Dogman: Manhood and Belonging

Dogman is perfect. It’s a subtle and incisive portrait of a submissive man, who seeks to affirm himself and have the respect of others. Dogman is based on the true story of Pietro De Negri, also known as Er Canaro della Magliana. De Negri, a drug addict and low-level criminal, was considered kind and harmless. He loved his daughter and dogs. Bullied by former boxer Giancarlo Ricci, De Negri traps him in his shop and kills him. De Negri told them Police that he tortured Ricci before he killed him, though, from the autopsy, it seems that the torture was performed after the death of Ricci. Matteo Garrone’s Dogman steers away from torture and any indulgence in violence.

The protagonist of Dogman, Marcello, is meek and servile. He has a dog-grooming business, loves his daughter, and eats and plays football with his friends from the estate. He also deals cocaine and feeds the drug addiction of Simone, a violent bully. Fed up with Simone’s violence, Marcello’s friends decide to hire someone to kill him. They fail. Marcello helps Simone and he’s shunned by his friends. He is no longer one of them. Marcello goes to prison to protect the bully thinking that his submissive loyalty might pay off. It doesn’t.

Marcello is weak and demure, but also loving and trusting. The story and its characters emerge from the small details scattered throughout the film. Garrone’s direct style eschews any romanticisation of poverty, violence, or even love. It never indulges in dramatic shots to impress the audience. Far from the aestheticising mania of much contemporary film-making (Yorgos Lanthimos, Steve McQueen, Pawel Pawlikovsky to name the worst offenders), Dogman has no superfluous shots. Garrone’s film-making feels neo-expressionist. He captures what is underneath: the chagrin of the characters, the social desolation, and the violence. The most striking scene is when Marcello carries the dead body of Simone as the sacrificial lamb killed to be readmitted to his circle of friends. He looks up with devastating innocence. No one’s there.

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BlacKkKlansman: Performing Race and Purity

Once a great director, with BlacKkKlansman Spike Lee makes a pedagogical fudge wrapped in cheap humour. BlacKkKlansman tells the true story of Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington), an African-American detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department, who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s. He does so by establishing contact with Klan’s leaders on the phone and through a Jewish colleague, Flip Zimmerman (played by Adam Driver). Spike Lee oscillates between teaching his audience about American history and identity politics and portraying the KKK as fools, between tragic and comic mishandling both. Ironically, Tarantino’s Django Unchained made fun of the KKK effortlessly, a film Lee vowed never to watch Tarantino’s film because he felt it was disrespectful.

In BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee has played it safe giving us a crowd-pleaser, but one that is muddled and weakened by the tension between comedy and melodrama. Gone are Jungle Fever and Do the Right Thing with their uncompromising look into a messy reality told with ironic anger. The only poignant scenes are the real footage of Charlottesville’s ‘Unite the Right Rally,’ where a white supremacist drove his car deliberately into a crowd of anti-fascist protesters and killed Heather Heyer, to whom the film is dedicated. As we face with repugnant political rhetoric and mistrust of democratic institutions and politics, we need more than a comforting lesson in history. We need a window on the everyday racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and prejudice against all those who don’t conform. We need someone who can tell that the experience of being Other with no frills, no romanticism, and no easy good and bad dichotomy.  We need the old Spike.

Buried underneath the self-satisfied humour and self-righteous preachingBlacKkKlansman offers a few glimpses of the making of racial identity that are worth considering; in particular, it touches on the embodied and cultural aspects of race and Jewish racial identity. Race is embodied difference but also performative. Ron Stallworth does a ‘white voice’ to fool the Klan, but can only infiltrate it because of the ‘white body’ of his colleague Flip Zimmerman. To persuade his boss to let him go under cover with the Klan, Ron tells him there are those who speak ‘King’s English’ and those who speak ‘Jive’. He’s perfectly fluent in both. Ron needs Flip Zimmerman to play him as a white man with the Klan. In a moment of camaraderie, under instruction from Ron, Flip tries to perform a speech by a black power leader, only to be outperformed by another colleague (on blackness, performance, and politics see Patrick Johnson’s Appropriating Blackness).

The construction of identity is highly symbolical and cultural. In the film, the KKK repertoire of language, symbols, and rituals is contrasted with that of the Black Power Movement. The storytelling of White Supremacists watching DW Griffiths’ A Birth of a Nation, is counterposed with Harry Belafonte’s telling of the lynching of black people. In the very few moments when Spike Lee puts the pedagogical impulse aside, a more subtle dimension of identity emerges, as in the case of Zimmerman facing up to his Jewishness.

Confronted with the purity boundaries of the Klan, he finds himself thinking about rituals and heritage. Flip’s Jewishness is called out by a colleague mentioning his ‘Jewish necklace.’ Flip replies that ‘it’s not a Jewish necklace, but the Star of David.’ Asked whether he’s Jewish, he says: ‘I don’t know. Am I?’ Flip tells Ron that he was not raised to be Jewish, it was never part of his life, he had never gone to bar mitzvahs, and never had a bar mitzvah. He never had Jewish friends, he was just another ‘white kid’ until the Klan shattered that self-understanding. Identity is social, not just personal. Today’s celebration of self-identity misses the fact that our identity doesn’t stop at how we see ourselves but includes how others see us. 

Identity politics rightly problematised the collective identity of a country by showing how power had delegitimised the Other and legitimised hierarchies based on race, religion, gender etc. Liberal universalism is not enough because it is not a neutral worldview. The emphasis on difference has been necessary in advancing the legitimacy of different perspectives and experiences. That has meant establishing identity markers, formulating the essence of an identity, and establishing boundaries. This process of identity-making can be dogmatic, reifying, and essentialistic. I believe it needs to be balanced out with a degree of universalistic ethics.

Boundaries are an inescapable reality; they are never clear cut and never done once and for all. In my own theoretical framework, I distinguish between purity and compassion, where purity is a concern for norms and compassion is a concern for the person. Boundaries emerge from the interplay between the two. Either extreme can be destructive. Extreme compassion can lead to a preference for accepting a person no matter what and a denial of justice, while extreme purity (be that cultural, normative, biological or other) will lead to exclusionary practices, and judgmentalism. This is not a division between Liberal and Conservative, only one between those who are more concerned about defining an identity and affirming boundaries, and those who are more concerned about being inclusive and questioning boundaries. Neither is superior to the other. At a time of clashes across political positions on identity issues (including gender), it might be better to appreciate our overlapping identities that are always in becoming.

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The Post: Nixon-Trump, Bullshit, and the Forgotten Woman

The flawed comparison of Nixon with Trump is pursued through a trite investigative structure, which leaves a much more interesting story unexplored: the story of a woman who takes ownership of her own self.

There are times when the story-teller gets the story wrong. This is one of those times. Spielberg wanted badly to make a movie to criticise Trump and appeal to Americans’ respect for the rule of law. To do so, he used as parallel Richard Nixon and his attempt at silencing the publication of the Pentagon Papers recording US involvement in Vietnam. In doing so, the story of the woman who published the Papers plays second fiddle.

Katharine Graham lived in the shadow of her father, Eugene Meyer, publisher-owner of the Washington Post, and of her husband, Phil Graham. Meyer made Graham publisher after becoming President of the World Bank. Graham ‘inherited’ the Post through his marriage to Katharine. Yet it is Katharine who finds herself in the middle of a national crisis in 1971. Bossed about by male editors and advisers, Katharine is portrayed as unsure when preparing the Post to go ‘public’ on the stock market. Daniel Ellsberg, military analyst at the State Department, leaks the Pentagon Papers first to the New York Times, which gets a court injunction, and then to the Washington Post. As such, the Post faces not only criminal charges but contempt of court. Graham publishes the Papers.

In publishing the Vietnam Papers, Katharine Graham becomes her own self. She comes out of the shadows and takes a stand, a stand that might ruin her newspaper, the legacy of her father and husband. She goes ahead anyway. Yet, as far as the film is concerned, she’s just a daughter and wife. The only thing ‘topical’ of this film is today’s obsessive retro nostalgia, which comes with 1970s sexism. We are not given any clues to her identity. Was she a woman frustrated by her inferior position or was she satisfied with it and uncomfortable at being thrown to the frontline? What was her relationship with her father and with her husband? Spielberg falls for the romantic crusade of fearless journalism, instead of giving a portrait of woman coming out of the shadows.

In pursuing a critique of Trump by a flawed association with Nixon, Spielberg’s The Post misses the story and the point. If Spielberg really wanted to draw a parallel between Nixon and Trump, he should have focused on the lies not the lack of respect for the rule of law. The lies about the Vietnam War are the seeds of today’s disenchantment. The Government lied about a war, a war that has torn the United States apart and caused over 3 million deaths. Nixon didn’t start the war or the lies, but, once President, he tried to suppress the truth. The Vietnam War was a pivotal moment in the history of the United States. Vietnam becomes the political and cultural event that shapes the new consciousness of the 1960s. It divided America between liberal and conservative. The rebellious sixties were the time of civil rights, the women’s liberation, the gay liberation, but also of citizens wanting to play a role in the public sphere and demanding reforms. They were was also the time of riots, of police violence (think Kent State University shooting), of the boom of the consumer economy, and of narcissistic self-expression.

The machine of the state didn’t reform enough, the national state economy went bust with the oil crisis in 1974 and and subsequent libertarian politics (to put it crudely), the dismantling of regulations that made the market a little fairer allowed the growth of corporations that buy political candidates. The betrayal of that new consciousness has left a deep suspicion of authority, cynicism, and, among conservatives, an under siege mentality. The lies have become bullshit. Those who talk bullshit, as Harry Frankfurt defines it, are not just lying, saying something that is not true; rather bullshitters are not interested in the veracity of the facts they’re talking about. They disregard the truth completely.

The bullshitter … does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are. (see Frankfurt)

In the post-truth era, we are at risk of ceasing to believe in the possibility of truth. That’s how we end up with the questioning or outright rejection of expert knowledge. A little scepticism is healthy. After all, we get lied a lot. The US government lied on Vietnam, on their support of the Contras, the UK and US governments lied about Iraq, local government lied about the safety of water in Flint, corporates lie everyday,  often to cheat (think car emissions and more). No wonder we think it’s all bullshit. Trump thrives on bullshit and emotional arousal, not just of his followers but also of his ‘enemies.’ After all, he’s an entertainer, a TV celebrity who has mastered what TV has been doing for decades: emotional manipulation and bullshit (see my analysis of Vice).

The means of communications are instant and global, making fact-checking and reflection more difficult. Submerged in bullshit from entertainers, infotainers, and conspiracy-tainers, it is easy to become the victim of cynicism and give up on ever being able to ascertain the truth (not just facts, but also values), can ‘suspicion’ help us discover the truth? The ‘hermeneutics of suspicion,’ as Ricoeur phrased it, is the sceptical attitude that seeks to unmask the lies and illusions of consciousness. We are not just lied to, we are also imbued with an understanding of reality (e.g. gender), values, and norms that reflect power relations, social structures, and that often oppress specific sections of the population (women, ethnic minorities, LGBT, disabled people etc.). Suspicion that can let us go beyond superficial understandings of reality, but it also carries the risk of relativism (as the excesses of post-structuralism and postmodernism showed us). Bullshit thrives today because too many are suspicious for suspicion’s sake. Disenchanted, frustrated, and insecure, we despair that truth is at all possible because it is not available once and for all and in clear and certain terms. Understanding truth was never meant to be easy. 

Posted in America, consciousness, democracy, disenchantment, emotions, entertainment, epistemology of suspicion, gender, journalism, knowledge/epistemology, Paul Ricoeur, personhood, politics, postmodernism, reality, Sixties Counterculture, The Big Short, The Post, Truth, Uncategorized, Vice, Vietnam War | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Vice. Trumpesque Hollywood for a Disenchanted Era

Vice is a missed opportunity. A more coherent, subtle, and ironical effort could have presented Dick Cheney as a key actor in ushering in the descent into the current paranoia, conspiracy theories, and anti-establishment populism. Dick Cheney was Secretary of Defense to George Bush and Vice President to George W. Bush. He played a key role in the ‘radicalization’ of the Republican Party and in taking advantage of the 9/11 attacks to invade Iraq. Iraq broke new ground in the amount and quality of lies governments are prepared to tell their citizens. Reality didn’t matter anymore. The emotions aroused through a bogeyman (Saddam Hussein) and terror were all that was needed to justify callous action at home (Patriot Act) and abroad.

In the clumsy hands of Adam McKay, the film Vice becomes an example of our loss of a moral and political compass. The film is Trumpesque in its portrayal of Dick Cheney as the puppet-master holding the strings of President George W Bush. Thanks to Christian Bale’s interpretation, Cheney is not cartoonish, but an evil shadowy figure that controls everything and everybody. At times it feels like it’s evil for evil’s sake, which might explain why Christian Bale stated that he found the inspiration for his interpretation of Cheney in the devil. The problem is that Cheney is a real human being not the incarnation of the devil. It has been noted that Cheney shares very much the conservative ideology of the Republican Party. He’s not a cynical operator, but deeply ideological. The film does nothing to help us understand who Cheney really is.

There is no sense of history in the film Vice, no sense that the ideas and beliefs that have shaped decades have anything to do with Dick Cheney and the brutalization of the American democracy during the Presidency of George W. Bush. In Vice, beliefs are laughed out of the picture in an exchange between Donald Rumsfeld and a young Cheney. This suggests that Cheney & co. had no beliefs only naked self-interest, except the two are not mutually exclusive. McKay doesn’t get belief (see my analysis of The Big Short); he thus fails to understand its legitimizing power. Beliefs play an important role in legitimizing how people understand reality and consequently what is justified. That includes politicians of all stripes, whose beliefs about reality and what is right and wrong legitimize the actions they take.

Some might come to question their beliefs, as Alan Greenspan did, to some extent, following the 2008 economic crisis, while others cling to them to preserve how they understand themselves and the world around them. If you start questioning what you think you know, you lose your (epistemological) compass, you don’t know what you know about reality and how to understand it. To cite none other than Donald Rumsfeld, one’s ‘known knows’ risk becoming ‘unknown unknowns’. Once the certainties have gone, on what do you base yourself to judge a situation?

We’ve become suspicious of authority because our governments have lied to us, egregiously so about the Vietnam War (do watch Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War). The 1960s were a turning point for the re-making of Western society (and beyond). The sixties brought about the overdue critique of cultural, economic, and social hegemonies. Society in the image of white middle class Christian men became fractured. Identity politics emerged to rectify a too often monolithic view that excluded the perspective and experience of the Other (women, ethnic and religious minorities, LGBT, disabled people etc.). Identity politics began to question Western society’s self-image and self-understanding and try to expand it to include the Other (see Roman J. Israel, esq.). Identity politics has often become too wedded to the critique of society, given too readily epistemological privilege to the Other, and sometimes denied any universality. In the face of continuous injustice, there is no common ground, only oppression to be denounced. The frustrating tardiness of progress makes difficult to hope for effective change. Today’s assaults on hard-won freedoms and rights are enough to make anyone a nihilist.

That’s the problem. On one hand, the social upheaval of the sixties, with its ‘liberation’ for women, ethnic minorities, and LGBT, and working class claims, has been felt (wrongly) like a threat by the white middle class male hegemony. This has made some feel under siege, which is reflected in current populism. On the other hand, the relentless critique of society, especially in the 1970s, has also engendered cynicism (see my analysis of The Post). The brief hope of the sixties was killed by the bullets who killed John and Bob Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X. As the economic boom gave way to recession, the white male rich became priority in the name of individual freedom and while paying lip service to the middle classes, who got shafted with everybody else.

Vice falls flat on its pretensions to be a critique of a corrupt system. This is primarily because it does not shine a light on the murky side of business and politics as the current deluge of investigative documentaries do, from a moral standpoint. McKay’s crass humour (albeit toned down from what it was in The Big Short) winks at Cheney. Vice does not uphold any morality or truth on which basis to denounce Cheney. It embraces contemporary disenchantment and nihilism turning everything, including torture and war, into entertainment. It doesn’t even leave a bad taste in your mouth; it leaves no taste.

Vice is Trumpesque. It’s an instance of postmodern hyperreality. As Baudrillard argued, in a world dominated by media, people prefer the hyperreal, the fake reality of Disney theme-parks, reality TV, and celebrities. It’s all a game. It’s entertainment. The boundaries between entertainment and the paranoia of conspiracy theorists become blurred, as in the case of Pizzagate and Alex Jones‘ infowars. The fragmentation and diversification of media has created a vacuum of authoritativeness and trustworthiness leading to a deep mistrust for the establishment. Reality fades away. There’s nothing in which we can believe. In embracing such disenchantment and nihilism, Vice is an expression of the current paranoia that authorities lie to us, use us, and poison us.

The film’s bad humour prevents any sense of horror for the torture and killing, wanted by the second Bush administration. The film does not punch, it bores. It’s a bad TV show. Everything melts into meaningless entertainment. In the final scene, Cheney speaks to camera saying that he did ‘what you asked.’ He doesn’t sound like the devil, but a TV celebrity blaming the excesses of his show on the tastes of the audience.  Time to switch off the TV.

Posted in America, belief, democracy, disenchantment, Hyperreality, identity politics, knowledge/epistemology, morality, politics, postmodernism, power, Sixties Counterculture, society, Truth, Vice | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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. | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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