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In search of redress


Julian Baggini

<em>Profile Books, 224pp, £12.99</em>

Complaint, like so much else, isn't what it used to be. The subtitle of Julian Baggini's book states that it deals with both "minor moans" and "principled protests", the latter a field in which Britain used to lead the world. Now, however, complaint is thought to be so futile, so absurd that "grumpy" people are a subject of comedy. Baggini, editor of the Philosophers' Magazine and author of the provocative and charming The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten, seeks to reclaim complaint from its "debased" state, which, he says, has come about because "people tend to complain about the wrong things for the wrong reasons . . . I hope to demonstrate that complaint can be constructive."

Baggini's hope would be thought laughably unnecessary in the United States, where, as he observes, complaints are more likely to be made in public and to an authority that can effect change than in England. (As he doesn't say, the word "moan", as a contemptuous synonym for "complain", even with obvious justification, is unknown in America, as is the defence "No one's ever complained before".) This has, he states, a great deal to do with American optimism/utopianism versus English realism/fatalism, depending on how you see it. But Baggini, as elsewhere in this disappointingly shallow book, doesn't go far enough. Beneath much of the English reluctance to complain forcefully is class consciousness. Complaint means advertising one's failure - the complainer is seen as lacking not only the money or position to get what he wants, but the good sense to be resigned and inconspicuous. And courtesy, in England, has been for so long confused with submissiveness that many still feel it rude to protest at bad behaviour and incompetence.

Baggini wants us to complain to the right people about things that can and should be changed and to confine grumbling about the immutable to an occasional, cosy catharsis with friends. Among the readers he is trying to convert are those engaged in political debates marred by "cod Chomskyism", a distortion of what Noam Chomsky "actually" says. Adherents of this fishy philosophy think that the United S tates is an omnipotent, evil bully. (This must pain Chomsky very much.) Baggini points out that no state can succeed in all its aims, although, given that the United States is the most powerful nation, and its politicians "are not incorruptible . . . an attitude of suspicion is entirely fitting." Which is not to say one should be paranoid about America. On the other hand, paranoiacs are sometimes right. This is an argument so balanced it is practically immobile - in effect, it says, it is unreasonable to assume that the US is always wrong; 92 per cent of the time is probably more like it.

Here, as in other instances, Baggini is devoted to the newspaper editor's most revered quality: the appearance of fairness. To achieve it, he is willing to use moral blackmail. "Accepting that people are different seems to be so hard," Baggini sighs. "We much prefer to believe they are inferior." He continues: "Music is perhaps the prime example of this." There are many words one could substitute for that "perhaps", such as "not", but let's go on. Classical-music lovers, he says, are wrong to despise funk fans because "there are no reasonable criteria of what makes some music better than others, nor any evidence that musical taste is a marker of good moral character" - indeed, there is "the stark empirical fact that all sorts of nasty, immoral human beings have been musical connoisseurs". OK, but if Hitler got on the bus I still wouldn't expect him to blast Wagner at everyone.

Baggini even falls at the philosopher's first hurdle: defining one's terms. A recently retired man, Ed, complains that "women are no longer "ladylike"; Baggini has "a lot of sympathy for people like Ed, who may be "too long in the tooth to change"; his discomfort, however, is less important than "gains for women". But does Ed object to women openly telling him he is wrong, or to women who are drunk, promiscuous and violent? To conduct that mildly affects his amour propre, or to that which is socially destructive and expensive? As with his taste in music, Baggini assumes his readers are People Like Him, who will make the same assumptions with the same patronising sanctimony.

Baggini's grasp of social history is also shaky. "The decline in religious conviction," he says, led to the belief that one ought to have all one's desires fulfilled. "Once you believe there is no higher authority dishing out life's goods, it is a small psychological step to thinking that you are entitled to anything you want." This is nonsense. The class system, more than anything, repressed ambition, but it was countered, at least in theory, by the idea that one was entitled to all one could earn and manage wisely. In the past few decades, however, "earning" has given way to "deserving," the deserving became everybody, and nearly everything that was wanted/ deserved was considered to be justified. The main agent of this change has been an increase in prosperity, not a decline in religion - George Orwell, in the Thirties, would ridicule the idea that religion, for many generations, had had any effect on the behaviour of the English.

Even if Baggini did not so often confuse egocentricity with objectivity, Complaint would suffer from his emphasis on reason. He writes as if rationality were all one needed to understand and master this highly emotive subject. But when black Americans wanted to end segregation and lynching, when women wanted the vote, years of rational argument got them only smiles and nods. It took sacrifice and terror to make the powerful guilty and frightened enough to concede. Baggini may have wanted to demonstrate the virtue of complaint, but by offering priggishness, rather than passion, he fails to convince.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Labour: How to save the party