Cockroaches and lizards

Too rarely these days does anything come along in politics and make me laugh. The Economist did recently, in an almost friendly piece about the LibDems.

‘Cockroaches’, with their knack of survival, was how Tim Farron described his party after their success (to which it’s grown thoroughly unaccustomed in recent years) in the local elections earlier this month.

The Economist commented:

‘The wide ideological vote that has opened up between Labour and the Conservatives may make a vote for the LIbDems seem risky at the next election. …This leaves the LibDems with a dilemma. In “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” Douglas Adams described a planet on which lizards ruled over people, even though it was a democracy. People repeatedly voted for lizards because otherwise “the wrong lizard might get in”. The LibDems offer another way: forget the lizards, vote for cockroaches instead.’

Douglas Adams rules.

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At least that new ‘cockroach’ identity hides the word ’liberal’, which has been pilloried of late. Establishment liberals, free-market liberals, neo-liberals… any kinds of liberal. All pilloried. Let’s instead have state capitalism, Hungary-style, or China, for that matter – a strong leader trumps all. Or a populist leader, which is pretty much the same thing.

On the other hand … liberalism, in this country at least, has by tradition been associated with enterprise and social justice, working together. It had, and I believe still has, a clear focus. Think back to the great Liberal reforming administration which took office in 1906. There’s every benefit in re-establishing ourselves firmly in that tradition – 110 years on. Re-inventing, re-asserting the old label.

The Economist in the same issue has a review of an ‘arresting manifesto’ which it suggests might ‘help jolt liberals out of their hand-wringing, and shape a new line of market-oriented thinking’. There’s a wealth tax at its heart, with each individual declaring his or her own wealth, and being taxed on what they declare.

I for one am not wringing my hands. But I am looking for new ways of holding money to account. Wealth and/or property taxes might be part of that. So too can be making a clear distinction between wealth creators and wealth extractors – the massed array of middle men extracting value up the chain.

The rise of populism, Trumpism, the spectre of Brexit have focused our minds. But could this be no more than one of those jolts to the system – shocks if you will – by which capitalism moves ever onward? Capitalism with, more than ever, the social dimension uppermost. We have no choice but to make it work, and make it work for everyone.

So let’s put aside the hand-wringing. Recruiting a few new cockroaches would help. The headbangers to our left and right may yet drive the more reticent in our midst out into the open.

We can be old-style liberals, or new-style liberals (never neo-liberals). Pursuing as ever the hard work of making politics work for everyone, bringing together enterprise and social justice, opportunity and compassion.  Yes, we need to hang on to the name, no guilt, no hand-wringing, no apologies – for what else can we call ourselves?

 

Should we legalise drugs?

And now for something completely different – the use and possible legalisation of psychotropic (mind-changing) drugs. The novelist and sage, Will Self, pitches in heavily its favour in the May edition of Prospect.

In his words: ‘My inner-space travelling has helped me deal with lifelong depression, addiction and fear if death.’ He’s reviewing a book by Michael Pollan (How To Change Your Mind), a book ‘about how psychedelic [altering perception and awareness] drugs can be powerful tools for engineering life-changing experiences – ones that can ameliorate sadness, destructive habits and palliate the terminally ill; as well as teach us more about the nature of our being…’

Self speaks more specifically, from his own experience, of how ‘these extraordinary states of mind have also enabled me to experience both powerful feelings of biophilia [our natural tendency for closeness with nature, as described by EO Wilson in his book of that name], and the way the ‘reducing valve’ of the ego prevents us from apprehending the collective aspects of consciousness’.

‘The psychedelics in common with all sorts of other mind-bending compounds [he includes marijuana] are just too important to be left in hands of doctors – let alone shrinks.’

I’ve my own experience to draw on here. Drug use can indeed open ‘doors of perception’. I’ve explored that route myself. It can also go horribly wrong. I’m not in a position to argue, from my own knowledge and experience, for the therapeutic potential. But the arguments would seem to be strongly in its favour.  But only as therapy, not, as it seems Self is suggesting, as a way of opening up to a better way of life.

Let me describe my own experience of an acid trip (one of a number), from many many years ago. It stays with me, I learnt from it, but I could never imagine anything like it being part of daily life, for me, or anyone else. You’d be playing with fire. Trips can go, as I’ve said, horribly wrong.

‘Suddenly [I wrote] it all connects, there’s a euphoria as we overcome, it seems finally, the separateness of things, that artificial instinct we have for isolating ourselves and all the items in the world around us, giving them names and identities, instead of recognising that we all interweave, more than that there’s what the metaphysicians and mystics would call a one-ness or a suchness. We can rejoice in the contents and colour of a supermarket shelf, stand transfixed in the street as the church bells chime, love the grey weather, and the rain, we can hug our neighbour, love our enemy, love the wide world…’

I won’t describe here what it’s like when a trip goes wrong.  I’ve revisited it many times, without wishing to.

While an acid trip can open your eyes, and getting high can be a happy distraction, opening the mind is not about short cuts, or a regular ‘high’, and we hope a gentle plateauing down, until the next one lifts us up. Opening the mind about much more – about engaging with the present, the present moment, being wholly part of that moment.

It’s more than simply being mindful. I’m putting it, as you’d expect, given the name of this blog, in Zen terms. Opening the mind is about transforming the way you look at the world – your connection with people and with nature. It brings with it both wonder and joy. We counter the crises and disjunctions of our lives not with extraordinary and substance-induced diversions, but with something that’s woven into our lives – that takes us to who we really are.

The fantasy visions of psychotropia (as opposed to therapeutic use) can only be about playing games, and playing games is how conventional drug use is best described. The hardest lesson in modern society is, as it has ever been, but more than ever so today, that you don’t take short cuts.

 

Europe or America – too much ‘us against them’ – revised

Europe v America

Do you lean more to Europe or to the USA? What does your instinct tell you? I remember the question being posed in a radio debate a few years ago. It caught my attention then. It’s more than ever relevant now, as Brexit disparages and attempts to sideline Europe.

Why for so many is there an instinctive hostility to the EU? Is it just to the institution? Or does it reflect the way we engage with European culture and history? At a bumptious Boris Johnson ‘I can sing Ode to Joy’ level, or at a level more woven into our soul – into our identity?

Are we a European people, one of many, an outlier, but integral nonetheless? Or are we to all intents and purposes, though we wouldn’t admit it, the 51st state of the USA, just doing things a little differently.

We’re uneasy about the USA, it’s brashness, its noise, its superiority complex – but we go with it – it’s just, we feel, an exaggeration of our own character, the same substance, lacking the finesse. But they’re our comfort zone – not Europe.

Brexiteers by default lean to America, to trade agreements which will of ourse be on American terms. They hide this behind ‘global’ aspirations, and a maritime, ‘old Commonwealth’ identity.

I’d argue we are already global – and we are as engaged with the USA we need to be. Trump’s penalties for companies and banks breaking US-imposed sanctions against Iran underlines the point.

 

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Europe v the world

So we’ve widened it. It’s no longer Europe v America, it’s elided into Europe v ‘the world’. We’re going global! As if we need to assert one identity at the expense of another. I’m proud to be a citizen of the UK – of Europe – and of the world.

Fraser Nelson, editor of The Spectator, trespasses onto this territory when (I’m quoting from The Economist) he criticises liberal Tories such as [Amber] Rudd ‘for misinterpreting Brexit as a vote for closing the borders rather than embracing a more global future’.

There are countless other such statements. The likes of Nelson have set up and pursued a false dichotomy, pitching a European against ‘a global future’. We were there of course already. The Brexit strategy will indeed involve (the shenanigans of current Cabinet debate on the subject will go down in history as farce) some kind of closure of our border with Europe, against a pie-in-the-sky chance of signing trade deals with further-flung countries that offset the damage that closure will cause.

Countless pages, articles, tomes have been written on both sides of the argument. It’s that deeper and false sense of a divide that concerns me here. The Brexit debate, and Brexit supporters for decades before the 2016 vote, have polarised ‘European’ and ‘global’, pitched one against the other, and we’re digging the divide deeper all the time.

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Don’t for heaven’s sake claim you’re an intellectual

I’m hardly saying anything new but it’s also an anti-intellectual debate. Don’t rely on argument, rely on instinct – it’s become a matter of belief. There’s a new book out about the French intellectual (The End of the French Intellectual): at least France has had such a person as the public intellectual. A species who in this country should expect to get as little appreciation from the likes of the Daily Mail as members of the House of Lords or the judiciary.

Leaping across the pond, we have Scott Pruitt, head of the American Environmental Protection Agency, barring scientists who have received federal grants from the EPA from sitting on boards advising the EPA on the grounds of ‘conflict of interest’. There are no restrictions on scientists who work for the industries the EPA monitors. Again, independence of mind is under threat.

And finally, that Ruth Lea, a long-time public figure, arguing that ‘the economics ‘establishment’, including the Treasury, were utterly wrong-footed by our economic performance after the Brexit vote in June 2016′. The economics ‘establishment’ – ‘commissariat’ is another term I’ve seen used. In other words, the great majority of economists. Maybe Ruth Lea hasn’t noticed how our performance has significantly lagged the rest of Europe – and taken on board the reluctance abroad not to let the UK slide too far – for in whose interests is that? Yes, arguments were too apocalyptic, attempting to match the Brexiteers’ approach of promising the earth.

The way is still down, it’s just taking far more turnings. As long as we inhabit this falsely polarised world that won’t change.

Identity without the politics

This is a revised version of the original blog. I wrote it without a thought for the current obsession with identity politics. But that’s the context in which it will be read. I also realised that I was touching on a subject of vast not to say unlimited dimension.

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One exercise I tried recently, in the form of a poem (a good way of bringing thoughts into focus): putting myself in the position of what I’m not – a black man – or woman, any category of outsider. Race or gender. White English males born post-war in Manchester have never had their status challenged.

I’ve never had to get out there and assert my identity.

I’ve been a hippy and a rebel. I still believe in the change-the-world positive politics of comradeship and optimism. Never a communist or even a serious left-winger. But still with the belief that we (who are we, I wonder?) could change the world.

I’ve always been in a position to opt in and opt out of identities. On the other hand there have been personal crises,  which could have shattered that sense of self-belief and identity. An innate optimism has always seen me through.

Maybe that’s why I reacted sharply when Jon Cruddas in a recent review (Prospect April 2018) of a book on low-wage Britain referred to the need better to understand ‘our deepening sense of national decay’. I’m with Cruddas all the way on the subject of low wages and labour relations. What struck me is that reference to ‘national decay’. That could be the subject of a book let alone a blog. Suffice it to say that I see  it as a negative identity, looking back not forward, suggestions of a better, even a golden age. Identities, surely, have to respond to immediate circumstance, however much conditioned they are by the past, and to look forward.

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I’ve no simple conclusions to offer on the subject of identity. But I will offer up two other radically different identities. Two Americans, the poet, Charles Olsen, and the writer and journalist, Ta-Nehisi Coates. Positive or negative hardly comes in to it. These are identities born of circumstance – of war and discrimation.

Olsen was writing immediately after the end of the Second World War, when the world was first confronted by the horrors of Buchenwald. Man has only ‘one point of resistance… one organised ground, a ground he comes to by way of the precise contrary of the cross, of spirit in the old sense, of old myths’ …In his body lies the answer, ‘his body intact and fought for, the absolute of his organism in its simplest terms, this structure evolved by nature…’ (A Charles Olsen Reader, Carcanet 2005)

This is raw and angry. Today is Maundy Thursday, and I will be taking part in church services tonight and maybe tomorrow. The cross can also be angry.

There’s another experience, absolutely of our time, but with a long and tragic history. The black, the Afro-American experience, in the USA. I’ve been Coates’s marvellous book, We Were Eight Years in Power. (Reference eight years of Obama, eight years of a black president.) How after the Civil War was over, the ‘now-defeated god lived on, honoured through the human sacrifice of lynchings and racial pogroms’. Malcolm X took up the way of defiance. But there’s more than the edifice of white superiority to defy, to bring down, there’s also that deep-rooted sense of ‘white innocence’, a term that’s new to me, but which resonates. Obama at all stages sought as president to re-assure the white man – white voters, but many, swathes of the American right, could not be re-assured because part of their American identity was and is being white, and part of the wider identity of America itself was – and is – white. Black Americans, as Coates puts it, have to work twice as hard.

Ta-Nehisi Coates I find inspiring. Full stop. No ideology. But something radical to fight for. (And a direct challenge to any white man – he doesn’t have to be American.) Olsen was hard-core, of the moment, rejecting all elements of the spiritual – a sense that you only had yourself. No existentialist angst. Just a rawness.

There’s another angle on the subject. There’s a small but powerful exhibition in the cloisters of Gloucester Cathedral, which I saw after I wrote the main part of this post. It focuses on the homeless and mental health, and includes a few sparse and telling quotations.

Identity, their personal identity, is simply what they can’t face. Better to hide or run away from it.

 

Looking out over the ocean in the small hours

Saturn and Mars are in Sagittarius, above the centaur’s bow targeting its arrow at the scorpion’s heart. The ocean lies below: follow it in a straight line beyond Scorpio and there’d be no disturbance before Antarctica.

The stars sit in their own perfect harmony, and long ago we imposed our own small skirmishes. Another centaur (there are two centaurs in the sky, Sagittarius and Centaurus – blame the Greeks and the Sumerians, each with their own stories), low and to the right of the scorpion’s whiplash, prepares to kill, aiming a spear at the heart of the wolf (the constellation Lupus).

Adjacent to the scorpion’s head lies Jupiter. Extending down behind them runs the Milky Way. Above lie the eagle, lyre and swan. They rest easy in the skies, as if disdainful of the violence.

The proximity of Jupiter, Mars and Saturn to each other tonight is a happy accident.

All the while, on the low rugged cliffs below, the shearwaters call, groan and wail into the night, I’m told it’s a mating call, an unreal sound, owing out of the silence. There seems to be no special time of night for the shearwater. They open up when they will, only quieten as dawn approaches.

Last night there was a small church service, maybe eight people singing hymns to tunes on a soft harmonium which had a quiet almost valedictory quality. The average age of the audience would be late seventies, and the lady leading the service of similar antiquity. I thought maybe unkindly that it wouldn’t be too long before they were joining the silence of ocean and sky.

As I write the Turks are strengthening their hold on Afrin, and under semi-desert skies the stars I’m watching now circle as they have done on timescales unimaginable to human conflict. I chanced last night (ask not why) on descriptions of the burying alive of whole armies by the victors in the period of the Warring States which ended in the victory of the Qin dynasty. We’re talking of China, over two thousand years ago.

The Chinese poet LiPo caught the same mood:

The bright moon lifts from the Mountain of Heaven/In an infinite haze of cloud and sea,/And the wind, that has come a thousand miles,/Beats at the Jade Pass battlements…./China marches its men down Baideng Road/While Tartar troops peer across blue waters of the bay….

A point of difference: no moon tonight. And no Tartar hordes.

A satellite on a circumpolar orbit moves slowly overhead, flashing maybe every five seconds, the brightest object in the sky. I assume it’s rotating slowly, with a mirror side that picks up the sun’s rays.

Other nights there have been small single-manned fishing boats out on the night ocean, revealing themselves every so often by a bright light, soon extinguished.

The stars circle on a time scale imaginable to modern man, and millennia ago we placed our own small-scale conflicts in the sky, bearing arrows and spears, taking on the scorpion , keeping it well away from the heels it could sting. Modern conflict is brutal and earthbound, and has no place other than the hard earth, and the dust of the debris.

Irreversibility – and the British experience

History is, arguably, about continuity, but there are discontinuities, irreversible events which turn countries and civilisations before their due time.

Take, for example, the sudden and irreversible though predictable demise of Constantinople, taken down by the scimitars of the Ottomans, the last great assertion of Islamic power which finally ended before the gates of Vienna in 1685. 1685 could have been another irreversible event. Almost a thousand years before, what if the Muslim invader had won at Poitiers in 735?

What of Carthage, Nineveh, and many another ancient city, destroyed by invaders who tore down walls and buildings determined that none should rise again? The Sassanid empire, its borders and eminence taken over by Islam. ….

The slow demise of empires, most famously the Roman Empire, frontiers slowly eroded. Empires that had long sown their own seeds of destruction. We could add Christian Russia, or the Chinese empire under the Qing dynasty. ….

Countries, or, better, peoples, which we might consider blameless, who suffered in the backwash of history, Hungary, at Versailles in 1919, Greece post 1922. Hungary had the misfortune to be second string in a great and tired empire. Greece thought its moment had come, invaded Asia Minor, and reaped a whirlwind.

Greece’s was a catastrophic error of judgement. So too the British attempt to regain control of the Suez Canal in 1956. If any event symbolises the end of the British Empire, that was it.

And we have another, a very British category. Humdrum by comparison. We could argue a British speciality. Self-willed catastrophic errors of judgement. Misreading the current world order and our place in it, and misreading history, cocooned within notions of imperial sway and influence which simply are no more, failing to recognise that we operate today within spheres of influence, economic and political.

The current vehicle for such unwisdom – one could say stupidity – a referendum. Which by definition is irreversible. Maybe the greatest British contribution to the world has been reversibility. Policy has to persuade, cannot be implemented by diktat, can always be reversed. Compare Xi Jinping, Erdogan, Putin, all with their own imperial aspirations.

We gave to the world, and we now take away, by our own hand.

Spring, Michele Hanson, Pinker, Kahneman, Brexit, Ursula LeGuin – a few one-sentence blogs

Time is pressing and I’m off on holiday to an island where I’ll face south across the ocean and follow the sun, and climb up to the cloud forest behind. But there are blogs that I’ve wanted to write. So I thought – how about a blog of single sentence. (Max two, but you’ll see how this expands.)

Brexit: in his speech to his party’s spring conference yesterday, LibDem leader Vince Cable argued that “nostalgia for a world where passports were blue, faces were white and the map was coloured imperial pink” had driven some older voters to Brexit. In response to the uproar from some in the Tory ranks I’d simply say that some truths are self-evident – and add the reminder that without anti-immigrant sentiment Brexit would have been decisively defeated.

Michele Hanson: the Guardian columnist died a few days ago, after 34 years (I think) of writing a column for the Guardian. I knew her a little back in the 70s, we had mutual friends, and I’ve caught up today with a few of the columns I didn’t read, and found them both downbeat and upbeat, wise, warm and rather wonderful – whether she’s writing on care homes, dogs, family, personal hygiene – she engaged so many people with moments and issues in life they could connect with.

At the other extreme my old bete noir, the fluffy-white-haired guru Steven Pinker, paired in this instance with the 18th century Scottish genius-philosopher, David Hume, whom Pinker neglects to mention when talking about the enlightenment – and who stated clearly and succinctly that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions”. In other words, don’t give reason space which it oughtn’t to have – give it, I’d argue, shared space, let one inform the other, and take both out beyond our private lives into the public sphere.

Thoughts from Tim Harford in the FT, quoting Daniel Kahneman: “When faced with a difficult question we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution.” In the case of the referendum the difficult question being “Should the UK remain in the EU”, and the easier substitution “Do I like the way this country is going”.

The last item was two sentences – so I’m adding a third from Harford as a separate item – a rather obvious cheat. “No voter can master every issue … referendums instead invite us to ignore the question, give the snake-oil peddlars an edge, concentrate our ignorance into a tightly-focused beam, and hold nobody accountable for results.” Right on.

For something completely different … Alexander Harris in the Tate Etc Magazine: “So I became a collector of early autumn evenings. In the ancient analogy … the time of youth is spring. But I remember only one or two spring days from my childhood – it is all autumn: the orange of the late crocosmia flowers meets the spotted yellow fringes of hawthorn leaves; blue skies deepen above glowing stone walls, and then it all softens to a yellowy grey haze…” That set me thinking, and I only half-agree, and maybe that’s because my pre-eminent spring memory is of a day in May walking in the Cheshire hills with my first girlfriend, and spring was suffused with birdsong and a funny feeling of elation, of walking on air, that I’ve never quite recaptured …

(Treating Alexander Harris’ quote as one sentence …)

A quote from Neil Collins, an old-friend from the 70s who I haven’t seen in maybe forty years, in the FT, in the context of the collapse of Toys R Us and Maplins: “Is yours a zombie company… [zombie being] defined as a company that has failed to earn its interest cost for two consecutive years and is valued at less than three times sales. …[The Deutsche Bank] comprehensive analysis of the world’s 3000 biggest businesses implies that more of them [this year than last] have discovered a strategy for survival – [instead of just] clinging on, merely waiting a mercy killing from rising interest rates.” Two reasons for including: one, a reminder to me and anyone who enjoys abstruse speculation that there’s a hard business world out there, and if we choose to rant against capitalism we have to remember how bloody hard and ruthless the business world is  … and, two, whatever’s happening in High Street retail, things are getting slightly better – are they???

Rediscovering Ursula LeGuin, someone else who’s died recently: there’s a new book which collects together her non-fiction, ‘Dreams Must Explain Themselves’. She had Taoist beliefs … that established an instant bond – the Tao, or Dao, the way, is the wisest, simplest yet most all-encompassing of notions; and she admired Calvino, Borges, Woolf, Twain, Tolstoy and Tolkien. And how about: “To think that realistic fiction is by definition superior to imaginative fiction is to think that imitation is superior to invention.” I’ll add my own comment – never curtail that sense of wonder, of fantasy and myth – walk on the wild as well as the wise side.

Four sentences. Time to exit.