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The end of political language?

As you may have noticed, these blog entries are getting sparser and sparser. This is in large part due to the recent developments in British political life that have now gone beyond farce. Although one has always had to interpret political statements, language itself has now been corrupted to such an extent that any response also finds itself waving its arms round in a fog of irrelevance.

I got a flash of insight into this reading the Polish-American philosopher Robert Sokolowski’s book, Presence and Absence. This is a philosophical book about the nature of language, and one of his comments cast light – albeit an oblique light – on what is happening in British political discourse, as epitomized by the new Prime Minister.

“A proposition is not to be contrasted to sheer silence or mute sensibility, and thinking is not to be contrasted to a totally blank mind … [but] the proposition is to be contrasted to the propositionless sentence, and thinking is to be contrasted with thoughtless speech. Attention to this issue places the philosophy of language in a central position in political philosophy. It makes us aware of the emergence of a responsible and authoritative speaker, who is distinguished by what he says, form those who use language indistinctly and without responsibility. We come to appreciate the difference between one who knows an those who chatter. We become concerned with the owner of a given speech and the proposer of a certain judgment; and his intellectual character, whether worthy of admiration or of disregard, becomes a philosophical theme.”

To be sure, the prime minister is a person who now has authority, but his speech is neither responsible nor authoritative. It is not thoughtless in the sense of being not carefully planned and executed, but it is thoughtless in the sense of not containing propositions to which he can be held. A No-deal Brexit is a million-to-one chance – what does that mean? And what does the relentless talk of ‘turbo-charging’ actually signify? Things that are said are easily denied, because nothing was actually ‘said’  in the first place. The worst is, that I fear this is not naïve but a deliberate disabling of language, the political weapon par excellence, according to Hannah Arendt, thereby rendering articulate opposition powerless. In a recent movie about Winston Churchill it was said that during the war (the Brexiter’s favourite point of historical reference) he ‘weaponized’ language. His would be imitator has emptied language out and accelerated an era of political ‘idle talk’ (Gerede). What is going on behind the veil of this idle talk is hard to discern, and for that reason all the more disturbing.

I like to be in America

As the song says, ‘I like to be in America’. I don’t have to say that this doesn’t mean I like its President, approve its foreign policy, its excessive consumption and all the other very familiar negatives. But, sitting out having coffee and croissants at a Starbucks on a busy arterial road leading out of Boston, I thought ‘I like to be in America’. And then I wondered why. Maybe it’s the movies. Even a nondescript out of centre strip is the kind of place that most of us are all familiar with from innumerable films and, thanks to human beings’ uncanny relation to art, what we see in the movies (or read in literature, etc.) is often more real than what we experience in our everyday lives. Maybe not exactly ‘more real’, but because it’s been re-presented in strong and powerful images it acquires a kind of archetypal power. This is how the real world looks. This is where big things – things worth making into films – happen. Being here, you’re connected to that and its real, archetypal power.

At the next table were a couple of police officers attending a senior management training conference for the police service. They too looked and sounded exactly like a thousand police officers look and sound in movies and TV shows in their off-duty Hawaiian shirts, overweight round the middle, languorous in their diction. They’re being put up in the same accommodation block as the academic conference I’m attending, and 80+% of their fellow attendees fitted the same description. Is life imitating art or art imitating life?

Of course, not all Americans like being in America and, unsurprisingly, all the colleagues I’ve spoken to had negative views about Trump (this was the day of his tweet telling ethnic minority congresswomen to go home to the violent criminal countries they came from). Likewise, the Israeli friends I met up with had the same negative views about the Netanyahu government and its Settler policies that you can read in The Guardian. Probably, if I speak for long to any of the Russians attending the conference will also have Guardian-reader opinions about Putin. All of this is to flag up what we should all now be aware of after Trump’s election and Brexit: that middle class academics may not occupy an ivory tower any more but they do live in a very particular environment where like meets like, more or less no matter where they go in the developed world. As a colleague of mine once said, ‘I don’t know anyone who supports Brexit’. But that is not really a comment about the lack of support for Brexit but the limitations of our horizons, limitations that are no less limited for being shared with many American, Israeli, Russian (etc., etc.) friends and colleagues.

I look down from my 11thfloor room at the morning traffic roaring along the freeway, passing under the transverse flow of vehicles crossing over the Charles river, the downtown high rise office blocks sharply outlined against the bright July sun. It is, in its way, sublime – but we (Americans, Europeans, Asians, all of us) have to change. It can’t go on. The century of cars, cigarettes, world wars is over. Something new has to happen. Yet back home we’re about to have (not even to elect) a new prime minister who, almost certainly, has no clear vision of that new thing.

Russia and Liberalism

Commentators were greatly exercised by Vladimir Putin’s recent attack on liberalism. What is surprising, really, is that they were surprised, since what Putin said is entirely consistent with a long tradition of Russian political thinking, going back at least to the nineteenth century.

Coincidentally I have been reading Liubov Dostoevsky’s memoir of her father, the great novelist. At the top of the first chapter she placed a quote from her father. It reads: ‘I know our people. I have lived with then in prison, eaten with them, slept with them, worked with them. The people gave me back Christ, whom I learned to know in my father’s house, but whom I lost later, when I in turn became “a European liberal”’. There you have it. On the one hand, Russia, the people, Christ—on the other, Europe, liberalism.

The book was published in after the Russian Revolution, and writing in her own voice in the introduction, Liubov asserts that ‘the Russian moujik is on the way to contruct a hige Oriental Empire. He is fraternising with the Mongolians, and establishing friendly relations with India, Persia, and Turkey, He keep Bolshevism like a scarecrow for sparrow, in order to keep off old Europe, and prevent her from meddling in Russian affairs, and hampering the construction of the national edifice. On the day when it is completed, the Russian moujik will destroy the scarecrow, which will have served its turn, and astonished Europe will see rising before her a new Russian Empire, mightier and more solid than the old.’ Of course, there is a lot that is off the mark here, and there was nothing ‘mighty’ about Russian at the point at which the Soviet Union collapsed. On the contrary, there was a decade of national humiliation in which millions were pauperised and many hundreds of thousands emigrated around the world. Nevertheless, Liubov Dostoevsky’s thesis that, in the long term, the Russian ‘Empire’ (Tsarist, Bolshevist, or Putinist) is an Asian rather than a European power is not implausible, especially not when we see Russia today forging major alliances with Syria, Persia (Iran), India, and China and continuing to provide a major point of reference for the Central Asian Republics—precisely at the moment when it is ostracized and sanctioned by the West. If the West truly wanted to, as it were, invite Russia back in, it could; but if it doesn’t (and there may be good reasons why it doesn’t), Russian will not wait for ever. It has other possibilities, and many of tis thinkers and writers would say these are its more natural affinities.

The memoir is a strange piece of work. There are relatively few  personal reminiscences and a great deal of her interpretation is framed by the rather extravagant racial theories of the time. She regarded the Dostoevskies as Lithuanians, and argues that her father, as it were, ‘chose’ Russia to define his identity on the basis of his prison experiences—as the quote given above suggests. At the same time, however, she hopes her book will enhance his father’s reputation and encourage new readers in Europe and America. Her nationalism—like Dostoevsky’s own—is therefore less a hostile repudiation of ‘the West’ and more a question of wanting to meet it on equal terms. Much of Russian international policy remains understandable on just this basis.

Nostalgia and New beginnings

This has been a long – the longest gap – between blogs. But there is a reason – which has nothing to do with either Brexit or even Europe. It’s simply that we have been moving house, away from Glasgow to what is called the East Neuk of Fife, to one of a string of fishing villages and towns along the coast opposite to Edinburgh. Several still have boats working out of them, though not on the scale of times past. It’s also an area with a strong cultural life, with many ‘artists, writers, and intellectuals’ (to use the old Soviet expression) living there. If you have moved house in the last few years, you’ll probably remember how difficult it is to focus on anything else, other than in a passive/ reactive way. Now, however, the dust is settling …

Today, I find myself in Cambridge, the city where I was born and grew up. Or is it? When I came back to be Dean of King’s College Chapel in the 1990s it was already very different from the city where I remembered from childhood and adolescence, largely on account of the massive growth of tourism. This not only meant crowded streets and pavements, but also a network of restrictions on where the public are allowed to go. When I was at school, anyone could go and sit on the riverbank at King’s, eat their lunch, talk, sunbathe or whatever else it was one wanted to do. By the 90s access was limited to members of College. Today, another thirty years on, the crowds are even bigger and the restrictions more restrictive. The entrance to Trinity College is blocked off by metal crowd control fencing. If you want to have a quiet leisurely punt along the backs during daylight hours – forget it, as the river is now congested with fleets of massive 20 seater punts catering to an endless stream of visiting school students and tourists. The architectural space of the city has also been changing. What still had the traces of a winding medieval street in the 1950s and a pub that had been an old coaching inn (The Red Lion, one of the haunts of the young Thomas Merton) is now a bland shopping precinct. Each college, it seems, has put up new student housing blocks or art centres. Although the station retains its Victorian core, it is now a multi-platform hub and the area round about it is entirely devoid of any local architectural clues – you could be anywhere in Europe, though that’s not a bad thing. There is also a new station, Cambridge North, serving the growing science park on the northern outskirts. From a sleepy fenland town with a university attached, Cambridge has become a small international city.

Not all the change is bad. As a child, waiting for the school bus, I would watch students cycling past to their lectures, nearly all men, black gowns flapping behind them. Women are now at least equal in numbers and gowns are no more (at least, not in public). Although there were always a lot of international language students, the city centre has become thoroughly cosmopolitan. In the EU referendum it had one of the highest pro-EU votes in the country. One can lament the loss of atmosphere, old streets, and long-established businesses that served the ‘young gentlemen’ (I remember Bacon’s, a tobacconist on the market square where you could have cigarettes hand-rolled with your choice of tobacco), but there is still beauty. Walking back along the river at dusk, the cloudless sky reflected in the almost motionless water, the banks heavy with trees in full summer leafage, the spire of All Saints’ Church rising above the dark skyline, it seemed almost timeless.

‘Timeless’ is just what it isn’t, of course. The past truly is another country, and though I may say that I was born and grew up in Cambridge, that Cambridge has only faint connections to the city that now exists. As the French-Russian philosopher Vladimir Jankélévitch put it, we are all in a process of unstoppable futurition: time just goes on futurizing, all the time, that’s what time does. To want the past back is the most futile of aspirations. We speak of a ‘sense of place’ and some thinkers oppose ‘place’ to ‘time’, but place itself has now been thoroughly enveloped and colonized by time. There is no way back, except in imagination. Knowing that, liberates one to be all the freer in going towards all that is yet to come. Kierkegaard wrote that we should live each day as if it were our last but also as if it were the first of a long life. We are beings of new beginnings – or would be, if we could only tear ourselves free from the lures of nostalgia.

Poland – a Scottish colony?

After coming back from Poland, I resumed reading Neal Ascherson’s Stone Voices, an individual exploration of Scottish identity, and found myself reading about the Scottish settlements in Poland. These began as early as 1380, when Scottish merchants established themselves in Gdansk and gradually disappeared from history in the 1700s. In the meantime, the extent of the Scottish presence was enough for Ascherson to describe it as a colony. The only surviving first hand account was from one ‘Lugless Will’ Lithgow, a young man who had had his ears cut off (thus ‘lugless’) after an amorous misadventure and then spent several years walking around Eatsern Europe and the Levant. In Krakow, he said that he met ‘diverse Scottish merchants, who were wonderful glad of my arrival there’. In Lublin there was an ‘abundance of gallant rich merchants my countrymen’. He returned to Scotland via Gdansk, where the same story repeated itself. All in all, he estimated that there were 30,000 Scots in Poland, which Ascherson seems to think might not have been as wild a guess as it seems. Robert Gordon’s College, a private school on Aberdeen, was founded by one of the Scottish Gdansk merchants, Robert Gordon, in 1750. Possibly another trace of this Scottish migration to Poland and Eastern Europe is none other than Immanuel Kant, and some have suggested that the philosopher had Scottish ancestry. Be that as it may, it was another Scot, Norman kemp Smith, who, in 1929, produced the definitive translation of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason– a translation I have known some Germans say they find easier than the original.

The Scots of Poland are worth remembering, though, even if they left few traces. They are a reminder that emigration goes in many directions. Human beings seem to be a migratory species. If the sentiment of homesickness is a powerful one, its power is always in tension with the desire and often need to wander – seeking ‘a better life’, whether that is thought of in terms of political or religious freedom (the Mayflower Pilgrims), economic improvement or even survival (like many coming to Europe today from Sub-Saharan Africa), pilgrimage to holy places (criss-crossing Europe in the Middle Ages), as well, of course, as those setting out in search of lands to conquer and plunder (the European ‘scramble for Africa’ being perhaps the most shameless of any such venture since classical times, if one excludes Genghis Khan). Often the motives are combined in various ways. This is how we are. And both homesickness and the search for a better life elsewhere are motifs that enter into the spiritual imagination in manifold ways.

Tonight the BBC news offered a small story about Polish workers in Herefordshire, suggesting that in the last couple of years much of the early hostility to them had died down and, nationally, a majority of people now see immigrants in positive terms. This seems a weird, though welcome, place to get to at the tail end of the Brexit crisis. What was that all about then? Alas, even if fear of immigration was a major driver of the pro-Brexit vote, the current manoeuvres of the Conservative leadership candidates plus the fragmentation of the Remain campaign seem to suggest the near inevitability of some sort of Brexit by the end of the year. I must remember to get my DNA test!

Multi-culturalism in Central Europe

Yesterday (only) I arrived I Krakow for a 3 day conference on the visionary Russian thinker, Vladimir Solovyov. Despite having given a series of Lectures on Divine Humanitythat are widely seen as having set in motion a distinctively Russian tradition of philosophy, he died in poverty in his 40s, wandering from hotel to hotel, having lost his academic post for daring to suggest that, as a Christian sovereign, the Tsar should forgive the man who had attempted to kill him. More of Solovyov another time, maybe.

Krakow itself is a wonderful city. It helped that I came from four days of unending rain in Glasgow into a Sunday afternoon flooded with sunshine and blue skies. I had also been under the illusion that, like Warsaw, Krakow had been destroyed in the war and reconstructed, but in fact both German and Russian armies had largely passed it by. Once the capital of Poland, it is both an ancient university city and a cathedral city, as well as having an important historic Jewish area. It is almost impossible to be here for half an hour and not be made aware that it is also the city of John Paul II—for Catholics, of course, SaintJohn Paul II. The conference itself is under the aegis of John Paul II university, and I was shown the parish church where he was for many years priest. As well as statues, posters and souvenirs remind the visitor of his presence.

The streets were thronged with tourists, massive crowds, on the scale of Edinburgh or Oxford, though, on the whole, more slow-moving and laid back. After walking about for an hour, I suddenly had the strange realization that I hadn’t seen a single non-white face. With that number of people, this is now almost impossible in Great Britain, at least in any major urban centre. Having become aware of this, I started to notice and in the next couple of hours I saw three people of African heritage, and a similar number each of people of Indian Chinese, and Middle Eastern origins—though whether they were tourists or residents I have no idea. This is one angle—whatever one makes of it—on the very different attitudes multiculturalism between Britain and several Central European countries. But, of course, they have their own, rather different, multi-cultural issues. The graduate student from the John Paul II university showing me around was himself a Catholic, Russian-speaking Ukrainian. This was striking, since the present conflict in Ukraine (which he called a civil war) is often portrayed as a conflict between the Ukrainian-speaking Catholic West and the Russian-speaking Orthodox East. But it’s more complicated, as the recent recognition of an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople (yes, such a title still exists)—so now there are Orthodox who support the West-leaning government but also Catholics who support the Russia-leaning separatists (though not necessarily supporting the violence with which their cause is pursued). In short, complex—though, unlike the complexities of the Brexit-savaged UK, there are guns, tanks, and rockets to back up the different sides. We are at least spared that.

The memorialization of the Jewish element of Krakow’s history is also complex. In the former Jewish area, a lot of shops, cafes, statues, and cultural centres promote this piece of vanished history—as well as some top-level graffiti. Of course, it’s natural that many Jewish people from Israel and around the world would want to come to the city of their ancestors, but at the same time it seemed odd that a place defined historically by the Nazi genocide of its inhabitants is now a place to go and hang out drinking aperol or eating ice cream (I had halva and pear: amazing).

Earlier on in the high street we’d passed a number of tourist outlets offering trips to local sights, including, inevitably Auschwitz-Birkenau. I’m sure that for most people who go, this is a deeply serious and memorable event, but there is something incongruous about seeing trips advertised with the same sort of bright colours and eye-catching text as you might see in the UK for Blenheim Palace or Puffin Island. Perhaps if we go at all, we should, like medieval penitents, go the last five miles on our knees. How else should you go?

Rome and Away

A long family weekend in Rome, followed by a working trip to Liverpool, plus the mild trauma of the European elections has kept me from blogging for the last couple of weeks (partly because there’ve been so many possible topics that choosing got near impossible). Thanks to those who’ve continued to drop in anyway.

One topic I was thinking about in Rome was, unavoidably, tourism. Already in mid-May the crowds seemed almost as extreme as we’ve experienced later in the tourist season. In the wrong places, just walking along the pavement was challenging, compounded by flotillas of Segway riders (a wonderful symbol of the contemporary tourist’s glide through places without having to engage the actuality of interacting with people).

This time we visited the Goethe House, where the great man stayed for a year in the late 1780s, following in the footsteps of the English Milords on the Grand Tour and hanging out with the North European artists who’d settled there. It was marginally disappointing since half of it was closed and most of the exhibits were reproductions, such as Tischbein’s portrait of Goethe lounging poetically in the Latin countryside (but still not quite managing to stop looking serious). Still, it really was where he stayed and much of the built environment at that end of the Via Corso as it approaches the Piazza del Popolo would be essentially recognizable. For Goethe and those like Shelley, Keats, and Byron a generation later, a visit to Italy was a venture into a very different kind of society, perhaps as different as going from North West Europe today to India or China – but without the benefit of travel companies and modern transport, let alone instant communication home courtesy of email, Facebook, and whatsapp. As the pictures in the house showed, much of ancient Rome was still ruinous, with cattle wandering amongst the ruins, while the palazzos of the great families were still in occupation – a place of mysterious memories and exotic lives.

Since the days of the Grand Tour the history of tourism shows a progressive democratization, following the same cultural trajectory as boredom, another invention of the eighteenth century English aristocracy. Once the preserve of Milords, tourism and boredom have passed through the filter of poets and artists and are now the common property of teenagers of all classes. I don’t say that in the spirit of bewailing the decline and fall of Western civilization, though as far as tourism goes the sheer scale of it is today threatening to destroy what it is we go to see (apart from the effects of air miles on the planet). Rather, my thought was the direct opposite of the decline of civilization thesis, namely, that we might see the Romantic poets and artists less as ‘romantic’ adventurers embarked on highly individualized and yet world-historically significant quests (as their admirers have long seen them) and more as the avant garde of today’s bored teenagers and mass tourists. That may endear them more – or less. We’re often encouraged to read the present in the mirror of the past, but it’s no less useful to read the past in the mirror of the present—for this is what the words and deeds of those in the past have bequeathed us. From Goethe to Segways is perhaps a more direct line than literati may care to think.

On another note, I’m excited by the discovery that until October Spain is offering passports to all who can prove their ancestors were amongst the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492. As I have a Spanish forebear, ‘Philip the Spaniard’ who arrived in Cornwall in the 15th century, I’m looking for a way to prove he was a Sephardic Jew (which I’ve long suspected). That way, I could continue to be a citizen of the EU beyond Brexit. But it’s probably a rather forlorn hope.