April 2012

In the closing scene of Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson salutes the crowd from his position atop the turnbuckle, waiting to hit an enormous splash on his prone competitor. Robin Ramzinski, meanwhile, is on the verge of an enormous heart attack after being ordered to stop contacting his daughter and seeing his potential girlfriend walk out on him.

These are, of course, two sides of the same man. Ramzinski has found that once the official’s palm has slapped the mat three times to mark the end of his last fight “Randy” – the charismatic, hair flickin’, ass kickin’ superhero – will cease to exist in any meaningful form and “Robin” won’t mean a tinker’s damn to those who’d cheered him. The beautifully rendered portrait of his identity crisis is grimly close to the reality of the business. Some old champions like Ric Flair drag their tired bodies through matches because they need to pay the creditors they’ve acquired but others, one suspects, prefer the exalted internal world of kayfabe to the neglect and boredom of reality. Yet, of course, their bones grow stiff, their muscles wither, their skin puckers and their real selves can’t match the ideals of their characters. Fans of the business should look beyond the spectacle once in a while and respect the sacrifices such men have taken to actualise it. Everyone should know the risks of building one’s identity on insecure foundations.

One thing I’ll say about this film that isn’t positive: as much as I liked Marisa Tomei’s portrayal of Pam how many fictional strippers have there been with hearts of gold? From Mary Magdalen to Sonya Marmeladova to the lass in Boogie Nights all sex workers seem to be warm, compassionate people. For once I’d like to see a black-hearted ecdysiast. Well, outside of Zombie Strippers, anyway…

On the occasion of the trial of the monstrously smug Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik hands have wrung across Europe over the style and content of debates surrounding Islam, immigration and multiculturalism. As someone who spent a lot of time railing against Islamophobes and now spends as much time railing against Islamic radicalism I feel obliged to comment. (I’m not, of course. Few, if any, people are obliged to comment on politics. The world might be a better place if fewer of us did. But I feel obliged to comment.)

I can’t know for sure what passed through Anders Breivik’s brain. I’m not his counsellor. But there are trends of thought among cultural conservatives that are obvious potential instigators of bloodshed. One that bugs me is the idea that there’s an active conspiracy of Muslims at large to overthrow European values and subordinate its people; a process that some appear to think is consciously facilitated by Western statesmen, activists and commentators. These are falsehoods, and dangerous ones at that. Here’s a small but intriguing data point in their disfavour: 39% of Asians in Britain feel that immigration should be stopped entirely. Unless they’ve mastered reverse psychology they aren’t trying to conquer Europe. The idea, meanwhile, that a bunch of nonbelievers, Jews, gays and so on are sitting around thinking, “Y’know what I’d like? Islamic law!” is too bizarre for comment.

But if these notions are adopted by people it’s hardly surprising if they feel that violence is called for. If people are actively, successfully conspiring to dominate and oppress you what else are you going to do? Write a petition? It renders all hope of democratic activism futile and notions of civil discourse absurd. While no one’s followed Brievik’s actions, some accept his premises. Roberta Moore, for example – a trusted confidant of anti-Islam Yanks – has been insisting that Breivik’s victims “were NOT innocent” and asks for proof that he’s an extremist. (I wonder how many teenagers she feels one must kill before becoming an extremist? Is it when you’ve reach triple figures, perhaps?)

Yet a sad and stubborn fact remains: a problem that can be distorted and exaggerated remains a problem and totalistic and tribalistic Islam is a problem. One needn’t resort to theories of conspiracy to show this; it presents itself as such. Sheikh Haitham al-Haddad, for example, openly desires that Islamic law be made “dominant in the world” and vocally endorses its brutal prescriptions for apostates, girls with intact labias and so on. Is he a minor extremist? No. He sits on the Islamic Sharia Council and remains a feature of Mosques and favourite of student groups. There are plenty of other theocratic totalists who’ve found platforms at centres of Islamic worship and learning, and there is evidence that many of their views may be reflected by formidable proportions of their British co-believers.

Lest it be imagined that this is solely a matter of abstract opinions it should remembered that a lot of people have taken the Sharia law into their own hands. Honour violence is common; anti-semitism is a physical reality and numerous other bullies work hard to make Britain a less free and more frightening place. It’s become a land where a man can be assaulted for teaching religious studies; women can receive death threats for wearing trousers; a family can be harassed because their daughter married a Christian; apostates can be threatened; heretics can be endangered and blasphemers face intimidation. (This, by the way, is without even mentioning the word “terrorism”.)

Among all the necessary conversations on the manner and substance of the debates around these issues there’s the heavy implication that all views with pessimistic are illegitimate: inspired, perhaps, in different measures, by a genuine fear of future Breiviks wallowing in dark claims and speculations and an opportunistic desire to claim presumptive victory on the field of argument. Well, if they silence the sceptics they might lessen the risk of people sinning by commission in fuelling violence but they’ll be sinning by omission in eliding the threats and harms I’ve briefly related – threats and harms that will endure and intensify if they’re neglected. They can ignore these phenomena if they’re inclined to but they’ve got blind eyes or brass balls if they suggest that people who are more troubled are the real danger.

A number of documents related to Britain’s past colonial adventures have been released. The extent of conspiratorial activity that they detail is yet another answer to people who reflexively sneer at those who claim to diagnose such behaviour. The most sensitive documents haven’t even been exposed. They were destroyed long ago. Some of the papers that have survived relate to a historical injustice I’ve explored before: the theft of the Chagos Islands from its natives…

The aim behind the decision to control the islands, noted a Foreign Office official in a document dated September 1966 and marked “Secret and Guard”, was to build “defence facilities … without hindrance or political agitation”.

In 1970, the Foreign Office told its officials at the UN to describe the islanders as “contract labourers” engaged to work on coconut plantations. “The merit of this line,” it noted, “is that it does not give away the existence of the Ilois [the indigenous islanders] but is at the same time strictly factual.”

Officials reported the prime minister, Ted Heath, as saying: “Any discussions between the United States and ourselves must remain confidential.”

A year later, most of the islanders – about 1,500 in total, of whom 500 lived on Diego Garcia – were deported, mainly to Mauritius and Seychelles.

I say historical injustice. It is, in fact, both that and a contemporary one. Time and again the Ilois have been stopped from returning

Governments have stubbornly refused, and snidely ignored, their e’er more desperate pleas to be allowed to return home. They’re covering for the Yanks, who use the islands as a base at which to stockpile weapons and refuel “rendition” flights, and as a would-be launching pad for attacks against Iran. (It’s also used by surfers, who’ve proclaimed that it’s “home to some of the best surf on the planet”. Enjoy those waves, dudes!)

The Empire may have collapsed but imperialism is still absolutely relevant.

While I’m talking photos, this one, Rihanna and Snoop Dogg’s “tribute” to Tupac Shakur, is the most pitiable I’ve seen today. (And I’ve seen dead people.) A couple of millionaires, they’re advertising the virtues of “thug life”. Let’s put aside the grim modern realities this makes light of – didn’t Tupac die because of that whole “thug life” thing? Seems a bit like paying tribute to Kurt Cobain by scrawling “crack life” across your chest.

Tupac was one of the most talented musicians of his generation and, considering his eventual output, among the most disappointing. Praised by critics for his introspection he’s best remembered for his posturing: the rhetorical aggression that helped stoke real violence on the streets of Los Angeles. If he’d broken free of his influences he could have been an extremely powerful voice but, instead, he ended up spending his last hours brawling with a member of a rival gang before gunned down. He’d always claimed to diagnose gangsterism and not celebrate it but this seems absurd: the East-coast/West-coast rivalry didn’t really exist to be described before becoming the focus of his attention; he started it. It’s always bugged me how critics forgive hours of unpleasantness from musicians because of moments of reflectiveness and regret: if we credit them with intelligence we should be able to expect it all the time instead of on the odd occasion. If Shakur and his contemporaries had been more generous with theirs rap and hip-hop may not be dominated by cynical millionaires who ape urban stylings for profit and genuine thugs who lay down rhymes about how enemies should fear them and then get arrested for murder.

This unpleasant image is of an event in Sweden – a drinks evening at Stockholm’s museum of modern art. The woman is the Swedish minister for culture; the man is an artist who was apparently trying to highlight the issue of female genital mutilation. He’s attached himself to a cake in the shape of a bizarrely distended African woman’s body, and slices are being cut from the huge dessert’s “vagina”. Charges of racism have followed. What intrigues me is that in this picture everyone is smiling and giggling (not at the artist, either, but with him). If I was being really moralistic I’d ask whether they find FGM amusing; the more likely explanation is, of course, that they find this bloke’s interpretation of it funny.

I wonder if writers and performers and artists who claim to draw attention to matters of consequences through the form of such lurid and bewildering stunts ever wonder why no progress is made towards resolving such problems, and why people seem to have no greater understanding of their nature. If they did they might realise that it tends to reduce peoples’ interest to the manner of their presentation and that, of course, would make it less easy for them to bask in their own cleverness.

Here’s another quote from Haidt…

The fundamental rule of political analysis from the point of psychology is, follow the sacredness, and around it is a ring of motivated ignorance.

Much of my cerebral life – I know, I know, but it’s better than “intellectual life” – consists of challenging such motivated ignorance: my own at least as often as other peoples’. In fact, working with this image, I’d add that if you find yourself trying to consider ideas and events that are unfamiliar to you and find yourself colliding with a wall of incredulity, automatic disapproval and impulsive rationalisation you might be held captive by your own motivated ignorance and, at the risk of stretching this allegory beyond its limits, your values might be less well-founded than you’d believed.

I will say, though, that I’ve got against nothing against ignorance in certain contexts. If enjoying a happy life is central to the motivation behind one’s existence, for example, closing oneself off from the horrors of the world is necessary. There’s got to be a reason we’ve come to think this way, after all.

The New York Times reports a view from Jonathan Haidt…

As a scientist, he takes a passive, empirical view of human nature. He describes us as we have been, expecting no more. Based on evolution, he argues, universal love is implausible: “Parochial love . . . amplified by similarity” and a “sense of shared fate . . . may be the most we can accomplish.”

One might object to this. After all, none of us “love” English people qua English people. In fact, we dislike a good many of them. But here’s a thought: if a hundred Englishmen were being worked to death wouldn’t you be affected? This could be explained by a desire for self-preservation if they were being killed in England so let’s say it’s abroad. You be angered, horrified and sympathetic, no? I would. Yet in North Korea tens of thousands of people face such hardships every day of every year and have been doing so for decades. Aside from, perhaps, the odd teary moment over Nothing to Envy or Escape From Camp 14 has this knowledge had the slightest impact on your emotional state? Apart from those times I’ve been directly confronted with it I have to admit it’s left mine relatively unaffected. That also applies to massacres in the Congo; disease in Kenya and oppression in Zimbabwe.

All people have limited emotional responsiveness. They act according to their membership of communities based on shared experience and ambition, and common humanity is simply not a guarantor of fellow feeling. Even the strongest, broadest concept of tribal allegiance, that of the Muslim Ummah, is nebulous in practice: speaking crudely, Pakistani Muslims tend to be stirred up over Kashmir; Egyptians over Gaza and Kurds over, well, Kurdistan. It needn’t mean we fail to recognise the injustice and suffering faced by others – though, of course, we might – but that our intellectual acknowledgement rarely transcends the cerebrum and manifests itself in empathetic feeling. This is only true, I think, when we have a tribal connection to the victims – be it familial, national or ideological – or heavy exposure to the reality of their suffering.

While this might disincline us from working as hard to ameliorate distress as we might otherwise, it can focus our attention on achievable goals. And, besides, it’s worth remembering that if we truly empathised with all people, let alone creatures, we’d be struck down with an anguish that would make existence Hell.

This does not, of course, mean you have to base your emotions round particular loyalties; only that it should be remembered that most people will.

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