Friday, 4 February 2011

Machine | Fiction | The Implausibility of Goodness

I quite enjoy being lax about my sense of the word 'fiction' in these articles (as you, er, may have noticed). Because fiction is not, of course, restricted to prose novels and short stories. Fiction is the unreal; the unreal that - as I like to think, in the case of literature - informs and casts light on the real, but that can also be used to manipulate it and, in some cases, to engulf the real entirely.

One of my odd little obsessions, whenever something is happening in the wider world that excites or distresses me, is to go over in my head, again and again, a speech I'd quite like a public figure to make. It could be any public figure, really. Someone with a voice; someone who will be heard. In this case, as you can probably guess, I wanted someone to talk about Egypt. Not a journalist, or a blogger, or any one of us people who don't really matter - but I wanted them at least to admit the great gulf between ideals and practicalities; admit that our countries have been complicit in several cases in doing the unethical thing for the purposes of realpolitik, admit that the West is paralysed by a patronising fear that instability will instantly lead to dangerous fundamentalism and that this is considered a valid reason not to stand up for democracy - and admit that it is no longer ethical or practical to do anything other than demand that Mubarak be removed from office. I wanted the fiction of diplomatic language, with all of its fucking ambiguities and hedge-bets and pathetic insinuations, the use of ambivalence to obfuscate, to disappear just for once, because it's not helping at all. Why are the only people giving direct answers the ones who are lying directly, like Khamenei, hatefully and very deliberately, misappraising the situation as an Islamic revolution in Egypt? (And, of course, there's no point getting started on Berlusconi, who has to be trolling. He just has to be.)

I got what I wanted, sort-of, when Nick Clegg came onto Daybreak and said that he found the Egyptian protests "incredibly exciting" - which reminded me firstly of the trouble he got into when he referred to the illegal war in Iraq as an illegal war in Iraq in Parliament, and secondly of the belief that I do still hold; that he isn't a bad man so much as he is a weak man. Naive, perhaps, but I'm not sure I believe that anyone who's been touched by Beckett can be bad. Complicated, definitely, but not bad. (That does sound naive - even elitist and stupid - but I think I'm going to leave it in). But it troubles me that he was able to show instinctive sympathy and joy for a protest that he was dealing with in a detached, almost abstract sense - but that the same sympathy failed to break through in his spiels about tuition fees. When faced with the pressures of local reality, where was that sympathy for another sort of protest of the economically disillusioned youth against the government?

The saddening thought is the flipside of the Romantic dream; it's all too easy to be good when you're alone - when your actions are detached from personal costs that society will always bring. And goodness within society can never be truly good, because it's too complex; it's measured by one's possibly unconscious motives. It's easy to be good instinctively, like stamping out fires spread by a molotov cocktail as more missiles rain down upon you, or by blurting out how you really feel about a situation you're supposed to be toeing the company line upon. It's near-impossible to be good in a considered way. A hermit who steps away from the world is good in the meannest of ways, because he removes all opportunities to be bad.

A position I've always tried to take is to be good, while wearing life lightly - which I'm aware I'm falling away from with all of this hand-wringing about morality. Irritating earnestness is really uncomfortably close to attempts at sincerity. But, as they're saying Mubarak may go today - as they have, admittedly, said before - I find myself considering that uncomfortable fact that I don't want to be in a country where David Cameron's in charge. But I don't care for Ed Miliband either. All of the smaller parties are, in their own, often horrible way, hopelessly naive. And, more than any of these people, I'm concerned - ethically speaking - with the political system in place and - practically speaking - with any of the alternative possibilities. So, kids...where do we go from here?

Glenn Beck, who's nothing if not direct in his explanations of a given political situation, seeks to connect the economic protests in Greece and the tuition fee protests in London with the situations in Tunisia and Egypt by simply not bothering to give any details, shouting instead that "the fires are spreading". In one sense, he's an imbecile. In another, perhaps he has a point. The Internet is showing signs of a...universality beyond the machinery of politics. The possibility - if I may again be naive - of the goodness of individuals.

P.S. Fans of either actual fiction or sincerity gone wrong should check out Michael Rosen's caustic and slightly pointless comments on the Guardian live feed. He begins very well, with a sarcastic assertion that the women in hijabs protesting clearly can't stand up for themselves, and then goes downhill fast until he ends up making Hitler comparisons for comic effect.

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