Friday, 2 March 2007

Relatively Speaking...

The other week I read Nick Cohen's 'What's Left' back to back with Ian McEwan's 'Saturday'. Though I can admire the skill, I never warm to McEwan's novels, but this one seems to have become a cultural reference point beyond the usual literary quarters. The thoughts of Henry Perowne, whom it follows through the Saturday of the huge 2003 anti-war march, provide a starting point for George Monbiot's 'Heat'. Meanwhile, Cohen's polemic against the anti-war left is like having Perowne's opinions stripped of all ambivalence and shouted through a megaphone from six inches in front of your face.

It's not just that Cohen quotes and elaborates on the passage in which Perowne recoils at the levity of the march:

All this happiness on display is suspect. Everyone is thrilled to be together out on the streets - people are hugging themselves, it seems, as well as each other. If they think - and they could be right - that continued torture and summary executions, ethnic cleansing and occasional genocide are preferable to an invasion, they should be sombre in their view. [p.69]

More than this, so many of Perowne's preoccupations are reproduced at length in Cohen's book. I want to look at one of these in more detail, but it may be worth saying that I'm not suggesting Cohen is somehow piggybacking on McEwan's work. Rather, both reflect the opinions of their generation of leftish, intellectualish writers and high-end journalists, which like most such generations has undergone a middle-age spread to the right - but which, unlike most, has done so with a tone of self-righteousness more familiar to adolescence, which finds (not unreasonable) justification in the excesses of their bĂȘtes noires on the illiberal left.

But back to the thoughts of Henry Perowne. Like Cohen, he draws a connection between what disturbs him in the anti-war movement and the legacy of postmodernism:

Waiting at red lights, he watches three figures in black burkhas emerge from a taxi on Devonshire Place... He can't help his distaste, it's visceral. How dismal that anyone sould be obliged to walk around so entirely obliterated... And what would the relativists say, the cheerful pessimists from Daisy's college? That it's sacred, traditional, a stand against the fripperies of Western consumerism? [pp.123-4]

The thing about 'cultural relativism' is that people take such absolute positions on it. Criticism of it generally leads to the kind of black-and-white, us-and-them attitudes around which Perowne swings according to mood and on one side of which Cohen lands with the nuance of a tonne of bricks. In his terms, "You have to choose which side you are on, and those who don't usually end up as the biggest villains of all."

Once someone is thinking in such terms, any attempt to persuade them that the world is (in important ways) more complex than their description of it tends to be heard as an appeal to exactly the thing they are attacking. So I was pleased to read a post from Anthony McCann (he of the long breakfasts) yesterday which offers a critique of cultural relativism from someone who recognises its uses. What provoked Anthony's thoughts was a post from an academic colleague expressing a familiar attitude:

Our job is to document, study, and put in context cultural phenomena, not to judge it. We may as persons have opinions about appropriateness of certain phenomena, and as sensitive individuals we may forgo studying materials that we find personally offensive, but that is as far as it goes. Everything human is there for a reason and if we understand it, then we can come to terms with it.

For Anthony (and for me) this is not good enough:

I think as professional thinkers and academics, with the financial luxuries and political privileges that entails, there is an onus on the likes of us to work as hard as we can to craft more respectful attitudes, more politically appropriate positions, more personally accountable understandings, to make our crafting visible, and to invite others to engage in similar work.

Nevertheless, he acknowledges, the practise of cultural relativism can play a (limited) part in this process:

Cultural relativism works, for me, merely as a position of critique, whereby people who assume privileged, unassailable positions of 'Truth' are reminded that there are more things on heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies.

To Perowne or Cohen, that may sound like such common sense as to be trivial - but my impression is that it's when we think of this as trivial that we are most likely also to treat our own "privileged, unassailable positions of 'Truth'" as common sense.

2 comments:

Kevin said...

I think the problem with the survival of the old-school left in the 21t Century is unwittingly illustrated by Berger's article on the boycott of Israel from last December. Wow, that was a long sentence. That's jut a reference to it. The article itself might have been taken down because the debate was so fierce. I don't know.

Some very good points are made in challenging Berger though. One of them seems to be central to Cohen's thinking. Why is the left today so obsessed with the crimes of Israel occupying Palestine and not say the Russians occupying Chechnya, the Chinese occupying Tibet or the English occupying Cornwall? And (as an aside) why is Bush's illiberalism more abhorrent than Ahmadinejad's, Castro's or Yasser Arafat's?

The political thinkers I was inspired by for my first novella included Berger, John Pilger, Harold Pinter and Noam Chomsky. Since I read that article I've questioned how much of the respect those admirable men command is in spite of their politics. How many leftists see them as representing the worst excesses of their immaturity?

As in the Bill Hicks routine, we watch the news and hear WAR FAMINE DEATH BLOODSHED DISEASE and look out of our windows (cricket sound-effect) and wonder where the fuck this is all happening but feeling that unwillingness to stop it makes us less than human.

I'm unlikely to read Cohen's book but hopefully with a more ideologically varied range of sources, I'll have a more sophisticated idea of what's going on and how one person can make a difference.

Oh and congratulations on making it onto Opendemocracy. Didn't you once say (about Kilroy-Silk) that once somebody's in-print it's hard to get out of it? I know OD isn't being in print but McIntosh, Berger and Zizek have all written for it so you must be excited. I'll read the article sometime tomorrow probably.

Dougald Hine said...

Hi Kevin,

I was in Trafalgar Square last weekend for the Stop the War rally. I listened to the speakers for a while, but when it came to Lindsey German - who was given the most hyperbolic build-up - I found myself walking away. As I did, I heard a young guy holding an STW placard ask his girlfriend, "Who elected her, then?"

I have mixed feelings about big demonstrations. They are exhilarating, and some of that exhilaration is healthy - it's great to feel that so many people can bestir themselves over something which is not in their immediate economic self-interest, because we spend so much of our lives being treated as if this were the only thing that mattered. But they also pander to the vanity of those who lead them - the speaker at the microphone can claim the endorsement of everyone there for whatever she chooses to say, which is often at odds with the actual reasons people are there.

The anti-war movement, partly because of the SWP's role, has been dominated by big demonstrations. Cohen's book makes some important arguments, but it is also reductive to the point of misrepresentation - mirroring the likes of German and Galloway.

Finally, I don't think it's sensible to see Berger, Pilger, Pinter and Chomsky as representing a single position - they might allign themselves for practical purposes, but they are very different writers and thinkers. Berger in particular is worth reading more carefully for the subtlety with which he has rethought his Marxism under the influence of his experiences in the Haute Savoie. (Incidentally, there's a very interesting short story of his in the latest issue of The Drawbridge.)

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