Wednesday, 31 January 2007

Class War In the PC Age

Well it may be the 21st century but clearly social attitudes don't change as fast as technology. According to the beeb, though hardly in need of verification for those of us attuned to life on the island, class sensitivity is increasing in Britain. The gap between rich and poor is widening. And social mobility is at its lowest since Disraeli was prime minister. Essentially, there doesn't seem to be much difference between the class system and the caste system. That's progress!!

What especially disturbs me is that, in an age where racist comments on the world's dumbest and nastiest tv show can trigger a diplomatic incident in India, not to mention national self-flagellation, we can be so blasé about our little class problem. I've checked with a raft of friends from Finland to Fiji and it turns out that they are utterly flumoxed by attitudes that the UK considers perfectly natural...I'm sorry, but our country's obsession with accent is second to none (it's a little like Google-earth, Brits have an ability to home in on somebody's precise background and origins simply through how they speak).

No where else in the world does the Prime Minister get a voice coach to change his vowels simply to sound more like Mondeo Man. No where else in the world do people discuss the 'regionalisation of accents' in their national media portals as if it were some sort of government conspiracy. No where else could my highly educated friend, who's fluent in German and has an MA in EU Studies, find it difficult to get a job simply because of a strong Fife dialect...

It's a funny old world

Monday, 29 January 2007

Francopop and social commentary

I thought I would take a break from philosophical meanderings to bring you the sardonic delights of one of France's oldest and beardiest rockers. Now we all know that the French have never moved on from the summer of '68. Dani Cohn-Bendit's still on the go, as is arch-nemesis Chirac (though on his last political legs it's fair to say. Things do change, albeit slowly). Music-wise too, where Britain has ditched the old, the ugly, and the talented in favour of 'Tesco's finest' pop creations like HearSay, French stars from the 60's just keep getting better. Enter Renaud with the superlative 'Les Bobos' - an ironic take on that new social class, the bourgeois bohemians. I believe the term was first coined in New York to describe Greenwich Village hippies with more money than they knew what to do with. It probably applies to me too, but I can't let a little self-criticism get in the way of a good song with lyrics that do more than arbitarily rhyme.

So, here goes in translation. You can download the track itself off I-tunes or equivalent from the album 'Rouge Sang', while the French lyrics are here so you can laugh at my appalling rendition- All parenthesis [] are my own observations...

"They call them bourgeois bohemians
Or 'bobos' for the cogniscenti among you
In Vincent Delerm's hits they're mentioned in almost every rhyme.
They form a new caste, after the bourgeoisie and the proles
Similar to the beaufs, but classier
I'll give you a brief sketch of them now.

They're pseudo-artistic, it's true, but their passion is for their work -
whether in IT or media -
and they're proud to pay a hefty share of taxes.

They live on the right side of town.
Or in the suburbs, but in a loft.
Their hip artists' studios are much more now than Avenue Foch.

They have well brought-up kids
Who have read 'The Little Prince' by the age of 6 [ie precocious]
Who go to private schools -
well, schools that are deprived of chavs, it's true-

They smoke a joint from time to time
and shop in organic markets
Get around in their 4 by 4s
Though more often than not they prefer to go by bike

They read Houellebecq or Philippe Djian
Smash-hits and the TV guide
Their bedtime reading is typically Surand
Found next to the IKEA catalogue

They love Japanese restaurants and Korean Cinema
And spend their holidays at Cap Ferret
- the Cote D'Azur, frankly, is horrific.

They mostly watch ARTE
Canal + is for Blairites
Except for the odd Paris St Germain football match
And a quick porno from time to time

They listen to France Info [news lite] all day long on their HiFi
Alain Bashung, Francoise Hardy, and of course, Gerard Manset
They love Deproges without even realising that Deproges hates them
Bedos and Jean-Marie Bigard
Although they're ashamed to admit it

They love Jack Lang and Sarkozy [right wing, hang'em, flog'em types]
But always vote green
They love the gay mayor of Paris,
Ardisson and his 'friend' Marco

The women all wear Diesel
While for Him it's Armani or Kenzo
And always pay a lot for their cashmere
Zadig and Voltaire - I say bravo
They can often be seen at museums, art galleries and 'olde' bistros
Drinking 'iced Manzanas' while listening to Manu Chao

My pen is slightly poisioned
When it comes to this tribe I'm not too keen on
But from one angle I can see that
You'd also think I'm one of them.

Les bobos, les bobos"

Ah - nothing like a mirror to ourselves is there...Anyone recognise a hint of truth in this? Now, back to that glass of rouge...

Sunday, 28 January 2007

Why We Do What We Do

Why do we choose one course of action over another? And on what ethical basis? I've been wondering about this, as I've had to make a lot of decisions of late. Partly because I've been putting some of them off for some time; partly because opportunities have arisen that I have had to weigh up; and partly because I've come to a stage in my life where simply being has got to be substituted by purposeful action. Participation rather than spectation is the order of the day. Call that a quarter life crisis if you will, but suddenly the fact that life is short and the choices are many has been highlighted with a big neon sign over the doorway of my mind.

So how do we decide ethically what decisions to make? How do we weigh up the options? I'll turn to my philosophy reading list for a few ideas. The rationalist says that we take stock of the possibilities and, by process of elimination, come to the most reasonable conclusion. The utilitarian says that we follow that course of action which leads to the greatest happiness. The Nietzschian says that we do what we do for no other reason than that we will it.

The problem is, we are not always as rational, or as capable of summing the alternatives, as we would like to think. As James Griffin has noted, the idea that we can calculate total benefits against total costs demands something like a Godlike knowledge of the world and the consequences of any particular action (the whole butterfly flaps its wings and an earthquake occurs on the other side of the world kind of scenario).

Being quite simply human, the most likely scenario seems to be, as Joseph Raz observes, that having disqualified a number of options on rational or emotional grounds then it is our will, and our will alone, that provides the grounds for subsequent decision-making. Though of course, decisions are made on a whole number of bases - the time available to think through the options, our levels of tiredness, indifference, or simply capacity to think.

So the more you look at it, the less absolutely ethical, or rational, anything we do seems to be. Perhaps the best axiom is simply do what seems right to you at the time. And should that prove to be a poor choice, and our lives are too short to start over again in the new-found knowledge that a different course of action is preferable, we must simply live with the fact of our limitations.

That also seems to be one of the best reasons for believing in God. Whatever we humans discover is always a partial truth, and, even if such truths prove absolutely true, there is no reason to beleive that there are no other axes for truth of which we remain ignorant.

As such, I am off to Brussels for no good reason except that the opportunity has come along and I am too tired and busy to look for more good reasons not to take it.

Friday, 26 January 2007

At what price society?

I am re-reading Wuthering Heights at the moment and it made me wonder how we all manage to be so repressed so much of the time. Occasionally, of course, you will pass an arguing couple on the street, or someone cursing their way home after an alcoholic evening ends in tears. But in general, people seem composed, well arranged, mechanical even, as they go about their daily business.

Cathy Earnshaw, by contrast, "rung the bell till it broke with a twang; lay dashing her head against the arm of the sofa...grinding her teeth so that you might fancy she would crash them to splinters...She had no breath for speaking". Why? All because Heathcliff has been banished from the house by her weak husband Edgar - and is to take his revenge by eloping with his unfortunate sister, Isabella.

Now this is a romantic novel set in the Yorkshire Moors so we, the readers, indulge those characters. Their reactions somehow belong in that wild context. Our lives, in the suffocating surrounds of suburbanism, by contrast, allow for no such fits of emotion. We must always watch ourselves, our behaviour, for fear that it might depart from the norm. Not for us skipping in the street, breaking down at the end of an affair, dancing for joy. No, we must always conform.

But at what price is this socialisation exacted? Kids laugh hundreds of times a day. Adults? Around 14 times. Even that seems like a lot, if I look around me. We function at the expense of ourselves most of the time, never allowing ourselves to think how life could be if we embraced it more fully. Surely it's healthy to allow ourselves more leaway to feel?

Tuesday, 23 January 2007


Reason is an interesting concept. As my friend pointed out over coffee not too long ago , its devotees insist that it operates on the basis of neutral, hard facts, even though the point from which their deductions start is an absolute and unshakable belief in its existence. Although you can rationalise, in the logical and consequential sense, from one given point to another, the point of departure itself - the founding principle - is always a leap of faith.

I think life is like that. All of us - psychotics and paranoics included - can see logical chains which put the pieces of the world together in a way that makes sense. Just look at the narratives we construct to explain every aspect of our lives, from love to ideology. But just because it makes sense does not mean it is true (or, even that it is the best possible lie). Start looking at things from a positive perspective and the logic that follows will weave threads of harmony: if your starting place, by contrast, is cynicism, then the world you logically invent is permeated by pettiness, hypocrisy and manipulation.

A good example of what happens when we believe our own rationalisations are true or worthwhile simply because they make sense is illustrated by GK Chesterton in his book 'Orthodoxy'. The madman, he says, has an explanation for everything, yet "his mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle. A small circle is quite as infinite as a large circle, but, though it is quite as infinite, it is not so large...There is such a thing as a narrow universality; there is such a thing as a small and cramped eternity...when this kindly world all round the man has been blackened out like a lie; when friends fade into ghosts, and the foundations of the world fail; then...the man, believing in nothing and in no man, is alone in his own nightmare".

If we predicate life on an understanding that is too narrow, egotistical, material or inhumane we cannot see beauty or understand virtue. We will simply see what our minds conceive, reflected back at us. It is only if we live, as Kant advised, to pursue perfection in ourselves and happiness for others, that the world can come to ressemble our best conceptions.

Poetic Justice

Sometimes only poetry can express that thing inside you which defies all power to vocalise. In this case, WH Auden's Stop All the Clocks:

"He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good."

The only difference is that the last line cannot and must not come true. No one has died. Man is not God and false gods shatter: a whole world remains to be loved and lived. That is the challenge. And if this experience teaches me that, then I'm ready to accept it.

Monday, 22 January 2007

New beginnings

If you're as technically challenged as me then the idea of even COMMENTING on someone else's blog is daunting. So I plan to approach this from the standpoint of the 'tortoise and the hare': ie, that in seven years, when I've learned to download photos, fiddle with captions and insert seismic special effects, I might actually have created something of interest. In the meantime, treat this as a life, er work, in progress...With any luck it might all add up to something one day.

I'll kick off with a few thoughts on the fracas over Scottish Independence which has overtaken the press in recent weeks since it's a subject close to my heart. The impression I get is that no one really saw it coming Down South. Indeed, everyone I know is treating the situation like some sort of extended April Fool's trick on the part of Scottish voters. Unfortunately, the circumstances which have lead up this point are the very definition of serendipitous.

The West Lothian Question has been an issue since devolution first raised its head in 1977. These days, however, the Tory platform on 'English votes for English laws' means the knives are drawn over Scottish MP's voting rights. That should satisfy the radical left and the Lib Dems as well, since it was Labour's Scottish Mafia that have pushed through most of England's controversial legislation in the last few years. Foundation hospitals, tuition fees, private finance this and that - no problem if you are a Scottish MP since none of these affect your constitutents. Indeed, one might well ask whether anyone in Scotland really knows what their elected representatives are up to these days (including the MPs themselves) since anything of any real importance to voters is now a devolved competence.

This tension, coupled with the Hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath's prospective premiership, the kind of anti-Englishness demonstrated by the 'We'll support Trinidad and Tobago in the World Cup since they've a player called Jason Scotland' mentality of the First Minister, and strong dissatisfaction with Blairite policies is likely to manifest itself in votes for the SNP in May's Scottish Parliament elections and a Conservative Government in Westminster next time.

All that is pretty obvious I would have thought (so if you were rolling your eyes over my facile political prognosis, worry not, we're moving on). But it is due to its sheer obviousness that I am so surprised by everyone else's suprise. What did we think was going to happen when the Parly came into being? That Labour would reign forever on either side of Gretna Green?

Whether the devolution deal was short-sighted is hardly the question though. I think Holyrood is legitimate in the eyes of most Scots and is doing a reasonable job. Indeed, there is an argument for saying that it should have more powers, rather than fewer. What worries me, though, is that NOTHING GOOD will come of this independence debate. I'm seeing a kind of 'vive le Quebec libre' situation emerging, where independence is hyped up over several years, investors run for the hills, the percentage of Scots reliant on the public sector (read the chancellor's exchequer) escalates, and then we all go and VOTE AGAINST INDEPENDENCE.

I'd hope that we have the sense to either kill it quickly or grit our teeth and go for a new settlement (federal or independent). Otherwise, it's going to be one big economic wasteland up there (and lest we forget, with the slowest GNI growth of any region in the UK its not all roses in that department now)

If we want a 'smart, successful Scotland' then, fellow citizens, we need to start THINKING SMART. Anyway, here's an article i did on the subject in today's Herald: it's partisan, natch, but all comments welcome

And for the benefit of general merriment and national pride, the parly website in Scots...

Good day...