Foucault’s Fantasies

When you are studying any matter, or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only: what are the facts, and what does the truth of the facts bear out?
Bertrand Russell’s advice to the future.

While the Iranian regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini was murdering those in whose name he had stolen the revolution, there were some Westerners who could think only of praise. The labour councils that had rallied against the Shah had been newly subsumed into the state machinery under the principle of velayat-e faqih – the “guardianship of the jurisprudent” – which in this case meant a capitalist system minded by religious medievalists; under a banner of “separate but equal” had been erected sexual apartheid; homosexuals were simply executed. Corpses hung from cranes.

To my knowledge, Michel Foucault never retracted a single word of the article with which he had heralded in the looming regime’s “political spirituality” in 1978, perhaps the most mundane covenant ever to have graced the halls of revolutionary history:

When Iranians speak of Islamic government; when, under the threat of bullets, they transform it into a slogan of the streets; when they reject in its name, perhaps at the risk of a bloodbath, deals arranged by parties and politicians, they have other things on their minds than these formulas from everywhere and nowhere. They also have other things in their hearts. I believe that they are thinking about a reality that is very near to them, since they themselves are its active agents.

It is first and foremost about a movement that aims to give a permanent role in political life to the traditional structures of Islamic society. An Islamic government is what will allow the continuing activity of the thousands of political centers that have been spawned in mosques and religious communities in order to resist the shah’s regime. I was given an example. Ten years ago, an earthquake hit Ferdows. The entire city had to be reconstructed, but since the plan that had been selected was not to the satisfaction of most of the peasants and the small artisans, they seceded. Under the guidance of a religious leader, they went on to found their city a little further away. They had collected funds in the entire region. They had collectively chosen places to settle, arranged a water supply, and organized cooperatives. They had called their city Islamiyeh. The earthquake had been an opportunity to use religious structures not only as centers of resistance, but also as sources for political creation. This is what one dreams about [songe] when one speaks of Islamic government.

In response, Claudie and Jacques Broyelle

called upon Foucault to admit that his thinking on Iran had been “in error.” Foucault’s response, published two days later, was in fact a non-response. He would not respond, he wrote, “because throughout ‘my life’ I have never taken part in polemics. I have no intention of beginning now.” He wrote further, “I am ‘summoned to acknowledge my errors’.” He hinted that it was the Broyelles who were engaging in thought control by the manner in which they had called him to account.

For some academics, it may indeed be a valorous pursuit to avoid the emotive charges of their opponents. Polemics can misrepresent hard-won and valuable intellectual approaches as sloppy scholarship, for some simply not worth the ephemeral visit into the public sphere. But this is not at all the case for Foucault; his post-structuralism, and its fantastical pretensions, lay behind both his political conclusions and the aloof posterity with which he met his rivals. A perfect method to explore this is through the state of intellectual decadence into which he sent the otherwise entirely innocuous discipline of “gender history”.

Gender history appeared to be a terribly useful innovation for feminism; its horizons were broadened and its subject was nuanced, favourable to the realisation that it was nonsensical and ahistorical to consider the oppression of women without their relationship to men, and to the societies in which they lived and died. Yet its prospects faced an early trauma: Joan Scott, enamoured by the size of Foucault’s vocabulary, delighted in the chaotic  wordplay she inaugurated into the discipline in 1986. For post-structuralists, cultural discourse takes priority in our understanding of gender, modelled on Foucault’s concept of “power” as dispersed and thereby subjective in every instance; and since every interpretation is inevitably different, the experiences of individual women are inherently unknowable. The central point, therefore, is that in order to emancipate women, society’s common language of oppression must be identified and transformed. There was even a hint at solidarity implicit in the curious suggestion that democratic and authoritarian regimes share “flawed master narratives”.

But Scott’s feminist objective to “emancipate” women had absolutely nothing grounded in the real world. Her reaction to “essentialised” women’s consciousness took the other extreme. Foucault’s denial of objective truth abandoned empiricism with a flick of the hand; and if no historical writing can support itself in material evidence, then everything may have an equally legitimate claim to pseudo-truth if the odd decontextualized line from a diary or speech can be thrown to its defence. This is why Foucault considered the murderous and misogynistic Iranian Counter-Revolution so laudable; the dilute methodology of post-structuralism is far more likely to degrade women than it is to uncover the roots of their oppression. Certainly, there is no way of knowing when they do.

This utter frivolity – being the randomness of thought that grips the intellect once material reality is said to be illusory to it – saturated many “histories” that proclaimed grand narratives of sexuality and the body. No text can fully subsume an experience. It ignores, after all, the individual’s social geographical variances and, of especial note here, their personal reactions to sexual biology, while condemning the illiterate to historical silence. Illustrations to comprehend the transformation of “the body” ameliorate only the last of these deficiencies. Fletcher’s Gender, Sex & Subordation in England, 1500-1800 (1990), unlike Olwen Hufton’s The Prospect Before Her (1996) of the same period, entirely dismisses any consideration of the empirical analysis of ordinary lives made of such fruitful use by Hufton in order to make sense of the accompanying religious discourse. Indeed, a source frequently cited by Fletcher is Thomas Laqueur’s Making Sex, a tale of the gendered perception of sex which ends with a rather telling paradox: “But basically the content of talk about sexual difference is unfettered by fact, and is as free as mind’s play.”

In complete tune with this, Scott asserts that the welfare state reinforces “paternalistic” masculinity – in spite of such “facts” that both men and women have equal access and that women can be elected to exercise responsibility over it. For comparison’s sake, the second volume of Foucault’s History of Sexuality, in which he analysed Greek practice, was an ambitious venture given the author did not speak even the ancient language on which he played so much stress in cultural formation; indeed, in the process of writing he elected to remedy his ignorance of Roman and Greek culture by travelling to California. Post-structural gender theory is the flipside of crude Marxism. “Symbols” alone, although indeed experienced in the eye of the subject can only, when studied independent of circumstance, reflect the eye of the historian. Such authorial pretensions to feminist politics were, in other words, the culmination of many years of wasted scholarship.

Michel Foucault and his post-structuralist chums were more than fantastical zombies, a little too allured by the intellectual decadence of Western academia. More, even, than futile were their approaches: they were and remain today actively regressive in the study both of truth and the material realities upon which it depends. Neither women, nor homosexuals, nor the labouring people of Iran will be free for so long as their chains are denied and their words are suffocated by those pretending to care for them. This is the approach, in other words, that allies the far left to the extreme, murderous right.

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Sorry, Alan. We’ll let you off this one.

The British government will not, it is revealed, oppose a law pardoning Enigma codebreaker Alan Turing:

The Enigma codebreaker Alan Turing is set to be posthumously pardoned, after the Government said it would not stand in the way of legislation in parliament that would quash his conviction for being a homosexual.

Ministers had previously argued that they would not be able to go any further than the apology given by Gordon Brown in 2009, because “gross indecency”, which Turing was found guilty of in 1952, was at the time a criminal offence.

But yesterday Government Whip Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon said the coalition would not stand in the way of a Bill brought by Liberal Democrat peer Lord Sharkey, which offers Turing a full posthumous parliamentary pardon.

John Sharkey cheers from the Lords:

“It is not too late for the Government to pardon Alan Turing. It is not too late for the Government to grant a disregard for all those gay men convicted under the dreadful (legislation). I hope the Government is thinking very hard about doing both of those things.

“But while they are thinking, Parliament can act.”

Those are two very different matters to be proposed. Ignoring, firstly, the inconsistencies of pardoning the victims of only one law – when Blair himself offered only a puzzled apology on the eve of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade – we reach even deeper and inevitably darker territory of pardoning one named victim.

Down there be monsters. Firstly, the pardon – if unintentionally – implies that human rights are to be earned; that had Turing not shortened the war, his sentence would have been definitively deserved. Second, compare with the 1995 South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Perpetrators of apartheid were offered redemption if they accepted fully the principles upon which the new state was founded. But in the case of Turing, a moral quandary jumps from the past only to be ruled upon with a halfhearted sigh. To observers, it is lazy; to victims, and to their descendants, it is selfishly shallow.

Don’t discriminate between the crimes for which you apologise. Better either to accept you aren’t to blame – or, to repair as many of those damages that history will allow.


The Paradox of Learning Russian…

… is that there’s less and less that one would be able to say:

A former friend of mine – gay of course, and of course he kept it secret from all his family, as is common practice in Russia – said to me: “What on Earth made you come out? How stupid! Nobody was planning to shop you. The morning paper wasn’t running an investigation.” I didn’t know what to answer. I couldn’t even explain it clearly to myself – what made me stand up and tell everyone, on a TV show, in a country where they kill gay people for being what they are: “Here I am. I too am gay.” Do you think I wasn’t afraid? That I didn’t feel ashamed? That I didn’t regret ruining my career?

I’m afraid even now. I’m afraid of going into an empty entrance to a block of flats. I’m afraid of walking down a side street at night. I am afraid. And a little sorry that I probably won’t be allowed to continue working. They won’t let me go back to television. I’m afraid and sorry. But I’ve got nothing to be ashamed of now.


The Absurd Hysteria of a Dethroned Church

Lord Carey

Lord Carey using the Force in his latest attempt to change the votes of the 400 pro-marriage equality MPs.

Had its bishops been a little more flamboyant, Charlie Chaplin’s quip that “in the light of our own egos, we are all dethroned monarchs” might just have become the motto of the Church of England. To hear nothing beyond Lord Carey’s recent bombast one might be forgiven for thinking that David Cameron had recently led an anti-theist coup to purge England of all things non-infidel:

More shockingly, the Equalities Minister, Helen Grant, recently gave her support to the Labour MP Chris Bryant’s campaign to turn the 700-year-old Parliamentary chapel of St Mary Undercroft into a multi-faith prayer room so that gay couples can get married there. The Speaker of the House of Commons is reported to be supportive of the move.

Thankfully, he elected not to predict from the omens that by dawn we’ll be burning Protestants like it’s 1554. But more:

Lord Carey also that said a recent ComRes poll suggested “more than two-thirds of Christians feel that they are part of a ‘persecuted minority'”.

“Their fears may be exaggerated because few in the UK are actually persecuted, but the prime minister has done more than any other recent political leader to feed these anxieties.”

Ah, yes. The same Cameron whose homage to our “Christian roots” will go down as one of the most embarrassing pretensions to conservatism our political establishment has seen for some years.

The bemused reader of Carey, like myself, has plenty about which to be irritated. Much like its counterpart in Tehran, 26 places are reserved specifically for the Anglican episcopate in the House of Lords; the Church’s governor is the British head of state in Queen Lizzie; on paper, at least, it is our national church. Were these merely quaint anachronisms I doubt anyone would seriously care. I might oppose it on moral and constitutional grounds but be somewhat indisposed to that extra bit of administrative waste, being the history student with a curious affection for old things that I am.

And yet it would seem that no matter how many times these points are rehearsed they will never quell the arrogance of the Anglican Church – because these legislative tidbits are more like nourishing provocateurs than comforts for the senile. That the Church has in its history sunk to the most abysmal depths of the worst criminal acts should give it cause for humility; for having opposed attempts to end the African slave trade, for opposing the emancipation of gays and women in the 1960s, for administering African colonies on behalf of the British crown, for waving the flag in 1914 as young men marched like cattle into gunfire and never dropping it. That is not the record fitting for complacency, and fitting even less as a precedent to a panicky manifesto to a secular Parliament.

So when Carey cries “persecution” one ought to be astonished, and yet is somehow embarrassed and vaguely confused. The Tudor dynastic church, scrambled together in the bedroom of Henry VIII, now ranks in matters of sexual morality far below the condom machine. And psychiatrists love to remind us that relationships begin to fall apart when the sex dries up. That’s why it’s so farcical and not at all tragic: the absurd hysteria of Anglican figures is fueled by the knowledge that, deep down, their political authority is as hollow as the crown of Richard II. It wasn’t after all always so easy to get the Church to admit that its members are now in a minority.

But Lord Carey’s remarks are as insulting as much as they are arrogant: and none less, would you believe it, than to Christians worldwide. The sad irony is that they are probably the most persecuted religious group on the planet, alongside the Jews: in the Middle-East, China, North Korea, parts of India, north Africa and even Turkey, Christians simply for their beliefs and practices might face anything from exclusion from office to death. The ideology that once gave moral directorship to imperialism has now created victims in its modern adherents. To compare this with secularism – with the position of the equality of religious and non-religious outlooks – is a pompous disgrace, one which probably won’t humiliate the Church as much as it should.

Back in Britain it would seem that the Church is dying in the bed in which it was born, brought as it was into England feeding on the marital morality of which today it is starved. It can’t stop gay marriage – how dreadful. I never really cared for it until the Church revealed why they thought it was so important to oppose it. Indeed, one can only hope for one final divorce: not just from Rome, but from Parliament. Kick out the bishops, democratise the Lords and we really will have true freedom conscience in this country.

To Chaplin’s earlier quoted line might be added another, that “life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.” Think of that with the Anglican Church, who might like many others learn from Shakespeare how a dethroned monarch need not forgo his assured self-respect:

For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear’d and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour’d thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!

From the BBC’s “Richard II” of “The Hollow Crown” series.


The Inquisition is on Facebook

Islamism, reincarnating the medievalist witch hunt:

Sitting on the floor, wearing traditional Islamic clothes and holding an old notebook, Abu Hamizi, 22, spends at least six hours a day searching internet chatrooms linked to gay websites. He is not looking for new friends, but for victims.

“It is the easiest way to find those people who are destroying Islam and who want to dirty the reputation we took centuries to build up,” he said. When he finds them, Hamizi arranges for them to be attacked and sometimes killed.

Hamizi, a computer science graduate, is at the cutting edge of a new wave of violence against gay men in Iraq. Made up of hardline extremists, Hamizi’s group and others like it are believed to be responsible for the deaths of more than 130 gay Iraqi men since the beginning of the year alone.

The deputy leader of the group, which is based in Baghdad, explained its campaign using a stream of homophobic invective. “Animals deserve more pity than the dirty people who practise such sexual depraved acts,” he told the Observer. “We make sure they know why they are being held and give them the chance to ask God’s forgiveness before they are killed.”
The violence against Iraqi gays is a key test of the government’s ability to protect vulnerable minority groups after the Americans have gone.

More here.

We’re wrong to assume social media – and the blogosphere – is simply a force for uniting voices otherwise neglected from corporate media. It can be very much a tool of suppression.


Ann Widdecombe: Scrap Equality, It’s Unpopular

The hero of the hour.

The Conservatives’ recent defeat in the Eastleigh by-election – or rather, their loss of votes to UKIP – is down to David Cameron’s refusal to give way to opponents of equality, according to champion of the oppressed Ann Widdecombe:

Sorry David but it is you, not your party, that has to change if you are to be PM after 2015. Gay marriage has played an enormous role in all this but you wouldn’t listen – you brushed off your MPs, who were trying to tell you that their supporters were leaving, with the words “it’s a free vote”.

But it’s fine – she’s not homophobic. She has a gay friend:

They tried to tell you that no matter how they voted supporters would leave because the Conservatives were introducing the measure – and now Eastleigh has made the point for them – but you wouldn’t listen. One of my friends, a gay journalist who opposes the Bill, was taken to task by one of your advisers who seemed to think that all should think as you do. They don’t, David, they don’t.

suspect that this journalist would be Andrew Pierce: one of his many delightful articles here.

Meanwhile, more and more gay teenagers are worried that they might be Christian: source.

The openly gay teen, who came out to his parents at age 14 and has had a steady boyfriend for the past seven months, said he first began to suspect he might be different last year, when he started feeling an odd stirring within himself every time he passed a church. The more conservative the church, Faber claimed, the stronger his desire was to enter it.