Archive for November, 2009



Legerdemain

Oh dear, I watched the France-Ireland match last night to watch Ireland crash out at the hand of Thierry Henry. Henry’s manipulation was even more outrageous than Diego Maradona’s hand of God back in Mexico ’86. First, because he handled the ball twice, and second, because it’s a long time since Ireland was at war with France.

I don’t get this ‘any professional player in Henry’s position would do the same’ reasoning, which Jim Beglin had the privilege of expressing first, and which is spreading like knotweed. I think it is probably true as a matter of fact: you would need to be some sort of moral giant or idiot to plead for your goal to be disallowed, given the pressures from fans, players, sponsors and so on. Being nice is not so big a money-spinner as being a winner. Which is why the playoffs were seeded, because the risk of a World Cup without Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema needed to minimised.

But if you’re satisfied with the idea that any professional player would do the same, why watch professional sport? Once a sporting spectator has dispensed with the central idea of the match, that is, the exercise concerned with which competitor comes out on top in playing by the rules, you enter the realm of spectacle of the order of WWE wrestling, where what you’re concerned with are the story and the sensations that come with victory or defeat. And WWE has better back stories. The moment a professional footballer grabs the announcer’s mike to tell the crowd that he enjoyed a drug-fuelled steamy session with the opposing centre-half’s wife and her lesbian lover at the very moment that the centre-half was laid up in hospital getting his jaw reset from a beating administered to him in the car park of the gender reassignment surgery centre by a group of goons hired by his own manager seems far off, but I sense the hour is later than we think. Lots of football fanatics I know are able to draw on a wealth of seamy, prurient stories about professional footballers to complement their deep knowledge of match statistics, tactics, formations and so on. Some of these strike me as fantasy, with some stories approaching oral slash fiction.

I have to admit, though, that it would be very odd to take an interest in televised spectator sports and at the same time have no interest to some degree in the personalities and allegiances involved: the psychological side of things is all part of the spectacle. For instance, I enjoy watching Nicolas Anelka play because he combines immense skill, strength and no small amount of subtlety with the appearance that he really hates playing football.

Nor do I think there is much to recommend a spectator sport that is concerned with unerringly rigid application of the rules, which is one of the reasons that I take no interest in rugby. I mean, if you have a huge apparatus of rules and procedures bearing down on the sporting activity, to me that defeats the central point of most sporting activity, which -if I might be pretentious-moi about this- is above all un jeu. Sure, there need to be rules in order to enable play to take place in the first instance. But too many rules just render the whole thing an exercise in exploiting the rules to their limit, rather than a matter of play.

There is a bit of a paradox at the heart of l’affaire Henry, which is that a less rigid set of rules would mean that the goal would not have stood, but the objection to the goal is on account of the rules not being rigidly followed. That is, if the Irish players’ impassioned protests had been entertained by the ref, then the ref, even after awarding the goal, could have consulted with TV cameras, found that the goal should not have stood, and then disallowed the goal.

One time I was refereeing a rather low-profile match and a player went outside the goal-line with the ball before slotting the ball in the back of the net. I forgot to blow the whistle when the ball went out, had no linesman, and when I then declared, with a shake of the head, that there was no goal, I got assailed by several members of the team claiming to have scored, screaming at me for not having blown the whistle, saying that the goal ought to have stood. I told them to go to hell: it was damned obvious that the ball had gone out. The captain, in a rictus of rage, was like, well, you should have blown. And I was like, well, you’re right and I didn’t, but it’s obvious that it wasn’t a goal, as is the fact that you are a tool, but I don’t ask you to wear a sign saying so, and I think you’re humiliating yourself making an issue out of this when you’re 4-0 down.

That was my last match as a referee – the gulf between the my impressionistic ideas on the spirit in which the game ought to be played and the reality of the petty legalistic whingeing that sustains the game at any level was too much for this gentle flower to bear. There’s something undignified, ugly even, in the image of people getting all het up about something that matters very little: football shouldn’t be more important than life and death, even though, when it comes to people’s passions about things, it often really is, when it take hold of people’s every waking moment, giving them something to look forward to in the absence of anything else, occupying the space formerly held by religion.

Not that I wish to make little of the opportunities for real enjoyment, friendship, songs and so on that football provides- my point is not that it doesn’t matter at all. Hell, I woke the child twice last night shouting at the TV. I just get struck by the huge investment of time, money, effort and thought that people put into football by comparison with other things, and how easily they show allegiance to professional teams that have precious little to do with them. In particular I have a deep distaste for the way football (and other sports, too) is used as vehicle for presenting a common interest in the absence of any other: the jaw-dropping demands for a rematch from Minister of Justice Dermot Ahern is as good an example as any:

Mr Ahern has said FIFA should be called to account in the interests of fair play.
‘They probably won’t grant it as we are minnows in world football but let’s put them on the spot,’ the minister said.
‘It’s the least we owe the thousands of devastated young fans around the country.
‘Otherwise, if that result remains, it reinforces the view that if you cheat, you will win.’

Satire, if not dead yet again, is lying bleeding from multiple stab wounds.

Confronted with the likes of this, Thierry Henry has done Irish people a favour. Can you imagine the outpourings of ‘if the footballers can do it, then so can we!’ voluntarist exhortations that would gush forth from every media outlet for months on end? Not to mention the astrological economics wondering whether a world cup finals will herald a return to the good times. It was the right moment to deliver a lesson that game is rigged by powerful interests and claims to honest endeavour and appeals to the rules of the existing system won’t count for shit. Chapeau.

Not I, Said The Sparrow

Who killed the Celtic Tiger? – The Irish Times – Sat, Nov 14, 2009

The economists who acted as the cheerleaders for the property bubble acted in bad faith. The French have a phrase, la trahison des clercs , the treachery of the intellectuals, for those who are aware of abuses but fail to denounce them. They are the last people we should listen to now as we seek to recover from the damage they inflicted.

‘La trahison des clercs’ strikes me as too grand a term to apply to people who are in the pay of financial institutions and therefore issue opinions in line with the interests of their employers. To say that they acted in bad faith is to imply that they could have acted in good faith.

A more interesting question is how these people gained widespread respectability. The well-known fact that both the Irish Times and the Irish Independent had made substantial investments in property-related enterprises is undoubtedly a factor, since the opinions of these people, which could be represented as authoritative statements, meant a low-cost supply of content for delivering reporting on the property market intended to stimulate the fears and aspirations of potential buyers.

What has received less attention is the role of the state broadcaster, which used these people regularly, and continues to do so. Just last week I heard a radio discussion involving a prominent economist still in the pay of a financial institution, who, referring to himself as a ‘worker’ at one stage, and calling for public sector pay to be cut, proferred the opinion, somewhat incongruously, that the VAT arising from unsold houses would result in a substantial contribution to the state coffers if these houses were sold. In doing so he was implying that some form of action should be taken in order to expedite their sale, a course of events that would no doubt boost the revenue of his employer. His interlocutor, whilst known to bristle with colourful language on occasion at suggestions he finds unpalatable, particularly with regard to his own house, saw no need to challenge the brazen promotion of private interests in the guise of objective analysis.

Leaving aside the manifold appearances on discussion programmes, there are many examples, easily found, of RTE using privately-funded economists as authoritative sources in their news reporting. In many cases, the interventions appear as the product of objective, dispassionate empirical inquiry, touching on broad macroeconomic matters, with no outward relation to encouraging the sale of particular financial products. No doubt this is the intention, from the perspective of the entity providing the analysis, because if a particular individual can be seen to provide wide-ranging, apparently disinterested, commentary on a range of general matters, this serves to create the impression that the institution he -it is normally a he, of course- represents is primarily concerned with acting in the interests of the general public. Or, in a complementary fashion, what is good for the financial institution is also good for the general public. This activity, which continues to this day, has a cumulative effect: the longer it goes on, the greater the authority the representatives acquire, and even though the current robbery conducted by the government on behalf of the banks has done much to dispel many illusions about where the interests of banks and related institutions lie, RTE as yet has shown no inclination to dispense with the services of the individuals in question. Nor, for that matter, do the individuals appear inclined to dispense with the services of RTE.

The story, then, as it concerns the ‘experts’, seems to me not so much a barrage of misleading stories about the housing market produced by interested parties, but how easy it was for private financial institutions to circumvent the normal limits of advertising to represent themselves in license-payer funded media as acting in the public interest, even though their only true interest can only ever be the bottom line.

Ill Communications

There are some things I prefer to stay quiet about, or joke about, rather than take them seriously. One is anything that relates to mental illness. One reason for not wanting to talk about mental illness is the fear that by doing so, not having any special words for it, I myself will become mentally ill: like when Nietzsche says gazing into the abyss leads the abyss to gaze back at you. (Incidentally I had a brief episode in my teens, in the course of a ‘what’s-it-all-about-Alfie’ moment when I tried to read Thus Spoke Zarathrusta, and, since I hadn’t developed any sort of knowledge beforehand about what Nietzsche was all about, it all ended quite abysmally.)

So the first question I ask myself is whether there is such a thing as mental illness, and that leads me into Foucault territory, in particular the matter of the relation of expert psychatric opinion: in his Abnormal lectures, he talks about how this opinion ‘(made) it possible to put in place or, in any case, to justify the existence of a sort of protective continuum through the social body ranging from the medical level of treatment to the penal institution strictly speaking, that is to say, the prison and, if it comes to it, the scaffold’.

I am afraid that, when confronting myself with this sort of thing on my lunch break, my response is like that of the Water Rat from Wind in The Willows, that what we are talking about is ‘the Wild World. And that’s something that doesn’t matter, either to you or me. I’ve never been there, and I’m never going, nor you either if you’ve got any sense at all. Don’t ever refer to it again, please’.

The problem is that it’s hard not to be confronted with the matter of mental illness, or mental health, even on your lunch break. Yesterday the Guardian reported on Robert Enke, the German goalkeeper who committed suicide, reporting his as wife saying that he ‘spent years trying to hide his mental illness, fearful it might destroy his career and cause the authorities to take away their adopted daughter, before he finally killed himself.’ and that ‘Enke, 32, who was a favourite to start in goal for Germany at the World Cup in South Africa next year, having overcome a series of personal tragedies and professional setbacks, left a suicide note in which he apologised to family and friends.’

What interests me here is the application of the term ‘mental illness’. Clearly he had been plunged into inestimable turmoil on account of his daughter’s death. But wouldn’t his response -his deep turmoil- fall into the normal range of reactions to such an event? So to talk about how he was mentally ‘ill’, for me, nearly -I am being deliberately tentative here- implies that there was something abnormal about his state of mind, when, given the circumstances, it would be something to be expected as falling within the normal range of responses. Or to put it another way, had he shown no outward reaction at all, and continued as though nothing had happened, would we be talking about him being mentally ill, even though that would be an abnormal response? You might counter that there are lots of people who lose children and do not commit suicide, and that’s true. But most of them are plunged into uncontrollable grief, and many go through long periods in which they find it difficult to go on living. Should we talk about them as mentally ill too? Or is it only when a number of boxes are ticked, in terms of a set of clinical criteria -the expert psychiatric opinion again- that we can talk about them as mentally ill?

There are millions of people prescribed anti-depressants in order to cope with life after losing a loved one. If they stopped taking anti-depressants and acquired the symptoms of clinical depression, would we describe them as mentally ill? If so, would it be right to talk of people currently under such medication as -thinking of a current trend- possessing an underlying medical condition?

It feels as though in many cases, the category of mental illness -backed up with a scarcely more precise diagnosis like ‘clinical depression’- serves, in similar cases, to explain away, to place under control, the infinite fragility and contingency of everyday life. Maybe having this apparatus of knowledge, control and treatment in place serves to tell us that in the end, everything can be turned out all right. Yet it seemed Robert Enke for one had developed a fear of the same apparatus that was supposed to come to his aid.

Perhaps every instance of what we encounter as mental illness through interaction and observation with the subject, can, with sufficient tools of investigation, be identified in neurobiological terms, that is, they have a physical manifestation, and they are therefore physical illnesses and ought to be treated with medication, surgery or therapy, to alleviate suffering, as with any other physical illness. The problem is that the general category of ‘mental illness’ has a stigma and physical illness does not.

There is a long history of investigation into the stigma attached to mental illness and the culture in which it flourishes, and I am almost entirely ignorant of it. However, I guess that part of the stigma arises from the idea that a person with mental illness cannot be trusted to follow the same rules and conventions as a ‘sane’ person. When we talk about someone as mentally ‘disturbed’, maybe what we often mean is that they have the potential to behave in a way that disturbs the normal course of events. They defy what is held to be reasonable behaviour. Hence talk of lunatics, nutters, headcases, loopers, madmen and madwomen and so forth goes way beyond the description of people who have been clinically diagnosed as suffering from a mental illness.

It may be that the stigma is also grounded in the fear that there is no underlying sanity in the rules and conventions we accept as necessary. If I am confronted with someone who by my lights refuses to accept the same rules and conventions as me, then he or she may pose a danger to my own sense of who I am and what I do. If I can resort to classifying this person as ‘mentally ill’, then this bolsters the proper order of things as I perceive it ought to be, and I can appeal to the brute facts of the ‘protective continuum’ mentioned above to cope with the disturbance.

An useful example of this occurred with the case of the man who railed against Pat Kenny on the Frontline show on Monday last. In the course of investigating why a man would do such a thing, in defiance of conventional behaviour, the Irish Independent, the Evening Herald and the Irish Times drew attention to Mr O’Brien’s ‘history of mental illness’.

Had the individual in question possessed a heart or kidney complaint, I doubt it would have been mentioned, because it would have been deemed entirely irrelevant. But it seems permissible to see mental illness as permeating every aspect of what a person with a ‘history of mental illness’ does. Furthermore, the introduction of the question of the man’s mental illness invites the reader to imagine that one would have to suffer from mental illness in order to create a disturbance on the show in the way that Mr O’Brien did.

Yet at the same time, while the TV show operates according to certain rules and conventions, there is no ultimate justification for the existence of these rules and conventions, since neither the form nor the content of the show are derived from some universally accepted natural order of things. Also, it was clear that many people were sympathetic to what he had to say. Whilst I might not share Mr O’Brien’s analysis, or his way of getting his point across, I see nothing that renders his intervention any less ‘sane’ than the extremely artificial and rarefied environment in which his actions took place. But if we are led to understand his intervention in terms of ‘mental illness’, it gives us a starting point for returning things to proper order.

Stealing Is Wrong

Ibec Your Pardon

Pardon my Occitan, but what the sweet suffering fuck is this?

HSE inquiry into fees paid to Ibec – The Irish Times – Mon, Nov 09, 2009

“There are, in our estimation, over 50 HSE-funded agencies that pay a subscription to Ibec and as you can well imagine, irrespective of the times that we are in, the HSE need to ensure that we reduce duplication and challenge the way we do things for the benefit of the patients and clients.

“Accordingly, we are currently engaging with the service managers in order to see how we progress this issue to deliver the value that we seek,” he said.

Among the bodies believed to be members of Ibec are some of the country’s largest acute general hospitals such as St Vincent’s, the Mater and Tallaght in Dublin,

The HSE move comes as it emerged that State agencies and State-funded organisations are paying hundreds of thousands of euro to Ibec annually.

A series of parliamentary questions tabled to Ministers by Ruairí Quinn of the Labour Party has found that almost €500,000 will be paid this year by State agencies or organisations which operate under the remit of Government departments to Ibec.

However, this figure is certainly an underestimate of the true position. Minister for Transport Noel Dempsey, Minister for the Environment John Gormley and Minister for Communications and Energy Eamon Ryan said membership of Ibec was a matter for the agencies and organisations concerned and that their departments did not hold such information.

In addition, The Irish Times understands the ESB, which was not included in the figures released to Mr Quinn, will pay €140,000 to Ibec this year.

Ibec, on its website, says it provides employer services, based on expert knowledge in areas such as employment law, industrial relations, human resource best practice, training and development and health and safety.

Fás, the State training agency, said it had paid fees of €58,583 to Ibec this year and a similar amount last year.

Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan said Anglo Irish Bank, now in public ownership, paid €24,903 to Ibec this year and €24,823 last year. He also said the Central Bank and the Financial Services Authority had paid €25,626 to Ibec this year.

I like to think of myself as fairly realistic about the prevailing character of the Irish state, but I’m starting to sense an as yet unidentified superego figure chuckling heartily at my Panglossian soft-headedness. Whilst I might imagine I am reasonably aware of the degree of influence exerted by big business interests on the state, in reality I’m an ignorant fool.

Like, I always knew that the free market doctrine promulgated at every opportunity on the airwaves by Ibec’s various talking heads was self-serving tripe, given the huge effective subsidies given to many of their members by government. But I had no idea that the organisation itself, which exists ‘to conspire against the public’, as Adam Smith would put it, received direct contributions from state agencies that exist to serve the public. So whereas Smith might say that the law ‘ought to do nothing to facilitate such assemblies; much less to render them necessary’, in Ireland they are lubricated by taxpayer cash. Huzzah for corporatism!

Counterfactuals

Alternate-Universe Sci-Fi Channel Show Asks What Would Happen If Germany Lost War | The Onion – America’s Finest News Source

Producers said depicting the fictional, non-German-controlled America cost upwards of 40 million reichsmarks per episode, with much of the budget going toward recreating the cities of Washington, D.C. and New York exactly as they would have appeared before the famous tide-turning Luftwaffe strike of 1951. In addition, test audiences reported being impressed by the show’s painstaking portrayal of a topsy-turvy 2009 in which American big-band music plays on every radio, Mickey Mouse spouts pro-Semitic propaganda from every cinema screen, and dilution of the supreme race runs rampant.

Gotta love The Onion. The only thing that will stop it from being good is if the Guardian decides to dedicate an In Praise Of… column to it.

Check Out Them Threads

 

Mindset of the mob can sway citizen journalism – The Irish Times – Fri, Nov 06, 2009

The most interesting thing about such threads is the mob mindset that seems to underlie them. They are not neutral conduits for spontaneous opinions, but channels dedicated to forms of disgruntlement from people with, for perhaps good reasons, no other outlet. Contributors appear to come to the process with a mindset possibly symptomatic of the isolationism involved in internet relationships generally, and anticipating a certain group dynamic. The tone of a thread seems to be set by the early contributors.

Most contributors appear mostly to want to draw attention to themselves, seeking to convey strength, cleverness, cynicism or aggression, while pre-empting the possibility of hostility or ridicule by pushing these responses in front like swords.

There isn’t all that much to disagree with here, though I have no idea what he means by the ‘isolationism’ of ‘internet relationships’. I stopped reading the comment threads on the Comment is Free site a long time ago, not so much because all comments are stupid, but because the incidence of moronic attention-seeking comments is so high that the thread is practically unreadable. Other newspaper sites are just as bad, if not worse. However, this is not so much a general problem with internet-related technology, as Waters seems to think, but a particular problem with the nature of responses certain news sites -as opposed to other sites that exist for the purposes of debate and discussion- tend to elicit. I suggest that this has more to do with the established role of newspapers, and the degree of influence they are thought to hold.

What’s interesting is the degree of importance that gets attached to comments (and latterly, to Twitter tweets). A lot of the time it’s as though the range of comments that might appear are held to be accurately indicative of some wider trends in public thought. They may not be, even though, particularly in the case of twitter trends, they perform a useful vox populi function for news sites on the lookout for cheaply sourced content.

Posting comments on newpaper site threads is very much a minority activity, and I do not think it wise to infer anything of wider social importance from them, particularly since it is difficult to know, aside from the question of how representative the comments are of any wider group, how many people actually read them, and how wide the actual influence of the comments therefore is. It would be like looking at a series of porno sites and concluding that people these days seem to do nothing but have degrading sexual encounters.

As someone who writes on a site that gets the odd comment, I would hazard a guess that the person most likely to attribute importance to the comments of a particular thread is the person who wrote the inciting post or article. I remember finding it both surprising and admirable a couple of years back to see Anthony Giddens write a post in which he responded to his (probably pseudonymous) critics, whom, in a forgivable lapse of terminological inexactitude, he described as ‘bloggers’. Surprising in the sense that I didn’t imagine that a prominent intellectual like Anthony Giddens was the sort of person who thought going through comment threads to read responses was a worthwhile activity, and that he deemed that the responses ought to be granted a degree of importance. Admirable in the sense that he didn’t really have to do it; he could have simply said nothing and justified his decision to do so based on the stance that anything that appeared in the comment threads was merely the work of attention-seeking sociopaths.

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