Roman J. Israel Esq.: Denzel Washington and Identity Politics

The film Roman J. Israel Esq. is incredibly frustrating. It has a strong moral question at the core, but it is totally unable to communicate it in a credible way. It is the story of a socially awkward and idealistic criminal defence lawyer, played by Denzel Washington. Roman has been an activist in the 1970s race liberation movement. He has never defended a case in court and lacks the skills to do so. He’s at odds with a society where the law is administered through a profit-making industry, which is blind to principle. He’s ultimately defeated because he cannot adapt enough to be part of the world, and, at the same time, falls for the seduction of money. The plot is contrived with things happening just to make a point.

The main weakness is the characterisation of Roman. Had it not been for the really great sensitivity and garb of Denzel Washington, Roman would have been little more than the stereotypical Hollywood genius: scruffy, obsessive, and with a great memory. He speaks in – what Hollywood writers think as – academic political language, but it’s just bad writing. Roman doesn’t speak the language of the 1970s liberation movements. He’s supposed to be passionate but he mostly blabbers meaningless sentences with no conviction.

The most cringing point comes when Roman gives a speech arguing for the significance of protest and gets into a row with a feminist who feels patronised when Roman tells a guy to give up his seat for the woman. The incident is supposedly trying to tell us that Roman is old-fashioned and is not familiar with contemporary equality issues, but it only shows how clueless the writer is. There have been significant debates since the 1970s internal to feminism, ‘liberation movements’, and identity politics that could have been used. For instance, instead of a petty discussion on manners, there could have been a row on radical action. That would have shown different ways of thinking and different ‘positionalities’. That would require a writer with a smidge of familiarity with these debates, Dan Gilroy ain’t that.

It would have been nice to get a sense of the significance of identity politics, given that it is often attacked as divisive ‘grievance politics’. At its core identity politics sought to write in those who had been written out, excluded, or objectified. It was the vindication of the dignity of the Other, those seen from the perspective of ‘the man’ = white men. It was an identity crisis, a way to put into question an understanding of the ‘default human’ as man, white (and middle/upper class, Protestant etc.), and show that the class that had power had shaped the way we all understand reality. It was also an identity crisis in the sense that women, ethnic minorities, LGBT people needed their own stories, their own culture so not to be an ‘add-on’ to the hegemonic story of ‘the man’.

Identity politics was not universalistic because that would have made impossible the questioning of the hegemonic story as well as the recovery of the stories and perspectives of the Other. There are many pitfalls in this process. There will always be those who want to impose their experience and perspective as the authentic ones or consider some features of it as essential. Identity work is messy, but it does not preclude a universalist stand point. Simone de Beauvoir was the philosopher who drew the attention to the process of Othering and named it, but also went beyond it by making the Other part of the self. In Pyrrhus and Cyneas, we are truly free only when others are also free.

Posted in 'othering', America, authenticity, consciousness, films, gender, identity politics, justice, politics, power, race, race/diversity, Roman J. Israel Esq. | Leave a comment

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina: Testing Goodness and the American Family

The Netflix series comes from the 1990s programme Sabrina The Teenage Witch. It is slightly tainted by Hollywood obsessive market segmentation which dictates specific styles and motifs to appeal to specific demographics; yet this Sabrina is really not for young impressionable girls. It is a dark tale of family and Satanism.

No Witchcraft, but Satanism

There’s nothing in the series that is remotely relevant to witchcraft, except for some black magic (necromancy). There’s also no feminist witchcraft, which had a strong presence in America in the 1970s (with the most famous witch being Starhawk, author of The Spiral Dance). Sabrina’s friends set up a feminist club named WICCA, but no connection is made between feminism and witchcraft or Wicca (something that was done much better by The Coven, American Horror Story, Season 3). Sabrina’s friends are not witches but all teenagers would have at least some awareness of witchcraft as fantasy. It is extraordinary how people in films/TV are often devoid of any knowledge of popular culture, including that coming from films.

There’s also no reference to any witchcraft narrative or practice, in terms of nature and in terms of magic/consciousness (see Magliocco, Witching Culture). In this series, nature is completely absent, which is odd given the urgency of Climate Change. The focus on nature is also what grounds much witchcraft and Paganism and distinguishes them from Christianity, which focuses on the salvation of human beings in the other-world. Witchcraft is about the here and now, the spiritual in human beings and nature, human consciousness and personal moral development. Sabrina and her family are not witches but Satanists, understood according to the classical Christian mythology in opposition to Christianity and very much unlike the ‘self-religion’ of Satanists today (see Petersen, Contemporary Religious Satanism).

The Boundaries of Goodness

Sabrina is ‘half-witch and half-human:’ her mother was human and her father a warlock, Sabrina was brought up by her witch aunts, after the death of her parents. This ‘biological’ element turns being a witch into some sort of race, according to a biological and deterministic notion of race. This is something that is unfortunately all too common in the portrayal of witchcraft in popular culture (think Harry Potter). It is racist and severs any connection with witchcraft as a spiritual path. It tends to be all about one’s powers and being chosen. It speaks of the individualistic elitism of American society where the individual needs to be in some way special (and excel in sport or business if a man, or in beauty if a woman. Yuk!)

Sabrina is perhaps destined to be a witch, but she is manipulated into following that path by a powerful witch. At every step, Sabrina gets closer to the ‘dark path’ of devil worship. There are two significant ‘tests’ in balancing goodness and crossing the boundary between human and Satanist.

In the first test, Sabrina performs necromancy to bring back to life her boyfriend’s brother. She slashes the throat of another witch (thinking that she’ll be able to bring her back), in exchange for the life of her boyfriend’s brother. Against the warning of her cousin, a warlock, and the hesitancy of another witch-in-training, Sabrina goes ahead anyway, like the entitled teenager she is. Her cousin tells her that by doing necromancy, she’s crossed a line. She has, the line between human and Satanist, but she has also taken another step in growing up. Sabrina had put her love for a human ahead of all other considerations, including whether the means justify the ends. Now, she has to face the repercussions of her gruesome act and learn about consequences.

The second test comes from the barbaric ritual of witches celebrating by eating a selected witch, the Queen of the Feast. This echoes the perennial fear of whoever is seen as the Other eating children (witches, Jews, heretics etc.). Sabrina takes a stance against the practice by revealing that the selection for the victim was rigged. This is a clear moral boundary that separates Sabrina, but also her aunts, from the coven. She, her aunts, and a ‘conscientious objector,’ refuse to take part in the ritual.

Faith in the Family

The family seems to be the sacred element in most, if not all, American TV series. It doesn’t matter if one lies and murders (Once Upon A Time), makes and traffics drugs (Breaking Bad), or launders money (Ozark Continue reading

Posted in Christianity, family, fantasy/supernatural, gender, good & evil, Halloween, horror, magic, morality, myth, religion, ritual, Sabrina, Satanism, TV, witchcraft | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Founder – a dark capitalist fairy-tale

The Founder tells the story of Ray Kroc, who turned a modest fast-food restaurant into McDonald’s by betraying the integrity, hard work, and perseverance. It espouses the American virtues of visionary entrepreneurship and self-made success while showing how success is really won: by stealth and greed.

In the first part of the film, Kroc is a struggling salesman selling milkshake mixers in 1954. One day he stumbles across a restaurant run by two brothers, Maurice “Mac” and Richard “Dick” McDonald, where the food is ready straight away and is served in a bag. No cutlery, no plate, no waiting. The fast-food idea is the brain-child of the brothers and clearly inspired by the Fordist model of production. Kroc persuades the brothers to allow him to set up franchises. The brothers want to maintain quality standards so they demand to approve any changes.

Kroc is at first portrayed as an entrepreneur who is genuinely inspired by the brothers’ initiative and resourcefulness. He wants to help them and succeed with them. The film celebrates the McDonald brothers’ vision, industry, and constancy. They tried, failed, tried again, and again. They are the heroes who do not want to compromise their restaurant’s standards, but they also lack flexibility and want to rein in Kroc’s ambitious plans. Kroc is the champion of the self-made man who shuns business aristocracies. Kroc thinks big, loves people who are enterprising, who take risks, who want to better themselves. He employs a Jewish Bible salesman because of his work ethic to ensure standards are kept across restaurants. Then the Protestant-capitalist fairy-tale turns dark.

It begins with swapping milkshakes with powdered ones to cut the costs of refrigeration. The McDonald brothers would not have it, but Kroc follows the advice of a financial consultant, Harry Sonneborn, who tells him that he can provide land to the franchises and thus go around the brothers’ authority. The enterprising Kroc quickly becomes the greedy businessman who steals the business, the name, and the girl. Kroc separates from the McDonald brothers taking all the franchises and their surname while reneging on the promise of giving them 1% annual royalty, divorces his wife and marries the wife of a restaurant owner/investor.

Kroc wanted the name ‘McDonald’ because it spoke of America. His Polish sounding name could not be the American institution Kroc wanted McDonald’s to become. The land of opportunity requires many sacrifices. On the altar of success, the flame burns integrity and hard-work. The film sheds a light on the inherent contradictions of capitalist culture. Weber claimed, in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, that there was an affinity between Protestant methodical work and personal self-control, and the systematic accumulation of the capitalist. The film reaffirms the virtues of industry, self-reliance, and perseverance, whilst showing that it is capitalism that betrays them. It is a subtle but scathing critique of the moral narratives used to legitimise capitalism and the reality behind the mask.

Posted in America, American dream, authenticity, capitalism, finance/economics, food, Max Weber, morality, nation, Protestantism, The Founder | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Spanish Apartment – The making of a European identity

There are hardly any films on European identity or even historical events from a European angle. The Spanish Apartment (L’auberge espagnole) is perhaps the only film about Europeans within the context of the EU. It is a commercial comedy, in which young people study and work in a EU state other than their own. They are the Erasmus generation. The film relies on national stereotypes and is too superficial to even consider that some young people (or even older people) might feel European. Given the paucity of books, newspapers’ articles, films & TV suggesting a European identity, it is quite miraculous that some people identify with Europe, and yet they do.

Research shows that there is such thing as a European identity (see Thomas Risse; Michael Bruter; Checkel & Katzenstein). According to researchers at Zurich University: there is a cultural European identity, which differs from a political European identity. European identity differs from country to country and even the meaning of Europe differs for those with a European identity. Crucial factors in constituting such an identity are people’s transnational experiences and personal or business relations. Researchers found that whilst the superficial layer of European identity has suffered from the eurocrisis, the underlying sense of belonging has not.

European identity exists alongside a national identity. Research shows that Europe represents a post-national cosmopolitan identity that does not deny national identityScholars argue that “political parties asserting more traditional nationalist identities and policies have directed their dissatisfaction against immigrants, foreigners and, sometimes, the EU. Those who participate in ‘Europe’ are more likely to develop a European identity, while those whose economic and social horizons are essentially local are more likely to assert nationalist identities.”

Ethnic minorities in the UK are also more open to the EU. A 2007 study in the UK observed a dichotomy between white Britons and Britons of of South-Asian origin. It found that: “indigenous white British respondents, who displayed a strong sense of national identity negatively correlated with European identity. In contrast, the South Asian respondents displayed positive feelings of identification on all three levels, and a British identity that correlated positively with European identification.”

I asked a few of people on twitter in the most unscientific way whether they felt European and with what they associated Europe. Not one person mentioned the economy. Instead, they broadly confirmed the research. Most saw European identity alongside other identities (including national identity). Their European identity is often dependent on and associated with their transnational connections or the possibility of living and working elsewhere. Shared values, history, and culture were prominent in their responses. People said that being European meant ‘enhancing their understanding and tolerance’ because of the meeting of people from all over Europe. Someone said he was ‘emotionally British, spiritually European,’ with Europe representing all things he values, such as ‘art, literature, music, friendship.’ Another that European represents ‘modern civilisation and culture‘, which began in Renaissance Italy.

All said that Europe was about ‘embracing other cultures’, ‘a common sense of identity with neighbours’, an ‘enrichment’ and peaceful coexistence. Someone mentioned feeling interconnected with others across Europe, partly due to having lived in other countries and being able to speak other languages. Someone said: ‘It means I am at home anywhere from London to Ljubljana, Bristol to Berlin. And feel at home there.’

On Question Time, Michael Gove made a mistake that nobody noticed. He said that ‘tragedy’ was a word coming from English literature. It isn’t. It’s a word from ancient Greek theatre. Gove’s parochial nationalism forbids him to see Europe as a whole. Brexiteers have framed the entire debate in transactional terms, but being part of Europe is about sharing a Europe of culture and values. It is the Europe for which WWII veterans say have fought. The best moments in European history were not moments of national retreat, but of cultural exchange. The EU is grounded in our shared culture and values. Those who say they ‘love Europe and hate the EU’ are like misogynists saying they ‘love women, hate feminism’.

The EU is not a nation-state in the making. It might appear paradoxical that the idea of a unified Europe is concomitant to the rise of the nation-state; yet many of those who sought to build the nation dreamed of Europe alongside the nation. Giuseppe Mazzini, an Italian ideologue of the nation who fought in the Risorgimento, but also believed in a Europe of republics. In 1847, Victor Hugo talked of a ‘United States of Europe’ at the International Peace Congress. In 1867, a mere six years after Italy was declared an independent nation-state, Giuseppe Garibaldi, General in the Risorgimento, attended the congress of the League of Peace and Freedom in Geneva alongside Victor Hugo and John Stuart Mill. Europe came together only after two devastating wars.

The idea of Europe was, therefore, to be always ‘beyond’ nationalism. To think of the European project as a project for a unified nation state is therefore to misunderstand its premise. The EU’s motto ‘unity in diversity’ cautions against the imposition of homogeneity, typical of the nation-state (see post on the nation). It is not about melting into one, but being united in diversity. The EU anthem, the best in the world, as one of my respondents said, is about friendship, not borders.

The EU is the only example of an entity that seeks democratic international governance. This has been obstructed mostly by national leaders who want to cling on their power instead of ensuring more democracy. However, to think that the EU needs to become a nation-state (or superstate) to be able to function shows a reliance on a 20th century paradigm. If we want Europe to be about respect for diversity and cultural exchange, then politicians need to value cities, regions and the EU alongside the state. Yet, if we seek a EU that is trusted by its citizens, we need our national media to become less parochial, and we need to have a European media making possible effective scrutiny of EU institutions and bringing the EU closer to its citizens. If we want the EU to live up to its values, need film-makers to tell our story.

Posted in European Union, nation, race/diversity, transnationalism/postnationalism, UK | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Golden Door – Migration and Europe

The Golden Door (Nuovomondo) is a beautiful film. It’s touching, but never sentimental. It is hard, but never gritty. It is the story of Sicilian migrants to the US at the turn of the 20th century. Back then, the US were in the thrall of the second industrial revolution. They raced ahead of everybody. They began a ‘new world’ (nuovo mondo). These poor Sicilian shepherds, who don’t speak Italian, but only Sicilian, and have grown up in the mountains with sheep, make the trip to the US. They were told wondrous tales of giant vegetables, coins falling from the sky, and people swimming in milk. Lucy (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is a British woman on board of the same ship. She is middle class and travelling alone. At arrival, people are inspected as if they were animals and some rejected for not being disabled or of insufficient intelligence.

At that time, the US had migrant quotas according to ethnicity and race (for those who like quotas!). Sociologist Stephen Klineberg (Rice University) explaining the law at that time:

It declared that Northern Europeans are a superior subspecies of the white race. The Nordics were superior to the Alpines, who in turn were superior to the Mediterraneans, and all of them were superior to the Jews and the Asians. …

By the 1960s, Greeks, Poles, Portuguese and Italians were complaining that immigration quotas discriminated against them in favor of Western Europeans. The Democratic Party took up their cause, led by President John F. Kennedy. In a June 1963 speech to the American Committee on Italian Migration, Kennedy called the system of quotas in place back then ” nearly intolerable.”

I have heard anti-migrant rhetoric ever since I came to the UK in 1997. In the past six years or so I have been complaining about the tones used by politicians of main parties. I later began to collect academic research on migration. The media profited out of the fear and hatred of foreigners, while the political class has legitimised the xenophobia and scapegoating of migrants coming from the press. No main party has ever put forward a positive case for migration, only some individual MPs. People have been duped by the media and politicians have pandered to xenophobia to court the public’s favour. Xenophobia has been legitimised and is driving this misguided EU referendum. 

The truth is that Mmigration has been exceptionally good for Britain. According to research, it has meant higher growth, more jobs, higher wages. The negative effect on low-skilled labour has also been small. Migration (be it internal or external) puts pressure on public services and infrastructure. The UK government has cut back on public services and infrastructure instead of investing. There are issues that are never discussed in the media:

  • Matching skills and places: migrants differ in terms of culture, their economic background, educational attainment, skills etc. That is why a Europe-wide approach alerting migrants of which skills are needed where would benefit the host society as much as migrants. Why can’t there be government websites informing on regional work opportunities? For instance, agencies recruit nurses from India for the UK and Italian government, why can’t shortage of other skills be advertised?
  • Entrepreneurs: migrants are not just employees, so wanting to accept migrants into the country who only have a job offer would stop entrepreneurial migrants, those who start businesses. Funding and advice for start-ups should be advertised widely across the EU (and further afield).
  • Depopulation: there are areas of depopulation in the UK (and other parts of Europe). Migrants and refugees would be a great resource to revive these regions. It would only take a little investment with a guarantee high return.
  • Culture: migrants contribute to our culture and lifestyle. Let’s try to go beyond the food and the clothing. Migrants bring different sensitivities, customs, ways of thinking. The great aspect of European culture has been its cultural curiosity. Marco Polo travelled to China and was a keen observer of its civilisation, which he related to the European public. Europeans have been open to learn from others. Being often more powerful than others, difference was perhaps less threatening; yet we have also reflected on the value of diversity, on our flawed colonial viewpoint, and have adapted.

The world has changed dramatically in a relative short time. From the 1960s onward, a new society has emerged. This gap between generations is evident in the voting intentions in this referendum. Today, we have a better society: respectful of diversity, more considerate of our effect on the planet, and more socially liberal. We have a far worse economy. Our jobs are insecure and badly paid, while the super-rich keep on getting richer. We are fed the luxury of celebrities and the easy money of dot-com kids as a model, rather than conscientious work and care for our neighbours.

We are faced with an ugly and tough economic system and misguided government policies across Europe. Closing borders does not stop migration, it only makes it illegal. The only thing that reduces migration is a recession. Do you fear others so much that you are prepared to lose your job? I believe the UK and Europe are at their best when they are not afraid of change and of others. Retreating into an imaginary past will not make us stronger, but weaker, isolated, and fearful. If Europe is to honour its tradition of cultural and technological innovation, scientific discovery, philosophical thinking, political development, and economic success, it needs to come together to build a better tomorrow and welcome others, who see in Europe what we have forgotten.

P.S. This post was written before Jo Cox MP died after being shot by someone who, as reported in the news, shouted ‘Britain First’. He probably targeted her for her positive stance of migration. She should be remembered for standing for diversity and hospitality at a time when people have taken refuge in hatred. In her maiden speech in the House of Commons last year, she said:

Our communities have been deeply enhanced by immigration, be it of Irish Catholics across the constituency or of Muslims from Gujarat in India or from Pakistan, principally from Kashmir.

“While we celebrate our diversity, what surprises me time and time again as I travel around the constituency is that we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.

Her full speech

Posted in 'othering', America, democracy, European Union, journalism, migration, nation, postcolonialism, race/diversity, UK | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Olden Days – The Nation & the EU

Exchanging views with Brexiteers I could not help but notice a lack of sense of history. It is not a mere knowledge of history, which is certainly lacking, but an understanding that break-ups of geopolitical systems (be they an empire, a nation, or the EU) are very rarely peaceful and without adverse economic and social consequences. Brexit will certainly impact on the rest of the already fragile EU and that’s bad news for everybody. It means recession, or probably depression, internal strife, and external actors taking advantage of the situation. Now look at a map of Europe and its neighbours and ponder!

Another problem with lacking a sense of history is the inability to appreciate that political/legal/social/economic paradigms change. The way we conceive of society changes. Brexiteers seem unable to go beyond the 19th-20th century paradigm of the nation-state. They get fixated with the idea that a democratic polity needs to function according to that model. The EU is not a nation, like the US, and it is very unlikely that it will ever be. This doesn’t mean that it cannot be democratic. As argued here, the idea of sovereignty has undergone radical changes. Popular sovereignty is recent and should not be conflated with a national Parliament.

The rise of the nation

Much as Brexiteers would like to think of the nation being there since time immemorial, the rise of nation-states is quite recent. I’m not suggesting that there was no ethnic/cultural belonging before the modern area, but that modernity implied a paradigmatic shift for a new type of nation. The model of nation set by the peace of Westfalia (1648) cemented the state, but it is only the 19th century, with industrialisation and the radical political shifts of industrial modernity, when states become nations. 19th century nations had a mass society, underwent a process of democratisation, rapid economic growth, rise in literacy, and new social stratification.

The building of the nation involved linking up places through railways, roads, and communication (postal service, telegraph, telephone). It involved the creation of a standardised language, education and training to supply labour for the new industries, and public services. Most importantly, it involved national myths telling the story of the ‘nation’ with which people ought to identify. That required selective and, very often, deliberate distortions of history. That served to unify very different people and mobilise them in case of war.

National myth-making is not necessarily negative or dangerous, but it rests on identifying the ‘other’, the one ‘we’ are not. Again, this need not lead to xenophobia. It is a construction of boundaries, which provide an identity. Lately the vision for Britain as pluralistic, cherishing different ethnicities, languages, faiths, and sexual orientations, has been labelled as reflecting the ‘liberal metropolitan elite drinking lattes’. It identifies the younger and mobile generation and for some they have a weak identity and are ‘out of touch’ with the rest of the country. It is contrasted with the nostalgic and, for some, inward-looking vision of a proud Britain standing alone during the war and drinking tea and scones. The image of Britain as bravely fighting is used by both factions in the current EU Referendum battle. For pro-Europeans (and incidentally war veterans), it testifies to Britain fighting alongside others for a better future; for Brexiteers, it shows Britain as bastion of tolerance and freedom fighting against European tyranny from the Romans to Napoleon and Hitler (never mind the fact that the Prussian Army defeated Napoleon).

A polished version of this is Ian Hislop’s ‘documentary’ The Olden Days. Hislop makes two main claims: that Britain is enamoured with tradition and that it is inherently tolerant and liberal. Hislop claims that at the height of the radical changes of industrialisation, the British cherished the past. Never concerned with appropriate comparisons, Hislop misses the fact that during profound social, economic, and cultural changes, people evoke tradition. At the height of the Renaissance, innovation was inspired by tradition, hence the neoclassical style. Perversely, Hislop contrasts British eccentric love-affair with the past of Victorian England (1837 – 1901) with Nazi Germany (1933-1945). The German Romantic Movement with its wonderful poetry and philosophy is simply swept aside for the crass caricature of Germany as a Nazi nation. In order to paint Britain as liberal, Hislop also turns a blind eye to English tyranny (Henry VIII, Cromwell etc.) and various illiberal bloodbaths (religious wars), and fails to grasp that countries have no inherent characteristics.

The construction of the nation homogenised a very heterogeneous reality. It imposed the view and interests of an elite on everybody else. The traditions we associate with the nation (ideas, customs, laws) are the result of powerful actors and forces, and, often, chance. They are the dominant strand, but never the only one, let alone, the authentic ‘soul’ of the nation. By making claims as to what being British, French, Italian, or other, means, the person, or groups, doing it are seeking to impose a label on very different people. Drinking tea is often thought to be quintessentially British, except the English ridiculed tea drinking as a European custom and were slow to take it up. It was Portuguese Isabella of Braganza who introduced tea to Britain. The Italian language comes from the standardisation of Tuscan dialect and became the national language only when state schools were established and, even more so, when television began broadcasts.

No idea, custom, or law has a specifically national identity because nations have no essence and ideas travel. What we have today wasn’t there before. However, a continuity with the past, a sense of tradition, gives us identity. Scholars have often identified tradition as a social order that came to an end with industrialised modernity. I counter that tradition, as a repertoire of narratives and practices, is fundamental to the construction of individual and group identity. How we understand our tradition changes throughout time and varies from person to person. There are people who identify their Britishness with an affection for the Monarch, tea drinking habits, and tolerance (just to name a few); others with republicanism, social democracy, and an internationalist outlook; I dare say most identify it with the NHS!

The EU and 21st century governance

The British media have been consistent in portraying the EU as foreign and in scapegoating the EU and migrants for every ill. The national press has been found to be biased against the EU and even the BBC has been more negative on the EU than on Putin. The media and the political class have all responsibilities. British politicians have often portrayed themselves as fighting for the national interest against European unelected bureaucrats. Yet, their appeal to national interest often disguises the promotion of particular business interests. For instance, the UK has fought against a European ban of pesticides that kill bees. It has been fighting to keep the carcinogenic pesticide glyphosate in use. It has fought for lower quality chocolate made with vegetable oil and sausages with little meat. It has also campaigned against tougher car emissions tests. Tell me again, in whose interest is the UK battling the rest of the EU so valiantly?

Sociologist Georg Simmel argued that bigger entities allow more diversity. That is the key idea behind Europe. A larger entity that enables different views, interests, and identities to come together, rather than a bureaucratic superstate imposing a homogeneous identity. A more democratic EU means more integration and therefore loss of power for national leaders. National leaders, chiefly among them Angela Merkel, have preferred to bypass EU institutions by pressing for changes through the ‘intergovernmental route’ (=with other national leaders rather than the democratically elected EU Parliament). The way to democratise further the EU whilst avoiding an unwieldy and bureaucratic state is, I believe, by strengthening devolution and resurrect the Europe of the Regions. Incidentally, that is why smaller countries, like Scotland and Catalonia, are pro-European.

National states are a 19th century entity. Having a sense of history means understanding that the new paradigm of globalisation and pluralism requires different types of institutions and governance. Trying to retreat into the past will not address today’s challenges. We will suffer the consequences without being able to have a say. Only by taking up the challenge of globalisation through a democratic European Union can we have a goverance fit for the 21st century.

Posted in 'othering', democracy, European Union, institutions, myth, nation, politics, power, romanticism, sovereignty, The Olden Days, UK | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Great European Disaster Movie – Sovereignty & the EU

This is a terrible film. It tells no story, it has no character or plot. It’s not even a documentary. A few people telling you how Brexit might bring about chaos doesn’t say much about the EU and current discontent. The thesis of the film is that the project of peace of the EU is being scuppered by Brexit, which will result in the break up of the Union.

The film is set sometime in the future, when an English archaeologist talks about the EU to a young girl on a plane that is crashing. No, the film is not subtle either! So let’s forget the movie itself and consider issues that have been raised by the campaign.


Brexiteers do not deny that the EU has brought peace to Europe, but they say that, as a project, it is outdated. Those on the Remain side respond by saying that peace should not be taken for granted and that conflict is still possible if the EU breaks up (remember Yugoslavia?). Brexiteers show no concern for the ramifications of Brexit. Indeed, some would cherish the break up of the Union and are prepared to ruin the UK to achieve that. This is because they see the EU as taking away sovereignty from nation-states. What is sovereignty?

Sovereignty is a political-philosophical construct that emerges in the modern era and was first associated with the Sovereign. In the past, the Sovereign had absolute power and the people had none. Mentions of the Magna Carta by Brexiteers show little understanding of it. It has become highly symbolical and much has been read into it that really wasn’t there. Magna Carta was a ‘peace treaty’ between King John and his noblemen, first put forward in 1215, annulled some weeks later, redrafted in 1216, 1217, and 1225, became law in 1227, but most parts have been repealed.

As argued by historian Dan Jones here: ‘Magna Carta’s clauses variously offered special legal protection for the Catholic Church and the aristocracy, advocated tax breaks for the wealthiest, freed the City of London from regulatory oversight, promised total freedom of immigration and placed the burden of infrastructure maintenance on local communities instead of government.’

It is the way Magna Carta has been interpreted that has made it significant, but that took a long time and a radical shift in political system. Those who refer to Magna Carta to say that the UK needs no human rights legislation show no knowledge of the Charter and even less understanding of human rights. In the Charter there is no mention to the right to life, equality, privacy, and even freedom. The important clause on due process is not only about due process, so nothing to do with what you do with your life, but it also only applied to very few people as most lived in serfdom (see British Library):

No Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right.’

Modern sovereignty, which rests on the people rather than the sovereign, is very recent. This shift from monarchs to democracies was a result of a complete shift in economic and political structures and ways of conceiving the world. Modernity ushered a social differentiation creating different spheres (religion, science, politics, technology etc.). This means that sovereignty, as pointed out by Martin Loughlin in the LRB, has no specific locus. The term sovereignty captures the relationship between the people and governing institutions, not just Parliament.

Martin Loughlin explains that if we conflate sovereignty with government (Hobbes), then this is certainly the case because Parliament is not the only institutions governing the country. However, internal devolution and the creation of the Supreme Court protecting human rights also diminish Parliament’s sovereignty. If we follow Rousseau, instead, sovereignty is an abstract concept that ‘permeates the entire political order: it is an expression of the general will.’ This means that sovereignty is in ‘perpetual motion’ and does not coincide with government. Therefore, Westminster ‘is a facet of government, not of sovereignty. So the sharing of governmental tasks, including law-making, with the EU institutions doesn’t impair sovereignty at all.’ More on sovereignty from Chatham House.

Democracy & the EU

Globalisation has called for international cooperation to regulate not only trade, but environmental protection, security, engagement in conflict, and human rights. Much to the surprise of Brexiteers, there’s more to the life of a country than trade. Whilst the WTO, the IMF, NATO, the UN etc. are not democratic, the EU is. That is why the EU is and has always been a political union (see Margaret Thatcher’s speech). Democracy requires political representatives. EU citizens elect Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) according to a system of proportional representation (more democratic than Westminster first-past-the-post). The European Parliament amends, rejects, and passes laws. The Commission is the civil service, not the government. Since the Lisbon Treaty, Parliament has colegislative powers, just like the Council of Ministers.

The Council of Ministers is made up of Ministers elected in their own country and is representative of each state. MEPs do not sit or vote according to their state, but in a political group. Political groups are thus made up of MEPs of similar political leanings from across the Union. The President of the Commission is also elected as he is the candidate put forward by the largest political group in the European Parliament. (The European Greens ran an online primary to choose the candidate they would put forward, the Liberal group ALDE had hustings and so on).

The EU has always been in evolution. The eurozone crisis has flagged up issues to do with economic imbalances and lack of cohesion. The EU needs more integration, but also more devolution (a real Europe of the regions). It does not need to become a country like the US. Europe and the world need the EU. It keeps stability in Europe, ensures nationalist and authoritarian forces are kept at bay (the EU sanctions breaches of rights), and it is the biggest economy in the world. Fragmentation will lead all, UK included, to misery.

On the 23rd of June, Britain will decide whether to remain in the EU or leave. Leaving would be economically suicidal, socially and politically disastrous, and morally opprobrious. International trade is not among equals. The UK is a medium-sized country. It is not the US. Trading with much larger economies, like that of India, China, the US, and the EU means being subject to their might. The US is the most powerful country in the world and fiercely protectionist. Trading with the US without the strength of being part of the bigger bloc of the EU is not a deal between equals, as the Australians have discovered at their own expense.

Leaving the EU would be socially disastrous. The EU is about much more than trade. It shows how much can be achieved by working for shared values and concerns. It has been successful on environmental protection, which is why Friends of the Earth, The Wildlife Trusts, Greenpeace and others are campaigning to stay in the EU. The EU has given a minimum protection for workers’ rights through the Social Chapter. Here is the TUC providing briefings on the impact Brexit might have on hard won rights. Leaving the EU would also have negative repercussions on the NHS, as argued by health professionals.

Leaving the EU would be an immense political mistake. If borders are to be closed, peace in Northern Ireland will also be at risk. It would allow xenophobia to derail the country. Closing borders does not stop migration and migration has enormous benefits economically as well as socially. It would be undignified as the rest of the world now sees us as spoilt brats. It would be breaking away from the rest of Europe, whose history is deeply intertwined with ours, as argued by historians, such as Simon Schama.

Leaving the EU would also be deeply immoral. It would be the victory of fear and escapism. It would be turning our backs to our friends and a betrayal of the values of the war generation, as WWII veterans say. The EU is not just trade. Leaving would be the victory of those who ignore history, cling to a false image of the past, and seek to escape into a world that doesn’t exist.

Posted in autonomy, European Union, nation, politics, sovereignty, The Great European Disaster Movie, tradition, UK | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

The Big Short – Faith in the Free Market

The 2008 financial crisis was the result of recklessness, dodgy dealings, and hubris. Like drug addicts, people bought mortgages they would have never been able to pay. Like drug pushers, mortgage brokers fed the beast until it all went belly up. Those who were meant to regulate didn’t regulate and those who raised questions were side-lined. The subprime crisis was a cultural crisis before being a financial one. It was based on the dream of homeownership and the illusion of homes as an ever increasing investment. The Big Short is the story of a group of people who went against the grain and bet against the housing market. They won. Everybody else lost.

The film paints the financial system as fraudulent. The bubble was based on people buying into the dream of spending money they did not have, fuelled by low interest rates. Everybody was taking a cut: mortgage brokers, the auditors, the banks, government. Not everybody was blind to it. The film is too keen on painting everything as one big sting thus neglecting to give credit to all those who raised alarm as early as 2002 (see John Cassidy’s How Markets Fail).

The film is entertaining, albeit self-indulgent, fragmentary, weak (why are these guys heroes?), and, worst of all, condescending to the audience (by now everybody knows what caused the subprime crisis). It highlights how nobody has really taken any responsibility, while the blame has been shifted to migrants and the poor (very simplistic, but the film can’t manage complexity). Its cynicism though obscures an important element of the crisis: belief.

People, from Alan Greenspan (former Chairman of the Federal Reserve) to mortgage brokers and pensioners, believed in the goose that laid golden eggs. They believed in the magic of finance and a few dogmas of economic neoliberalism, such as no regulation under any circumstances. The risk formulas, acronyms, jargon, and, above all, numbers and algorithms mystify. They look so scientific, solid, factual, and that’s how they work their magic.

Rationality as efficiency mars economics (especially finance) to the point of obscuring reality. As John Cassidy writes, the “notion of financial markets as rational and self-correcting mechanisms is an invention of the last forty years.” (p.36). According to the ‘efficient market hypothesis’ speculative bubbles don’t exist because “financial markets always generate the correct prices, taking into account all of the available information.” (p. 86). Nothing could be further from the truth; yet finance has a way of detaching itself from reality, or at least the real economy. Crises have a habit of happening when the real economy catches up with the bubbly world of finance.

It was the unshakable faith in the rational free market what stop Government from regulating banks and other institutions, what prevented auditors from ensuring transparency and correct information, and what drove realtors to sell properties like sweets. Alan Greenspan believed in the free market ideology firmly and was, as he recounted in his congressional hearing, “shocked” to realise that it had a flaw. This doesn’t mean that capitalism is all bad and the free market just a con, only that there are no magical or scientific formulas for ever increasing prosperity.

The solution is not to throw away the baby with the bathwater, but to challenge the orthodoxy, like economics students did at the University of Manchester, which is spreading to other countries. For more read Ha-Joon Chang’s textbook, Yuan Yang of Rethinking Economics, and Dani Rodrik on economic development and globalisation. For a far better film on the crisis, I’d suggest Too Big To Fail. The documentary Inside Job is just as cynical, but far more objective and cohesive, and the BBC documentary The Love of Money.

… and just to get annoyed with banks, below is how US banks got bigger (and therefore ‘too big to fail’) and how much we spent on rescuing them in the UK alone.





Posted in America, American dream, belief, faith, finance/economics, magic, reality, reason/rationality, The Big Short | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Spotlight – The Catholic Church child abuse, an organisational disaster

Spotlight tells the story of the investigative journalism team of the Boston Globe, which uncovered the extent of the Catholic Church child abuse and cover up in Boston. The team, instigated by the newly arrived editor from out-of-town Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), went for the Church itself rather than individual priests. This strategy took time, resources, but brought to light the systematic policy of the Church of keeping things quiet and simply moving priests around. The scale of the Catholic Church child abuse is now well known. From Ireland to the Philippines, from the US to Australia, the abuse went on and on.

The film is very good at highlighting different issues instead of crusading against religion. At the core is Boston as the ‘biggest small town in America’, as Rezendes, one of the Spotlight team, called it. In a place where everybody knows one another, powerful groups and institutions are protected by this intimacy. Baron was brave and went against his own interest to pursue the truth. He was an outsider. As described by one of the characters in the film, he was a Jew from New York and Miami, the wandering Jew who has no fixed place and no loyalty. He came from the city where ties are much looser and had no relationship with the Church. He’s no self-righteous angry journalist going against power, but a gentle and patient figure whose courage rests on constancy. Michael Keaton plays the journalist who had failed to take the matter seriously years before and comes to face up to his own complicity. He starts believing the victims.

What comes out strongly is how the victims were not believed, brushed aside, and even ridiculed. The power of the Church did not lie solely on being part of a network of other powers and institutions (press, police, government etc.). It had authority because people trusted it. Perhaps it’s natural to trust people in authority, people who are wealthy and famous. That authority, wealth, and fame are too often (mis)interpreted as an outcome of intelligence and hard work. Institutions need trust to function; yet it is often their bureaucratic make-up, internal power structure, and the lack of transparency that leads to disaster.

The Catholic Church is a highly political, centralized, and opaque institution. The child abuse uncovered is reminiscent of ‘organisational disasters’. It was not a matter of priests going astray, but of institutional structures that failed to prevent it and failed to take the right action. This was compounded by an organisational culture of secrecy, denial, and systematic protection of the perpetrators. Catholic priests do not seem to be more likely to be abusers than ministers in other religions and people in secular environments. What was particularly shocking the systematic cover up, moving priests to other parishes, and the refusal to cooperate with the law.

In the film, there is but a quick mention of some who try to ‘keep the faith’ whilst giving up on the institution. The Catholic Church needs a root and branch reform. However, the reason why Pope Francis got elected is more to do with the cleaning up of the murky finances than for a structural and cultural reform, which conservatives oppose. Pope Francis is no John XXIII, but without another aggiornamento the Church in the West will lose out to those churches and groups who are more inclusive and open.

The excellent film Calvary has a different angle on the topic.

Posted in Catholic Church, child abuse, Christianity, institutions, journalism, religion, sexuality, Spotlight, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Cinderella – Maskenfreiheit & play

Kenneth Branagh chooses to begin the story with Cinderella’s childhood and has the heroine suffer her parents’ death and the humiliation of going from owner of the house to unpaid servant. Screenwriter Chris Weitz clearly couldn’t conceive, let alone write, Cinderella’s  moral strength and undying hope for redemption, nor could pretty and dumb Lily James … err, act! Thankfully she doesn’t seem to have many of the badly written lines in the film. The real lead is Cate Blanchett who is the only one worth watching. Alas, her character is ruined by Hollywood’s obsession with explaining away evil and cruelty.

In this sanitised and sugary version, our poor stepmother has a heart full of sorrow because the love of her life has died and she needs money to pay for her extravagant lifestyle. That makes the character weak and boring, although Blanchett carries it off well. There is no fear in the film, no suspense, no action, things that were perfectly combined in the 1950 Disney’s cartoon. Even the fairy godmother is ruined by a petulant Helena Bonham Carter. Lucifer, the evil cat, is barely there and the King, who was fun and crazy, has turned into a tragic Shakespearean figure. Screenwriter Chris Weitz needs to be singled out for ensuring a combination of corny scenes, poor jokes, and a total lack of substance. It is a lavish and insipid production, which concentrates on costumes and palaces and lacks any magic.

The story of Cinderella has sometimes been criticised as sexist for portraying women in need to be rescued by a Prince. Yet, the focus of the story is Cinderella, who gets handed a bad hand in life and then gets a lucky break. It shows how life is unfair, how a girl who had wealth plunged into poverty, but then gets lucky again. Cinderella gets what she deserves after much humiliating scrubbing of floors. One should consider the rather scarce social mobility for all and non-existent one for women in the pre-industrial era. The other timeless aspect of Cinderella is the hope for escape and redemption, regardless of whether reality can actually change. Some might view it as escapism, a running away from reality and responsibility; yet I believe there is value in fantasy, in imagining a different life. The focus of the story is not the marriage to the Prince, but going to the Ball, passing as a Princess, instead of being imprisoned in one’s daily mediocrity. It is one of the reasons why we watch films.

The film Precious did this extremely well. The gritty, violent, and humiliating life of Precious was interspersed with her colourful fantasies of being a celebrity. They were fun and charming, revealing her strong spirit and imagination. They kept Precious going and, with her, the audience. In Into the Woods, Cinderella runs away from the Prince three times. She is not taken by him, but she likes going to the Ball. The Ball of Into the Woods is a Maskenfreiheit, the freedom of wearing a mask, which Nietzsche judged negatively as escapism. I believe that to be reductive. In Into the Woods, Cinderella does not want to be someone else, but to play, to experience something different. The Ball is the freedom of imagination.

Enchanted (see post) ‘updates’ Cinderella to contemporary tastes. Here’s a ‘Cinderella that no one knows’.

Posted in Cinderella (1950), Cinderella (2015), entertainment, fairytales, family, fantasy/supernatural, femininity, freedom, gender, imagination, Into the Woods, magic, play, Precious | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment