A Progressive Rake

Funnies, rants, and quite a lot of gin

On cardigans

by Stuart Brown

Every hotel has its shtick, and the Hyatt on Union Square’s is a lobby that smells of cinnamon, and cardigans.

Staying in a Hyatt? Isn’t that, well, a bit plush for me? I can only concur: it is actually a source of great mystery why I am here. Last time I came over to New York for work I, along with the full editorial board, was put up in the SoHo Grand—an equally up-market affair. That time I presumed that, because the editorial board were entitled to a level of luxury, I got slipped in as an extra on a bulk booking. But this time it is just me, and I explicitly stated that supposed luxury—which seems to often come down to more pillows than that upon which it is actually anatomically possible to rest one’s head, and ten dollar “artisan water” in the minibar (yes, really)—was less important to me than my inveterate loathing of having to walk anywhere, and that I would happily take a less salubrious hotel that was geographically closer to the offices of New York University Press. What I got was the Hyatt—one block from the Broadway offices of NYUP, but if anything a notch up in the luxury rankings.

Anyway, the cardigans. Hotel staff dress codes are quirky, to but it mildly, in New York. At the SoHo Grand breakfast was maître-d’ed by a guy in a suit and smart shoes but no socks; a sartorial choice that placed exactly one less layer of fabric between my toast and jam and his toe jam than I would consider hygienic. Here at the Hyatt, things are different. “Dress down,” the front of house staff seem to have been told. “Look comfy. We want our guests to feel—notwithstanding the uplit copper screen, random wooden strips hanging from the ceiling, inexplicable odour, and chairs that not only it would be glib to say appear to have been designed more for style than comfort, but inaccurate too, as they look pretty awful—that they’re just in someone’s lounge, a four-star homestay.” And this means cardigans. Beards, too. Paisley and chequerboard patterns. Of course, these are not just limited to the Hyatt: the look that is, I understand, termed lumbersexual has been prevalent for a couple of years at least, and this distresses me greatly.

I turn 40 this year. I’m not particularly concerned about the round number in my age; the fact that we have a base 10 counting system seems to me a poor reason for an existential crisis. But there’s no denying that, though I like to think I am a youthful 39, I am approaching the age where young people are starting to confuse and anger me, and nothing so much as the lumbersexual look.

Of course it is important, when young, to dress in a manner that contravenes the expectations of your elders. For me this consisted of long hair—a perennial favourite of youthful self-assertion—and later a leather jacket which utterly failed to suit me. But cardigans? Beards? And not slim-cut, figure-enhancing cardigans, nor carefully sculpted and trimmed beards, but saggy, shapeless, diamond-patterned, for goodness sake comfortable cardigans, and huge, barely-styled facial hair that can only merit the term whiskers. This I understand not. It contravenes expectations in the most gratuitous way: my parents may have thought my long hair made me look like a girl, but the young ’uns of today—as epitomised by the lobby of the Hyatt—seem to be trying to look like us crusties—or at least as we do in our innermost hearts, for I still sport a hoodie and V-necked teeshirts in a desperate attempt to hold on to what remains of my youth.

Young people: this is too much. Dress as shockingly, as ridiculously, as outrageously as you please: let your trousers hang round your ankles, gratuitously expose those Calvin Kleins, wear shorts in winter. Get a mohican, or shave half your head. Wear knee-length boots with a miniskirt—and I don’t just mean the ladies—and weigh your arms down with bangles and friendship bands and cheap kudos-grabbing charity bracelets. Do all of these, and I may think you look daft (or, more accurately, say you look daft, whilst secretly admiring your uninhibited freedom of spirit), but I will celebrate your right to affront my style prejudices. But dress like a crusty? Willingly wrap yourselves in the beslippered, saggy, comfort-oriented dress that beckons, increasingly unrefusably, to me from every M&S window display?

Fuck you, young people: fuck you. This isn’t rebellion, it’s satire.

(The hotel lobby really does smell of cinnamon, by the way. Therein lies a whole new level of bemusement.)

Just a boring news post

by Stuart Brown

So I have eight days left in Brazil, and then I shall be boarding a flight back to the freezing dismalness that is Britain. Actually, I won’t be staying put for long as a week after I arrive I shall be boarding another flight to spend a few days in the even freezinger but less dismal New York, followed by a few more days in North Carolina to visit an old school friend whom I have not seen for more than twenty years. After that, I shall return to Oxford and actually try to find somewhere to live, although a trip to Australia to visit the recently emigrated brother, almost certainly returning via Thailand to visit the other, long emigrated, brother is on the cards: when that will happen I am uncertain, as there are both financial constraints and issues around actually staying put in the UK for more than a week or two. But the travels are certainly not over.

Neither, I’m afraid, is the blogging. I started this blog as a way to feel some kind of purpose following the collapse of my PhD, and though it pattered along quietly for the first year or so, Brazil has been good for it, as it has provided me with things to blog about, and I’ve even started to garner a respectable number of likes and follows from people I don’t immediately know. So I’ve decided to up the ante a bit, and in April will be doing the A to Z blogging challenge: it seems a fun little project, the idea of which is to write a blog post every day in April, except Sundays, with a topic for each day starting with consecutive letters of the alphabet.

The blog posts can be on anything (as long as it starts with the day’s letter), or one can have an overall theme and make the day’s letter a subtopic of that. I haven’t decided on an overall theme, so I’m throwing it open to suggestions from you. Contributions in the comments, please! Those of you who know me know the kind of thing I like to write and rant about; for those who don’t, why not take this as an opportunity to raise my hit count and browse the archives a bit? Politics, publishing, academia, science, music, and the odd snifter of a gin and tonic are recurring themes, but I’m open to anything interesting or challenging.

Though the return to the freezing wasteland depresses me somewhat, this will be largely offset by seeing friends and those members of my family who have not fled to the other side of the globe to escape my tedious presence.

Brazil, I shall miss you, as ever. But you know I’ll be back.Até volto!

The Sunday Sermon

by Stuart Brown

To get to the little casazinha in which I stay in Picinguaba, you climb some stairs from the beach to an old Catholic chapel. Constructed in the traditional style of Brazil, it had long been out of use—as the Evangelicals have something of a hold here—and was thus quaintly dilapidated, with rusty streaks and incipient lichen on the whitewashed walls. But in the two years that I’ve been away, it has returned to use—two Sundays a month—and has been spruced up and given a lick of paint. They are singing there, now, glorifying God; and it says something about the state of religion in this country that I am happier for them to do so there than in the rapacious Evangelical church down the road, with its smartly-suited unsmiling doormen and bottomless collection plate.

From the chapel, the quickest way to my house is across a small patch of grass, maybe twenty foot by ten. But during the day, at least, I will not pass this way, because it is infested with marimbondos, and they put the fear of God into me in a way that the brimstone preachers of the chapel will never achieve. Marimbondos are a type of wasp—though to make that claim to one who has never seen anything but the British variant of this genus is analogous to describing the ocean as a type of pond. They are two or three inches long, black as the devil, and aggressively protective of this small patch of grass. As well they might be, for below that grass, in burrows that they have built, their children are growing to adulthood.

And how! The marimbondos terrify me because their sting is notoriously painful, but what they do to another species—well that is something else again. The burrows under the grass contain not just marimbondo larvae: each larva has been lovingly, caringly deposited upon the inert but living body of a spider, paralysed—but not killed—by this same sting, and dragged into the burrow by the mother wasp, there to provide all the nutrients that her child needs. So sophisticated, so well-designed is this rearing system that the larvae even instinctively leave the spider’s vital organs to last, as they slowly consume it. The larva thus has the freshest possible food—for it is still living—for its entire infancy.

The marimbondos terrify me, indeed; but the God they are glorifying in the building next door to them terrifies me more. For He created this wasp, this creature whose act of supreme loving care for her offspring involves the prolonged torture of another creature. He saw fit to design a world thus, where the horrible slow demise of one being is necessary for the very survival of another. As His worshippers leave their church later this evening, having raised their voices in song praising his goodness and all-lovingness, I wonder how many of them will glance at that small patch of scrubbish grass to their right, and think upon the viciousness and sadism encapsulated there—not of the marimbondo, who is only acting as she must to continue her species, but of her Creator who designed her, and made her a torturer.

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An individual less regretted?

by Stuart Brown

So ʿAbd Allāh ibn ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz Āl Saʿūd has died.

David Cameron is “saddened,” and has praised his “commitment to peace,” a commitment which apparently requires £80 billion in arms from the UK alone, and the suspension of our justice system.

Prince Charles, who counted ʿAbd Allāh as a personal friend, is flying to Riyadh to pay his condolences.

Whitehall and Westminster Abbey are flying the flag at half-mast, and it has fallen to a UKIP MP to suggest that this might be “an extraordinary misjudgment.”

Christine Lagarde, the head of the IMF, has said that ʿAbd Allāh—in whose country women could not drive, vote, or leave their own house without being in the company of a male relative—was “a strong advocate of women.”

Is there any real need to rehearse the catalogue of awfulness that is the Saʿūd regime? The public beheadings, the lashings, the torture, the corruption, the hypocrisy? Short of North Korea, I can think of no country run by a more despicable, vile, medieval collection of irredeemable shites.

The obsequious fawning of our establishment over this unlamentable demise exposes—if it really ever was not blindingly obvious—how pathetically paper-thin our own rulers’ morality is: their principles for sale for a few million barrels of oil a day. The late king, in a moment of supreme hypocrisy, sent a representative to the Charlie Hebdo march—whilst his own regime continues the seven-year imprisonment and 1,000 lashes of Raif Badawi. As he was so keen to defend this institution, I can think of no more fitting tribute to this man and his relationship with our own spineless leaders than a Charlie Hebdo-style cartoon of David Cameron sucking ʿAbd Allāh’s oil pineline of a cock. Our leaders were nothing but eager whores to this monumental bastard. I hold little hope that the situation will change with his successor—or, regrettably, with theirs.

Sickening, sickening, sickening.

On Žižek on Charlie: Chicken soup for the liberal democratic soul

by Graham K. Brown

Slavoj Žižek has penned a response to the Charlie Hebdo attack in the New Statesman. It purports to be a view, from the “radical Left,” of the psychology of fundamentalist violence and the failure of liberal democracy to confront this meaningfully. Denuded of its eloquent language and erudite references, however, Žižek provides us with nothing more than a few trite clichés that fit well within the liberal democratic paradigm.

Žižek opens his argument with an “unambiguous” condemnation of the attack, “without any hidden caveats.” He does, however, assert that we need “the courage to think” in response to the attack. There have been other responses to the attack that one might consider thoughtful; Žižek, presumably, considers them otherwise. One wonders how he comes to this conclusion. Perhaps because they do not come to the same conclusion as he does.

So what is his conclusion? Žižek summons Horkheimer’s critique of Fascism into the modern era: “those who do not want to talk critically about liberal democracy should also keep quiet about religious fundamentalism.” As “hidden caveats” go, this is a doozy. We must, apparently, condemn the Charlie Hebdo attack without any caveats, but can only do so if we are also willing to criticize liberal democracy.

Žižek wants us to believe that liberal democracy on its own is insufficient bulwark against religious fundamentalism; it needs “the brotherly help of the radical Left.”

The heart of Žižek’s argument is that the fear that liberal democrats have of religious fundamentalism is misplaced because the frequent contrast between the soft contentment of democracy and the “passionate intensity” of the religious fundamentalist is likewise misplaced.

Žižek wants to convince us of two related claims. First, “authentic” fundamentalism does not preach violence or hate; it has benevolent indifference towards non-believers. Secondly, and consequently, the Hebdo attackers must have lacked true faith. Žižek of course expresses his arguments much more elegantly than this, but stripped of cultural references to Nietzsche, Yeats, Horkheimer and Tibetan Buddhism, this is what remains. It is fatuous, and it is wrong.

There is much serious psychological research on the psychology of violent extremism, and while existential concerns certainly play a role in the account they give, there is far more to it than this. Indeed, Žižek’s claims here look more like a trite liberal democratic platitude than any thoughtful radical alternative. Real faith is peaceful and tolerant; people who preach violence lack real faith.

This would be nice, but there is little evidence to support it. Of course there are certainly “fundamentalist” religious movements that preach “indifference” towards non-believers, but this is really insufficient to claim that all violent fundamentalists hence lack faith. Short of offering a radical leftist critique, this is steeped in a contemporary liberal Christian ethic that wants to convince us that all faiths are, in essence, united by peace, tolerance and harmony.

There is no need here to rehash the extensive exhortations to violence against non-believers in the scriptures and theologies of many of the world religions. Žižek points us to Tibetan Buddhism as an example of the kind of tolerant fundamentalism he considers “authentic” and he does well to attach the Tibetan qualifier: in Myanmar, some Buddhist monks have been central to a coordinated campaign of religious violence against the Muslim Rohingya. Žižek might arrogate to himself the ability to pronounce of the respective “authenticity” of these two varieties of Buddhism, but his grounds for doing so seem little more than a desire to sneer at those we fear. “The problem with fundamentalists is not that we consider them inferior to us, but, rather, that they themselves secretly consider themselves inferior.” All bullies are really cowards; all religious extremists lack real faith.

Žižek solution to the problem of violent extremism points to the necessity of engaging with a “renewed Left.” Yet his own analysis is little more than the “smug self-satisfaction of a permissive liberal” that he derides. If all the radical Left has to offer is cheap platitudes dressed up in cultural references and erudite language—Chicken Soup for the Liberal Democratic Soul—then I think liberal democracy can do quite well without it.


This is a guest post from Graham Brown, who shares my DNA and, apparently, ranty infuriation with posturing old pseuds. Unlike me, however, he gets paid to use big words, and actually seems to know what he’s talking about too.

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