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  • Sources of the Self – Chpt 2

    February 11, 2010 @ 7:54 pm | by Bryan

    The Self in Moral Space

    I struggled with this week’s reading, The Self in Moral Space. It’s a heavy chapter in the sense that there are a lot of ideas crammed in there, all of which demand that you take some time and mull over them. And even after I’ve done that, I’ve found it difficult to synthesise the various ideas. It’s a little like being able to make out the different colours on a canvas while failing to step back far enough to see the whole image.

    That said, what struck me most was:

    To know who I am is a species of knowing where I stand. My identity is defined by the commitments and identifications which provide the frame or horizon within which I can try to determine from case to case what is good, or valuable, or what ought to be done, or what I endorse or oppose. In other words, it is the horizon within which I am capable of taking a stand (p. 27).

    … I can only learn what anger, love, anxiety, the aspiration to wholeness, etc., are through my and others’ experience of these being objects for us, in some common space. This is the truth behind Wittgenstein’s dictum that agreement in meanings involves agreement in judgements. Later, I may innovate … But the innovation can only take place from the base in our common language (pp. 35-6).

    And finally,

    …in order to make minimal sense of our lives, in order to have an identity, we need an orientation to the good … this sense of the good has to be woven into my understanding of my life as an unfolding story … we grasp our lives in a narrative … In order to have a sense of who we are, we have to have a notion of how we have become, and of where we are going (p. 47).

    I think Taylor brilliantly threads the idea that the formation of one’s identity is a communal process. That being the case, our personal goals, our moral frameworks, where our society is headed – all these things are intertwined if I have read him correctly. If I have, I agree completely.

    What did you make of this chapter.

  • Why isn’t George Lee a hero?

    February 9, 2010 @ 10:25 pm | by Bryan

    George Lee speaking outside Leinster House yesterday, following his resignation from both the Dáil and Fine Gael. Photograph: Eric Luke

    George Lee speaking outside Leinster House yesterday, following his resignation from both the Dáil and Fine Gael. Photograph: Eric Luke.

    It pains me to think of myself as jumping onto the George Lee bandwagon, but jump on it I shall. Actually, I’m not really jumping on the bandwagon. I don’t have very much to add to the matter in terms of socio-political analysis or insight. All I have is a question. Simply, why isn’t the guy a hero?

    The ‘I went into politics to serve my country/so that I could look my grandkids in the eye’ was a bit much. It sounded like a politician doing what just about all politicians do – trying to look better than they really are. And let’s face it, a celebrity economist is no more likely to know how to sort out the country’s economic difficulties than all the other economists advising and working within the political process. In that respect, I can understand why so many people feel that Lee should have behaved like other elected officials and just got on with the job he signed up for, regardless of how difficult it may have been to get his ideas across.

    Still, here is an individual who, having spent less than a year on the job, has decided that the main opposition party just isn’t serious, and is walking away. Call it throwing toys out of a cot if you want, but I’m really impressed. Non-compliance with systems and institutions that don’t work is, in my opinion, very definitely the way to go. Which is why I’m confused. The average person distrusts most politicians, the political establishment and its culture. Yet when a George Lee rejects that culture, when he decides that it is better to walk away from it all than to continue to legitimate it, to perpetuate the idea that the slogans, speeches and images that go around at election time bear any resemblance to the reality of post-election political life, he is accused of being a mollycoddled, cowardly civil servant. All of a sudden, the status quo politicians are rugged, powerful, stouthearted Greek gods, while Lee and others of his ilk, most notably (for some reason) civil servants, are pathetic specimens who don’t belong anywhere near the reigns of public office.

    In Understanding Power, Noam Chomsky suggests that a rough environment will produce a rough political class because only they will be able to survive and hang around long enough to make it to the top. That’s not to imply that Ireland necessarily has a ‘rough’ political climate, but it obviously has one which is not conducive to the likes of Lee. And maybe that explains why so many incredibly able people here shun politics as a profession.

    Which brings me back to my initial question: why isn’t Lee a hero? Why, at the very least, isn’t the country panicked? If his election in any way represented a desire to see capable people from outside the political class given the opportunity to help sort out the country, why isn’t his failure to do that ominous? Doesn’t it mean that only the sort of person who can accommodate or tolerate the political system as it currently stands can hold elected office for any significant period of time?

    Turning on Lee, from where I stand, looks like an endorsement by the ruled, of the idea that they don’t belong in their rulers’ courts.

  • Culture, witches and unicorns

    February 8, 2010 @ 3:21 pm | by Bryan

    One of my favourite novels is Ngugi wa Thiong’s A Grain of Wheat. Even more powerfully than Chinua Achebe in Things Fall Apart, Ngugi lays out the complexities of colonialism and decolonisation. For both men, culture is the central locus of the political struggle against imperial domination. Culture is key because it is seen as central to the identity of the colonised; as what most crucially separates them from those who would conquer them. In the hands of these two novelists, as is the case with many other artists, philosophers and politicians before and after them, culture = identity, which in turn legitimates, even necessitates, resistance.

    But what is culture? I’m not so sure, and neither is Ngugi. In A Grain of Wheat, he convincingly suggests that the average person is more interested in their economic well-being than they are in collective cultural survival; that most politicians would happily adopt a new identity in pursuit of power – a charge which history seems to uphold. Which begs the question, is culture real and if so, does it really matter? Does it matter that contemporary urban Irish culture now tends towards that of the American urban setting as depicted by Hollywood? Does it matter that given the resources, supposedly ‘exotic’ peoples in the developing world would also probably go the same way?

    A West African friend asked me yesterday if my wife and I were planning on teaching our newborn chiShona, our mother tongue. Yes, I told him, for practical reasons, and even more importantly, to give him a sense of identity and an appreciation of his culture. But while I still hold to those sentiments, I’m not sure I know what culture even is, and I don’t know that it’s possible to swim against the current of the hegemonic global (read Hollywood) culture. Besides, Senghor and the other fathers of Négritude were quite possibly more French than most Frenchmen of their time in that they had a deeper intellectual appreciation as well as fondness for the French arts and philosophy. Garvey, Nkurumah and other giants of pan-Africanism never really got beyond Europe. For them, Africa would ‘arrive’ when it came to resemble Europe. And then there’s the political class, for whom it often seems as though the only aspects of culture that are tolerable are those which facilitate their stay in office. How else does one explain the fact that the postcolonial African state mimics its former European owner, or that today’s Ireland most closely resembles Britain?

    What is culture? I think it’s a lot like Julia Roberts’ character in Pretty Woman, who when asked what her name was, responded with, “Whatever you want it to be.” It’s not that she had no name of her own, she was just very amenable to the facilitation of her patron’s fantasies for a fee. And yet, even today, I think there is a lot of truth in the equation culture = identity, which is essential for and may even necessitate resistance – be that political, economic, social, religious…

    But going back to my son, I wonder if ‘our culture’ as a family or people group becomes whatever I decide to teach him it is. That may be the best I can do. And yet I can’t stop thinking about Alasdair MacIntyre’s pronouncement on the concept of human rights – essentially that because they are a political tool that becomes whatever you want them to be, ‘belief in them is one with belief in witches and in unicorns’.

    I wonder if the same is true for a substantive portion of what we call culture? I wonder if it is only as real as witches and unicorns.

  • Thursday Book Club: Sources of the Self (Chpt 1)

    February 4, 2010 @ 10:06 am | by Bryan

    Sources of the Self

    Inescapable Frameworks

    This is a tough book to read. Having only looked at the preface and chapter 1, I know I’m only going to understand bits of this book, not the whole thing. But having read little chunks of Taylor’s work elsewhere, I think the thing to do is not to try to ‘get it’ all, but to dwell on those bits that do make sense. Another thing is that in the other works by Taylor that I’ve read, he starts of slowly, and it’s tempting to give up on him early, but he generally seems to reward those who stick it out.

    So, any thoughts on chapter 1, Inescapable Frameworks?

  • Perspective

    February 3, 2010 @ 10:22 am | by Bryan

    I don’t have very much to add today in the way of observations on life, the universe and everything. My wife gave birth to our first child last night, so everything else seems ridiculously trivial in comparison at the moment.

    I’ll share two thoughts though. First, the staff at University Hospital Galway’s maternity section, especially the midwives, are some of the most amazing people I’ve come across. Having been on both sides of the hospital staff – patient divide, I was blown away by their patience, industry and the level of care they were able to provide. It makes you wonder about our social values and the people we chose to pay well, esteem and honour. But that’s a discussion for another day.

    Secondly, if you’re still needing your blog ‘fix’, may I suggest you take a look at Michael McManus’s Bangladeshi times, which I’m really looking forward to following going forward. I’m especially looking forward to seeing how he works out trying to contribute meaningfully without attempting to recreate Ireland in Bangladesh.

  • CAF on Togo

    January 31, 2010 @ 11:09 pm | by Bryan

    I sometimes wonder whether the ability to inhabit an alternate universe is a necessary qualification for entry into officialdom. How else does one make sense of CAF’s (The Confederation of African Football) decision to ban and fine Togo’s national football team for pulling out of this year’s Africa Cup of Nations?

    I’m struggling to understand how that kind of decision is reached. The football body’s executive committee met to discuss Togo’s exit from the competition, and then what? Someone said, “Sad as the fatal attack may have been, it’s imperative that we uphold Article 78 of our constitution?” And then what, the rest of the committee said, “Oh yes, article 78 … once you let go of things like Article 78, the whole game falls apart?”

    Who reads the 78th article of anything? The first 10 or 20, maybe, but the 78th? And even if the entire executive committee was intimately acquainted with that article, even if they thought it was vital that it be upheld, didn’t any of them have the decency to point out the obvious? That the sanctity of life, respect for the dead, simple decency – that these things trump rules, constitutions, articles and even the whims of big men in dark suits?

    The decision to ban Togo shames CAF. Either Piers Edwards is right and there’s a horrifying political dynamic to it – in which case CAF is guilty of trying to manipulate a tragedy for political gain – or my made up scenario isn’t too far from what really happened – meaning that CAF’s top brass are callous beyond words.

    In either case, they occupy a universe that is very different to the one in which ordinary fans of African football dwell. There may be a lot wrong with my continent, but the sort of attitude towards life that CAF has demonstrated is ordinarily only thought of as the pathology of criminals, bandits and the completely unhinged.

  • Thursday Book Club

    January 28, 2010 @ 11:03 pm | by Bryan

    Sources of the Self

    I’m curious to know how many people have bought the book and have started reading it. Any initial thoughts?

    We’ll discuss chapter 1 next week.

  • Cork, 3 years on

    @ 10:59 pm | by Bryan

    I moved to Ireland a little over 3 years ago, and lived in Cork City for close to a year. Honestly, my memories of the place aren’t pleasant. I don’t know whether that’s because Cork is a hard place to break into socially, or if I just transposed all my negative immigration experiences and feelings onto the city.

    I was asked to speak at an event in Cork last night and was definitely more nervous about seeing my old neighborhood than my speaking engagement. When I lived there, I was part of an invisible underclass. Well, invisible in one social sense, and a very obvious sore thumb in another. Immigration was a hot topic at the time, and a very emotive one at that. An unemployed black man killing time along Patrick Street during the week at 11 o’clock in the morning was the very image groups like the Immigrant Control Platform were fighting. I can’t even begin to compare my time in the city with the experiences of people in segregated America, but were it not for my time in Cork, I’m sure the following passage from W. E. B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk would have a different ring in my ears:

    Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half- hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.

    I didn’t feel like a problem last night. I wonder if that’s because having real problems tends to make you turn away from silly ones? Maybe the country’s current difficulties have brought perspective to the issues around immigration. Or maybe I’m just out of touch – part of the group Du Bois (wrongly in my opinion) calls the talented tenth; those minorities who have been assimilated into the mainstream.

    It’s probably a little of both. I was sad to leave Cork this morning because I feel less ‘other’ there now. Whatever the reason, I suppose immigration is one of those things that, at both the individual and collective levels, gets better with time.

    I’m left feeling pretty optimistic.

  • Pirates

    January 26, 2010 @ 2:46 pm | by Bryan

    Rihanna has released a version of Bob Marley’s Redemption Song in order to raise funds for people in Haiti. As the pop star told Oprah, “This song, for me, any time there was a difficult situation, I always listened to this song. It’s so liberating. Even now, I listen to it when my back is up against the wall. I feel the people of Haiti need to hear something inspiring.” Hmmm….

    Redemption Song is my favorite Bob Marley track. Rita Marley said that her late husband was already in a lot of pain when he wrote it. I don’t know if that pain is what separates the song from others. Or if it’s the simplicity of a man singing with nothing but a guitar to aid him. Or maybe it’s the knowledge that there’s something subversive in the lyrics, even if you don’t know what that something is.

    Years ago, in a dingy room in one of the halls of residence at the University of Zimbabwe, a friend tried to explain to me exactly why those lyrics are subversives. Imagine genuinely believing that someone had literally saved your soul from eternal damnation; pulled you out of ‘the bottomless pit’, so to speak. Imagine then that the same person, minutes later, put you in chains and sold you into a cruel, brutal captivity.

    Old pirates, yes, they rob I;
    Sold I to the merchant ships,
    Minutes after they took I
    From the bottomless pit.

    What does that have to do with Haiti’s earthquake? Simply put, I think you, me, Rihanna and anyone else who can afford to get onto the internet and read this, we’re today’s pirates.

    I once lived in a cockroach infested house. They were invisible most of the time and would only come out after we had all gone to bed. But if you got up in the middle of the night and switched on a light, especially in the kitchen, you would see them scurrying towards the closest hiding place. The response to Haiti’s earthquake reminded me of that house; I felt as though I were seeing the same process, only in reverse. Disaster struck, and where many saw international solidarity and good will, I saw a swarm scurrying onto a vulnerable population for all sorts of reasons – some, genuinely there to help; more for chess-like geopolitical positional advantage; and even more for marketing reasons, in order to gain greater brand exposure and recognition for one’s country, company or organisation. And I suppose it was inevitable: a disaster like that, it was bound to have a huge television audience.

    And let’s be honest, under normal circumstances, who cares about Haiti? Who really cares about it’s history? So what if the French and Americans have plundered and sucked it dry? And if it’s political instability is in good part the result of the meddling of Western countries (including the seemingly benign, like Canada) and institutions like the United Nations?

    What if said meddling leads to your financial gain and mine? Thomas Pogge, in several books and academic papers, argues that if we are involved in, or benefit from institutions that exploit or in other ways harm people, even if those people are on the other side of the world, we are guilty of harming those people and have a duty towards them. Pogge, in my opinion, convincingly makes his point, and he clearly demonstrates the fact that we the global aristocrats – we who don’t worry about whether or not we’ll eat anything tomorrow – do in fact benefit from institutions that harm people in places like Haiti.

    But if we took the likes of Pogge seriously, we couldn’t continue to live as we do. So when Senator David Norris suggested on radio yesterday that people in Ireland may be partially responsible for the situation in Haiti, he was unsurprisingly put in his place by his audience. Not only was he told that the Irish are incredibly generous (the Department of Foreign Affairs have been very busy lately because there has been a lot to say about the Irish government’s response to the earthquake), but what happened in Haiti was a natural disaster. It wasn’t, of course. There may have been an earthquake, but the exaggerated loss of life resulted from the structural failures that led to poor infrastructure and administration in that country. Those structural failures, if you believe Pogge, come back to you and I.

    So what are we to do? We’ll express remorse. We might even learn where the country is on the map. Some will give. Some will give a lot, maybe even of their time. They’ll try to raise funds for the disaster relief, and they may even go to Haiti or other miserable places to help comfort the suffering. But for most of us, something else will capture our attention in the coming months. The World Cup maybe. Or we’ll find out that some other celebrity had an affair. Or a row will erupt over whether bankers should be burdened with an additional tax on their second imported luxury car. Whatever it is, we’ll forget about Haiti until its next disaster.

    Institutionally, the likes of John O’Shea and The Economist will do their best to turn Haiti into a modern day colony, only with benevolent colonial masters. Bill Clinton will probably get another term in office, even if it is a smaller one. Naomi Klein will despair as she watches the process she described in her book unfold. Things will probably go wrong. Poor Haitians are likely to go on being the wretched of the earth (or at the very least, the wretched of the Western Hemisphere). And you and I will be the better for it, even if we oblivious to the workings of the world.

    I wonder if that is what Rihanna had in mind when she decided to fundraise for Haiti with Bob Marley’s song? Probably not. But I’m sure Marley would have seen the irony in the fact that I gain financially from this piece. I too am a pirate.

  • Obama a year on

    January 21, 2010 @ 5:09 pm | by Bryan
    YouTube Preview Image

    A year ago I wrote the following:

    …I think Obama’s role is largely symbolic … I think the biggest ‘thing’ he gives his nation and the rest of the world is a sense of hope and possibility. Having lived in places where hope literally sustains people, I would be the last person to belittle the importance of that quality… Tied in to that hope, I think he inspires people to strive for more and better. Again, you can’t quantify the importance of that. But even I, an unashamed Obama fan, have begun to feel that the level of expectation on him in some quarters has gone way beyond the ridiculous.

    It has only been twelve months, but things have changed dramatically. I’m not an Obama fan anymore, and I certainly don’t think that he inspires universal hope. As for ‘Yes We Can’, I personally feel betrayed.

    Why betrayed? Barack Obama ran as more than just a ‘change candidate’. He ran as a man who wanted to ‘transcend politics’; an ordinary human being in high political office. The idea was that the political process in the United States would be simplified, and ordinary people would get to dictate to government and the political establishment, not the other way around – government of the people, for the people, and all of that. I think that’s what galvanised so many people: the idea that the masses would get to call the shots. That of course, hasn’t happened.

    The example that most stands out is the so-called healthcare debate. Even before the ‘debate’ was opened to people, a settlement was supposedly reached with the health insurance industry. A pragmatic move? Maybe, but to then characterise the so-called healthcare reform as a means of ‘sticking it to the man’ was deceitful. And having begun with the health insurance industry in mind, is it any wonder that word of bill being successfully passed resulted in stock-market gains for those same companies? Worst of all, the closest that the public – the ‘we’ in ‘Yes We Can’ – came to a crafting their own healthcare legislation, was being campaigned to by politicians with their own ideas about how to go about things. Not exactly rule of and for the people.

    According to today’s editorial:
    The constant management of expectations, the brokering of compromise after compromise in Congress over health, the recommitment to the war in Afghanistan, the deferral of action on jobs while bankers were “rescued”, and delays in closing Guantánamo, have contributed to [President Obama’s] gradual alienation from his Democratic base.

    True, but more than those things, I think it is the feeling that though he may be a decent man with good intentions, the president is still at heart a politician in the mould of other politicians. His decine in popularity has to do with the fact that there will be no earthshaking change under his tenure, that as things stand, really, ‘we can’t’.

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