Archive for January 29th, 2010

The Unmerited Merits Of Merit

Oh God it’s the Red Tories.No equality in opportunity | Phillip Blond and John Milbank | Comment is free | The Guardian

Paradoxically, what we need is a new synthesis of the traditional left’s emphasis on addressing economic inequity and the old right’s concern with justified inequality. In terms of the former, it is impossible to provide equal opportunities for children without improving the existing outcomes of the lives of their parents. We need a new political economy that will distribute resources more evenly and give working people greater assets and confidence, thereby ensuring a better start for their children.

The modern left scarcely addresses this need. Instead, by vaguely implying that all inequality is bad, it remains impotent in the face of a persistent inequality that is both merited and unmerited. But common
sense tells us that inherited inequality is in part the result of economic injustice and in part the result of disparities of intelligence, skill and application. Currently the left tends to admit the latter truth for future practice, but to deny it in their theoretical account of the past.

It can escape this contradiction by embracing the “old Tory” view that privilege is not just reward for success, but also a way of providing the appropriate resources for the wielding of power linked to virtue. By virtue we mean here a combination of talent, fitness for a specific social role, and a moral exercise of that role for the benefit of wider society.

I haven’t come across such obnoxious neo-feudalist bollox since I read Zizek and Milbank’s The Monstrosity of Christ, which is probably the biggest pile of crap I have ever read in book format, apart from maybe Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. These two seem to be part of some sort of Tory wheeze to present a Conservative government as softer, more compassionate than the likes of Maggie Thatcher. If the Tories get elected, I imagine they will fade into insignificance once again, free to write introductions to GK Chesterton novels or whatever.

I mean ‘inequality that is both merited and unmerited’: what sort of cod-theological quackery is that? Let’s say that I enjoy substantial health and wealth by comparison with a subsistence farmer outside the European Union as a direct result of EU policies, both for me and for him. Is that inequality merited or unmerited?

It seems, according to these two chancers, that it’s both. So you have the inequality imposed by economic injustice. Which is, one imagines, unmerited. But you also have inequality, according to them, on the basis of ‘intelligence, skill, and application’. That is, if some degree of my prosperity is on account of my intelligence (a socially defined property) then to the extent that this has enabled me to earn enough money to buy a bit extra foie gras at the weekends, something my subsistence farmer counterpart, with his lower intelligence, would not be able to buy if he could be somehow transported into my skin and situation, this is merited inequality.

That is, I deserve being able to stuff my face, whereas my subsistence farmer friend would not. But not only that: my subsistence farmer friend also deserves me being able to stuff my face. Inequality is a relation, after all. If it is unmerited, it is an unmerited relation between two parties, not merited by one and unmerited by the other.

This may seem harsh, but I can reassure myself with the knowledge that he will never fully understand why this is justified, on account of his inferior intelligence, but this does not matter, since the inequality of itself is a lesson to him: by seeing me scarf down my deep-fried foie gras, he will learn to aspire to higher things. And if he’s not happy with that, we can get Douglas Hurd or somebody to explain it to him.

Frankly, I prefer Maggie Thatcher. At least she didn’t piss down your back and tell you it was raining.


Cardinal Errors

Cardinal Brady statement: if the dialogue is a trojan horse for removing faith from schools, then we are destined to remain locked in tensions – The Irish Times – Fri, Jan 29, 2010

Critical to this dialogue is the clear recognition that parents have a right to have their children educated in accordance with their philosophical and religious convictions. Consequently, the State has a duty to support this right with public funds. It is important to point out that Catholic parents are taxpayers.

What gives parents the right to decide that their children should be educated in accordance with their philosophical and religious convictions? There are a myriad of such convictions, and no doubt some parents hold some very damaging and harmful ones. So where does the right come from?

If I’m convinced that failure to atone for sin will result in eternal torture in the flames of hell at the behest of an omniscient policeman, as one of my teachers taught to a bunch of 8 year olds, do I have the right to expect that my child be educated in this tradition?

This is not to say I think a state, on the other hand, has a right to determine how a child should be educated, or is automatically in a better position to determine that than the child’s parent: on the contrary.

I simply fail to see whence this ‘right’ emanates, if not from mere assertion. And as such, I fail to see how it follows from this that the State has a duty to support this right with public funds. Nor does the fact, cited by the Cardinal, that Catholic parents are taxpayers, have anything to do with it: if a Satanist is a taxpayer, there would be very few takers for the suggestion that the State should provide the child with an a Satanist education. Which leads me to a problem in this formulation:

Those parents who choose and value the Catholic education provided for their children are taxpayers in exactly the same way as parents who send their children to other types of schools. To disadvantage any group of parents because of their faith is completely contrary to the principle of equality and pluralism.

But in Ireland many parents who send their children to other types of schools are not necessarily doing so on account of any particular ethos -to use a popular term among the Catholic hierarchy- imparted by that school, but simply out of the desire to avoid a Catholic education. In this sense, the predominant position of Catholic schools in Irish society is in itself completely contrary to the principle of ‘equality and pluralism’ cited by the Cardinal.

And I have a problem with said principle. How can equality and pluralism be bundled into the same principle? If equality means equal entitlement to educational needs being met, perhaps including religious ones, then there is not much wrong with that. But one can hardly be equally entitled to diverse educational needs being met, as pluralism implies. The insertion of pluralism here lends truth to the charge levelled by Fintan O’Toole that the relativism adopted by the Church hierarchy on this score is merely strategic: would any Catholic bishop really believe that the children of fascist parents should be provided with a fascist education in the interests of pluralism? OK, perhaps that is not the best example, but you get the point.

At the same time, I also have some sympathy with the following:

There is no such thing as a value-free school. If parents want the government of the day to define and manage the ethos of their schools, it is important to ask what philosophy of life, of the human person, of the child would the government of the day promote? What system of values would it seek to promote? That of the particular party in power? Would it change from government to government?

The distrust of government is well-founded, but the problem posed here is based on a false opposition between an ethos imparted by the government and an ethos imparted by a church (leaving aside the problem of what an ‘ethos’ actually is and whether it should be a defining element of what a school does). He’s saying that if you take out the church, then the government will step in and impose its own ethos. So for him it is the question of the substitution of one centralised, top-down power with another. But, if it can be agreed that parents should have a say in how their children should be educated, and that schools are an important element of a local community, shouldn’t the local community simply have a greater say, via an acceptable set of fora, in how the school ought to be run? Assuming there can be some basic guiding principles to such an exercise, like, say, equality, or, if you like, cherishing all the children of the community equally (which is hardly at odds with Catholic teaching) wouldn’t local parents be best placed to agree on what should be studied and what ethos should be imparted? I see no reason why this would exclude religious education for those who hold it to be important, and it would mitigate the risk of indoctrination by Church or State.

Sing When You’re Winning

A book on my to-read list at the minute is a memoir by a Chilean writer about his activities in the Chilean undergound resistance to Pinochet rule. It’s sitting at home at the minute and I can’t remember the title or the name of the author. But it looked good when I took a peek at it over the holidays. Anyway, on Chile, El Público has a story about how the victory of the multimillionaire Sebastián Piñera has provoked excited celebrations among Pinochet nostalgists.

The chanting, outside the Chile Communist Party headquarters goes like this: ‘Comunistas, maricones, les matamos los parientes por huevones’. A rough translation of this is ‘Communist poofters, we killed your asshole relatives’, referring to the 3,000 people who were assassinated or ‘disappeared’ under Pinochet’s rule. Another chant is ‘Con Allende haremos un gran puente por donde pasarán Augusto y sus valientes’, or ‘We’ll make a big bridge out of Allende for Augusto and his brave men to walk over’. Obviously the attraction of the rhyme and rhythm is lost in translation.

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January 2010
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