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.


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

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.


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.


Dead Funny Theatre

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.