Texts for Advanced Learners

What is reality?

The scientific worldview which so dominates our contemporary consciousness is not as innocent as it may at first seem. Arguably, it conceals as much as it illuminates. It gives us a distorted picture of what reality is.

For science, reality is supposed to be made up of objects and events that are entirely independent of the observer. It is assumed to be 100% objective - not shaped in the least by our perceptions of it. But is this what reality really is?

Let's take the example of a tree. What is a tree? To the Druids (a primitive society found in Northern Europe some 2,000 years ago) certain trees were sacred - they were dwelling places of gods. To a child who has a tree house, the tree is a place to play and perhaps also a place of refuge. To the artist it is a thing of beauty. To a lumberjack it is timber, and to the logging company it is a source of profit. To a scientist, by contrast, it is just a living organism capable of both respiration and photosynthesis with a specific place in the botanical taxonomy.

Does the scientist tell us what a tree really is, or does he just give us one possible way of looking at a tree? Must we say that the tree is not really holy or really beautiful - because these concepts are too subjective - and that the only truly objective concept of the tree is the scientific one?

What science does to the significance of things is truly bizarre. Since our ancestral apes rose up on their hind legs we have been trying to grasp the significance of things for us. The bright light shooting across the sky - is it a good or a bad omen? Everything had to have a human significance.

Science now tells us that in truth objects and events like this have no significance whatsoever. Our job is not to interpret them and give them a place in our social lives - rather our job is just to explain their causes and try to predict the future course of events.

Is this the truth about reality? If you found a tribe that still worships trees you would have to admit that trees really can be sacred. Anyone who stubbornly refused to admit this and who proceeded to take a chainsaw to one of the sacred branches would soon appreciate his error.

The point here is not that there are lots of different views about reality. The point is that societies constitute their own reality. Take the example of human rights. From the scientific point of view there is no such thing as human rights - there are individuals with genes and hormones and drives, but no rights. But if a society has the right laws and the right institutions for implementing and upholding those laws then human rights become a social fact. Reality for us is first and foremost a social construction, but all too often we forget that, partly because of a peculiarly scientific view of what is truly objective.

Christian Fundamentalism

We’ve all heard about Islamic fundamentalism, but have we heard about Christian fundamentalism? According to this branch of the Christian tradition the end of the world is at hand. The signs are clear – we can see the increasing turmoil every day on the evening news. These are the final days of the last fallen epoch in history. We are approaching the Day of Judgment when Jesus will return to Earth.

The Second Coming, though, will only occur if certain preconditions are met. The first of these has already been satisfied: the establishment of the state of Israel. The next involves Israel's occupation of the rest of its "biblical lands" (most of the Middle East), and the rebuilding of the Third Temple on the site now occupied by the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem – one of the most important Muslim mosques. This will then provoke a war with the legions of the Antichrist, and the final battle will take place in the valley of Armageddon. The Jews will either burn or convert to Christianity, and the Messiah will return to Earth.

The end of the world will be a bloody affair, but convinced Christian fundamentalists can look forward to it safe in the knowledge that they will be spared the suffering. The prediction is that before the final battle all the “true believers” will be lifted out of their clothes and will float up to heaven in an event called the Rapture. Not only will they be able to sit at the right hand of God but they will also be able to watch the action from the best celestial seats and see their opponents get struck down during the seven years of Tribulation which will follow.

Of course the last book of every Christian's bible is the book of Revelation (the Apocalypse), and most Christians see this as a trustworthy prediction of some final Day of Judgment. What makes the fundametalists different is the emphasis they give to this and their readiness to act to help speed the process up. The bible says Israel must expand before the Second Coming occurs, so let’s organise a car boot sale to raise money to send to the Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The bible says the new Temple must be built where the Al-Aqsa mosque is, so let’s send a few people over there to blow that damn mosque to pieces. (In 2000 three US Christians were deported from Israel for trying to do precisely this.) If the Second Coming will only occur after a huge war, let’s drop all this nonsense about wanting peace – let’s get the guns out and start shooting some of these people who deny that Christ was the son of God. Let's get this show on the road. Hallelujah!!

Sounds unbelievable? Click on www.raptureready.com to see just how serious these guys are. They aren’t joking.

Other people are taking them seriously. Like airlines in the U.S., for instance. Some US airlines have taken steps to ensure that the pilot and the copilot of a flight are not both Christian fundamentalists. If the Rapture occurs in midflight the company wants to avoid losing both people with their hands on the controls as the chosen ones float up to heaven.

The virtue of idleness

It is a sad fact that from early childhood so many of us are tyrannised by the moral myth that it is right, proper and good to wake at the crack of dawn and immediately leap out of bed in order to set about some useful work as quickly and cheerfully as possible. Parents begin the brainwashing process and then school works yet harder to indoctrinate young people with the necessity of early rising.

The culture has its aphorisms and sayings, and well-meaning parents, teachers and guardians are quick to use them to prick the conscience of the idle:

“The early bird catches the worm.” (Anonymous)

"Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise," (Benjamin Franklin, 1757)

“The Devil will find work for idle hands to do.”

The propaganda against oversleeping goes back a very long way, more than 2,000 years, to the Bible. In the Old Testament ( Proverbs, chapter 6) we read:

“Go to the ant, you slothful people; consider her ways, and become wise: though having no guide, overseer, or ruler, she provides her meat in the summer, and gathers her food in the harvest."

(Question: was it really a good idea to hold up the ant as an example of how to live? The ant system is an exploitative aristocracy based on the unthinking toil of millions of workers and the complete inactivity of a single queen and a handful of drones.)

A famous Christian preacher, John Wesley, who himself rose every morning at 4am, was fond of preaching the dignity of labour. In 1786 he wrote a sermon called “The Duty And Advantage of Early Rising” in which he claimed that lying in bed was physically unhealthy, comically using quasi-scientific terms to drive home his argument: "By soaking so long between warm sheets, the flesh becomes soft and flabby, and the nerves, in the meantime, become less taut."

One well-known literary figure from 18th century London, Dr Johnson, repeatedly criticised himself for his lazy ways. In his diary at the age of 29 he wrote, “O Lord, save me from sloth.” Twenty years later, things haven't improved, and he resolves "to rise early. Not later than six if I can." The following year, realising that he cannot rise at six, he makes a new resolution: "I propose to rise at eight because though this will not be early it will be much earlier than I now rise, for I often lie till two."

Although the moralising tradition is the one most popular with parents, teachers and preachers, there is a counter tradition which is keen to sing the praises of getting up late. Some have been quick to point out that God himself set a good example. In the book “Right To Be Lazy” Paul Lafargue reminds us that God, after working for six days, rests for all eternity.

Anatomy of Fascism

In today's globalising consumer culture some people are worrying about the loss of their national identity. Life might be easier and more fun now but there are those who feel that they are losing something that they could have felt proud of. It is a fact that international developments are undermining the power of nation-states. For many people who are happy just to carry on shopping this is not much of an issue. For others it is something disturbing.

This issue of nations losing their power and identity is not a new one, and as we consider how best to respond to the challenges posed by today's globalising culture it is important not to repeat the mistakes of the past. This is one reason why it is worth having some familiarity with one of the most forceful and ultimately catastrophic movements for national revival: the German national socialist movement led by Hitler (1889 - 1945) which began just after World War I.

Hitler set out his ideas in a book called "My Struggle" (Mein Kampf) published first in 1933. It was an immensely popular book and with the proceeds its author could have taken early retirement and enjoyed a long and peaceful life in a cottage in the German countryside, but he would have despised such a life.

The Germany that Hitler saw around him in the late 1920's and early 30's was a decadent place. The monarchy and aristocracy were more concerned with wealth than with the state of the nation. There was a huge disparity between the riches of the aristocracy and the poverty of those working on the land or in the cities. Embittered and discontented, the working class and the unemployed were persuaded to follow a Marxist movement which called all the workers of the world to join forces against those who were exploiting them. No one seemed to be much interested in anything distinctively German.

Behind both of these movements Hitler was convinced he saw a single enemy. The world of international finance that had seduced the aristocracy was apparently dominated by Jews, and Jews could be found among the leaders of the Marxist movement that had seduced the workers. (Although Karl Marx himself had been born into a Jewish family there is nothing in his political philosophy that is specifically Jewish.)

Hitler called for everything to be reorganised to revitalise the German nation so that it could fulfil its historical mission. Germany was not just another nation. It was destined to be the next in a line of Aryan nations that would advance the course of human civilisation. The Hellenes of ancient Greece, the Romans and the Germanic tribes were all Aryans - a race said to be unique in its ability to found culture. The fall of those older glorious civilisations was attributed to a fatal mixing of blood in intermarriage as Aryan conquerors blended with the original inhabitants of newly acquired territories.

As steps towards national regeneration the Nazi movement called for:

New laws of citizenship excluding all those not having German blood from taking part in the political life of the state.
Citizenship to be given only to men who have served in the army and to German women who are married to German citizens.
The prohibition of marriages without a health certificate.
The disabled and those with hereditary diseases to be obliged not to have children.
An end to all non-German immigration.
Political supervision of all economic activity to ensure it is in the national interest.
Central control of the media, outlawing non-German newspapers and eliminating all political "lies" before they can be published.
The legal prosecution of all forms of art and literature considered to be degenerate. (In practice, piles of so-called degenerate books were periodically burnt in public.)
Obligatory gymnastics and sports to raise the health of the nation.
According to Hitler, German supremacy could only be achieved if the race united behind the leadership of the strongest individual. Along with Marxism, democracy was rejected. For Hitler any political system that refused to give undisputed authority to the strongest individual was by definition Jewish. His historical analysis was that the parliamentary principle of rule by the majority only appeared for brief periods in human history - periods which were always decadent.

In a similar vein, the national socialist movement was not supposed to increase its strength by winning allies abroad. The greatness of the movement, Hitler wrote, "lies in the spirit of fanaticism and intolerance with which it attacks all others, being fanatically convinced that it alone is right."

Hitler also had firm views on education. The education system had succeeded in producing civil servants, engineers, lawyers, and men of letters, but it had singularly failed to produce strong German citizens inflamed with the spirit of patriotism. The idea of education as primarily a means of acquiring knowledge had to go: "The youthful brain must not be burdened with subjects ninety percent of which it does not need and promptly forgets." The new priority had to be the cultivation of character - inculcating willpower, the joy of responsibility, national pride, and a spirit of self-sacrifice. Education must train the youthful body and fight against the poisoning of the soul by modern life.

In Germany in the late 1920's sex seemed to be everywhere: in the cinemas and theatres and in advertisements. This was a corrupting influence that had to be stamped out. "The life of the people must be freed from the asphyxiating perfume of our modern eroticism." For the youth this required a rigorous programme of physical and moral education.

"A man of moderate education, but sound in body, firm in character and filled with joyous self-confidence and power of will is of more value to the nation than a highly educated weakling."

It was the responsibility of the state to see that young bodies received the hardening they would require in later life. Every schoolday had to include at least an hour of corporal training, with the ideal sport being boxing. "There is no sport which encourages the spirit of attack as this one does; it demands lightning decision and hardens the body while making it more supple."

To drag the nation out of its abysmal lack of self-confidence, the education system had to ensure that the German youth acquired the conviction that they were superior to others. Through bodily strength, skill and a familiarity with the achievements of their national heroes, the youth would recover its faith in the supremacy of the nation.

To complete his education every boy must enter the army - "the highest school of national instruction." There "the boy shall be transformed into a man... He shall learn to be silent, not only when he is justly blamed, but to bear injustice in silence if necessary."

"Fortified by confidence in his own strength, filled with the fellow feeling of his regiment, the young man shall be convinced that his nation is unconquerable."

For girls, physical training was also of prime importance, not with a view to military service but to ensure that they would become a strong and healthy mothers.

* * *
Hitler liked to think that he was picking up where the Romans had left off and advancing human civilisation. But Hitler reduced civilisation to power and a single principle: the principle of the unquestionable authority of the Fuhrer (i.e. of Hitler himself).

In ancient Greece and Rome - the most noteworthy Aryan predecessors - the political culture placed a high value on reasoned debate between educated members of the ruling classes. Hitler dispensed with debate entirely.

Instead Hitler sought to appeal as forcefully and directly as possible to the hearts of the masses. If Henry Ford was the man who brought the car into the age of mass production, Hitler was one of the first to bring politics into the age of mass production. In effect he produced the modern political mass. He was a gifted orator but he also saw how to organise huge rallies, produce the most effective propaganda and use the new medium of cinema to generate such a forceful political movement that few felt the need to stop and think about what was really going on (and those who did quickly realised their mistake).

Hitler learnt his earliest lessons in mass persuasion from Marxist demonstrations soon after World War I. He saw that a new party needed slogans, flags, badges, banners, emblems, uniforms and music. At a gathering of some 120,000 people he said he realised then how easily "the flock of silly sheep" was impressed by what was really a grandiose piece of street theatre.

A single-minded insistence upon the destiny of the German people would win the masses over to his cause and save them from the folly of internationalism. All he had to do was deliver what really moved the ordinary man in the street: the victory of the stronger and the destruction of the weaker.

No one with much respect for themselves as a critically minded individual can fail to be horrified by the image of millions ranked in militaristic fashion waiting impatiently to receive their orders from an leader whose ideas no one is allowed to question. The denial of the virtues of our intellectual life is horrific. To reduce the complexities of the political and economic situation into a struggle between one race and another is an insult to the intellect. It is still almost impossible to appreciate how millions of people could have beeen herded together, spurred on by hatred, and persuaded that the root cause of their problems was the Jews and that that required them to round up the little family living on the corner of the street that didn't celebrate Christmas and to send them off to a concentration camp where they would be gassed.

National feeling and a spirit of self-sacrifice are undoubtedly virtuous. But where is the virtue in eliminating all public debate and in identifying the nation with the will of a single individual? Germany was Hitler and Hitler was Germany. Anyone who had doubts about the Fuhrer was, by definition, an enemy of the state.

For Hitler the elimination of political opposition wasn't just a matter of political practicality, it was also a source of pleasure. At one point in his book he describes his joy at seeing his political opponents being beaten senseless by his stormtroops. With people screaming, bottles flying through the air like shells and chairs being smashed, he describes his pride at seeing his stormtroops, already bleeding from the attack, rushing like wolves again and again at the enemy until they were swept out of the hall. Looking back, he even took pleasure in someone's failed attempt to shoot him: "One's heart almost rejoiced at the revival of old war memories."

Fascism isn't just a matter of giving all authority to a single individual. It is also an identification of politics with war. The mass of the population must be mobilised in a struggle against an enemy, and it must seem that everything can be sacrificed to achieve that final victory. Like soldiers, citizens owe a duty of unquestioning loyalty, and political life becomes a thoughtless execution of the Fuhrer's will. Obviously in times of war certain liberties do need to be compromised, but for fascism this is not an unfortunate temporary measure, it is the way politics ought to be.

It would be a mistake to put all the blame on Hitler for the huge loss of life that followed his rise to power. He may have been pulling the strings, but he could have achieved nothing if an entire nation hadn't been prepared to sacrifice all other political values for the sake of national supremacy and military victory.

There was no work in the garden of Eden. Work is a curse brought on by jealousy and material desire. It is the jealousy of Cain that leads God to decree that “You will earn your bread by the sweat of your brow.” If work is a curse, how did it become a virtue? And if we feel we are beyond jealousy and a desire for ever more material things, why should we feel condemned to toil in this way?

For some, greatness and late rising are natural bedfellows. Late rising is for the independent of mind, the individual who refuses to become a slave to work, money, ambition. In his youth, the great poet of loafing, Walt Whitman, would arrive at the offices of the newspaper where he worked at around 11.30am, and leave at 12.30 for a two-hour lunch break. Another hour's work after lunch and then it was time to hit the town.

The lie-in - by which I mean lying in bed awake - is not a selfish indulgence but something essential to the art of living. As that famous fictional detective Sherlock Holmes knew. Reclining in his smoking jacket, puffing his pipe, Holmes would sit and ponder for hours on a tricky case. In one superb story, The Man With The Twisted Lip, Holmes solves yet another case with ease. An incredulous policeman comments: "I wish I knew how you reach your results," to which Holmes replies: "I reached this one by sitting upon five pillows and consuming an ounce of tobacco."

Every child obliged to get up early for school every weekday knows the joy of idleness on those delightful days when they fall ill. You can lie in bed all day, avoid work and be looked after. What a different world from the everyday one of assemblies, lessons, tests and the threat of punishment. Suddenly everyone is very nice to you.

Idleness as a waste of time is a damaging notion put about by the enemies of the intellect. The idle are prone to think, and thinking could be dangerous. The English writer Will Self puts it like this: the Protestant work ethic which demands that people shouldn't be idle is really a taboo on thinking. Introspection could lead to that terrible thing: a clear image of our fragmented and dissonant world.

Four-letter words

Anyone who simply wants to pass an exam in English has no need whatsoever to know any of the hundreds of really awful things English speakers say to each other when they get a bit too angry. But anyone with any plans to live or work in Britain, the US, Australia, Jamaica, Nigeria or South Africa will appreciate how important it could be to have some familiarity with bad language. Misunderstandings do occur from time to time and then the natives are likely to lose their cool and start shouting. Even the normally polite British may resort to one or two of what they call four-letter words, like f*** or sh**. This is not at all nice, but it is undeniably a part of the English language. Can you claim to "know" English without knowing one or two four-letter words? What follows is a brief introduction to the rich store of linguistic artillery for the pissed-off English speaker.

Most of what we call bad language is language that breaks social taboos. There are three taboos that are particularly important for English bad language:

1. the taboo against being disrespectful to religious figures;
2. the taboo against talking about toilet activities;
3. and the one against talking about sex.

1. Religion. Another word for this is blasphemy. It's not commonly used in expressions of anger. Those who are extremely shocked and surprised, though, often let out a long "Jeeesus Chriiist!". Another expression in this category is "hell" which crops up in a peculiar adjectival phrase, as in, "That girl has a hell of a voice - she could be a star." English speakers very rarely tell each other to go to hell, in contrast to Greek speakers, for instance, many of whom do this on an almost daily basis.

2. Toilets. Toilet references are much more common when people start boiling with anger. The overwhelming majority of these references refer to two substances, one solid and one liquid. There can't be anyone who doesn't know the solid reference. This word can function both as a noun and a verb, although at places like building sites the verb is avoided, as in the following sentence: "Oi! John, hang on a sec. I've gotta go for a sh**"

Less well known to foreigners but equally common in Britain is the synonym for the sh** word: crap. Although it literally has the same meaning it doesn't sound quite so violent, and is often used to express just how rubbish you think something is. If you thought the film was a gross waste of money, you might say to your friend, "John, that film was crap."

The liquid reference may be less well known. The word "piss" is often used on its own as a short and blunt expression of extreme frustration when, for instance, you have been waiting in a queue for two hours, then you finally get to the front only to be told that the office is closing now and you will have to come back the following day. "Piss!" The phrasal verb "piss someone off" is also used when something really gets on that person's nerves. E.g. "It really pisses me off when I try to be polite and hold the door open for people and then they don't even bother to say 'thankyou'." In a passive expression with "get" it means "become drunk", as in: "He drank 10 pints in less than an hour and got totally pissed." Not a nice expression, but it is frequently heard in the vicinity of pubs in working class areas late on a Friday or Saturday evening.

3. Sex. By far the worst expressions have all got to do with sex, but because this is a family page we will avoid dealing with the really disgusting ones. The most common is, of course, the f*** word. In action movies and in real life it is used in a two-word expression that neatly sums up the attitude of the individual who insists on not being accountable to anyone: "Fuck you!" The same people also use the word to warn others not to try to trick them or do anything else that might be to their disadvantage, as in the sentence: "Don't you dare fuck with me, you punk." If you happen to meet one of these guys on your travels, the chances are that they have a knife, so it is probably better to do what they say.

There are a few million people in Britain who seem to be angry almost all the time and have the habit of using the present participle of the f*** word at least twice in every sentence. I remember overhearing the following utterance during a tea-break while working as a porter in a hospital: "I went to see the fuckin manager and he fuckin told me to come back the next fuckin day. The fuckin bastard!" A good concise English dictionary will contain about 100,000 words. It is amazing that some people are able to get by perfectly well with less than 1% of that linguistic abundance.

Adjectives ending in -ing often exist in a pair with their partner ending in -ed. The f*** adjective is no exception. As an example of its partner in use, we have: "I'm fucked if I know what the hell he's on about." In this rather unsophisticated sentence the speaker indicates that he doesn't know what the other person is talking about. With a different meaning the word can be used in this way: "Look, Eddy, if you don't fuckin get it right this time, you're fucked," which let's Eddy know, in no uncertain terms, that if he makes a mess of things again he will be in deep trouble. The use of the f- word in that sentence may seem an admission of a lack of eloquence on the part of the speaker but it does help to make it clear to Eddy that the deep trouble he would be in could easily include some degree of physical violence.

The word is also part of a phrasal verb which is very often used to tell people who irritate you to go away. To get them to leave, all you have to say is, "Fuck off!" Used differently, this phrasal verb can also be synonymous with the one referred to in the liquid toilet section above, although it is much more nasty. E.g. "It really fucks me off that the cops keep stoppin an searchin me jus cos I'm a cool black guy who don't wear no suit." There is a second phrasal verb and this is used in situations where people make a mess of something, as in: "Eddy, you really fucked up on that last bank job. The cops nearly fuckin had us." There is another use of the same phrasal verb meaning something like "mess up a person's psychological balance". As an example we've got the poem by Philip Larkin. Its central idea can be summed up thus: "Phil's parents really fucked him up, and that's why he died a miserable bastard."

There are also lots of words for the parts of people's bodies that are normally concealed beneath their swimming costumes. These really are just too much for a family page so we will only mention one because of the interesting difference between British and American English. The part of the body on which we sit is referred to on the west side of the Atlantic as the "ass". It appears in the expression, "Let's kick ass", which means something like, "Let's get down to business" or "Let's start working". On the eastern shores of the Atlantic the word "ass" refers to a small horse or mule, and metaphorically to a stupid person. To make the anatomical reference in British English we need the word "arse". For linguistic purists this word is much better than its American equivalent because it is so closely related to the ancient Anglo-Saxon word for the same part of the body.

The words and phrases in these three categories certainly can't be said to exhaust the wide range of colourful expressions English speakers use when they get a bit pissed off. There are quite a few others. One which we shouldn't omit because it is so very common is the word "bloody". If you are angry about exams, you might scowl fiercely and spit out the expression "bloody exams!". It is also used as an adverbial expression as in: "I bloody told you the cops were gonna be there waitin for us." Curiously, English speakers are not aware of any reference whatsoever to the contents of their circulatory systems when they use these expressions, so the words here have no use as words which refer to something in the world. Their value on these occasions is entirely expressive.

These are all interesting expressions, but the foreigner must exercise a high degree of caution when using them. They can lead to misunderstandings with very unpleasant consequences, particularly if the other guy is drunk. To be on the safe side it would be best to avoid swearing at anyone unless they start swearing at you first, or unless the other guy is sitting in an office behind bullet-proof glass, like those guys who work in banks and unemployment benefit offices. But even then we would try to dissuade you from taking this course of action. What's happening in the banks and the unemployment offices or whatever may be really pissing you off, but are the little guys on the front line the ones to blame? They're just doing their job - a job they probably don't even want to do. The world is fucked up enough as it is, and we don't help matters by swearing at each other.