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Friday, 17 June 2011

The Three Types of Bad Guy

John Malkovich is coming to London to play a Bad Guy on the stage.

The play is called ‘The Infernal Comedy' and we are told that it is:

the autobiography of Austrian serial killer Jack Unterweger…[who] was imprisoned for murder but became a poet and writer while serving his sentence; critics loved him and intellectuals and politicians eventually got him a pardon, claiming he was an example of 'rehabilitation'.


Already there is concern that it will be too sympathetic a portrayal; that Unterweger will be 'glamorised'.


However, the notion that the Bad Guy should be shown to be a repulsive monster is just one of many literary approaches.

The Bad Guys in Dickens and the early gothic novels were usually caricatures, and this tradition carried on in cinema and in pantomime.

You were not supposed to like them, still less associate yourself with these horrible sorts.

They may well scare you, but they were firmly “The Other”.


Another literary tradition, which one can perhaps associate with Milton’s Lucifer, is to make the Bad Guy attractive: someone you would like.

Here, the Bad Guy as the Charming Figure also has a great tradition, including Conan Doyle’s quite wonderful threesome of Irene Adler, Charles Augustus Milverton, and Professor Moriarty (each of whom would be far preferable company than the earnest Holmes and Watson), and the recent film portrayals of Hannibal Lector by Brian Cox and Anthony Hopkins.

This type of perhaps glamorous characterization can be far more unsettling than the Dickensian grotesque: to actually like these characters may well make us uncomfortable about ourselves.


More difficult is for a writer to create a Bad Guy who makes us realise that we are all capable of bad actions; that the Bad Guy is not necessarily somebody else.


In his brilliant Contingency, irony, and solidarity, the late Richard Rorty contended that Nabakov and Orwell were able to put forward characters who could make the reader personally reflect on the nature of cruelty: that, in particular, the figure of O’Brien in Nineteen Eighty-four could make one empathise with what it would be like to be a torturer.


Torture and cruelty are commonplaces in this world. They probably always will be.

The question of how it can best be understood is perhaps not to ask why other people can be the Bad Guys, either as Dickensian Horrors or as Miltonian Charmers, but to ask how all humans can do deeply bad things.

The villain is not always behind you, or in front of you; it can instead be you.

And that is not a glamorous thought at all.



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Tuesday, 14 June 2011

The unanswered questions for Dyfed Powys Police

Last Wednesday, Dyfed Powys Police arrested activist and blogger Jacqui Thompson.

I blogged about it at the New Statesman.

On Friday I sent the following questions to Dyfed Powys Police.

It is now Tuesday and I am still waiting for a response to any of the questions.

This tardiness rather contrasts with the matter of minutes it took Dyfed Powys Police to turn up and arrest Jacqui Thompson. The police seemed to know their powers of arrest then.


The unanswered questions:

1. In what possible way is filming a public council meeting a breach of the peace?

2. Can the police confirm that filming a public council meeting is not actualy an arrestable offence?

3. Why was she taken to a police station? And why was she then kept several hours at a police station?

4. Why was she threatened with court if she did not sign an "undertaking"?

5. What possible offence was the police threatening with charging her?

6. Do the police realise that this is a free expression issue?

7. Will the police now apologise to Ms Thompson?

8. Can you please name the officers that arrested Ms Thompson?


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Wednesday, 8 June 2011

New College of the Humanities - a guest post by Maria Wolters

Am delighted to host this guest post by Maria Wolters.


In his Evening Standard interview on his latest creation, the New College of Humanities (NCH), A.C. Grayling extensively discusses his motivation for founding the NCH. One quote in particular caught my eye.

[Grayling] claims that he is not setting up the NCH outside the public system to compete with Oxbridge. That's "press hyperbole". But there is excess demand at the top end of the education "market", and he does not believe we should continue to lose bright pupils to foreign universities, which are more than willing to court their minds and money.

Grayling also defends the fee of £18K per year.

The NCH fee "seems like a lot of money from one point of view, but if you're really committed, you'd do anything to provide your kids with a good start". Provided you have the means. "Well, you make the means."

So, let's put Grayling's assertion to the test. I have two small children, aged 5 and 3. If they are to be able to afford that high quality NCH education. I'd better start saving soon. But if I want the best possible university education for my children, should I aim for NCH?

The NCH offers standard University of London International Programme degrees, with an additional load of four courses on Logic and Critical Thought, Applied Ethics, Scientific Literacy, and Professional Skills.

If I were still working as a university lecturer, I would hope to teach most of the content of these courses within subject-specific classes - for the simple reason that these courses cover many skills which are best acquired while working through actual problems, and reflecting on one's own practice. (I hear problem-based and reflective learning are quite fashionable these days ...) This approach is hard to pull off when you have a large class of widely varying skills levels, but perfectly feasible if you have small groups, highly motivated, intelligent students, and plenty of 1-1 tutorials.

If I were a parent, I would be concerned about extracurricular time being taken up with additional modules when my children could be exploring other subjects, learning foreign languages, or simply immersing themselves in the subject of their choice. (Or, God forbid, having fun.) I would also like my children to be prepared for a connected workplace with international teams that telecommute from different locations with different cultures. This would require a strong cultural studies, area studies, and languages provision, none of which NCH offers.

So, let's see. I want to see my children well-prepared for a life which will require them to be flexible, work well across disciplines and cultures, and change careers as and when necessary. Surely there must be better options out there?

Let's look at Jacobs University in Bremen, Germany, a collaboration between Rice University, USA, and the German state-run University of Bremen. I presume that Jacobs University is one of the institutions Grayling wishes to outclass in his bid for the best and the brightest. I'm not picking it because it's particularly good - however, it's fairly typical for the level of innovation and interdisciplinarity that the best private foreign institutions offer.

Leaving aside for a moment the fact that Jacobs University is a full university, with undergraduate and graduate programmes and extensive science course provision, a quick look at the courses on offer shows two degrees that cover aspects of the Humanities proper, International Politics and History and Integrated Cultural Studies. Both degrees are highly innovative. Between them, they cover history, world literature, arts, aspects of philosophy such as ethics, and relevant social sciences. (His Grace may or may not be pleased to hear that the University even offers a course on comparative religion as part of cultural studies.)

What's more, the first year of all undergraduate programmes is designed to be interdisciplinary. Courses are often co-taught by instructors from different fields. Following the US model (and to a certain extent the model of classical German Humanities education), students are expected to take courses outside of their own subject area.What better way to acquire science literacy than to study an introductory science course with students who will make this their major?

Last, but not least, Jacobs takes pride in its multilingual and multicultural student body and perceives this as an asset, actively recruiting around the globe. Grayling, on the other hand, worries about "losing" UK students to foreign universities.

But what is the cost of all this high quality education? 18K Euros per year. That's Euros, not pounds. (For an additional 220 Euros per year, you get free public transport in Bremen and environs.)

To repeat - this is not an advertisement for Jacobs University. It's just an illustration of what £18K will get you elsewhere - more Humanities, more innovation, more interdisciplinarity, and, I believe, a much better preparation for the workplace of the future than the New College of Humanities in its current state offers.

Monday, 6 June 2011

AC Grayling’s Folly

Professor AC Grayling, a philosopher, has founded a College to teach the humanities to “gifted” undergraduates.

The college will be situated in Bloomsbury, just by the British Museum. It has already selected a “Professoriate” who will supposedly give over 100 lectures a year, notwithstanding almost all of them are academics at foreign universities.


In my view, almost everything about this College is an affront to the critical thinking and evidence-based approach that such an establishment should promote.

It is, in short, a sham.


First, it is not even a College in any meaningful sense.

Its students will be enrolled on University of London degrees which, it seems, they will have to apply for directly.

However, instead of the £1,000 to £2,000 a year they would expect to be charged for a University of London external degree, the “gifted” student will be expected to pay £18,000.


Who will these “gifted” students be taught by?

Reading the biographies of the “Professoriate” would suggest that few students will get much contact time with such academic celebrities.

In history, for example, the three named professors all teach mainly at American universities and have numerous other responsibilities.

In law, the two listed professors are not even authorities in any of the seven core LLB courses.

Although it would be wonderful to be taught jurisprudence (the philosophy of law) by Professor Dworkin and civil procedure by Professor Zuckerman, this will not help the student seeking tuition in contract or criminal law.

One suspects that the actual teachers of the courses are not yet even appointed.


And what does it mean to be “gifted”?

No doubt it will require a special kind of gift to want to pay £18,000 for a course which costs substantially less elsewhere in London by absentee professors who will be on television more than they will be in Bloomsbury.

However, the College’s PR advisors tell me “gifted” means:

"that, like every university, we are selective and will select students whose achievements and potential show that they can make the most of the high-quality, intensive educational experience at NCH".


An alternative view is that “gifted” simply means privileged.

This will accord with the view of Boris Johnson that this is an “Oxbridge” for those who cannot get into Oxford or Cambridge.


And it is not even clear if the College is a business or a charity.

Perhaps they do not know themselves.


This is not a College but a branding exercise: the use of big academic names to gloss straightforward London University degrees and charge the courses out at five times the cost using the same facilities.

Almost all the contentions made on the College’s website are misconceived, or do not seem to be substantiated.


All this is clear with the application of the critical thinking and an evidence-based approach which the humanities should actually promote and celebrate.

This College is not any academic breakthrough.

This College does nothing real to help the humanities in this country.

It is instead AC Grayling’s Folly.



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Saturday, 4 June 2011

Britain's Got Talented Lawyers

The recent anonymous allegations published about Britain's Got Talent seemed too well-written to be by a random industry executive and too packed with verifiable detail to just be a casual hoax.

The allegations were soon taken down at the behest of the programme's lawyers, and perhaps we will never know the true circumstances of what is being alleged.

Lawyers also reported the page to the police under the terms of the Malicious Communications Act, which surely means that there is now some detective somewhere wondering how the hell to apply the offence under that Act to this case.

He or she must be delighted.


So the lawyers did their job quickly and well; and, indeed, we do have some talented lawyers in this jurisdiction.

All the same, this did not stop the Daily Mail safely publishing a lawyered (or "abridged") version of the allegations. Again, we do have talented lawyers.

Soon we had carefully worded denials - sometimes so carefully worded that one was not certain what was actually being denied.

And, who undoubtedly wrote these denials?

Yes, more of these talented lawyers.


One cannot know the truth or otherwise of those allegations.

One may not even care, for as Marina Hyde brilliantly explains today in the Guardian, there is enough about the programme and its underlying commercial model to depress and annoy any sensible person anyway.

But what is clear is that these allegations will not be addressed head on, and will not be rebutted or admitted, because of talented lawyers and those who instruct them.

No lawyer is to blame: the practice of law is merely what instructions of your client the system of law allows you to get away with.

What is at fault is the system of law which easily allows those who are being criticised - fairly or not - to use the law to close down what is unwanted rather than address it.

Britain may well have talented lawyers, but we also have a talent for bad law.


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