Blind Man with a Pistol


‘Police Brutality Is Not a Game’

spiritThe 2009 World Police and Fire Games kicked off in Vancouver this weekend. More than 12 000 police officers from around the world will compete in 65 sporting events over the next ten days. The event has prompted the Vancouver Anti-Poverty Committee to call for a mobilization against police brutality both locally and internationally, under the banner ‘Police brutality is not a game’. It is curious, then, that the Games chose this ‘Eagle Spirit’ image, by traditional Haida artist Garner Moody, as the official logo. The 1329-strong Vancouver Police Department boasts a meagre twenty-one First Nations officers (about 1.5%), and even fewer (if any) actual Haida officers. While this substantially less than the 4.4% First Nations make up the general population, perhaps the Games decided not to honour this small contingent by rooting their national heritage for the official crest, opted instead to salute the overrepresentation of First Nations our boys and girls in blue incarcerate: First Nations make up 18.5% of our national prison population, a bias even more acute in British Columbia.

This shameless appropriation of First Nations’ cultural heritage by the state has become a popular past-time in British Columbia, perhaps the most infamous example the Inukshuk logo of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. At least the Haida, unlike the Inuit, can be found within the borders of the province.

The audacity of the World Police and Fire games to choose the national art of the people they most brutalize and incarcerate as their logo bespeaks gross ignorance and criminal blindness.  The fact that the choice was probably meant to sell Canada’s ‘multicultural’ society internationally adds further insult. Just as the purpose of our police forces is not to protect its citizens, but to protect the state against its enemies—in this case, the autonomy and nationhood of our First Nations—its gamesmanship and recreation extend this defence to new fronts. By appropriating without honour or good faith, the ‘correctional services of Canada’ engage in an act of cultural violence against the artistic heritage of its favourite victim, the First Nations of Turtle Island.



Against Freedom: Free Speech

In Areopagitica (1644) , John Milton, poet, revolutionary and parliamentarian, wrote what became the ur-text for defenders of free speech in the modern era. Although it had virtually no political impact at the time, it influenced the arguments of free-speech advocates for centuries: its heritage can even be observed in the United States Bill of Rights. In a virtuoso performance, Milton mixes Classical and Christian imagery to forward a profound statement against censorship:

Unlesse warinesse be us’d, as good almost kill a Man as kill a good Book; who kills a Man kills a reasonable creature, Gods Image; but he who destroyes a good Booke, kills reason it selfe, kills the Image of God, as it were in the eye.

Lovely stuff. Milton was condemning the Licensing Order of 1643, which reinstated the authority to ban texts pre-publication, and represented, for Milton at least, a regression toward regimes like that of Spain, who were archaic and worse, Catholic (or, in the creative parlance of British sectarianism, ‘papes’). The only problem with Milton’s eloquent tract is that he’s not really against censorship at all. He’s only against censorship before a book is published. Here’s the almost equally vibrant passage that precedes the above:

I deny not, but that it is of greatest concernment in the Church and Commonwealth, to have a vigilant eye how Bookes demeane themselves as well as men; and thereafter to confine, imprison, and do sharpest justice on them as malefactors: For Books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potencie of life in them to be as active as that soule was whose progeny they are; nay they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacie and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.

In fact, Milton’s treatise can be read as a plea to demand treasonous and blasphemous individuals publish their thoughts so as to ensure their crimes are adequately punished. We want our papists and royalists outed, after all.

Milton’s trick, a wondrous blend of revolution and conservatism, founds the strategy that would come to define free speech for the remainder of the millennium: he proposes a plan that enables coercion, facilitates the suppression of dissent, and ensures subversive forces are exposed and expatriated—all under the veil of what the ruling classes, never without a sense of humour, have labelled ‘Free Speech’. Milton knows that speech is never free—it’s only a matter of when your debt is called in. But this wrinkle in the modern understanding of free speech has faded from social memory.

Hence, the price of free speech is the principle commonly thought to be its synonym: freedom of thought. By shifting censorship post-production, we are forced to filter our expressions before they are published. That is, by removing pre-publication bans and replacing it with a censorious judiciary after publication, Milton’s brand of free speech effects a much more efficient type of restriction. If the book is ‘reason it selfe’, and the book is fair game for a moralizing lawmaker, then the best defence is altering reason. This so-called freedom breeds self-censorship.

But don’t take my word for it. Firebrand journalist and author G.K. Chesterton festooned the ironic logic of free speech in his wonderful spy thriller, The Man Who Was Thursday (1908):

‘The work of the philosophical policeman’, replied the man in blue, ‘is at once bolder and more subtle than that of the ordinary detective. The ordinary detective goes to pot-houses to arrest thieves; we go to artistic tea-parties to detect pessimists. The ordinary detective discovers from a ledger or a diary that a crime has been committed. We discover from a book of sonnets that a crime will be committed. We have to trace the origin of those dreadful thoughts that drive men on at last to intellectual fanaticism and intellectual crime….We say that the most dangerous criminal is the educated criminal. We say that the most dangerous criminal now is the entirely lawless modern philosopher’.

The key difference between Chesterton’s ‘philosophical policemen’ and Milton’s hated papacy is that the ‘philosophical policemen’, a group of undercover officers infiltrating the subversive ‘anarchists’ of Britain, turn out to be more pervasive and prolific than the populace they are supposed to survey. Indeed, by the novel’s end, these policemen comprise the entire society, fighting and observing each other. In Chesterton’s cynical revision, censorship continues apace—the only difference being, in the words of Radiohead, you do it to yourself.

With that in mind, compare Chesterton’s satirical passage, in which Gabriel Syne, the latest recruit of the philosophical policemen, reveals his motivating convictions, to Milton’s treatise against the suppression of heresy:

‘Yes, the modern world has retained all those parts of police work which are really oppressive and ignominious, the harrying of the poor, the spying upon the unfortunate. It has given up its more dignified work, the punishment of powerful traitors in the State and powerful heresiarchs in the Church. The moderns say we must not punish heretics. My only doubt is whether we have a right to punish anybody else’.

What Chesterton’s delicious irony reveals, of course, is that modernity hasn’t given up punishing heresy at all: it’s simply shifted the responsibility.

Consider whence the loudest braying and appeals to free speech come: more often than not it issues from the far right, like when they fought for the privilege of Danish cartoonists to mock and villainize Muslims. When a concept meant to promote democracy and liberty ends up acting as a shield for racists and imperialists, it’s time to consider implementing a curfew. Is defending fascism what Milton had in mind when he wrote his famous apologia?

In fact, in a further twist of irony, our governments have used its shibboleth of ‘free speech’ to invalidate dissent. There is, first of all, the sardonically named ‘Free-Speech Zones’ that have leeched their way into Western ‘democracies’, relegating dissent into safely cordoned-off areas of impotence. Even when free speech is not so explicitly marginalized, it is systematically defanged by cynical smugness. The protests against the war in Iraq saw 36 million people speak out against the United States’ illegal, ill-fated pre-emptive attack. Rather than shortcircuit a now-hopless war that has since cost milions of civilians’ lives and set back hope for stability in the region for a generation, it permitted the administrations of Bush and Blair a wry smile of condescenion: ‘this is what we are fighting for’, they insisted. The right for Iraqis of free speech and political dissent. By upholding the spectacle of free speech rather than its essence, liberalism sold freedom of expression as a brand, draining the substance of its objection and hanging it on an unjustifiable war. Our empty freedoms have now become Iraq’s and Afghanistan’s.

Faced with such paralyzing impotence we might be tempted to dispose with free speech altogether. This would be a grave mistake. While Milton might have been treacherous in his spirited defence of free speech, he was not wholly wrong. Freedom of expression, however insidious and ethereal, must be pursued in a robust democracy. To dissuade discouragement, I can olnly turn to Chesterton again, and the words of his Professor de Worms:

‘Young man, I am amused to observe that you think I am a coward. As to that I shall say only one word, and it will be entirely in the manner of your own philosophical rhetoric. You think it is impossible to pull down the President. I know it is impossible, and I am going to try it’.

Shall we? Let’s.



The Dawkins Delusion and the Spirit of Capitalism

Atheistic and skeptical political philosopher John Gray has published a wonderful essay in The Guardian on the extensive recent polemic against religion.

An atmosphere of moral panic surrounds religion. Viewed not so long ago as a relic of superstition whose role in society was steadily declining, it is now demonised as the cause of many of the world’s worst evils. As a result, there has been a sudden explosion in the literature of proselytising atheism. A few years ago, it was difficult to persuade commercial publishers even to think of bringing out books on religion. Today, tracts against religion can be enormous money-spinners, with Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great selling in the hundreds of thousands. For the first time in generations, scientists and philosophers, high-profile novelists and journalists are debating whether religion has a future.

Gray’s main strategy is to historicize this debate—an act he performs skillfully in rhetoric if not entirely convincingly in substance. Essentially, he argues that the debate between religious fundamentalism and secular liberalism is the precipitate of political conflicts and a descendant of Christian progressivism.

The 9/11 hijackers saw themselves as martyrs in a religious tradition, and western opinion has accepted their self-image.

Gray puts his finger on something here that has always bothered me about the way writers like Dawkins forward the unscientific assumption that much of the conflict present in the world today would disappear if religion did first. Aside from the fact that entrenched in this theory is a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature, it takes for granted that the 9/11 attacks were a religious act. There is, I believe, something terrifyingly secular about religious fundamentalism.

Religion is a language for speaking about the unspeakable. For parsing truth and creating meaning. Marx called it, not unsympathetically, “the sigh of an oppressed people.” Where is the sigh in the suicide bomb? Is the fundamentalism that inspires this kind of sacrifice not, rather, drained of any transcendence? The body is reduced to a secular image that may carry political symbolism in this world, but carries none in the next. Fundamentalism does not trade in the truth religion and metaphysics seek to uncover, it trades only in the brutal, irreducible and secular image.

Belief in progress is a relic of the Christian view of history as a universal narrative, and an intellectually rigorous atheism would start by questioning it. This is what Nietzsche did when he developed his critique of Christianity in the late 19th century, but almost none of today’s secular missionaries have followed his example. One need not be a great fan of Nietzsche to wonder why this is so. The reason, no doubt, is that he did not assume any connection between atheism and liberal values – on the contrary, he viewed liberal values as an offspring of Christianity and condemned them partly for that reason.

Here is Gray’s best attempt to persuade atheists to abandon their faith. The only alternative to religion is metaphysics, it is not ‘science.’ The common ‘secular fundamentalist’ strategy is not to historicize religion, to demystify it, but to show that it is based on nothing, that it is all nonsense, that it is entirely useless. This, of course, requires a larger leap of faith that would make a rapturous Baptist shiver. If the object is truly to demystify religion, to show that it is part and parcel of a larger, oppressive, ideology, one needs to demonstrate the purpose and origin of religion. As Gray points out, religion is part and parcel with dominant political ideologies—progressivism, capitalism, etc. As such, it natively carries the foibles and the advantages of these systems. Why is it so hard for Dawkins et al. to admit as much?

Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism provides a sombre warning to those who forget that religious belief remains firmly rooted in political desire.

The Puritan wanted to work in calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt.

Since asceticism undertook to remodel the world and to work out its ideals in the world, material goods have gained an increasing and finally an inexorable power over the lives of men as at no previous period in history. Today the spirit of religious asceticism – whether finally, who knows? – has escaped from the cage. But victorious capitalism, since it rests on mechanical foundations, needs its support no longer. The rosy blush of its laughing heir, the Enlightenment, seems also to be irretrievably fading, and the idea of duty in one’s calling prowls about in our lives like the ghost of dead religious beliefs. Where the fulfillment of the calling cannot directly be related to the highest spiritual and cultural values, or when, on the other hand, it need not be felt simply as economic compulsion, the individual generally abandons the attempt to justify it at all.

Hat-tip to contrarianna at babble



Turn Down Patriarchy

Your true task, as a son, is to reproduce every one of the enormities [committed by your father], but in attentuated form. You must become your father, but a paler, weaker version of him. The enormities go with the job, but close study will allow you to perform the job less well than it has previously been done, thus moving toward a golden age of decency, quiet, and calmed fevers. Your contribution will not be a small one, but “small” is one of the concepts you should shoot for. . . .Begin by whispering, in front of a mirror, for thirty minutes a day. Then tie your hands behind your back for thirty minutes a day, or get someone else to do this for you. Then, choose one of your most deeply held beliefs, such as the belief that your honors and awards have something to do with you, and abjure it. Friends will help you abjure it, and can be telephoned if you begin to backslide. You see the pattern, put it into practice. Fatherhood can be, if not conquered, at least “turned down” in this generation—by the combined efforts of all of us together. Rejoice.

“Manual for Sons.” Donald Barthelme, The Dead Father (1975). 270-271