A Progressive Rake

Funnies, rants, and quite a lot of gin

Vingilance

by Stuart Brown

vingilance (n.) the paranoid monitoring of one’s own speech due to having had one or two glasses of wine at the start of a formal reception or dinner; not enough to cause inebriation but sufficient to become hyper-alert to one’s tendency to run one’s mouth off when inebriated. Usually leads to more stilted conversation than if one had had no wine at all, or too much.

As I was at a dinner at All Souls College last night with the great and good of Arabic literary studies, including the editorial board of my publishing gig, I was expecting to find myself in a vingilant state for most of the evening; however it turns out that the wine at All Souls is really rather good, and I quickly segued into the mouth-off-running condition after all.

A to Z blogging challeng: V

Underhungover

by Stuart Brown

underhungover (adj.) being in the condition, after a somewhat steamy night out, of feeling suspiciously unpained and clear-headed the following morning; usually symptomatic of being still inebriated. Differs from gintrospection (q.v.) in that it occurs at one’s usual rising time, and is accompanied by a sense of well-being and relief.

Fortunately, being nowhere near as debauched as the pose I like to strike in my online persona, underhangovers are a rare occurrence for me.

A to Z blogging challenge: U

On tactical voting

by Stuart Brown

This is a politics post that is neither a rant not a funny. It’s something I feel extremely strongly about, so much so that I’m not even going to indulge in my usual rhetoric and hyperbole. It’s a simple proposition I have—directed at readers in UK, especially England and Wales—and it is the following: in the election on 7 May please, whichever party you support, vote for that party. Please do not tactically vote. Please never again tactically vote. Tactical voting is the curse of our political system and, as long as you tactically vote, you are supporting an unrepresentative pseudo-democratic system.

I currently (for a few more days) live in Oxford West and Abingdon, which gives me one of the most powerful votes in the country. I decry this situation, where one voter’s choice has more influence than another’s, but that is post for another day. Oxford West and Abingdon is a very marginal constituency: in 2010 the Conservatives beat Dr Evan Harris, the incumbent Liberal Democrat by 176 votes, and then only after a rather despicable and slanderous campaign in which pamphlets were circulated branding Harris “Dr Death” and claiming he had a “enthusiasm for euthanasia” due to his support for assisted dying. This Conservative seat is therefore ripe for over-turning. Not only that but, in an election where it is almost certain that there will be a hung parliament, and that Labour and Conservative will be seeking to form formal coalitions or confidence and supply arrangements with smaller parties, every MP matters to them.

Conventional electioneering will tell me that—though I am one of those who voted Liberal Democrat in the last election, felt myself entirely betrayed by their subsequent actions, and therefore have totally removed my support from them—I should hold my nose, and vote Liberal Democrat. Anything else, I will be told is a “wasted vote”; not only that, but if I vote anything but Liberal Democrat then I am effectively voting for the Conservative government that I dearly wish to see ejected from power. If I were in Oxford East, with its safe Labour majority, I would be allowed, according to this view, my “protest vote.” But here in Oxford West and Abingdon I must, apparently, vote Liberal Democrat.

I will have none of this, and I urge you not to either. I shall vote Green: my reasons for supporting the Green party are not relevant to this post, but what is important is that they are the party whose manifesto most closely reflects my political position and so I shall vote for them even though I do so knowing that my vote may well substantially contribute to a Conservative MP being returned for my constituency, and even though a single MP may make the difference between whether Labour or Conservative form the next government.

In every election of my life—and for many elections prior to that—the country had a choice between a Conservative or a Labour government; and this is, ultimately, the case in this election too. As a result, both parties have focussed their policies and campaigning on the “centrists,” the voters whose views fall somewhere between the two with the consequence that—especially under Blair’s Labour, though less so under Miliband—the differences between the two parties have all but evaporated. The UK, in the next parliament, will be represented by a government committed to monetarist, minimally-regulated free market economics. The UK, in the next parliament, will be represented by a government committed to scapegoating immigrants for the financial crisis caused by said economic policy. Privatization; free schools; negligible movement on renewable energy; in all of these and many other issues the country simply has no choice.

You may well approve of some, or all, of these policies, and as far as this post is concerned you are welcome to (though see me after); but I hope you will nevertheless agree that the absence of any real choice is not only not good for democracy, it is quite simply not democracy at all. Electoral reform, of some kind or another, is necessary to achieve better representation of the wide ranges of views within the UK electorate, but my argument is that as long as governments are formed within the context of tactical voting in a first past the post system, no incoming or incumbent government will have any interest in introducing any level of proportionality into the electoral representation, because every incoming or incumbent government will have achieved their position precisely because of tactical voting.

Not only this, but it is a myth that in the interim, having voted for Green, I will not only have elected a Tory but have wasted my vote. In 2010, the Green vote in my constituency was 1,184, and it is safe to presume that if everyone who had wished to vote Green but did not do so because of the tactical voting demands that dominate our election analyses actually does vote Green then this vote could be substantially larger; let us say maybe 2,000. Now, I may well end up returning a Tory MP; but if that Tory MP is returned against a larger Green vote in this election then that MP—and all other candidates—will realise that Green issues matter here and, in preparation for the next election, will be more likely to support ecological motions in the Commons in this Parliament; and other parties in my constituency will be more likely to select candidates with environmental credentials in the next election. That is, the triangulation and centrism that currently only happens at the level of the party and the country will start to happen at the level of the constituency. If the Conservative Nicola Blackwood is returned by a narrow margin again this election, and if the vast majority of the other votes are Liberal Democrat, she will have no knowledge of why people voted against her other than the fact that they wanted her out. Whereas, should she be returned on the same narrow margin but with a substantially increased Green vote, she will realise that, to gain those votes for a more secure win in the next election, she would do well to support environmentalism. She is more likely to go against her party whip on these issues than if she had an opaque, entirely Liberal Democrat voting opposition in this constituency. Voting for your chosen minority party, instead of tactically voting, will therefore have an immediate effect: your MP—whether of your desired party or not—is far more likely to be a good representative of you if he or she can see not only that they were opposed, but the issues on which they were opposed.

A tactical vote is a vote against democracy; it is a vote against local representation; it is a vote for a status quo in which the only foreseeable government for the foreseeable future will be one of two largely indistinguishable and centrally-controlled parties.

Vote democratically, vote for representation, vote for what you believe in, and do not, not, not tactically vote.

A to Z blogging challenge: T

On satire

by Stuart Brown

I hate you, Jorge, and if I could, I would lead you downstairs, across the ground, naked, with fowl’s feathers stuck in your asshole and your face painted like a juggler and a buffoon, so the whole monastery would laugh at you and be afraid no longer. I would like to smear honey all over you and then roll you in feathers, and take you on a leash to fairs, to say to all: He was announcing the truth to you and telling you that the truth has the taste of death, and you believed, not in his words, but in his grimness. And now I say to you that, in the infinite whirl of possible things, God allows you also to imagine a world where the presumed interpreter of the truth is nothing but a clumsy raven, who repeats words learned long ago.

Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose

Pope Francis’s comments on the Charlie Hebdo shootings, attempting to place limits on freedom of speech and endorsing the use of violence against those who say things that upset the religious, have already got themselves a post here, but I want to say something wider about the role of satire in religious affairs.

The Charlie Hebdo situation has frequently been likened to the Satanic Verses controversy, and I think that comparison stands, and not least now in the regrettable siding of Western religious figures with those who feel that the slaughtered and the maimed somehow had it coming to them. The Satanic Verses, as did the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, set out to undermine the Islamic conventions around the representation of Muhammed; but they are hardly the first—Dante’s Divine Comedy places Muhammad in Hell, his guts hanging out, a schismatic and a false prophet. Illustrators over the centuries have not ceased to relish this scene for visual depiction—yet there are no protests, no burnings, no gunnings down in Tuscan publishing houses.

What was extraordinary about the Satanic Verses affair was how much Christian and Jewish leaders leapt into line, not with the supporters of free speech, not with the opponents of bigotry and intolerance, but with the other camp. The then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, declared that Britain’s blasphemy laws should be extended to Islam, and that Rushdie should be prosecuted, and other Christian and Jewish leaders took a similar line (see Christopher Hitchen’s God Is Not Great for a detailed list of those non-Muslim and secular figures who enthusiastically endorsed religious censorship). A spokesman for Pope John Paul II, whilst admitting that the fatwa was excessive, denounced the book as “blasphemous,” and the official Vatican newspaper stated that “the very attachment to our own faith induces us to deplore that which is irreverent and blasphemous in the book’s contents.” That is, the heads of churches which necessarily consider Muhammad to be a false prophet and consider this a matter of fact demanded the prosecution of an author for representing Muhammad as a false prophet in a work of fiction, and then only in a dream of a madman. Why? Why did Runcie want blasphemy laws extended to “protect” all religions when to him the other religions must be blasphemous, because they deny the tenets of his? Why did the Vatican consider deplorable this minor supposed attack upon that belief which the church had spent many centuries and shed a huge amount of blood attempting to surpress? And why, now, has an otherwise intelligent and reasonable (as far as medieval theocratic monarchs go) Pope similarly fallen in with the “they brought it on themselves, you know” brigade? The answer is related to the absence of fury over the Divine Comedy: it lies in the fact that these works seek to make us laugh; and that, in our post-Enlightenment world, with a viable secular agenda for power, this laughter threatens not just who holds power, but the very concept of religious authority as a right to power.

The Catholic Church didn’t always have such a downer on mockery. The second/third century church father Tertullian, a heresiologist and one of the first theologists to grope his way towards the sacred nonsense that is the Trinity, is feted for the scathing wit with which he demolishes his opponents, and the fourth century Hilary of Poitiers—orthodox enough to earn himself a sainthood—was bitingly savage in his Against Constantius. The current Pope’s namesake, though far gentler, was himself an adept user of mockery.

Early Islam was equally happy to cohabit with satire. The savage, obscene wit of the pre-Islamic poetic style hijaʾ (lampooning) was actually utilised by Muhammad’s companions, most notably by the poet Ḥassān ibn Thābit, in vicious attacks upon the unbelieving Quraysh; attacks which one Hadith reports as having been expressly endorsed by the Prophet himself. What is notable about this is that this endorsement took place in Mecca, prior to the flight to Medina and the subsequent return in military power. Tertullian wrote prior to the Constantinian conversion, and Hilary was writing in exile against the Arianizing Emperor Constantius. Francis of Assisi, though far later, was himself an outsider figure, attempting to turn the Church away from its increasingly terrestrial trajectory.

What’s the common thread here? That humour punctuates power. That humour is a strong weapon with which to debase and expose the absurdities of presumed authority, and that—when in opposition—both Christianity and Islam were more than happy to endorse it. And then, once the tables had turned, they moved against it: the Rule of Benedict prohibits levity, and though laughter appears in the Qurʾan it is usually reporting the foolish mockery of unbelievers and contrasting it with the laughter that believers will then direct back at them when sat in their thrones on high; it is also, given Muhammad’s endorsement of hijaʾ, careful to endorse poetry when in the service of God—as for other poets: “only the deviators follow them.” No lampooning except for the Prophet’s Companions, it would seem.

Until the Enlightenment, when directed at power, satire was directed at the holder of power, not the institution, not the grounds for power. Hilary’s invective attacked the emperor for his Arian tendencies, but did not question the basis of imperial power . Dante and his illustrators may have drawn the undrawable, and named him a schismatic, but they did so in fervent support of an apostolically-justified papacy. However, it appears that, now, when it comes to the crunch, the religious close ranks to vilify the non-believer, even if it means standing shoulder-to-shoulder with people whose beliefs they explicitly reject. I would argue that this is because, since the Enlightenment, secularism (not even necessarily atheism) has become a viable narrative for “Earthly” power.

Now that the right of the religious to wield power simply for being religious is no longer a social given, mockery need no longer be targeted at the specific holders of power, but actually at the very institutional grounding of power. The satire of The Satanic Verses contrasts the absolutist claims of monotheism with the inherently interpretative requirements of textually-based dogma. The cartoons in Charlie Hebdo were not because the cartoonists disagreed with the specific claims to prophethood of Muhammad, but was mockery of the very idea that temporal authority is granted by religious adherence. The stakes have changed, the allegiances shifted, and, now, the enemy of any religion is secularism, not because it denies specific tenets of their faith—because the other faiths with whom they now stand side-by-side do so too—but because it denies the very right to legislate on the actions of other people simply by virtue of being a faith. The Muslims and the Catholics and the Church of England may disagree on who should be on the top of the pile, but they are in total agreement as to why they should be there. They require us to believe, not in their words, but in their grimness; they justify their terrestrial authority from the fervency of their own belief: and satire, denying anyone status through grimness, is a common enemy to them all.

Bring out the fowl’s feathers!

A to Z blogging challenge: Z

On rent

by Stuart Brown

Lacking a sizeable inheritance—those long-lost great uncles just keep on refusing to die—I cannot afford a house in this staggeringly over-priced country and so, at the age of 39, still need to rent my accommodation. Having recently moved back to Oxford, I have been searching for a new place, and this has been something of a challenge.

It’s actually been some years since I paid any formal rent anyway. I am something of a vagrant: in York I largely stayed with a friend, who charged me a generously low rate, and was fairly relaxed about me paying as and when my patchy student finances had the resources. Subsequent to that, I stayed at my brother’s house in Bath for a year, where we made ad hoc arrangements as suited us. Intervals in Brazil have largely involved cadging rooms with friends too, and since arriving back in Oxford in February yet another friend has kindly put me up with few requirements other than a few cleaning and cooking duties. But as of early May, I shall be an official tenant again and, to use the technical expression, fuck me is it expensive.

I have viewed a large number of properties, both sole rental and sharing, in this delightful city. Lodging was one possibility, but nothing seemed suitable: Mrs Sarasvati had a room in her house in the ideal district of Jericho; when I went to visit it I found her to be a charming and intelligent Indian woman with whom I had a long conversation about Sanskrit literature, all the time trying my hardest not to notice the wallpaper peeling away from the walls and the mildew glaring out from the cracks, odourously indignant that its stale solitude was to be breached. Another house with a spare room, very close to my current temporary digs, was owned and inhabited by Piers Delafontaine—one of that class of posh, miserly skanks who are clearly far too U to lower themselves to cleaning, but too tight to pay someone else to do it for them. Neither seemed suitable.

At the other end of the scale, sole rental made my eyes water and my wallet weep quietly in my pocket. A glorified bedsit on Iffley Road—nice, but so small that if you breathed in too hard there was a risk of the walls caving in—would have cost over a grand a month, and a cheaper “flat” on Abingdon Road turned out to be three unjoined rooms opening onto a shared hallway, thus necessitating a lock on each room door. My ability to lose keys, lock myself out, or—on more than one occasion—break off the key in the lock of a door ruled out this option. Being stranded, half-naked, in a cold, shared hallway because I had managed to flush my keys down the loo during a night-time visit would almost certainly be the fate awaiting me there—probably within the first month.

I have, finally, found somewhere. It is a big shared house: expensive but not gratuitous, and I shall be sharing with a two German girls, an Irish guy, and a Frenchman. A nice mix of people, and one which comes with the added benefit that the household would give Nigel Farage an aneurysm. We can but hope, at least.

A to Z blogging challenge: R

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