Archive for October 30th, 2009

Grinding The Lens

Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Do you know that TV ad for an insurance company that stitches together a load of resonant images from Ireland’s past, like Charlie Haughey appearing on TV to warn the nation that ‘we’ were living beyond ‘our’ means? The point of the ad seems to be the development of an idea that the company that insures your car is so woven into the fabric of one’s own memories, one’s own sense of the world, that it can be trusted, that it has a real personality, and that it is not in any sense contingent on fluctuations in your own personal fortunes, or that of the country you identify with.

To me, the ad barely resonates at all. So many of the images have no immediate personal relevance for me. I have no recollection of Charlie Haughey appearing on TV to make that address. It might have been broadcast to the North, but I wasn’t watching. Until the end of the 80s, the RTE signal we got in our house was never that reliable, and I only ever looked at it on a Friday afternoon for the children’s TV programmes, and even then it caused a strain on the eyes.

When did news start to make its way into my view of the world? I think it was around the time of the miners’ strike. To me, that event went on for an age. It lasted a year or so, which at the time was about an eighth of my life.

I had a video recording of Superman II, one of my favourite films back then, and the recording also took in the news report either immediately after or immediately before the film. It’s way over 20 years since I last looked at it, yet one of the images that lingers is that of the juxtaposed photos of Arthur Scargill and Margaret Thatcher, each occupying half the entire screen. I don’t remember what the Scargill photo looked like, but the Thatcher photo was the one they always used when they broadcast the audio from the House of Commons: her looking up, tidy, firm, resolute.

What does an eight year old learn from this image? A sense, I think, of a conflict between two individuals of equal power and stature. It is a long time ago, but I can also recall some of the analysis, if you can call it that, that got floated about in the media. That each was as stubborn and intransigent as the other, that neither was for backing down, and so on. So the sense that comes across is one of a conflict of personality.

Now, I can see that the focus on the respective personality traits of Thatcher or Scargill were merely a way of reducing the underlying conflict -between the mobilised working class and the capitalist state- to a mere question of personal disagreement, to be resolved through a degree of compromise. Yet in historical terms, there could be no question of any such compromise: what appears or gets represented as compromise in the confrontation between labour and capital can only ever be a deferral, a sublimation.

Or a defeat. But that depends whose terms you are applying. In an interview with Vincent Browne, Scargill dismisses the idea that the miners were defeated, since the epic nature of the miners’ struggle will always serve as an example to workers struggling under capitalism, no matter where or when. He cites the case of Jesus: no-one would say Jesus was defeated, even though he was crucified. This is true, but there is a problem. For every Jesus there are millions of people who struggled against oppression and were crushed for their resistance, but we know nothing about them because generations of historians writing from the perspective of the ruling class did not see fit to record what happened to them, even if they happened to know about it. We don’t know very much about the people who lived in villages laid to waste by the armies of the Roman Empire. There’s no guarantee that the reality of struggle will get recorded let alone remembered, and there is no guarantee that the miners’ strike will be remembered as Scargill is entitled to hope.

Certainly, as long as the miners’ strike is represented primarily in terms of a showdown between two individuals, the nature of what was really at stake is at risk of being buried and forgotten. An RTE radio news report (audio here) on Scargill’s visit, for instance, was introduced by Edith Piaf singing ‘Je ne regrette rien’. The connotations were fairly clear: the strike was some sort of drama long ended, and Scargill occupied the role of prima donna, and if he did not regret doing what he did, it is certainly something that he would do well to consider. It is hard to imagine a similar introduction being produced for anyone who actively participated in crushing the miners. An Independent columnist had a characteristically bone-headed response to the Scargill visit, claiming that it was down to Scargill’s leadership that miners ‘were starved back to work after a year of suffering. The mining industry subsequently collapsed’, the implication being that if the miners had quietly accepted their fate, they would have saved their jobs, as though it had not really been the intention of the capitalist state led by Thatcher to crush organised labour, and that Scargill had really put them up to it through his intransigence. But this is what you get when history is viewed through a lens that picks out isolated individuals and personal choices but sees neither labour nor capital; this is a lens that grew in power and scope once the miners were crushed.

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Internet Pygmy Launches Assault On Cultural Colossus

I really shouldn’t.

Commentator on The Culture John Waters has rolled out his Serious Artillery today, taking aim at The Internet.

Only Blair has the right stuff for top EU position – The Irish Times – Fri, Oct 30, 2009

At the core of this culture is the idea that peace is natural and conflict always a self-serving choice made for base reasons by bad people. This outlook has gained increased traction of late as a result of the internet, which allows an active minority, overburdened with free time and entirely unburdened with responsibility or accountability, to increasingly dictate the drift of thought in our democracies.

So if only there were greater restrictions on free independent thought, people might get Serious. Only then could they attain the level of Seriousness needed to see Big Things like ‘the drift of thought’.

Serious people, in contrast to Those On The Internet, can see that Tony Blair is the man for President of the European Council, and it has nothing to do with the fact that Tony Blair is a Roman Catholic who does God, even though such people are eo ipso Serious. Nor has it anything to do with the fact that he speaks at Catholic Faith meetings attended by Serious people who even write about it in Italiano (see linked article by Giovanni Dell’Acqua, writing under a cryptic English-language pseudomym. ‘Ciò che abbiamo visto ieri a Rimini era un uomo continuamente proteso a imparare cose nuove, ad osservare la realtà nella sua incarnazione più profonda, e a portare la propria fede a misurarsi con ogni cosa’. I’m no Italian expert, but the grandiose generalities sound vaguely familiar)

….only Blair has the stature to transcend this narrow ambition, to redefine not just the council presidency but perhaps the entire EU project, as seen from both inside and outside the tent. If the EU is to shake off the sense of disconnection that has rendered it culturally moribund, what is required in the new job is a leader who can define the presidency outside the bureaucratic framework already established by EU institutions, signalling to the citizens of Europe and the wider world the EU is at last becoming a community of peoples.

There is something in this. Blair is despised across Europe because of his role in the invasion of Iraq. If he were to become president, he would serve to unite millions of people across EU countries who otherwise might find it difficult to articulate a common purpose. His appointment would be a signal, for instance, to the people of the Middle East, that the EU thinks it is a fairly good idea to bomb Arabs. Blair’s status as a uniter, and his friendship with the likes of George W. Bush, Silvio Berlusconi and Cliff Richard still has a lot of untapped potential.

Blair has the skills and personality to communicate a renovated message about the nature of the community, to nurture relations between Europe and the rest of the world, and to speak authoritatively about issues such as climate change, immigration and new models of economy.

Not a renewed message: a renovated one. A message with a kitchen extension and an en suite bathroom in the guest room. What Blair might say authoritatively about climate change and immigration I have no idea. On new models of economy, ten years of continuing policies initiated by Margaret Thatcher might suggest to Internet People like me that he does not know much about it, but this is because we are overburdened with free time and entirely unburdened with responsibility or accountability. Luckily We Internet People are also overburdened by power:

The danger is this perhaps final chance for the EU to become a genuine political organism may be scuppered by the underhand diplomacy of bloggers and pygmy politicians.

It is a pity indeed, that when NATO forces bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade some years back, that they did not also bomb the Blogger Embassy. That would have put manners on their underhand diplomatic corps. I would note in passing that it is not very nice to use pygmy in this context, though his ire is not directed at pygmy politicians qua pygmies, but rather issuing a deft ya-boo-sucks to politicians who do not possess Blair’s world-bestriding stature.

When the bloggers are not spitting at Blair because of his role in the invasion of Iraq, they are dismissing him as the sultan of spin. Although undoubtedly a politician of the media age, Blair also exhibits a deep seriousness that counterpoints his superstar image. You only have to look at his record – not least the legacy of peace on this island – to know that here is a politician who used his charisma to conceal a deeply serious heart, in many ways out of tempo with its time.

Spitting is a filthy habit, and I condemn those bloggers who engage in it, just as surely as I condemn those bloggers who use puns on Dire Straits song titles to make a point. I would, however, make a plaintive appeal to Mr Waters to expose these bloggers by name. Every paragraph is precious, particularly when it is his, but announcing, from his Olympian position, even a handful of names –, keyboardhitlerindrogheda, or whoever- would allow those who have just the right amount of free time, accountability and responsibility, to flush these Unserious goons from the body politic as though they were but a bothersome hardened stool. As for Blair’s ‘deeply serious heart’, only Serious people can grasp the deep seriousness of a man who joined the payroll of JP Morgan for a matter of millions after it was established that wreaking the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis did not pose an issue for the institution’s Corporate Social Responsibility commitments. One notes in passing the felicitous aura an Italian word can bring to a sentence in English, since a heart out of time with its time does precious little sense make.

Serious people take serious things seriously, however, and the writer is serious enough to allow reality to attempt to encroach on his argument.

And while it is true that the situation in Iraq since the 2003 invasion has gone from bad to appalling to better and, right at this moment, back to appalling, none of that should be the measure of the morality of the cause. Whatever about the presentation of the issues to the public, it is clear – for example from the Alastair Campbell diaries – that Tony Blair was motivated well in advance of the invasion by a desire to rid the world of its ugliest dictator. There are few who, when the argument is couched in these terms, can argue convincingly he was wrong.

Serious people can couch an argument in whatever terms they wish. So, if we couch the argument about Hitler’s invasion of Eastern Europe in terms of the need he saw to acquire food and natural resources for the use of the German people, we can argue convincingly that he was right. And even those who argue that he was wrong, well, they would need to view the fact that he was sincere in his desire as a mitigating circumstance. Couched in the terms proposed by John Waters, the deluded were always right.

But the well of popular opinion has become so contaminated on this issue it is almost impossible to be heard in Blair’s defence. Then again, perhaps it is precisely the intensity of the dislike he generates that speaks of Tony Blair’s strongest qualities: his willingness to adopt clear stances, make unpopular decisions and stand over them.

People are stupid. Only Serious People Not On The Internet can recognise that a person’s qualities are abstract properties, with no relation to what that person actually does. So the fact that Tony Blair’s strongest qualities by Serious people’s lights are qualities that one might also observe in Caligula and Pol Pot should not blind us to precisely how important those qualities are.

Apart from Northern Ireland, his role in bringing a moral gaze to bear on Sierra Leone, East Timor and Kosovo show Blair is a leader who stands head-and-torso above his contemporaries when it comes to courage and moral clarity.

Serious people know what a moral gaze looks like. Look at me. Look. at. me.

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