revenge will be the laughter of our children

October 16, 2010 Leave a comment
Categories: Irish Republicanism


September 13, 2010 1 comment

Sometimes things are so complicated that we forget that they don’t need to be.  There are certain things that are just wrong, and we do the right thing when we make it clear that we think it is wrong.  The ‘Israel-Palestine conflict’ is a case in point.  Although both Israelis and Palestinians have suffered in ways we elsewhere cannot even begin to imagine, and although the whole thing is horrendously complicated, there is nevertheless a truth that I believe cannot be denied.  Take, for example, what has been going on in Gaza over the last few years.  One of the most sophisticated militaries in the world (I would argue that Israel – from what I can tell – is pretty much a militarised society in that over there the military is part of the everyday) is imprisoning, controlling, slowly suffocating Gazans, who literally have no way to defend themselves other than to attack with rickety old rockets from Hizbullah in the North, or stones, or by blowing themselves up. By all accounts, people aren’t blowing themselves up as much as they were because the illegal wall between Palestine and Israel has been built, so not only have lives been saved, but the only potent weapon of the Palestinians has been rendered useless.  The desperation of Palestinian people is illustrated by the fact that many of them were prepared to blow themselves up.  We in Western Europe should note that this is not necessarily a religious thing, but a political one, an existential one even – it is the ultimate act of desperation, the ultimate cry of pain, and the final scream in the face of an oppressor that will not recognise your pain, will not acknowledge that you have no future. The only weapon they have is their life.  It is claiming one’s right to exist by ending one’s own existence  Of course, like in so much of life, the innocent are exploited by others who organise – in this case  the bombings – but of course don’t do the job themselves.

There are many arguments to be had about the conflict between Israel and Palestine:  why, how, what for and so on, but the basic truth is that Gaza is now pretty much a very large prison camp.  And if this was happening almost anywhere else in the world, it probably wouldn’t be ‘allowed’ to happen.  I don’t want to get into why this is allowed to happen, but the Israelis are very good at keeping US politicians who want to win elections on side.  I remember wondering how Obama would deal with this issue before he ran for the presidential candidacy. I remember being so disappointed in him but understanding why he chose not to criticise Israel.

Whatever one’s politics may be, whether one is pro-this or anti-that, fundamentally it is morally inexcusable that this is being allowed to happen.  This is not only for peace and freedom in Palestine of course. Currently Israel is isolationist, it’s rhetoric is pretty radical and it continues to build illegally on Palestinian land.  It is morally corrupting itself. Peace and freedom for the Palestinians would mean that Israel would also be free, from its prison of moral corruption and from it’s fear of attack.   However at present, Israel continues to be in breach of international law and it knows that it will never be held to account.  And, Israel’s leaders justify its actions in a discourse of fear:  the ongoing vulnerability of a Jewish state surrounded by Arab countries / Iran who, it is claimed, question it’s right to exist

Anyway, as I see it there is a simple truth.  The simple truth is that what is happening is wrong in the eyes of international law, and wrong on humanitarian and ethical levels.  Perhaps the right thing to do is to acknowledge  this simple truth, whilst recognising the pain that both communities have suffered.  However, this basic fact can easily lost in the complexities of a long and bloody battle.

As we live in a 24 hour media age, the conflict is of course being fought in the media.  The propaganda war is key to success in any war, and in this particular ‘conflict’, the true story rarely gets out, mainly because the media is lazy and expects us, the audience, to be too (we can’t explain why this is happening as it’s too complex so let’s just use stereotypes to explain).Often in a propaganda war, the perceived complexities are reduced down to the lowest common denominator  – namely whatever sells, whatever ‘angle’ is deemed suitable for the public’s current tastes – and the basic ethical truth is lost.  In this process, the media becomes complicit.  It’s complicity is complex but it is, nonetheless complicit. And we are used to it now.  We accept it.  Why? Why doesn’t anyone speak out?  Maybe they do, but of course the media never reports it.  We could do with a few more George Orwells, Robert Fisks or John Pilgers.

As I don’t watch the Fox news channel, it is quite rare that I am gobsmacked by brutally insensitive, incompetently researched and, basically, stupid journalism.   However, a recent BBC programme has really sunk the corporation to new depths.  The BBC is often (I really don’t know why) accused of being biased, but this is generally because it is criticised as too ‘left-wing’ (I think critics of the BBC think it is too close to the state, which funds it, but then it’s hardly likely to be ‘left-wing’), but there is a programme it showed recently which was very biased.  In fact, because of this programme I would argue that the BBC is complicit in the suffering of the Palestinians and the Israelis.  This is because of it’s stupid, ill-researched journalism, it’s lowest-common-denominator, sensationalist approach and it’s extraordinary bias, most viewers will believe the lies in this programme to be true, thus the status quo in this situation is perpetuated, thus nothing changes and the horror continues. An opportunity to tell the truth has been missed.  Again.

Panorama is rarely a seriously critical / journalistic 30 min of TV – although it is the BBC’s main investigative Journalism programme –  but this episode actually made me laugh. The programme was about the storming of the Mari Mara ship by Israeli Commandoes and the subsequent killing of a number of peace activists on board.   It makes a series of statements which argue essentially that the people on board the Mari Mara, and behind the whole peace convoy were ‘Islamic extremists’ (whatever that means), that the activists were preparing a violent clash with the Israelis, and that the Commandos themselves were the victims on the whole shambles.  There are constant claims and insinuations that are unfounded, and never explained, so any casual viewer would go away thinking that the claims in the film are true.  What little context there is, is essentially lip service.

You can watch it here and decide for yourself what you think:

I have already bored my loved ones about this issue and I finally found someone who agrees with me, and not just to shut me up.  He has done a short study of the programme and it’s appalling journalism.

Here are some more people that agree:

And more:

Here is the BBC’s response to BPC world:

Anthony Lawson who made the film calls for an inquiry into ‘who is really in charge’ of the BBC. I would argue that it’s not really about conspiracies, or who is in charge of the BBC. Essentially the inquiry should be about why we find it acceptable that institutions can be complicit in propagating our lack of understanding about – and therefore the suffering of those involved in –  some of the worst things that people do to each other.  And why this is allowed to continue.  And why we don’t care.  And why if we do care, we feel powerless to change it. It’s not just about the media either.  In various ways, we are all complicit, in our own and each others’ various repressions and supressions, and our suffering.


August 25, 2010 7 comments

I saw a government minister today on the news.  He was defending something that I really think is truly unethical. And what’s worse, he was defending it in a completely unethical way.  Rather than being honest, which I would say generally is an ethical way to behave, he lied.  But furthermore, he actually believed his own lies. He was arguing that an institute of fiscal studies report, which shows that the new government’s first budget will hit the poorest hardest, was wrong.  They got it wrong.  ‘but’ Jon Snow says, ‘we work with the IFS regularly and they never get it wrong.’ ‘oh well, they didn’t look at the whole picture’ he says.  And then goes on to tell an incredulous Jon S how the budget isn’t hurting the poorest people in this country by cutting their tax relief, their benefits, and so on. The IFS says the budget is regressive on almost every fair measure.

No wonder Nick Clegg is looking so bemused.  He, just like the minister Jon S interviewed, believes the lie too.  He has made himself believe it because he has convinced himself he has too much to lose.

In an interview with Channel 4 Clegg said 
”That [the budget] is a plan for real fairness, that is progressive and I think that is a richer understanding of what fairness is about than a single snapshot, that doesn’t – that simply doesn’t – provide the full picture of what we’re trying to do over the coming months and years.”

But why lie? Because being honest would be admitting that the whole project of this government an attempt to be even more radical than Thatcher ever dared to be.

But why not just say that they want to be radical in the way that they really are being radical?  I suppose they are afraid that voters will be disgusted.  I don’t know, because I really think most people don’t care that their society is being undermined right in front of them.  We are all too medicated and self-obsessed to care.  But when we do care it will be too late.  I really wonder how Clegg sleeps at night.

The Prime Minister calls the coalition programme ‘a radical policy programme’. Francis Maude spells it out nicely:

The Economist calls the UK ‘The West’s test tube’, i.e. where we go, other countries may have to follow. We are an experiment, to see how far a government can go in ‘rolling back the frontiers of the state’.

Cuts Cuts Cuts!  Cut the public sector!  Get rid of waste!  Stop those workshy poor people from exploiting the system!  The state MUST shrink! It is going to be tough, they always say, it’s going to hurt, but it will be good for us, and it’s the only way.  Things can’t go on like this! Etc, etc.  How many times has Clegg looked at us, the people who voted him into power (well I didn’t vote for him, but you know what I mean) and told us that it is going to be tough, that it will hurt?  Many times.  As for Cameron, he doesn’t care.  He’s loaded. The economic cutbacks will never hurt them.

Of course, the state must shrink because the economic system in which we live, capitalism, requires it to shrink in order that it can have free reign.  The state protects people from the worst excesses of capitalism.

But the argument has been, from the 18th Century onwards, the market is best left alone to do what it needs to do.  The market, if it is free enough, will raise people out of poverty.  It will create wealth!  I really am no economist, but this sounds rather ropey to me.  Marx was one of the first people to spot this ridiculous lie – ‘the market’ is not some extra-human entity with a life of it’s own, it arises from human action, or as Marx would say, production.  Experiments in minimising the state and allowing capitalism to do it’s thing unfettered have not gone that well.  Russia in the 90s.  Iraq. Thatcherite Britain in the 80s.  Horrific.  Something died in this country in the 80s.  A sense of community and solidarity.  As certain industries were killed off, so were communities which still suffer from the excesses of Thatcher’s ideological push to the golden future of a truly free market.   I would say that we are very lucky in this country to have a wonderful welfare system, NHS, free education system, and all the rest of it.  I do not want Mr Cameron et al getting their way and going further than Thatcher.  I will fight them and I think you should do too.

of course Cameron the multi millionaire won’t suffer as the state shrinks.  It’s the poorest who suffer and eventually it will be everyone and this is going to happen right here and now, if we let it.

Interestingly, a condition of autism is that one is unable to sympathise with others.  Have a look at this:

Now I am not saying that autistic people are fascists as clearly they are not, but I find it fascinating that it is being claimed Keith Joseph, who helped Thatcher to normalise the socially counterintuitive, was autistic.

Anyway so this minister today on the news also believed his own lies because if he really honestly stopped lying, his job, his nice comfortable existence, his mortgage, his future would be at risk.  GOD FORBID! (What’s God? I hear some of you scream…). He has only just got his job.  He can’t lose it all now.  He and Clegg have too much to lose so they lie to us and to themselves.

The philosopher jean Paul Sartre calls this sort of behaviour ‘bad faith’.

Some people lie to themselves because if they stop lying, the truth is far too terrible to face.

Some people are able to make themselves feel better by putting out a press release that they are a great philanthropist and the money they make from the book they have written (so buy it, it’s going to a good cause) will help the people who are suffering directly because of something they have done.  Blair’s whole life is a masterclass in bad faith.  He really believes his own lies.  His very big lie to himself had rather public consequences and countless people suffered and died.  I might send him Being & Nothingness by Sartre.  But he would say ‘oh how interesting.  My faith in God helps me to make the right choices.  It sets me free’.

Sartre’s philosophy is known as Existentialism.  Essentially it criticises the common idea that human beings have an ‘essence’ (some people call it a soul) that is eternal and fixed.  This understanding of human beings implies that the way we live is in some way or other pre-determined, because we have an essence, a soul or a personality even that is fixed and describes how we “really are”.  Existentialists argue that there is no eternal and pre-existing essence in human beings.  What comes first is human physical existence (this reflects Nietzsche’s ideas)  Their mantra is existence precedes essence.  Because human physical existence precedes essence, our being, what we are, can be determined in whatever way we like, in other words we can create our lives and live them however we want to. Every human being has the responsibility to chose to live the most free life they possibly can.  This idea is at the heart of existentialist ethics. Existentialists think living like this is authentic or real. It is real, because it is chosen by the individual.  This type of life is a burden because in a way it is easier to blame the bad things that happen to you on your circumstances or other people.  But you can’t do this if you are an existentialist, you have to make choices which reflect the idea that you want to live as authentically, as possible. Authentic existence concerns liberty rather than happiness.  Often happiness will follow from free choice, but often it won’t.  You might have to make a decision which actually makes you unhappy, but as long as it is authentic and makes you free, that is acceptable.  Sartre wrote a lot about the dilemmas existentialism brings. For example, we choose to act liberate ourselves.  This might not make us happier, but it will make us freer.  Bad faith is a concept Sartre use to explain when we don’t choose to act in a way that will make us freer.  The classic example of this is lying to oneself.

If only the government were honest with us.  They would probably still be as popular as they are now.  It’s tragic.  But things can be different.  Go and see this – it will show you how.

Don’t you wish you had done something else this evening?

August 17, 2010 1 comment

‘The most thought-provoking thing in our thought-provoking time is that we are still not thinking’.  Martin Heidegger.

Laugh at the truth. Forge an alliance with wisdom.

August 15, 2010 13 comments

In 1900, the Prussian philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche died after a very long illness.  Nietzsche died just as a new Century was born – the Century of the internet, the atomic bomb, the motor car, factory-scale murder, mass production and consumption, of universal suffrage, civil rights; the century where we saw human beings on the moon but also still in mass graves.

I have had a long love affair with Nietzsche’s work, which has in many ways given me a (very challenging) framework with which to understand, criticise and make sense of things, of ‘modern life’, or whatever you might want to call it. For me, Nietzsche is one of the very few true giants of philosophical thinking. In order to do justice to Nietzsche’s ideas that are relevant, this post is quite long. I am being quite self-indulgent but my hope is that a discussion of these ideas now will inform further posts and hopefully stimulate some debate.

I really don’t think you can think about what I want to think about, without bringing Nietzsche into it.  His influence has been so far reaching in so many ways, culturally, politically, philosophically, it is astonishing.  For instance without Nietzsche there would be no Freud, without Freud contemporary Western culture would be very different: those baby boomers may not have made the break from the culture of their parents generation and so much of what we take for granted in culture and politics would be different now.  I would suggest watching some Adam Curtis documentaries here (if you can get hold of them – I got a knock-off from ebay that didn’t work…)

Here we should probably get one thing out of the way: Nietzsche’s unfortunate appropriation by the Nazis (this was instigated by his sister Elisabeth Nietzsche who went to Paraguay with her crazy husband to found an Aryan colony but it didn’t work so she came back to Germany to interfere with her brother’s work instead).  This is ironic considering his disgust for anti- Semitism and mass political movements of any kind (including democracy), which he contemptuously refers to as aspects of the ‘herd mentality’. This appropriation also negatively affected Nietzsche’s reception in Europe and the USA for a long time after World War 2. But over the last 50 years, this shadow has passed over his work. He does say some things that could be interpreted as anti-Semitic, but the point is really that everything Nietzsche writes is controversial – he pretty much despises everyone, because pretty much everyone is unable/not willing to think for themselves. Nietzsche is often seen as a negative thinker because he criticises just about everything, and doesn’t give any easy answers. His contempt is part of his charm and it reflects the challenging nature of his ideas. Really he is a profoundly positive thinker, which is moving when considered in the light of his painful and difficult life.

Nearly eleven years before his death, Nietzsche suffered a complete mental breakdown and then a series of strokes. Nietzsche had suffered all his life from very poor health including crippling migraine.  He was a very lonely person. The one time he fell in love that we know about was with the very interesting Lou Salome (above on the left, posing in the cart; Nietzsche is the one with the massive ‘tache) who turned Nietzsche’s advances down and later went on to have a relationship with Freud.  But Nietzsche was a pioneer. He knew this, but very few other people did and so his usual reaction was contempt. The peak of his career came in his 20s but because of his bad health he had to resign his prestigious professorship and move to the mountains where the climate was better for him.  With his academic career pretty much over, his work became more and more difficult for people to engage with and he had few friends.  Yet he kept on writing and he knew that one day his work would be taken seriously. If only he had known how seriously his work is now taken, Nietzsche probably would have been proud of his legacy but also disgusted by the people reading it, and the institutionalization of his ideas.

What I find so inspiring about Nietzsche’s work is that he thinks the most serious thing one should do is not take anything too seriously. He wrote a book called The Science of Joy (unhelpfully translated into English as ‘The Gay Science’): that’s how seriously he took not being serious. Nietzsche is often a very funny writer. The chapters of his last book Ecce Homo have absolutely classic titles: ‘Why I am so Wise’, ‘Why I am so Clever’ and ‘Why I Write Such Good Books’.  He was probably already a bit bonkers by then.  You have to love this man.

One of the main themes in his work is the death of God, what he calls the advent of nihilism, and the subsequent revaluation of values.  If we follow this line of thinking we can begin to see how Nietzsche can help us negotiate the ethical maze, or at least see it from a different, perhaps rather radical perspective.  The idea is that Nietzsche is challenging us to act despite there being no way that we can know what is objectively right or wrong.  The more I think about this, the more unsettling it becomes.  It is very hard to feel liberated by this imperative as Nietzsche wants us to.  However that is the challenge.

For Nietzsche, nihilism occurs when modern society experiences the loss of what we might call objective truth.  This means that there is no longer a satisfactory and all-encompassing answer to the question ‘why’ that can show us in a convincing manner how things “really are”.  The loss of objective truth can be explained as being particular to the modern age or ‘modernity’, because modernity is characterised by a rapid destabilising and undermining of traditional structures of authority, meaning and discourse. Like the decline of religion for instance.  Nietzsche highlights the loss of objective truth in modernity by examining our moral belief-systems. He argues that crucial to these structures of authority, meaning and discourse is the idea that truth is a property of things.

For example, we might say that something is good. When we say this, we are also saying that we believe that it is true that something is good.  The fact that we think it is true in effect ascribes a property to an object/person/idea, in this case “goodness”. We might say, for example,  “I wonder where all the good in the world has gone”.  The outcome of this is the belief that we can match language to reality, that the words we use actually correspond to “the facts” about something in the world, and this is what makes them true.  Nietzsche argues, particularly in two of his books ‘On the Genealogy of Morality’ and ‘The Science of Joy’, that this whole way of thinking is a fiction.  Truth does not correspond to any facts about reality. Truth is, he believes, actually no more than a series of authoritative metaphors that we use to describe our world and with which we keep our values in place.  We do this in order to satisfy what he calls ‘the desire for certainty’. The desire for certainty is motivated by our drive for survival. We all have it, all life is driven by self-preservation.   You may see Nietzsche’s influence on Freud here.  Nietzsche’s account of truth really says that when we call something good, we might believe that our doing so matches language to reality.  But we are deceiving ourselves.  In fact, we are more likely to call something good because it asserts our individual or group power, thus satisfying our survival-drive. This is what he says about the subject:

…man needs to believe in an unbiased ‘subject’ with freedom of choice, because he has an instinct of self-preservation and self-affirmation in which every lie is sanctified.  The reason the subject (or, as we more colloquially say, the soul) has been, until now, the best doctrine on earth, is perhaps because it facilitated the sublime self-deception whereby the majority of the dying, the weak and the oppressed of every kind could construe weakness itself as freedom, and their particular mode of existence as an accomplishment.

I love the way he writes; those italics drip with sarcasm.  Anyway so following on from this we have Nietzsche’s take on religion and the death of God.

Nietzsche claims that among the discourses of science, metaphysics and religion, the ‘best doctrine on earth’ for sustaining objective truth is theological truth: the established authority of God. In The Science of Joy, Nietzsche describes the ‘death of God’, the moment when the highest value is devalued. ‘The holiest and the mightiest thing the world has ever possessed has bled to death under our knives’.  Nietzsche’s challenge in this famous passage is the accusation that we have killed God.  We have to recognise that the loss of the ultimate objective truth is our doing, because we ourselves created the story that there is objective truth in order to satisfy the desire for certainty.  Once truth vanishes, we are left with nothing theological or philosophical upon which we can rely to orient ourselves in an increasingly complex and disorienting world.

Once we recognise that truth is merely a set of psychologically motivated values we are left with a sense of horror at the absurdity of the lack of meaning in life. Nietzsche calls the drive to keep our values in place, thus avoiding this absurdity, the ‘will to truth’. He claims that the will to truth is just a means of concealing the terrifying fact that truth is merely what we call various values, which are themselves motivated by psychological drives.  As such he writes, ‘truth is a useful deception’.  It is useful because it keeps the values we have invented in place, making them look like values that are something to do with the way things really are.  The greatest and therefore most dangerous cultural expression of the nihilistic will to truth for Nietzsche is Judeo-Christian morality. Nietzsche argues that God, as the ultimate expression of truth, is the ‘great justifier’.  This is because Christianity prevents us from seeing the absurd nothingness of life by directing our attention away from the physical to the metaphysical. Because it is concerned with the metaphysical rather than the physical, Nietzsche argues, Christianity is life denying. Christianity is the embodiment of disgust for life, because it focuses on the metaphysical rather than the physical world. Why look to another world, why deny life? He asks.

For Nietzsche, the only thing to do under the conditions of nihilism is to affirm life, to confront the absurdity of existence and then bravely embrace it. Nihilism thus represents the complete breakdown of the traditional order of meaning and values, allowing those who embrace nihilism to experience the opportunity for revaluation and reinterpretation. This revaluation is really an ethical practice. It focuses on the creation of new meaning after the breakdown of traditional meaning, allowing the individual to ‘laugh at the truth’ and ‘forge an alliance with wisdom’.

In defiance of the idea that it is the task of the wise philosopher to seek the truth, Nietzsche claims that it is not wise to seek truth. Instead he argues it is wise to give up the idea that truth can be sought after or discovered as if it is something objective or ‘out there’, a property of things which can be found or revealed to us.

This idea, I believe is truly challenging. It’s inherent scepticism forms the basis of an interesting theoretical and ethical imperative. In other words, this idea can perhaps inform us when we are trying to understand what is the right thing to do. The challenge of course is to try to avoid both objective truth and relativism. One problem with Nietzsche as an ethical thinker is that with the collapse of values, everything is relative.  So actually what we do doesn’t matter, because every thought and action is of equal value.  Clearly this isn’t the case.  For instance you may believe that it is wrong to torture and kill someone, not because your religious values say it is, but more because you have no right to make anyone else suffer.  Here, Nietzsche may ask why don’t you have the right to make anyone suffer.  Your answer may be because you have respect for the integrity of someone else’s life.  This may well actually be based on the remnants of religious sentiment (the soul etc), or it may not.

However is it the case that if we take a Nietzschean view then why shouldn’t we torture and kill? If all values are relative, why should we have any respect for life at all? Whether the intention is there or not, I see this question being dealt with in the extremely creepy Michael Haneke film Funny Games (1997) where two young men utterly without empathy kidnap and torture a family just because they can.  Similarly in the fantastic Hitchcock film Rope (1948) two young men (why is it always young men? Would women do this?) commit murder, again just because they can, but here we have some sort of rationale. They wish to exert their intellectual and social superiority (a misinterpretion of Nietzsche) and see the crime as an experiment.  In both films there is no moral anchor as all actions are conceived as relative.  However, what we could say here is that although the young men in each film are laughing at the truth, they fail to forge an alliance with wisdom. So they fail in Nietzschean terms. Nietzsche is charging us to revaluate and reinterpret our moral values but this does not mean we should have no moral values. If we are brave enough we are supposed to create our own values and delight in our ability to do so, and our ability to choose the course of our own actions and stick to it.  At the very least Nietzsche’s challenge can help us to negotiate a world without the absolutes we once had. I think that Nietzsche can help inform really tricky moral issues and I will come back to this in subsequent blogs.

Everyone is listening, no one is listening

August 4, 2010 6 comments

For me the excitement, the creative rush of starting something new is always moderated by the fear of ridicule and failure. Everyone is waiting for everyone else to fail, and is jealous of everyone else’s successes. The world we live in today appears to have conditioned us to seek unobtainable perfection but impossible difference.  Everything is the same, but nothing is allowed to be.  This paradox, I believe, is at the heart of our complex, infuriating and overwhelming post-industrial society.  Advertising demands our compliance, we are told to buy this or that product so we can be just like them, cool, happy and desired.  Being just like them is being an individual that others will want to emulate.  But of course, there is no individual, just as there is no whole.  We are alienated units of consumption and as our world slowly melts into freefall we are happy to medicate ourselves against the fear that we are going to lose everything; everything we own, but even worse, the structures that we are told protect us from the terrifying unknown.  Going shopping keeps the marauding hordes from the gates.

Given what we might call the dark side of the Enlightenment; the rational-bureaucratic structures of modernity and the repressive tendencies of late capitalism, what are we supposed to do? How on earth can we do anything meaningful, creative, how do we resist? Are we supposed to be happy?  Are we able to lead an ethical life? How is this possible today when there are no ultimate foundations, no absolute moral anchors? Can we do the right thing, do we even know what the right thing is?  Well, yes of course.  Often we do, just as often we choose not to, because that is the easier, more comfortable option.

In what follows I am going to explore, in a completely whimsical and random way, what stinks and what doesn’t, what is hateful and what is wonderful, how there can be both hateful and wonderful, and most importantly, begin to try to think about trying to make sense of it all, to ask why, even though I know there are no answers.  I want to explore how we can challenge a system of which it is often (always?) difficult to formulate coherent and significant criticisms, and honour those that do, and those that have. In my comfortable conformity I will champion those that have taken risks.  Because like almost everyone else I am too scared to.

As a student of modern European philosophy, especially the German kind, I tend to think and write in a certain way, and have a certain perspective on things.  In my next post I will explain what this is, but to cut a long story short it all begins with Nietzsche and his controversial claim that God is Dead.  But the thinking around this claim can often lead to our inability to actually do anything because if there is no ultimate or absolute meaning and everything is contingent, then everything we do becomes meaningless.  So that’s no good.  The other extreme is blind idealism, but as Frantz Fanon quite rightly said, blind idealism is reactionary.  So I will explore the idea of a happy medium, of the possibility of balance between the two, whilst trying not to sound like a whining liberal.

Ariadne led Thesus through the maze. She was also married to Dionyus the god of revelry, wine, theatre and fertility.  Despite her brains and her heroism, Ariadne obviously knew how to have a good time.  So here I want to follow her lead and as  I try to negotiate the ethical maze I will distract myself with some of the things I like to do. The film director Terrence Malick once said, ‘when people express what is most important to them, it often comes out in clichés’.   So if you are reading this, please ‘bear with me’ as they say in call centres.

Categories: cinema, philosophy, politics