February 23, 2013

Sympathy and the Legacy of Complacency

When the going is good, the corrupt, the corpulent, the anti-intellectual, and the gourmand get their day. If the going is good for a while, these guys get their feet well and truly under the table. It’s a mighty job to get a placeman to give up his place. If we live in an era devoid of political nous, in the midst of a dearth of brilliance and of the spluttering rhetoric of leaders who cannot lead, we are not the first:

In the courts of princes, in the drawing-rooms of the great, where success and preferment depend, not upon the esteem of intelligent and well-informed equals, but upon the fanciful and foolish favour of ignorant, presumptuous, and proud superiors; flattery and falsehood too often prevail over merit and abilities.


We have probably all slaved in environments of clientism and nepotism, where the face-fitting yes-men contort their mediocrities into pleasing shapes for the sake of scraps from the table. Now it is a pervasive Occidental malady. The cultivation of flattery endured for long enough that the cultivation of talent went begging for infrastructure. The man of vision thumps his fist on the table in frustration, but is swept along in a rushing torrent of ephemeral images, of passing fads, reality ‘stars’, and auto-tuned politics. He’s just another piece of noise.

In such societies the abilities to please, are more regarded than the abilities to serve. In quiet and peaceable times, when the storm is at a distance, the prince or great man, wishes only to be amused, and is even apt to fancy that he has scarce any occasion for the service of any body, or that those who amuse him are sufficiently able to serve him. The external graces, the frivolous accomplishments, of that impertinent and foolish thing called a man of fashion, are commonly more admired than the solid and masculine virtues of a warrior, a statesmen, a philosopher, or a legislator. All the great and awful virtues, all the virtues which can fit, either for the council, the senate, or the field, are, by the insolent and insignificant flatterers, who commonly figure the most in such corrupted societies, held in the utmost contempt and derision.

These are not peaceable times. Far from it. But when we long ago bet our solid virtues on a pyramid scheme we scarcely thought how we might retrieve them once the sun ceased to shine. The British notion of ‘service’ has been reduced to James Bond quips and glib citizenship tests demanding that ‘foreigners’ know how to glorify General Gordon. To get it back, we need to know that there is something to serve. Citizenship is about belonging, but also owning. It is about acknowledging a mutual set of responsibilities, from the State to the individual and vice versa. There isn’t a lot of that spirit about any more. The phrase ‘we’re all in this together’ has been appropriated for a political slogan, heightening our distrust, and making us all the more entrenched in our view that, actually, it’s every man for himself. If ever we needed leadership, it is now. But where to find him or her?

When the duke of Sully was called upon by Lewis the Thirteenth to give his advice in some great emergency, he observed the favourites and courtiers whispering to one another, and smiling at his unfashionable appearance. “Whenever your majesty’s father,” said the old warrior and statesmen, “did me the honour to consult me, he ordered the buffoons of the court to retire into the antechamber.”

It’s not exactly hopeless out there, but if we were to cast around for a latter-day duke of Sully we might have to wait a while to find him. Trouble these days is that the throne room’s been flogged for a porn set and we’ve been living in the antechamber for years. There’s a party going on and everyone’s been hammered for a decade. We are utterly self-absorbed, racing each other to the bottom of the sleaziest autobiography charts.


All the quoted passages here are from Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). Smith knew that the essential corollary of the selfish was the sympathetic. To share the joys, but also the sufferings of one’s fellow man was the basis of civilisation. It is in a man’s interests to sympathise with other men, to care for his needs, to feel his pain, for in solidarity he increases the likelihood that, in his own pain, he too will find the succour of others. The Golden Rule, with its archetypical architecture of altruism, depends first and foremost on self-knowledge of self-interest: Do as you would be done unto. In our clamouring for the top, or in our struggle to avoid the abyss, we trample the man underneath us. The more we trample, the more damage we do to ourselves.


It really were better that we pulled together. The leadership for which we yearn can be sourced in each other. No amount of charisma in a suit is going to do it for us. It’s time to turn a clenched fist into an open hand. Who will be first?

February 22, 2013

Running Scared?

Over the Christmas holidays in Montreal last year there was a record snow storm. Eighteen inches fell in one day. Immediately afterwards the temperature dropped to a pretty consistent -20 Celsius, give or take wind chill. The city, which usually recovers from winter storms in a single day of ploughing and shovelling, was buried for a week. Perfect weather for running.

From my apartment downtown to the top of Mount Royal is an elevation gain of 495 feet, over about three-and-a-half miles. It’s not an unchallenging hill run at the best of times, but I’d never actually been up it in deep snow, even at a walk. Coming down is pretty taxing on the knees if you do it consistently, but I had no idea about how it would be on snow and ice. A city, I reasoned, is to be experienced, and laced up.

I was not without appropriate equipment. Mrs. VB had sprung for the running crampons for Christmas for the very purpose, and strapping them on is the nearest a runner gets to the girding of loins. Layers of wicking clothing lay between me and the elements. The first part of the run is usually on sidewalks, but they were completely buried (as were the parked cars), so I struck out into the road, which at least had some tyre tracks to follow. The first half mile was maybe the hardest I’ve run. The snow was thigh deep in places, and getting the legs up and out of it soon started to burn. Meanwhile the feet were completely numb.


The main path up Parc Avenue was buried, but there was a clearing of sorts through the park to the west of the street, some of which had been ploughed for fire trucks. A mile or so in was the mountain trail – a smoothly ploughed path of crunchy ice. Near the bottom, the sledding community was in its element, but they soon petered out. After that there were skiers (winter’s cyclists, similarly annoying), snow shoers, and the hardy winter foot soldiers. One or two other runners were braving it. Thighs easing up; feet coming back to life.

Two thirds of the way up, the sun broke around the bend of the mountain path and lit up the winter like a torch. I’ve never seen a brighter light and the sheer beauty of the spectacle lulled me into a temporary forgetfulness of the lunacy of it all. Around the next bend, high up now, the wind could have cut a man in two, blowing snow sideways off the drifting piles like a sandstorm, and just as sharp, with the windchill factor now at around -30. The only people up here were other idiots.


Made it to the top. A glorious scene of shimmering metal and glass, surrounded by ice. Going down was quick, hard on the feet, and heavy on the thighs again once I reached those high drifts. Seven brutal miles later I was back, layered with ice and frost, ready to thaw, and eat.

Never again? Well, not until the next day.

February 21, 2013

Doping for Dopes

If it is true that cheats do not prosper, for a good while it must have felt to the cheats that they’d gotten away with a blinder. This has been a horrible period for sports fans, all of whom must now wonder, when they watch their heroes, whether what they see is real. If matches aren’t fixed for international gambling syndicates then all the athletes are on drugs, right? Hardly a sport has been left untouched by a tidal wave of scandals and suspicions, and somehow the honest professional, and even more so the amateur enthusiast, have been lost in the fray. The good guy can only take so much before the cracks start to appear. The cri de coeur happened today.



This morning Tony Thompson the boxer told the BBC that doping should be legalised. “I think they should allow doping, period, because for me it’s like the gun lawOnly the good guys are listening. It leaves the good guys without the guns. This is the age-old cry of the unjustly treated. Life-long believers in fair play and justice, they ultimately grow weary of losing to the cheat, or of competing on a distinctly uneven playing surface. It is like the dueller, having agreed the terms of engagement with his foe, turning up sword in hand only to find a pistol pointing at him through the murky dawn. It is a mismatch of epic proportions. The bullet wins every time. The virtuous fencer might be forgiven for thinking it were better had he too gone ballistic.

I wouldn’t forgive him. I’d pity him, but that would be just another kick to the puppy. I understand the plight of these fellows, but no upstanding man could endorse the institutionalisation of sport’s greatest wrong in order to level down to the moral poison of the fakes. If there were no honour in sport, and if everyone was hepped up steroids, then I’d sooner watch robot wars. There’d be no real difference. Sport, if it is to mean anything, has to be about the testing of the limits of being human, which is both good to do and good to watch. There can be no spirit of emulation if we cannot be certain that the spectacle is, essentially, a purely human one.

Tony Thompson has forgotten that sport isn’t simply about this competitor or that team. The public cares not a fig for how much money a man might win, but only that he might win fair and square. And if cheating is rife, then the fair man does not advocate that everyone should cheat. The fair man, believing in the true spirit of competition, sticks to his guns (or his weapon of choice). For that man knows that when he wins he will draw satisfaction from having won fairly. I have no idea what satisfaction the cheat derives from his own rocket-propelled ‘victory’. Money, fame and power are all ephemeral. They are the chimeras of our age. They have never been in the past and should not now be the reasons for sporting endeavour. I hope the good guys keep poking at this sore until the boil is well and truly lanced.

February 19, 2013

Horse, Of Course

The people of Europe are growing hoarse. In the past month there’s been much whinnying about the adulteration of processed food. The media – old nag – is chomping at the bit. Politicians are staggered. The food industry has been nobbled. The public’s disgust is unbridled. The whole mess is stickier than a glue factory. Bored of this extended pun? Me too.

The consternation about horsemeat masquerading as beef is off target. There is a criminal mastermind out there somewhere who knows how to make labels. That’s pretty much it. Whoever is behind it should be found and prosecuted. If there’s horse tranquilizer, or whatever it is, in the human food chain, so much the worse. But it seems to me that most of the complaints aren’t about these things. They’re about the thought of eating horse.

Nobody, to my knowledge, has complained about the taste. Thousands of people have consumed what they presumed to be beef dinners – burgers, lasagnes, etc. – and so far as I can tell not one person noticed that the thing sticking to their MSG-encrusted palate wasn’t what it purported to be. This is just as you’d expect. After all, if you’re buying frozen processed meals one might assume you’d eat anything, without too much of a care for what it is. But the after knowledge that said processed lump might have been a Romanian cart horse has produced a cacophony of self-conscious hacking (no pun intended this time), at least in the UK. Why?

The French know

Culturally, we do not eat horse. This is somehow ironically indicated by the popular refrain, ‘I’m so hungry I could eat a horse’, which is now presumably in decline. Why we do not eat horse (unlike the French, and many other nations) is a mystery as enigmatic as the dietetics of Leviticus: horses are noble (they aren’t, but several hundred years’ worth of being held up as aristocratic mirrors has cemented the quality); horses are intelligent (pigs, anyone?); horses are working animals, not food animals (oxen are different why?). There is no explanation that does not ultimately rest on some anthropocentric, and anthropomorphic, conceit. The image, for example, of a graceful hunter, topped by an exemplar of virility in hunting pink, does not translate easily to the recipe pages of the national cuisine (and we don’t eat fox either, for similarly confounding reasons).

If we could just stop tripping over each other in our bid to be more appalled than the next, there’s surely an opportunity here. The criminal mind has shown the way. If horse meat is so much cheaper than cow that it’s worth risking an international scandal to make a few bucks on the sly, then some enterprising knacker ought to try a national marketing campaign to sell horse for what it is. ‘Times are tough. Beef is expensive. Why not be a little daring? And in any case, you’ll never taste the difference’. 

February 18, 2013

Ecce Homo

Behold the man. Flesh and blood. Broken. Passionate.

Baldung Grien, Schmerzensmann [Man of Sorrows], 1511

In one of the more curious English etymological journeys from Greek (pathos), ‘passion’ now stands for ardent enthusiasm or, worse, lust. But in its oldest and most enduring sense, passion refers to suffering. It is a corporeal ordeal bound in an emotional expression of anguish. It is pain, of the body, of the heart.

I’d have made a hopeless utilitarian. There are plenty of them still kicking about, but I pity their plight. ‘All pain is bad, umkay?’ The sentiment has a hollow, modern ring suggestive of double-entry bookkeeping and facts in boxes. It seems inescapable to me that the human has always been defined in some way through or against pain and suffering. From pain we derive meaning, sense of purpose, sense of gain and loss, sense of identity. The significance of flesh and blood – our substance – is its tenuousness. We are morbid creatures. We tear and bleed. Around us and in us ‘nature’ struggles. Out of Victorian conceit we’ve been wont to talk of the survival of the fittest, beating our chests as if the civilised world somehow had a monopoly over the category ‘fit’. The flipside of that expression is the suffering of the majority, the struggle, through pain, to death.

This is not meant to be bleak. Through struggle we strive, and in striving we become. Pain moves us, physically, affectively. It holds up to us our limits and dares us to transcend them. Through adversity comes clarity of purpose. The worse the ordeal we come through, the more resolute we are. Just as there is no courage without fear, there is no purpose without pain. Think of all the people who claim they will ‘re-evaluate’ their lives after painful experiences. There is truth in cliché.

Ecce Homo: Behold the man. Through passion – in pain – significant. 
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