Son of Saul

It was International Holocaust Memorial Day yesterday here in the U.K. . There was surprisingly little note paid to it and the fears that we could forget this monstrous horror in our history seemed more likely this year than before. Thankfully the BBC had shown the film ‘Son of Saul’ the evening before and I decided to watch this in order to think on the significance of the day.

It is unfortunate that this film is not son_of_saul_28saul_fia29better known. It is a stunning debut by László Nemes  and hard to believe that this is a first film. Although there are a number of eminent films focussing on the holocaust, I think it is fair to say that none are as effective as this one in evoking a sense of the horror that this entailed. This film follows Saul, a Sonderkommando in Auschwitz, over the last two days of his life.

The film is shot, almost entirely, in close proximity to Saul so that his head and shoulders almost fill the frame. We follow him as he makes his way through the hell in which he is living. This has a duel effect.

Firstly, due to the shallow depth of field much of what happens around Saul is out of focus and blurred. We can work out what is happening and know the depravity that is there. This gives the effect of placing us, like Saul,  in the position of trying to not look at what is happening but being unable to ignore what is occuring all around.

Secondly, as Saul moves from place to place at the whim, and under the blows of others we share his feeling of loss of control. He moves in a sea of sounds; cries, yelps, barked orders and screams. Various languages are used and little is explained but everything is understood in brutal clarity. Saul’s face remains impassive and blank throughout most of the film , as  the ‘learned helplessness’  and need to appear submissive act as his protection – internally against despair and externally against beatings and retributions. There are only a couple of short periods when his face shows feeling and the acting, by Géza Röhrig  , in this regard is simply stunning – with minimal movement entire emotions are revealed.

During the two days, we share of Saul’s life, he is in a desparate quest to try and arrange the burial of a boy who survived the gas chamber only to be deliberately suffocated by a medical attendant. We are never really sure why the boy is important to Saul and why his body has taken such signifiance (Compared to all the other bodies, bluntly termed “pieces“, of which the Sonderkommandos disposed). But this little fragment of humanity, and link to his faith, give him for a period some purpose.

However, this sense of purpose does not necessarily mean hope. Unlike other films tackling this subject, such as Schindler’s List or Life is Beautiful, there is no respite here. There are people acting heroically in the face of overwhelming odds but there are no heroes hiding on the sidelines. There are few glimmers of light and while it does remind us that the human spirit can sometimes survive against all the odds it also, much more importantly, reminds us of the depravity to which mankind can descend. The increasing reports of antisemitism in the UK and on mainland Europe have made Holocaust Memorial Day more important than before. Films, like this one, may counter the danger of the passage of time making our memories weak and leaving us unaware of the true nature and  danger of fascism. The first step in protecting ourselves is to ensure that we never forget.

Open source Quakerism

An interesting blog and I wonder if, as they say these days, this idea has legs

Flags of convenience

I’ve been thinking about what, if any, kind of communal religious practice might be possible and credible and viable for me.

And at the moment I’m thinking some sort of “open source” Quakerism might be the answer.

Organised Quakerism, which I have tried, does not interest me. It has its own bureaucratic trappings and overall I find it all irritatingly worthy, middle class and do-goody.

My suspicion is that Quakerism gave up on God years ago and replaced him with ‘social  justice’. Yawn.

Quakerism don’t have the monopoly on silence in worship but the original idea of sitting together prayerfully in silence (and some Quaker meetings I’ve attended are sadly not so silent thanks to the troubled, garrulous, or attention seeking types who have latched onto them) is all too rare. While most Protestant denominations have split off into many flavours, there have been few attempts to do anything new…

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Let’s hear it for .. .. The Superego

Let’s hear it for .. .. The Superego

It is clear that history has not been kind on Sigmund Freud. His theories have not fared well in the face of scientific enquiry and they are rarely applied in the treatment of mental illness today as they are date, often wrong and usually ineffective. However, he was an important figure in our culture’s development and his influence on opinion and attitudes is hard to overestimate. Despite the shortcomings of his theories he made many useful analogies which help us understand our psyches at some level.

His description of the psyche as comprised of three components, the Id, the Ego and the Superego,  will never be shown to have any physiological nor psychological basis but is a useful analogy to help us understand aspects of our functioning. When the doctor uses the analogy of the telephone wires to explain the nerve damage that a patient experiences they know their analogy is wrong on very many levels but it is also useful as it allows some thinking and understanding of the problem faced.

The idea that the, largely conscious, ego tries to balance the demands of our Id and Supergo in the face of the needs of outside world is a helpful way to consider our own psyches. We clearly we are born with primitive desires and appetites, only some of which we are conscious, and these can be thought of as our Id. The feelings of sexual desire, our hungers, our passions (both good and bad) can be thought of as the animus which drives us. Our conscious ego has to steer these to socially acceptable outlets and in this task it is help by the superego. This is the, partially conscious, part of our psyche which knows what we should, or ought to, do. It is the consequence of learning, firstly from our parents and later from society,  what are the good and right things to do. In the modern parlance it is our “moral compass“. It sets up ideas of right and wrong and allows us to have an ideal vision of ourselves and helps guide our actions.

Unfortunately since about the end of the 1950’s we have been living in a world in thrall to the feelings of the id. We have tended to the view that what defines us are our inner passions and drives. The “inner child” is held to be our true nature and we are encouraged to “be true to our inner selves“. But is this actually our inner self ? There are good reasons to doubt this approach.

Our primitive desires are largely innate – our sexual preferences, our tendency to anger, our hungers and tastes, our fighting response when attacked – and they do give force to much of our behaviour. But this is purely at an animal level. All animals, not just homo sapiens, have these desires to some degree or another. All animals will eat, mate, fight and flee (Though not necessarily in that order). We are different because we elect not to follow instincts. We can see a beautiful sexually enticing person and elect not to try and mate, we can see food and decide to give it to someone more needy, we can feel the fury of revenge and decide to let the law take its course. We are human because we are not driven by these passions and instincts. What the world sees and what the world judges is the skills of the ego and superego in limiting the id.

To see the id as the true self is akin to seeing the petrol as the true core of the motor vehicle. Agreed, the petrol (or some motive force) is necessary but what makes the car is the engineering and electronics that convert this to speed and comfort. On its own petrol is just a short destructive blaze. If we want to know someone’s character we need to know how they temper and direct their passions in the face of the real world and its opportunities and adversities. Our heroes are those who curbed their own urges for self protection to allow them to save others. Our saints are those who ignored their own needs and comforts in order to improve the lot of others. We never hold someone in high regard because they have high passions or are probe to their impulses. Giving in to temptation is easy, resisting it is the proof of character.

The tendency to glorify the id and define ourselves as our passions (a lot of current identity politics reduces people to a small, animal impulse), or the tendency to see our personal growth in terms of sating appetites, is a tendency which belittles us as a species. It is ignores what is unique and great about us. Our ability to do things because they are right, despite them being difficult or carrying a personal cost, is our stamp. Self-control, planning, perseverance and prudence are signs that we are behaving as humans. It is no surprise that the seven virtues are descriptions of when we resist our urges, while the seven vices describe when we fail to do so.

We need to see through this infantile fad of revering our animal instincts and start to recognise our human abilities. We need to start to praise women and men with fortitude and prudence, or self-control and charity. It is people with these natures that will allow us to develop our society and culture. We will never be free from the devil on our left shoulder but we need to try and listen to the angel on our right.

 

Worldwide Confusion

Worldwide Confusion

Humpty Dumpty, in ‘Through the Looking Glass” said, in a rather scornful voice “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less‘. I fear that many of us follow his advice and use words in ways that can be rather idiosyncratic. As individuals this may be only a minor problem and our friends and acquaintances  get to know our foibles and may even adopt them. However, sometimes this use of language can be quite deliberate and designed to confuse or obfuscate. I think this latter misuse of the language is occurring with the words ‘globalism‘ and ‘internationalism‘.

Internationalism has a long history and it is a word close to the hearts of those who are on the left of the political spectrum. Indeed “L’Internationale‘, written by the anarchist Eugene Pottier,  is the anthem or hymn of the communist, socialist and anarchist movements. This song took its name from the first congress of the International Workingmen’s Association in 1864 called the First International. In this sense internationalism meant cooperative actions between national groups; a recognition that there could be common aims and mutual advantage when groups worked across national boundaries. In essence, it is a recognition that there are many things which we hold in common because we are human which cross national boundaries (in this case the class struggle). To be an internationalist was to promote working across these boundaries for the common good.

Globalisation, on the other hand, is a word with a shorter history, possibly dating back to 1991, and is a word more closely related to those on the right of the political spectrum. This word relates to the application of power, influence or money on a world-wide basis, operating above and outwith national boundaries. This is the world of corporations which have a global presence but no national home. Globalisation started with the deregulation of banks and financial institutions. This freed them from National regulations which allowed them to amass great wealth and power unfettered by Governments’ wishes. These global corporations have been able to develop impact all over the globe but now have nowhere that they can be held accountable.

It is the misuse of the two terms that causes so many problems. The left and progressive wings of politics have fallen for the idea that globalisation is akin to internationalism and has taken this view to its heart. This is attested to in slogans such as “no borders” and “no human is illegal”. These are on the surface benign and welcome statements. But if we look deeper, it is clear that these are slogans which support globalisation which requires  free-movement of capital and labour and finds borders irksome at best. Karl Marx, himself, was well aware that free movement of labour was a useful way in which workers’ power and workers’ wages could be kept in check and wrote about this in relation to the migration of workers between Ireland and mainland Britain.

There is another aspect in which globalisation can pose a threat which internationalism avoids and this is in the area of welfare provision. Most developed countries have some form of welfare state. This can vary widely in the extent and depth of its provision but all of them rest on a similar principle. This principle is of a community grouping together to look after one and other;  to ensure in times of illness, or hardship, we are able to care for our fellow citizens. These are like clubs, we all pay in so that should misfortune arise we may benefit. But like clubs there needs to be a definition of membership, we need to feel that we are contributing to support our fellows. This is where nations prove useful. In a nation we all pay in our dues (personal taxes or corporate taxes) and can use the services when needed.  At a national level, even if there is no kinship, we can feel some relationship to our fellow citizens and feel a link between our inputs into the system and those who are benefitting from it.

Steffan Mau of the University of Bremen, in 2007,  suggested :-

“the nation state became one of the most important organizational entities for social solidarity…because it provided the fundamentals of a political identity and social morals, which legitimately guaranteed the establishment of social security and transfer systems”

This is a major problem for those on the left of the political spectrum. If we want welfare states then we need to promote the nation as a unit of manageable size to allow people to care for each other. Nationalism, in this sense, has little to do with any perceived superiority of one nation over another. It is simple a way to break the economy down into manageable chunks. This ensures that there is a link between the payers and the benefactors of welfare provision. Without this link it is unlikely that welfare systems can flourish. This is an areas where, as E.F. Schmacher might have said “Small is Beautiful

Finally, if those on the left, wish to control the influence of global corporations, then they need nation states. Global corporations have capital and investments across the globe which move, as required, to maximise their returns and to minimise their exposure to risk. This means they can avoid, to a large extent, paying taxes and contributing to welfare schemes. They can also avoid listening to national governments’ concerns and decline to follow any legislation their citizenry might enact. International companies will operate in a number of countries but have a base where they hold their assets and investments. They have a national base where they can be taxed and regulated and thus they can, in part, be held to account and obliged to pay their dues.

If we want to limit the increasing centralisation of power and the wealth then we need to oppose globalisation and promote internationalism. The borders of the nation will provide the shelter so that  we can work cooperatively for own commonweal, and, across these borders, we will work cooperatively  for the commonwealth of nations to tackle problems that face us all. In the future our nation states may be found to be too large and we may feel that we need smaller, more human sized, communities (like the canton, the commune or kibbutz) but, for now, they will act as our starting point to wrestle back power from a global elite.

The Impossible Deal

The Impossible Deal

British politics appears to have reached a new nadir and an insurmountable impasse. Recent votes in Westminster have firstly successfully opposed the government’s plans and secondly failed to oppose the government. We are left with the situation that the government remains in power but its plans have been rejected.

Much of this arises from the problems of two-party tribal politics which rather than address a problem itself but instead  promotes a party’s programme. This is compounded by the present leaders of the two  parties. Both leaders have parties seriously split on the issue of Brexit. The Tories have a leader, who is at heart a remainer, trying to manage a programme of leave to please the staunch ‘leavers’ in her party. Labour has a leader, who at heart is a leaver, trying to offer a programme that will please the remainers who largely control his party. The Liberals, the only party who have a party, programme and leader backing remain, are so inconsequential in British politics at present that the only debate in town is between the two major parties with their discordant leaders.

No-one has a plan to get out of this impasse. There is nothing which can suit all the needs of the two political parties. Neither party is single-minded in its desire to either support the decision of the referendum to leave the European Union or to propose something else.  The only thing uniting them is that both of them are terrified of a ‘no deal’ scenario. This despite Theresa May recognising (one of the few things she grasped correctly) that “no deal is better than a bad deal“. All our parliamentarians, of any hue, are unable to countenance ‘no deal’ scenario, even though it may be unavoidable and may also be preferred.

A deal, or a ‘managed’ withdrawal, may well be the best way to proceed. However, sometimes it is not. Think of a “managed economy”, these never function as efficiently as free market economies. In complex situations allowing individual actors to work out the best way to proceed, and chop and change as necessary, is better than an agreed centrally-‘managed’ plan. Centrally managed agriculture lead to famines. Centrally managed healthcare in Europe provides poorer healthcare than the mixed market healthcare alternatives. Situations can be managed when all the data is known but in complex situations there are many things which can not be known in advance. Rather than a committee of bureaucrats trying to plan fishing, healthcare, automotive industries, IT services, financial services, mining, agriculture, food processing,  forestry, electrical engineering standards, inter-university cooperation, medical devices, medication and aircraft standard, and so on and so on. It would be better to allow all the agents involved to work this out for themselves. It will probably prove quicker and will, almost certainly, find better solutions. Even is there is a managed deal,  we  will still need to see individuals and organisations modifying and adapting  it to make it work, as the likelihood of a centrally decided plan fitting all eventualities is negligible.

But, even if you want a managed separation and a deal, then there is still a need to consider a “no deal” scenario. In every negotiation the two agents have their bottom lines, the point at which they think the available deals are not worth having, and the points at which they need to walk away from the negotiations. Imagine the scenario of going into a car showroom and announcing “Right I want a car. I am going to buy it here and I want it today. I don’t care how difficult it is but I warn you now that I am not leaving here without having bought a car. I will not consider the idea of you not selling at least one car to  me. Right what have you got ?” How likely is it that you will obtain a great deal ? You will be relying on the benevolence of  car salesmen, not a wise move. Every negotiator has a line in the sand, the line at which they decide to go for the no deal option, not to consider this is extremely foolhardy.

No deal will be followed by disruption and change, but so will any deal.  At present the EU, and UK leaders,  wish to minimise the disruption to global capital and large corporations and to cause as little disruption to governing organisations which manage many governmental agencies. Unfortunately they are forgetting that the reason people voted for Brexit, and the reason many European people are also upset, was because of the power of global capital, large corporations and remote undemocratic government. They wanted to weaken the powers of corporations and force them to pay national taxes and listen to local governments. They wanted to stop changes in culture which central governments held valuable for the needs of capital. They opposed the ability of capital to bus in cheap labour to undercut local workers; something bad both for the local workers and the home economies of the migrant workers.

Companies may complain that without a deal they fear their profits will be hurt. Populations may reply  “That is tough but that is precisely why we voted as we did. We are fed up with your greed“. Governmental bodies may worry that without a deal their authority may be diminished, but that was the point. No deal allows a blank slate and the opportunity of all to create the future arrangements they want. I recall every election, when I was a youth, the warnings of dire economic calamity if the nation even considered voting for labour. It is no different now to then, those in power and those with the wealth, will try everything to keep it including trying to scare us into accepting a good deal for them and a bad deal for us.

There are many problems with capitalism at present. Crony capitalism is now gathering the increased wealth, that only a market economy can create, into increasingly few pockets. Institutions like the EU are the mechanisms to promote this and they, and the crony capitalists, need to be weakened. This will not be without pain. But if it is done well then hopefully most of the pain will be felt by the rich and powerful who can best deal with it, and may even be thought to deserve it. An unmanaged Brexit may well be the best way to do this.

The Wizard Trump

It is sometimes odd how we stumble into knowledge of matters. I was listening to a podcast which was discussing President Trumps’ potential legacy when the contributors began to make reference to “The Wizard of Oz”. They argued that many of the aspect of populist politics in today’s America echoed those of a hundred years ago and the satire about the Wizard of Oz could equally be applied to Donald Trump. I had not been aware of the political analysis of L. Frank Baum’s book “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and it was fascinating to hear these.

When the book was written American politics and economy were in turmoil. There had been major changes in monetary standards and the Fourth Coinage Act had devalued silver. There were major financial difficulties and one of the movements aiming to address these was a move for bimetallism – money backed by both gold and silver. This was taken up in 1896 by the William Jennings Bryan , leader of the Democratic Party, as well as some populist groups and Republicans from silver mining areas (“Silver Republicans“). Bryan won the leadership by his ‘Cross of Gold convention speech where he stated “The gold standard has slain tens of thousands.” and urged the convention “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” It was felt that gold helped the rich get richer while ‘free silver’ would create cheaper money with a wider base and provide help for the poorer sectors of society.

It was against this backdrop that “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” was written.  It may be no coincidence that gold and silver are measured in ounces which are abbreviated to “Oz.” Similarly a “yellow brick road” to the “emerald city” might well signify the power of the gold standard (yellow) to lead wealth to the wealthy (green signifying fraudulent greenback money). In the book, but not the film, the way to sort problems, and get out of trouble and back home, is by the “silver slippers” – the film used the more photogenic ruby red instead. It is quite easy to imagine Dorothy as the common man assisted by a ‘cowardly lion’ (William Jennings Bryan) on their way to find solutions for the Scarecrow (farmers and agricultural workers) and the Tin-man (Steel and other industry workers). Certainly when Baum wrote a stage version of the book in 1902 he made many political references, mainly as jokes against the current luminaries.

At the end of their trek they meet the wizard who is revealed to be a pompous humbug who uses all sorts of tricks to hide his nature from the people. He actually has no ideas and no power and admits to Dorothy that “I am a very bad wizard. And, thinking of Trump, this seems to be where we came in.

ww-denslow-illustration-4

 

 

Chip Shop Blues

I was quite unsettled during my recent visit to the chip shop. I was perhaps already feeling unsettled as I went in, as I was breaking all of my good New Year’s intentions. I had intended not to eat take-aways, I’d intended to prepare our meals from scratch and to maintain a healthier balanced diet. But we’d had a difficult cold and wet day in the fields and the chip shop’s warm smells and bright lights were irresistible. I had done my usual trick of thinking of excuses : I had always said I should eat more fish and I guessed potatoes in chips are, in fact, a vegetable. I’d also worked out my escape strategies; eating less the next day and doing a but more exercise to compensate. I am a master of self-deception and despite the guilt I was initially quite content standing in the queue, in the warmth, smelling the chips and vinegar, while I waited for them to deep fry my order.

My disquiet started as I watched the television high up on the wall behind the deep-fat friers. It was tea-time and the television was tuned to a music video station, MTV or something similar, and I started to watch the performances. I didn’t know any of the bands or songs and, to be honest, I couldn’t see myself rushing out to a record store to rectify my ignorance. Though not my taste, the music was unremarkable pop music. What was remarkable were the videos that accompanied the songs.

The themes of the songs, as far as I could judge, were as paeans to the singer’s virility, if male, or pulchritude, if female. I guess so many songs are, but these seemed less subtle, less sublimated than I recall songs from my youth. The men all described their unbounded stamina while the womenrihanna-small_trans_nvbqzqnjv4bqeo_i_u9apj8ruoebjoaht0k9u7hhrjvuo-zlengruma invited you to compare them with other less-fortunate women. Both suggested you’d be better to drop your current partner and choose them if you wanted any chance at future happiness. But is was not the shallow lyrics, nor such a carnal view of love,  that made me feel out of time, it was the accompanying videos.

The videos were comprised of very attractive men and women dressed in very little at all. The dancing, as far as it went, comprised thrusting the genitals, buttocks or breasts towards the camera so as to make their pulchritude fill the frame. Sometimes, lest the viewer had missed the point, it was necessary to jiggle the body parts to catch the attention of anyone who was not paying heed. These movements were coordinated into dance scenes when the dancers skilfully simulated sexual acts with each other just in case the viewer had not got the point of the endeavour. The crassness of the videos unnerved me and set me to thinking about the changes that have occurred in my life and set me to worrying about the future my grandchildren will have.

When I was an adolescent, and my life focussed on sex and all matters sexual, we would sometimes sneak into cinemas showing adult films. At sixteen we could sometimes fool a lackadaisical adult on the desk at the cinema that we were of age to enter. When successful I was able to see films, in technicolour, and with sound, of women with few clothes and some brief nudity. At times I and my friends would see actors simulate sexual acts which were less explicitth than the video in the chip shop. The films I was watching in a public space, at tea time, were stronger than I had seen illicitly in cinemas where the wearing of a raincoat was almost compulsory. Times have certainly changed. Early evening music entertainment in my childhood was a man, with a variety of colourful jumpers, singing while in a rocking chair. To spice it up some dancers may have bounced demurely in the background to the beat of the music. (Val Doonican won all the NME awards in 1965 !).

I worry about these changes not because I fear the effects of nudity nor erotica. These are pleasurable. I fear these changes,  as I feel pleasure, like many things, is relative.  Much of the pain and pleasure we experience in life comes from the change from state to another. If you lived on a very plain diet of beans and rice then the excitement of a meal in a middle-price restaurant would be major. The epicure or gourmand, however, will not be able to enjoy ‘bangers and mash’ after a life of ‘larks tongues in aspic’. The baseline setting of our lives determines what it takes to excite us, to please us or to upset us. I think that there is a danger than this turning up of the background noise of erotica is dangerous.

When we are young we are driven to seek pleasures and focus easily on the erotic. The background setting in the 1950’s and 60′ was quite low. Modesty was considered important and as a consequence it was quite easy to be exciting and sexy – raising hemlines in to 60’s caused a stir as did the wearing of a bikini. Young boys could be excited by an underwear catalogue as it revealed the bra under the blouse. However, the excitement caused by these glimpses of nethergarments had exactly the same frisson as the excitement that boys and girls experience today when they see something risqué. But they start much nearer the top of the scale. My scale started with the excitement of seeing a ‘bra’ or a ‘leg’ and rose from there. When you start with simulated sex and crotch shots there is not a lot further to go. Therefore I fear that the total amount of pleasure that can be experienced will ultimately be smaller.

We know forbidden fruit tastes the sweetest and it is important that we keep some pleasures in reserve. By withholding gratification we allow the potential pleasure to build. If we try and enjoy everything at once we  rob it of its value and end up less pleasure than we could have enjoyed. As in the warning of “Brave New World” we could end up with a world of frequent sexual activity but little enjoyment from it. Standing in the chip shop I felt I was almost there already. I felt as if  in a scene from Blade-runner, in a brash, noisy, gaudy future with images and video all around, all senses stimulated and all pleasures offered but with little prospect of happiness. Next time I’ll peel some potatoes and put some carrots on to boil, it will be safer.