Tuesday, 30 August 2011

False Consciousness in Food and Film

According to Mark Kermode, an important part of a film critic’s job is “explaining to people why they haven't actually enjoyed a movie even if they think they have”. In his article in The Guardian on Sunday, he suggests that people who liked Pirates of the Caribbean 3 only did so because they have been weaned on mindless blockbusters, and have forgotten or are unaware that film can be any better. In his words, they are “simply suffering from the cinematic equivalent of long-term deprivation of the basics of a civilised existence”.

Kermode’s sentiments make an interesting contrast with those of Peter Preston, writing in the same newspaper the following day. Whereas Kermode’s essay is a polemic against the state of modern Hollywood cinema, Preston offers a nostalgic reminiscence of Britain’s culinary past. Stumbling upon one of his mother’s old cookbooks, he contrasts its parochialism to the ambition (or pretentiousness) of modern food. There is a suspicion of anything too exotic, and the majority of ingredients seem to come out of cans. It’s all corned beef, baked beans, tinned soup and (for some reason) pineapple rings, assorted in ingenuity-stretching combinations.

This was not good food as we would recognise it today. Peter Preston knows that. Reading his article made me feel queasy rather than appetised (though that might have something to do with the psychological aversion to corned beef I developed working in a deli). It was just the food eaten by people living under post-war austerity who knew nothing better.

Notice the similarities between these descriptions of food in 1950s Britain, and contemporary film. In both cases, we have a group of people whose aesthetic taste has been dulled by a lack of exposure to ‘quality’ produce. Yet while Kermode sees this as a problem in need of remedy, Preston appears to think it is a cause for regret that this innocence has been lost. Just as film critics are perpetually accused of having lost the ability to see movies through the eyes of ordinary cinemagoers, so modern caterers are “a little too knowing, too sophisticated” to recreate the food of the past.

So if there is such a loss involved in ‘enlightening’ people, why bother? If people enjoyed POTC, why should Kermode be so churlish as to rob them of this pleasure? One possibility is that he sees his task as combatting something like ‘false consciousness’. On this view, to enjoy bad films is to be under a misapprehension which harms your deep interests. It is to hold a false belief which makes your life worse.

This sort of account is most plausible where there is an uncontroversial human interest at stake, for example health. So Anthony Bourdain’s culinary elitism is more defensible because its target is defensible because its target – excessively fatty, fried Southern food – is genuinely injurious to those who develop a taste for it.

But what is it that Kermode is trying to protect us from? How is he making our lives better by making certain films less enjoyable?

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Does John Redwood care about inequality?

A peculiar article in The Guardian yesterday. Funny in the first instance because of the mental image it suggests – John Redwood choking on his cornflakes as it dawns on him that the left might not see him as a tireless campaigner for social justice, devoting his life to protecting the vulnerable. Peculiar because halfway through, Redwood seems to lose the thread of his argument, and begin to make the exact opposite case to the one he intended to.

The article itself is a furious reply to a throwaway remark from John Harris’ column the day before. Bemoaning David Cameron’s abandonment of his initial progressive credentials, Harris contrasts him with Redwood: “There is no point in people like me having a pop at, say, John Redwood for his failure to recognise the importance of inequality. But Cameron was meant to be slightly different.”

What’s clear from this quote is that Redwood is seen as an old-style Tory, antagonistic to the left, while Cameron is a new progressive Tory, sympathetic to many lefty causes. So there’s obviously supposed to be something that Cameron and Harris believe, but that Redwood does not. Call this ‘common ground X’.

Redwood takes common ground X to be concern for the poor, which is why he is so cross at the implication that he does not share it. Consequently, his whole article is devoted to demonstrating that the right simply have a different idea of what sort of policies most benefit the poor.

But that’s not what Harris says. Harris is quite explicit that what distinguishes Cameron and Redwood is their attitudes to inequality. Not their attitudes to the poor – their attitudes to inequality. Hence his reference to Cameron’s appreciation for the The Spirit Level, a book that argues that inequality is bad for society, regardless of how materially well-off the poor are.

Redwood’s sub-editor seems to have appreciated this, given that the title of his article is ‘It's ludicrous to say that rightwingers don't care about inequality’.

But Redwood, intent on demonstrating that rightwingers care about the poor, seems to forget that he was supposed to be arguing about inequality. In fact, his argument shows that for those on the right, caring about the poor involves embracing inequality. An excessive focus on reducing inequality, Redwood argues, risks cutting off the source of wealth that would eventually trickle down to the poor. Moreover, it involves engaging in ‘jealousy’, and undermines aspiration.

So John Redwood doesn’t care about inequality, even if he does care about the poor.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Three Questions about the riots

There seem to be broadly five different types of explanation for the rioting and looting that began in London,and swept across England last week (neatly summarised, although classified differently, by the BBC). There is what we might call the ‘hard right’ account, exemplified by Daily Mail columnist Max Hastings, which see the violence and disorder as the inevitable consequence of unchecked cultural decline. Liberalism’s erosion of the institution of the family and of discipline in schools has produced this amoral, feral youth. The ‘hard left’ narrative also sees the roots of the riots as cultural, but emphasises consumerism as the malign influence on society. Because British society links possessions so closely to status, it should be no surprise that people are willing to go to extreme lengths to obtain the things that confer high status.

By contrast, what I have dubbed the ‘soft right’ and ‘soft left’ focus on politics. The less subtle leftist accounts link the riots directly to current government policies, such as raising university fees and cutting EMA (c.f. Harriet Harman and Ken Livingstone). More nuanced versions of this argument point to the sense of hopelessness and lack of opportunity felt by those on the margins of society. The soft right story is the mirror image of this argument: the government has not been too harsh, but too generous, creating an unwarranted sense of entitlement, which has led to violence now it has inevitably been frustrated.

Finally, there is apparently apolitical ‘no-nonsense’ version of events: plenty of people are opportunistic and enjoy creating disorder and getting something for nothing. The riots gave them a chance to indulge these impulses without fear of retribution, and so many took it. We should not seek any deeper explanation for these events beyond the observation that ‘rioting is fun’.

All of these accounts are plausible enough, but they must not be mistaken for anything more certain than speculation. Far too often they draw on (at best) anecdotes or (at worst) brute prejudice. This is understandable, given the obvious difficulties of discerning the facts on the ground. But over the next few weeks and months as the picture becomes clearer, there are three main questions that need answering if we are to adjudicate between these competing claims.

Who were the rioters?
A number of these arguments depend crucially upon claims about the identity of the rioters – claims which are rarely backed up by evidence. For example, Max Hastings claimed of the rioters that “Most have no jobs to go to or exams they might pass. They know no family role models, for most live in homes in which the father is unemployed, or from which he has decamped.” He just assumes that the only people capable of carrying out such acts must be from his self-designated ‘underclass’. He gets away with it because there is no way to verify whether or not a majority of rioters and looters were in fact unemployed or from single parent families.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that those involved were far more diverse than Hastings imagines: people of different ages, races and backgrounds. But without harder statistics we cannot tell whether the middle class rioters like the ballerina and the organic chef are exceptional.

What were their targets?
Sean Carey insists, in support of his anti-consumerism theory that “by and large the focus has been on breaking into major electrical retailers like Currys and Dixons, mobile phone chains like Carphone Warehouse, supermarkets including Tesco, jewellers, and top-of-the- range "casual" and sports clothing stores”. Carey is cannier than Hastings, acknowledging exceptions, such as the looting of an independent children’s party store, and suggesting only that this is a ‘by and large’ tendency.

But how can we be sure that this is not just coincidence? Perhaps those are the sorts of shops that happened to be close at hand in city centres. Again, how can we distinguish exception from rule?

At the very least, this analysis is limited. While it can explain why items like phones and trainers were looted, it cannot account for petty thefts and vandalism. Unless we have an idea of what proportion of thefts were of status symbol goods, we can’t appreciate how significant this limitation is.

What were their motivations?
The fundamental question that everybody is trying to get the bottom of is why this happened. The most straightforward way is to ask those involved. Many people have already decided that it cannot have been a deliberate political action, but just selfish wanton criminality. How can they know this without asking people whether they intended this as a political gesture? If these acts are a protest against government cuts, surely people will claim credit for them as such.

The trouble is that we cannot take these motivations at face value. On the one hand, people may lie or misrepresent their motivations to try and excuse or justify their actions. Political protest is a lot more heroic than random violence or greed, and most people prefer to think of themselves as heroes. Moreover, people may not understand the deep lying roots of their motivations. They might tell us that rioting seemed fun or that this was a good way of exorcising frustration, but they might not understand what it is they are so angry about.

All of the proposed explanations of the causes of the riots depend on particular perceptions of the facts of the case. Many of these facts are far from clear. Until somebody systematically collects and examines the evidence, nobody will be qualified to reach any definitive conclusions. It seems to me that a public inquiry is the necessary first step of this process. Hopefully it will go part way to answering the questions I’ve posed here.

Monday, 1 August 2011

The Ian Bell incident and the 'spirit of cricket'

I’ve already written a little bit about the position of ethics in sport. About a year ago, I contrasted the football and cycling communities’ reactions to moral dilemmas faced by sportsmen in their field. While nobody raised an eyebrow at German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer’s refusal to admit he had seen the ball cross his goal line in the World Cup match against England, cycling was shocked by Alberto Contador’s willingness to profit from a rival’s slipped bike chain in the Tour de France.

Both incidents were similar in that they tested the limits of what kind of behaviour is acceptable in pursuit of victory. However, reflecting on the controversy at Trent Bridge yesterday, I now see that there is a significant difference between them.

Neuer’s action was worse than Contador’s because he was complicit in the misapplication of the rules of football. From a formal, legalistic perspective, England were wronged by his actions, since they were denied a legitimate goal. By contrast, in the Contador incident, no rules were broken, and nobody was disadvantaged according to the letter of the law. Rather, it was the more vague ‘spirit of the game’ that had been violated.

In this sense, Contador’s dilemma was rather like M.S. Dhoni’s yesterday. The Indian cricket captain was at the centre of a bizarre episode when his team ran out the English batsman Ian Bell as he walked off, thinking play had ended for tea. India, like Contador, had received what was perceived to be an unfair advantage within the rules of the game. However, Dhoni, unlike Contador, was willing to forfeit this advantage, withdrawing his appeal.

Most people seem to agree that there would have been something wrong about exploiting the Ian Bell incident, and I share the intuition that Dhoni was right to make the decision he made. But what exactly would have been unfair about it?

One possibility is that it is about luck. Bell suffered a freakish stroke of misfortune, and it would have been wrong to profit from it. The ‘spirit of the game’ of cricket demands that teams seek to win in ‘the right way’. That is, by virtue of their superior skill and not as a result of brute luck. Perhaps what troubles us about the Ian Bell incident is that the Indian team failed to dismiss him as a result of their own efforts, and so to get him out as the result of a fluke would have been a hollow victory.

The idea that there is something problematic about gaining a lucky advantage is common to a number of sports. Convention dictates that snooker players should apologise for flukes, and tennis players should say sorry when they benefit from deflections off the net. But of course, in neither sport would the points actually be forfeited, meaning that the apologies often look like meaningless formalities.

In any case, the eradication of luck from sport is both impossibled and undesirable. A huge part of the unpredictability of sport which makes it worth watching sport in the first place is down to the randomness of the ‘run of the ball(s)’. There are so many variables that determine the result of a sporting contest that they could never all be neutralised. Why is capitalising on the Bell incident any worse than taking advantage of winning the coin toss, or helpful weather conditions, which India also did over the course of same the match?

In any case, it is a mistake to chalk the Ian Bell incident up purely to luck. Whether or not it was right to exploit it, Bell - as he himself acknowledges - made a mistake. Young sportsmen are regularly told to ‘play to the whistle’: to maintain full intensity until there is a confirmed break in play. Bell should not have assumed that play was over until it was confirmed by the umpire: he suffered from a culpable lapse in concentration.

Perhaps the problem with the Bell dismissal was the element of deception involved. India got Bell out because they acted as though the ball was dead, and so convinced Bell that it was not in play. However, it seems unlikely that India were actually trying to mislead Bell, rather than just failing to alert him to his error. It is surely demanding too much to expect cricketers to warn their opponents before they make a mistake like Bell’s.

Then again, there is a precedent for such a system of warning in cricket. It is generally agreed that it is against the spirit of the game to ‘Mankad’ a batsman – to run them out if they back up too far – without prior warning. However, there is ample opportunity to warn someone you are about to ‘Mankad’ someone, as this occurs in the middle of a natural break in the game. The Bell incident occurred while the game was in full flow, so it is far from clear how or when it would have been appropriate to tip Bell off.

Moreover, deception is often an essential part of sporting tactics. If misleading your opponent is cheating, this renders a large number of strategies unfair. Maybe it’s that deception about tactics and mental states are legitimate, but about the state of the game are unfair?

I still have the sense that Dhoni was right to call Bell back to the crease. But the difficulty I’m having in pinning down why suggests that it is far from clear what exactly the ‘spirit of cricket’ requires and why.