Archive for March, 2009
I always think that survivors – of death camps, terror attacks, polio – must get sick of being spoken of as if survival was the defining feature of their personalities. For French feminist Simone Veil the hell of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, the seventy-kilometre death march, the starvation, gassings, bereavement – all this was just an opening chapter in a remarkable life.
Of course it never left her. ‘The Holocaust is omnipresent,’ Veil tells us, ‘nothing is erased’. I know that it takes time for horror of such scope to trickle into the public consciousness, but I was still taken aback by the casual postwar racism against deportees. In the years immediately after the war, Veil took to wearing long sleeves. There’s a passage where the eighteen-year-0ld Veil is sent to a Protestant boarding-house where the lights were out at ten and you had to say grace before every meal. It is an accurate portrait of the banality of virtue: ‘We were made to feel exactly how generous our benefactors were for sheltering us under their capacious wings and how infinitely grateful we should be to them.’ Yet she rejects Hannah Arendt’s view that anyone can be responsible for anything, citing throughout her career the sacrifices made by resistance fighters on behalf of Jews.
Later, while the riots of ’68 roared outside her office window, Veil was storming the gates in a quieter and more effective way – planning successful legislation to decriminalise abortion. At this time, the rich travelled to England or Holland to have pregnancies terminated while the rest were forced into dangerous backstreet abortions. Read her parliamentary speech at the end of this volume and you’ll understand how Veil succeeded against a regressive political culture and the discriminatory handicap of being an atheist, Jewish, liberal woman. (We have not made as much progress as we think, incidentally. Witness the outrage from the UK’s conservative press on the prospect of abortion clinics being able to advertise on TV. Oliver Kamm notes: ‘It’s at times like this that I realise how oddly unmerited is the reputation of British conservatism for social pragmatism and working with the grain of human nature.’)
Despite the momentous progress this law represented, it is at precisely this stage of the narrative that Veil begins to sound like a politician. The early chapters, dealing with Veil’s youth, are rendered with eloquence and evocation. As soon as she reaches office, however, all we get are the camera’s tiny flickers of mandatory self-deprecation: ‘I confess, with a pang of remorse but not without amusement, that I had such a light workload that more than once I took myself off to see a film in the afternoon.’ Fortunately: ‘Readers can rest assured, however: I did not spend all my time in the cinema.’
The brevity of this memoir belies the achievements of its subject. At the end of the book, when she’s achieved so much, seen so much, Veil finally discards her political voice for her human voice.
Gradually, darkness pervades the house. To the sound of the piano, I watch the paintings gradually fade before my eyes, and the dead whom we loved, those we knew and did not know, gather silently beside us. I know we will never have finished with them. They accompany us wherever we go, forming a vast chain that links them to us, we who survived.
Today’s recommended reading: Mark Thwaite’s review of William D. Cohan’s House of Cards: How Wall Street’s Gamblers Broke Capitalism.
Cohan’s book is subtitled How Wall Street’s Gamblers Broke Capitalism, but it is precisely that global, historically-situated, man-made, overturnable social system — capitalism — that he never defines or critiques. This is a thrilling narrative in parts but, like so many books about the credit crunch it is curiously incurious about the system that requires bankers to get up to their creative accounting in the first place. Certainly, the world financial meltdown came about because of perverse and ridiculous derivatives, collateralized debt, unrestrained mortgages and also because — as Cohan shows clearly — of the negligence, greed and criminality of individual bankers, but behind all of that is a social system that has always been blind to human need and based on the extraction and circulation of value. Wall Street’s gamblers haven’t broken that system, but they have broken the real economy where real people live and work. And when real people realise that Wall Street gamblers are merely an epiphenomenon of a system that is intrinsically inimical to their needs then it might be them and not a bunch of greedy, overpaid, blue-eyed white men who really break capitalism. For good.
I don’t think you can expect even the best finance writers to conclude: ‘Capitalism is the real enemy – to the barricades!’ Yet it is right to ask what the recession shows about the system that produced it. This is the end of doctrinaire freemarket capitalism, and the big task of the twenty-first century will be to find something better, something that actually works.
For those of you unfamiliar with HarperCollins’s digital POD farm innovative, ground-breaking online writers’ community then this is how it operates. You upload your book onto the website, other users can vote for it and every month the five people with the most votes get a critique from HarperCollins editors. I have simplified but this is essentially how the site works.
Now as you’d imagine there are thousands of writers on that site and competition for the top five is intense. You can get there by talent and effort: doing long, thoughtful critiques of other writers, polishing and revising your manuscript so that it attracts readers and gets good feedback.
Or you can get there by networking. Some users simply bombard the community with spam emails but others spend time on the message boards, forming alliances and cultivating friendships. It’s been argued that success on Authonomy owes more to networking than talent. Most people will use a mixture of both. It can take months of hard work, but it can be done.
Now, via the phenomenal Jane Smith, comes a guaranteed fast-track method of getting into the Authonomy top five.
1) Place manuscript on Authonomy and register with the site.
2) Get all your mates from online gaming forums to go to Authonomy, register on the site and back your book.
3) Watch your book hurtle to number one in a matter of hours.
5) … That’s it.
This is the genius strategy of Vineet Bhalla, a video game aficionado renowned for ‘narrating videos of Starcraft tournaments and popular players’ who recruited 800 other gamers to back his ms via a YouTube video, narrated by Bhalla, that provides a step-by-step tutorial on how to back his book. ‘Your time on this,’ Bhalla says, ‘should be five, ten, fifteen minutes at most’. Many of his backers admitted that they hadn’t read any of Bhalla’s ms.
Understandably many of the regular users that have been on the site since it opened in September are a little irritated that some guy can simply leapfrog his way to an almost guaranteed HarperCollins critique. Consequently Clive from HarperCollins has had to step in with some soothing words to mollify the outraged hardcore.
Clive makes a spirited defence but between the lines you can sense the horror and regret that Victor Frankenstein must have felt as he watched his freshly animated monster lurch down the hill towards the sleeping village.
He points out that Bhalla hasn’t really done anything wrong – loads of Authonomy users plug their books on Facebook, MySpace, blogs etc. No rules have been broken and HarperCollins can’t really ban Bhalla or his friends. What he’s done is completely legitimate.
But this is a precedent, isn’t it? If Vineet Bhalla can bring 800 people over from Starcraft then John Doe can bring 900 over from his ‘Stockport County Forever’ Facebook group. Surely this is going to lead to tons of users, quite legitimately, choppering to the summit using this very basic method.
Clive is aware of this and puts the best possible spin on it:
Meanwhile, authonomy has welcomed thousands of new members who have come from sites all across the internet, places that would never have become aware of this endeavour before. We think that makes this place a little bit richer.
Yeah Clive but if you read the comments and forums on your site you will see that you are losing many of the serious writers that you hadn’t already alienated with the POD debacle. They aren’t going to be adequately replaced by a few hundred game nuts who are there to back one specific book.
Imagine what would happen to your favourite pub if the management, for some reason, lost all its loyal, high-spending regulars and replaced them with a bunch of transient weekend customers who are there for one drink on the way to the leisure complex.
Unless the site administrators find a way to prevent this sort of thing happening – and I don’t think they can – then this is probably the beginning of the end for Authonomy.
I’m hoping maybe other publishers will take the best features from the site and develop a version that actually works.
I’ve been reading the comments to Clive’s post. I feel really sorry for the people who’ve been grinding away on Authonomy for months, wasting time with the best of intentions when they could have been reading and writing.
This is the end of Authonomy as a serious writing site.
‘Right, this’ll take five, ten, fifteen minutes…’
During my teenage years, I was just beginning at the widest part: I read anything I could get my hands on and finished every book whether I was enjoying it or not. In my late teens the funnel started to narrow as I began to specialise into what I found most useful, and now, as an adult, my reading life exists solely in the cylindrical tube you can find at the bottom of the funnel. I browse only two or three shelves in the library, ticking off what I have read in my File and ignoring everything else. Within this narrow confine I thought I would find everything I needed.
Let me just say a few words about this phenomenal book that has been out for a couple of days. I can’t remember when I’ve read a better debut.
On the cover of my edition Jenny Diski describes the novel as ‘a gripping, ever-darkening narrative’ – and that’s not the half of it. Overweight loner Annie Fairhurst buys a house in the suburbs and begins making an effort to integrate herself with the community. But she has a horrific past and when she recognises one of the neighbours as someone who helped her out in the dark times, things start rapidly unravelling.
With her dull whimsy and quotemarked colloqualisms, Annie’s narrative starts out as normal, even banal. Gradually we notice inconsistencies between Annie’s version of events and what’s actually going on: these gaps become wider until we realise that we are seeing the world through the narrow filter of a seriously disturbed mind. It’s a slow, terrifying realisation, and by the time you’ve experienced it, you will not be able to put the book down. The story beguils you, then holds you, then shakes you around like a rag doll.
I think Jenn Ashworth was influenced by Kazuo Ishiguro, and it shows: Annie’s skewed analysis and overformalised voice reminded me of the self-deluded, repressed butler in The Remains of the Day. She is a very ordinary monster along the lines of Frank Cauldhame and another Annie, Annie Wilkes. But there’s no sense that Ashworth’s trying to mimic her influences. The novel is tightly plotted, exquisitely paced, every word on trial for its life. It’s a story of provincial unhappiness, bad company in small rooms, the awful consequences of not being loved. And although the climax is fairly messy, Annie’s story ends on a note of self-awareness, and possibly hope.
Tone. We keep coming back to tone. It’s not what you say but how you say it. Julian Baggini thinks the ‘New Atheism’ is destructive, not because of its arguments, but because of the ‘general tone and direction’. It’s perception not reality that counts and the problem with The God Delusion etc is not ‘what exactly these books say, but of how they are perceived’. The New Atheism is therefore ‘counterproductive’.
There are at least as many atheists attacking New Atheism, as there are New Atheists attacking religion. The former line of critique, again, rarely takes on Dawkins/Hitchens-style arguments but instead criticises the expression, not the actuality, of New Atheist ideas. We are ‘aggressive’; ‘dogmatic’; ‘militant’; ‘intolerant’ and, let’s not forget, ‘fundamentalist’.
Don’t get me wrong. Incivility is bad. But when I think of incivility I think of morons in pastel shirts, smashing up pubs, making bus journeys hell with mobile phone noise and compilation trance. I don’t think of two people in a lecture theatre having an academic debate.
Certainly there are lines that should not be crossed – hate speech, for example, or personal comments. I’m thinking of the attacks on Christopher Hitchens that carry the sniggering insinuation that he is an alcoholic, often made by people who think of alcoholism as a disease rather than a crime. Richard Dawkins once got in trouble for saying of a woman that she had a ‘stupid face’. Yes, it was a bad thing to say. But what real harm has occurred? You’ll live. People are too oversensitive. Writers are not diplomats and shouldn’t have to be.
A prominent theme of intellectual discourse is self-abasement. Liberals are fond of self-deprecation. We self-criticise, josh about our weaknesses, shrug, laugh, apologise, play down. There’s good things to be said about this approach, yet it means that passion is regarded as suspicious. When someone rises above this level of mediocrity, they are dismissed as arrogant. And it means that when we do have to fight the real militants, people who are genuinely and unashamedly arrogant, who are unafraid of appearing to believe in what they say – anti-immigration white racists, ‘politically incorrect’ Tory scum comedians/columnists, far-right Islamic clerics – they just walk all over us.
And there is also arrogance in self-deprecation. Remember Wilde: ‘There is a luxury in self-reproach. When we blame ourselves, we feel that no one else has a right to blame us.’ That’s exactly right. Certainly, we should guard ourselves against the intoxication of self-righteousness. But we must also remember that modesty is half the sin of pride.
I think I’ve exhausted the question of tone. Baggini also thinks the New Atheists define themselves entirely by their opposition to religion, which renders atheism pointless: ‘Imagine for one moment that atheism triumphs and belief in God is eradicated. On the view that atheism needs religion, then this victory would also be atheism’s extinction.’ But this argument has already been made – by a New Atheist, Sam Harris. In a conference speech Harris discussed the redundancy of the term:
I think that ‘atheist’ is a term that we do not need, in the same way that we don’t need a word for someone who rejects astrology. We simply do not call people ‘non-astrologers.’
We don’t need the term ‘non-astrology’ because that implies that astrology is something more than harmless filler. But imagine a parallel world. In this world astrology is taken seriously to the degree that religion is taken seriously in our world. People self-identify, first and foremost, with the star sign under which they are born. Children are raised as Aquarians or Taurians by Aquarian or Taurian parents, educated by rote learning in Aquarian and Taurian schools, and married in arranged ceremonies to other Aquarians and Taurians. Minority signs have their shops burned down. Sectarian graffiti appears on walls. Protection of Zodiac teachings is written into national and international law. Astrologers enjoy the status of philosopher-kings, are consulted by legislatures, and hold senior positions in universities where they thrash out endless debates on conjunctions between human behaviour and the positions of the moon. Entire nations and cultures are based on a single astrological sign or group of signs. In these astrocracies people would be discriminated against, censored, tortured and killed for not being, say, Piscean, or being Pisceans with the wrong Piscean traits. The Fire Sign nations invade Water Sign land, gassing entire towns, killing civilians, pregnant women, children, babies. Water Sign militias respond with waves of suicide bombers, causing more loss of life. Meanwhile, the Cancerian Republic has its nuclear programme well underway. The planet reduced to glowing ash because of a dispute over whether Gemini’s ruling stone is the Sapphire, or the Moss Agate.
A sad and crazy world. And a lot like our own.
In the universe I’ve just described, there would certainly be a need for a movement against astrology in general. The term ‘non-astrologist’ would be useful, controversial, even fatal. Likewise, Elizabeth Wilson argues:
[T]he aggressive militancy of the ‘New Atheism’ is precisely a political response to the equally political agenda of evangelical Christians, Islamists and others who have used faith as the battering ram to attack the citadels not simply of enlightenment reason but – paradoxically – of worldly power.
What Julian fails to take into account, I think, is that many people long for a more uninhibited outspoken uncringing discussion of religion, and are pleased to get it. I think he overlooks the sense of liberation many people have gotten from the revival of explicit atheism.
That’s exactly it. It’s a joy to be able to point out that religion is stupid and harmful, without having to add all the caveats and qualifications of debased liberal discourse. To paraphrase Wilde: it should not just be a duty to speak your mind. It should also be a pleasure.
‘Nothing succeeds like excess’
Here’s a little story I’d like to share.
The American Medical Association has done a study showing that religious people are more likely to hang on to life for as long as possible.
People with strong religious beliefs appear to want doctors to do everything they can to keep them alive as death approaches, a US study suggests.
Researchers followed 345 patients with terminal cancer up until their deaths.
Those who regularly prayed were more than three times more likely to receive intensive life-prolonging care than those who relied least on religion.
As well as receiving resuscitation, they were much more likely to be placed on mechanical ventilation in the last few days of life.
I wonder what was going through their minds in those last hours.
The study’s authors say that believers prolong life because they want to give God every chance to perform a miracle, and because they ‘believe they have a moral duty to choose life over death.’
Over at CiF Belief, Ed Halliwell falls over himself to avoid the obvious alternative explanation: that ‘when the prospect of extinction approaches, the illusion of eternity rapidly crumbles, and believers try desperately to maintain their denial by staving off oblivion.’
Halliwell does his best to undermine the study’s findings. Apparently, the problem with the research is that ‘it crudely lumps all religion together – as if there were a monolithic set of beliefs that can be used to define who is religious and what that means.’
This is what I would call the argument from intimidation. It goes like this: ‘The subject under discussion is really complicated, no one really understands it, but as I have a BA in theology I understand more than you do. So accept what I say as truth.’
Yes, religion is rich and complex and multifaceted. But all faiths have several common features. One is that there is some kind of continuation after death. The soul could ascend from the inert body into heaven (or descend into hell) or be reincarnated into a different physical form.
Bottom line, there are core beliefs shared by all religions. It’s no good saying ‘you need to have studied religion to make this sort of assertion’ because most religious people haven’t studied religion. We are always told that faith is what we make of it rather than what is written in blood in the holy books. It is possible, indeed necessary, to generalise about religion.
In this case, the study identified the pious by getting them to agree with a variety of statements, such as whether they ‘focused on religion to stop worrying about their problems’ or that religion ‘was the most important thing that kept them going’. These are exactly the kinds of attitudes that suggest someone is using their faith as an ego defence against reality rather than a tool to investigate it, so it’s hardly surprising they also claim to be resisting death because it’s the will of God.
This view is refreshing at a time when the statement ‘oh, it gives the poor people something to believe in’ is considered an argument to religion’s credit. Yet how does this ‘ego-defence against reality’ differentiate from what we call ‘spiritual nourishment in times of crisis’? Also, Halliwell doesn’t propose any methods of discerning real, earthy, genuine believers from people who are just deluding themselves.
He goes on to identify a ‘failure to differentiate between categories of religious experience’:
This is a conflation of the kind of pre-rational religion that says there’s an anthropomorphic God in the sky who’ll help you out if you pray, and the trans-rational kind that offers sophisticated tools for investigating experience from a first-person perspective. In the former, belief is primitive, magical and childish, just as its detractors claim. But religion of the latter type faces and embraces – rather than splits off from – life’s mysteries and uncertainties, and is able to integrate and complement the empirical knowledge produced by science.
So on the one hand we’ve got ‘bad religion’ (gigantic man with flowing beard, pitchfork-wielding demons, sinister organ music, witch burning etc) and ‘good religion’ (meditation, tantric sex, long pointless discussions, silent retreats in the Lake District). The trouble is, most religious believers – most of the people interviewed for the AMA study and any study of religious belief – will see life, the universe and everything in terms of the former, less sophisticated system of religion.
Apart from restricting their research to Shambhala Buddhists like Ed Halliwell, it’s hard to see how scientists can resolve this. Which of course is his point: religion is too wide, fascinating and complicated for us fundamentalist atheists to cram into our closed little minds.
The implication is that the godless should give up on trying to understand the big questions altogether, and leave such deep and contemplative matters to the theologians. The record of faith in contributing knowledge and progress to humanity’s understanding of the universe does not inspire confidence in that proposition.