14 April 2011

SP2011: "Bloggers & the Leviathan..."


"Yes, we're getting a terrible response on the doorsteps in [insert local area]. One [insert sturdy, homespun Scottish character] told me that he'd rather nail his genitals to a speedy inter-city train than stain his soul and defame the memory of his departed father by voting for us. Another said that if I showed my ugly phizog in that part of town again, she'd punch the living tit off me. Our canvassers all return with cauliflowered extremities and are astonishingly demoralised. I'm confident that we'll be handily defeated here in [insert constituency]. On a particularly stinking night, we may well lose our deposit - funds I'd earmarked for a depression-dousing dram. It's all bloody depressing." ~ Sir Reginald Sittish-Standish, Scottish Liberal-Unionist and Labour-Conservative party candidate for Universal Scottish Constituency (West).

Nobody ever says this, do they? No matter how hopeless their electoral situation appears, no matter how general the knowledge that the election is closely divided, every candidate is full of breezy reassurances that all is well, and triumph impends. If you believe the rhetoric, all are greeted warmly at every door, every voter a friend of their party. Practically, of course, I do understand. No would-be parliamentarian wants to appear in the next morning's press, making bloodhound-faced predictions about electoral calamity and disaster. No campaign terrier wants to share their demoralisation and feelings of political insecurity with the public. Understandable, without question. However, it is just another example of one of every embattled election campaign's least attractive qualities - their pervasive dishonesty.

I do love elections. They are more fascinating, in many ways, than their common sense familiarity allows us to recognise. Using relatively simple technologies of pen and paper, the great shapeless and muddled body of our collected opinions are gathered, simplified - and actively inscribed on the social fabric. Obviously, there are those who refuse to take up the pen, on principle, or out of disaffection. However, in elections, we ask millions of people to take an affirmative view, to make a choice. Millions do so.  The French sociologist, Bruno Latour, nicely demonstrates the quotidian interest of the democratic endeavour. In Reassembling the Social, he shows a series of photographs of "Alice", a French voter. In the first, she examines political discussion in Le Monde. The second shows her in the bureau de vote. From the third, her feet peep out, as she casts her ballot behind the obscuring veil of the voting cubicle. In the fourth, her vote is cast into the ballot box - and so on, ending with Alice watching coverage of the result on French television. Latour is making a theoretical point about how we envisage scale, but the paragraph is worth quoting, if only to afford a reflective pause on how our polity is constituted and reshaped using such apparently elementary connective technologies:

"Consider for instance this series of photos that show Alice voting in France for a general election. Go from the first to the last and try to decide which one is more local or more global than the other. The first, where Alice ponders the newspaper Le Monde to make up her mind about which party to vote for, cannot be said to be local simply because she is alone reading at her breakfast table. The same issue of this newspaper is read that day by millions. Alice is bombarded by a flood of clichés, arguments, columns, and opinions out of which she has to make up her own mind. But the last image that sums up the result cannot be said to be global either under the pretext that it's the "whole of France", that is summarized in one pie chart on television (with the surprising result that the left is winning). On the television inside Alice's apartment, this pie chart is a few centimetres wide. So, once we realize that none of the successive images in the photomontage can be said to be smaller or bigger than any other, the key feature of their connectedness becomes fully visible - though is not graspable on any single photograph!

Something is circulating here from the first to the last. In the opaque voting booth, Alice's opinion is transformed into a piece of paper certified by her signature and then placed by scrutinisers into a ballot box, where it is then ticked off as one anonymous dot in a tally whose sum is wired to the Ministry of the Interior's central bureau to be merged inside other double checked additions. What is the relationship been the "small" Alice and "France as a whole"?
This path, laid down by this instrument, makes it physically possible to collect, through the circulation of paper technologies, a link between Alice and France whose exacting traceability has been slowly elaborated through two centuries of violent political history and contested voting reforms." Bruno Latour (2005) Reassembling the Social, p. 222.

While this aspect of elections excites me, I find the pervasive mendacity of our discourse and its hollow factiousness, however understandable from the partisan perspective, deeply dispiriting. On all sides, people engage in the ludicrous re-publication of party press releases. The Scotsman's Steamie blog seems primarily sustained these days by reprinting tales of Annabel Goldie tonguing a cone or Tavish visiting a creamery and arguing that an opponents policy is bunk. Blogging, it is not. NewsnetScotland has indulged in the same antics, publishing a series of only slightly re-configured Nationalist notices, laying into Labour. I'm all for gouging one's foes, where gouging seems indicated. However, much of this is without substantial comment, detailed critique - and worse - this committed political stupidity is wholly earnest, bereft of even the smallest tickle of humour.

Some bloggers prosper well during elections. I've often wondered why I feel a certain dread as electioneering approaches. Having given it a bit of thought, I think my reticence to great extent derives from the character of my party commitments. As someone writing about politics, it only seems right that I declare my allegiances, such as they are, prominently at the head of the page, so readers may consider themselves forewarned. Come elections, where the composition of the Scottish Parliament is at stake, I obviously wish to see the Scottish National Party romp to triumph. There is much of the ban and censure caught in the phrase there is an election to win. Much of the vexation of this is precisely because such conformity is not externally imposed. I suspect other writers in the Cinquième Etat who are properly unaligned do not feel these pressures. They are able to exercise a constant critique, uninterrupted by elections, continuously pointing out fallacies, stupidities, inadequacies wherever they detect them. Stuart Winton is an excellent Scots example of how well this universally distributed political cynicism can prosper. For the declared partisan, I find things are not so easy, and an election calls for a profound disruption in the ordinary habits of your political writing, assuming you aren't already an all-consuming "party man". With the imminent prospect of the election of a new parliament, all that is likely to change is the pitch of his fulminating loyalty, rather than calling for something of a mental re-orientation. I'm reminded of George Orwell's essay "Writers and the Leviathan", first published in 1948. It would be grotesque to suggest that the pressures discussed by Orwell exactly align with the contemporary political partisan. However, I find that there is much in Orwell's reflection, that remains directly pertinent for bloggers of whatever colour, who find themselves sharing some of my inchoate qualms about elections, writing honestly and independent-mindedly - and how these interlace with specific party ties. Interestingly, in this respect, bloggers strongly associated with a particular political party are unlike members of the press, who are at least theoretically (but often totally implausibly) inoculated with the idea that they are independent from advancing the Labour, Green, Liberal, Tory or Nationalist cause. Much more than journalists, we are directly exposed to struggles with our leviathans...


Excerpt from George Orwell, "Writers and the Leviathan" (1948)...

"To accept an orthodoxy is always to inherit unresolved contradictions. Take for instance the fact that all sensitive people are revolted by industrialism and its products, and yet are aware that the conquest of poverty and the emancipation of the working class demand not less industrialisation, but more and more. Or take the fact that certain jobs are absolutely necessary and yet are never done except under some kind of coercion. Or take the fact that it is impossible to have a positive foreign policy without having powerful armed forces. One could multiply examples. In every such case there is a conclusion which is perfectly plain but which can only be drawn if one is privately disloyal to the official ideology. The normal response is to push the question, unanswered, into a corner of one’s mind, and then continue repeating contradictory catchwords. One does not have to search far through the reviews and magazines to discover the effects of this kind of thinking.

I am not, of course, suggesting that mental dishonesty is peculiar to Socialists and left-wingers generally, or is commonest among them. It is merely that acceptance of ANY political discipline seems to be incompatible with literary integrity. This applies equally to movements like Pacifism and Personalism, which claim to be outside the ordinary political struggle. Indeed, the mere sound of words ending in — ism seems to bring with it the smell of propaganda. Group loyalties are necessary, and yet they are poisonous to literature, so long as literature is the product of individuals. As soon as they are allowed to have any influence, even a negative one, on creative writing, the result is not only falsification, but often the actual drying-up of the inventive faculties.

Well, then what? Do we have to conclude that it is the duty of every writer to “keep out of politics”? Certainly not! In any case, as I have said already, no thinking person can or does genuinely keep out of politics, in an age like the present one. I only suggest that we should draw a sharper distinction than we do at present between our political and our literary loyalties, and should recognise that a willingness to DO certain distasteful but necessary things does not carry with it any obligation to swallow the beliefs that usually go with them. When a writer engages in politics he should do so as a citizen, as a human being, but not AS A WRITER. I do not think that he has the right, merely on the score of his sensibilities, to shirk the ordinary dirty work of politics. Just as much as anyone else, he should be prepared to deliver lectures in draughty halls, to chalk pavements, to canvass voters, to distribute leaflets, even to fight in civil wars if it seems necessary. But whatever else he does in the service of his party, he should never write for it. He should make it clear that his writing is a thing apart. And he should be able to act co-operatively while, if he chooses, completely rejecting the official ideology. He should never turn back from a train of thought because it may lead to a heresy, and he should not mind very much if his unorthodoxy is smelt out, as it probably will be. Perhaps it is even a bad sign in a writer if he is not suspected of reactionary tendencies today, just as it was a bad sign if he was not suspected of Communist sympathies twenty years ago.

But does all this mean that a writer should not only refuse to be dictated to by political bosses, but also that he should refrain from writing ABOUT politics? Once again, certainly not! There is no reason why he should not write in the most crudely political way, if he wishes to. Only he should do so as an individual, an outsider, at the most an unwelcome guerilla on the flank of a regular army. This attitude is quite compatible with ordinary political usefulness. It is reasonable, for example, to be willing to fight in a war because one thinks the war ought to be won, and at the same time to refuse to write war propaganda. Sometimes, if a writer is honest, his writings and his political activities may actually contradict one another. There are occasions when that is plainly undesirable: but then the remedy is not to falsify one’s impulses, but to remain silent.

To suggest that a creative writer, in a time of conflict, must split his life into two compartments, may seem defeatist or frivolous: yet in practice I do not see what else he can do. To lock yourself up in an ivory tower is impossible and undesirable. To yield subjectively, not merely to a party machine, but even to a group ideology, is to destroy yourself as a writer. We feel this dilemma to be a painful one, because we see the need of engaging in politics while also seeing what a dirty, degrading business it is. And most of us still have a lingering belief that every choice, even every political choice, is between good and evil, and that if a thing is necessary it is also right. We should, I think, get rid of this belief, which belongs to the nursery. In politics one can never do more than decide which of two evils is the lesser, and there are some situations from which one can only escape by acting like a devil or a lunatic. War, for example, may be necessary, but it is certainly not right or sane. Even a General Election is not exactly a pleasant or edifying spectacle. If you have to take part in such things — and I think you do have to, unless you are armoured by old age or stupidity or hypocrisy — then you also have to keep part of yourself inviolate. For most people the problem does not arise in the same form, because their lives are split already. They are truly alive only in their leisure hours, and there is no emotional connection between their work and their political activities. Nor are they generally asked, in the name of political loyalty, to debase themselves as workers. The artist, and especially the writer, is asked just that — in fact, it is the only thing that Politicians ever ask of him. If he refuses, that does not mean that he is condemned to inactivity. One half of him, which in a sense is the whole of him, can act as resolutely, even as violently if need be, as anyone else. But his writings, in so far as they have any value, will always be the product of the saner self that stands aside, records the things that are done and admits their necessity, but refuses to be deceived as to their true nature."

19 comments :

  1. GrassyKnollington14 April 2011 14:43

    Lallands I'm sure I'm not alone in wishing you would feel free to point out "fallacies, stupidities and inadequacies" of the SNP whenever you detect them even at election time.

    We'll keep reading you I promise and I don't think the Eckster will have you brought in for re-education.

    Forget the election and fire away with some of the frank opinions about the SNP that you're alluding to, I'm sure it will make for some lively comments and it may actually do the party some good.

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  2. 'Tonguing a cone' - is that what they're calling it these days.

    I'll just pack up these pipe smoking lady golfing metaphors into the box marked redundant...

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  3. I suspect other writers in the Cinquième Etat who are properly unaligned do not feel these pressures.

    In terms of the independence question and even in terms of left or right wing politics there are no unaligned blogs so you seem to be worrying yourself needlessly.

    If as self declared unaligned blogger you declare that you are not supportive of any change then you are supportive of the status quo.

    If as a blogger you are not supportive of independence then you are content to be in the union which is the current state of Scotland and write from that perspective.

    I much prefer bloggers who are honest about their political views rather than hiding behind the fiction of impartiality.

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  4. @DougtheDug "I much prefer bloggers who are honest about their political views rather than hiding behind the fiction of impartiality."

    That's interesting Dougthe, because every time I am honest about my political opinions, natcyberdugs are at my throat (and I'm not talking metaphorically here).

    @ Geortg Orwell "It is merely that acceptance of ANY political discipline seems to be incompatible with literary integrity. This applies equally to movements like Pacifism and Personalism, which claim to be outside the ordinary political struggle. Indeed, the mere sound of words ending in — ism seems to bring with it the smell of propaganda. "

    Mr Blair included nationalism in this dispensation, and indeed, loathed it above many other falings of the human condition, not just for its effects on literature.

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  5. "every time I am honest about my political opinions, natcyberdugs are at my throat (and I'm not talking metaphorically here)."

    Braveheart:
    You're quite open about your British nationalism on your blog, which is the way it should be, but I think you're confusing honesty about the basis of your political opinions with the content of your opinions.

    Though I rarely if ever look at your blog I suspect that the commenters on there take issue with the content of your opinions rather than the fact that you've openly stated your political position.

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  6. Nobody is perfect and politics is the proof.

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  7. GrassyKnollington,

    I should say, I'm not champing at the bit to name and shame a particular piece of nationalist folly. At least, no more than usual. I just find that elections present an interesting conundrum, for partisans like myself, with a wee platform to exercise.

    Mark,

    I admit, I may have framed that image for maximum disgust.

    Doug,

    There is something in that. Certainly, to shrug is implicitly to take a view of these issues. We should perhaps supplement your list with an entirely respectable additional position - not really having made up one's mind. Plenty of indecision about, after all.

    Crinkly,

    A modest motto, but a sane one.

    Braveheart,

    As I've noted before on this blog, Orwell's writings on nationalism are amongst his most idiosyncratic and potentially confusing. Certainly, it is highly problematic to take Orwell's "nationalism" and imagine he was talking about the contemporary SNP, simply because of the same word in the middle. Cf On scorning nationalists...

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  8. Stuart Winton16 April 2011 09:08

    "I much prefer bloggers who are honest about their political views rather than hiding behind the fiction of impartiality."

    Doug, of course impartiality is a fiction, because it can never be absolute.

    Although I consider myself impartial in the sense of not particularly favouring any political party, of course I prefer some more to others, but tend to consider politics in terms of policy rather than based on parties.

    Indeed, having changed my mind or had significant doubts on most of the big issues over the years I'm even wary about taking concrete positions on particular policy areas, and view change with a cynical or at best wary eye.

    That's why I'm sceptical about independence and to that extent the status quo wins out, not because I consider myself a Unionist, but because the burden of proof should fall with those advocating change, and as far as I'm concerned the case hasn't been proved beyond reasonable doubt yet.

    You might consider all this to be "hiding behind a fiction of impartiality", but as far as I'm concerned the concept just means no adherence to any particular party line.

    As regards the union/independence issue I like to use the term agnostic rather than impartial.

    And thanks for the mention, Mr LPW.

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  9. Doug, not talking about my blog. Anytime I expresss an anti-SNP or an anti-independence opinion online I risk some cybernatnut throwing insults and worse. It happens all the.

    BTW, I am not a unionist or a Bbritish nationalist . Whatever gave you that impression?

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  10. GrassyKnollington17 April 2011 00:36

    Darn it Lallands, generalised angst is no substitute for proper scandal.
    I thought we were in for a mafia style spill for a minute there :O)

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  11. As an often indecisive chap myself, I can sympathise with that characterisation of your position, Stuart. Although it hasn't happened often in my life, the transformation - even total reversal - in your once deeply, viscerally held positions is an interesting and challenging experience.

    It also has significant comic potential in the political partisan, in the sense that their views can hop all over the place, but their brass-voiced and inveterate indictments of their enemies seem unaffected by these changing opinions. You encounter plenty of folk with more than a little touch of the Vicar of Bray.

    Braveheart,

    I'm interested in hearing your version of anti-Scottish nationalism, that isn't premised on remaining in the Union, or some alternative British Nationalist position. Sounds pleasingly idiosyncratic!

    GrassyKnollington,

    I'll try and work something up for you! *taps nose conspiratorially*

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  12. Braveheart:

    The combination of two of your statements actually forms an oxymoron.

    Anytime I expresss an anti-SNP or an anti-independence opinion online/BTW, I am not a unionist or a British nationalist.

    I class you as a British nationalist because you support Labour, the party of the British Establishment and the Union in Scotland, and you also do not want the British state to return to its original constituent nations with your opposition to Scottish independence.

    I believe in a Scottish state, I'm a Scottish nationalist. You believe in a British state, you're a British nationalist.

    Stuart:
    That's why I'm sceptical about independence ..as far as I'm concerned the case hasn't been proved beyond reasonable doubt yet...As regards the union/independence issue I like to use the term agnostic rather than impartial.

    In other words Stuart, you don't believe in independence. That's a perfectly valid opinion to hold but it still puts you on the unionist side of the fence.

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  13. 'I believe in the status quo.' said the Snail.

    'As do I.' said the Hare. 'Problem is Mr Snail when and where does the status quo start?'

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  14. "In other words Stuart, you don't believe in independence. That's a perfectly valid opinion to hold but it still puts you on the unionist side of the fence."

    But surely that's a tad, um, unnuanced, Doug? Them and us? For us or against us? False dichotomy?

    For example, if Scotland was independent then I wouldn't see any point in 'inventing' the Union, unless there was a really compelling and overwhelming rationale. To that extent to call people like myself Unionist is surely slightly crude?

    By the same token, many supporters of Scottish independence advocate euro membership, which I don't, but that policy is an example of UK unionism writ large, so does that make them more unionist than me?

    Incidentally, euro membership is one of the issues I've had a bit of a change of mind on, but that's perhaps for another day!

    But having undergone something of an epiphany on such issues (or perhaps that's not the best way of looking at it, because it's been a long and gradual process), then I can certainly identify with Mr LPW's perspective on it being an "interesting and challenging experience"!

    (Apologies for prolonging this thread, but forgot I hadn't ticked the relevant box to be reminded of comment updates via email!)

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  15. Gordian Knot time.

    Doug, it doesn't matter what you class me as. It matters what I am , and I'm not a unionist or British nationalist.

    I'm not any kind of nationalist.

    I think nationalism misses the point in human terms, in terms of governance and in many other ways.

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  16. Stuart:

    But surely that's a tad, um, unnuanced, Doug? Them and us? For us or against us? False dichotomy?

    Nationalist and Unionist is a true dichotomy, the terms don't overlap, and everyone is in one or the other camp.

    For example, if Scotland was independent then I wouldn't see any point in 'inventing' the Union...To that extent to call people like myself Unionist is surely slightly crude?

    I don't live in a, "What if", world. The question is what do you advocate in this one? Nationalists want an independent state just like all the other independent states in the World. Any other permutation of federalism or devolution that unionists want is just rearranging local government under a single state.

    I don't understand your equation of the European Union which is a treaty between independent states with the single unitary state of the UK.

    Braveheart:
    As I say, I'm always appreciative when anyone states their true political viewpoint so I look forward to your call, as a hater of nationalism, to dissolve the British state into a single European state as a precursor to one World Government.

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  17. Doug said:

    "I don't live in a, "What if", world."

    But *what if* Scotland was independent?!?!

    "Nationalists want an independent state just like all the other independent states in the World."

    But that depends on how you define an independent state, and clearly others don't share your definition. They would define the UK as the 'independent state' and its composition is sui generis by international standards.

    "I don't understand your equation of the European Union which is a treaty between independent states with the single unitary state of the UK."

    But both the EU and UK are pooling sovereignty ceded from subsidiary entities, albeit that the latter has been around a lot longer than the former.

    Independence isn't an absolute concept, surely? For example, in recent history the SNP have either advocated the retention of sterling or the euro in an *independent* Scotland. Of course, I use the term loosely, because a state can't be truly indpendent if it shares a currency and has monetary policy decided either in London or Brussels.

    So to that extent some people must be more in the 'independence' camp than others?

    For example, many Scottish nationalist regard the SNP's 'independence in Europe' slogan oxymoronic, for obvious reasons, which surely demonstrates degrees of independence.

    By the same token, at the other end of the continuum there must be degrees of unionism and to that extent no strict dichotomy with nationalism?

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  18. Doug, I don't hate nationalism.

    In the UK context, it's a waste of valuable time and the lives of good people who could be doing good work rather than chasing after "independence" when it won't happen and if it did would be more malign than benign.

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