The War Doctor

Dr Who’s incoherent attitude to its protagonist’s pacifist tendencies is rapidly becoming one of its main weaknesses.

 

*Spoilers ahead*

“You can’t beat a Dalek by being a good soldier; it’s the perfect soldier!” warns Peter Capaldi’s Doctor in an episode in which soldiery was to the fore. Clara’s new flame turned out to be a PTSDy ex-soldier, the Doctor behaved contemptuously towards the soldiers and of course the universe’s most militarised upturned dustbins were back. And within its own confines, this episode handled the theme rather nicely. It was exciting and entertaining, and it was a smart and poignant twist to have the Doctor turn a Dalek against its own kind through the purity of his hatred for them. However, the way the show is dealing with wars and killing is incoherent and that undermining its moral core.

The Doctor’s loathing of these things is a consistent feature of his character. Over and over again we see his reluctance to end another creature’s existence. Yet he is not a character like Batman, who absolutely will not take a life and must have been depicted killing on hundreds of occasions during the show’s history. Now, it would be possible to hold these two elements in tension and derive drama from it but that requires us to believe in the Doctor’s dilemma. That in turn requires us to be clear about what the Doctor’s moral parameters are because if they constantly fluctuate that deprives them of credibility.

Rather unfortunately this is precisely what they are doing. For example, in last week’s episode we saw the Doctor agonising over killing the clockwork robot even though it had been murdering for millions of years. His reason was that its plundering had made it partially human. Which is fine until you remember that in the episode directly preceding it – the Christmas special – the Doctor blew up a cyberman without apparently giving it a second thought. Which is odd when you consider that cybermen are also partially human cyborgs.

Worse still are the episodes which try to have their sanctimonious cake and violently eat it. The worst offender here is probably Journey’s End, in which the Doctor laments that his double has destroyed an entire fleet of Daleks. That this action was morally apparently morally unacceptable did not of course prevent then showrunner Russell T. Davies using it as a way to hastily resolve a rather garbled plot.

My fundamental problem with this all this is that I don’t think it’s credible to ask us to believe that after two thousand years the Doctor is still on the fence about this question. What we’ve seen him do in countless episodes indicates that while he might regard the choice to take up arms to defend the innocent as a tragic one, it is one he has made. He might hate that decision but it doesn’t make sense to believe that he’s constantly teetering on the brink of reversing his position.

This matters because the ethics of being a soldier look set to central to this run of episodes. The Doctor’s refusal to take on a soldier as a companion is bound to run into Clara’s attachment to someone who’s come out of the forces. That can still work but not if the idea is that the Doctor stands opposed to those who wage wars as a profession. Rather it can have a psychological validity in the light of the Doctor himself becoming a soldier during the Time Wars. This is a part of his life he’s tried so hard to distance himself from that he refuses to even acknowledge that the “War Doctor” has any right to be referred to as the Doctor. In this context, it makes perfect sense that the Doctor would show a distaste for soldiers: it reflects his own self-loathing.

And making this story about psychology rather than ideology would be no bad thing. While the Doctor’s defining characteristic is his intelligence, Dr Who has always been more about the heart than the head. Sure the puzzle solving is fun (“the secret he will take to his grave…” :-) ) but it’s not really a cerebral show like Star Trek. It’s not plucking dilemmas from philosophy books and rigorously translating them into plots. It’s much more about characters and that’s why I like it better. So if we get less of Doctor wondering about whether he can take life and more of seeing what that choice does to him that will play to the show’s strength.

I did the Ice Bucket Challenge and I don’t get the backlash against it

It’s an imperfect way to fundraise but it’s weird to gripe about it wasting water

If you have any kind of exposure to social media then you have probably seen people having freezing water thrown over themselves in the name of raising money for and awareness of motor neurone disease. You might have been pleased that you can watch say Benedict Cumberbatch, Alistair Darling or even David Lynch doing the challenge. But here’s the video you’ve really been waiting for:

Surprisingly, given the fact that this challenge has raised £4.5 million for MND alone, it has attracted a fair amount of criticism.

There are prima facia reasonable concerns that fundraising gimmicks like this can cannabalise generosity. I don’t have the knowledge or expertise to comment on whether that’s fair or not in general. However, I feel that for me personally I do usually donate money in response to a prompt of some kind and this seems like a pretty effective one.

There are the patently unreasonable complaints of Catholic groups that research into treatments for degenerative illnesses sometimes use stem cells derived from embryos AKA sacrifices single celled organisms kept in freezers in order to help people who are dying unpleasantly.

There are the also unreasonable complaints that this research also uses animal testing but that’s an issue worthy of a blog post in its own right, so I won’t dwell on it here.

What I do want to look at is what seems to me to be a rather strange criticism: that the challenge wastes water. Water Aid issued a press release saying that they had “noticed an increase in donations from people citing the wasted water as a reason to donate to WaterAid in lieu of taking the Challenge.” They go on to suggest that if you do the challenge, then you should do so in “your bath, shower, local lido or swimming pool. You could also leave your bucket outside and wait for it to fill up with rainwater before taking the Challenge.” As it happens I was at my parents’ and was able to use rainwater they’ve been collecting to water the garden with. But if I hadn’t been then I would have been quite happy to use water from the tap.

To be clear, I have no complaints about Water Aid using the challenge to raise awareness of water shortages as doing so is their job. But I do feel that it is silly that waste has become one of the main gripes about the challenge.

Why? Well:

  • it’s rather a stretch to describe using water to raise money for charity as wasting it;
  • while there may be water shortages in many parts of the world, after the wettest winter on record Britain isn’t one of them; and
  • it’s lacking in any sense of proportion. Water Aid claim on their website that the average Brit uses an average of 150 litres of water every day. In that context, whether people on one occasion use one bucketload of water to do the Challenge is basically irrelevant.

So while I can well believe there are better ways to get people to donate to charity, I just can’t see the Challenge as an objectionable way to use a bucket of water.

 

P.S. Thanks for Mum (Verity Kemp aka the cackling camerawoman) and Dad (Richard Mills) for helping me do the Challenge!

Can you explain to me how anarchism would work?

So you might have seen that last week I posted my review of Noam Chomsky’s On Anarchism. I was underwhelmed by his unwillingness to engage with how the principles he was outlining might actually work in practice. So dear readers, I was wondering if any of you can succeed where he failed and give me a sense for how anarchism would actually work.

What I did get from Chomsky was he that he thought that he thought that enterprises should be owned by their workers. So presumably you’d wind up with an economy of John Lewis’s. He also seems to like the model of a kibbutz as a way of running a local community and to believe in “dismantling state power.” However, these three suggestions and their interplay raised more questions for me than they answered.

Below are the questions I think are most pressing. I, of course, realise that different anarchists are likely to have different answers to these questions. So am more than happy to hear personal views or your sense of where the weight of opinion within the movement is.

1) How would resources be allocated between enterprises?

Having worked for Waitrose, I have a pretty good mental picture of how resources would likely be allocated within a co-operative. However, I’m unclear how resources would be divided between them. Would they continue to trade in a competitive market with the less efficient co-operative losing market share and potentially going out of business? Or would the allocation happen by some alternative mechanism?

2) Would resources be redistributed from wealthier enterprises and kibbutzes to their poorer counterparts? If so how?

I accept that like socialists, anarchists think the community has a responsibility to care for its members. However, they do seem to operationalise it as something rather smaller. I can see, for example, that if you lost your job then the people you live with on your kibbutz might step in to help you out. But is also true that sometimes whole areas fall on hard times. How do they get help? Will that simply be a matter for private charity or will it be formalised in some way?

Similarly, it seem that even if an investment bank and a cleaning contractor are turned into co-operatives, the people at the former will still be a lot wealthier than the later. Would there be redistribution between them?*

3) In this new era of decentralisation how will individuals be protected from abuses by their community?

Presumably many communities will continue to have some rather oppressive instincts. So wouldn’t dismantling the state leave say a Catholic in Castlereagh or a women in the Tribal Areas of Pakistan?

4) How are public goods that cross boundaries of localities going to be provided?

I don’t see how HS2 would ever happen in an anarchist society. Wouldn’t the kibbutzes that covered rural Buckinghamshire veto the idea regardless of the benefits to other parts of the country?

5) How do disputes between kibutzhes and enterprises get resolved?

4) is essentially a subset of this question. Clearly from time to time there are going to want different things or will have grievances with each other. How do they get resolved with a central state?

6) What have co-operatives and kibutzhes got to do with curtailing state power?

Tito’s Yugoslavia was a pioneer of Worker’s Self-Management yet was still a Communist dictatorship. Israel has plenty of kibutzhes yet its state still oppresses the Palestinians. Is there any link in practice between these principles?

7) What if any functions would the state retain?

There’s an episode of Family Guy where under the influence of the Tea Party, the residents of Quahog abolish their city government. Predictably the city promptly descends into chaos. The mess is only sorted out when Peter Griffin persuades his fellow Quahogians to try “this crazy new thing” whereby they elect a group of representatives “who will decide the rules we all live by” and take part of each person’s salary each year to hire people “to provide us with social order and basic services.” Once order has been restored, Peter proudly proclaims “and we did it all without government!”

As you might have detected by now my underlying scepticism about anarchism is that it would wind up following a similar trajectory to Quahog. The state’s ability to instigate, to mediate and to redistribute make it too important for achieving the ends that anarchists are seeking that if they don’t retain it, then they will have to reinvent it.

 

*I appreciate that in an anarchist society there might well not be investment banks. However, I think you’ll see the point I am trying to illustrate.

Two Days, One Night (Review)

The Dardenne Brothers and Marion Cotillard produce a majestically simple story about struggling, sacrificing and surviving.

When Americans were asked by pollsters to come up with the most boring headline imaginable they reputedly plumped for “Worthwhile Canadian Initiative.” If you did a similar poll of Europeans only this time asking about descriptions of films, then “worthwhile Belgium film about post-industrial poverty and mental illness” might well be a contender. Yet in the hands of writer-director duo the Dardenne brothers it becomes captivating.

The film tells the story of a woman named Sandra who following a battle with depression is preparing to return to work but the Friday beforehand is told that she will lose her job unless by Monday she can persuade a majority of her colleagues to forgo their annual bonus.

Much of its success is down to Marion Cotillard’s performance as Sandra. Even for an accomplished (and Oscar winning) performer it’s a role that demands a lot. For starters, her face is on screen in close up for the majority of the film’s running time. And Sandra’s personality and condition as well as the Dardenne’s ultra-realistic style demand that she is generally rather subdued. So Cotillard has to carry the audience through more or less the whole film while only being able to convey thoughts and feeling in only the subtlest of ways. And she does it and then some. It’s all the more impressive because it’s not the kind of role she’s known for (in the English speaking world at least) – Sandra is a long, long way from Talia Al-Ghul!

However, it’s not a performance that exists in isolation. It can only exist because the Dardenne’s can make films in which their filmmaking apparently disappears. Let me just present one detail to show how impressively constructed it is: Sandra is always drinking bottled water. This is partly a matter of necessity because she uses it to take her Xanax tablets. But the ritual of drinking it also seems to be calming for her. It was only on the way back from the cinema that it occurred to me that of course it would: if you associate bottled water with Xanax then that would condition you to find the water calming. For me that captured the level of thought and care necessary to make a film that feels so much like watching real people.

Verdict: 9/10 – a seriously smart and engaging film

Don’t nag couples to get married

The Atlantic reports new research suggesting that a big determinant of the success of a relationship is how the couple deal with relationship milestones. If they make a proactive decision to say get married or move in together then that appears to work out better than just sliding into them:

For couples, deciding means taking the time to communicate and to make mutual decisions when something important is at stake. Couples who decide rather than slide also have more practice working together and are likely better at proactively talking through important life issues, a skill that could help them build a happy marriage.

When partners slide, they tend to be less thoughtful, which could have negative consequences, like marrying a poor match. For example, couples who slide into cohabitation without formal plans to get married could continue on into marriages that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. The problem with cohabitation is inertia. It is much harder for couples to put an end to their relationship when they live together. They buy furniture together, get used to the routine of living together, and split bills and rent. Research shows that these constraints could prevent them from breaking up.

Deciding rather than sliding revolves around commitment—not just to each other, but to the decision itself. Making a decision, research shows, sets individuals up for better follow-through. Further, most cultures have strong and public relationship rituals that help the couple make the decision and see it through. The engagement is the perfect example. There is a societal script for getting engaged that makes it less likely for couples to slide into an engagement. As two people approach an engagement, each partner has (hopefully) determined that he or she wants to spend his or her life with the other, there is usually an expensive ring involved, and the engagement announcement tells the world that the couple plans on getting married. The very act of making the decision to get engaged leads to all of the preparations for the marriage and likely to a stronger commitment to it.

I might speculate that one of the things which makes this ‘sliding’ easier is the expectations of friends and family that you really should have moved onto the next milestone by now. I know I’ve done it: ribbing couples I’m friends with about how they’ve been going out for x years longer than such and such a couple who are getting. And I’m far from the worst culprit in my social circle at trying to play puck. However, the most serious offenders seem to be parents* and grandparents, who really seem to think that their desire for a wedding to plan or (great)grandchildren to spoil should be a serious factor in how their progeny’s relationship progresses.

What I take away from the research above is that we all really need to stop. Relationships are between individuals and as such will not move along according to someone else’s timetable. Life is not a rom-com and meddling is more likely to result in bad decisions than true romance.

 

*Fairness requires me to point out that mine don’t.