Sunday, 26 May 2019

Geoffrey Hill - Scholar or Loather?

There are two things that can look the same or sufficiently similar to deceive us. On the one hand there is a proper scholarly respect for accuracy, truth, precision and coherent intellectual respectability. Added to this is a proper historical perspective of ideas and merit, and a proper respect for the shining, spreading metropolis that past culture represents when placed alongside the narrowly parochial and often impoverished and mistaken concerns of the zeitgeist. Then, on the other hand, there is disgust for the common man and the real people one lives alongside in the present veiled in a donnish fastidiousness. The latter, in truth, hates the common man and sneers at him in its heart. Perhaps Faust was a type for the latter although I don’t know enough about the character to be certain. It is certainly possible to create a hierarchy with oneself at the top on the basis of mere intellect without reference to the heart or the moral. This gives many dessicated, intelligent, but over-cerebral people a kind of comfort that they need not have, or are incapable of having, truck with the common man.

Thus the scholarly tradition can be hijacked and used as a disguise for a kind of insulating arrogance or puritan disgust. One can add to this another tradition which often operates in proximity to that. This is the tradition of high-browed, high Modernism in which Hill’s poetry operates. It too has a tendency, or a temptation towards looking down on the common man from a high intellectual tower. It can create literary priesthoods of ‘understanders’ who comfort and flatter themselves with their own lofty understanding.

Geoffrey Hill came from a humble background and defended himself against accusations that the difficulty of his poetry laid him open to being perceived as an intellectual elitist by insisting that difficulty was, in truth, ‘democratic’. However, reading his work, as it constantly sends one scurrying after the most recherch√© of references, one wonders what exactly he is doing.

A true literary great is likely to be at home with scholarship, to be adept with words and their meanings and to have a good historical perspective. However, on the moral level, he or she is also likely to have an understanding and affection for the real people with whom he or she shares the planet. This would be especially true of a novelist, for example. Tolstoy and George Eliot, for example, are notable for a wide human sympathy in addition to their intellectual genius.

In Hill’s case one wonders whether what one is witnessing is really a kind of misanthropy masked behind the outward appearance of donnish rigour, curmudgeonliness and an insistence on a proper Professor to pupil dynamic between himself and his reader. It’s fine to have low expectations of humans and be aware of their fallen-ness but the proper moral response towards one’s fellow is, at bottom, an underlying love, not least because one is, after all, one of them. If one were being kind to Hill one might suggest that there is a pathology at work (he spent most of his life suffering from clinical depression and his late poetic prolixity is explained, even by him, as the result of his taking Lithium – this might lead one to ask what the value of such effusions are) but, if not, one might suspect a kind of moral corruption in his relationship to the human race as it presented itself to him in his own time.

I find a visceral, constitutional inability to stay for long in the presence of his poetic persona. I sense proper academic rigour but I also sense that it may be taken to the lengths and be the product of  a haughty inimicality and contempt perhaps, at base, derived from an inability to relate happily with ordinary people. The poetry, rather than being democratic, seems to divide people into a very small group of initiated illuminati and the rest of the race. 

Friday, 24 May 2019

Monday, 20 May 2019

TCW 7 - I’m Mentally I’ll, Therefore I Am

I recall, in 2003, at the time of claims about Tony Blair’s government having ‘sexed up’ the Iraq WMD dossier, Alastair Campbell making an unexpected visit to the Channel 4 News studios. The ensuing interview was notable for the bullying, combative style of the ex-journalist to the extent that one felt almost shocked by the browbeating Jon Snow got from Blair’s spin doctor. There was a hint of the Mafioso capo roughing someone up live on air.
This kind of thing made him very unpopular in many quarters beyond those of his political opponents. Of course, his ability to bring these qualities to the Remainer camp has also won him many friends. Nevertheless today, lacking power and aware that he is not in good odour everywhere, he seems mindful of a need to rehabilitate himself and identify with Joe Public beyond merely advertising his support for Burnley Football Club. To do this, he has adopted the go-to fix-all, which is to advertise one’s mental health vulnerability almost as ​a badge of honour and dare people not to sympathise with you. As a result, tomorrow evening we are to be treated to a BBC2 programme called Alastair Campbell: Depression and Me. 
One can’t help speculating whether he is the victim of this arbitrary and disembodied condition that randomly afflicts him or whether it is involved with who he is. Not knowing the man intimately, I go no further than that.
In a disturbingly similar way, the younger generation of the Royal Family seem to be adopting a ‘pay it forward’ version of rehabilitation aimed at reassuring us that they are humans just like the rest of us. They are baring their souls about their mental health difficulties as part of a no doubt well-intentioned ‘talking about mental health’ campaign. A friend recently replied to Prince William’s tweet about his ‘bereavement pain like no other’ that such pain is ‘a natural reaction, not a mental illness’. The future king has also thrown into the ring the distress caused him by what he has witnessed as an Air Ambulance helicopter pilot.
One might ask from what the royals need to be rehabilitated in this way? You could be forgiven for some cynicism if you answered: from being the royals, of course. In a culture substantially underpinned by Marxist descriptions of absolutely everything in terms of oppression and exploitation by the privileged, the young Windsors are sitting ducks. Do they think that by casting themselves as victims too ​and getting their apologies in first, it will save them from being impugned? That if they can distract us with their pity-inducing vulnerabilities, perhaps we’ll forget to shy at them?
This without doubt is a harsh interpretation of motive that they may not even be aware of; yet their public soul-baring does appear a somewhat weedy and cowardly strategy for two former military – and indeed brave – men. Perhaps their foray into this pain-advertising world simply shows they are as subject as everyone else to conforming to the new ‘baring your soul’ mores. It is certainly a measure of the power of modern victim orthodoxy and blame culture that means that all are responsible except you. And last week, of course, was ‘Mental Health Awareness Week’, the campaign the young royals have committed to. Hence the ads and pronouncements of solidarity, and the high-profile BBC confessional programmes on the mental health difficulties of those such as Campbell.
But what is the real story behind all of this? It is that mental illness used to be, quite unjustifiably, a stigma. Mental Health Awareness Week has not asked whether assuming sanity is a norm in a citizen enabled society to function properly; or whether, in many cases, mental ill-health results from poor moral choices by individuals, failures to take up responsibility, or exercise it correctly. No, the stigma, the State has it today, is inflicted by an unknown wicked party.
Having mental health difficulties is now, with no thought given to the nature of the phenomenon, put on a par with being an amputee, being ‘queer’, being black, being a woman and so on. In other words, it has become a form of victimhood randomly inflicted on one by petulant and vindictive gods. Except, of course, the blame, in reality, is not heaped on petulant gods but on a hapless government which fails to pour enough money into ‘solving’ mental health problems. This failure swiftly becomes the main reason for people being mentally ill. As with other forms of victimhood, one only becomes ‘somebody’ by exhibiting one’s scars. I suffer and am to be pitied, therefore I am. Many turn such ‘suffering’ into a profession, abandoning all concerns with agency and self-respect along the way. Why wouldn’t you adopt such strategies if they enable you to live in a fastness where all blame and responsibility have been deposited on someone outside the walls?
Practically the whole of the human condition which has always been, of course, subject to lacrimae rerum and mortality, is now turned into a forum for passive victimhood ripe for medicalisation and legal compensation claims. It is as if a mere notion, dreamed up by a lawyer in Cherie Booth’s practice, of a perfected human condition ‘experience’ we can all rely on (one can imagine the human souls as they depart this realm punching the smiley feedback emojis) has been put out there and now turned into a ‘human right’ which deserves compensation if not delivered satisfactorily. ‘Compo face’ is all too easy to assume. 
Should the future king, his brother and their wives be participating in and encouraging this culture? That indeed is the question. Should they, of all people (for in some sense they are still role models), be endorsing this take on how we respond to our condition? I’ll leave you to decide. 

Sunday, 19 May 2019

Letter published in The Spectator 18/5/19 - Sartorial Caricature

Sartorial caricature

Sir: It is usual to take each individual on their merits and assume that people can rise above demographic or sartorial caricature, as not to do this would be in a sense the definition of prejudice. Reading Matthew Parris’s article ‘Are you a Tweedy or a Trainer?’ (11 May), I struggled to decide which category I fell into. I, and many of my Leaver friends, seem to fit neither.
I was also confused by an avowed ‘conservative’ making the imperatives of being a ‘socially liberal, progressive-minded, forward-thinking, outward-looking nation’ superior to anything else, as I thought that was almost the opposite of what conservatism is.
To add to this, I was dismayed to see Matthew Parris attach the implications of sinister ‘baggage’ to the clothing that people wear. Isn’t this just a reiteration of the wearying trope of the Leaver being an ignorant, authoritarian racist?
Guy Walker
Southsea, Hants

Saturday, 18 May 2019

A Dialogue: Response to “Making Moral Claims Without Doing the Groundwork” by J. Pearce

Important quotations from the piece (linked at the bottom of this response)                                                                                                           
“At the end of the day, looking down on things is pretty arrogant, and assumes that you know best.

“Morality is an abstract idea,..”

“…morality is a conceptual construct that we create in order to navigate the world as a social species. Without it, society would fall apart. That is precisely because society has been constructed using morality as both a tool and a currency.

“…there is, descriptively, subjectivity concerning moral philosophy.”

“Deontology is the idea that there is some objective, mind-independent moral framework. If this can’t exist outside of sentient minds, then we have a problem. If all humanity or all sentient creatures were to die, then the concept of morality (the existence of morality) would die with those sentient creatures.
The basic point is that you simply can’t decontextualise morality. This is what deontology seeks to do and is doomed to failure. The enquiring murderer and other similar thought experiments put paid to this. Reductio ad absurdum of deontology leads to conclusions where deontologists would actually allow any number of horrible things to happen in the name of rigid morality.

“But what does this mean if morality is conceptual and not ontically real? Well it means these conceptual ideas like morality have to be constructed by minds. All minds are independent of each other but they have similar biological construction as well as cultural and historical similarities. Therefore, we often agree on things. However, we also often disagree. The only way of navigating this is to agree by consensus. And this is precisely what happens. This is how democracy works and how laws get written. You vote in a ruling party that can change the law based on a majority rule. Or you have some kind of dictatorship that doesn’t do this…

“…if we want to establish any abstract claims (such as morality and thus politics and regulation and law), we need to do so by consensus.

Underlying this piece are a set of assumptions which I’ll outline first before detailing the general assumptions underpinning my different thoughts on the matter.

The main assumption is that humans exist first without morality but with a mental state that is capable of creating the ‘abstract idea’ of morality for reasons of necessity such as the avoidance of dictatorships or of society falling apart. So “conceptual ideas like morality have to be constructed by minds” perhaps out of nothing. The necessity of creating such ideas, presumably, arises out of our social condition which, inevitably pits us against each other in Hobbesian conflict. It is interesting to speculate on what the pre-construction of moral concepts state evoked consists of. What were we like at that stage? Presumably floating, amoral intelligences. This is to evoke an idea of a kind of tabula rasa state devoid of elements of what we usually take for granted as our whole humanity. It is to take a very distinctive position on these things. Cogito ergo mores. The thinking definitely comes first at the top of the pyramid, the human intellect supreme. In that sense it is a top down approach.

It also buys into the idea of “subjectivity concerning moral philosophy” and, perhaps the idea that morality is an off the shelf “construct” tailored judiciously and pragmatically to fit various situations.

The piece suggests that opposing this view is the ‘deontological’ one. This is not only wrong but dangerous. “
Reductio ad absurdum of deontology leads to conclusions where deontologists would actually allow any number of horrible things to happen in the name of rigid morality.

“Deontology is the idea that there is some objective, mind-independent moral framework.” The etymology of the word deontology suggests a duty to an objective set of morals. Inevitably in western culture, based as it was for so long on Christian thought, the objective set of morals have been considered to have been dreamed up by and acquired from a Judeo-Christian God, often portrayed as being petulant and vindictive for no apparent reason.

The trouble with this is that it perpetuates the idea that morals are arbitrary and unforced by any necessity; just snatched from a tree or from the top of a mountain. Interestingly, this deontological arbitrariness (Jehovah’s vindictive rules are in no way compelled but just made up) is an idea shared by the author who thinks moral concepts just need to be ‘constructed’ to satisfy practical considerations. Now, although I am characterised as a deontologist in the piece, in fact, I am not. I don’t think a post-modern thinker or Jehovah simply dreams up a construct which is then imposed on society from outside, dropped, as it were, from the heavens or from the pragmatic mind of Michel Foucault. I don’t think that is how morality emerges. So, now, to my under-pinning of moral reality and my account of what it is…..

I do, like deontologists, believe one has a duty to morality, but unlike them, I don’t think morality is a random set of rules with no internal logic or compulsion which we have to adhere to blindly and dangerously. Indeed, why would I?

One can give various accounts of the creation of the universe and human beings and I’m not going to insist on any of them. For what it’s worth I believe in the Big Bang, Evolution and God and see no difficulty in entertaining all three ideas. I’m going to use a purely notional creator God to illustrate an idea though as a thought experiment. On the assumption that an omnipotent God created the universe does his omnipotence extend to meaning that he could fly in the face of logic by making, say, 2+2=5? My view would be not. This is because the rules of maths are embedded inexorably, in the fabric of the universe. God knew that 2+2 would always equal 4 and would consider it pointless to want it any other way. The moment of the act of creation always meant, God or no God, that 2+2 would equal 4. It can’t be any other way. This is not, in fact to limit the omnipotence of God because being able to make 2+2=5 is not what omnipotence means.

It’s the same with morality. Jehovah, on a bored afternoon, did not just dream up a special morality, like the rules of Monopoly, for the deontologists to slavishly follow purely in order to flex his muscles and show them who’s boss. If you set about creating (and, if you like, leave out here the idea of a creator God entirely as the point still obtains whatever led to our appearance on the planet) a conscious, self-aware creature that succeeds, as ants do, by living and co-operating socially the rules of morality will emerge inevitably and spontaneously the moment such creatures come into being. It is an attribute of their being as much a part of the fabric of humanity as maths is of the universe.

A little aside here: the first good in human being is life and the first evil is death. As Schopenhauer demonstrated we have implanted in us a fierce ‘will to life’ that we were not consulted on that guarantees this and the further ‘will to reproduce’ (and thus perpetuate the good of life) is similarly implanted. This is why one of the first moral rules is ‘Thou shalt not kill.’

Put such creatures in social proximity and morality springs up spontaneously the moment the first australopithicus steals a mammoth steak from his neighbour. The neighbour’s appetite (first) and then his innate sense of fairness is outraged and he kills his neighbour. This can’t go on as we soon degenerate into a Hobbesian state of nature and perpetual conflict. The same goes for sexual jealousy. The sense of injustice that emerged spontaneously from the situation of proximity and competition has to be codified into general social rules. There is, therefore, necessity as in “morality is a conceptual construct that we create in order to navigate the world as a social species. Without it, society would fall apart.” But it’s not a construct but a codification of morality that has already spontaneously emerged from our situation and our moral instinct (for we were never moral tabulae rasae). Moses didn’t go up Mount Sinai to collect a set of random and unpredictable instructions. He went to get a codification of what was already there in people (Jehovah knew it would be there just as he knew 2+2 would equal 4 at the moment of creation) that functioned at the social level and in the social situation.

The spontaneous emergence of morality (it could not not have emerged from the social situation) is really what the Adam and Eve story is about. They never existed and are an example of someone starting from human reality and then creating a retrospective myth or story to explain the present in symbolic terms of an imagined past. The point is that once you create a self-aware creature the descent into ‘knowledge’ and the political is inevitable and spontaneous. It’s built into the nature of the creature.

An inevitable objection to my view is that of moral relativism in the world. Not every culture has the same moral rules. This is absolutely true if you are talking about the superficial; things like sumptuary or hygiene laws which differ the world over. However, I’d argue that there is a deep Chomskian moral grammar that means the essentials (based on the life=good, death = bad equation) obtain the world over. Virtually everywhere, murder, rape, theft, violence, lying and cheating (the kind of things you find in the Ten Commandments and the things that emerge inevitably from proximity and competition in primitive societies or in ones with advanced economics) are anathematised. The deep Chomskian grammar is bound to arise from the situational things we have in common – the same appetites, the same Maszlovian needs, the same sexuality, the same mortality etc. God (or any lawmaker) codifies what he knew couldn’t help but emerge. In a sense this kind of moral universalism underpins the Voltairean Enlightenment stance that spoke in terms of a world community.

This leads me to the question of ontic ordering. In purely temporal terms humans emerge from Nature with a nature. This, in my view, is to adopt a bottom up approach. Where lower can one begin than in the nature on which we all depend for existence and the consciousness that enables me to make these observations? A human baby is a cluster of appetites, senses, and emotions. Reason and language will only emerge much later on. As the child grows and goes to school it will, sooner or later get involved in a competitive scrap over a ball or sweets and announce the immortal sentence – “It’s not fair!” before it punches the other child. A school teacher, in possession of the codified school rules, will intervene and adjudicate. Gradually the child will be acquainted with formalised morality. The morality arose out of the child’s competitive animal appetite followed swiftly by its instinct for justice first though.

The same ontic ordering obtains in an adult. He will feel moral outrage in the form of emotion at an injustice inflicted on him by someone who scratches his car and absents himself from the scene. In civilised humans this reaction will rise up through the ontic ordering, beyond a desire to punch the perpetrator to his reason and he will appeal to justice through the socially agreed means of calling the police. He will appeal to the social codifications of morality that are enshrined in laws.

Morality begins in implanted instinct. In a conscious self-aware creature like us it is impossible to imagine it not being there. It is not implanted by God (except in the sense, if you believe that is how it happened, he started the whole shooting match that led to the social and competitive situation) but by the social situation just as the fact of things being plural can’t not lead to mathematical truths and laws. It is one of the properties of self-awareness and consciousness. An omnipotent God could not have created a universe without it. An interesting paradox.

TCW 6 - Jordan Peterson, Roger Scruton and the Moral Hunger Games

What do Jordan Peterson, Roger Scruton and Danny Baker have in common? They’ve all been impugned, demonised and hung out to dry by a Left-wing mob in the fast-responding public forum in which all of us now operate. The modern liberal Left are not immune, however, and what conservative can resist a twinge of schadenfreude when those from that quarter are crushed in the gears of their own un-personing machine? It’s happened to Linda Bellos, Germaine Greer, Margaret Atwood and Sarah Jeong. One can only be amused as Jeremy Corbyn struggles over anti-Semitism. The accuser is accused. The self-appointed custodian is locked up in a rewrite of Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? What interests me is why such a process obtains in modern society.
I take it as given that humans are moral and that this is one of the chief characteristics which distinguish us from other species. For many centuries we operated on the assumption of there being two spheres of morality, public and personal.
In the public sphere there was a need for mechanisms that could determine and, in effect, create public moral truth. When it came to public accusations of immorality we resorted to processes such as trial by our peers in the jury system. Unable to locate moral truth with any certainty we made the best of a bad job by trusting the judgment of twelve fellow citizens on what seemed most likely, given the evidence. Their verdict then became and still becomes truth for all practical purposes.
When it came to the private sphere there were other assumptions. First of all it was assumed that the private sphere did reside somewhere and was ‘a thing’. For example, when Socrates, via Plato, said ‘The unexamined life is not worth living’ (Saul Bellow agreed with him but warned that the examination might lead to alcoholism), he was suggesting that a real examination of one’s personal objective morality is possible. This belief was reinforced by the religious sphere and doctrines of sin. Although no man had the right to make ultimate judgments on the state of his fellow’s soul it was accepted that, in the private personal dialogue between a man and his maker, moral reality could be plumbed by each individual. However painful the process might be, objective reality could be accessed and true self-knowledge obtained. This is because, in the religious dispensation, it was assumed that objective moral truth was grounded and located in the knowing, intelligent mind of God.
‘Oh Lord, thou hast searched me, and known me.
Thou knowest my downsitting and my uprising; thou understandest my thought afar off.
Thou compassest my path and my lying down, and art acquainted with all my ways.
For there is not a word in my tongue, but, lo, O Lord, thou knowest it altogether.
Thou hast beset me behind and before, and laid thine hand upon me.’
Psalm 139
Although objective personal moral truth couldn’t be dragged out on the table for inspection, it existed. This was a de facto refutation of moral relativity.
If, as the modern world has done to all intents and purposes, one subtracts this divine underpinning by cosmic and omniscient intelligence, one is pitched into a world of moral relativism where private personal truths no longer matter. In moral terms there is onlypublic reality, a reality that is entirely untethered from any internal truth. The moral world has simply become a play in which we are all jobbing actors hoping to get the best parts. Once we agree to looking at it that way, it become a zero sum game with a limited number of ‘good’ roles available. The result is an unseemly scramble to corner the role of hero and avoid the role of villain in a ridiculously over-simplified, on-stage moral world. It becomes a game of musical chairs where, if a competing actor can be pitched on to the floor when the music stops for ‘sinning’ against idiotic current orthodoxies, you know that one fewer auditioner chasing the good roles means you are more likely to nail one. As a result everyone is looking for the chink in the armour that will allow fellow competitors to be pitched into the Inferno of public disapprobation. This is why the Hunger Games films are so popular and so accurate a representation of our present.
For many centuries humans existed as public moral beings and private ones. We now exist morally only in public. This has a further consequence. If one is aware of a private moral sphere where one’s failings reside one is less likely to sin against Christ’s stricture in Matthew 7:5 – ‘Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.’ Once the private sphere is stripped out and one feels invulnerable at a personal level, because there is nothing important there or merely a relativist quagmire, one will have few qualms about pointing fingers and accusing rivals in the quest to disqualify them from securing those heroic roles. This can only make the forum even more cut-throat and vicious as the moral life becomes no more than a Space Invaders game. Life degenerates into a gladiatorial series of dog-eat-dog accusations and counter-accusations by hollow avatar-beings not moderated any more by the restraint of moral self-awareness.

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

The Controlling Corporation Collides with a Real Human Being Living in the Present Moment

Andrew Marr showed himself incapable of addressing the existential present. He tried to trap Farage, and thus safely dispatch him, in a series of media constructs relying on misinterpretations of the past. He simply couldn’t cope with a live and kicking human being in his studio. It was as if Marr’s state of being was not the same as Farage’s it being made of an assemblage of artificial and purely intellectual ideas about him. This bodes well as real tigers should have no difficulty walking straight through all the paper tigers. The BBC thinks it can control with cerebral constructs but it’s no match for the Tyger of real being.