Michael Appleton - student, Cambridge

Friday, May 28, 2004


Arriving in Cambridge last October was a little intimidating. Everyone would be so smart! The academics would have towering intellects and would see right through my superficially-educated, journalistically-inclined self! Most of the university colleges would be older than my country! What history! What wisdom! I am told that these are common insecurities of students from post-colonial societies, coming back to "the source" with feelings of reverence and awe. These sentiments lasted about five minutes, until I got talking to fellow students and academics who seemed so, well, normal. Intelligent, intellectually curious and rigorous, to be sure, but not out of this world.

I am not doing a "traditional" British masters, but one with a taught component - which means you do coursework and pass exams before embarking on a scaled-back thesis. Taught masters are all the rage these days, in part because they are more attractive to professionals. The most challenging (and baffling) of the courses I took was entitled "History of Thought in International Relations", led by Dr Jonathan Haslam of Corpus Christi College - a historian with eclectic interests and a biting wit. His seminars were alone worth coming to Cambridge for; he would stand in front of us for two and a half hours, without notes, take us back several centuries, and tell us an enchanting story. The whole point of his three-month course was to drum into us the motto: "text and context". That is, you cannot understand a piece of writing (the text) in isolation from the circumstances in which it was written (the context); but nor should text be understood as being somehow a mere product of context. It's not text or context; it's not context explains text; rather, the two form a mysterious, intangible, fascinating dialectic and it is the job of historians to enlighten that relationship. In my mind, there are two kinds of contexts: societal and personal. The former turns on what was happening in the world when a work was written. The latter involve what the writer had personally experienced up until the moment he wrote the work in question. This second kind of context - in fashionable parlance, an author's (or politician's or whoever's) "backstory" or "personal narrative" - is regularly evoked when discussion is entered into of someone's art.

I was thinking about all this when I read some of the media reaction to Michael Moore's victory at Cannes. I was in France when the announcement was made; inevitably, the lumbering American sounded more sophisticated when dubbed into French. Back in England, discussion (on TV, radio, and in the papers) has re-started about to what extent Moore's awkward relationship with the truth should disqualify him as a documentarian, and about whether his "biography" is congruent with the causes he claims to champion. I have lost count of how many times I have read snide remarks about Moore preaching to millions about the evils of rich fat cats and in the process becoming one himself. The inference is that this is obviously hypocritical, though I find it hard to understand why. Is it even conceivable for someone in today's (Western) world to reach millions with such a message (i.e. that conspicuous capitalism is bad for the working classes) without becoming wealthy doing so? Isn't reaching people in an atomised, consumer society only possible by (directly or indirectly) creating a product that they will want to buy (or vote for)? Maybe the point is that Moore should, once he has made all this money, use it in better ways than he does; in reality, he owns very expensive properties in exclusive neighbourhoods, and (gasp!) sends his daughter to a private school.

Similar questions have been asked of Australian philosopher Peter Singer, whose views on the obligations of the rich to the poor are uncomfortably extreme for anyone with much money. More famous for his defence of animal rights (a utilitarian, Singer argues that our inclinations to privilege human well-being over the well-being of other animals is "speciesist"), the Princeton-based philosopher believes that one should use one's resources to maximise happiness and minimise suffering. Whether that suffering is happening to a relative or someone you don't know on the other side of the world is "morally irrelevant", he says. This is his way into arguing for huge redistributive policies from rich countries and peoples to poor ones. So, money you spend on getting your children into a good school should really be spent on trying to alleviate poverty in sub-Saharan Africa, say. But a New Yorker profile in 1999 pointed out that Singer hadn't in fact lived up to his lofty principles: he had started to spend a lot of money on having expensive medical treatment for his ailing mother. Said Singer, "Perhaps it is more difficult than I thought before, because it is different when it's your mother."

One can fairly criticise Singer for this, because his whole philosophical platform is built on the idea of following stringent guidelines, even when doing so is hard and goes against your natural (or at least socialised) urges to privilege those you love. But while Moore holding himself up as a man of the people, and mentioning his dubious working class roots at every turn, might rankle (and while his last documentary was ultimately so manipulative I felt intellectually violated when I discovered the extent to which he had tricked me) going in search of tangential ways in which he might, in his life, be breaching principles he champions is no substitute for a critical appraisal of his work. Obviously, if Moore champions worker's rights in his films then treats his own employees badly, then that's rank hypocrisy. But, for example, so what if he's self-important and self-indulgent while apparently being all about the people who can't speak for themselves? Discovering that a successful artist is self-indulgent is about as earth shattering as observing that politicians want people to vote for them. What could be more self-indulgent than thinking the cultural products you produce are worth the time and money of thousands, nay, millions of people you don't know? It's hard to imagine how an artist, whatever their political persuasion, could be anything other than self-indulgent. All of which is to say simply that an artist's context should never be allowed to obscure his/her text. And journalists and columnists and commentators wishing to investigate the text/context dialectic should do so to provide illumination of motivation and meaning, not to cheaply and glibly bash artists for bald political reasons.