Friday, June 29, 2012

Balls and wheels and thrones

Latest Courier article. Normal blog service may be resumed next week, DV.

I'm writing this shortly after England's victory over the Ukraine in the European Championships, which has – alongside France's loss to Sweden – meant that England have reached the quarter-finals, and are avoiding Spain. If only we get past Italy we have a very tasty semi-final with Germany to look forward to. (edit: ha!!)

One of the reasons why I love football so much is because of the rich human drama that is always thrown up by it. Consider poor Harry Redknapp (if a highly successful multi-millionaire could properly be considered 'poor'). Back in February Harry was on trial for tax fraud, and was facing a long stretch in prison if found guilty. He was acquitted, and on the very same day Fabio Capello resigned as the England manager – and those two things together seemed to be a 'sign' that Harry was destined to take on the England role, not least because Tottenham were playing so well. Yet since that day Spurs suffered a terrible run of form, have very unluckily missed out on the Champions League, and Harry not only didn't get the England job but he has been 'released' from his Spurs job too – despite what any unbiased observer could only describe as a period of success for Spurs. From the heights of acquittal and acclaim to being discarded and out of job. Of course, the story isn't over yet – one of the great comforts of football is 'there is always next season' – and it wouldn't be a surprise to find Harry rising up once more, and trusting that the wheel of fortune will be kinder to him on the next spin.

There is, in any human life, a very large element of 'moral luck' – and that language of 'wheels of fortune' is one of the ways in which we discuss it. Football throws up all sorts of ways in which that luck is obvious, and there are many non-football equivalents (think of the lottery). What I find interesting is how we are to respond to it. To reference Kipling, how can we treat Triumph and Disaster as equal impostors? This is an issue in our society simply because of the shallow way in which we treat success, and worship those who are successful as celebrities. Indeed, our society has decayed so far that it is now possible to develop a career purely as a 'celebrity', not based upon any virtue or character or natural talent at all (I would name names, but it would be rude and indecorous). Whereas – and here my inner Victor Meldrew asserts himself – in previous ages there was at least some lip service paid to the classical virtues (hypocrisy being the tribute that vice pays to virtue) now we live in a society where the failure to be virtuous is held up as itself worthy of emulation. Now, I do not wish to argue that previous ages were more moral than ours – some were, some were not – only to point out that we have lost any shared consensus about how to assess moral worth. We no longer have the capacity to talk about morality – which means our ethics, which means our character as individuals and as a society – and as a result our character starts to disintegrate.

Consider all the various talent programmes that are so popular. Sometimes they throw up a charming tale – as with Ashley and Pudsey – yet to me (as someone who admittedly very rarely watches) much of the desire to watch is associated with the inevitably humiliation heaped upon certain contestants. This is the how and why of Simon Cowell's success. This is the modern recapitulation of the Roman arena, where we watch slaves being thrown to the lions (fortunately with less blood – one of many ways in which we are more moral than that culture). Each programme represents a spin on the wheel of fortune, for the contestants and for the audience, all sharing in the illusion that the prize is worth the risk. This is the logic that leads us back to Roman culture, the inevitable end point of our decadence.

For me, these truths have for a long time been unmentionable in public and secular discourse, simply because they necessarily use language that cannot be translated into the nostrums of either science or public policy. How do you measure character? How do you heal a soul? However, because we all know that these things are of vital importance, and we want to learn about them, there is a very vigorous market for all those things which discuss it – through all the imaginative mediums of films and novels and theatre. This is where the interesting work is being done. For example, the very successful 'Hunger Games' sequence of novels is very good at digging out the underlying logic of our talent programmes, and it is not an accident that the society described there is called 'Panem'.

Which brings me to my latest interest, which is called 'Game of Thrones', a TV series based upon a series of fantasy novels, and in which there is simple motto of 'You win or you die'. At the risk of letting slip a 'spoiler', the first series (book) builds to a climax where one prominent character is executed – and that character is in many ways a moral exemplar. The world that is being described – in which we can, of course, read reflections of our own world – is simply one where being moral, being virtuous, is counter-productive, and simply leads to immense suffering for all those who are loved. The necessary skills for playing the Game of Thrones are deceit and treachery, subterfuge and ruthlessness – these are what enable a character to survive.

Is this a fair description of our world? And if it is, is this really the world that we want to live in? Can we do anything about it? I think the answer to those questions are: yes, no and yes – but explaining why will have to wait until my next article.

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