stand-up philosophy #2: ‘justice’

Well, Stand-up Philosophy is definitely working. The audience for last night’s show at the Jeremy Bentham were a strange, slightly mixed bag of philosophy postgrads, comedy fans, people I used to teach…and my family.

But the show was really fantastic – perhaps because we had a line-up of acts who were pretty much perfect in terms of them all being extremely proficient comedy performers, as well as all having interesting and different takes on the question of Justice…

– Dougie Walker opened the show pretty much perfectly with a thing called ‘What’s so fucking great about fairness anyway?’, in which he argued that a lot of the principles of fairness which we associate with the notion of ‘justice’ (ie treating people the same, etc) don’t really work. He nevertheless argued (with some success, I think) that justice would have to be in some way connected with empathy.

– Lindsay Sharman talked about a variety of problems associated with Justice, but in particular (or at least, this was the bit that was most interesting to me) raised some really interesting points about whether a person can be just or unjust to their future self. (She was also very funny – out of all the philosophers involved in the show, she the one about whom most people came up to me afterwards and said, “she was really funny”).

– Tony Dunn approached the problem with an analysis of how justice might apply to psychopaths, considering the fact that it doesn’t make sense to punish psychopaths because their inability to empathise with others means that they often can’t really believe that they’ve done anything wrong. Added to the difficulties when it comes to identifying psychopaths, and the fact that they nevertheless have to be prevented from doing harm to others, he claimed (quite convincingly, I thought, if somewhat depressingly) that perfect justice is impossible in any world which contains psychopaths.

– Andrew Watts headlined the show with a new and fascinating spin on the question, pointing out that the principle that legal judgments must set precedents in order for later cases to be just, had thrown up all kinds of bizarre anomalies when it came to the practical application of justice; he illustrated this somewhat brilliantly with the problems surrounding the legal status of necrophilia.

And the audience seemed to love all of it, and somehow I wasn’t even too embarrassed to talk with Andrew about necrophilia in front of my Mum…

HOORAY.

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the new problem of what i will read at 2am

There are three reasons why I started writing a blog. The first was because (as anyone who has read this thing since the start will know) I am a pretty average comedian; but, it turns out, not too bad at writing about it.

The second reason was because I wanted to chart my comedic progress (particularly during Edinburgh). You probably already know how that went.

And the third was because of reading Andrew Watts’ blog. Which he has apparently now decided to pack in.

So I could be writing about anything this evening. I could write about the first ever Sussex University comedy night, which I basically had to organise from scratch and which finally went ahead on Monday to an audience of over a hundred; or about the Beckett project I’m working on; or about the ridiculous fact that some MPs are, without a hint of irony, claiming that it’s a bad thing for museums to exploit interns.

But I’d rather write about how sad I will be if Andrew never blogs again.

For a start, it’s the only way anyone ever seems to get any new material out of him. As a performer he’s quite unashamedly been doing the same first five minutes of stand-up for five years now, which is as long as both as us have been performing. I can’t even remember my first five.

In fairness, it’s a brilliant opening five and it’s got him into the kinds of paid work and competition finals that I’ve never got. (I mean, that might be because I have never really tried competitive stand-up – I loathe competitions on principle and never even bothered to enter So You Think You’re Funny or the Hackney Empire New Act Competition or most of the others, and even when I have entered competitions, I’ve always sabotaged my chances by using them to do totally new material about stupid things like Picasso and the BNP. Not good, solid stuff about women and cricket. But that’s not the point – the point is that one great joy of reading Andrew’s blog has been watching an act that I regard as relatively successful, harping on endlessly about Jack W****hall’s instant fame. I think I just liked knowing that even if I’d entered and been a multiple competition finalist and rising star like Andrew, it still wouldn’t actually make me happy…)

Also, I should say that I have disagreed with Andrew on almost every point of religious, cultural and party political principle that he’s written about. He doesn’t like Beckett and adores Julian Fellowes; he somehow thinks the Liberal Democrats are inherently racist and that if the slave trade were still happening now it would be the Tories leading the campaign against it; and he holds pretty much exactly the same High Anglican church values that I was brought up with, and found impossible to justify under even the tiny weight of my own teenage philosophical questioning, let alone the kind of properly empirical demands I’d try to make now.

And yet…he’s really funny. And smart. And I like the way he writes an awful lot. And his blog has conclusively proved the George Orwell thing about how you shouldn’t spend too much time around conservatives because you’ll only end up getting to like them.

Often, agreeing with the conclusions is kind of irrelevant. As always, the real content is in the style. And if nothing else, Andrew’s blog has taught me (of all people) that public-school-educated Christian Tories can be okay really – perhaps even decent, honest, intelligent people. And because of this, that blog has shifted my distain away from them, and onto the kind of small-minded party tribalists who still think that all Tories/Labour/LibDems/whatevers are stupid and evil.

So if it is true that Andrew is not going to blog any more, then I will miss Andrew’s blog. I will miss regularly learning new things about abolitionism. I will miss being woken up at 2am by email alerts from MySpace – MySpace, of all fucking things! – saying “Andrew Watts has posted a new blog!” And then reading it anyway. I will miss hearing about his successive glorious failures at pulling girls at gigs. I will miss getting day-by-day updates on the long-running narrative arc of how his mother is gradually becoming convinced that stand-up really is the right thing for him to be doing (and if this is true and not merely a literary device, she would be the only person still unconvinced in the country). I will even miss his little rants about how everyone shouldn’t hate Tories, especially now that, however much I hated their last budget or what they’ve done to the Lib Dems, I don’t hate them either…

So. Andrew. If you should read this (which I’m sure you will, because like all good stand-ups you are a terrible narcissist), then I want you to know that if you stop keeping a blog then it will be like The Archers just stopped. Certainly for me, and I have no doubt for a few others besides. And even when it’s boring, nobody wants that.

But if you’re definitely going to stop altogether, then, well…thank you.

And, um…can you like to come and do my Sussex University gig if it runs after Easter?

(andrew’s fault)

So while I’m trying to decide whether to start posting my obscenely over-academic university research on here (and finding out if I’m even allowed – I have a feeling it might be the property of the University and thus unpublishable anywhere else), here is a very lengthy response I posted today to this post on Andrew Watts’ superb blog. His basic point is that socialists don’t have the ability to be decent people themselves and want the state to do it for them; and that’s why socialists don’t give blood. I thought I’d repost my response here because it ended up being quite a neat little autobiographical statement of political philosophy – but you should read Andrew’s blog first; as a rule it tends to be funnier than mine anyway, and that’s the important thing…


The last time I tried to give blood, they wouldn’t let me. They looked at me, weighed me, and then said I wasn’t allowed. Your BMI is too low, they said. Really, I said? Yes, they said. If we let you give blood you could have a heart seizure. You should see a doctor actually, they said.

So I went to see my GP, and my GP told me I should try eating meat and stop being such a big (well, small) vegetarian nancy. So, for the sake of my health, I learned to be harsher and not to feel so much remorse for the suffering of less fortunate creatures when it interferes with my own self-interest.

That was ten years ago. From there, it was only a small step to becoming a fan of Nietzsche, who recognised exactly how cruel humans can be if it’s in their own interest, and of course inadvertantly influenced a string of idiots like Rand and Hayek, and indirectly, Thatcher. She’d been long out of office, but I was able to recognize then that I had hated her through my childhood for the wrong reasons. I had mistakenly hated her, for the reason most people, as you say, still hate the Tories – for being cruel. But she wasn’t a bad Prime Minister because she was cruel; she was a bad Prime Minister simply because she had, if anything, much too positive a view of humans – she thought that if we were freer to be independent as entrepreneurial capitalists, then we would also be freer to be responsible and kind to each other as individuals. But what happened under Thatcher was social carnage; her liberalism was too radical and people who were suddenly able to make a lot of money didn’t bother to look after those who were less able, or those who didn’t regard the acquisition of wealth as being the telos of human existence.

For a while, I admired New Labour then; they recognised that if the wealthy were going to actually contribute anything of substance for the less advantaged, they were going to need a bit more encouragement. New Labour weren’t socialists because they didn’t want to compel the advantaged to help the disadvantaged – or at least, Blair didn’t – but they did at least try to come up with ways in which it could happen: academies, foundation hospitals, PPPs etc. But these were never going to work: when organisations with their own interests (whether that is profit or religious influence) get power over things like transport or education or healthcare, they were never going to act primarily in the interests of transport or education or healthcare as being intrinsically worthwhile; they were always going to use those things as instruments of their own interest (generally profit). So rail fares become unaffordable; academy schools get more obsessed with exam results in the short term and will lose good teachers – and possibly their buildings – in the long term.

This might not be intentional, it might not even be conscious most of the time, and it’s not that people aren’t ‘kind’; it’s that when kindness gets in the way of their own immediate goals, their own goals come first. This is because people are, at bottom, selfish.  And this is what socialists understand.

As much as it might seem to go against the Sixth-form-common-room debate of “wouldn’t socialism be nice/no it won’t work because people are selfish”, in the real world socialists are the ones who DO recognise that people are selfish. 

And so I actually do accept your premise that socialism is about outsourcing your kindness – although actually I think it’s about outsourcing responsibility for your kindness – but if it is, it’s because they recognise that otherwise the kindness won’t get done. Capitalism would never have been so successful if the rich had noticed people were starving and done something about it.  

Now personally, I’m not a socialist because, having become a flesh-eating Nietzschean, I don’t see any obligation at all in moral kindness. For the sake of basic human decency and my own safety, I’m in favour of personal responsibility – but it needs to be given gradually, not thrust upon us. And in the meantime, we need to be compelled by law to help the less fortunate, otherwise they won’t get helped and then they’ll revolt.

So, the consequences of this: a few years ago I abandoned the Labour Party, whose tribe I had, in the first place, been indoctrinated into by my mother, a high Anglican from Liverpool, who quite correctly regarded Jesus’ agape-or-hell law/compulsion as being profoundly socialist in nature. Jesus, too, thought that people are equal in the eyes of God, but basically selfish and need compelling to be kind: and socialism is the practice of positing the (empirically false) claim that all people are of equal value and then, as you say, adding that the more well-off must be compelled, by the threat of punishment (ie hell) if necessary, to be kind as a result. And hell is a pretty tough punishment for breaking the only human law Jesus set out and not loving your neighbour.

Anyway, I deserted the Labour Party but didn’t give up hope: individual people CAN be decent to each other without such compulsion;but you can’t do it by just taking all the support away and leaving them to it. It will take a long gradual time to get there, but it’s possible; the state should be dismantled very, very slowly, and give plenty of practical transitional support in the meantime. I like to call this ideology Pragmatic Gradualist Anarchism. Some people, I think, call it Liberalism.

So this year – regrettably, now – I decided to join the Liberal Democrats, and I even campaigned for them – in a Liberal vs. Labour seat. I did that because they seemed to be pretty sensible about gradually pushing against state authoritarianism while still providing support for people to be decent to each other. (And also because, having taught Politics for a few years now, I’ve become deeply, deeply dissatisfied that the FPTP voting system is representative of what people actually want and so doesn’t provide proper legitimacy.)

So, to answer your point: the reason I’ve been bombarding facebook with annoyed messages is not because I want my kindness to need outsourcing, or because I’m opposed to the idea of personal responsibility and lower taxation and so on. I’m angry at the spending review because the party I campaigned for have done the political equivalent of promising to help us build a plane and learn to fly, and then joined up with a bunch of people who like pushing people off cliffs and pushed us all of a cliff. And we’re going do hit the ground hard, our most vulnerable parts first.

The people who hate the Tories for that aren’t wrong to point out that they are so personally wealthy that they are cutting things they will never personally have to depend on. And they aren’t wrong to point out that George Osbourne smiled a lot during and after his Spending Review speech, and seemed proud of the cuts to quality of life that he’d made on other people’s behalf.

Personally, I’m glad I wasn’t allowed to give blood. Because I’d only have done it so that I could take the credit, but it would have really hurt.

But I wonder if perhaps Osbourne wouldn’t give blood either if he could get a poor person to do it and still take personal credit…

the tories

So I intended to write a blog post last night, but I didn’t. What I did instead was painstakingly research the movement in the 1790s and 1800s to abolish slavery, so that I could appear to be a smartarse on Andrew Watts’ blog. You can see what he (and I) wrote here.

The thing is, Andrew’s right about the anti-Tory orthodoxy amongst comedians. I mean, I hate the Conservative party as much as the next stand-up, but not just for the sake of it. I was talking to another comic last night who was telling me he thinks that being anti-Tory is a good ‘default position’. Which to a large extent I agree with, but only as long as you have good reasons, based on what they’ve actually said they’re going to do. The trouble is, a lot of us lefty comics don’t; we still think of the Conservatives as the nasty party and that’s that. 

But if you don’t know why you’re arguing what you’re arguing, any joke you might make comes from nowhere and means nothing. It would give the illusion of satire but have no more meaning than a pun. I’ve heard comedians doing terrible jokes about how much they hate David Cameron for being vacuous. I used to do an awful bit about Boris Johnson in which the punchline was based on nothing more than calling him a twat. It gave the appearance of having something to say but really it didn’t; it was just abusive.

Contrast this with, say, Andy Zaltzman’s wonderful bit about the proposed tax break for married couples. If you haven’t heard it, basically it takes the idea of encouraging marriage ‘because it is the bedrock of British society’ to its logical conclusion, and it is very very funny. Because of course it’s not marriage that keeps society functioning peacefully; it’s a sense of common interest with your neighbours and your community, and legally-binding monogamy isn’t a necessary condition of this. Marriage isn’t the bedrock of our society; social identity and a feeling of shared goals and interests is the bedrock of society. One of the reasons I hate the Tory party now is that they did so much in the 1980’s to destroy communities and communitarian feeling by trying to crush the NUM and in doing so, cack-handedly and unsubtly crushing the economies that gave those communities a sense of common value. And you can’t put that back by bribing people twenty quid a week to get married.

Zaltzman realises this, and it’s why his joke works.

The reason most people, including comics, don’t write stuff, or even think stuff, as good as this is because it’s hard. I would really love to write a bit about Michael Gove’s plan to encourage all schools to bring back old-fasioned blazers on the grounds that that will make them better-disciplined (it’s like suggesting that all comedians wear rennaissance jester outfits because it will make our comic verse funnier). But I can’t be bothered to write it properly, so I haven’t.

Anyway. The point is that if you’re going to have a political opinion you should be prepared to do the work of backing it up properly by knowing what you’re talking about. 

There are good reasons to be annoyed/scared/upset at the idea of a Tory government, but the simple fact that ‘they’re Tories’ isn’t one of them.

comedy is art 1: the problems of ideology

I think it’s time to put a proper argument together.

I’ve seen a few blogs in the last week or so that have taken positions against the ‘comedy is art’ campaign. The most notable have been from Andrew Watts and Harry Deansway; but there are a few other general anti-campaign comments flying around which probably need dealing with.

So I’m going to spend next few blogs discussing these points, first by addressing them and then expanding that into an argument for the campaign. (Strap in folks, it’s going to get debate-y…)

As far as I can tell, three arguments have been made from within the comedy world in opposition to the campaign:

1) that Arts Council funding would make comedians stop being funny because they would be looking for money not from audiences, but from the state – as claimed by Andrew and Harry;

2) that taking money from the state would mean compromising our freedom as comedic artists to say and joke about whatever we like (I’ll take this one on tomorrow);

3) that stand-up and sketch comedy aren’t really art at all, just entertainment; and we should proud to call ourselves entertainers without wanting to be artists as well (I’m saving that for Thursday).

So, let’s start today with Andrew and Harry. I’m glad Andrew weighed in on this, partly because both his blog and his act (which you can see at the next Scurvy Wednesdays on 18th November…) are genuinely brilliant; and partly because even though I know he puts himself on the ‘conservative’ side of that spurious nonsensical divide we call ‘political ideology’, when I read his blog I often think he’s on the good side of a far more important divide: namely the divide between good thinking/lazy-minded idiocy. (I don’t know Harry well enough to know what side of that divide he’s on, but I did once share a taxi with him and he seemed nice at the time; plus, Nick Helm seems to like him which is a good enough endorsement for me.)

Both Andrew and Harry acknowledge that comedy is, or can be, an ‘art’, but oppose the campaign on based on the economic/political consequences of comedy being given state funding. (Though it should be said that Andrew does make a beautifully incisive psychoanalytic point that wanting ‘official’ state validation of your art smacks of insecurity, which he may be right about. But then, nobody ever said comedians were emotionally secure people; and ultimately this is an ad hominem point which I’m sure he’d accept adds little to the practical side of the debate.)

Anyway, the claim they both make is essentially that state funding of stand-up and sketch comedy would be bad for the ‘comedy industry’ as a whole. Harry points out that the good comedy nights don’t need it but that state funding would lead to rubbish comedy, which I can only assume comes from a rather dogmatic belief that everything which receives public funds is inevitably worse than things which are privately funded. He doesn’t use the phrases ‘free-market’, ‘competition’, or ‘survival of the fittest’ but that’s what he’s basically referring to: in short, he argues that Arts Council funding would lead to a lazy, bloated comedy industry where enterprise isn’t rewarded. Andrew argues this too, but goes further and deeper, arguing also that the need for experts to decide who gets the funds means that the judgments of critics will end up being taken as a better measure of ‘value’ than whether something actually gets laughs; and that this will, in turn, lead to a widening of the gap between ‘art’ comedy (which would need to be funded based on criteria other than how funny it is) and ‘popular’ comedy (which might not be clever but does at least get laughs, and that, he quite rightly says, is the main thing).

In short, they’re both making a ‘free-markets good, state funding bad’ kind of argument which is based more, I think, on ideology than it is on practice.

To demonstrate, I’ve written two sentences below.

1: Governments ought to fund artistic projects that enrich people’s lives by making them feel and think better;

2: Governments ought to provide so much funding for a given field that a bloated and lazy industry emerges around it, thus destroying the value of projects that people would actually be prepared to pay for.

Only one of which (the first one, obviously) is being made by our campaign. The problem is that Andrew and Harry both seem to be saying, with varying degrees of sophistication, that making the first claim inevitably implies the second, and that the first therefore shouldn’t be made. This kind of assumed jump from one claim to another often happens when an ideology (in this case, the ideology of free-market capitalism) isn’t applied critically or pragmatically enough.

Now firstly, this ideological point is slightly irrelevant: even friendly ‘anarchists’ (and I use the term loosely) like me are on board with the campaign because we accept that in practical terms, we are currently living in a mixed economy where the state funds some things (In an anarchist utopia that wouldn’t happen of course, but we’re a long way from that yet; so I’m happy for the time being that we as a society we do fund certain things collectively, and when public funds are cut back it should be from the authoritarian, rather than the educational and artistic, side of the state first). Anyway, sometimes this state funding thing works out well and sometimes it doesn’t – but it has nothing to do with ideology and everything to do with the specifics of who’s running the thing and how well they do it. (Radio 4, for example, is a national treasure; the railways shouldn’t have been privatised as clumsily and hamfistedly as they were; but I’d rather sit in a cafe that was an independent business and thrives by being great rather than because it gets money from the government). Anyway, the point is that in such a mixed economy, state funding is not necessarily good or bad and applying free-market ideologies to it misses the point because we’re not concerned with economic ideology of state funding for the time being; we’re more concerned that if art is to be publicly funded at all, then we should be consistent about how we do it – if it’s going to fund art then it shouldn’t unreasonably discriminate against any particular artforms.

But even if we take the ideology as being relevant, it’s wrong: the fact is that it’s not inevitable that public funding for things of value ruins the industry around it. Andrew points out quite reasonably that Arts Council funding ruined poetry, but ignores that it makes a lot of artforms much more accessible to many people: on my salary, for example, I could never afford go to the opera unless it got some funding, or drop in at the National Gallery like I did last week. Public Libraries, too, could be called a successful result of a social consensus on the first claim, but you rarely hear people going, ‘oh, the Public Library industry is so lazy and bloated – if people really wanted books they’d be prepared to pay for them’ or say that their quality or value is diminished because of state funding. (Which is not to say that libraries are without their problems, as anyone who has read the good library blog will know. But you get the point.)

Equally, it would be hard to claim that the availability of free, communally-funded books for the last 100 years has damaged the bookselling trade; if anything it’s helped it – if books are more accessible then people read more books, and then they buy more books.

Nobody is saying all comedy should get government money any more than anybody is saying that just because libraries are good, we should turn all the bookshops into public libraries. We’re also not saying we’d want stand-up to get so much funding that, like libraries, people can just get it for free. That would be ridiculous.

But we are saying that good comedy is currently not as accessible and available to all as it could be. It’s hard to set up quality, affordable, sustainable comedy nights outside London (or even in London) without a huge initial outlay – both in money and in time – on marketing, booking quality acts, transporting them to the show, etc. Scurvy Wednesdays has been a moderate success because Tony, Loz and myself pumped in loads of our own money at the start to buy a PA, posters, book quality headline acts, going to gigs every other night looking for the absolute best new acts to basically exploit, asking a lot of them to work for nothing at our show so that we could break even. Not all promoters can do that, certainly not outside London, and the losers in the end are the public.

Andrew has one very good point: that there is a problem of who will make the choice of what to fund. But it’s not true that ‘critics’ would do it: firstly because that’s not how the Arts Council work any more (they’re in the middle of a drive at the moment to recruit a much broader range of ‘assessors’), and secondly because comedy simply couldn’t work like that. We would need, admittedly, a proper discussion about what is artistic about comedy, and on Thursday I’ll hopefully be going some way towards doing that. But nobody, either comedy acts or audiences, would accept that it should be allowed to become less funny.

However: there is, I think, a consensus that some comedy gets laughs but is not artistic at all. Comedy needs to get laughs but it’s not as simple a formula as big laughs=good comedy. Horrible, thoughtless, moronic comedy often gets big laughs too. (Little Britain, which was often the TV equivalent of a schoolboy pointing at a person with Downs Syndrome and calling them ‘spazz’ while all their friends roll around in fits) is a case in point. So I think our campaign would have to accept that both we and the Arts Council should think carefully to find criteria that ensured tired old pub gags with no sense of irony or creativity would qualify. (We wouldn’t want to find ourselves facing the same problem of public libraries which are full of Sophie Kinsella and Dan Brown novels because people want to read them. I don’t like to see my taxes going to Sophie Kinsella any more than you do).

But the fact that stand-up does have to be judged, at least in part, on whether it’s actually making people laugh, means that that would have to be part of the criteria (as well as the other things that the masters of the artform can accomplish, like making us cry or think or want to scream).

It may even be – and I’ll say it quietly – that incorporating comedy into its remit might be part of the kind of re-evaluation that the Arts Council is going to have to do in order to avoid the general widening of the gulf between ‘arty’ art and ‘popular’ art that Andrew analyses so well.

It’s easy to be pessimistic, but I think this is possible; moreover, I think it’s desirable. We’re not asking for comedy to become bloated or crippled or unfunny and the objections that claim this are based on a fairly cynical anti-statist ideology rather than hope and the promise of hard work. I think it’s possible, though – if we’re careful – for the state to provide positive support for projects of real value without such unintended consequences, and to provide, instead, the same help in being more accessible that is afforded to other artforms.

I’ll take on the next point, about whether Arts Council funding would mean giving up our freedom, tomorrow. Well done for getting this far…