Thursday, 27 May 2010

The Beautiful Game 1. - a post in two halves

Is this one of the great television adverts of all time? I think it might be. Created by the Mexican director, Alejandro Innaritu (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel), we are given three minutes that expertly fuse cinematic quality, wit, excitement, glamour and a meta-narrative to boot. It doesn't get much better than this.

Football, as the Write the Future advert shows, has mesmerised the collective cultural imagination, both locally and globally. But it wasn't always so. Before the age of Sky TV and the big bucks of international oligarchs, football attracted a loyal, enthusiastic following but there remained a great mass of people who considered the game as a prehistoric pastime, a sporting brontosaurus on its way to extinction. Their image of football was of socially disenfranchised men passing through creaking turnstiles and standing on crumbling terraces beneath dishwater grey skies. Players with bad haircuts, bad shorts and bad prospects. Then, the reinvention began. A makeover on an international scale. Football went designer and everybody (even those who knew next to nothing about football) wanted to wear the label, have others sniff the scent on them. New stadiums gleamed. Players, oiled and manicured, modelled Dolce & Gabbana underpants with the word Calcio on their waistbands. Football got funky and sexy. Football, if not writing the future, acquired the power to write big cheques for players, agents, managers and FIFA bosses. Serious fans may see this as a cynical exploitation of the game they love, but the public at large just want to buy in to brand Football.

Today, there are not many areas of cultural life that have not referenced football. From young, whippet-thin men doing the Peter Crouch "robot" dance outside some desolate nightclub to the British artist, Douglas Gordon's 2009 film, Zidane, that followed the every deft move and reaction of Zinedine Zidane during a complete football match (Real Madrid v. Villareal April 23, 2005). Street culture and the culture of the art house cinema have paid homage to the beautiful game. So, has poetry and literature. Take, for example, Tony Harrison's poem V:

These Vs are all the versuses of life
From LEEDS v. DERBY, Black/White
and (as I've known to my cost) man v. wife,
Communist v. Fascist, Left v. Right,

Class v. class as bitter as before,
the unending violence of US and THEM,
personified in 1984
by Coal Board MacGregor and the NUM,

Hindu/Sikh, soul/body, heart v. mind,
East/West, male/female, and the ground
these fixtures are fought on's Man, resigned
to hope from his future what his past never found.

But you don't need the golden tongue of a poet to appreciate that, consciously or unconsciously, football has evolved into an athletic metaphor for the intangible delight and desolation of being alive. "Sport is more important than I ever gave it credit for, and athletes have a greater significance in everyday life than ninety-nine per cent of windbag politicians," wrote the sports journalist, Duncan Hamilton, in his memoir of Brian Clough, Provided You Don't Kiss Me, "Red Smith, the best sports writer of his generation and most others, believed that "sport is life" -and I wouldn't disagree. It can move people to rapture, like a glorious spring day. It can persuade people to identify with it, and with those who participate in it, in a way that few other things can. It matters. It stays with us like the characters from a great novel."

Football has also acquired a metaphysical dimension in the contemporary mind. It has become a cliche to say that as "the Sea of Faith" began "its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar" so football filled the spiritual void and provided religious consolation. According to the late Catalan writer, Manuel Vazquez Montalban, football is "a post modern religion, in that it is perfectly in tune with the commercial needs of mankind, intrinsically linked to business and consumerism. Its cathedrals are stadiums, its gods footballers, its faithful the millions of fans who not only participate in this ritual every matchday, but practise their faith on a daily basis, thinking about and reflecting on the deeds of their gods." This kind of idea and language is culturally popular, but it is also fundamentally flawed and excessive. Football's horizons remain narrow and earthbound, whereas religion seeks that which is transcendent and ministers the grace for people to break free from the gravitational pull of earthly powers to seek the heavens. Football is no religion.

But football can be religious. Players making the sign of the cross as they come out onto a pitch. Players gesturing to heaven and some higher power when they score a goal. The Brazilian, Kaká (currently playing for Real Madrid) famously removing his jersey to reveal an "I Belong to Jesus" t-shirt and using the final whistle as a call to prayer. "God Is Faithful" is stitched onto the tongues of his boots and he persuaded teammates to reveal "Jesus Loves You" t-shirts in the postmatch celebration following Brazil's 4–1 win over Argentina in the 2005 FIFA Confederations Cup final. Kaká is evangelical about his faith. He lives on a win and a prayer.

There have even been moves in some quarters to find a patron saint for football. Bishop Vincent Eugene Bossikov remains the leading candidate for this honour. Executed by a Stalinist firing squad in 1952 for opposing Stalin's anti-religious laws in Bulgaria, Bishop Bossikov was well-known as a passionate football supporter. He was beatified in 1998 by the late Pope John Paul II. This same Pope was also known to be a keen football fan.

What does this link between football and religion tell us? Exaggerating the importance of this link can only leads to skewed judgements. For every footballer with religious leanings, there will be countless others who simply enjoy the rituals of the changing room and the superstitious charms that they hope will bring them victory. As with any group of people, some will be religious, some nominally or culturally so and some not at all. If there is anything to learn from such links, it is that football has acquired a defining role in our cultural behaviour and attitudes. These coming weeks in South Africa are about to prove that.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Enron and the Financial Crisis III.

I recently had a chat with someone who used to be a trader in the City of London. I asked him if he thought that the ethical practice of those working in the financial sector would improve following the economic downturn. "No," he replied, looking at me with bemusement. The Nobel prize winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz would agree with this assessment. He writes in Freefall: free markets and the sinking of the global economy:

No matter how you look at it, our banks and our bankers, both before and during the crisis, did not live up to the moral standards that we should hope for, especially in the exploitation of ordinary borrowers. The subprime mortgages are just another example of a long litany of abusive practices in a variety of venues, which include student loans, pay day loans, rent-a-centers, and credit and debit cards.

Stiglitz echoes some of the fundamental tenets found in Catholic Social Teaching. "In the economic and social realms," the authors of the Vatican II document, Gaudium et Spes, write, "the dignity and complete vocation of the human person and the welfare of society as a whole are to be respected and promoted. For man is the source, the centre, and the purpose of all economic and social life." This could be dismissed as moralistic musings - fine for the pulpit, but not for the economics lecture theatre or boardroom. Yet people have paid increasing attention to Stiglitz because such ideas have been vindicated in his warning of global economic catastrophe. In 2000, sacked from his job as chief economist at the World Bank, Stiglitz pointed the finger at the "third-rate graduates from first-rate universities" working in the US Treasury and the International Monetary Fund who had run inflexible free-market models to solve the Asian financial crisis of 1997-8. Rather than solve the crisis, they exacerbated it. Stiglitz saw this as the thin end of the ideological wedge and with worldwide economic collapse, he has been proved largely correct. For him, the fundamental issue and root cause of recent troubles is financial concupiscence:

Economics, unintentionally, proved sustenance to this lack of moral responsibility. A naive reading of Adam Smith might have suggested that he had relieved market participants from having to think about issues of morality. After all, if the pursuit of self-interest leads, as if by an invisible hand, to societal well-being, all that one has to do - all that one should do - is be sure to follow one's self-interest. And those in the financial sector seemingly did that. but clearly, the pursuit of self-interest - greed - did not lead to societal well-being, either in this episode or in the earlier scandals involving WorldCom and Enron
"Avarice, the spur of industry," remarked the Scottish philosopher, David Hume, has in recent times been expressed, according to Stiglitz, in an ugly, rugged individualism and materialism that weakens societal bonds and responsibilities. Others agree, including Dr Catherine Cowley, a former City banker and now religious sister and academic, who has produced The Greed Imperative for BBC Radio 4.

For Stiglitz state regulation is the only way to limit the excesses of the free-market and the inequalities in the global economy between debtor and creditor nations. So far, he sees little evidence that this is happening and the status quo of hands-off de-regulation remains largely intact. Larry Elliot, co-author, with Dan Atkinson of The Gods That failed: How the Financial Elite Have Gambled Away Our Futures writes:

Already, there is a whiff of business as usual as a receding sense of danger blunts the appetite for radical Britain the imminent election will be dominated not by which party has the right policies to cut the City down to size but which can be trusted to cut the budget deficit. Revisionist versions of the crisis, suggesting the problem was too much government rather than too little, are doing the rounds...Stiglitz wants this to be moment of "reckoning and reflection" - a reassessment of the sort of economy in which financiers enriched themselves by selling over-priced and risky products to some of the most vulnerable citizens in America. Materialism has outweighed moral commitment, the needs of the environment have been ignored, and there has been a catastrophic break down in trust.

Of course, Stiglitz's high vision of a moral economics has to be worked out in reality. What kind of state regulation is appropriate and how much? Do politicians have the will to regulate financial institutions? Must we legislate for "moral commitment" or does that just speak of moral failure? How (if at all) should governments intervene in the workings of the market? Is there an ethical and spiritual reality appropriate to the workplace? Not, I suspect, easy questions to answer, but the challenge presented by Stiglitz and others to the financial community and beyond cannot be ignored, unless we want to risk him returning to us in ten years time and saying, "I told you so":

It has become a cliche to observe that the Chinese characters for crisis reflect "danger" and "opportunity". We have seen the danger. The question is, will we seize the opportunity to restore our sense of balance between the market and the state, between individualism and the community, between man and nature, between means and ends? We now have the opportunity to create a new financial system that will do what human beings need a financial system to do; to create a new economic system that will create meaningful jobs, decent work for all those who want it, one in which the divide between the haves and have-nots is narrowing, rather than widening; and, most importantly of all, to create a new society where each individual is able to fulfill his aspirations and live up to his potential, in which we have created citizens who live up to shared ideals and values, in which we have created a community that treats our planet with respect that in the long run it will surely demand. These are the opportunities. The real danger now is that we will not seize them.

Freefall: free markets and the sinking of the global economy, Joseph Stiglitz, Allen Lane, 2010

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Is God really dead?

On 8 April 1966, Time magazine produced an arresting front cover with just the words "Is God dead?" This was a time when the concept of God was not only being challenged by atheists and the leaders of the new socio-sexual revolution, but, also, by a maverick band of theologians (largely Protestant, but whose influence would later seep into some areas of Catholic thinking). The secular promises of the 1960's did not only mesmerise the Woodstock generation, but it also became a source of inspiration for some theologians. The Methodist theologian, Thomas J.J. Altizer, associate professor of religion at Atlanta's Emory University, would write "We must recognize that the death of God is a historical event: God has died in our time, in our history, in our existence." Theologians such as Altizer saw the radical secularization of the world as part of the process by which the sacred would be restored and in his view, cleaned of the distorting patina of transcendence and the idolatry of institutional Christianity. Juxtaposing such theological paradoxes gave birth to a "movement" with formative texts such as Altizer's The Gospel of Christian Atheism.

Time has sapped the scintillating paradoxes of theothanatology of their intellectual power. Such ideas have little serious currency in contemporary theological thinking, where they look as quaint as batik kaftans. It is the creation of a new, systematic apologetics that mines the big ideas of God, the supernatural and transcendence that have become the focus of attention in mainstream theological circles today. God has made a comeback in theology. The 2010 April/May issue of Philosophy Now mimics the Time cover while adding the word "really". This addition suggests a significant shift in attitudes to the God question. Far from there being a consensus that the concept of God has become redundant, current thinking proves more fluid and unpredictable. God has not gone away. In fact, God is everywhere. The interest in God (pro or contra), far from diminishing, increases. Every bookshop, newspaper, website is rife with God talk, although, the popular level of debate has developed a polemical character that short circuits hard thinking. This is a pity. But there are serious thinkers and one of them, from the Christian Tradition, is Pope Benedict XVI whose intellectual life work has been to consider the relationship between faith and reason, religion and modernity.

The encyclical Spe Salvi is a scholarly analysis of Marxism and the atheism it spawned in the 19th and 20th centuries. Pope Benedict admits that the thinking of Marx and others was a "type of moralism" responding to the injustices of the time. Atheists argued that "a world marked by so much injustice, innocent suffering and cynicism of power cannot be the work of a good God." Thus, according to Pope Benedict, "the critique of heaven is transformed into the critique of earth, the critique of theology into the critique of politics. Progress towards the better, towards the definitively good world, no longer comes simply from science but from politics - from a scientifically conceived politics that recognises the structure of history and society and thus points the road towards revolution, towards all-encompassing change." Yet, it is here that Pope Benedict sees an opportunity for dialogue between Christianity and Modernity. He writes:
What does "progress" really mean: what does it promise and what does it not promise? In the nineteenth century, faith in progress was already subject to critique. in the twentieth century, Theodor W. Adorno formulated the problem of faith in progress quite drastically: he said that progress, seen accurately, is progress from the sling to the atom bomb. Now this is certainly an aspect of progress that must not be concealed. To put it another way: the ambiguity of progress becomes evident. Without doubt, it offers new possibilities for good, but it also opens up appalling possibilities for evil - possibilities that formerly did not exist...If technical progress is not matched by corresponding progress in man's ethical formation, in man's inner growth, then it is not progress at all, but a threat for man and for the world.

Atheism, on the other hand, is currently enjoying a renaissance. No longer the preserve of Bertrand Russell enthusiasts or angst-ridden intellectuals politely wrestling with theism, atheism has reinvented itself. The New Atheism is pumped, aggressive and happy to rage against the iniquities of religion and the docile acceptance of any kind of transcendent reality that might call itself god. Take, for example, this fulminating gobbet from the Richard Dawkins book, The Devils' Chaplain:

My last vestige of "hands off religion" respect disappeared in the smoke and choking dust of September 11th 2001, followed by the "National Day of Prayer", when prelates and pastors did their tremulous Martin Luther King impersonations and urged people of mutually incompatible faiths to hold hands, united in homage to the very force that caused the problem in the first place.

According to the editor of Philosophy Now, "Atheism has truly fought its way out of the brown paper bag" and who could disagree, when books on atheism regularly make the bestseller lists. But what is behind this? David Ramsay Steele, author of Atheism Explained: From Folly to Philosophy, considers the American scene and sees a polarisation of views around hot spot issues(abortion, homosexuality, science vs. religion, etc) and God proves to be the hottest hot spot of all issues. Steele writes:

Most Americans today are secular-minded nominal theists. They say they believe in God, but they have no time for church. They are not alarmed by atheism, and they often hold the same blue-state social and political attitudes as the tiny minority of atheists. They think of atheists as intelligent people with interesting ideas, whereas they think of Evangelicals as a bunch of kooks who might become dangerous. And so they readily take to books like The God Delusion.

The second stage of my explanation for the New Atheist explosion in America centers on 9/11. American intellectuals needed a story which would put 9/11 in context and confirm their assumptions. What they came up with was the view that the Muslims who perpetrate terrorist attacks and the New Christian right are the same enemy (fringe elements of Evangelicalism have perpetrated terrorist attacks on abortion clinics). This is the dominant theme in The End of Faith by Sam Harris, and it looms large in The God Delusion, and in God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens. The New Atheist story, marketable to the American intelligentsia as a whole, is that extreme religion commits atrocities, and even moderate religion may be dangerous because it provides cover for extreme religion.

I'm not sure how accurate or defensible this reading is, but what seems clear is that real philosophical mood swings have taken place in the last forty years. The predictions that the idea of God would simply evaporate under the heat of a secular sun have proved false. In the same period, interest in atheism increased and now attracts increasing numbers of followers. Is this the end of religion and the beginning of modernity or has modernity underestimated the significance of God in human lives and culture. "Even atheists, Nietzsche among them, knew this: order and meaning come from God, and if God really is dead, then we delude ourselves in thinking meaning can be saved," writes Leszek Kolakowski in Freedom, Fame, Lying and Betrayal: Essays on Everyday Life, "If God is dead nothing remains but an indifferent void which engulfs and annihilates us. No trace remains of our lives and our labours; there is only the meaningless dance of protons and electrons. The universe wants nothing and cares for nothing; it strives towards no goal; it neither rewards nor punishes. Whoever says that there is no God and all is well deceives himself."

Is God dead?
Is God really dead?

I wonder what kind of God question we might find on the cover of a magazine in 2050? Whatever the formulation, I predict that the question will still be as important to the people of the future as it is for us today.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Artfractures and Charles Saatchi

I was recently asked by the artist, Robert Priseman, if I would like to be a book reviewer for a new arts journal, Artfractures - which can be read online. After a bit a humming and haaaing on my part, I finally agreed. The journal has great things in it and is written by people who are qualified to speak about art with authority. I have no formal qualifications in art history, theory or aesthetics. My interest in art (especially contemporary art) is just as a layman. Therefore, it is a huge honour to be asked to do this. My first review of My Name is Charles Saatchi and I am an Artoholic has just been published. I wonder what Invisible Province readers will make of it...

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Glee, Madonna and Like a Virgin

Get yourself ready to cheer for the underdogs!

I'm visiting my friend, Francesca, and we've settled down for a glass of champagne in the room where her huge flat screen television acts as a wall. Suddenly, her son appears from his homework and asks, "Can I watch Glee?" Pause. "Martin's here," she says and encourages him to return to his homework. Homework vs. Glee? His shoulders sag and the disappointment is palpable. He vanishes downstairs. Smart Kid! There's a a tv in the playroom there. He gets to watch Glee along with millions of others. In the United States, almost 8 million people watched the season 1 Glee finale and there are some 2,280,136 Glee fans (or "Gleeks") on Facebook. Glee, as the marketing men say, is a phenomenon.

Glee is set in William Mckinley High School where a fresh faced Spanish teacher, Will Scheuster, creates a show choir: the Glee club. This choir becomes a refuge for the cultural outsiders in the school: the nerds, the geeks and the Losers. The choir includes a disabled person, a fat black girl, a gay teenager, a bullied girl who has "two daddies", a handsome quarterback jock who likes singing and dancing. These misfits find a solidarity in singing pop songs as if they were big musical numbers and as in a musical, the songs advance the narrative. Glee is a hybrid with its genetic roots in Baz Luhrman's Moulin Rouge, the Porky's films and Benetton adverts. The Glee choir sing their secular songs with such religious fervour and belief that, no matter how corny the lyric, how banal the melody, they convince you that this song could potentially shape their personal lives. In cultures where traditional religious symbols have been abandoned by young people, Glee's central conceit becomes emotionally powerful and attractive.

If T.S.Eliot is right and "humankind cannot bear too much reality", then Glee is the place where it escapes to for an hour of camp relief and entertainment. Show hands and singing provide the Glee club members with a new community where they can feel secure. Where many people live lonely existences, outside supportive communities, this reassuring vision of community life has a psychic gravitational pull. Glee is driven by flick-knife bon mots, boldly drawn characters and pantomime antics. It's smart, it's sassy, it's feelgood. But is it anything more than that?

Spoiler: the following considers some of the ideas in the "Madonna" episode of Glee and may spoil your enjoyment of it.

Glee, although appearing sexually confident, is burdened by moral incertitude and confusion. Demonised by some in the States as being a force of moral corruption, Glee is, in fact, something more interesting. Glee reflects an increasingly ambivalent response to the philosophies of "sexual liberation", where the sexual act is largely reduced to a pleasure principle. Watching the episode of Glee based around Madonna songs exposes the prevalent moral sense in its mutilated form and the raft of ambiguous, nervy responses to hyper-sexuality.

But, first, a word about Madonnna. In 1990, the commentator, Camille Paglia wrote that Madonna "has taught young women to be fully female and sexual while still exercising total control over their lives" and that the overt sexualisation promoted by Madonna was a direct assault on "the puritanism and suffocating ideology of American feminism." Madonna was, according to Paglia, "the real future of feminism." Therefore, for some people it is not enough to enjoy the pop songs, one has to buy into the whole idea that sexual activity is where one is most liberated and oneself. According to Malcolm Muggeride, it is the philosophy that says, "I screw, therefore I am." Yet, as brand Madonna has grown middle aged and sinewy, so the philosophical premises upon which it was conceived are being slowly called into question. Here is Camille Paglia on the sleeve cover of Madonna's 2008 Hard Candy "with that ostentatiously exposed crotch and hard-bitten face lolling its tongue like a dissolute old streetwalker...still hammering at sex as if it's Madonna's last, desperate selling point." Suddenly, the type of sexuality that Madonna has made her own, looks less like something that liberates and more like something that repulses.

The writers of Glee recognised that Madonna's back catalogue of hits were the perfect musical fodder for their programme, but what about the Madonna philosophy that is intertwined, like bindweed, with her music? Would they be willing to promote the promiscuous in-your-face sexual posturing of their pop heroine? This particular episode dealt with different characters choosing whether to lose or keep their virginity - a staple theme in many contemporary teenage dramas. Although, the mere fact that it is a question for the characters in Glee recognises it has a significance beyond, for example, losing your first tooth. Losing your virginity, Glee concedes, is more than an inevitable expression of biological determinism. It is a choice (of import) made by a moral agent.

In one scene, Finn is approached by an attractive cheerleader who says, "Let's do the deed and I'll get promoted to head cheerleader." "And what do I get out of it?," Finn asks. "You get sex...," she replies bluntly. So far, so Madonna. Yet, when Finn does sleep with her, he analyses the experience by saying, "I don't feel anything because it didn't mean anything." Finn intuits that sex does have a meaning beyond physical activity. His moral understanding is that, for human beings, sex is supposed to be meaningful. Rachel, on the other hand (although being pressurised by her Lothario boyfriend), does not loose her virginity. "I'm not ready to do this, I'm betraying myself," she says. But in a Madonna universe, sex could never be a betrayal of oneself, because the relationship between the body and the self has been severed. The body is an instrument of pleasure, the self exists apart and in isolation from it. Rachel suggests the contrary. For her, what she does with her body is intimately bound up with her sense of her self - she recognises that she is an embodied person.

Glee wants to mock the Chastity Club with its motto, "It's the teasing, not the pleasing" (for all its high-sounding ideals of inclusivity, the Glee club is as exclusive as any other) and to make light of "losing the big V". But, this isn't the dawning of the age of Aquarius and time has shown that living in the sexual pleasuredom manufactured by people like Madonna has been, at the very least, a dubious experience for many people and society. "Given the characteristics of the modern era, love can scarcely manifest itself anymore," observes Michel Houellebecq, the author of Atomised, "Yet the ideal of love has not diminished. Being, like all ideals, fundamentally atemporal, it can neither diminish nor disappear." Curiously, Glee agrees.