Archive for March, 2013

“Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.” Buddha*

Saturday, March 9th, 2013

The recent death of Hugo Chavez spawned a veritable plague of news articles in the Mainstream Media about the man and his life. Most of the obituaries and reports followed predictable patterns—the capitalist press reviled the man and his reputation and the left wing press praised his humble origins and the benefits that he brought to the poor of Venezuela (I’m generalising here).

So, an unbiased member of the public being told all this has a dilemma (assuming that they access more than one news outlet)—how do they interpret such seemingly contradictory stories? Was he a good man, a despot or what?

Here’s a little true story that distils the problem.

One day at work I was looking at a book that had a picture of a lion feeding on its kill. The angle of its front leg was such that it was easy to imagine that leg as a human arm pinning down the carcass. Almost thinking out aloud I remarked to a co-worker at this similarity and extrapolated how the theory of evolution could come about. This co-worker (who I knew to be a Christian) then revealed his fundamentalism and said that actually, in the books he owned, creationism was the true explanation for the variety we see in the natural world.

As I had been educated in a secular school, science and the scientific method was my dominant frame of reference for checking the veracity of any theory. This only worked of course, if the subject matter lent itself to such a method. Even then, it appears that quantifiable results can be disputed within the scientific community. So simply quoting one book against another doesn’t really help if you’re trying to drill down to any sort of truth.

And as soon as the discussion enters a realm of subjectivity, then the fragile model of the scientific method becomes useless. Economics, for example, is often seen by most people as some kind of science due to the number of university courses available and government advisors mentioned in news reports. The reality is that economics is far closer to religion than it is to science and politicians have ‘faith’ in different belief systems whether they be the teachings of Keynes or Hayek or whoever.

Which system is best is impossible to verify due to the complexity of human society and the massive ambiguity of what ‘best’ means. But that doesn’t stop those people who benefit the most from a particular belief system from promoting that version of the religion, especially if they have the means to do so.

I have long since realised that in the game of news reporting merely deciding which story to report is a political act—one story is more important than another based on which criteria? Even a seemingly ‘neutral’ story immediately runs into trouble once the bare facts are given. The Hillsborough story for example, is that 96 football fans died in a crush. But as soon as the obvious question of “why did they die?” is asked, the propaganda begins.

Propaganda is designed to promote one idea over another and it is conducted most fiercely by those who have the most to gain (or lose) from an idea being accepted.

I said the story about my co-worker was a true one. You don’t know whether it was true or not; I know it’s true because I was there but you just read it here as a story and so if I was duplicitous for whatever reason, I could say that it was a true story even though I made it up. I would do this because it might discredit a rival idea which threatens my belief system.

Coming back to Chavez, I’m told by the media that this person used to exist (I never met him so I don’t even know that basic fact for sure). I’m also told that he believed that the moon landing never took place (what is this information supposed to tell me?). Some stories claim that he was a revolutionary who helped the poor and other stories that he wrecked the economy. Some stories claim that he brought a huge number of people out of poverty.

The one thing that I can be certain of from these stories is that someone, somewhere is frightened of what Chavez represents —and that is all that I can really divine about the man.

Ultimately, propaganda is about preserving or acquiring some kind of privilege. The media is a battle ground of ideas and, like any other human invention it is a continuum of extreme positions. Rational, unbiased reporting is simply one extreme position in the scale of things, like the ideal that everyone is born equal and has equal rights. From my personal experience, encountering extreme positions in the real world is extremely rare.

Here’s my thinking … Apparently, the unbiased news is that Venezuela has huge oil reserves (so I read). The world is addicted to oil (I know this because I have to use it myself). Having oil therefore, is a privilege for those addicted to it. Who gets that oil is down to a battle of ideas first. Then, if lobbying doesn’t work for the more powerful groups who are bidding for it, a physical battle usually comes second. My guess is that the West somehow needs to ’save’ the people of Venezuela from people like Chavez. How best to do that?

*Sounds great. If only it were true.

Doctor Faustus at the West Yorkshire Playhouse

Thursday, March 7th, 2013
Image courtesy of WY Playhouse

Image courtesy of WY Playhouse

I made a pact with the Playhouse: to go and see Doctor Faustus on a complementary ticket but in return, blog about it. I did the deal but often, these pacts turn out badly.

In some ways, it reminded me of being back at school, the play would only make sense to me if I were studying it line by line for A level English.

I never studied Doctor Faustus at school, although I knew the story of course – a man sells his soul to the devil – so the archaic language at the start of this production filled me with foreboding. The English language from the 16th century is impenetrable for a 21st century inhabitant which is why close study of the text is required (and possibly why the programme has a complete transcript of the play). There was even Latin thrown into the mix as Faust attempts to raise a demon with his incantations (which immediately made me think of what Harry Potter and its pig-Latin might invent in such a scene: “Murdochus appearum” perhaps?).

I managed to roughly follow the arguments of Faustus with Mephistopheles as he decides whether to sell his soul or not. Unfortunately, the logical fallacies involved set me off on my own train of thought and I wondered what would happen if the feuding neighbour of Faustus also sold his soul at the same time and they came to diabolical blows – who would have precedence, is there a hierarchy to evil, or does human ingenuity still have a part to play in such matters?

For me, the one unexpected moment in the play occurred here (spoiler alert) when the first manifestation of the demon wriggled from beneath the bed covers in a truly disturbing manner. If only the entire play had been produced along these horror lines, I might have been genuinely moved.

Fortunately, the new additions to the play written by Colin Teevan were in modern English and were set in modern times. This meant I could relax my concentration on the language somewhat and enjoy the writing and the performances instead. These additions were cynical, comic and topical in their tone and suggested that the production was falling between two stools – the gothic horror of the original and the scatological slapstick of the modern. Given a choice, I would have much preferred that the play had opted for the latter direction as it simply made it more relevant. The throwaway sideswipe at the bankers, for example, selling their souls to Mephistopheles suddenly came alive with genuine moral evil and injustice.

I also found that the old stories from the past suffered from our moral progress today. Mephistopheles’ story of his beloved girlfriend being traded like a trinket amongst the court circle didn’t invoke the same sort of sympathy that it might have aroused in the 16th century. It simply made me appalled at the attitude towards women at the time.

During the interval, Phil Kirby gave me some information about Marlowe himself and to be honest, I found this information a lot more interesting than the play; to be an atheist during the time that Marlowe was alive must have been as dangerous and isolating as a politician today declaring their interest in paedophilia. I wanted to learn more about the playwright as a result.

Whenever I go to the theatre I always struggle with the concept of the art form – what is it supposed to do: inform, entertain, enlighten, provide work for actors? There is successful theatre out there, I’m sure of it. For many young people today their theatre of choice is the arena hosting a favourite band whose songs no doubt, speak to them intimately. Add to this the thunder, lights and pyrotechnics on the stage and you have an emotional charge to reckon with. Yes, in that context I can see how such a performance can move an audience.

So, did Doctor Faustus move me? No. Was it entertaining? Yes, mildly.

Not so much Mephisto then as ‘Meh’.