Loosening grip – a breath of air

Prince Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte – nephew of the Emperor Napoléon – was elected as the first President of France in 1848. History Today has the story – and it’s an interesting one, inasmuch as it contains pre-echoes of the most recent presidential elections … not only the French one, but also the American one. According to Richard Cavendish, Louis Napoleon “won one of the most remarkable victories in French history, though he had never held public office or distinguished himself in any worthwhile capacity.” Some considered him an ass; others called him a cretin. Cavendish reports that “Karl Marx sourly remarked that because Louis Napoleon was nothing, he could appear to be everything.” (Cavendish, 1998)

Macron and his wife, sourced from CNN, 12 May, 2017.

Macron and his wife, sourced from CNN, 12 May, 2017.

Aged forty years and eight months, Louis Napoleon was the youngest French president to assume office. That’s now no longer the case, of course: France’s new president, Emmanuel Macron, is 39. And his wife, Brigitte Trogneux, is 64. (“Emmanuel Macron,” 2017)

Macron’s victory was welcomed with a sigh of relief in Europe, according to the Financial Times, which offered analysis indicating that wealthier, better-educated, and optimistic voters had preferred Macron. In his victory speech, Mr Macron told the crowd Europe and the world were “watching us” and “waiting for us to defend the spirit of the Enlightenment, threatened in so many places”. See Sky News, 2017 (“World leaders react to Macron’s election win,” 2017)

But the election left the nation deeply divided. Pledging to “guarantee unity”, President Macron acknowledges he faces an immense task ahead. He plans to invest in job training, farming, transport, infrastructure, and healthcare. He intends to push for public service modernisation, greater efficiency in the health sector, and cuts to local authority spending. In contrast to Marine Le Pen, Macron does not envisage a France that shuts out immigrants and asylum seekers.

Both Macron and Le Pen represent outsider movements. In choosing Macron, an independent and a centrist, voters have turned their backs on the traditional conservatives and socialists – the Republicans, the National Front, the Socialist party, and La France insoumise (France unbowed). “France offers an extreme case of the populist wave against governing elites that is sweeping many nations,” explains Jonah D Levy, writing in the Washington Post. In short, it is the French establishment that has been rejected. And it would be a mistake for that establishment to view Macron’s win as evidence that they have avoided what unfolded for the UK and the US. (Levy, 2017)

David Cameron – Britain’s Prime Minister at the time of Brexit – had called the referendum with the intention of strengthening his political grip. Cameron didn’t want to leave the EU. The establishment of the day told itself there was no way the UK would leave the EU. The outcome was a total shock.

Broadly speaking, the result is explained in one of two ways. The first expresses a deep resentment of the migrants who have come to live in Britain. It is immigrants, we are told, who are responsible for lack of jobs, the escalating cost of living, and the dilution and pollution of British culture. It is seen as vital that Britain leave the EU. The voice for this anti-immigrant line was Nigel Farage, the driver of Ukip’s Brexit battle bus. A second explanation, and the one this blog favours, is that issues like employment and housing are social problems, responsibility for which rests with the establishment of the day. The real reason for the social and political complaints – Neoliberal politics – remains to be addressed.

On his Brexit tour of the UK, Jeremy Corbyn promised a Labour government would deliver a “a jobs first Brexit.” (Agerholm, 2017) His view is more complex than simply a yes or no to continued membership of the EU – and he has thus at times viewed Europe as a bit of a riddle.

Corbyn has consistently argued against the economic and political view that says “free market at all costs”. In 2015, he was unhappy with how the EU was handling the grinding austerity enforced upon Greece. He had wanted to build bridges with Europe in order to give support for labour – common workers’ rights, poverty reduction, and welfare. That outlook could be seen as a reason to stay in the EU – not leave. As things have worked out, Corbyn is embracing the decision to leave. Notice how a response to the austerity attitudes could just as easily have informed the view, “If that’s how you treat the labour force, I want nothing to do with such behaviour” – a reason to leave the EU.

Social and political change is not the product of disaffected white males inspired by violent right wing ideologies. Traditional Marxist theory argued the agents of social change were the proletariat – the working class. In sociology and economics, people suffering a condition of existence without predictability or security, affecting material and psychological welfare, have been dubbed the precariat. What is in front of us now is a new proletariat, a new group without an independent identity – and they are looking for a political voice. This is the subject of Guy Standing’s book, The Precariat. Recent events in the UK and America point to this nascent group’s struggle to shape the future. (Standing, 2016)

The explanation I’m offering here is unorthodox – but it is not an effort to say something radically new. I’m being loyal to a framework of ideas and perspectives that seems to have been pushed to one side in favour of notions that owe more to emotion and moral outrage than to facts. The reader might recall Stanley Cohen’s foundation text, Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers, published in 1972 and based on research he had carried out during the 1960s. I’m arguing that we haven’t yet finished with the sixties and seventies – and nor have we lost hope in the possibilities and aspirations envisaged in those days. (Cohen, 2011)

French philosopher Alain Badiou uses the term ‘event’ when discussing the idea of truth and truth-telling. (Badiou & Feltham, 2007) He argues that truth breaks through, interrupting the flow of history, insisting we see something, even briefly. For him, the loyalty to that event is central to truth-telling. My reading of Badiou is that he is a Marxist and that he wants to ground his thinking in an historical view. So for him, and for me, truth-telling incorporates both a remembering and a re-experiencing. Marxism insists on a loyalty to emancipation – primarily economic and social, but also sexual. The discourse here is not about sex, but about culture. The political and social battles in the UK, France, and America – and indeed, in New Zealand – are cultural battles. The hard left wants to make a big thing of gender, safe spaces, and legislated language (see Jordan Peterson and his stand in a Canadian university), but I’m viewing these things within a broader and deeper context. (Peterson, 2017)

The irony is that the media don’t seem to be serving us well; I view the newsmongers as pro-establishment, and pro-business. What they offer is a version of the establishment view, perpetuating the old conversation of identity politics – a crusade against ‘bad men’, under the banner of ‘social justice warriors’. But the players – in America, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, et al – are all caricatures. The narratives in which these characters play out their dramas are supposed to explain why things are the way they are – the good guys and the bad guys. My view differs from this.

I can’t pretend to stand outside the media, as if they have played no role in shaping my views. YouTube, the various news sources, and all kinds of media provide access to information and opinions. The ways in which the business community controls and defines how media functions in Western democracies give the possibility of free speech and, in complicated ways, also undermine it.

Slavoj Žižek saw the US election as a chance for change. “Slavoj Žižek Says He’d Vote Trump: Hillary ‘Is the Real Danger’” said the headline in Breitbart (Hahn, 2016) . Žižek was not pro-Trump; he predicted the Democrats would lose because their chosen leader had links with banks and big business which undermined the party’s ability to point to real change – to step back from Neoliberalism and close the gap between the rich and the poor. Hillary Clinton may well have talked about emancipation for gays and lesbians, an openness to immigrants, and the promotion of liberal agendas. In the end, her words were seen to be superficial.

In America the Democrats, the media, and a large part of the Republican movement regard themselves as the establishment. For this group, the arrival of Donald Trump at the White House has been a shock. The way things work is spelled out in the distinctive style and damaged profile of Donald Trump – the compulsive liar, the fondler of women’s bodies – and the struggle to establish a new, draconian feminism as the determinant of our political future.

Here we see an alliance between the media’s lurid version of current affairs and an emergent faction inside feminism. It is important to note that not all feminist voices are singing these songs. “The progressive, feminist politics of the American campus have become so extreme that they’ve become comical,” says Allum Bokhari in Breitbart (Bokhari, 2016). The headline of this piece reads: “Christina Hoff Sommers and Camille Paglia on Coddled Students and Fainting-Couch Feminists.” It’s not all funny, however; there’s a dark side. Modern identity politics are currently being driven by a third-wave feminist view that is intolerant, and Stalinist.

Sometimes the media, informed by this new ideology, insists on offering us a picture of Donald Trump as the most recent version of the dangerous male – a pussy-grabbing bully, shaped by the business world, but ultimately a woman-hater. As stated above, Slavoj Žižek was not pro-Trump. He advocated voting for Trump because he saw Clinton as the dangerous one.

So now, all three nations are on notice: in Britain, America, and France, people who see themselves as the victims of economic strategies which undermine the future for individuals and families are demanding change. Across western liberal democracies, and at every level, we see people suffering and angry. One can hear such voices within the worlds of the working class, the middle class, and the upper class.

Some French liberals feared their old enemy, the radical right. The old categories of political left and right don’t serve us well in analysing modern liberal democracies. More to the point is the disenfranchisement of a population who have lost their faith in the political process, and fear a future that includes temporary work contracts, ballooning debt, and a sense of disconnection from society and culture.

As was the case in the US, the French media have portrayed things differently, focusing on gender wars, the faults of men, and the rising radicalism of feminist factions – the style one observes here is of Stalinist intolerance, rather than assertive critical thought.

At this point, it might be worth acknowledging this post has devoted more attention than usual to political matters. My intention is in fact focused on the intricately interwoven sociological and cultural aspects of our current situation – hardly surprising, given my training and experience.

Although the French election result is widely regarded as good news, some have expressed concern – not about the flavour of Emmanuel Macron’s politics, but about the fact that his current partner, Brigitte Trogneux, was once a teacher at his former high school, where she ran the drama club. The young Emmanuel’s parents sent him to Paris to put a distance between the precocious fifteen-year-old and his drama teacher. Interestingly, two years later Emmanuel declared that she would one day be his wife. (Jordan, 2017)

These facts alter the way we interpret the simple observation that the age gap for the French couple is almost exactly the same as that between Donald Trump and his wife Melania – although in that instance the differential is the other way around.

There are indications that for some at least, age gaps are no big deal. Quoted in a pre-election story that appeared widely – including in the US, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand – Martine Bergossi, a Paris retailer, gives her view: “Why can’t we marry younger men? I date them all the time.” Mary Jordan, the Paris-based writer of the article, remarks, “[Macron is] a candidate young enough to be his wife’s son.”

The Sydney Morning Herald ran Mary Jordan’s story under a headline that highlighted “the social revenge factor” which the story, intending to offer its readers a little titillation, claimed delighted many French women – including Martine Bergossi – and added “a little ooh-la-la” to the presidential campaign.

It crosses my mind to wonder: Is this fresh focus on age disparate relationships something out of the blue? Does it perhaps offer an opportunity for change? But then I am reminded that this sort of thing is in fact not new. Wikipedia offers a discussion of age disparity and the ‘half your age plus seven’ rule of thumb, admitting that “Although the origin of the rule is unclear, it is sometimes considered to have French origin.” (“Age disparity in sexual relationships,” 2017)

The media are certainly not neutral on this matter. Over recent years, the opinion shapers have been reinforcing popular culture, emphasizing talk of the need to shift to more age appropriate couplings, and urging punitive hard-line condemnation of relationships which break the rule. But age disparate relationships have been de-facto ‘normal’ for a very long time, and while all the talk of age appropriateness unfolds, in the real world other stuff happens.

Some of my readers might at this point be asking: What about same sex couples? But there’s no talk here of two males or two females. In 2015, I posted a piece titled, “Still breaking rules, but that’s okay”, which discussed the relationship between Stephen Fry (at the time, 57) and his partner, Elliot Spencer (then 27). Stephen Fry boxed clever with this message, I believe, by publishing two volumes of memoirs, in which he dealt frankly with all the ‘stuff’ about himself. “This is me, like it or lump it,” he seemed to be saying. (Hooper, 2015)

Interestingly, British commentators persisted in talking about him as likely to receive some kind of award or honour, validating his role in British society and culture as a leading voice to be taken seriously. Fry’s recent skirmish with the Irish Catholic establishment over ‘blasphemy’ is just another example of his readiness to push back against the challenges which crop up from time to time – things he regards as tattered emblems of the old establishment, outmoded relics worthy of being unceremoniously dumped. (Bell, 2017).

It is interesting to note both the British couple (Fry and Elliot) and the French couple (Macron and Trogneux) are the recipients of public approbation. This encourages me to suggest again that, at least for now, relationship age gaps are not as important as some might have thought.

Currently I live in a Western liberal democracy. I understand, and value, the contribution pop culture and news media make to our lives. But they are too close to business, and too deeply enmeshed in some of the negative aspects of society. They are part of the establishment that needs to change, an establishment that is in denial, and that resists change. I see the American Democratic party behaving just this way.

Since the election the media has provided endless stories of the evils of Donald Trump, and little acknowledgement that the Democratic party has participated in and contributed to a country where the gap between the rich and the poor has never been greater. On the evening when the American election result became clear Hillary Clinton retreated to her bedroom, refused to acknowledge that outcome, and went to bed. This symbolic act of denial still represents the Democratic party beyond the first 100 days.

Looking at the media’s comparisons of the American couple and the French couple … in both cases, the age difference is roughly the same – about 24 years. Whilst one term for an older man in a relationship of this sort is “silver fox” – or “silver daddy”, in the case of a gay man – it didn’t take long for the Western liberal media to start portraying Donald Trump with a subtext that inferred ‘bad guy’.

For some time now, in media pieces, age appropriate relationships have been couples whose ages were very close, whilst age disparate relationships – sometimes the gap is 20 years or more – were a matter of concern, even suspicion. The ideology of appropriateness spreading through our media seems in fact to be at odds with the choices people make when forming relationships. Nevertheless the promoters of prescriptive views are determined: “we tell it like it is,” they cry.

For many people the media seems more real than their own lives, and their day-to-day experiences less significant. It might be worth questioning the establishment and the media, worth holding them to account for the way things are. What seems to be unfolding is the ‘real’ they promote is being replaced by a real that breaks through. The voices of age gap couples – in Britain, France, and America, in straight worlds and in gay – are being listened to, and are receiving social support. Let’s see where this takes us. Age gaps are not bad by definition, nor are men the source of all that is dark and dangerous. To those whose lives include relationships across generations – men or women, heterosexual or same sex – see yourself as very much ordinary, normal, a valued part of a diverse society. We live in interesting times.

Curiously, the feminists, who regard themselves as liberal, have begun to occupy positions vacated by the old guard – the establishment. They do not approve of Donald Trump, any more than they approve of the flow of unvetted speakers onto University campuses. The prospect of enshrining in legislation a set of rules concerning appropriate and inappropriate pronouns (this is Jordan Peterson again) is of a piece with attempts to restrict who people fall in love with.

There are times when the establishment, with its PC arguments, could do with not merely an update, but a vigorous challenge. Britain, America, and France are really sharing a theme here: the establishment and the media are being given a push back. In the UK it was not really about the immigrants; the establishment had made ordinary people’s lives difficult and voters wanted that to stop. In America, as well, it was less about the bad guy and the angry white males – lots of women supported Trump. No, here too was anti-establishment anger. The Democrats and Clinton had made deals that the American population did not trust. As in Britain, human misery had maxed out.

In France, too, the push-back against the old guard has been accompanied by a sense of fresh hope. Macron wants to rebuild France – reminding me of Donald Trump’s pledge to “make America great again”.

These days, in a Western liberal democratic setting, people often can’t imagine that a sexually expressed intergenerational friendship can be regarded as positive – “it’s just not on”. An adult in such a relationship can’t be doing a good thing or being a good person. Asked why, many people would find it difficult to explain. For those who look at both how we talk and what we talk about, there is the notion of “rules of discourse”. Without going into great detail, it can be observed that in terms of discourse, one cannot talk about the emancipation of the minor attracted person and at the same time talk about care of the young. I’m willing to break those rules.

What I’m seeking to comment on here is the rare situation where the rules of that discourse are that you can speak about one or other but not both together. So three couples – Macron and his partner, Trump and his partner, and Stephen Fry and his partner – are being talked about as important and socially valued relationships, and at the same time are age disparate and sexual. The point here is that the discursive rules are obliged to give way to the real. It was ever thus. For many people the view that is considered impossible has become so strongly felt that it is experienced as having always been that way. Factually, it has not. In my thinking, I am not insensitive to people’s strongly held views, but seeing the structure of how those rules have been built up, I’m freer to break them … or perhaps I only need to bend them.

During the 1950s the discourse about “sexual perversions” and psychologically dangerous individuals was conflated with the discourse about homosexuality. Behavioural psychology and its stimulus/response paradigm became the preferred discourse when talking about sexual minorities. The modern gay man and woman have successfully extricated themselves, and as if to not leave this social position vacant, it has been filled by the sex abuser/pedophile. Stanley Cohen, in early editions of his book on Folk Devils, observed that the dangerous individual was the young black male – a threat to the white man’s daughter. It seems to me Cohen’s stereotype has now been replaced by the dangerous middle class white man – the pedophile. 

Deleuze makes a challenging comment regarding modern life and the social position of the person who is labeled mentally ill. Individuals who are ‘marginal’ – as in the case of schizophrenics – can be seduced to live as if they are off to one side, isolated, so different as to belong there. At times the minor attracted person has a similar experience. Deleuze’s advice is to reject that isolation. The way forward is to stress our connectedness to others.

When writing about sexuality and the profile of Stephen Fry and his relationship with Elliot Spencer I offered a similar view. A discourse where one’s urges are the centre of one’s dialogue/interrogation at the hands of those who demand ‘talk’ is problematic.  Minor attracted persons find themselves being told to stop urges and to stop his or her desires as if they are different in kind from everyone else. The truth is they aren’t different – desire as one finds it lodged inside the text of literature and poetry is at the heart of who we are and – for everyone – understanding this is vitally important. The modern gay man and the lesbian in Western culture are no longer interrogated as if they are off to one side – they have been normalised – my view is the minor attracted person needs to stress their connectedness to others, and not allow themselves to be isolated and dehumanised.

Because we are at a time when we are sensitive to or captured by the talk of child abuse and the exploitation of the young, we are being sold the view that “the only way to solve these problems” is we can and must erase all age disparate relationships.

People are being told to manage their sexuality, I would suggest – as if it is only an issue of ‘sexual urges’. It might be more precise to say the targets of these messages are those we are unhappy about. When we view people this way we assume – wrongly, I believe – that we understand them in depth. We are most likely to end up with a better understanding of people – who they are, what they’re about, and how they manage their desires – only if they’re free to talk with us, on their terms. To sharpen this point even more, I argue this is equally true with regard to self-knowledge. What’s on offer right now is, can the view I’m offering here gain a foothold? Can the minor attracted person become someone we dialogue with rather than someone we interrogate?

I argue the establishment, as freshly reconfigured, is making determined efforts to insist their ideological views be the only guides to how we live, and who we choose to live with – and love. Which makes it crucial that we pay attention to our actual choices. I don’t think the hard-line feminists and their Stalinist intolerance will be the last word. What I look forward to is more evidence the 1960s and 70s have indeed not finished with us – and that we will reject hate and vote for love.

Details:

Still breaking rules, but that’s okay

Stephen Fry and Elliot Spencer

Stephen Fry and Elliot Spencer (Sourced at entertainment.ie.)

Stephen Fry and Elliot Spencer are married. It seems unlikely either man will read my blog but that is the myth of modern celebrity isn’t it? – the proximity of those who are famous – the modern celebrity seems close to us, almost familiar. In earlier  times fame meant distance, not closeness. In keeping with that modern feel I can send out a message of congratulations to them both as if I might meet them at the supermarket next time I buy my fruit and vegetables.

My next comment probably has both men in mind, but Stephen is its focus. For two persons of such differing ages to be sexually intimate – and be very public about that – is not typical of our time. I am not saying Stephen Fry is ‘one of those bad types’. There is a rule of thumb which asserts a partner ought not be younger than ‘half your age plus seven’. Stephen Fry is 57, so by that rule his sexual partner should be older than 35 (approx.); Elliot Spencer is 27. It is my assumption this rule applies to Elliot as well – he isn’t meant to go for those older guys – a partner can as easily be too old as too young.

Let me say it again, no way am I hinting that Stephen is ‘minor attracted’, and yet the discourses of sexual assault, child abuse, negative narratives about what male culture is perceived to promote, all position Stephen Fry badly. For all that his profile is doing fine; he is even viewed by some commentators as likely to get the nod from upper-class English society for some honorary title in the near future. Truth is some see him as a darling of the British public – the British Royal Family included. Where I sourced that view was listening to John Crace’s podcast for The Guardian, he discussed this very point we taking of Stephen Fry’s new book – More Fool Me.

So has Britain turned the corner on tolerance to the older man who is attracted to the young, where the guy’s interest is younger than ‘half your age plus seven’? No, I don’t think so. A New Zealand woman – Justice Lowell Goddard – has just been appointed to head a British inquiry into child sex abuse in British society, aimed right at the very group of people a chap like Stephen Fry is likely to do his local shopping with – the upper class of England. No, what Stephen – and very likely Elliot as well – have done is to manage their profile. I argue they have done this because they understand what has changed inside Western culture and have kept all that negative stuff at arms length.

What sits at the centre of what is offered here is sociological, not psychological. I can actually take a middle position here and say I find a psychoanalytic discourse more helpful here than the text so often offered by psychology. Desire is a very broad category and a very ‘thick’ one – there is a lot to consider when using the term ‘desire’. When discussing or viewing the desire of the minor attracted person one is not looking at some kind of desire different from what is so readily acknowledged by the adults who view the sex they experience as ordinary.  I argue desire is this aspect of the human condition that everyone has as part of who they are – straight, gay, minor attracted – it’s all desire and its all part of who a person is. In my view the term ‘sexual orientation’ is a modern term that attempted to convey this radical and fundamental equality and ‘sameness’ that can be understood to unite the gay and the straight worlds – this term carries the message we are all in the same boat.  I am saying the boat has more than two people in it.

To gloss over this issue without making an effort to say what I mean would be a mistake, but I also know the value of being precise. There is a need to speak briefly rather then offer long paragraphs.  It is my view the language used to speak about what we experience has been influenced in recent decades by a reductionist view of the person. Sex and desire has become merely stimulus and response; sexual life is viewed more and more as the management of mechanical bits. People are being told to manage their sexuality as if it is only an issue of ‘sexual urges’. Actually that view is itself problematic. Why all this matters is because the minor attracted person finds themselves being told to stop urges and to stop his or her desires as if they are different in kind from everyone else. The truth is they aren’t different – desire as one finds it lodged inside the texts of literature and poetry is at the heart of who we are and – for everyone – understanding it is vitally important.

Thus when attempting to see what has gone on for this celebrity gay British couple it is not about what desire is allowed to have our social/cultural support – gay and straight get a thumbs up; minor attraction gets a thumbs down; it is about how sociological shifts have unfolded over time and how Fry and Spencer have managed their profile. Both know how desire feels – they  have fallen for each other. What is clever, and I think it has been a matter of being smart, both men have worked to prevent their profile being spoiled (to use Irving Goffman’s term).

Let us unpack things even more.  A Western philosopher writing in the distant past was read, even admired, but there was no expectation for that person to write about their sex life. There are those who will say they know what Socrates and Plato were, sexually, but in reality this says more about the readers than it does about the philosophers.  The two men’s private lives were not seen as warranting our investigative gaze. Move closer to our time – say Emanual Kant – and I would say never in any of the writings about his philosophical views are Kant’s sexual interests referenced. However by the time we get to Jean Paul Sartre we see a shift. The relationship between Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir is an important part of how Sartre is read as a philosopher and an author. Come even closer to today and this year one of the films nominated for a film award is about  Stephen Hawking.  The modern biography references things we would never expect to be told about Kant. A good read that documents this shift and these features of modern Western society is Erving Goffman’s book, Stigma: Notes on the management of a spoiled profile.

Where the modern biography – and even the notion of a profile – gets interesting is when one has a negative bit, a fact or factor that might be construed as bringing the person’s reputation into question. Take Martin Heidegger for example.  His links to the German Nazi movement are often pointed out when commenting on his work and assessing its credibility; not all commentators will reference the matter, but there is no surprise when the connections are discussed.  In a very different field we have the example of Richard Wagner and how Jewish feeling against him and his music can be very strong because of particular features of his profile.

The ‘modern’ way to manage this sort of thing is to actually put it out there early  to acknowledge the difficult bit, and not attempt to hide it. Where a person offers a profile and later a difficult bit surfaces, one’s audience feels ‘wronged’ somehow, the reaction against the person can be very strong. What I am saying here is that, in our modern ways of thinking and behaving, we seem to have shifted what we consider privacy involves. One gets the feeling that, for a celebrity, privacy is simply not something this person has a right to.  The profile of the sex offender is actually a kind of modern-day criminal celebrity.

To date, Stephen Fry has published three books that make up his ongoing narrative about himself. It is more memoir than biography. It is my belief Fry has rightly understood how this is all done.  Pulling no punches, his latest volume – More Fool Me – details his use of cocaine as a younger man, putting out so much ‘stuff’ for us to consume that it seems like oversupply, a surfeit.  In a sense we are shock-proofed regarding who he is as a person. I had considered buying Fry’s latest book about himself but after reading the reviews I am reluctant to do it because it all seems just too much. I argue it is this rather novel way of  putting himself out there that has allowed him to retain his on-going social and cultural position as ‘the darling of modern England’ and at the same time self-narrate himself as an admirer/lover to another who is very much his junior. A classic case of “still breaking rules, but that’s okay”.

I will close this post by making a brief comment on the inquiry Justice Lowell Goddard has been set up to lead. Goddard is not the first person to be put in this role, the first two leaders having been obliged to resign. What is significant is the new feature this body has – statutory powers to compel a person to appear before it and answer questions. In America’s past Joseph McCarthy and his links to the House Un-American Committee have become an icon for what can be called state ‘over-reach’. I can imagine the notion of loyalty to America and the stigma of being thought ‘a danger to the American dream’ is not too far from what the modern day call to rally around the flag of the fight to oppose sexual abuse of children has come to be for us. I am, of course, not wishing to denigrate national loyalty to one’s country – in this case America – any more than appear to be dismissive about the need to address how children can be treated terribly by adults. It is my perception that England is very much in the grip of a process that is a very serious indeed. It is my hope, of course, that the statutory powers this current inquire now has will be exercised with care. The last thing we need is for the specter of Joseph McCarthy to walk amongst us.

Justice Lowell Goddard is one of sixty three New Zealand judges who have been ranked in 2014 and the results posted on the Kiwi First website.  What follows are comments that flow from three items found on this site.

  • The first article offers its version of how that ranking of New Zealand judges was done – “… sixty-three judges in total were ranked, based upon their melded average score of four factors, on a scale of 1 to 10; perceived intelligence, fairness, knowledge of law and personal character.” What is noteworthy is Goddard sits at the lowest slot on that list.
  • In another piece on the same Kiwi First website Goddard is profiled and the picture is far from comforting. It seems best a reader go look at what is said for themselves. What seems a common perception of her is put in this sentence found on the site – “Lawyers who appear before Justice Lowell Goddard generally have little regard for her as a judge who is willing to conform to law or to rule consistent with relevant facts.  They are far more impressed with her impeccable dress and makeup.”
  • The most damning statement, and the author of this web item links what is said directly to the new appointment of Justice Goddard to the UK role, the comment is made –”her due diligence determined lawyers in New Zealand broadly consider Ms Goddard a political puppet.”

Justice Goddard is presented by some in very different images in the media items that come to us via our televisions and the radio. That is on its own a real source of concern. If the internet can offer such a significant set of criticisms of her and yet the mainstream media are silent on any of this then I find myself asking why. This move in England to set up this inquiry is significant and I am convinced a thoughtful and critical eye needs to be kept on what unfolds.

DETAILS:

Historic sex abuse cases

Taken from piece in MailOnline (See below for details).

Taken from piece in MailOnline, Source details/link given below.

Recently the British media offered yet another example of how things work for them and for us when telling a story. The news item was about Chris Denning and how he has been put in prison, again, for sexual abuse of the young. In this blog piece I am not writing about how they got it right or got it wrong; what interests me is the experience of the processes that typically shapes a historic sex assault case in countries like England, America, and yes New Zealand 2014/15. People may find these historic sex cases difficult and ‘annoying’ but in a way they are very much how we are as a society.

What are often referred to as historic sex charges involve allegations an adult has broken laws when the actions taken are very much in the past; in Chris Denning’s case the period was some thirty years ago – during the 1970s and 1980s. When events are located in the past they are rendered via our gaze, our looking back. How that rendering is done is what this post will seek to discuss.

Many fail to understand this process which generates feelings of betrayal and anger. This experience is not only possible for those who believe a child or youth has been sexually abused, it can also be how those who identify with the accused can experience the process.

Working with accounts of past events is hardly a new riddle to unpack. In my past professional life working with religious texts was central to what I did and through this work I have become familiar with how language and interpretation of items which sit in our past has been at the centre of fierce social debates. Religious texts are a central part of society, and have been so for our culture for as long as we have records.  In my lifetime I can see how working with texts has been shaped by discussions inside literary studies, philosophy, psychology, put briefly all the knowledge fields have had a say about how such texts can be rendered – the process is on-going. What I argue here first came into view for me because these ways of thinking were deployed when discussing accounts of early Christianity, and now I can see the very same ideas impact on how one does history and how one constructs a text for a law court – text is everywhere; in a radical sense, all texts are shaped by the same processes – they are made, read, and rendered.

For a time there was a belief we could, with discipline, retrieve an account of the past that was freed of our prejudices and such accounts could be seen as stable. I recall reading Michel Foucault argue such a discipline sits at the heart of what an intellectual and the academic world is tasked to do. In Religion this discipline was discussed under the headings of hermeneutics and exegesis. In our current time one of the interesting differences between the Muslim and Christian traditions  is how Christianity has found a new sense of itself by allowing these literary tools to help the reader discuss and access the texts Christians see as important to them. Muslims see their texts – often shared texts with the Christians – as important to them as well; however they have so far resisted bringing together the discussions that live inside secular discussions of literature, history, and philosophy and their readings of the Koran. From where I am now I see both what Foucault was arguing for – a disciplined accessing of the past and a rendering of that as an object of study – and a different set of readings shaped by postmodernism. Simply put we understand that we are continuing to tell ourselves stories and that this is just what we do.

For those readers who are unfamiliar with religious texts or just prefer a secular example for a discussion of how to write and how to read let’s look at modern literature. Nineteen Eighty Four by George Orwell is a tale many of us are familiar with and it provides an interesting way of pointing to some of the debates focused on what is history and how to approach accounts offered to us about the past. The novel by Orwell is clearly a caricature and through the story we are offered pointers about ‘truth-telling’. I argue here that to point to an object is to imply its opposite. Orwell’s novel offers, along with it’s fictional tale, a belief we can do history. He shows us as a reader there are ways we use to decide how and if an account offered to us is legitimate. Orwell’s novel refers to institutions, social practices, and a view of knowledge where the reader can see these accounts of the past are reworked and rejigged – the principles of newspeak. At the very same time as this is offered to the reader its opposite sits silently in the background; accounts of the past can be rendered that are trustworthy.

Orwell and Foucault are not the only names to throw into the ring when discussing how accounts can be assessed. Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard spring to mind, and whole groups as well, Marxists, the French Nouveau Philosophies of the 1970s, Feminists, religious factions, pop and media culture, the list is extensive. The point is not so much who is right in some absolute sense, the issue is how accounts are made, read, the rules that govern discourse. We have in such a short space of time shifted how we decide what can be trusted when making judgements about any account we view inside Western culture.

In the mid-1970s television became a new way authors could access their readers. The old pathways of legitimation were pushed to one side as a TV interview with an author was capable of moving a book from obscurity to being a best seller. Now, 2015, it can be argued this is what is happening with the Internet, and why the media cultures which have become so central to how we live have become so powerful. Engage a person or a group in a debate inside these spaces and one has the sense one has lost control of what might happen. The rule has become ‘enter these spaces at your own risk’. It is my view those in the academic world, and in the legal spaces as well, share a common failing. The features of pop-culture and the world of media are often under-estimated in how these spaces gives expression and direction to both who we are and who we are becoming.

Our legal courtrooms are no exception to what is being argued here. A court of law may well task itself with the business of finding out what happened in the past, involving the competing claims made by prosecution and defence. In fact two things are happening, we can see how we both want to believe we can get to the truth – that the past can be a rendered as an object we can view and make judgements about – and we are aware of how constructed our accounts of life are. The picture is, for all this complexity, still incomplete.

Michel Foucault has argued discourses have rules. You cannot say just anything, not just anyone can speak. Where one is looking at a case like that of Chris Denning the rules in play block the very possibility of speaking inside the legal spaces as if he is ‘just like us’ – at the heart of the profile of the sex offender is how his humanity is not to be ‘believed’, any more than one would be free to construct an account of Osama Ben Laden as ‘just like us’.

Where an adult has had sexual relations with the young, and those relationships violate our laws about sex with the young, efforts to reconstruct the past as it may be understood by the adult involved are unlikely to succeed. Notions of friendship, consent, love, they are all blocked. Because of the rules that govern current discourse – to use Foucault’s way of viewing this process – one is not able to speak and in a sense that past the accused has in their head never happened. The rules Foucault speaks of are fluid, ever changing, and some spaces operate differently than others. The law court, the media spaces, blog sites, a discussion at a pub, a talk in our homes with friends, all offer different rules, but there are patterns, blockages – ‘you can’t say that …’, templates.

In a way analogous to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four what we have that guides our lives is both a textual process governed by rules, and its opposite. It is not as if, in an objectively real sense, what Chris Denning as an convicted sex offender has had as a set of experiences has been made to disappear.  With discipline one might well reconstruct an account Denning could look at and say, yes, that is what happened. However the tale we tell ourselves about those who have sexual contact with the young has a template that is dark, condemnatory and punitive. Yes, sexual assault does happen in the sense that unwanted sexual encounters take place, exploitation is a component of our social relations as people. My point is many do find the historic sex case difficult to experience because of all of what I am unpacking here, especially the person standing in the dock. (What contributes to this experience is far more than the simplistic question ‘Did you do it?’; to pose the question ‘What happened? is more open.)

As a closing remark let me say the blog discussion offered by Tom O’Carroll about the Chris Denning case is an interesting rendering of the past. It includes many bits that are unlikely to ever find themselves living inside the courtroom. Hopefully someone will find a way to allow Denning to view that discussion, he might enjoy the read.

DETAILS:

Children in art, have they become one of today’s problems?

ovenden paintingThree pieces from the Guardian caught my eye this week. All were about Graham Ovenden.  Jonathan Jones fronts the Guardian’s view with theory, we are then offered an update by Charlotte Higgins letting us know the Tate Gallery was removing some of Ovenden’s work from public view and adding that his conviction involving  underage girls cast his work in a new light. A couple of days later the Guardian asked us to vote.

On the 2nd of April Jonathan Jones (writes on art for the Guardian) discussed how the Ovenden case related to art – “Graham Ovenden: artist thrived among 1970s self-conscious decadence.” A day later Charlotte Higgins (chief arts writer for the Guardian) notified readers that the Tate had removed a number of Ovenden’s pieces from public view – “Tate removes Graham Ovenden prints after indecency conviction offering as an explanation.” Higgins’ text offered up the following comment: Ovenden’s conviction  “‘shone a new light’ on his work.” On the 5th of April the Guardian invited readers to vote  – “Should the Tate have removed Graham Ovenden’s prints?” At the time this page was viewed the vote had just closed (11.00am, Monday 8 April, 2013). Reader opinion had the spread, 55% (yes) and 45% (no). This outcome offers up the view the Tate’s decision to remove Ovenden’s work is a highly contested move.

As a New Zealander, reading these pieces has been to experience déjà vu. In July 2012 a local artist, Brendan Nolan, with a profile considerably smaller than that of Ovenden, had his work treated the same way by the authorities – three artworks ‘taken down’. One was a set of gates he made for Paekakariki School; the second was a tui sculpture at Paraparaumu Beach (a tui is a species of bird native to New Zealand); the third was a painting on public display at the local library. It is unclear whether the painting was removed by the council, or by the library. The  New Zealand Herald did not make this clear. The news story does state the school gates and the scupture were removed by the Kapiti Coast District Council.

Both in the Ovenden case and the Nolan case, explanations were given why their art was taken out of public spaces. In New Zealand Councilor Tony Lester said, “The decision to take the sculpture down was not a hard one to make.” Since the art items Nolan had created were not of children I read Lester’s message as ‘this action to remove this man’s art from a position of social prominence is because he is a sex offender/pedophile. That point of view deserves critical thought.

There is a point of difference between the New Zealand case and Ovenden’s. Higgins’ Guardian piece refers of images of children – artworks removed from public view included “a screen-print that features an image of a young naked child.” She argues Ovenden is positioned differently because of how he exploited the girls whom he had made of his work. I am not blocking the idea that Ovenden will move to the position Nolan finds himself in, that his social stigma as a pedophile will finally be the explanation offered for why his art is no longer of value.  At this point in time The Guardian pieces seem to offer a message slightly different from the one that lives inside media reports of the New Zealand case of Brendan Nolan.

Jonathan Jones’ Guardian story was the first comment on the Ovenden case that caught my eye. It appeared to be talking about art, but my view is this is illusory. What is offered is a view that attempts to say we are modern and new in our views; older views are suspect. What Jones does in how he writes is to allow morality to be central to his view without acknowledging that this is the case.

Jonathan Jones is attempting to do something very much in step with our time – he wants to stand just outside the modern, that period in our recent past that is in his words “dead”. Philosophical commentary refers to that earlier way of thinking as a ‘grand narrative’ style. An important issue here is how modernism offers up its notion of authority. Its narrative was more than just any old story, it offered up an account that was used as a benchmark. The school of thought next to emerge in Western thought takes issue precisely with this point of authority. This ‘post-modern’ view is not a single view, it is more a collection of views which together question issues like those of authority and explain why we are comfortable with changes in opinion and fashion. Ideas now can come and go, be different from each other, and that mix is not necessarily a problem for us.

Jones further points to this past dead item as the artistic perspective of the Victorian era. He links the term ‘Victorian’ to the notion of decadence (a term he no doubt sees as negative for both him and his reader). He makes these moves in his opening sentences  – “Tastes change. In art as in clothes, the cool new thing of today may look repellent and absurd in the future.” Right from the start Jones positions us, with himself, as inside the post-modern. Our cultures and our views (including those of art) are fluid and changeable; they are not the grand narrative of the past, which saw itself as stable and unchanging.

It is here that I suggest caution – there is a twist.  Jones is saying, to be us is to have a ‘more advanced sensibility’. But here is his twist: our ability to see the dark side. Jones suggests, but does not state openly, for him there is a moral absolute. It is hinted at, its existence disclosed, via child nudity and the pedophile (the term pedophile is not stated, none the lesss it is an identity offered up as Ovenden’s real self that Jones’ text depends on). It is this philosophical position that images are not dark in and of themselves. It is in  the linkage between an image and its viewer that this darkness becomes palpable. I do not see Jones arguing here that Ovenden alone is his concern. For Jones the concern is that linkage of Ovenden to his images of girls. Jonathan Jones’ article is not, in my view, merely about Ovenden’s identity and profile. No it’s about a perspective, a way of seeing.

In addition to how Jones wants to position Ovenden’s art, he also offers an unacknowledged blending of the post-modern and the modern. He wants a dollar each way. Why, you might ask. My guess is he wants to lay claim to that quality of authority – this view is more than mere opinion, this is the view, this is how it is, this is how it is for all of us, this is how it is for all time. It is this situation where an argument appears to offer up openness, an acknowledgement that past claims of authority are now invalid, to suggest we are more open, and less controlled by others … And yet  that new argument shuts the door to future debate.

Notice, I am not swayed by the inclusion of a simple yes/no vote that has been offered by the Guardian.  If anything that kind of vote is more an invitation for prejudice and emotion to control debate, rather than some idea of democracy. What I look for is the exposure of the structure of people’s thinking, to lay it bare and then reflect.

The structure of Jones’ thinking can also be read in his links to other texts. He does not say why Charles Dodgson, author of Alice in Wonderland; Nabokov, author of the novel Lolita; and select characters in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, are scary and dark. No, he anticipates the reader will nod in agreement that these figures are scary and dark. And leaves it there – they are for him his fixed points – they are not free to be moved or viewed differently by some future age or from within the diversity of a post-modern universe. It is significant he argues simply that they are dark and scary. It is just an act of pointing, and a seeking support from the reader.

Ovenden, we learn from Higgins’ piece in the Guardian, will be treated in the same way as his images. Both will not to be before our eyes and amongst us – Ovenden’s art has been taken down; he will disappear into prison spaces. One notes the images taken down by the Tate played no role in Ovenden’s conviction.

No doubt other people too are uneasy about the Tate’s decision to take down some of Ovenden’s work. Some, like me, will have questions both about what is art and what is just. Jones rather cleverly acknowledges this by using the term hero when referring to Ovenden. Inside the art community, Jones tells us Ovenden is “a star of the dawning post-modern age”, but  he immediately knocks this down because he tells his readers Ovenden is also a person who takes pictures of naked girls, a man whose internal life is “deeply worrying and bizarre”.

I am not convinced by the contributions of Jones or Higgins, nor do I trust the Guardian’s yes/no vote will put my sceptical soul to sleep. I live in New Zealand. The morality of our culture and the stigma of pedophilia are in some sense closer to the surface. Councilor Tony Lester’s words can be paraphrased this way, “The decision to take down artwork of a sex offender/pedophile is not a hard one to make.” That is most definitely a cultural perspective – a deeply felt one for some – but remember we have come to see the post-modern perspective may indeed be right – nothing is absolute, authority is more complex than the words “I told you so, therefore it must be true.”

References:

Blundell, K. (2012, 27/06). School gates created by sex offender removed [Newspaper]. In Stuff.co.nz (News/Kapiti). The Dominion Post(Online Story). Retrieved 7 April, 2013, from http://www.stuff.co.nz/dominion-post/news/kapiti/7181199/School-gates-created-by-sex-offender-removed

Higgins, C. (2013, 03/04). Tate removes Graham Ovenden prints after indecency conviction. In http://www.guardian.co.uk (Tate Britain). The Guardian(Online Story). Retrieved 3 April, 2013, from http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2013/apr/03/tate-removes-graham-ovenden-prints

Jones, J. (2013, 2/04). Graham Ovenden: Artist thrived among 1970s self-conscious decadence [Newspaper]. In http://www.guardian.co.uk (Crime). The Guardian(Online Story). Retrieved 2 April, 2013, from http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2013/apr/02/graham-ovenden-artist-1970s-decadence

Communities tear down sex offender’s artwork [Newspaper]. (2012, 02/07). In http://www.nzherald.co.nz (National). The New Zealand Herald(Online Story). Retrieved 05/04, from http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10816808

Should the Tate have removed Graham Ovenden’s prints? [Online Newspaper]. (2013, 05/04). In http://www.guardian.co.uk (Comment is free). The Guardian(Online Story). Retrieved 7 April, 2013, from http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/poll/2013/apr/05/tate-removed-graham-ovenden-prints-conviction

On drinking hemlock: Is there a better way?

The Death of Socrates

The Death of Socrates (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Readers who are familiar with the account of how Socrates ended his life may appreciate how strange that story seems. Socrates faced a trial that many saw driven by trumped-up charges. (The Trial of Socrates, 2013) What Socrates chose to do was met with puzzlement by his friends. For modern readers that sense of puzzlement may be even stronger – Socrates had decided to drink hemlock (a poison) and end his life. He clearly believed Greek civilization was parent to everything else, if it made mistakes, then it was simply part of the overall grand story, and through dialogue and time the good and the truth would come out. Society would become better, more ethical, all that was needed was to be a good citizen and to be loyal to those who ruled you.

We live in a different world, for us no civilization can call itself a parent, all societies and cultures are human communities, no culture has a privileged place. Privilege is an illusion when it comes to human values, no justice system in our time can claim to be absolute. (McDowell & Webb, 2006).

So, how are we to interpret the situation where a person facing sex abuse charges before a New Zealand court decides to move to another country to live? Is there room to think of leaving? Is the New Zealand justice system so flawed, so brutal, so unjust, that to leave (rather than drinking hemlock) is a valid move? This blog piece will not ask how is Socrates to be understood from our stand point, rather the question will be put the other way around. If Socrates was us, lived in our time, finding himself accused of sexual misconduct with a youth or child, would he just get on a plane and leave?

Recently a New Zealand citizen did just that, he left. The New Zealand Herald reported “the 42-year-old man from Christchurch was supposed to face court in Greymouth this week on charges he sexually abused his daughter over an eight-month period”. He changed his name, cut the electronic bracelet attached to his leg, and left for Australia. The New Zealand Herald article focused on how those steps could be done, and what was in place to ensure this man’s return home.( Koubaridis, 2013)

In this case the interest is very different. There is no wish to move straight to the position where we have a bad citizen, nor do we assume his guilt regarding the charges he was required to face before the Greymouth court. The question here is what does this story contribute to our view of the New Zealand justice system? When dealing with the issue of allegations of sexual assault, is our legal system seen to be behaving dysfunctionally? Socrates might ask, did this man act reasonably given our legal system? How does this action by the man to leave position New Zealand as a country, as a collection of cultures, and as a civilization?

A reader might argue that what is offered here is self-serving, that what is unfolding in New Zealand courtrooms and elsewhere is cowardice – child-abusers who have attacked children and now must pay. The men, and it is generally men, are afraid and perhaps with good reason. It is not simply about serving time. In our current social climate the concern about harsh or excessive consequences that very likely fills these men’s thoughts goes beyond the courtroom. These men have good reason to view their futures pessimistically. As things now stand in New Zealand 2013 the person’s life looks like it is over. Talk of civil detention is in the air for New Zealand and a person’s life is very likely to include a long list of unjust outcomes. (Dudding, 2012) A smarter view regarding New Zealand law courts and what is happening is to acknowledge the situation is complex rather than simple.

A minor attracted person standing before a court is able to offer a view that goes beyond simple self-interest. (Henley, 2013) To portray this Christchurch man as fleeing justice – and that was clearly what the New Zealand Herald was doing – may very well over-simplify how the situation is configured. (Kirby, 1997) To position this man as ‘merely fleeing justice’ ignores the important question, is the justice system that calls on him to appear before it a fair one? Is he free to walk away where fairness has emerged socially and culturally to be an issue? Make careful note, even if he is found guilty, this point stands. “The man is probably guilty, do to him whatever you want” is precisely the cry being resisted here.

Were Socrates amongst us, and required to put aside his old view of one privileged parent society and culture (Greek), whose notions of justice are absolute, then might he consider a move to a safer place as reasonable? If we go even further – reach beyond what is reasonable – one might even ask, is it wise?

Eastwood and burning bag

Does setting one’s handbag on fire make art happen?

Eastwood and burning bag

Francesca Eastwood burns $100,000 handbag. Photo: Tyler Shields [NZ Herald, 30 May, 2012]

Having read the media item where Clint Eastwood’s daughter and friend set alight to a very expensive handbag a response text emerges. After writing it a couple of times up it goes on Facebook and later a text emerges here. My text has shifted a bit.

Initially I thought the stunt was a major flop and sided with those who saw the action as rather selfish and pretentious. I couched my opinion in a speak that was freed from too much emotional vocabulary and my Facebook comment ends on the position – this is not art. Now I sit and wonder, what is art? Yes, the link to a profile of where the art event occurs, links to pre-existing profiles for those who perform the action, social context and discourse. OK, fine, and yet have I allowed myself, in the name of critical theory, to basically say art is in the service of some kind of notion of privilege. After all the links to who  says what, profiles of who acts and venues where the item sits or the art event happens, all have to do with positioning. Does my belief that art can serve a critical role save me? That is up for more thought.

So have I changed my mind from my Facebook post or is this a question of just being somewhere else with my thinking but nowhere in particular – the later ….

If you do want to set alight to a $100,000 handbag, let me know, I’ll get a really good copy made, you or I can sell the thing and you can give me the cash. I could use the money to live on for a while. Mind you I might have to tell WINZ.