Wednesday, 30 November 2005

White with Loathing

To read and find ugly a sentence such as “Personalised embodied narratives foreground the particularity of the everyday” requires no rare sensibility. No fine eye is needed, furthermore, to see that it bears the markings of a pseudo-philosophic pretence that might hide a banality at best or an absurdity at worst. One might appreciate that to write such stuff and find it worthy of expression, however, requires several years of academic instruction, in which span of time any trace of aesthetic sensibility or mental acuity is exorcised as if it were a foul and irksome ghost. Hence we should not be startled to discover that the author of this squalid phrase is suitably qualified to express it, being that she is a lecturer in the language of which it is a blight.
Anne Brewster, like many a lecturer in English, does not much concern herself with the English language or the literature of the “dead white males” whose works have helped to shape it; for like many of her ilk she is obsessed with race, and in particular with the “project of rewriting whiteness”. Quite what this might entail, I cannot tell, though it seems to involve a desire not to be white, if the following is anything to go by:
If it is patently impossible to divest ourselves of whiteness, I'd suggest, perhaps the best we (as white subjects) can hope for is persistently to interrupt our narrativisation of it.
Anne Brewster, “Writing Whiteness: the Personal TurnAustralian Humanities Review, Issue 35, June 2005.
Plainly, I have arrived on the scene late in the day; for the assumption has already been made that no decent person could possibly be white and of good conscience. Assuming then that “whiteness” is a sin, and that we are not yet able to divest ourselves of it, how are we “to interrupt our narrativisation of it”? Our author has a suggestion:
If, as [Richard] Dyer suggests, the project of refunctioning whiteness necessitates ‘making whiteness strange’ [White, (London: Routledge, 1997. p. 4)], this can be effected through making oneself strange. (Ibid.)
You may be disappointed to learn that “making oneself strange” does not involve standing in corners at parties muttering to oneself about the contents of one’s tool-shed, nor does it recommend keeping black puddings as pets. It involves rather reading “indigenous literature” in order that one may somehow become estranged from oneself towards a new identity less afflicted with “whiteness”:
I have argued elsewhere . . . that the experience of defamiliarisation produced by reading indigenous literature, for example, shifts us into a space of uncertainty because the ‘self’ to which we return is not a fixed site. Defamiliarisation reminds us of the inability of identity to remain identical to itself and of the fact that whiteness itself is a zone of indeterminacy. (Ibid.)
This wish to destroy one’s own kind reminds me somewhat of the tragic Otto Weininger, the philosopher and Viennese Jew, of whom even Hitler was reputedly an admirer; and with statements such as the following, it is not difficult to see why:
To defeat Judaism, the Jew must first understand himself and war against himself. So far, the Jew has reached no further than to make and enjoy jokes against his own peculiarities.
(Otto Weininger, Sex and Character. (London: William Heinemann, 1906.) p. 207.)
Herr Weininger committed suicide at the age of twenty-three. I do not know whether Ms Brewster views suicide as an option, in order that she might finally divest herself of whiteness. I get the feeling, however, that persons such as she would like to be around to shepherd the rest us off first. The last man out shuts the door, as it were.

Tuesday, 29 November 2005

Fewtril #48

The meaning of the word “potato” has hitherto remained largely unperverted, mostly because there has been little advantage in claiming “potato” to be on one’s side. If however all the schemes of politicos and partisans had depended upon the claim thereto, and all the ingenuity of philosophers had been brought to bear thereupon, so far as such actions have been taken against “truth” and “justice”, we should find a great many and diverse vegetables signified; and with some foreboding we might see the view arise that there is no such thing as a potato.

Monday, 28 November 2005

Fewtril #47

It is a curiosity of almost fathomless wonder that a pseudo-philosopher who professes the ultimate senselessness of words should be able to persuade his followers that this is the last word in sense.

Fewtril #46

An oft-used and potent defence for a downright stupid idea is the evoking of the name of the celebrated thinker who first advocated it.

Friday, 25 November 2005

Fewtril #45

Whenever the will of the people is expressed in a way that is displeasing to our political elite, it is described as a threat to democracy, even though by its very nature it is an expression thereof. A threat to individual liberties, it may be, but then what else can one expect when one has promised the beast the run of the place?

Fewtril #44

A humanist is a creature akin to a human, of whom it makes an object of superstitious worship, but for whom it has little sympathy.

Thursday, 24 November 2005

Fewtril #43

If you wish to fathom the ills of modern society, a good place to start is sociology; and once you have learnt from this mistake, you can begin to look at the matter seriously; and once you have looked at the matter seriously, you can then begin to take account of what is due to sociology.

Fewtril #42

Against what is usually said, it is not the Muslim but the Christian who must adapt to the reality of the Western order, in one way at least; namely in that if he wishes the liberal intelligentsia to pay respect and even obeisance to his religion, he should hold the threat of violence over those who do not; for time and again, our self-styled guardians of thought have shown themselves to be swayed less by argument and righteousness than by violence and power; for they are the quintessence of corrupt intellect and craven character.

Tuesday, 22 November 2005

Polly-Mathematical Misdemeanors

“Who do you believe?”, asks Polly Toynbee of The Guardian, echoing the question asked by a Mori Report to be published tomorrow. Hoping that we’ll believe her, she claims that,
[People] believe what they read more than what they see. . . . Only 3% of reported crime involves sex and violence, yet it accounts for 45% of crime in the press, so how can mere statistics win?
(Polly Toynbee, “It is New Labour, as much as the public, that lacks trust”, The Guardian, 22nd November 2005.)
In view of the first point, that people “believe what they read more than what they see”, one may indeed see some truth in this, though it must be added that it is no less true of the journalists and the literary types of North London; and moreover that such types are often more prone than others to the debilitating luxury of not believing what they do not see in their leafy suburbs or what they do not read in their hopeful political periodicals.
As for the second point, that violent crime is over-reported in the press when compared with other crimes, little could be more fatuous; for if the press were to give a statistically fair representation of crime in England and Wales, we should cease to hear about bombs on trains since we should be swamped by reports of teenagers stealing sweets.
Dealing with the matter of public trust in politicians and journalists, Ms Toynbee castigates both for their abuses, and singles out the staff of the Daily Mail as exemplary in its misuse of statistics, calling it “not stupid . . . just wicked”. But what of Ms Toynbee’s claim that, “Only 3% of reported crime involves sex and violence, yet it accounts for 45% of crime in the press”? She gives no source for her statistics (this itself is a misuse), and so we are left wondering if she made them up.
According to the Home Office Statistical Bulletin of July 2005, “Violent crime represented 22 per cent of all BSC [British Crime Survey] and 21 per cent of police recorded crimes in 2004/05” (Sian Nicholas, David Povey, Alison Walker, and Chris Kershaw “Crime in England and Wales, 2004/2005”. p. 15.), of which 5 per cent is accounted for by sexual offences (p. 77). The sexual offence statistics are subsumed as a subset of the violent crime statistics.
Precisely what Ms Toynbee means by her statistical category of “sex and violence” is unclear, however. If she means sexual offences alone (that is, sexual offences as a subset of violent offences), then these account for just over 1 per cent of police recorded crimes. (She cannot have analysed the statistics of sexual crimes from the British Crime Survey, for they are excluded therefrom.) If she has made an error, however, and means “sex or violence”, that is to say, all violent crimes including sexual offences in the category of violence, then the figures are as above (22% or 21%).
Whence then has Ms Toynbee derived her figures? Are they from the soon-to-be published Mori Report? She does not say. Has she made them up or merely muddled them? What is certain is that with Polly Toynbee as the sole arbiter, mere statistics cannot win. Nevertheless, the question remains whether this state of affairs is owing to stupidity or wickedness.

A Profound Sickness

Most mornings I like to peruse the pages of the Süddeutsche Zeitung, which, like many a German newspaper, is refreshingly tedious, being that it is comparatively free of the entertainingly idiotic opinions that infect all British newspapers. This morning, however, I was startled from my near-slumber, not by some indelicate pronouncement or brainless theorem, but rather by the following sober report by Alexander Kissler:
Ein gesunder Mann sucht einen Arzt, der ihm das Rückenmark durchtrennt, . . . [um] ‘[seine] innere Identität als Mensch mit einer Querschnittlähmung zu realisieren und somit psychische Heilung zu erlangen.’
(A healthy man seeks a doctor who will cut through his spinal cord . . . [in order] ‘to realise [his] inner identity as a human with paraplegia and thus to achieve mental healing.’)
(Alexander Kissler, “Mein Haus, mein Auto, meine Schwerstbehinderung”, Süddeutsche Zeitung, 22nd November 2005.)
The age-old maternal threat of “I’ll give you something to complain about in a minute” presumably held no sway over this man.

Monday, 21 November 2005

Sophistical Machinations: No.8 (Earnest Triviality)

With this trick the attempt is to have something accepted as important, which, without special pleading, pomposity, and earnest mugging, would be thought trivial.
Usually one descends upon a matter thitherto neglected in proportion to its triviality and proclaims its importance in inverse proportion thereto; so much so that often in the perennial search for originality by those insufficiently intelligent to make something both original and worthwhile, “the less it signifies, the more it qualifies” [1].
Being that the pitch of one’s proclamations of importance should increase in proportion to the smallness of the matter, the peak performance should be an hysterical screech of qualifying gibberish and a high whine of protestation; for undoubtedly one’s exultation of triviality will bring its detractors, in which case, sneering critics may be painted as part of a conservative-reactionary clique who would have important work marginalised in order to preserve the status quo.
It would do us all well to remember that nothing is so trivial that it cannot be taken seriously by an academic under pressure to publish.
[1] The phrase is not mine, and I cannot remember where I read it. I beg the pardon of its author.

Fewtril #41

If you wish to gain a true account of how moral principles might preserve integrity in politics, then there is no better person to ask than a politician. He won’t tell you the truth of course, but at least you’ll hear it from the horse’s mouth.

Wednesday, 16 November 2005

Ein Anschnauzer

“In diesen Tagen erinnert Europa manchmal an eine alternde Tante, die ihre zittrigen Hände um ihre letzten Juwelen legt, während ein Räuber gerade bei den Nachbarn einbricht. Europa – dein Familienname ist Feigheit.”
(“In these days, Europe is sometimes evocative of an aging aunt, who lays her palsied hands around her last jewels, while a burglar is breaking into her neighbour’s house. Europe – your surname is gutlessness.”)
Mathias Döpfner, “Europa – dein Name ist Feigheit”, Die Welt, 20th November 2004. (H/T: The Last Ditch.)

Bad News

Any television-viewer who can comfortably out-think an aubergine, without having to rely on pen and paper, must wonder at the state of the ITN Evening News. One must wonder at how a news-broadcaster, ostensibly finding its audience amongst a species bearing the honorific title sapiens, could pitch so low that even dogs might howl in derision.
Though I have become inured to its absurd sensationalism and idiotic simplifications, I am still exercised by its egregious abuse of the English language. Last night, for instance, it reported that Anthony Walker had been “bludgeoned to death with an axe”, which monstrosity might lead some to fear whether it is also possible to be axed to death with a bludgeon.

Tuesday, 15 November 2005

Fewtril #40

When one is stuck for a solution or an intelligent thought thereupon, and one would like to pretend otherwise; or when one is presented with a sensible solution from which one is ideologically averse, and one would like to have it obscured; then the phrase “We need more dialogue and debate” comes in very useful.

Monday, 14 November 2005


The complexity of the modern world presents us with questions and doubts that would hardly have occurred in the minds of our forebears. For instance, when we come across an eccentrically punctuated and ungrammatical rant, arbitrarily broken into a mess of lines singularly lacking in sense or aesthetic qualities, we have to decide whether it is the by-product of a disturbed and disordered mind largely unacquainted with the language in which it presumes to bother us, or it is a poem.
In many cases, our task is made easy because we have the author’s testimony that it is the latter, and being that we would do anything for an easy life, we tend to take the author’s word for it.
The acquiescence to this view, that an artefact is what the artificer tells us, is a simple proposed solution to a complex problem of definition, and it has advantages for the barbarian who wishes to make his way in this world: firstly, in that it is a simplification; secondly, in that it serves to display a thoroughly modern and sophisticated tolerance for things about which he couldn’t care less, for which boon he need expend no veritable generosity of mind; and thirdly, in that it applies to his own works.
If, then, we are to take to be a sufficient definition of poetry that it be a piece of writing, arbitrarily broken into awkward lines, singularly unconcerned with metre, grammar, beauty or sense, for which we have the author’s testimony that it is indeed poetry, then we have the potential to become truly a land of poets; for all we need do is persuade the vast numbers of semi-literate savages, for which this country does not want, to bestow the name of poetry upon any rubbishy scribbling of theirs. They could all produce trash of this calibre, for example:
Summer thoughts of icicles imprint
voices on the fibers of young skin.
License to use syllables is painted
topaz maybe maybe yarn perhaps gold.
She rinsed her mail in salt water
protectively left leaves to dry.
Night defined by memory elapses
into solo heat that self erases.
He moved where nobody would recognize
his penmanship and started signing checks.
Weeds in the new yard grew fresh and tall.
He, loving extension of his beard.
(Sheila E. Murphy, “Loving Extension Of” Lynx, XI:2, June, 1996.)
It would be wrong of me to describe this as having no intrinsic qualities. After all, it made me laugh, and I must give due credit for the provocation to the author’s work, as well as to my own merry soul. But we have only the context and the author’s word with which to decide that it ought to be described as a poem, rather than as an embarrassing case of logorrhoea.
It often appears that the only barrier to becoming a modern poet is an aesthetic sense of decency and rhythm; and even our very own Nobel laureate Harold Pinter has overcome this barrier to produce work that “proceeds to its own law and discipline” (Quoted by Martin Esslin, Pinter: The Playwright (London: Methuen, 1970) at

And after noon the well-dressed creatures come
To sniff among the dead
And have their lunch
And all the many well-dressed creatures pluck
The swollen avocados from the dust
And stir the minestrone with stray bones
And after lunch
They loll and lounge about
Decanting claret in convenient skulls

(Harold Pinter, “After Lunch”, online at
Should not such pap fill the heart of every talentless troglodyte with the stench of hope? For if this is poetry – and by our modern definition it is – then every man, woman and misbegotten child has the righteous claim to be a poet. But then, I suspect that that is the point.

Thursday, 10 November 2005

Fewtril #39

Journalists have developed a kind of sincerity beyond normal bounds, being that they are able to write what they do not believe and then believe what they read.

Wednesday, 9 November 2005

Fewtril #38

Even if by the mania for social progress we were to reach the highest possible expression of human society, it would not last long; for the mania would demand that there was still further to go.

An Instance of Desperate Defamation

In the intemperate pages of CounterPunch, (“America’s best political newsletter”, according to Out of Bounds magazine, but “America’s least sane rant-rag”, according to me), Alexander Cockburn makes a strong case for the weakness of his character:

Last year Brockes interviewed the black British poet, Benjamin Zephaniah after he refused an OBE. Towards the end of the piece, Brockes asked Zephaniah about what he was reading:

“I ask him what he is reading at the moment. ‘Chomsky’, he says. ‘I am always reading Chomsky.’

“I tell him I find Chomsky hard work. ‘Really?’ he says. ‘Really? That’s cos you ain’t got a Birmingham accent.’ And he throws back his head and brays like a donkey.”

This is a good illustration of a characteristic of many of these showcase interviews, where the interviewer sneaks in a kidney punch after the interview is over, when she’s safely back in the office. So the readers are left to warm their hands over the rancid and somehow racist snap of “brays like a donkey”.

Alexander Cockburn, “
Storm Over Brockes’ Fakery”, CounterPunch, 5th/6th November 2005.

Quite how “brays like a donkey” is racist is unknown to me, but then perhaps it is unknown to Mr Cockburn, who has to rely on the phrase “somehow racist” just so that he can pin the tail on the donkey, as it were.

Tuesday, 8 November 2005

A Lesson for Mobsters

With regard to the rioting in France, there has been much talk in our newspapers about how France might learn from Britain, whose progressive policies have partly satisfied the mob, principally by letting it run riot every weekend.
But we on this side of the channel might take from the events in France further support for a lesson that we have already learnt: namely, that if one wishes a democratic government to listen to one’s minority grievances, whether they be justified or not, then one is often best served by hurling petrol-bombs than by writing letters to one’s elected representatives.
Such extra-electoral deeds go against all the stated principles of democracy, of course, about which our government is ever keen to inform us, but it is a fact – regrettable though it be – that democratic governments often do not listen to minority grievances until forced to do so. This does not mean they will necessarily give in to force; indeed, if the force is small, or if fighting the force will bring advantages, or if there is no other choice but to fight, then our democratic governments will most probably fight without concession. If a threat is grave, however, and concessions can be granted to assuage it, concessions moreover that do not lose them power or prestige, then grant them they may.
Certainly the talk will be of never giving in, of granting no concessions to violence, of looking for peaceful and democratic solutions, but all the time they will be listening and weighing up the advantages and disadvantages of treating with it. One cannot reasonably deny after all, that, if the IRA had been a nationalist-republican knitting circle, then Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness would still be irksomely spitting sponge-cake and dropping stitches, instead of sharing power at Stormont.
On the other hand, it has been noticed that democratic governments do not tend to fear little old ladies, that is unless they form a majority or brandish Molotovs. And until such day as they do, their grievances – being of a peaceful minority – will not be treated as seriously as those of a majority or a violent minority.
One will not need the insight of a sage in order to notice over the next few years the concessions that the French Government will grant to its population’s violent minority; and one will need only the brains of a mobster to learn well the lesson therefrom.
(This post also appears at The Sharpener.)

Monday, 7 November 2005

Fewtril #37

One may fairly doubt whether the absurd claim that everyone’s views are right in his own way bespeaks tolerance rather than a desire to put one’s own views beyond question.

Wednesday, 2 November 2005

Pardon Us For Breathing

In order to soothe their rages, the mentally ill were once encouraged to weave baskets or daub canvases with crapulent depictions of their crazy dreams, but now, whether it is owing to a change in psychiatric theory or a lack of art-and-craft materials, there has been a remarkable increase in the number of loons writing letters to the newspapers, an example of which follows:
Sir: Thirty years ago the world population stood at 3 billion. Today the poor benighted planet accommodates 6.47 billion people - and all of us exhaling CO2 (not to mention hot air).

Leaving aside questions of the amount of CO2 produced in the course of manufacturing and selling the vast numbers of ridiculous products which we are told are now essential to our lives, what is the carbon emissions impact of 6.47 billion people merely breathing in and out, and what (if anything) can or should we do about that?
(Leandra Briggs, “Letters”, The Independent, 2nd November 2005.)
In an attempt to answer Ms Briggs’ last and most thought-provoking question, I suppose our very own Labour Government could ban breathing in public places, but, though some of its ministers might find the policy an exciting one, it would be hard to enforce, as would a breathe-slowly policy. Wholly impracticable would be a No-Breathing Friday, an impracticability which is to be regretted, because it would cut British emissions by 14.3 percent. Generally felt to be inhumane would be a cull-of-the-population policy, though, with a discriminating eye, the Labour Government would be able thereby to increase its share of the vote as well as reduce human carbon dioxide emissions, a “double-spanker” in Labourite ministerial terms. We could, of course, put pressure on those fat greedy Americans to reduce their lung-capacities, but we would first need to overcome that entrenched American prejudice that sees a lungful of air as fundamental to their way of life.
Now, if we cannot yet find a practicable and humane way to stop people breathing, then we’ll need to stop them breeding. This will at least hold emissions in check. And if we are to tackle this problem in earnest, we will need to implement a world-wide policy; for the majority of these billions of earth-damaging humans live and breathe in the Third and Second Worlds. In the Second World, the Chinese Government has already taken the lead by restricting births to one child per couple. Why not implement a similar policy in the Third World, enforced by the United Nations? Non-governmental organisations could also help, encouraging students in the First World to take gap-years in the Third World, where they might build cold showers in places such as Namibia, Sierra Leone or Sunderland.
If Ms Briggs is not seeking policies, however, but rather imploring us to make individual efforts of conscience, then perhaps she could set us an example and stop breathing. The gesture would be appreciated.

Tuesday, 1 November 2005


A cheery whistle is unlikely to dispel the shadows of a creeping despair, but at least it raises the sound of that apt spirit which feels duty-bound to stand fast and not let the buggers grind him down; for I should not like to give myself up to gloominess, preferring such whistles and cheerfulness that life can still foster; nor should I like to bring some gloom upon you; and yet after all this I must say that I find the prospects for England bleak.
In our crass and coarse land, even the mediocrity of a hundred years ago appears vaunted and out of the reach. Baseness has become the order of the day, and conformity thereto an imperative; for the herd can brook no extraordinariness when its sentiments rule; and now they begin to rule. There are few persons nowadays who do not share the herd’s mentality, and it is rarer still to meet a man who dares speak against it; for cowardice in the face of this vast multitude abounds, and any nobility of character that a man might still possess stands as an object for ridicule, and, if not brought to heel thereby, becomes an object for hatred.
But it is by a rank artifice that the herd’s base sentiments and resentments rule at all; for it was by provocation of such sentiments that the herd was first mustered and by which its continuing movement is maintained, carrying the careers and power-ambitions of nefarious persons.
Against this mass movement, little headway can be made. As Kierkegaard wrote, “To battle against princes and popes . . . is easy compared with struggling against the masses, the tyranny of equality, against the grin of shallowness, nonsense, baseness and bestiality.” (The Journals of Søren Kierkegaard, tr. & ed. by A. Dru, (London: Fontana Books, 1958), journal for 1854, p.234.) Few can or will struggle against this herd, the ease of conformity and the perverse sense of righteousness derived therefrom being too tempting to resist; and thus whatever the herd wreaks, whether it be ugliness, baseness or tyranny, it wreaks almost irresistibly.
Still, there’s no use blubbing and besnotting one’s blouse. One could do worse than heed an ancient exhortation: Hige sceal þe heardra, heorte þe cenre, mod sceal þe mare, þe ure mægen lytlað.