Bartlett's Bizarre Bazaar

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Monday, November 29, 2004


This Godless Communism!

Anyone on Warren Ellis’ Bad Signal mailing list will already have seen this. The website The Authentic History Centre describes this comic strip’s provenance thus: “Treasure Chest was a monthly comic book published by the Catholic Guild from 1946 to 1972. Each issue featured several different stories intended to inspire citizenship, morality, and patriotism. In the 1961, volume 17 number 2 issue, the story "This Godless Communism" began.”

Incredibly, this story is prefaced by a letter from J. Edgar Hoover.

Read the full story here.

Thursday, November 25, 2004


Polar Britain

No, this is not a Day After Tomorrow-style piece of writing warning of the danger that climate change poses for Britain, but a comment on the study released by the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors [press release.doc / full report.pdf].

I have provided links to the RICS documents above, but, for those needing a shorter summary than a press release, it describes a Britain that is increasingly polarised, with communities segregating according to wealth, with gated communities of the better off a social and geographical gulf away from “estates overloaded with people on benefits”.

Should this matter? A decrease in social mobility and an increasing segregation of the ‘strata’ of society can be challenged on the grounds of social justice, of equal opportunities, etc. But the most concrete challenge rests on the preservation and promotion of democracy, a feature of our society that we are willing to export by war. We are told that it is greatest form of government we have yet managed, so surely we should encourage it at home?

Democracy, I argue, demands the participation of the widest range and greatest number of people in debate, culture and government. If society is segregated, then the different, separated parts of society will, necessarily, be taking part in different debates and cultures, however similar these appear on the surface. This alone is enough to make a democracy fundamentally dysfunctional, as the democratic constituency is unable to resolve the debates of governance en masse, but rather carries out different debates in materially, geographically and socially different cultures. But more than that, this segregation invariably divides society in groups with different degrees of power. In the modern age, this power is not limited to the ownership of the machinery of wealth creation, but extends to include access to the levers of governance and persuasion, whether this is familiarity with and access to legal representation or the ability to shape mass culture. This social segregation concentrates power, making the democracy not only dysfunctional, but a mask for an effectively reduced franchise. A reduced franchise might be defensible in a society that minimises the segregation of the different groups, but in one where this segregation is regarded as an inevitable consequence of market choice (the madness of crowds) and allowed to divide society, the interests and concerns of the reduced franchise will, without doubt, be very different from the disenfranchised.

Rather, we should seek to arrange our society to distribute not only wealth, but also the wealthy, conceived not only as a measure of cash, but also it terms of social, cultural and intellectual capital, throughout society.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004


Moral relativism - a response

On Friday, November 12th I received an anonymous comment to one of my posts. Click on the quote to read the post to which it responds:

“Comparing the President to a child molester? Good job, pal. However, I wonder, as you are apparently a moral relativist, do you believe it is "bad" to be a child molester, and if so, how do you reach that conclusion in your moral vacuum?”

I am going to respond to this with a post of its own.

First, did I compare the President (of the United States) to a child molester? I argued that the fact of an action having a better outcome than would have resulted had that action not occurred does not necessarily make the actor themselves good. I illustrated this with a thought experiment that contrasted the saving of a life, one of the greatest goods we can imagine, with a wickedness that is apparently unparalleled in our modern moral maze. So did I compare the President to a child molester? Yes, in so much as I compared every moral actor to a child molester, by stripping away the defence of ‘it is better so it is good’, or perhaps, as I would like to rephrase that, ‘it is better so I am good’.

Second, I am charged with being a ‘moral relativism’. What does this mean? Do I believe that morals are the product of human culture, that different cultures hold different moral values and that if I were to be brought up in a different culture I would necessarily possess moral beliefs and make moral decisions based upon the values of this culture? Yes, I do. Any other argument seems to be built on quicksand. This does not argue that I do not believe that my moral beliefs are correct, or that I cannot condemn the moral values of others as wrong. I must, as a necessary consequence of holding them, believe that my values are true and correct.

But I suspect that ‘moral relativism’ is used here to mean more than this. I suspect that it is ranged against the notion of ‘moral absolutism’, that moral decisions can be derived from a concrete set of rules. It reminds me of the John Birch Society’s attack on ‘situational ethics’. Can moral decisions be derived entirely from a set of rules? Well, that depends on whether we believe that it is possible to devise a set of absolutely unambiguous instructions for human action. I argue that such a task is impossible, even given a theoretically infinite set of instructions, definitions, etc. If you agree, then moral codes can be nothing other than guidelines. Even if you disagree, it is extremely difficult to contradict the argument that the range of moral situations that a moral actor might find themselves in is too great to be, in practice, codified according to a set of absolute laws, and, furthermore, for a human being to digest and retain that information. So, whether through logical or practical necessity, ethical and moral decisions must arrived at by reference to the situation.

Let us take that famous injunction of moral absolutism, ‘thou shall not kill’. Is this always true? Are there exceptions for self-defence? Does this extend to death resulting from callous inaction? And on, and on. We could ask, what does this command mean when we pollute? We know that it will contribute to a certain number of deaths, but we justify this by reference to the benefits of the industry concerned. We could ask, and we could ask. The list of situations in which we might question this, the most basic rule of any decent, civilised moral code, is as long as the number of hypothetical causes of death, limited only by our combined imaginations. Even if we can list definitive moral instructions for one thousand situations resulting in human death, in order to remind us that this is a guideline, however tightly defined, all we must do is ask, ‘and what about this?’ And there will always be a ‘this’.

In other words, and in short, I fail to see how anyone can credibly hold to being a moral absolutist. There can be no set of rules applicable to all possible situations. Everyone is a moral relativist, unless they are a nihilist. And, to cut the ground from under those who defend the President by throwing moral relativism at me, it is surely plain to anyone the remotest of connections with the world that the President is a moral relativist, a practitioner of situational ethics. He supports executions and persecutes wars. These might be defendable actions, but only if he argues that they are justified by the greater good that results. Of course he could argue that ‘thou shall not kill’ is not part of his moral code, or that he is a nihilist. If either case we should all be extremely frightened.

Sunday, November 14, 2004


Now and then we have a zombie apocalyse

Earlier this year my stepfather bought a Dawn of the Dead (DotD) DVD, thinking that he was getting Zack Snyder’s 2004 Hollywood remake. So when he realised that he had actually bought Romero’s 1978 independent movie he was uncharitable in his critical review. ‘It’s rubbish’ just about sums up his opinion. I protested that DotD 1978 was an intelligent, witty; a horror film with something to say. There is little doubt that DotD 2004 is faster and flashier, and even without the make-up kit of gore-master Tom Savini it looks a whole lot better, or at least more acceptable to a modern audience than DotD 1978 does. But beneath this sheen of music video standard cosmetic cinematic competence, what can be found in the body of DotD 2004? What does it say?

The 1978 version is routinely described as taking a critical, satirical view of consumerism. It is mindless consumption (of braaaiiins, no less) that threatens the world in 1978. DotD 2004 opens with a barrage-montage of news footage. This is Snyder’s analogue to the opening scene of Romero’s original, where a television discussion programme, the last vestige of civilised, rational discussion, democracy in action, descends into chaos as the crew abandon the studio. Snyder’s rapid-cut montage is more reminiscent of the blizzard of unconnected and decontextualised, though ‘fair and balanced’, images and audio found on Fox News.

These clips purport to show the collapse of civilization as the zombie epidemic takes hold, but they are note-perfect replicas of the images of police/protester conflicts that represent anti-globalisation/anti-capitalist/anti-corporate demonstrations on television news. A few of these clips bear the rolling news indicators of Third-World reports, and the most disturbing image, in light of my reading of the subtext of the film, appears to show a group of Muslims at prayer.

This montage prefaces the rest of the Snyder’s film, which I read as a defence of consumerism/capitalism. As in the 1978 original, the survivors take refuge in a mall. But whereas Romero’s characters raid the mall and live in a converted storehouse, well away from the shopping front-line, Snyder’s heroes live in the mall itself, comfortably making a home amongst the shops. ‘Hallowed Grounds’ is the punny, but appropriate, name of their coffee shop cum council chamber.

While the human heroes of the films have undergone a subtle transformation, the zombies are totally transformed. In 1978, zombies were mindless creatures of instinct, shuffling slowly towards their next act of consumption. In 2004, zombies have become malevolent, aggressive sprinters of superhuman stamina. They are motivated by hate and destructive lust. They are chillingly similar to the Somalis portrayed in the shameful Black Hawk Down (Ridley Scott, 2001); a bunch of indistinguishable, unintelligible, barely human creatures.

Remaking Dawn of the Dead has transformed a film critical of mass-consumer culture into a movie with a crude and unsophisticated subtext which reads: the critics of the existing western culture have only simple, easily condemnable motivations - hate, greed and envy. This echoes the standard explanation of terrorist motivations given in the right-wing American press. Or indeed, the motivations ascribed to egalitarian, liberal or socialist movements. Our very way of life is threatened by the unthinking hordes at our gate(d community).

Romero’s ‘Dead’ movies always warns us that the zombies, the dead, are us. Snyder warns us that they are very definitely a them.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004


Concede, concede – do not sup from the poisoned cup

John Kerry, please concede. I say this as a socialist.

John Kerry has lost the popular vote by roughly 3.5 million votes. The Republicans have increased their control over both the Senate and the House of Representatives. The values of the Republican religious right have been affirmed in the 11 states that resoundingly rejected same-sex marriage*, writing bans into the state constitutions, often with 70-80% support. If John Kerry wins the electoral college vote, which look unlikely, he will be a lame duck President without the moral mandate provided by popular support. He will have to deal with the problem of Iraq in a hostile political and public climate, and he will fail. His Presidency would be open to all the criticisms that were levelled against Bush – a stolen White House and a disastrous foreign policy – with the addition of a permanent block on his domestic and social initiatives. If, on the other hand, he challenges the Ohio vote until the last vote is counted, as John Edwards suggested would be the case, and then loses, the Democratic Party will be legitimately tagged with the label of ‘sore losers’, strengthening the Republican hand in 2008.

Concede. There is nothing to gain, even in the unlikely case of victory.

CNN’s election coverage is pretty comprehensive.

*please understand the electorate of these states did not reject the personal proposition of a same-sex marriage in the sense of an approach on bended knee, but rejected the idea that anyone should be able to marry someone of the same sex in supporting a proposal of a legal ban.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004


A Complete Revolution

Here is a one-page strip that will be included in Tales of the Contrary. As with all the strips to be included in that collection, the art is provided by Dave Evans. At the moment he is working on the five-page strip Johnny Upright, among other things. I don’t know where he finds his time.


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