A couple of days ago adiscussiontookplace on Twitter about whether one can differentiate amongst absolute moral wrongs, such that one might judge some of them worse than others. One view was that one can't: if two wrongs are both absolute there's no possibility of a quantitative gradation (better and worse) between them. The other, which I support, is that one can differentiate. Torture is absolutely wrong but one case of torture can obviously be worse than another. Genocide is worse than a single murder, though both are absolutely wrong.
Now, this looks like being a simple definitional difference, a difference over the meanings of 'absolute' here. If an absolute wrong is one that is as wrong as can be, then it would make no sense to see one absolute wrong as worse than another. However, if 'absolute wrong' is construed - as I contend it should be - as meaning wrong in all circumstances, or wrong unconditionally, then a gradation is possible between several absolute wrongs: these are wrong wherever and whenever they are committed but a ranking of evils can be made between them. The first meaning is, maybe, like absolute zero. (I say 'maybe' because I'm not sure about my grasp of that concept.) It's a point beneath which one cannot descend morally. The second meaning allows, as I think it has to unfortunately, that there are acts bad enough that we want to regard them as wrong in every circumstance, and yet not the worst that we can think of.
Just by the way, this disagreement shows that differences over meaning can be important, even though they're about words. Some meanings give a clearer view of the world - in the present case, the moral world - than others do.
Here's one of those people seeking advice, in the columns of a newspaper, from other readers:
My nephew and his fiancee have a baby son and I have been invited to attend the christening. But as a staunch atheist I find the whole idea of welcoming a baby into a religion repugnant; I would feel a hypocrite attending a ceremony that I disapprove of so strongly. On the other hand I really do not want to hurt the feelings of the parents... If I overcome my principles and go, there will then follow other invitations to other christenings – so wouldn't it be easier to make my feelings known once and for all? Or should I climb down off my principled perch and stop being so pompous? I just can't decide!
Well, I'd like to be of help, so here's my advice...
It's not so much pomposity that's your problem; it's the idea that you can live alongside others in a liberal society and not make any concession at all to their beliefs and practices. You don't expect everyone to think like you - or, at any rate, you shouldn't. So they'll have different ways, observe different rituals, and so on. In some of these it may be important to them to have friends or family present. Most crucially, there's nothing hypocritical about participating in something the underlying assumptions of which you do not share when your own reasons for participating are different - love, friendship, solidarity, etc. So, yes, climb down off your perch and be a mensch. You won't be the first atheist to have been in church for a wedding, in synagogue for a barmitzvah, gone to a religious funeral.
Philip Collins is having some fun in his Times column today. Entitled 'The last gasp of vintage social democracy' (£), its conclusion is that Ed Miliband's 'dream of a world run by the good fairies and the angels of our better nature' is doomed, and the Labour Party will eventually have to wake up to this fact. But along the way Collins, who has been to the Beatles museum 'in search of inspiration', tells us that he's been 'scuttling here, there and everywhere in Liverpool'; that at the Labour Party Conference Ed Miliband had given us 'a magical mystery tour through a nation that has been run by people with the wrong values for decades'; that he, Miliband, 'gets precious little help from the people around him'; that a 'presumption is growing that she [Yvette Cooper] will be Labour's next leader' and that '[d]elegates were vaguer on why, apart from the fact that there is nobody else and she's a woman'; and that '[t]he new intake [of Labour MPs from 2010] is getting better all the time'. You see the general idea - though I've missed a few.
Collins says: 'It is clear after this week that Mr Miliband is going to fight from the Left and he is going to lose from the Left.' Collins doesn't leave open the possibility of a long and winding road, or allow that tomorrow never knows. Nor, however, does he call Ed Miliband a 'Nowhere Man', as I have lately seen it put about. (Via.)
If this column in the New York Times is to be believed, in democratic countries across the world amongst people taking to the streets in protest at social ills of one kind and another - unemployment, cuts in social spending, growing inequalities, corruption, etc - there is a contempt for 'traditional politicians and the democratic political process they preside over'. The protesters have lost faith in the ballot box and the standard political routes through parties and unions, favouring a 'more participatory system modeled in many ways on the culture of the Web'. Assuming this diagnosis is right (as I will for the purpose of having something to blog about today), we can ask what the models of political legitimacy are that these protests and the attitudes reported by the NYT's columnist might presuppose. I shall suggest four possibilities.
(1) The traditional structures remain central to the democratic process and the street protests are seen as, when push comes to shove, supplementary. So democracy through the ballot box and representative assemblies, parties, pressure groups, a free press and all the rest of it are not put in question, but mass protest is regarded as one extra and legitimate way of influencing democratic outcomes.
(2) The protest movements aim for a transformative effect, but one well within the existing institutional framework: by seeking, for example, to 'capture' a major political organization already in place and determine its political programme; or by hoping to create and shape a new organization on the same terrain, to speak for the concerns of the protesters.
(3) Or those same movements hope for a more far-reaching transformative effect, aiming to change the very structures of democratic representation in such a way as to build into them a much more participatory component. (What exactly this would look like I leave to one side, as I am only sketching the alternatives in the most abstract way.)
(4) The street protests see themselves neither as supplementing the existing forms of democratic legitimacy, nor as seeking change within its existing framework or change which builds on that legitimacy but by altering its structures in a significant way. Rather, they claim to set up a competing, alternative legitimacy to that of the representative democracy already in place.
Only the last of these four construals poses a problem of justification; the first three are perfectly compatible with the normative assumptions widely shared as underlying modern liberal democracies. The fourth, however, does pose such a problem. For if there is indeed an 'urge to bypass representative institutions' at work amongst any large number of the protesters, it needs to be explained by them what claim they can realistically make to carrying a majority of people with them if they are unable to mobilize this majority towards the winning of an election. If they can't do this - either win an election or explain why they shouldn't have to (take your pick) - then their claim to represent an alternative democractic legitimacy is spurious.
It's strange but for a while now I've been finding that I've always got one more thing to do. Don't get me wrong. At any given time I've got plenty more things to do. My to-do list never goes below about seven items. I keep adding new ones as the old ones get crossed off. Plus there are always things to do that never get on that list because, you know, you don't have to write 'breathe', 'have breakfast', 'go for a walk'. Stuff like that you just don't forget.
No, what I mean is that whenever I want to get to something, be it going to bed, or reading my book, or getting downstairs in time to watch something, I find I still have one more thing to do first. This didn't used to be the case. I blame it on ageing. Life used to be simpler; you just got to the thing you wanted to do next. But now, for some reason, I can't. There's that one more thing first, in the way. Then, when I've done it, there's another thing - meaning it's (still) one more thing. And don't try and throw your logic at me by saying that, in that case, there must have been two more things the first time I thought there was one more thing. Not so. Even then it was one more thing; but after I did it, another came along to make it one more thing.
If you can explain this I'll be in your debt. It seems that time slowed down even while speeding up. A year of life is gone before you know it, but doing that one more thing that's in the way, before the thing you want to get to, takes absolutely ages - and then there's always one other thing that you suddenly realize you still have to do.
Celia Rees writes for older children and teenagers. She began writing when she was working as an English teacher and her first book was published in 1993. She became a full time writer in 1997. Her novel Witch Child was shortlisted for the Guardian Children's Fiction award in 2001; the sequel Sorceress was shortlisted for The Whitbread Children's Book Award in 2002; and her book Pirates! was shortlisted for the W.H. Smith Award in 2004. Her latest book, The Fool's Girl, was published in paperback in April. Celia lives in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire. In this post she discusses Graham Greene's The Third Man.
Celia Rees on The Third Man by Graham Greene
'The Third Man was never written to be read, only to be seen.' (Graham Greene)
It is quite possible for a film version of a novel to be accorded critical respect, as with the excellent recent adaptation of John le Carré's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; but when the process is reversed, the resulting novelization is often seen as the lesser partner. Graham Greene's novella is a notable exception to this rule.
The Third Man began as an opening paragraph, scribbled on the flap of an envelope: A man sees a man buried, and within a week he sees him again in the street. That's it. But anyone who knows the film can already hear the haunting notes of the Harry Lime Theme, see the strings moving on the zither behind the opening titles. Greene offered this beginning to Alexander Korda who wanted the film set in post war Vienna, so right from onset the idea began to grow away from that first paragraph. Greene worked on the film with the director, Carol Reed, but before he could write the script, he had to have a story. For him, a film depends not just on plot, but on 'a certain measure of characterization, on mood and atmosphere', and to capture these things he needed something other than the 'dull shorthand of a script'.
So the film shaped the book, and the book in turn shaped the film, although neither is an exact mirror of the other. This is not a straight novelization, although all the iconic references are there: the winter cemetery, the Great Wheel, faces at windows, the mysterious figure in the shadows, the haunting tune, the chase through the sewers. There are differences. The hero, Rollo Martins, is English, not American, and his name is changed in the film version; but Harry Lime's name remains the same and when he is described, it is impossible not to see the young Orson Welles.
The book is a mere 120 pages in the Penguin edition. A modern writer of a crime or spy thriller would have barely begun. It is written with great economy. The 'smashed, dreary city of Vienna' is sketched with such skill that we don't need long pages of description. Characters are established through brief, carefully chosen details. The story is narrated by a policeman and the descriptions have the brevity of a police report. Despite this brevity, the plot is complex and fast moving; Greene expects his reader to work hard to keep up with him. Violence occurs off the page, but when it does it is sudden and brutal, wholly disconcerting to Martins and the reader: a reminder of the extreme danger lurking within the bleak cityscape.
In The Third Man the elements of spy and crime thriller blur and coincide, but the novel is much more than a genre novel. It is an examination of friendship and betrayal, innocence and disillusion, in a world where utter destruction has spread further than the 'smashed and desolate' cities ruined by war. It has seeped into the souls of men. Harry Lime looks down from the Great Wheel and sees the people below him as dots in a landscape. 'Would you feel any pity if any of those dots stopped moving - forever?' He asks Martins. The greatest challenge for post-war Europe was not just to rebuild the cities, but to restore those dots to 'recognizable human beings'.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]
Alexander McCall Smith, due to speak in Sydney on the theme 'Society is Broken', is writing in today's edition of The Age about the condition of Britain in the wake of the recent riots. We shouldn't have been surprised at what happened, he thinks, since the social and cultural causes of a broken society have become clear. As to the social causes McCall Smith speaks of the destruction of the family and of children brought up 'in chaotic households where there is no consistent authority'. He says more than this about the cultural causes, and it is the cultural causes that my own comments will focus on.
We don't know what we believe in and are busy bringing up children who share our confusion. The result is that we have massive numbers of people who are dishonest, indifferent to casual violence or aggression, and devoid of respect or consideration for others.
He alludes to studies showing indulgent attitudes to theft, fraud and cheating; and he ascribes this whole lamentable situation to an 'espousal of moral pluralism' - the idea that there is no right or wrong in general. Schools can no longer teach values, there being no shared values to teach. In addition, we are surrounded by a popular culture that 'celebrates dysfunction, violence and anti-social behaviour' and 'is selfish and aggressive... has no interest in improving the extent to which concern for others, old-fashioned good manners, or any of the traditional virtues, including honesty, are actively stressed and propagated'. It is, as you can see, a most unhappy state of affairs.
McCall Smith concludes by saying we 'must try to assert values', must 'decide again to believe in something and begin to teach those values'.
The first question I would raise is whether it is really moral pluralism that has made it impossible, or difficult, to teach the sort of values that he is emphasizing here. I doubt it. Honesty, respect, civility, non-violence, may not be universally shared values but I would have thought that some variant of them is fairly common across enough major cultures that they could continue to be taught even while allowing to moral pluralism such truth as it possesses. Yet it might be the case that, though they could still be taught, there has been an insufficient effort in teaching them for some time now, so leaving McCall Smith's worry intact.
My second point is more fundamental. Teaching the virtue of honesty and teaching against its corresponding wrongs - dishonesty, cheating, fraud, theft etc - may be more effective in some social environments than in others. Not to beat about the bush: people may be more sensitive to appeals to honesty and suchlike if they think they're part of a wider collectivity that is itself organized and run along fair and honest lines than if they don't think so; than if they think there's something deeply fraudulent about the claims made on its behalf to being fair.
How many people today believe that societies as unequal as ours are comprehensively or even approximately fair? I don't know the answer, but my hypothesis would be: few. Even the defences of capitalist societies as they now are, made by their supporters, tend to centre on the absence of feasible alternatives to it. But fairness? The prinicipal arguments to this effect are all but threadbare. 'Fair equality of opportunity' is not a feasible ideal in a society with hugely unequal resource holdings. 'To each the fruits of their labour' is an argument which trades on (a) the notion that what the fruits of a person's labour are is an unambiguous datum, and (b) the presumption that the extent of said fruits can be adjudicated independently of the institutional context in which each 'labourer' puts out his or her effort. Both (a) and (b) are open to the simplest of challenges.
My own hunch - and it is no more than a hunch - is that honesty and its cognates may be harder to teach in a social context where the justifications for the acceptability of poverty alongside gross wealth are less and less convincing to more and more people.
Lest this be taken for a root-causes-style apologia for looting, setting fire to people's shops and homes, and the like, I had better make clear why it isn't. I am just asunsympathetic to the looters-not-criminals-but-alienated-dears school of thought as I am to the terrorists-not-murderers-but-poor-diddumses ('aggrieved', 'radicalized', 'driven to', etc) school. There is no acceptable morality - or sociology for that matter - which makes it OK to take the injustices, or putative injustices, of the world out on randomly selected others, by wronging them; and this applies as much to injustices that are systemic as it does to those deliberately inflicted.
The values McCall Smith alludes to do need to be insisted on and taught. But the real patterns and relationships of life may make this easier or harder to do.
I've posted often enough on the folly and the philistinism of those who look down, yea snootily even, on sport and all of us millions who get pleasure from it that you'll be able to understand why I can appreciate someone looking so far in the opposite direction - that is, upwards - that he can say this:
The Italian novelist Umberto Eco apparently suffered a crisis of faith while watching a soccer match with his father when he was 13 years old. Surrounded by thousands of passionate fans who were living and dying with their team, all that Eco observed on the field were "senseless movements" of the players that added up to nothing. It was a "cosmic, meaningless performance," he determined. This childhood experience forever linked soccer, in his mind, to the vanity of all earthly things. But he might have thought otherwise had FC Barcelona's Lionel Messi been on that field.
I have seen Messi play at Camp Nou, Futbol Club Barcelona's 100,000-seat stadium, which is again drawing packed crowds as the new season commences in Spain. Seeing what the diminutive Messi does with a ball while opponents hang onto him, beat him and kick him in their futile defensive tactics makes me believe that there is a beneficent God, and that every 15 years or so he places a sublime soccer player among us to ease our worldly pain and to remind us what beauty is. Pele, George Best, Maradona, Zidane and now Messi.
He seems to defy the limits imposed on us by physics. He runs faster dribbling the ball than running without it. The ball seems to stick to his feet by some magnetic force. And he sees movements and possibilities on the field that render fans mute.
Even so, though I share something of the same impulse, I am bound to declare: steady on. Seeing Lionel Messi as evidence for a beneficent God isn't quite going to work, is it? If those vast evils of the world in which humankind is implicated aren't evidence against the very same thing, it's hard to see why Messi should count in its favour; especially if we consider the argument that evil is to be put down to the gift of human freedom. If evil, why not Messi also? But then maybe I'm taking this all too seriously.
I blog this with some misgivings as it touches on matters (of economic policy) about which I lack both confidence and the necessary expertise. But here goes, anyway. Two things I came across this morning. One:
[T]he overall wealth of Australia's wealthiest young entrepreneurs grew 15 per cent; in a time where average wages grew about 4 per cent, and much lower outside the mining sector.
Even in America, where the economy is in far worse shape than ours, it's a great time to be rich. America's top executives each earned about $US10 million in the past year, up 12 per cent on the previous year, a year in which unemployment hovered near 10 per cent and wages didn't grow.
Between 1979 and 2007, the income gap between the richest 1 percent of Americans and the poorest 40 percent more than tripled. Today, the richest 10 percent of Americans control two-thirds of the nation's wealth, while, according to recently released census data, average Americans saw their real incomes decline by 2.3 percent in 2010. Though our economy grew in 2009 and 2010, 88 percent of the increase in real national income went to corporate profits, one study found. Only 1 percent went to wages and salaries for working people.
Now, I don't know if these figures are accurate, and they're about Australia and the US, not this country; yet I couldn't help finding myself thrown back by them to the article I read yesterday by Hopi Sen presenting Labour's current predicament with crystalline clarity and cogency. My seeing a connection between those statistics of growing inequality and the questions Hopi raises rests, I should say, on the presumption that for the UK as well there will be figures that show levels of inequality in our society that are unpalatable and unjust.
The questions that interest me, in the light of the above, are put by Hopi as follows:
What is a progressive social democratic party actually for, if it is not able to spend more money than in the past?
What is the role of the progressive state when you are at the rough upper bound of state spending as a proportion of GDP that a market economy seems to find politically and economically acceptable? What is the progressive case in a fiscally conservative time?
If I have understood Hopi right, the political horizon here is one where the possibility of more state spending without increasing taxation has run out for the time being, and increasing taxation is on the wrong side of the boundary he alludes to in speaking of what 'a market economy seems to find politically and economically acceptable'. Referring to a left approach to this predicament, he writes:
[That] solution is higher taxes on banks, capitalism, wealth, privilege and Rupert Murdoch. We can use the funds gained to improve public services. All of this will be painless for those we seek to serve. This policy programme offers an analysis of the problem, and a clear solution. However, we tested this approach several times in the 1980s and early 90s, and it seemed relatively ineffective, electorally speaking.
OK, so what is a progressive social democratic party for? One thing, it strikes me, it could be for is to make inroads on the scale of the inequalities I started out by invoking. But, on the other hand, one might reckon that this objective, involving high levels of redistributive taxation, is not electorally viable - as indicated by the experience of the 1980s and early 1990s. But does that mean, then, that with times as they are, the Labour Party faces a choice between at least one of the things a progressive social democratic party is for and electoral success? Must it abandon its social-democratic soul in order to win elections? I don't ask these questions rhetorically. I'm interested in knowing the answers to them. All I will say further is that if in a time of crisis like the present one, when there seems to be a widespread public perception that the untrammelled pursuit of vast wealth by a relatively few is now costing everyone else dear, a progressive democratic appeal to greater fairness can't make its way effectively across some majority of the voting population, then we on the left are in an even worse condition than we may previously have realized.