Impure: Sex, Drugs and Gay Marriage

Gay Marriage Has the time come for more nuance within the gay identity? As successful as the campaign for gay rights has been, the resistance to accepting gay marriage in the United States and elsewhere represents a political hurdle that requires more than simply assuming there is no viable counter argument. There is a crucial debate about the relationship between homosexuality and the moral ideal of purity that activists refuse to have, and in so doing they cede influence to their opponents.

The great success stories of twentieth century identity politics were the claiming of the word ‘black’ by race campaigners in the United States, and the retooling of the words ‘gay’ and ‘queer’ to their contemporary meanings. In both cases, taking control of the language used to define social categories served broader social goals. By challenging the insipid term ‘coloured’ with a word that came with both negative connotations and an aura of power the black community successfully elevated both their status and their community esteem, a move capped off by claiming a racial insult as a cultural possession. Similarly, taking the pejorative ‘queer’ and co-opting it did wonders for the gay community, as did taking a positive term that originally meant ‘merry and bright’ and using it as the foundation of a sexual identity.

Having gained an incredible amount of ground in a comparatively short space of time, the gay community has since strayed into adopting every stray dog gender or sexual identity under their flag. This is very much in the spirit of the original Feminist movement, which sought to raise all minorities to equality (rather than pursuing explicit feminine power). Yet in so doing, something has been obscured in the composition of the gay community that could be vitally important in winning the political struggle for recognising gay marriage as not only meaningful but as a legitimate right. The case for this has not been robustly made, and tends instead to be dogmatically asserted – much as vocal opponents to gay marriage tend to flatly assume their case. The issue is not those whose minds will never be changed, but those in the middle ground who without persuasion by proponents of gay marriage will naturally fail to recognise the case for it's acceptance.

Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations theory identifies five dimensions of Western morality. Two – care and fairness – are shared by both liberals and conservatives. Three – loyalty, respect and purity – are highly valued by conservatives but generally unimportant to liberals as a group. While conservatives tend to value fairness lowest of all, liberals tend to put purity at the bottom of the list of values. It is this moral ideal – purity – that blocks acceptance of gay marriage more than anything else. There are historical religious factors that influence the view of homosexuality as impure, but they are less important to the contemporary political scene that might be thought. The Bible's case against homosexuality is not as strong as is sometimes believed, as I discussed in the context of Twilight Saga and Gay Marriage. A far bigger problem is the general licentiousness of a great many homosexuals and the perception that all gay people view this lifestyle as defensible and desirable.

Of course, a great many straight people are equally involved in sexual debauchery or some kind – whether as part of a community, or simply as an adulterous individual. Disastrously, by defending sexual freedoms so broadly the gay community has accidentally labelled itself in the eyes of many moderate conservatives as necessarily impure, despite there being many more heterosexuals engaged in purportedly impure sexual acts. Yet the popular perception remains that when a straight sex-fiend is busted, they show remorse because (it is assumed) deep down they know what they were doing was wrong. Conversely, the Gay activist party line (in common with liberal sexual politics in general) has tended to deny any possible wrong-doing in the context of consensual sex acts. As defensible as this stance may be, it reinforces the erroneous perception of gay life as fundamentally impure in the eyes of conservatives.

Part of the problem may relate to the era the gay rights movement began: during the 60’s and 70’s, sexual liberation was a liberal touchstone, and it seemed that everyone outside of the conservative world was embracing ‘free love’. The consequences of this rash abandon were to become apparent in the 80’s with the AIDS epidemic that struck both gay and straight people alike, including many with few or even only one sexual partner. To suggest in any way this was divine vengeance is grotesque, but as a symptom of the cost of abandoning the ideals of purity it served to widen the liberal-conservative divide even further. The conservative ideal of sexual purity that was transgressed by the free love movement was rooted in the idea that sex was pure only when too people were in love (and perhaps relatedly, only if it had children as it’s intent). However, since even a barren couple was allowed that their love-making was pure as long as it was sanctified by marriage, it is clear that the non-procreative element of gay sex is not a de facto barrier to gay marriage being accepted as a sacrament provided the sex acts in question are accepted. (I shall assume for now that this is the lesser problem).

There is, therefore, a real possibility to advance the debate on gay marriage among Christian moderates (whose support is all that is needed to swing any legislature in the United States) if it can be demonstrated that loving, one-on-one couples exist in the gay community - which they do, and in good numbers. But these committed individuals are all to easily dismissed under claims made about the gay community as a whole, even though their demand for access to marriage (both legally and sacramentally) is a far easier sell to moderate conservatives than the gay community’s broader sexual politics as a whole.

Imagine how different the situation would be if instead of one  identity, homosexuals were to present themselves under two political identities according to differing attitudes towards the moral ideal of purity. On the one hand, we have the conventional alternative gender and sexuality crowd whose position necessarily lies outside of the purity ideal. They can maintain their defence of the stance that all consensual sex acts are permissible and ally with other liberal groups whose barrier to acceptance is also purity related – including (say) BDSM, the polyamory community and marijuana smokers. Let's call this group Alt for now, although in practice any such community would of course develop it’s own name.

Against the Alts, those homosexuals in loving, committed relationships could style themselves Pure (say), and stress that their lifestyle upholds the ideal of marriage as a sacrament between two souls. (The use of the term ‘soul’ need not imply any specific religious context, but is helpfully open to that possibility). Freed of the associations with open sexuality that would connect them with Alts, the case for accepting gay marriage immediately becomes stronger – to the extent that simply presenting the existence of a community of same-sex partners whose relationships uphold the broader notion of purity might in itself help sway the conservative middle ground. Pures need not oppose Alts – they can be in full support of sexual freedom without wanting it for themselves, a situation mirrored in the straight community. The point is, it’s not their approach to love and sex: they uphold something like a moral ideal of gay purity.

Under this kind of arrangement, the Alts gain political capital from the wider umbrella of alternative lifestyles able to support them (the additional support of the potheads alone radically increases their putative influence), while the case for accepting gay marriage as a sacrament is significantly strengthened such that the political battleground becomes tipped significantly in favour of acceptance. Combining all the political minorities whose struggle is resisted by those who uphold purity ideals means unifying gay sex and drugs into one camp – but my impression is that this isn’t a great leap. Conversely, demonstrating the existence of a moral ideal of purity compatible with homosexuality could be the single most significant step forwards towards global acceptance of gay marriage. This suggestion certainly doesn’t propose to dismantle the gay identity – it simply acknowledges it’s limitations, and brings hidden strengths out of the shadows into the open.

The issue of purity is a difficult matter for liberals of any ilk to accept since for many of this persuasion it is merely an anachronistic hangover from a primitive religious code. But this kind of dismissive attitude towards political opponents helps no-one, and actively hinders equality of access to marriage, both legally and sacramentally. If – as is the case – there are many gay people in relationships that are radically closer to the purity ideal than is normally assumed, it is absolutely vital that a greater awareness of these couples can be attained. Perhaps the kind of identity shuffle I am suggesting is fundamentally untenable, but even if this is so, the basic tenet of this programme is worth recognising: being gay doesn't mean being impure. The conservative ideal of purity can be reconciled with the facts of homosexual life – although admittedly with considerable disputation– and making this argument can only help bring the gay marriage embargo closer to its end.

Twilight Saga and Gay Marriage

twilightsaga What does the Twilight saga have to do with gay marriage? Surprisingly, the popular young adult vampire romances can be a stepping point towards understanding why the question of marriage between homosexual lovers is so contentious in the United States.

Stephenie Meyer’s quartet of vampire romances has enjoyed unprecedented commercial success, having racked up some 100 million sales worldwide. The novels have an accessible intensity, but are not particularly well written; Stephen King has remarked that Meyer “can't write worth a darn. She's not very good.” However, he also recognised the appeal of the books, stating “it's very clear that she's writing to a whole generation of girls and opening up kind of a safe joining of love and sex in those books.” There is something to King’s remarks in this respect, but the issue goes much deeper than his analysis suggests.

Meyer belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS for short), more commonly known as the Mormons, and acknowledges that her faith has influenced her work. Although she claims she has not consciously promoted the virtues of sexual abstinence, it is hard not to find this theme developed in the narrative, and many critics have commented on this element in both the books and the films adapted from them. The theme of abstinence helps enormously with their appeal – it means they have the potential to reach an incredibly wide audience since abstinence is a selling point for many of the world’s 2 billion Christians, who make up about a third of the population of the planet. Of course, the books are enjoyed by non-Christians as well, but there can be little doubt that they would not have sold 100 million copies without accessing this vast market.

More than this, however, the LDS has a highly mythic attitude towards marriage, one that many other Christian denominations share in broads strokes, but which is it quite explicitly developed among the Mormon community: the idea that marriage is eternal. When a man and a woman marry among the Church of the Latter Day Saints, they are not just marrying for life, but for all time, for they believe that the two souls joined in marriage will be together not just in this world, but in a world to come. Of course, many Christians believe something similar, but the theme is most explicit among the followers of Joseph Smith. 

The theme of the joining of souls is far older and far more widely accepted than just Christianity, however. Plato, in The Symposium, has the comic playwright Aristophanes tell a mythic tale of the origins of sexuality, in which humans were once very different creatures who were cut in half by Zeus. These original humans were of three kinds: hermaphrodites, who were split into men and women, and two kinds of double-gendered beings, who were split into two men, or two women. Love, in this myth, is thus each soul’s attempt to find the other half of its original whole. Although clearly drawing on the patterns of Greek myth, Aristophanes’ tale appears to have been entirely Plato’s invention.

If Plato was happy to accept the union of homosexual souls, why are certain Christian sects frequently resistant to homosexuality? After all, Plato’s work had a huge influence upon Christian theology and metaphysics (whether or not one considers Plato an influence on the Gospel of St. John, Plato's philosophy certainly influenced how this document was later interpreted).

The quick and easy answer is Leviticus, the book which records the social codes of the Israelites from roughly 2,500 years ago, which clearly takes a dim view of homosexual acts between men. But this answer only goes so far, since Leviticus also takes a dim view of men who see women menstruating, the wearing of garments made of more than one kind of fibre, and tattoos (to name just a few things). Not to mention it quite clearly endorses the ownership of slaves, something almost no-one advocates today, no matter how old school their religious beliefs. Furthermore, it is quite clear that Jesus considered the only important part of Leviticus to be 19:18 which advocates “loving they neighbour as thyself”, and indeed stops an adulterous woman from being stoned to death in John 8, despite this being the prescribed penalty in Leviticus.

The vague gesturing at Leviticus is shorthand for a very different kind of argument: we’ve always done it this way. Since marriage has traditionally been between a man and woman, and perhaps just as crucially, since marriage has traditionally been about bearing children as much as (or, in many eras, more than) love, there is a sense that allowing ‘marriage’ to mean the loving union of two men or two women must be some kind of error. In a religious tradition such as the Bahá'í Faith that accepts progressive revelation, this kind of adjustment would be comparatively easy. But in a tradition that believes revelation happened only in a particular stretch of time, this kind of change is challenging.

This is the situation facing the LDS, since it believes that God’s law doesn’t change, although mankind can certainly get it wrong and need correcting. Within this theological framework, it’s very difficult to make peace with gay marriage, as nothing in the existing canon of scripture speaks in favour the idea that God intended gay marriage after which humanity simply misunderstood the divine will. As a result, gay marriage becomes a metaphysical threat to the mythic conception that two married souls will remain together in eternity: to someone invested in this story, marriage just means a man and woman joining their souls together forever, and any other reading of the term ‘marriage’ can feel either threatening, disturbing, or at least, misguided.

This is a key part of the story behind the political action the LDS took in California to try and overturn gay marriage by supporting Proposition 8. This decision brought a lot of criticism and prejudice against Mormons (the blind eye the LDS has tended to turn towards polygamy among some of its members in Utah did not help in this regard). Some have even touted a rather strange idea that Church and State prohibited them from politically campaigning. This, however, is nonsense: nothing in the First Amendment prohibits being motivated towards political action by religious beliefs, and if it did the notion of freedom that is integral to the identity of the United States as a nation would be irreparably damaged. 

In respect of Proposition 8, the responsibility for its passing cannot be wholly levelled at its supporters, but also at the failure of opponents. One advertisement intended to rally voters against the amendment featured a pair of lesbians being harassed by teenage Mormon boys (the kind who, according to LDS practice, are encouraged to conduct door-to-door outreach). The thrust of this entire campaign was misguided: supporters of the gay community did not need persuading to vote against Proposition 8, but moderate Christians were open to be influenced. Making out that religious folk are the enemy was not an effective way to curry their favour.

Imagine the difference if the same funds had been used, not to make an ad painting the LDS as the enemy, but showing two lesbians on their wedding day, clearly in love, and overlaid with the famous words from 1 Corinthians 13: 4-7, so frequently used at weddings: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, and always perseveres.”

The Twilight saga is at its heart a love story in the tradition of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, about two souls who find each other, remain abstemious until marriage, and then stay together for all eternity. They are, as it happens, a man and a woman. (Well, a vampire and a woman). If conservative and moderate Christians in the United States and elsewhere are to be won over to the idea of gay marriage, it requires new stories of the love between a man and a man, and a woman and a woman. Those stories are there to be told. But instead of telling them, too many advocates for the gay community insist on making the followers of traditional religion the enemy, thus making their situation worse rather than better.

Slavery ended in the United States because too many Christians could no longer reconcile the practice with their belief in the essential dignity of all people. Slavery ended, despite the fact that Leviticus endorsed it. It didn’t matter. Because deep down, Christians – even many conservative Christians – have a sense of right and wrong that is rooted in their theology, and that theology is always subject to change as new aspects of the love that is, for them, the essence of God is revealed. If the goal is acceptance of gay marriage, demonizing religion is counter productive. The secret of overcoming homophobia in the United States doesn’t lie in ‘defeating’ Christianity, but in demonstrating the love between a man and a man, and a woman and a woman. And in this regard, the true story hasn’t even begun to be told.


Let That Be Your Last Battlefield Most of us live in a culture where we treat racism with extreme negativity, and being called a bigot is an insult most would prefer to avoid. Yet incredibly one form of racism is so widely practised that a great many people do not even consider it a form of bigotry, viewing it rather as an entirely rational and reasonable stance. I refer to a form of ethnic discrimination I shall term creedism.

By creedism I naturally refer to prejudice against specific creeds, which is to say, belief systems (religious or otherwise). Some will dispute the premise that creedism is a form of racism, but the United Nations has no qualms on this issue: it makes no distinction between ethnic discrimination and racial discrimination, and since ethnic groups can be founded on any common cultural apparatus (including language, religion, common ancestry, common territory and so forth) this means that, to the UN at least, creedism is a form of racism.

An initial objection likely to be raised is that if (say) Islamic terrorists want to kill me, I have a right to discriminate against them. But who is it that you will discriminate against? If unknown people want to kill you, you have a right to attempt to defend yourself, and if known people try to kill you, you have a right to prosecute them. But either way, terrorists are still to be afforded the same rights as anyone else; they are subject to punishment for breaking laws, not for who they are. Furthermore, it is the vast minority of Muslims who are terrorists. It is pure creedism to extend a hatred for Islamic terrorists to the ethnic group they happen to belong to, i.e. Muslims, just as it is creedism for Islamic terrorists to hate all Westerners because of the atrocities that some have enacted against them.

We encounter creedism most commonly in two forms, one of which is vehemently criticised by liberal critics, the other is tacitly endorsed by some of the same individuals. The first form is the creedism the closed-minded follower of religion expresses towards people of other beliefs, something most commonly associated with the Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Although there are of course some subjective elements involved in the interpretation of religions, all three of these faiths are fundamentally opposed to creedism. In the case of Judaism, love they neighbour as thyself appears in Leviticus, long before Jesus elevated this idea to the status of “eleventh commandment” for Christians, and Islam is the religion which all but invented freedom of religion. Nonetheless, bigoted views are still expressed by certain vocal followers of these religions, and people justly criticise these views.

Precisely because the religious form is so widely and openly criticised, I believe the non-religious form can be more subtly pernicious. Prejudice against Christians, Muslims, or indeed followers of all religions, is held by a great many liberal intellectuals to be rationally validated; this is a gross case of creedism that deserves to be exposed to greater scrutiny. There is a tremendous variety of individual beliefs within any religious tradition; treating followers of any given path as all expressing the same negative traits is closely analogous to the thought process behind conventional racism. (Buddhism, oddly, is often excluded from this kind of attack, usually on account of a claim that it is a philosophy not a religion – an assertion that would render most professors of comparative religion dumbfounded!)

This kind of anti-religious creedism is sometimes disguised by making the target religion, rather than people of religious faith, who can then be portrayed as helpless victims of their religion. But a religion is nothing more than the beliefs and practices of the people belonging to a particular set of ethnic groups. Abstracting this into a concept, “religion”, that one then opposes is just as much a form of racism as it was when 17th century intellectuals (such as Hobbes) abstracted non-European cultures under such notions as “savage” and “uncivilised”. These terms would ultimately power imperialistic invasions under the guise of “civilising missions”. Attempts to “emancipate” children from their family's traditions might risk repeating the same grotesque error.

Some modern Humanists seem to be largely unaware of the terrible tensions involved in being caught between a commitment to Human Rights on the one hand and a crusade against religion on the other. Certain Humanist organisations say they are working for an open and inclusive society upholding freedom of belief and speech, but  simultaneously fight for an end to a perceived “privileged position” for religion in law and education. Shouldn't the rational pursuit of this first objective entail the expansion of the protections offered to religious ethnic groups to similar non-religious groups, rather than the attempt to remove these protections? To do otherwise is to attack our notions of Human Rights, not to defend them.

The irony here is that Humanists could earn these protections instantly if they were willing to acknowledge Humanism as a religion but this idea is apparently unbearable to those who have chosen to treat religion as a synonym for superstition. It is preferable, it seems, to fight the existing laws than to benefit from them at the expense of one's pride. One cannot willingly concede to be protected under the umbrella of a term that one deploys as a pejorative; to propose otherwise is to unleash serious cognitive dissonance, and thus anger. It is anger and its congealed form, hatred, in its social role of establishing outgroups to oppose, which drives racism of all kinds, including both kinds of creedism discussed here religious and anti-religious.

Creedism is a widespread and highly destructive form of racism that advances in part because its practitioners frequently do not see their attitude as racist. That some of the people liberal creedists oppose are even more blatantly creedist than they themselves only serves to obfuscate the reality of the situation; it is as if a black racial supremacist justified their bigotry by pointing at a white racial supremacist for contrast, claiming I'm nothing like that!”. That there can be two sides to a racist coin doesn't make that coin legal tender for anyone committed to what is enshrined in our Human Rights agreements. Those rights include freedom of belief, without which the very concept of liberty is undermined. The sooner we all accept this, the closer we will be to curtailing the harmful influence of racism in all its forms.

The Activist's Argument (Everything is Political)

Fox in the Dustbin We quite frequently hear the argument that everything is political. Director Mike Leigh summed up this viewpoint neatly when he stated: “You can't not be political. It's like asking if I consider myself a human being.” I call this claim the Activist's Argument, because it is so often advanced to encourage people to be politically active. But in this role, it seems counter-productive – for if everything is political, why take political action? I argue here that the Activist Argument confuses political topics with politics and political action, and is fundamentally mistaken.

The idea that everything is political stems from the assumption that no matter what we do – or, for that matter, do not do – we make a political statement, and thus take political action of some kind. One aspect of this claim is certainly correct: anything at all can be a political topic, that is, a subject for political discussion. But qualifying as a topic for politics under this rubric, which is thoroughly all-inclusive and thus excludes nothing, cannot usefully lead to the conclusion that 'everything is political', for this would reduce the word 'political' to an empty tautology.

It's easy to show where this argument unravels. By the claim that everything is political, if I rummage around in the dustbins in my street I am taking a political action i.e. searching the trash is political. But foxes in my neighbourhood search through the rubbish for food quite often – so are foxes political? No-one advances this claim, but it follows logically from the Activist's Argument. We can therefore see, as Mike Leigh intimates in the quote above, that there is another tacit assumption in the argument, and that in full the Activist's Argument would have to be everything a human does is political.

But this surely gets us no further: what can a comatose woman in a persistent vegetative state, a man in the advanced stages of dementia or a sixth-month old foetus do that can plausibly be considered political? All of these we might reasonably consider human, but nothing they do is likely to qualify as political. Any one of these could be a political topic – in terms of living wills, euthanasia and abortion, all are certainly political topics. But anything at all can be a political topic – even flagrantly absurd things, like a Flat Earth or a circular triangle. If we conflate political topics and politics we shall be in a very confused space.

Hannah Arendt wrote that “politics is based on the fact of human plurality,” and saw politics as something that occurred in the public space between people living together. Politics in her eyes afforded, by its very nature, the possibility of action – and action, which includes speech, was to Arendt the incredible power of politics. The meaning of politics, she asserted, was freedom, and observed that (as a result of various distorting influences) it was hard to be sure in the modern world that politics had any meaning left at all. She noted with some despair that “the meaninglessness in which politics finds itself is evident from the fact that all individual political questions now end in an impasse.”

Speaking of the Greek polis as a political realm, she wrote that in this unique (albeit flawed) first attempt at politics as freedom: gained the ability to truly see topics from various sides – that is, politically – with the result that people understood how to assume the many possible perspectives provided by the real world, from which one and the same topic can be regarded and in which each topic, despite its oneness, appears in a great diversity of views.

Seen in this way, the fact that anything could be a political topic no longer seems enough to render everything as political. Rather, only when the capacity to see those topics from a diversity of perspectives has been engaged can we reasonably consider politics to be competently in play. It is not enough for you to think or act in private for you to be considered political, you must share your views (or support other people's) in the public spaces, as it is only within these which politics as such can take place.

As for political action, Arendt held the mere possibility of action (that is, collective action) as something quite miraculous:

If, then, we expect miracles as a consequence of the impasse in which our world finds itself, such an expectation in no way banishes us from the political realm in its original sense. If the meaning of politics is freedom, that means that in this realm – and in no other – we do indeed have the right to expect miracles. Not because we superstitiously believe in miracles, but because human beings, whether or not they know it, as long as they can act, are capable of achieving, and constantly do achieve, the improbable and unpredictable.

What the activist hoping to spur people into politics might consider offering is not the empty circularity that “everything is political”, but rather the hopeful proposal that “everything political is achievable if we can agree to act together”. Let this be the new Activist's Argument. I for one hope for the miracle that I might actually hear this idea seriously advanced, rather than facing endless squabbles in the conspicuous absence of the open-minded discussion in public spaces that should be absolutely necessary for any political topic to meaningfully qualify as politics.

For Sheila.

Philosophy versus Politics

Arendt Hannah Arendt (pictured) blamed Plato for setting politics and philosophy in opposition. For although Plato advocated a "Philosopher King", this meant solely that the person in charge would have sufficient respect for philosophy to ensure that the philosophers could be left undisturbed in their deliberations. Plato did not, Arendt claims, envision philosophy as an active force in the common world of people and it was her belief that this was a deadly "blow dealt by philosophy to politics, the conviction that political activity is a necessary evil..."

She was troubled by the "inherent degradation" of the political realm, but even more so by "the radical separation" of the political realm, where people live and act together, from the concerns of people living in "singularity and solitude". This probably played into her decision to reject the title of philosopher for herself (despite it now being de rigeur to call her a philosopher), on the grounds that philosophy was concerned with "man in the singular".

She writes, in The Promise of Politics, a book edited by Jerome Kohn from her notes:

What matters is the unbridgeable abyss that opened and has never been closed, not between the so-called individual and the so-called community (which is a late and phony way of stating an authentic and ancient problem), but between being in solitude and living together... Neither the radical separation between politics and contemplation, between living together and living in solitude as two distinct modes of life, nor their hierarchical structure, was ever doubted after Plato had established both.

I find it particularly interesting that Arendt rejects the modern view of individual versus community as "phony" - since this is often how the liberal versus conservative political divide is couched. But Arendt saw this as a gloss over the division between solitude and living together. By focussing solely upon the self, the liberal mantra of individualism perhaps supports the right to live in solitude too fervently, and in so doing effectively deprecates working together politically. But the conservative focus on the  family and duty towards community may equally undermine our capacity to work together by restricting in rigid ways just who constitutes a part of any acknowledged community.

Too many of us have managed to inherit this disdain for politics that Arendt claims was handed down from Plato. The failure of modern philosophy to connect successfully with politics and reanimate political discussion (by which I do not mean the debates of politicians) may lie precisely with its liberal bias - it's commitment to the rights of the self and thus of solitude, and the denial of duties to those around us. Frankly, too many people - both liberal and conservative - are preoccupied by attempts to dictate how people in other communities must live. Against such a background, it is small wonder that local communities have become so gravely stunted in so many places - we would rather force our beliefs upon the world at large than have to talk to our neighbours.

File Sharing as Forgery

Piracy-by-mikel-casal.cropped File sharing is often characterised as stealing, but this analogy is flawed. When a thief steals something, someone is deprived of it. When a pirate “steals” a file, they make it more available for greater numbers of people, not unavailable to the copyright holder. It would be fairer to compare file sharing to forgery, for this is the crime it most represents.

With this in mind, consider what would happen if a new device were available in your home that could photocopy any object perfectly (somewhat like the replicator in Star Trek). Clearly, this piece of equipment would thoroughly undermine the institution of cash: coins and paper money, now able to be forged by anyone, would immediately cease to be viable. A new approach to money would be required.

So it is with file sharing. The pirates are certainly complicit in crime, but focussing on this aspect of the situation is naïve. The problem is not that pirates duplicate files illegally, but that the business model of media as packaged goods is now irreparably compromised: like replicated money, a new approach is required. (I gestured at this same point previously, in comparing the file sharing situation to the effect of the advent of the telegraph on the Pony Express).

Perhaps the most viable new option is to switch from a goods model to a services model – media companies would gain revenue for providing media on demand in return for a subscription fee. (An alternative, per download fees, risks heavy invasion of privacy issues). Heavy-handed defences such as DRM are not strictly required for the service model to work, and may indeed be counter-productive to making money when one considers how much media revenue comes from cross licensing (e.g. using songs in advertisements or movie soundtracks; merchandising from TV and movies etc.). Getting a song in circulation adds value to a media corporation's portfolio of assets; the loss in fees implied in personal sharing may be negligible by comparison.

The greatest irony about this situation is that the pirates are already paying for their media on a subscription model. No-one gets internet service for free. Seen from this perspective, the problem is not one of crime prevention, but of broken revenue streams: internet service providers are not passing money onto media providers for the services they are brokering (for pirates). This simple fix could solve the problem in a stroke, but it will not be easy for giant multinational media corporations (who are on the defensive because they are haemorrhaging money) to negotiate fairly with the rather smaller ISPs. But as long as they don't, their leaky revenue model is to a significant degree their own responsibility.

The opening image is Piracy by Mike Cassel, which I found here. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.

Imprisoned by Cars

Mr Minkels Traffic Jam Of all our technological augmentations, none has had greater effect on our infrastructure than the car. In the United States, the automobile has somehow become symbolic of the promise of freedom which goes to the heart of the American Dream, yet the reality of car ownership is far removed from its fantasy. Have we become prisoners to the illusion of liberation offered by cars?

Perhaps the most coherent critic of the car was Ivan Illich, who in his 1974 book Energy and Equity launched a savage attack on the assumptions behind our motorised transport infrastructure. Illich was not arguing in favour of public transportations, and indeed argued that focussing the debate on public versus private transportation obscured the central issue behind how societies travel: beyond a critical speed, no-one can save time by travelling faster without forcing another to lose time. Illich saw this as a major ethical issue about which the world was in denial.

How is it that faster travel results in theft of time? It can happen in many ways. One with which we are becoming all too familiar is the traffic jams that result from packing too many vehicles in too small a space, an inevitable consequence of high speed personal transportation focussed around a nexus like a city centre. The attempt to travel faster by car has stolen time from everyone involved in this pursuit. In more general terms, the infrastructure allowances for faster travel by car such as roads and motorways consume physical space and force longer trips to detour, especially on foot. Consider the effect of a motorway on pedestrians who wish to cross it: they are not permitted to walk on the road, so they must travel further in order to use a bridge or a tunnel.

Illich asserted: “Beyond a certain point, more energy means less equity.” Faster travel consumes more energy, and the infrastructure required to support that high speed travel increases the disparity between the rich and the poor (a disparity which hits its peak with the luxury of air travel). Illich said: “Tell me how fast you go and I'll tell you who you are.” He insisted that contrary to our expectations, the technological capabilities of motorised vehicles have only a marginal effect on our autonomy – what is the point of a car which travels at over a hundred miles an hour but which never leaves the city streets? The dream of fast cars propagated by the car industry and supported by popular culture is becoming a nightmare as our streets clog daily during rush hour.

An example from Energy & Equity demonstrates the futility of over-reliance on cars, which result in more than a quarter of people's time being squandered in potentially unnecessary travel:

The model American puts in 1,600 hours to get 7,500 miles: less than five miles per hour. In countries deprived of a transportation industry, people manage to do the same, walking wherever they want to go, and they allocate only three to eight per cent of their society’s time budget to traffic instead of 28 per cent. What distinguishes the traffic in rich countries is not more mileage per hour of life-time for the majority, but more hours of compulsory consumption of high doses of energy, packaged and unequally distributed by the transportation industry.

Illich considered the transportation industry to possess a radical monopoly, that is, a market condition where a consortium of economic powers becomes the dominant means of satisfying a need it itself has created, and that it alone can satiate. Before the car, people walked almost everywhere, using transportation (such as horses) only for the occasional long journey. Today, citizens in the United States still walk on average as many miles as their ancestors – but through parking lots, stores and malls. This perspective makes the car journey seem almost redundant.

The solution to this problem in Illich's eyes was simple; a well-established technology already in widespread use: the bicycle.

Man on a bicycle can go three or four times faster than the pedestrian, but uses five times less energy in the process… Equipped with this tool, man outstrips the efficiency of not only all machines, but all other animals as well... The bicycle has extended man’s radius without shunting him onto roads he cannot walk. Where he cannot ride his bike, he can usually push it... The cyclist can reach new destinations of his choice without his tool creating new locations from which he is barred.

Yet Illich did not propose banning cars, merely prioritising the bicycle over the automobile. He observed, from having studied traffic around the world, that as soon as vehicles broke a speed barrier of about 15 mph (a typical speed on a bicycle) people's time began to become scarce, swallowed up by being stuck in traffic. He noted that the idea of setting speed limits as low as 15 mph was almost impossible for engineers to conceive, and suggest that this “exposes the addiction of industrialized men to consuming ever higher doses of energy...”

The car held a place in Illich's vision; he recognised that motorized vehicles “can compliment or improve traffic by permitting people to do things they could not do on foot or on bicycle”. He acknowledged their value for transporting “the sick, the lame, the old and the just plain lazy.” But for a traffic-optimal transportation system, he insisted that motorised transport must remain subsidiary to pedestrians and cyclists; that “free people must travel the road to productive social relations at the speed of a bicycle.”

Such a traffic system requires an infrastructure which allows for the freedom of the individual, the placement of necessary facilities and amenities in complementary clusters, rather than the isolation of commerce into discrete islands that necessitate longer journeys, and more time squandered in transit. It requires a rethinking of our urban infrastructures to place the human in priority to the car. As Illich himself wrote:

There are two roads from where we are to technological maturity: one is the road of liberation from affluence; the other is the road of liberation from dependence. Both roads have the same destination: the social restructuring of space that offers to each person the constantly renewed experience that the centre of the world is where he stands, walks and lives.

The opening image is Mr. Minkels Traffic Jam, a mural by Susan M. Olmetti which I found on her website and is used with permission.

Bread & Circuses: Big Brother & Reality TV

Reality Has reality TV become the Circus Maximus of the modern age?

The Roman poet Juvenal employed the Latin phrase panis et circenses (“bread and circuses”) to express his view that the populace had given up its interest in political involvement, caring instead only that they were fed and entertained. Today, cultural critics might accuse the West of devolving into a similarly truncated interest – perhaps best expressed as “beer and reality TV”. While I have my doubts that ideals of a fully politicised electorate are even plausible, I find the “modern circuses” of reality TV a fascinating phenomenon.

One of the most successful formats is Endemol's Big Brother, which airs in seventy different countries, enjoying its greatest success in Europe where relatively loose restrictions on broadcast media mean the show frequently features nudity, sex acts, swearing and even occasional outbreaks of violence. People in the US may wonder what the fuss is about, since the US version of Big Brother has been thoroughly neutered, but the European versions represent an utterly different proposition. On the UK show, which enjoys considerable popular support and is lapped up by a gossip-hungry tabloid media, we have witnessed a wide range of altercations and general weirdness, including spontaneous naked body painting, an incident that narrowly avoided domestic abuse, and perhaps most memorably of all, the near total mental collapse of two contestants who were sealed away in a private bedsit and given the access to the camera feeds to spy on their fellow housemates.

Crucial to the show's success is the fact that the housemates involved are sealed away from all other human contact, and thus must either interrelate with the exact same group of people day in and day out (which tends to become intolerable as the weeks roll on) or enter the diary room to bitch about them – essentially to the rest of the nation. Thus, contestants are robbed of their privacy – they cannot gain any alone time in the house itself, so their private outlet becomes talking on camera to the masses. It effectively elevates gossip to a sport, and engages the audience on a personal level by having them vote (and pay) to have individuals evicted each week.

The prize that putatively motivates contestants is a large cash purse offered for the “winner”, that is, the housemate most popular with the voting audience after the unpopular housemates have been eliminated over the space of about three months. However, as Big Brother has become such a cultural phenomena in both the UK and various other countries, contestants frequently view the show as a springboard for a potential showbusiness career of some kind (usually fallaciously). What is most curious about this is the naivete of most of the contestants, who often (despite having watched the show before) expect to be treated as celebrities while they are in the house, when in fact they are likely to suffer considerable stress and emotional turmoil during their tenure, as the organisers tweak all events for maximum dramatic effect.

The parallel with the Circus Maximus may seem overly dramatic – after all, the gladiatorial contests were generally fights to the death. In fact, once interest in such fights had reached its peak in ancient Rome the demand for gladiators outstripped supply and most of the fighters (especially the popular ones) were spared from death almost all of the time. Indeed, Emperors (such as Caligula) who did not spare the popular fighters when they lost became considerably disliked as a consequence.

The stakes in a reality TV show are lower, in that one cannot actually die as a result of the game, but are still comparatively high by modern game standards: an unpopular contestant faces considerable ridicule and psychological trauma; every housemate receives mandatory counselling after leaving the Big Brother house, since the effect of having been demonised both by the skillful editing of the show's producers (who via a media lens effect inflate the quirks of contestants into more dramatic forms) and by the tabloid media which delights in baying for the blood of those housemates whose weakest moments can be used to paint them in the most hated light.

Curiously, a great many of the people who make it onto the show feel a real sense of achievement for having been selected – they are validated by having been chosen, even though in many years the housemates are selected purposefully to form something of a freak show, or at least to give the best chance of romance or conflict emerging in the course of the show's run. Each contestant is the embodiment of Andy Warhol's fifteen minutes of fame; instant celebrities created in a goldfish bowl solely for the entertainment value of watching them suffer emotional, physical and psychological stress and pain for the amusement of the audience.

In Bioethics in the Age of New Media, Joanna Zylinska turns her attention to one particular reality TV show, The Swan, and considers it from the perspective of Foucault & Agamban's notion of biopolitics, the ubiquitous process of life management which now plays a central role in our modern (Western) societies. She questions the biopolitical logic of modernity within which the “bodies and lives of others... are always already in need of a makeover”, singling out 'ugly' or misfit women (The Swan) or countries that 'are not democratic enough' (the “Iraq makeover”) as examples of biopolitics in action.

Big Brother also represents this biopolitical concept – the lives of the contestants constantly manipulated for entertainment value. But then, so were the gladiators in the Circus Maximus. The people today may have greater qualms about the death of contestants, but we are perfectly content to have other people's lives forcibly arranged, ordered, manipulated and misrepresented for entertainment. And even if we had ethical objections to what transpires (and since the participants are there voluntarily, it can be tricky to construct such arguments) it wouldn't significantly change the fact that what happens in microcosm in a show such as Big Brother happens in macrocosm all around us, every day. In a world of 24 hour news, satellite imaging and a horde of mobile phones that can deliver a video feed to an audience of millions on the internet, we are all inside a global goldfish bowl.

The Roman poet Juvenal also coined the phrase Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? – often translated as “who watches the watchers?” Between reality TV and YouTube, the answer these days seems to be: we all do. The unanswered question might be: what we are able to do beyond merely watching?

Conservative vs Liberal

Leftright Why is the political conflict between liberals and conservatives (which goes on in one form or another throughout the world) so intractable?

It is widely understood that liberal political philosophies are characterised by a focus on individual liberties and equality, while conservative political philosophies primarily stem from one of two attitudes: a drive to uphold tradition (which can be termed social conservatism), and a desire to give as little money as possible to government (fiscal conservatism). In both cases, what is usually denoted is not so much a clearly defined ethical position so much as a broadly constituted political position. Yet any political belief also has an ethical dimension.

The relationship between ethics and politics bears some brief examination before we consider the specifics of the liberal-conservative divide. On the one hand, there is a widespread intuitive appreciation that ethics is intended or claimed to underlie politics, and on the other there is an equally widespread cynicism that claims that politics is wholly divorced from ethics. I might assert that the former conclusion is based around the relationship of the electorate to ethics (expressed in the idea that 'we vote what we believe'), while the latter is drawn from the relationship of the politicians to ethics (which I express in the idea that 'all politicians are weasels'). There is less of a disconnect here than it might at first seem – in the battlefield of politics, the forces amass beneath an ethical banner but the acts of the warriors must be focussed on the conflict.

An interesting recent attempt to understand the liberal-conservative divide can be found in the work of Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues, who have researched the psychological roots of morality and political ideology. Moral foundations theory is the result of this study, an attempt to identify common dimensions behind beliefs concerning morality. Haidt's research has produced a model of five moral foundations:

  1. Harm/care: the desire to care for others and avoid harm, which underlies the virtues of kindness, gentleness and the desire to nurture.

  2. Fairness/reciprocity: the basis for concepts of justice, autonomy and individual rights.

  3. Ingroup/loyalty: the force of collective identity which underlies the virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group.

  4. Authority/respect: the need to defer to legitimate authority and have respect for tradition which underlies the virtues of leadership and the duty of the follower.

  5. Purity/sanctity: arising from the emotion of disgust, and the concept of contamination, which underlies the striving for a more elevated and noble way of life summed up in the idea that 'the body is a temple'.

(You can test how you score on these five measures by taking a test at

Haidt's research has demonstrated a consistent pattern behind the liberal-conservative divide in the United States. It transpires that people who identify as strongly liberal are happy to endorse statements relating to the harm/care and fairness/reciprocity foundations, but they largely reject those concerned with ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. Conversely, those who identify as strongly conservative endorse statements related to all five foundations more or less equally.

This is an interesting perspective on the political divide since, contrary to the way it is usually conceived, both parties share a common grounding in terms of fairness and the avoidance of harm. The conflict arises in the context of the relationship of the individual to the group: liberal beliefs stress autonomy in a way which comes into conflict with the sense of loyalty and duty to the group which holds an important role among those who hold conservative beliefs.

Yet there is an irony here: while people who identify as liberal may largely reject statements concerning ingroup loyalties, the psychological forces behind those groups still apply to them. Vehement liberals in the United States demonise their conservative opponents just as forcefully (and unfairly) as their political enemies. This kind of behaviour is explored by Henri Tajfel and John Turner's social identity theory, which claims that we all assume particular identities (including religious, political and sexual identities such as Christian, Buddhist, atheist; liberal, conservative; gay, straight, bisexual) and having done so we feel a natural kinship with those groups, which in turn tends to lead to a bias against different or opposing groups. When opposing groups publicly decry each other, this hostility naturally becomes more entrenched.

I believe the conservative-liberal conflict in the United States and elsewhere can be boiled down to two battlegrounds: the group versus the individual, and the welfare state versus the fortress state. In stressing individual autonomy, the archetypal liberal celebrates diversity and personal freedom in a manner which seems to the conservative to be threatening because it involves an alliance with many identity groups, rather than the sole support of their own identity group. Similarly, the stereotypical (social) conservative upholds traditional conceptions of the group (and the nation in particular) which is abominated by the liberal on account of its expectation and requirement of deference to leaders (which stands in opposition to the concept of personal autonomy) and the absence of obligation to other groups (which runs counter to liberal concepts of fairness and justice) .

The conflict over the purpose of the state, on the other hand, occurs primarily between the liberal and the fiscal conservative. In pursuit of greater equality and the avoidance of harm, many liberals believe the state should pursue its duty of care by setting up a welfare state which provides various support mechanisms at the expense of the taxpayers. Fiscal conservatives object to paying their money into the state for redistribution in this way – yet bizarrely, the majority of conservatives in the United States are perfectly happy to fund the military at great expense to the taxpayers. The desire to protect the ingroup leads to this need to set up a fortress state – not necessarily by force of arms and attempts at foreign pacification (as in the US) but more commonly by control of immigration. The goal is the same: to 'protect' their identity group (their conception of their nation).

The intractability of these disputes has a certain historical momentum that is hard to overcome, and is further ingrained by self-justifying narratives that demonise the opposition. Consider, for instance, that most liberals in the United States cannot understand why vast numbers of economically impoverished individuals vote for Republicans. Haidt raises this point and explains it in terms of the latter three foundations of his theory. But it is in no way logical for low-income workers to support a party which will tax them more severely and distribute this money primarily among entirely different socio-economic groups elsewhere in the country. If one escapes the narrative of the welfare state, it severely reduces the appeal of voting Democrat, just as the eschewal of the narrative of the fortress state decreases the sense in voting Republican.

The so-called “culture wars” in the United States rest not only in a failure for each camp to understand the perspective of the other, but in an inability to apply their own values to their political opponents. If people with liberal beliefs value autonomy and diversity, this should extend to defending the cultural rights of their conservative opponents; if people with conservative values are truly loyal to their country they must extend respect to all their fellow citizens, even those who have opposing political beliefs. The narratives required to support this conciliation already exist in the foundations of the nation itself – all that is needed is a willingness to return to the spirit of a Republic founded on a commitment to liberty and justice for all.

The Will to Power

Power-of-red-nadine-rippelmeyer The “Will to Power” was philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's formula for what he claimed was the fundamental disposition manifested in human life, and essentially in all other phenomena as well. His notebooks declare: “This world is the will to power – and nothing besides!” It was Nietzsche's view that everything that happens in our lives, and in the world around us, can be interpreted in terms of power relationships that take place amongst configurations of forces where the basic tendency is to expand, expend or transform.

Let us make no mistake that Nietzsche's general moral position was very much in contrast to almost all ethical systems known – in fact, his life work was to achieve a “re-evaluation of all values”, and his final unfinished volume was focussed precisely upon this, under the title “The Will to Power”. However, Nietzsche was to go mad before he could complete this task, if indeed his goal was attainable at all. His popularity as a philosopher since his death has sometimes come from people sharing Nietzsche's desire to push in this direction (often when the individual shares Nietzsche's hatred of Christianity) and sometimes from the sheer perspicacity of Nietzsche's insightful and pithy observations (which I respect far more than his flagrantly elitist, egoistic beliefs).

In 1886, in Beyond Good and Evil, he wrote: itself is essentially appropriation, injury, overpowering of what is alien and weaker; suppression, hardness, imposition of one's own forms, incorporation and at least, at its mildest, exploitation... “Exploitation” does not belong to a corrupt or imperfect and primitive society, it belongs to the essence of what lives, as a basic organic function; it is a consequence of the will to power, which is after all the will of life.

This accorded very well with Nietzsche's elitist beliefs, although a proportion of modern followers of his philosophical train of thought manage to put this idea together in a more egalitarian framework. There is no reason one cannot – in the view of the will to power, human rights (for instance) are just as much an expression of this conflict of wills as anything else.

The question remains to what extent we can meaningfully reduce all existence to this conflict of wills, the web of competing power relations. It is certainly the case that one may see the world this way, but of course this is not the only perspective available. Perhaps the interesting question here is whether it is possible to see the world without this element, or whether one must simply incorporate the will to power into other perspectives.

My experience is that anyone who tends towards the Rational temperament (the dominance of the orbito-frontal cortex) finds it hard to resist the draw of this point of view. Those who express Rational strongly cannot resist reducing complex situations to formulated systems, and behaviour, politics and nature can be expressed quite comprehensively in terms of the will to power. But the danger here, as with any lens we try to apply universally, is that by pre-supposing an interpretation in terms of power, one mistakes an applicable model for a fundamental truth – I would almost accuse Nietzsche of this error if it were not for his frequent insistence, throughout his notebooks, that “there are no facts, only interpretations.”

The trap in swallowing Nietzsche's “will to power” idea hook, line and sinker is to presume one knows with certainty what “power” means – for in the perspective he was advancing, it must take a specific meaning which need not accord with how that word is usually used. One may end up being forced into the corner whereby all actions are called “selfish” (or in this case “motivated by one's own will to power”), a perspective rather neatly disproved by Joseph Butler in 1726. If I do not receive a life-saving vaccine because I am terrified of needles, what is the meaning of this action in terms of “will to power” – that the force of my fear exceeds the force of my rationality? Indeed, this is the likely interpretation, since Nietzsche's will to power only requires us to interpret situations as networks of competing forces. What those forces might be – dominance, compassion, fear, fraternity – is entirely irrelevant to this perspective, and it is the blanching out of the details that is an arguable flaw of this view.

The political philosopher Hannah Arendt offered a very different perspective on this subject. “Power” in Arendt's terms (which she always very carefully defined) was distinct from “strength”. She suggested: “Strength unequivocally designates something in the singular...” whereas power: “...corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert. Power is never the property of an individual; it belongs to a group and remains in existence only so long as the group keeps together.” This conception of power as the ability to act in concert proves to be highly valuable to Arendt in exploring her political issues.

The contrast between Nietzsche's view and Arendt's is striking, not least of which because the latter does not contradict the former's will to power viewpoint at all – indeed, Arendt deploys it to make her (very different) point in the essay What is Freedom?:

Because of the will's impotence, its incapacity to generate genuine power, its constant defeat in the struggle with the self... the will-to-power turned at once into a will-to-oppression. I can only hint here at the fatal consequences for political theory of this equation of freedom with the human capacity to will; it was one of the causes why even today we almost automatically equate power with oppression or, at least, with rule over others.

One of Arendt's most unique observations is that the person at the head of a totalitarian regime is as much a prisoner of the system as anyone else, and indeed, this is perhaps why totalitarianism has shown a marked tendency to self-destruct. This kind of nuanced perspective on the subject of power is absent in Nietzsche's writings perhaps because the political realities that Arendt had lived through – the tumult of the twentieth century – occurred in the wake of Nietzsche. Arendt herself asks that we not hold Nietzsche accountable for what was to come, even though some prominent Nazi's did seize upon Nietzsche's ideas and bend them to their purpose. She suggested that:

To hold the thinkers of the modern age, especially the nineteenth-century rebels against tradition [i.e. Nietzsche, Marx and Kierkegaard], responsible for the structure and conditions of the twentieth century is even more dangerous than it is unjust. … their own departure from tradition, no matter how emphatically they proclaimed it (like children whistling louder and louder because they are lost in the dark), was no deliberate act of their own choosing either... But the thunder of the eventual explosion [i.e. the wars of the twentieth century] has also drowned the preceding ominous silence that still answers us whenever we dare to ask, not “What are we fighting against”, but “What are we fighting for?”

Perhaps, the most fruitful way to face the idea of the will to power is not to attempt to show how the world is not this interplay of power relationships, although many such alternative views are certainly attainable, but rather to consider how we should like our will to power to be expended: to ask, as Arendt dares us to do, “what are we fighting for?

The opening image is The Power of Red by Nadine Rippelmeyer, which I found at the Fine Art America website. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.