WOKE

I first encountered the activist sense of the word woke on Twitter – used by a young gay man whose partnership with an ally has quite simply revolutionised LGBT-inclusive education in Scotland (and provided the followers of the campaign with a rather touching bromance). I don’t feel qualified to judge whether he’s woke or not, but he’s certainly not asleep! My next encounter with this usage was on watching the Netflix series Dear White People – which if not its origin has certainly popularised the usage. The series follows on from the 2014 film of the same name and it was, I must admit, at first a disappointment. The film was so punchy and I didn’t mind the very obvious lectures in Black American history scripted as conversation because I was learning things I didn’t know in an enjoyable way – and that’s good education in my book. The series continued with this style but it seemed at first to rather run out of steam plotwise and instead to spend a lot of screentime on the beautiful body of the patrician Black character Troy – with accompanying gasps of pleasure from his female entourage.

Then everything changed. In a horrible scene, when all the previous action (two men pushing each other around, in the middle of a lively mixed-race party, in an argument over who can use ‘the N-word’) stops; all that can be heard is the terrified breath of a Black man as he slowly reaches for his student ID, pleading with the two White Campus Police to keep their fingers off the trigger of their guns pointed at him. I’ve described this character simply as ‘a Black man’ because that is all that these trigger-happy cops see. In a push-about between US and THEM, the White cops totally ignore the combatant whose skin colour they share, other and ostracise and are prepared to execute this beautiful young man whose intelligence is already established on campus, whose activism is unselfishly motivated by knightly service to his lady love (currently attached to a White guy) and whose only crime was to insist that an insult re-appropriated by his community should not be repeated by those outside it.

This series, this film, and these kinds of killings only happen in the US of course. And everyone knows that Americans are crazy. So here in Britain, and especially in Scotland, we don’t need to think about it. Because it doesn’t happen here.

I wish that were true, rather than being something that I tell myself because the truth is so inconvenient. As inconvenient as the thought that Cressida Dick was promoted to head the Metropolitan Police after (denying) ordering the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes, and that the unnamed officer who shot this unarmed man five times in the head (only following orders) in a tube train in front of terrified passengers – did so not because he had run in terror, nor because he was wearing a bulky jacket, or texting, or changing buses in a rush to get to work, or even because he was a person of colour but because the head of the Metropolitan Police and the unnamed officer and many of the White cops in the UK and UK Borders officers are violently, murderously, racist.

But in Scotland we know that these kinds of killings only happen in London where everyone is crazy. Or Birmingham perhaps. Or Leeds. Not in Glasgow. I know that we’re not racist in Glasgow. Especially not in Glasgow’s West End where I work with international students and used to live. And not even in Royston, East End, fondly known by my father’s generation (growing up there) as ‘the Garngad’. Home of the displaced Irish, they famously raided the local dump and rained down blocks and bedsteads on the Orange Walk when they dared to change their route – and didn’t do again. I laughed at that story. I didn’t think what it would be like to be at the receiving end.

I didn’t think because it’s inconvenient. Scotland needs self-confidence, self-determination. We don’t need contrary voices. Like that of my Iranian friend who lives in Royston and tells me that it’s ‘the Irish’ who are the worst racists. Because I can hide my ethnicity in several envelopes. When it suits me, I’m European, then British (rarely does that suit me!) then Scottish, then Irish. My surname isn’t Scots and neither is most of my ancestry a generation or so back. Scots Catholics feel about Ireland the way Tolkien’s elves feel about the lands beyond the Sundering Seas. We treasure the Emerald Isle. Just don’t ask us to live there.

So when my Nigerian boyfriend told me he’d narrowly escaped being beaten up by 15 White youths, in Royston, I was annoyed. He’s 6 foot 1, plays mid-field defence in football (soccer), as well as being an intelligent College student devoted to helping asylum-seekers, he’s currently the most handsome and the fittest man on the face of the Earth (I’ve checked). What business has he to go around Glasgow almost getting himself beaten up?

And when he told me that his friend, on another occasion, had not escaped. That he’d dragged himself, bleeding, into his highrise flat. And lain there for three days. Because he was an asylum-seeker. And didn’t have free access to medical care. In the UK. Where everyone, supposedly, has free access to medical care. I started arguing.

And then I looked it up. It’s true. People seeking asylum in the UK are being refused free access to medical care. Even though this is illegal.

He died.

Somehow his friends got to him and somehow got him into A & E.

Where he died.

Racist people who look like me and my racist country governed by people who look like me contrived to kill a man who looked like my boyfriend.

He died.

People die. Black people die. All the time. We, dear White people, are killing them.

My friend Kelvin, who runs a church where everyone is welcome, preached a sermon on Sunday (6th August 2017) about the Transfiguration. You can watch the video clip under Latest Sermons. Kelvin mentioned many things: Moses as liberator of slaves; Elijah as prophet of the oppressed; anti-Semitism in the Labour Party; our image of God; Jesus not as enthroned King but revealed in love. And I recalled the reading, from Matthew 17: 1-9. The disciples are afraid at what they see…“but Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Rise and do not be afraid.’ And when they opened their eyes, they saw no-one but Jesus.”

I once asked a Black Caribbean friend what White people could do to help Black people best. Her answer was simple: “Love us”. At the time, I thought it a rather impractical answer. I don’t now.

When we are touched by love, when we are woke from our fear and open our eyes to behold our fellow human beings in truth. What shining glory is before us, transfigured?

Reggie DWP

‘Reggie’, Dear White People

Guerrilla Litter-Picking

Like many men my age I’m liable to sound off a bit. On occasion. For good reason. And there are many good reasons to be angry about many real issues. However, anger can become a default emotion for many men my age. It’s the other side of depression and (perhaps) it’s better out than in. Inward anger is linked by the more holistically minded to many bodily symptoms of ill health – and even the most Cartesian of medical minds admit that stress induces high levels of cortisol with a knock-on effect that’s not only bad for the waistline but is linked to Type 2 diabetes etc.
Grumpy is a stereotypical attribute of older men but vary the adjective a little and other stereotypical irascibilities come into focus: peevish, waspish, nippy, surly, petulant, bitchy, thin-skinned, aggressive, high-maintenance, demanding, hard to please, not amused. There are many manifestations of habitual anger and a bit of wordplay will ensure that’s there’s one demographically suited especially for you.
Nowadays many of us feel that we are justified in having anger as a default reaction to the wrongs of the world. We would all be quite happy if not for the treatment of refugees and asylum-seekers, if not for climate change denial, if not for cruelty to animals, if not for racism and homophobia and misogyny, if not for the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, if not for Teresa May and Donald Trump. If only these things would change, we would get back to being out usual bubbly happy-go-lucky selves. If only.
And just Zenning out or doing yet another spa weekend/ Tough Mudder/ Marvel Comics Movies binge/ (insert favourite displacement activity) can feel a bit of a cop-out. What do we do? What can we do? In the face of all that’s wrong, isn’t that the basis of our communal, continual, ever-present, exhausting, anger?
And for those of us whom the powers-that-be (higher, lower or just purgatorial) have tasked with the burden and duty and privilege of caring for a specific vulnerable person (or several at once) then all these political concerns become so personal that at times it’s simply unbearable.
And that’s when I take my trusty Ben for a walk. Along the banks of the beautiful Forth and Clyde canal. Which winds beside the remains of the Antonine Wall, one of Scotland’s most unknown, unprotected, and uncherished cultural legacies. And on that walk through this place of Victorian and Roman imperial heritage there are empty bottles of Buckfast (cheap fortified wine made by English monks) and cans of beer and their plastic rings and the supermarket plastic bags they came from, tossed about. If they haven’t already been smashed/ thrown into the canal or set on fire along with the grass.
And it usually makes me angry. But tonight, I found myself thankful that the local youth had had the grace (this time) not to chuck the bottles at the stank just below the swings. An empty bottle is better than a broken one. And on my way back, Ben still sniffing and gambolling about – because his default emotion is either highly energetic or very lazy joy – I picked up the plastic bags, snapped apart the plastic beer rings and put them and the cans and the bottle in the bags, took them home and recycled them.
It’s not much. It’s just guerrilla litter-picking. I don’t do it all the time. But when I do engage in this little sporadic and disorganised warfare against hopelessness, I can feel my cortisol levels drop and my grumpy face relax. A little.
There are so many of us. We have such energy. Just think what we could do. Just think what we do do. Now and Zen.

old-bridge-on-canal

Thanks to Karen Arnold for releasing her photo Old Bridge on Canal into the public domain.

Get Real!

It may seem counterintuitive (that’s academicspeak for downright daft) to take as the main topics of the same book such diverse debates as those over transubstantiation and transgender – and metaphysics? How could that ever leap off the shelves!
So why do it? Why write 40 thousand words on distinctions between levels of reality, on shifting patterns of value and conflicting hierarchies of morals – including a 6 thousand word science fiction story to illustrate the point?
I wrote Trans/Substantiation: The Metaphysics of Transgender because I’ve had the benefit of decades of pondering the truth, and the helpfulness, of our common views on reality (they are various). Although this book started life as an academic essay I wrote for a university RE Department when I was a doctoral candidate, I’ve increasingly felt impelled to share the insight I’ve gained into the potential for a more ecumenically acceptable philosophical framework for the Eucharist – because it might help limit the ridicule, exclusion, confusion, bullying, rejection, pain, scarring, sterility, and suicide, faced en masse or piecemeal by so many vulnerable people in the furious current controversy over trangender.
‘Vulnerable’ is a key word in this book, which portrays no-one as villains. I quote Susan Jeffreys and I quote Judith Butler, Kate Bornstein and P. Califia. They all have wisdom to impart. So many people are both hurt and angry, and angry about others like themselves getting hurt – not just by people like their opponents in this debate (like each other, basically) but principally by nontransgender men. Like me.
So I’m very conscious of my privilege in writing this book, I acknowledge the fact that my ease with academic sources and languages has come from years of tertiary education in the UK and abroad (where I learned the languages) and that my White face has been welcomed by some who would not welcome others – and if I can pass as an assumed middle class heterosexual of Caucasian ancestry that assumption is no less potent for being in error.
Mostly. Because things change. Panta rhe said the pre-Socratics: everything flows. Even mountains. They just do it slowly.
The problem with metaphysics isn’t that it’s unreal, it’s that it’s invisible. How we believe reality to be constructed is so fundamental to our mindset as individuals (actually, as groups) that we fail to see it as a belief at all. Life, the world, the universe – it just is! It is what it is! Where’s the mystery in that?
For a start, that New Agey quote currently mouthed by sharp-suited managers did not originate in some MBA programme (although it’s probably included in several) but in the patient perception of an Ottoman mystic named (in the West) Rumi. The names means Roman, which meant European, which meant (in his case) Turkish.
Things aren’t always what they seem to be. Or are they? That’s a metaphysical debate in itself. The reality of experience, of private perception. As compared with some abstract mathematical public dimension that we, vaguely, imagine to be the realm of empirical science. It’s not. Empiricism isn’t actually theoretical at all. It’s just a measured way of gathering data. Which just gives us data. Not theory, not truth. Data. Then more data. That’s it.
Theory happens when scientists fall asleep, when they take baths, when they are so bored, lolling about their mother’s kitchen as boys that the only thing that draws their attention is the movement of the kettle lid as the steam comes out.
Robert M. Pirisg, the greatest and most misunderstood philosopher of the 20th century (one that actually philosophised, rather than simply repeating the ideas of others, cleverly) provided great clarity in his roman-a-thèse novels. I just shoved that bit of French in to impress you – and I bet it worked. The French wouldn’t be impressed, as roman means novel and thèse is just thesis. So these books tell a story and also teach. Clever. Entertaining. At the same time. It’s called rhetoric and academics (who do it all the time) officially hate it.
There’s a lot of rhetoric in this book because it’s a social pattern of value designed to combat the resistance of static quality (inertia, basically) to new ideas. Because new ideas don’t just force us to confront new perspectives – they force us to confront the ones we already have. The ones we take as self-evident. Like empiricism being theoretical. And we can really resent being told that we may only be partly right. And that they, our utter avowed enemy (because if there’s one thing we’re not it’s one of them!) might be partly right too. Then we might have to give our identity badge back, leave the club, stop giving the handshake.
Don’t read this book if all your online friends and followers agree with you about gender. According a value to voices outside of your echo chamber may be too much for you at this point in your life. Do read it if you are at all concerned that perhaps your views on gender might be hurting someone else and if you’ve recently disagreed with someone on a topic dear to your heart but still respect them. Do read it, also, if you’re fed up going to interdenominational weddings and funerals and seeing the sad sight of half the congregation sat in the pews at communion – or humbly going forward for blessing rather than bread.
Things change. Reading this, you might.

Snowflake2

Trans/Substantiation: The Metaphysics of Transgender is on Amazon, in print & Kindle version with a free online sample (click on my name to see the other version if they aren’t yet linked) and in various formats on Smashwords (premium quality) and many national and international online retailers.

Thanks to Piotr Siedlecki who has released his photo, ‘White Snowflake 2’, into the Public Domain on: www.publicdomainpictures.net

Oor Ain Wee Show

It was the rehearsal from Hell. My burning question, ‘Are we to have our photos taken before we don our costumes?’ went without conclusive answer (everyone had an answer but none of them matched) least of all from the photographer who, for – some reason unbeknownst to me and, I suspect, him – was wandering about dressed for the Pirates of Penzance when it’s not part of the Programme. And, like everyone else, lost in learning lines.

In fairness, everyone else who was still learning lines was doing so with chairs in hand (sometimes several) which they were attempting to carry through thresholds – such as the rarely-shut door between Dressingroom A and Dressingroom B, the narrow passage past the toilets, and on and off stage. In several simultaneous directions of travel, including up and down.

My most sane moment before I finally fought my way onstage was halfway up a ladder with the Wardrobe Mistress, comparing medical symptoms of stress, looking for bunnets. Although, having a quiet word with a Pixie (in the middle of a shrieking press of bodies) while I wielded nail scissors to cut the pockets open in my jaikit, unaccountably still sewn shut, was similarly soothing. We may, admittedly, have had two completely distinct conversations but at least I had managed to find a place for my personal props.

Having been told, definitely, that I may or may not be required as the Drunk and the Respectable Gentleman both, and that I perhaps absolutely had no business with a chair, I found myself playing both and carrying one Off. Blocking changed (admittedly, I’d missed the last rehearsal) I discovered that if I entered Centre Left, rather than Up Left, purporting to be searching for a body, it made little sense as it was now right in front of me. At least that body could be seen, as distinct from the one I fell over in the pitch dark during a Quick Change, who was busy arranging chairs. He was very good about it, when I saw him in the light later, and we determined that on future exits I would hug the curtain – rather than him.

Scene over, I made my way into the auditorium and such was my state of mind that it took me halfway through a sketch where things fall apart to realise that it was intentional. I was still recovering from the stress of constantly running after articles of costume that I had momentarily laid down on a chair now being carried off through various thresholds.

Not that things were any calmer onstage. My scene producer had to step lively to avoid an incoming chaise-longue just when she thought it safe to enter, in a lovely dirndl dress. Although that may have been her Panto costume and I was confused, like everyone else. Ignoring the frequent audible stage whispers of ‘Quiet in the Wings!’ I sat through various scenes, and even laughed, then went off to wash the dishes. Cups, unlike my fellow members of the Kirkintilloch Players, tend to stay still and don’t shriek.

We finally got that photo taken and I must admit that it looks okay. And the old theatrical wisdom is that ‘If the Dress is a disaster, it’ll be alright on the night’ (technically it was a Tech but it may still count). I hope so. Just as long as no-one shouts ‘Good luck’ or quotes The Scottish Tragedy. Apparently we’re already sold out. I hope people know that chairs will be supplied!

See the website www.kirkintillochplayers.co.uk for info about the company, upcoming shows and links to other Scottish amateur theatre companies. Even when nerve-wracking and bewildering, ‘Am Dram’ is great fun, the theatre in general rejoices in equality and diversity – and allows us to ponder the unsettling fact that our social roles that we perform and value so highly may, in fact, be rather insubstantial.

vintage-drama-poster

Thanks to Dawn Hudson for releasing her image ‘Vintage Drama Poster’ into the Public Domain.

Lorca in a time of tyranny

Scowling and stamping her cane, as soon as the door was closed and we were hermetically sealed inside her house, Bernarda Alba (Charlaye Blair) dominated the stage of Michael John LaChiusa’s musical from the start. Only towards the end, with the horrific scene outside (a young woman who had murdered her baby born out of wedlock pursued by a stone-throwing mob) did we understand the tremendous social pressure she was under to keep her virgin daughters inside and inviolate until their wedding day. The heavy cross on the wall beside the huge wooden door, the smoking thurible (wielded with the rhythmic clink that marks the expert thurifer) and the imagined image of the Virgin, addressed in prayer, all set the scene for the patriarchal funeral and the funereal matriarchal atmosphere that followed.

Megan-Louise Fraser had the hard job of performing alternatively as virgin, mother and crone in the characters of the mad Maria Josepha, the matronly (and plainly bored) neighbour Prudencia and the young maid, lowest of the low in this very hierarchical household. The contrast between her youthful features and the dress and grey hair of the mother of Bernarda Alba gave us the insight that inside every grandmother there still lives a young woman.

Gemma Elmes (servant) set her face with all the strong character of the gitanas of Andalucia, yet could also be merry and her voice was a delight. Erin McCullagh (Poncia) played the part of the poor relation well and provided an occasional buffer to the tyranny of the mother of the five unfortunate girls.

Such was the magic of this show that we were persuaded by the insistence of the cast to suspend our disbelief and accept that the very beautiful Abbie MacNeil (Angustias) was, in fact, the ugly sister – though the one lucky enough to receive the attentions of the never-seen male suitor. That she was not the only one receiving his attention was the constant rumour, suspicion, jealously and scandal of the other sisters: dignified but playful Magdalena (Heather Crook) and Amelia (Johanne Rishaug Hellman); besotted Martirio (Caitlin Mae); and minxy Adela (Laura Sweeney).

This challenging show was beautifully choreographed by Kally Lloyd-Jones, with the dancers moving now in unison, now in a complex swirl of stage-setting and striking poses lit by the changing hues of set and lighting designer John Holding. Stage management by Holly Adams was, as it should be for this most self-effacing theatrical role, so good it was invisible.

Having lived in Granada for years, I must confess my initial disappointment that more was not made of flamenco rhythms but on reflection the high social status of the household may well have included a disdain for the music of the pueblo and I could not fault the melancholy combination of oboe/ cor anglais, viola and cello, nor the brio of the guitar-playing by Ross Wilson. Directing the music (and playing piano) Christopher Breckenridge accompanied the cast as they moved effortlessly from intoning liturgical chant to singing the sinister ribaldry of Three Moorish Girls.

With such cast, accompaniment, setting and lighting, director Tom Cooper had all the ingredients of a great show and with percussionist Antony Irwin, and strategic slams of the cane, the door and the chairs, the dramatic effect of the action was startling. With no visual required, everyone in the audience knew what we were witnessing at the last scene and – whether we knew the story or not – everyone gasped.

A timely mediation on tyranny and the oppression of women – even (and especially) by each other. 

Bernarda Alba is performed by GAMTA.

gypsy-girl-with-mandolin-c-1870

Thanks to Dawn Hudson, who has released her photo “Gypsy Girl With Mandolin, C. 1870” (Public domain vintage painting by Jean Baptiste Camille Corot, available from The National Gallery of Art) into the Public Domain

 

Down the Rabbithole at Swing

Show-starter Mariane McGregor’s highly stylised performance places her halfway between the soulful siren Adele and the tongue-in-your-cheeks campery of drag artist Tina C. The question of naturality or artifice was most happily resolved in her very arch number “Doreen” which told of (and told off) her estwhile unfortunate flatmate and really connected with the audience. It’s an interesting question for all artistes but for one with such talent there are the intriguing possibilities of either toning it down or taking it up – along a spectrum stretching from heartfelt soul to self-conscious torch song. 

Show-organiser Melisa Kelly is well-named, as her voice is indeed melifluous, and the sweetness of this honey-tongued songstress extends to a becoming modesty about her evident entreprenuerial talents (she set up this show in a matter of hours) and to the warmth of her friendships with performers and audience members alike. My feeling is (and this is not a criticism) that the singing side of performance most matters to Melisa and her agnostic gospel anthem, a credo dedicated to the love of her friends, was for me her most moving number.

Show-stopper Cat Loud (Catriona MacLeod) is equally at home onstage and when catching up with old friends and making new ones among the audience. Totally in control of what she reveals (both body and soul) Cat sings her way into our hearts by turning even the saddest emotion and most heartfelt failure into an occasion to celebrate our shared humanity. Hilarious and heart-breaking by turn, Cat’s theatrical experience supports a show where there is no worry about her getting it wrong: even an unhappily-placed pillar can be used as a prop to connect better with the audience. A very slight distraction (forgiveable in the face of so much glamtastic material) was her fussing with her final costume. A most welcome aspect (for a shy soul like me dreading an upcoming comedy event where I’m in the front row) was how kindly she treats her audience volunteers: the laugh is never on them and they at once become supporting cast rather than sidekicks. All in all, this young woman is one to watch for an already mature talent that just keeps on getting better. 

Mesmerised by the ladies, I didn’t note the names of all three gents who very ably supported each one musically however their performance impressed not only because of such skill on keyboard and guitar but because they kept to their role and resisted the temptation to steal the limelight. Notwithstanding that, I noticed some members of the audience stealing quite a few glances their way. Like the ladies, these three gents combine the perfomance arts with the decorative.

Swing, about a third the size of The Classic Grand and with similar decor) is an intimate friendly venue on Glasgow’s Hope Street showcasing live music at times stated at www.swingltd.co.uk. Catch the girls on Twitter: @marianne_mcgg; @melisamkelly; and @ThatCatLoud to keep up with their developing careers – upcoming shows including Cat Loud at the Edinburgh Festival (details on www.catloud.co.uk).


[image from event advertising]

The Levelling

'A man had two sons’; but one was a daughter,
He divided his kingdom in three,
Hope is a hare that swam in the water.

A third lost to flood, a third went to slaughter,
Squandering life on a spree,
'A man had two sons’; but one was a daughter.

Fire and thud, blood and splatter,
Death in an outhouse, why he not she?
Hope is a hare that drowned in the water.

Plaguing the mud, a vengeful Creator,
Joy was locked up with a key,
'A man had two sons’; but one was a daughter.

Slaughtered and burned, the scarce born creature, 
Mammon wants milk for his tea,
Gone is the heir, blood rinsed with water.

Gone are three thirds, despair comes after,
Crazed in the field, unable to see,
Found is the heir, blood's thicker than water.
'A man had two sons’; but one was a daughter.

levelling-featured-270x270

Poem by Alan McManus 20th Feb.'17
Publicity photo from: www.thelevelling.com

Triage and Tyranny

1855. You are sitting outside a large medical tent in the freezing winter on the shores of the Black Sea. Future generations will know this is the Crimean War. To you, a young woman from a sheltered background with scant medical training, it is Hell.
Here they come.
The tent behind you is partitioned in three. To the right, the wounded soldiers likely to survive without medical intervention; in the centre, those likely to die without medical intervention; to the left, those likely to die; outside, those already dead. There are three exits from the tent. The word ‘likely’ does not mean very much, but it’s the best that can be done in the circumstances.
As the first one approaches, stretcher supported by brothers in arms, you know that your split-second decision for right or left or centre (or outside) is likely to save some lives and to end others. If you do nothing, many more will die. If you try to save them all, many more will die.
You steel yourself, thrust down your feelings, and begin the first, rapid, assessment.
This scene is an imaginary illustration of very real events that have been taking place just behind the front line in many wars for many years. A complicating factor, and there are many, is that there are only so many doctors and there’s only so much time. So only those most likely to survive will receive treatment. Any time wasted on those to the right or left means more of those in the centre will die – as some will anyway. This necessary categorisation, in these circumstances, is not only life-saving; it is almost certainly a sentence of death. Someone has to do it.
As morality deals with good and evil; ethics deals with right and wrong. Their relationship is complex. The kind of ethical decision-making employed by the young woman in the illustration is today called ‘utilitarian’ – meaning that such decisions are based on their utility, i.e. the good that may come out of them. Several modern philosophers are associated with utilitariansim but the foremost champion of a single ethical imperative outweighing all others is the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant.
Kantian ethics, deriving ultimately from Plato’s Socrates (via a misreading of Aristotle) had great influence in Nazi Germany and, as I show in my thesis, continues to have great influence in the United States of America.
What a horrible thing to say! How can I compare a courageous young woman doing her best to save lives against all odds in hellish circumstances, with Hitler and then with the Land of the Free?
Firstly, as the classicist Prof. Martha Nussbaum shows, Kantian ethics are an attempt to avoid the tragic conflict of opposing ethical imperatives. In other words, the young women sitting outside the tent in the Crimean War avails herself of the clarity of these ethics so that no matter the particularities of each wounded soldier (the one whose blue eyes remind her of her brother, the one who pleads for life because of his pregnant wife, the one who has high rank in the Army) she is able to make a decision based solely on the greater good: saving as many lives as possible.
I cannot fault the exercise of Kantian ethics in those circumstances. Grave problems arise, however, when frontline decision-making becomes the basis of ethical conduct in times of peace.
Kantian ethics rely on the total removal of all other ethical considerations opposing the main imperative. A key part of this process (as modern philosopher Dr Mary Midgley shows) is the reduction of particular people and particular circumstances into universal categories. (Also reduction happens, as I show in this book, by use of language.) So, for example, sandy-haired Private Benjamin Jones, 33, a nonconformist lay preacher and amateur boxer, married and faithful to pretty brunette Nelly Jones neé MacDonald, although in love with his lieutenant, who has three kids (the youngest coincidentally resembling the postman), doting parents, a dog and likes fishing, becomes ‘suppurating wound in the thigh’ and is sent to the left (to die).
The reason why frontline ethics are a problem in peacetime is that the only thing that recommends them is their simplicity. I’m not for a moment saying that triage is simple but Kantian ethics are designed to respond only to the greatest ethical imperative and ignore all the others. As Prof. Nussbaum shows, this is the reverse of Aristotle’s teaching that it is the particulars of each person and circumstance that most surely guide us towards a wise ethical response. Not simple, wise.
This kind of sensitivity to particular ethical situations is recommended by moral philosophers such as Rev. Charles Curran, the American theologian who was in frequent conflict with Pope John Paul II. What concerns me is that it is a sensitivity increasingly under threat as more and more organisations worldwide are affected by American corporate values.
Charitable organisations are especially vulnerable as they often flounder in terms of effectiveness, communication and organisation so a hard-headed person unafraid to make tough decisions may seem like a godsend. The catch is that such decision-making may indeed be tough, for anyone with much humanity, but for those hardly burdened by conscience it is quite simple: set goals, clear obstacles, forward march!
Further complications arise because charitable organisations are full of people who feel it is uncharitable not to think the best of others. So if a candidate for a powerful position shows psychopathic tendencies, these may be interpreted as ‘focussed’ or ‘business-minded’. Freud’s rather innocent example of such tendencies (a girl who likes a boy she met at a funeral hoping for another funeral to maybe meet him again) shows that they are not just shared by the criminally insane. In fact, a recent survey of top companies found that a fifth of CEOs shared these tendencies.
It’s a commonplace in the more smug varieties of chicklit and womens’ magazines to poke fun at males (never men) making up the majority of those on the autistic spectrum; on the other end of the same spectrum psychologists are concerned that women (never females) who make up the majority of those on the psychotic spectrum are not receiving support as the condition is so badly publicised.
Adding all this together with the everyday sexism that still abounds and the trend in the third sector is for organisations to be run by someone high on the psychopathic scale, with immediate subordinates (or support from Head Office) of men who find it easier to stick rigidly to rules than interact with changing human situations (as emotional particularities are so overwhelmingly complex to interpret) and with women in the majority of grassroots workers and many of them self-sacrificing and painfully sensitive to the opinions of others.
On top of all this may be the hothouse effect that occurs when communities are cloistered canonically, isolated geographically or otherwise shrouded in secrecy due to the vulnerability/ naivety of their client group or the difficulty in getting staff. An insistence on ‘professionalism’ may mean that dissenting/ abused employees and volunteers are prevented from expressing anything other than the party line – as the psychopathic boss controls formal communication and informal communication is condemned as ‘gossip’ unworthy of good people, scandalous to the public/ clients and contrary to the exemplary values of the school/ church/ home/ charity/ community. The hallmark of the psychopath is the inability to recognise or feel any remorse for the harm they have done to people, so they move effortlessly from sadistic treatment of an individual to community schmaltz with a beaming face of innocence.
There is much wisdom in the co-dependency awareness movement but what it may fail to grasp is that everyone involved may sincerely believe that they are doing the right thing:
– Laying down the law
– Sticking to procedures
– Self-sacrificing and keeping silent
As we watch in awe the debacle of American democracy, it may help to realise that the unprecedented administration is a symptom, not a cause, of frontline ethics applied in peacetime.
The reduction of complex situations to simple categories of right and wrong, the dehumanising of people, the control of the people by force and censorship of the free speech, these are the hallmarks of military crisis and in such times the Ancient Romans accorded special dictatorial powers to a designated senator (usually a consul). The Ancient Greeks called this person a Tyrant.

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Thanks to Linnaea Mallette who has released her photo ‘Funny Hospital Sign’ into the public domain.

How to deal with the Donald

I wrote this as US journalists were silenced by a mixture of amazement and embarrassment that anyone could tell such blatant lies. Due to a computer upgrade, I’ve only now been able to publish it. Since then, events have only confirmed these words but the words and actions of the Donald have gone beyond my fears.
We all know that the crowd of Inauguration supporters of US President Donald Trump was not ‘the biggest ever’. He knows it and his toadies know it. The only defence they can come up with for such a blatant lie is that other presidents have not told the truth. So why tell it? Why was this (after the photographs in the Oval Office of him signing something to apparently initiate the repeal the Affordable Care Act, and the removal from the White House website of the pages dedicated to LGBT people and Climate Change) the first move in the game he’s playing?
The Donald, as he is known in the Scottish island of his mother, is extremely thin-skinned. So the embarrassment of the silenced journalists at the press conference is that proper to the witnesses of folly. Part of it is about face-saving. He may be a political opponent but it’s painful (especially in the German sense of embarrassing) to witness someone making such a social gaffe. This goes beyond his ridiculously worn tie, his wild gesturing, his apparently quoting a Marvel villain in his first presidential address. And the accompanying amazement is that anyone could be so blatant. If we go high when they go low, can we even stoop to contradicting a lie that everyone knows to be a lie – including its source and supporters?
Yes. It’s important that we all, always and everywhere now, continue to contradict the lies. Even when they are obvious. It’s very, very important. Because the battle over the control of social discourse began with this first move. The point about the story of the Emperor’s new clothes is absolutely not that he was naked or that a small heroic or naïve child pointed this out. The point is that the trickster was confident that he could control the social discourse. To see and see again and not see the truth; to hear and hear again and not hear the truth. It needs repeating. It’s important that we all, always and everywhere now, continue to contradict the lies. Even when they are obvious. It’s very, very important.
We need to do that whenever and wherever his toadies lie; and they are legion and so are their spreading lies. But that’s not the way to deal with the Donald. The mistake that oppressed groups make time and time again is to confuse the ability to predict the behaviour of their oppressor with his or her motivation. [I’ve plagiarised this piece of wisdom from somewhere I’ve forgotten, so if you know the source please let me know on twitter @gumptionology.] The motivation of the new President of the United States, whom we may have to put up with for some time (‘we’ being Earthlings) may be discovered in the work of the greatest and most undervalued philosopher of the 20th century, Robert M. Pirsig.
He writes: “The cause of our current social crises […] is a genetic defect within the nature of reason itself. […] I have a vision of an angry continuing social crisis that no-one really understands the depth of, let alone has solutions to” (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Ch 10). Pirsig published wrote those words in 1974 and the book reflects his experience of the division caused by, and that caused, the American-Vietnam War.
The sequel, Lila (1991) develops his solution to this angry social crisis and as his first work was “an inquiry into values”, his second was “an inquiry into morals” (subtitles of Pirsig 1994, 1991). He sets up a hierarchy of morals, of patterns of values, drawing on an ancient philosophical tradition. But where others (such as Aristotle) saw only higher and lower beings, Pirsig sees levels of quality and their complex interaction as the lower levels simultaneously support the higher levels and constantly attempt to bring them down. So it’s not only these levels of morality that are in a hierarchical relationship, it’s their conflicts. [My critique and development is here]
An illustration. Contrast the social ease of (former) US President Barack Obama with the awkwardness of President (elect) Donald Trump. Now ask what it is that these two individuals value. For those schooled in Pirsig’s philosophy [actually it’s metaphysics but, if that word causes you anxiety, call it ‘ontology’] this question is key.
While Barak Obama is a master of social quality and is now focussing on intellectual values (truth being one of them and respectful dialogue with other, opposing, thinkers a way to discern truth more clearly) Donald Trump, who was a handsome young man, has infamously struggled to master his biological urges and is desperate for social esteem.
In Pirsig’s hierarchy, the social transcends the biological and supports/ tries to bring down the intellectual level of quality. In other words, while Barak Obama is secure socially and can use this security to further develop his evident intellectual gifts, Donald Trump has a legacy of lack of sexual self-control and his social acceptance is even more precarious now that he is so much in the harsh glare of global media attention, most of it antagonistic. Intellectual values (truth being one of them and respectful dialogue another) are appropriated on the social level of quality as no more than competing discourses. The winner is not the most truthful but the one who can force his or her preferred discourse to prevail. Adolf Hitler spoke of ‘the Great Lie’ that only needs to be constantly repeated to be eventually accepted as truth. There may be a lot of this in the days and months (and years?) ahead.
So how do we deal with the Donald?
Impeach him! (there’s enough evidence)
Resist him (there’s enough will)
Give him what he wants.
No, don’t stop reading in disgust, think! He has no real interest in the treatment of any particular group of people or system of economics or even (perhaps) in money. He wants the social esteem that accompanies being recognised for a good performance. Which is why the comments of Meryl Streep on his performance got to him so much [again this thought is plagiarised]. Knowing this, we can not only predict his behaviour but also understand his motivation. Demonising him won’t get us anywhere (and, with his thin skin and finger on the nuclear button, may be highly dangerous). Understanding him will.
So it may not be very revolutionary advice, but if your organisation wants an incredibly powerful and wealthy patron, now is the time to ask. Put up a plaque, invite him to cut a ribbon, control very carefully his verbal discourse but play up the positive symbolic action and he’ll lap it up. Just be prepared to take it down quickly once he’s impeached and to justify your dubious means with excellent humanitarian ends. But realise that as a human being dominated by intellectual values is a philosopher, and one dominated by social values a performer so one dominated by biological values is an animal. So surround him with burly men to physically block access to any women. This is a petulant and dangerous tyrant (think Joffrey in A Game of Thrones) whose real ambition is to be esteemed as a magnanimous and magnificent president of the Rotary Club.
His inability to comprehend the use of diplomatic discourse, the rule of law or even martial strategy, show him to be a mostly biological being. Physically blocking people from entering what he perceives as his territory, sexually invading the personal space of women, trusting to brute force in unplanned military maneouvers, even his attempt at shoulder-bumping and cheek-brushing former President Obama (and kissing a male colleague on the forehead) these are the hallmarks of a brute not who only subverts but profoundly misunderstands social values.
I think the Donald has realised that we (Earthlings) don’t think he’s okay and therefore he’s decided we’re not either. He looks angry and unhappy, and is blaming anyone but himself for his lack of success in this new position which he expected to bring him popular acclaim and had brought him quite the opposite. So the brash clown in his quest for celebrity has become a bully and the bully a tyrant. He’s treating the Oval Office as a board room and the role of president as that of majority shareholder. His constantly televised performance of that role (being filmed signing executive orders and holding them up to camera) is not just playacting, not now, because these speech acts and written orders have presidential power.
His campaign was conducted with an incoherent but strategic bricolage of appeals for and promises of support: for the ‘rust belt’ un(der)employed, for big business, for small business, for White racists, for Latinos, for Blacks, for Americans, for Republicans, for the political elite, for those against the political elite, for homophobes, for LGBT people, for Democrats for Bill Clinton, for Democrats against Hillary Clinton, for those for/ against public healthcare. The campaign never made any sense. The only group he consistently opposed (and mentioned in his Inaugural address) was foreign Muslims whom he classes as terrorist suspects. Why single out this group when the Christian right also hate LGBT people? Because, if you can’t unite people with love (and, unlike Barak Obama, the Donald just doesn’t have that gift) the easiest way is through fear.
So while we should be afraid (and should be doing everything to counter lies and get out the truth so he is impeached and jailed) we should not be paralysed. If we have to put up with him for months or years, we need to learn how to deal with him.
Understanding someone’s primary value conflict is the key to understanding their motivation. Donald Trump feels good, feels moral, when he manages to control his libido and does the right thing (the accepted thing) socially. The infamous wall is the keystone of his version of the New Deal, a public works project he can sign off to get the rustbelt back to work. Except it’s not going to work. The very last thing the post-industrialised world needs is a massive, unsustainable public building project. If he invested money in organic garden allotments, it would make more sense. It just wouldn’t make the news or be popular with his rabid supporters.
However, he may even eventually realise that he can get the attention he craves with good behaviour. He could even change. He could even realise that popularity is not the only good. Miracles do happen. Meanwhile, the Donald’s biggest personal challenge is not getting caught consorting with other women when his wife is in New York. His biggest professional challenge is working with other elected officials, who are not going to put up with his autocratic ways any more than did the honourable Senate supporters of Julius Caesar. And as for the battle over the control of social discourse, how on earth did he imagine that he could win that by alienating actors, journalists, the judiciary, the White House staff and the intelligence services?
The great apes, for all their power, control their individual biological urges in order to interact socially. Most human beings learn to do this in infancy. Some take quite a while longer. Perhaps the promised presidential jobs might include a primatologist.

Thanks to Paul Brennan who has released his photograph, ‘Silverback Gorilla profile image’ into the public domain.

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Dead Funny Theatre

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It wasn’t what it said on the tin. The expected evening of witty political satire of the state of Trumpton, which I took to be implied by the title, didn’t happen. However the unexpected is to be expected at Govanhill Baths, Glasgow, especially when Melanie Combe of Dead Funny Theatre is in charge. 

Except she wasn’t. Her NY comedy mentor started off this draft show & tell of his weeklong improv workshop with quite a lot about him and quite a big push of his merchandise. And the ‘tips jar’? This would have been better at the finale or the interval and someone else acting formally as front of house at the start might have avoided the mobiles ringing, pointed out loos & exits and explained the refreshments situation. (There weren’t any.)

The comedy didn’t really happen till the improv in the 2nd Act, which was amusing and often clever. During the 1st Act, I felt the Fourth Wall was a clear glass oven door through which we could see the mixture start to rise. And a rich mixture it was. I’m used to theatrical self-revelation and, while it is often self-indulgent, these four poignant offerings showed potential.

One, delivered lightly to cover up tragedy, begs to become a Death in Paradise type 1 Act; another the kind of one woman cabaret that Cat Loud does so well (catch her at the Ed. Fest.) the third left me more interested in the actor (who was very flexible and inventive) than the narrative of boyhood dreams meet reality, and it was a gift to glimpse some of the raw material of the playwright, principal & director of Dead Funny Theatre whose work is normally hilarious. Melanie is bringing out a show soon and I plan to be there, holding my sides and laughing out loud.

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