Monday, June 24, 2013

‘What is this coup d’état? I know’

Google Reader is shutting down in six days and I still haven’t chosen a replacement. I am frustrated that this is happening. I value my regular readers a great deal, and more than half of my subscribes are users of Google’s service, which is by far the most popular RSS system around, so this blog may well suffer a fairly precipitous drop in readership as of next week. I also rely on Google Reader to keep an eye on my favourite writers and blogs. There are alternatives out there, but the disappearance of the dominant product may very well accelerate the move away from subscription and towards relying on social media to compile one’s daily reading list.

Social media are very good at this. You could go by your contacts’ recommendations and never run out of interesting and valuable things to read. But social media are also biased. Not surprisingly, they favour the socially connected. I shouldn’t complain, I am one of those people. But the work of keeping up with the writings and writers that are less attuned to social media is valuable, and it’s about to get a little bit harder.

Promoting this work, and countering those biases, is also important. I was surprised to discover last week that a friend who has recently returned from the UK wasn’t familiar with Scott Hamilton or his blog. This we could both easily attribute to the fact that Scott isn’t on Twitter. And sure, it’s more Twitter’s loss than Scott’s, but it means that some people are missing out on one of the country’s very best writers, all because of a shift in the prevailing habits of media consumption.

It used to be that blogging itself was considered ‘social media’, and attracted similar complaints. So I realise that my argument – to the extent that I have one – proceeds on shaky grounds. But we talked, my friend and I, about the role of writers in the public conversation, as well as the responsibility of media (not just the mainstream kind) to promote and facilitate this role. Whenever I am involved in that sort of discussion, I automatically think of Pier Paolo Pasolini.

Piero Ottone took over as editor of Il Corriere della Sera, in early 1972. Closely tied to the Northern industrial bourgeoisie, Il Corriere was then, as it is now, Italy’s best-selling daily newspaper. Ottone’s intention may initially have been to make it only slightly less conservative, as he did most notably by firing reactionary columnist Indro Montanelli. (Montanelli went on to fund his own newspaper, which he unassumingly called The Newspaper.) But then Pasolini wrote Ottone a letter, tearing into him for his editorial stance on the Vietnam war. This letter included the following line: ‘today’s exploited and oppressed will soon wipe out you and your freedoms’. So naturally Ottone gave Pasolini a job.

It was a strange convergence. Pasolini wasn’t a young writer seeking a break, but a mature artist at the peak of his powers. He was also a communist. Whatever expectation there might have been that in order to publish on this prestigious conservative forum he would compromise on his ideas or moderate his rhetoric, it would soon be shattered. Ottone, for his part, published everything. The result were the fifteen columns that Pasolini wrote for Il Corriere between 1973 and 1975 – the year of his murder – and later collected as Scritti corsari (‘pirate papers’).

One of these columns in particular has become linked to an entire period of Italian history. It’s known simply as Io so, ‘I know’. It is a reflection on the work of the intellectual, but also a devastating attack on our institutions – including the press – and on the nation's subservient relationship to the United States.

When I was invited to write for Overland, I thought that translating this text – which is to say, recovering it – would be a useful start. But what we need to recover just as urgently is the kind of contract with the reader that it presupposes. You don’t need to know anything about the subject of the column: about what came to be called ‘the strategy of tension’, about the decade-long bloodbath that culminated in the Bologna train station massacre. Just read it. And then think not of what writers but of what writing, not of what publishers but of what publishing would make this kind of work possible today. Where would you find it, under which conditions, in what kind of mainstream? Or if you think it’s here already, how can we best value it and support it.

Earlier this month some people got together on Twitter, under the guidance of @Tw_letteratura, and read the Scritti corsari together. This post is also a belated contribution to the hashtag #Corsari.

‘What is this coup d’état? I know’ - by Pier Paolo Pasolini.

(Original Italian text. The translation is mine, as originally published at Overland.)

I know.

I know the names of those responsible for what has been called a ‘coup d’état’ (but is in reality a series of ‘coups’ instituted for the preservation of power).

I know the names of those responsible for the Milan massacre of 12 December 1969.

I know the names of those responsible for the Brescia and Bologna massacres of the early months of 1974.

I know the names of the ‘leadership’ that manipulated both the old fascists who devised the ‘coups’, and the neo-fascists who materially executed the early massacres, as well as the ‘unknown’ perpetrators of the most recent massacres.

I know the name of the people who managed the two different, in fact opposite stages of the tension: the first, anticommunist stage (Milan 1969) and the second, antifascist stage (Brescia and Bologna 1974).

I know the names of the powerful figures who, with the help of the CIA (and in a secondary role of the Greek Colonels and of the Mafia) first created an anti-communist crusade, which failed miserably, in order to plug the dam of ‘68, and subsequently, still with the aid and the inspiration of the CIA, took on a new antifascist identity in order to remedy the disaster of the ‘referendum’.

I know the names of those who, in between Holy Masses, provided and ensured political protection to the old generals (in order to maintain, as a backup, the organization for a possible coup d’état), young neofascists, or rather neonazis (in order to create a concrete anti-communist tension) and finally common criminals, who until now have been nameless and possibly shall be forever (in order to create the following anti-fascist tension). I know the names of the sober and important people who lurk behind comical characters such as that general of the forest rangers who worked, farcically, at Città Ducale (while the Italian woods burned), or behind grey characters with a purely organisational role such as general Miceli.

I know the names of the sober and important people who lurk behind the tragic youths who chose the suicidal fascist atrocities or the common criminals, Sicilian and otherwise, who offered their services as killers and assassins.

I know all of these names and I know all of the facts (attempts against the institutions and massacres) for which they have been responsible.

I know. But I don’t have any evidence. I don’t even have clues.

I know because I’m an intellectual, a writer who tries to follow everything that happens, to imagine everything that is unknown or unspoken; who connects facts that may seem disparate, that puts together the disorganised and fragmentary pieces of an entire coherent political picture, who restores logic where arbitrariness, folly and mystery seem to rule.

This is all part of my craft and of the instinct of my craft. I believe it is unlikely that my ‘novel in progress’ may be wrong, that is to say that it may be disconnected from reality, and that its references to real persons and facts may be inaccurate. Furthermore I believe that many other intellectuals and novelists know what I know as an intellectual and novelist. Because restoring the truth of what has happened in Italy after 1968 is not that difficult.

This truth – we feel it with absolute precision – lies behind a great number of texts, including those written by journalists and politicians: that is to say not products of imagination or fiction, as mine must be by its own nature. The latest example: it is clear that truth was barging in, with all of its names, behind the Corriere della Sera editorial of 1 November 1974.

Journalists and politicians probably have some evidence, or at least some clues.

Now the problem is this: journalists and politicians, whilst having perhaps some evidence and certainly some clues, are not naming names.

Who is it up to, then, to name those names? Clearly to those who not only have the courage required, but also have not had to make compromises with power, and also do not have, by definition, anything to lose: that is to say, intellectuals.

An intellectual therefore could easily name those names in public: but he neither has the evidence nor the clues.

Power, and the world that, even though it does not belong to power, holds concrete relationships with power, has excluded free intellectuals – because of its inherent nature – from the possibility of gathering evidence and clues.

It could be objected to me that I, for example, as an intellectual and maker of stories, could enter that explicitly political world (of power or close to power), make compromises with it, and thus gain to the right to obtain, in some likelihood, evidence and clues.

But to this objection I would respond that this is not possible, precisely because it is the loathing to enter into such a political world that identifies my potential intellectual power to speak the truth: that is to say, to name names.

The intellectual courage to speak the truth and the practice of politics are incompatible in Italy.

To the intellectual – who is profoundly and viscerally despised by the entire Italian bourgeoisie – we give a falsely lofty and noble mandate, which is actually servile: that of debating moral and ideological problems.

If he is given this mandate, the intellectual is regarded as a traitor to his role: and the cries go out – ‘betrayal of the clerics’ – which is an alibi and a justification for the politicians and servants of power.

But there isn’t just power: there is also an opposition to power. In Italy this opposition is so large and so strong that it is a power in itself: I am referring naturally to the Italian Communist Party.

It is certain that at this moment the presence of a great opposition party such as the Italian Communist Party is the salvation of Italy and of its wretched democratic institutions.

The Italian Communist Party is a clean country in a dirty country, a honest country in a dishonest country, an intelligent country in a foolish country, an educated country in an ignorant country, a humanistic country in a consumerist country. In the last few years, between the Italian Communist Party – understood in a genuinely unitary sense as a compact ‘whole’ of leaders, base and voters – and the rest of Italy, a chasm has opened up: so that the Italian Communist Party has become a ‘country apart’, an island. And it is precisely for this reason that nowadays it can have its closest relationship ever with the corrupt, inept, degraded real power: but it is merely a diplomatic relationship, as if between two different nations. As a matter of fact their respective morals, understood as concrete wholes, are incompatible. It is on this basis that it is possible to put forward that realistic ‘compromise’ that might save Italy from a complete collapse: however this ‘compromise’ would be really an ‘alliance’ between two neighbouring states, or between two states that are locked one inside the other.

But all the positive things that I have said about the Communist Party also constitute its relatively negative aspects.

The split of the country into two countries, one sinking up to its neck in degradation and degeneration, the other intact and not compromised, cannot be a reason for peace and constructiveness.

Moreover, if it is understood as I have outlined it here, I think objectively, as a country within a country, the opposition identifies with another power, which remains a power.

Consequently the politicians of such an opposition cannot but behave themselves as men of power.

In this particular instance that currently concerns us so dramatically, they also gave to the intellectual a mandate that they themselves established. And, if the intellectual fails to fulfil this mandate – which is purely moral and ideological – he becomes, to everyone’s great delight, a traitor.

Now, why do the politicians from the opposition, if they have – as they probably do – evidence or at least clues, not name the names of the real culprits, that is to say the political culprits, of the comical coups and the horrendous massacres of these past years? The answer is very simple: they do not name them to the extent that they make a distinction – rejected by the intellectual – between political truth and political practice. Therefore, naturally, they do not reveal evidence and clues to the intellectual who is not an official: they would not dream of it, as is in any case perfectly normal, given the objective state of affairs.

The intellectual must continue to stick to the duty that has been assigned to him, and iterate his codified mode of intervention.

I know very well that this is not the time – at this particular moment of Italian history – to publicly present a motion of no-confidence against the nation’s entire political class. It would be neither diplomatic nor timely. But these are categories of politics, not of political truth: which is what the powerless intellectual – whenever and to the extent that he can – is compelled to serve.

Well then, precisely because I cannot name the names of those responsible for the attempted coups and the massacres (but not in lieu of doing that), I cannot but level my weak and ideal accusation against the entire Italian political class.

And I act because I believe in politics, I believe in the ‘formal’ principles of democracy, I believe in Parliament and I believe in political parties. All this naturally through my particular viewpoint, which is that of a communist.

I am ready to withdraw my motion of no-confidence (in fact I would like nothing better) as soon as a politician – not out of political calculation, that is to say not when the time has come to do it, but rather to create the conditions for that time to come – will decide to name the people responsible for the coups and the massacres, for which he well knows, as I do, that he must have some evidence, or at least some clues.

In all likelihood – if the American power will allow it – perhaps making the ‘diplomatic’ decision to grant another democracy the prerogative that the American democracy granted itself concerning Nixon – these names sooner or later will be named. But those who will do the naming will be people who shared power with them, as minor culprits against major culprits (and they may not turn out to be, as in America’s case, to be any better). This ultimately would be the real coup d’état.

Monday, June 17, 2013

The Jonathan Safran Foer fallacy

Last week, I saw a stranger crying in public. She had just finished reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s essay ‘How not to be alone’ on her iPhone’s NYTimes app, when she was overcome by a wave of deep sadness. I heard her say ‘why is this person so horrible?’ over and over.

I was faced with a choice: I could interject myself into her life, or I could respect the boundaries between us. Or I could look up the meaning and usage of the verb ‘to interject’. (It was a three-way choice.) Intervening might make her feel worse, or be inappropriate. But then, it might ease her pain, or be helpful in some straightforward logistical way. I say ‘logistical’ because in my spare time I run a company that specialises in supply-chain management.

An affluent neighbourhood at the beginning of the day is not the same as a dangerous one as night is falling. And I was me, and not someone else. Think about that for a moment.

It is harder to intervene than not to, but it is vastly harder to choose to do either than to start tapping notes on your smartphone for an essay you plan to submit to the New York Times. Technology celebrates connectedness, but encourages retreat. The phone didn’t make me avoid the human connection. The fact that I’m a horrible person did. The phone just gave me something to look at whilst ignoring this other human sobbing just metres away.

The flow of water carves rock, a little bit at a time. And our personhood is carved, too, by the flow of our habits. I thought of that while someone was crying. Don’t you feel like punching me in the face?

Cares that you are crying

Psychologists who study empathy and compassion are finding that unlike our almost instantaneous responses to physical pain, it takes time for the brain to comprehend the psychological and moral dimensions of a situation. Just imagine! Your reaction to burning your hand on the stove is quicker than figuring out why a person is sad and what you should do about it. Science says so. And the more distracted we become, and the more emphasis we place on speed at the expense of depth, the less likely and able we are to care. Nothing to do with being a soulless, self-obsessed narcissist or anything like that.

Everyone wants his parent’s, or friend’s, or partner’s undivided attention — even if many of us, especially children, are getting used to far less. Simone Weil said, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” She said other things as well, but by then I had stopped listening. Get to the point, Simone, for chrissakes! I’m working to a deadline here.

Most of our communication technologies began as diminished substitutes for an impossible activity. We couldn’t always see one another face to face, so the telephone made it possible to keep in touch at a distance. Online communication originated as a substitute for telephonic communication, which was considered, for whatever reasons, too burdensome or inconvenient. (I’m so confident about this assertion, I’m not even going to check it against Wikipedia.) And then texting, which facilitated yet faster, and more mobile, messaging. These inventions were not created to be improvements upon face-to-face communication, but a declension of acceptable, if diminished, substitutes for it. I’m almost sure that’s right: a computer is just a more complex telephone. Also, the word ‘declension’: yeah.

But then a funny thing happened: we began to prefer the diminished substitutes. It’s easier to make a phone call than to schlep to see someone in person. Leaving a message on someone’s machine is easier than having a phone conversation. So we began calling when we knew no one would pick up. Especially our brother-in-law, Frank. How we all hate talking to Frank.

Shooting off an e-mail is easier, still, because one can hide behind the absence of vocal inflection, and of course there’s no chance of accidentally catching Frank. And texting is even easier, as the expectation for articulateness is further reduced, and another shell is offered to hide in. Each step “forward” has made it easier, just a little, to avoid the emotional work of being present, to convey information rather than humanity.

The problem with accepting — with preferring — diminished substitutes is that over time, we, too, become diminished substitutes. People who become used to saying little become used to feeling little.

Is it clear enough that when I say ‘we’, I actually mean ‘you’? This is very important. I’m actually a wonderfully caring person. Just look at this bear.

With each generation, it becomes harder to imagine a future that resembles the present. I feel that this is a very solid point. Pretend that I argued it until you are thoroughly persuaded.

Only those with no imagination, and no grounding in reality, would deny the possibility that they will live forever. I suppose that if you were going to write a parody of this essay, you might not even know how to tackle that sentence. Did I just say immortality is within reach, and that you would be a fool to deny it? Wow. Let’s assume, though, that we all have a set number of days to indent the world with our beliefs, to find and create the beauty that only a finite existence allows for, to wrestle with the question of purpose and wrestle with our answers. Are you still with me?

We often use technology to save time, but increasingly, it either takes the saved time along with it, or makes the saved time less present, intimate and rich. I worry that the closer the world gets to our fingertips, the further it gets from our hearts. It’s not an either/or — being “anti-technology” is perhaps the only thing more foolish than being unquestioningly “pro-technology”. So let’s all pretend that I hadn’t spent the last nine hundred words blaming technology for my inability to relate emotionally to strangers, and call it a question of balance that our lives hang upon.

Most of the time, most people are not crying in public, but everyone is always in need of something that another person can give, be it undivided attention, a kind word or deep empathy. Especially the woman in front of me, who’s basically drowning in a pool of her own tears by now, and that I plan to console as soon as I’ve filed this essay. There is no better use of a life than to be attentive to such needs. There are as many ways to do this as there are kinds of loneliness, but all of them require attentiveness, all of them require the hard work of emotional computation and corporeal compassion. All of them require the human processing of the only animal who risks “getting it wrong” and whose dreams provide shelters and vaccines and words to crying strangers. This is not the time to question if the last sentence makes any sense whatsoever. This is the time to feel and to care .

We live in a world made up more of story than stuff. We are creatures of memory more than reminders. Being attentive to the needs of others might not be the point of life, but it is the work of life.

I have plenty more shitty non sequiturs. There is a market for telling people that their emotional life is impoverished by electronic gadgets, and I’m right in it. It’s me, Nick, and a few others, and let me assure you that we have the genre thoroughly figured out: blame technology for putting distance between people, or between people and nature, implying that before technology the world was more ‘real’; subsume economic and social relations to ‘the internet’ or ‘smartphones’ or ‘social media’ so as to make all of our arguments circular, their logic self-fulfilling; cite uncritically every bit of social science research that supports our hypotheses, and those only; and make a spectacularly dishonest use of the pronoun ‘we’, so as to turn the experience of technology into a bland universal. To really investigate contemporary alienation would require a qualitatively different kind of effort: one that is much more careful in its evaluation of psychological evidence, and much more willing to question the idea that a life less mediated is a life more authentic. One that is aware of politics, and not just of sentiment. But there’s no money or glory in that.

Now if you’ll excuse me I’m going to leave because this damn woman’s incessant weeping is beginning to creep me out, and people are starting to look at me funny.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Old games

Amongst the things that I salvaged from the house in which I grew up were four supermarket bags full of Lego. I found the stuff over a number of trips, each time marvelling at how much of it there was. As well as being practically indestructible (the only pieces of ours that ever broke were two of the large thin bases), Lego has fared remarkably well in terms of both its exchange and use value over the last half century. We had all sorts of trouble – and ultimately failed – in finding a good home to a very good library. We literally couldn’t give away the stuff, which was a source of some heartache. But Lego, it might as well be a global currency, or a precious ore. It keeps going up in price. It’s worth shipping around the world. There’s always a use for it, even in small quantities.

The last find involved one of Lego’s early electric engines, which was used to power a train’s locomotor. I vaguely remember playing with this set. Not much you could do with it, as the carriages came pretty much assembled whole. But the rest of those bags contain mostly the standard universal pieces with which I used to build houses and robots and once, I think, a football stadium. It’s a rather sharp lesson in informational entropy now. Four plastic bags’ worth of chaos.

A chess set forgets the games that are played on it as well but I am glad that it’s the same one I learned the rules on, my father’s. I’ll always love him for never letting me win, not even once. When I eventually did, he was as pleased as I was. Outside the home I played with other, cheaper sets, mostly with some of my schoolmates and my friend Francesco, who also owned an early computerised board. The Chess Challenger, I think it was. At the top level of difficulty – the only one that was actually hard to beat once we figured out the patterns – the machine was allowed to ‘think’ about a move for an indefinite period of time, so he let it run overnight, but the jack of the power adapter was wonky, so there was always a danger that the game would end abruptly if it became dislodged, an event invariably followed by much vigorous cursing.

Francesco and I also played with this quite a bit.

Totòpoli is a bafflingly elaborate horse-racing board game in two parts. First, the players lease and train the horses, as well as acquire facilities like foraging merchants and veterinary practices. This is not too dissimilar from Monopoly, and results in the accumulation of advantage and disadvantage cards, as well as special cards to forestall certain events, except instead of getting out of jail is preventing your top horse from bursting a blood vessel on the home straight. Then, once the training is completed, the board is flipped over and the race can begin. However even that phase comprises two quite different activities: the taking of bets on the outcome, with what money you have left over from part one, and the race itself. As the rulebook explains:
The winner can either be the one with the most money at the end of the race, or the one with the winning horse. This should be decided at the beginning of the race.
You’d hate to play for three solid hours and be left unsure as to who won.

Totòpoli was a lot of fun. But I rescued form the home some things that I don’t recall playing with, and probably belonged to my sister. A rather exquisite medical set, all in plastic but very detailed and missing remarkably few pieces, given how the small parts in today’s equivalents seem to explode out of the packaging and immediately get lost whenever my children are involved. I wonder if this is a function of the relative scarcity of those years.

Of even more uncertain origin was the Pop Songbook Bingo, but it intrigued me so much that I included it with the furniture that was shipped over here. I see now that it’s a standard bingo except instead of numbers it has classic Italian songs. In order to fill one’s card it is necessary to recognise the songs as they are played on a rudimentary music box by inserting the corresponding perforated sheet.

I tried this arrangement and the sound that it produced was more reminiscent of Dante’s Purgatory than of the golden age of our popular music festivals. Maybe it’s the rods of the music box that are rusted or need oiling. At any rate I struggle to imagine how this game – which my sister doesn’t remember either – could possibly have been played more than once or twice. By anyone.

Strange as it is, however, the Pop Songbook Bingo pales in comparison to this game I picked up at a garage sale in the weekend.

Not to be mistaken with the videogame by the same name produced by the Kommunion company, the Missionary Game is designed to teach children of Latter-day Saints families about the proselytising work of their church. It is possible that the makers – The Mountain Top Game Company of Spanish Fork, Utah – may have gone out of the business, given that the game’s website now redirects to an LDS dating site. I wasn’t therefore able to glean very much about the game’s rules, since unfortunately the booklet is missing. But the board is Monopoly-like and the concept seems simple enough: to baptise as many investigators as possible. (‘Investigator’ is the name given by Mormons to individuals open to converting.) Each conversion has its own requirements. For instance, Dwayne and Joan Austin (2 Baptisms) will set you back 4 Love, 4 Inspiration, 3 Gospel Knowledge and 3 Member Friendshipping points. You acquire these by going around the board. The game also features classic chance cards, except here they are called Obedience Cards. Example: ‘You share your care package from home with your companion. You may advance to the Love Pathway.’ (This is one of the lanes that criss-crosses the middle of the board.)

Unless there is something that I’m missing from this setup, I suspect that playing the game would be exceedingly dull. But it may be quite deliberate. The game is clearly a teaching tool. It gamifies missionary work, an activity that is more than a little gamified in its own right by virtue of its goals and quotas, but it also appears to be designed to convey to its young players what the work is actually like. And so the investigator cards tell these highly complex and psychologically detailed stories, all of which are entirely redundant from the point of view of the game. It matters not that Dwayne and Joan Austin have been married for nearly three years; that they were in danger of splitting up before the Missionaries arrived; that Dwayne did not like the idea of giving up smoking. All you’re going to want to know is how many attribute points it will take to convert them. Yet there are dozens of stories like the Austins’ in the game. There is the couple whose eldest son has died. The family in which the husband is a recovering alcoholic. The single woman of 28 who ‘needed a great deal of acceptance from members of the Church before she became willing to change her lifestyle’. Stories packed with morality that demonstrate how to cast the correct judgment.

There are some strange games out there, and even stranger childhoods spent playing them. As for us, my son beat me at Totòpoli today, but it was a close thing.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The rich man's crumbs

I have been thinking a lot about regression lately. For instance there is a prevailing view that Western nations can no longer afford the levels of relative income equality they once enjoyed; that we must wind back the welfare state to pre-Keynesian times. This is regression of one kind. But its peculiar corollary is that the discourse around social inequality and poverty is undergoing a similar regression. In New Zealand – and I strongly suspect we are not alone – the only poverty that counts is child poverty, which cannot be eradicated but mitigated at best, whilst poverty amongst adults is increasingly viewed not only as a fact of life but as a mark of moral failure. Just as it was when conservatives worried that introducing welfare measures and worker protections would corrupt the whole of society.

I wrote recently about two cost of living surveys conducted in New Zealand and Australia one hundred years ago, contrasting them with the remarkable contemporary efforts of Maud Pember Reeves and the Fabian Women’s Group to document the lives of working class families in the London suburb of Lambeth. I concluded that essay with a question: could we readily point to the progresses made in the representation and shared understanding of poverty in these societies? My implicit view was that no, we could not. However, lack of progress, or stasis, is not the same as regression. It might be more accurate to state that a discourse that progressed since the time of Pember Reeves has since been wound backwards. As if harsher economic realities required impoverished tools of description. As if we could no longer afford to speak intelligently and compassionately of the social ills that we have stopped seeking to redress.

This was New Zealand last week, but I’m tempted to say: this is New Zealand, always. A country that generally accepts that it cannot get rid of poverty. A country that knows, because it can count – however begrudgingly – that poverty skews brown (and female, and young). In another time, we might have regarded this as a sign of systemic, institutional discrimination. But no longer. Nowadays we can bundle our most troubling social statistics – around gambling, around addiction, around criminality – give them a brown face and portray them as the causes of poverty, as opposed to their consequences.

Cartoonist Al Nisbet’s fault is merely to have expressed two sentiments – racism and contempt for the poor – that are not appropriate to the form of the satirical cartoon as we have come to understand it. Nowadays satire, as the cliché goes, is supposed to punch up, not down. It shouldn’t give voice to the silent majority. But it wasn’t always so. Think of the representation of the Irish in the 19th-century English press, or of Māori in the New Zealand press for that matter. From a formal point of view, then, these cartoons are simply another example of regression: lacking a punch line or indeed much logic, they are nothing but savage caricatures of what John Key calls the nation’s underclass. As such they are mean-spirited, yes, racist, God yes, but in everything but form are perfectly at home in the mainstream, insofar as they are a vehicle of mainstream views.

In this respect the public expressions of qualified support for Nisbet have been more interesting than the denunciations. Instead of defending the cartoons on their merits, most sympathetic commentators have chosen to focus on their right to being published. Various reasons were given: because of free speech; because they sparked debate; because they exposed the misguided opinions of the majority; because offending the sensibility of readers is the job of a cartoonist. A guy whose job description is ‘political editor’ had this to say:

Nowhere was it acknowledged that this is in fact how poverty is portrayed almost universally in the media. Whilst a honourable mention must go to New Zealand’s worst paid writer, the most cognitively dissonant defence was Ric Stevens’ in The Press. After comparing Al Nisbet to David Low (to show he knows his history) and calling satirical cartoons ‘a taonga to be cherished’ (to show he’s not personally racist), Stevens proceeds to explain that Nisbet
is a good friend to Christchurch and many of his drawings over recent years have staunchly stood up for ordinary people whose lives have been blighted by earthquakes, aftershocks, insurance claims, EQC difficulties and school closures and reorganisations.
Oh, really? Did he now? Wouldn’t it have been rather bolder of him – writing for The Christchurch Press – to represent Cantabrians dealing with all those calamities as, say, carpers and moaners who buggerise around on Facebook all day? I mean so long as we are talking about courage, and all other things being equal.

However, by far the best part of Stevens’ editorial is the one that deals with the racism charge. Here he not only engages in a heroic misreading of Nesbit's first cartoon, claiming that the white children on their way to school are somehow related to the much darker adult bludgers, but also makes the frankly embarrassing admission that he and the rest of the editorial staff compared the skin colour of Nisbet’s characters with his drawings of Press reporter Martin van Benyen, who is of Dutch stock, and, finding them only ‘a shade darker’, declared themselves satisfied that the cartoon was not racist. As a matter of fact, seeing as ‘people have looked at the characters depicted and made assumptions based on their appearance,’ maybe it is the readers who are racist. How do you like that, readers? But in the end it doesn’t really matter, because
[w]hile people were debating whether or not Nisbet and The Press were being racist, relatively few were getting angry about the issue he was trying to highlight – that because of parental failings, thousands of children in this country are going to school with empty bellies.

He was only trying to shame the poor. And we failed to get angry. At the poor. Shame on us.


I believe it was Martyn Bradbury who first dug up this classic Herman Melville quotation by way of comment on the Nisbet cartoons:
Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed, and well-fed.
If you want to talk about regression, consider that Melville wrote this in 1854, in a short story entitled ‘Poor Man's Pudding and Rich Man's Crumbs’ that deals entirely with bourgeois and aristocratic attitudes towards the poor. It is an intriguing story in two halves. The first concerns rural poverty, and the popular view that ‘through kind Nature, the poor, out of their very poverty, extract comfort’. It is after testing this theory that the narrator/Melville makes the scornful observation above. But the second half of the story, which is set in London in the year of the battle of Waterloo – therefore almost exactly two hundred years ago – is far darker and more caustic. Napoleon has been defeated and the Royal Court regularly hosts lavish triumphal banquets. Just the night before, a feast costing at least £200,000 has taken place in the hall visited by Melville. Now it’s time for the charity. Throngs of the city’s poor are assembled, ‘a mass of lean, famished, ferocious creatures, struggling and fighting for some mysterious precedency, and all holding soiled blue tickets in their hands.’ Then they are let in, to roam where just twelve hours ago the most powerful men of Europe ate, so that they can feed on their scraps. ‘What a noble charity,’ whispers Melville’s guide. ‘See that pasty now, snatched by that pale girl; I dare say the Emperor of Russia ate of that last night!’

This is an idea that could just so easily be modern. Celebrity food scraps. A literal application of trickle-down theory. The almost ungraspable image of inhuman poverty co-existing with inhuman wealth, as if somebody told you that with the money they earned last year alone, the 100 richest people in the world could end poverty four times over (as if you or anybody else could do anything with that information). There is but the spectacle of the poor, the show of their beast-like humiliation. The guards want to spare Mellville the final act, but they fail to lead him outside in time.
Too late. The last dish had been seized. The yet unglutted mob raised a fierce yell, which wafted the banners like a strong gust, and filled the air with a reek as from sewers. They surged against the tables, broke through all barriers, and billowed over the hall—their bare tossed arms like the dashed ribs of a wreck. It seemed to me as if a sudden impotent fury of fell envy possessed them. That one half-hour's peep at the mere remnants of the glories of the Banquets of Kings; the unsatisfying mouthfuls of disemboweled pasties, plundered pheasants, and half-sucked jellies, served to remind them of the intrinsic contempt of the alms. In this sudden mood, or whatever mysterious thing it was that now seized them, these Lazaruses seemed ready to spew up in repentant scorn the contumelious crumbs of Dives.

It is not very difficult to speculate what kind of scenes Melville might have been basing his imaginative description upon. Perhaps this one.

Bread Riot at the entrance to the House of Commons in 1815
Those with a passion for historical regression and re-enactments may wish to look around the world and reflect on this: that their utter contempt might some day be met with bloody anger and defiance, and that the next wave of protests might look less like 1968 and more like 1848. After all it might as well.