Looking out over the ocean in the small hours

Saturn and Mars are in Sagittarius, above the archer’s outstretched arm which targets its arrow at the scorpion’s heart. There is no logic in the skies. The silence is all-pervading. The ocean lies beneath: 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 we impose a curious violence. The centaur (there are two centaurs in the sky, Centaurus and Sagittarius – the archer is a centaur), 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; it is further south, toward the horizon, where the action lies.

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 groan and bark into the night, plaintiff, to the human ear almost a cry of longing, a cry for help , an unreal sound, and intermittent. 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. Go quietly into the night, and join the silence of ocean and sky.

All the while the Turks are strengthening their hold on Afrin, and under the 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. Looking now to the stars I’m left with a powerful sense of the unreality of it all.

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.

Anger, #MeToo, charities and a whole lot else

Too much anger out there. Too many hardened positions. We’ve focused down on issues which polarise, divide families. If it came to war, would we fight each other? We did in our own English civil war, in the USA, in the Balkans.

We’re never so confident in our own opinions, if we’re on our own, most of us anyway. But find support within a group, and there’s an identifiable ‘severity shift’ to use the term that Daniel Kahneman and others have applied. And it’s not just opinions: ‘We don’t know how we feel until we see how other people feel.’ (Tim Harford, FT.) Feelings and opinions are elided.

Opinions and feelings have always differed radically, but we’ve mostly kept our more extreme opinions to ourselves. Not least our xenophobic attitudes. But post 2016, post referendum, post Trump, the gloves are off. Referenda are yes and no, and no comeback. You’re the victor or the loser. No live-to-fight-another-day – no next election four or five years down the road. And Trump – it could have been a referendum, was a referendum, on two ever more polarised approaches to life. We’re also now feeding off America. We’ve our own rust belt, though we’re spared the bible belt.

We’ve happily talked of social groups down the years. Now we talk of tribes. Tribal loyalties. Without the common ground the share space inbetween politics is a whole lot more risky. And if money piles in…

I’m thinking race, refugees, immigration, resistance to globalisation, ideas of sovereignty…

But there are other issues, including gender, sex and charities, out there, generating strong opinions, new divisions, new solidarities, and the press piling in often with little regard for rational examination or perspectives.

#MeToo – we have Weinstein, a serial offender. We have Woody Allen put alongside him, on the basis of an offence where he’s been cleared by two enquiries. Which isn’t to say he’s not guilty… But he is being damned by association. Likewise his films.

But – as a man – this is one issue where I tread carefully. The severity shift (see above) is reaping big dividends. When the individual is reinforced by the group, and finds space to speak out as they never did before. Sometimes this works for good. Minor offenders get swept up, but it was ever thus.

But what of charities, and Oxfam in particular? Damned out of sight by many, reported as if sex and charity were interwoven. Aid workers generally, not least Oxfam aid workers, do extraordinary work, under sometimes extreme conditions. The same human impulses, individuals mapping out their own space, finding a role, exercising power – they will always exist. Sex is another matter altogether. Oxfam in the Haiti case dealt with that, but not ruthlessly enough. But who imagined running an aid agency was easy? This is not for a moment to excuse – but it is to argue for, to demand, that we employ perspective, and not ride too readily with an eye-catching story.

There’s another side to this of course – the excuse it’s given to many with axes to grind on the subject of foreign aid to pile in, using scandal to try and subvert the whole process – arguing that countries would be better off without subventions from outside, without the help of aid workers. There have long been arguments over how aid should be distributed – whether through governments, or channelled direct to local industries, at one level – and as emergency relief, at another level. The sex scandal is now being used to attack the whole aid edifice. We’re back to the closed border, devil-take-the-refugees, approach that corrupted Brexit.

I argued in my last blog for reason and the pursuit of reason, and the importance of compassion to drive that pursuit. I fear reason is being misapplied, and compassion is running short. But that of course is one trouble with ‘reason’. It can be used to support both sides in an argument. The more we know about a subject often means not a wiser more balanced view, but a more strident approach – the information you choose and use to support your argument has been gathered for just that purpose. It’s called confirmation bias.

I argued in my recent post on Orwell for perspective and self-awareness. But they are in short supply just now. Confirmation bias has always been out there, but surely never as stridently as now.

Is reason enough?

(References are to Steven Pinker’s new book, ‘Enlightenment Now: A Manifesto for Science, Reason, Humanism and Progress’, and Philip Ball’s excellent review of the book in the March edition of Prospect. Also to Philip Dodd who took on Pinker is a determined interview on the Radio 3 Free Thinking programme.)

A brief weather note to begin. Spring we thought might almost be upon us, but Siberia has chased it away, and the snowdrops are looking a little out of place, and the daffodils have all but gone to earth.

So too reason? And, specifically, the pursuit of reason in political argument and debate?

I’m reading so much about identity, culture wars, anger and estrangement – and now with Steven Picker’s new book, the Enlightenment is in the news. How can I not be a big fan? The rigorous application of reason brought to bear on all aspects of our activities. As advocated by Diderot, author of the Encyclopedie, the seminal text of the Enlightenment.

Sleep of reason

Goya’s The Sleep of Reason, ‘the sleep of reason produces monsters’, from his series of etchings, Los Caprichos, 1799.

But has the Enlightenment also gone to earth? Pinker thinks not – argues powerfully against.

I’d love to sign up unreservedly to his paean to progress – things are getting better, as the statistics and graphs tell us, incontrovertibly so – we are all living longer, better educated, immeasurably better off if we take the world as a whole. But what troubles me is his ‘aversion to anything subjective’, as Philip Ball puts in his review. Pinker denies religion any role, likewise identity, tribal identity – and that means shared beliefs in progress, humanity, compassion, sometimes God. He has no place for out-there institutions, places of worship, and the collective action they often embody – action against poverty, hardship, exclusion – inspired by and acting out of love. Compassion, as I argued in a post of a few years back, discussing Pinker’s last book, The Better Angels Of Our Nature, doesn’t get a look in.

Can reason be enough of itself to triumph over violence?

For Pinker man is ‘born into a pitiless universe [and] shaped by a force that is ruthlessly competitive’. Only reason can hold out against this. And reason finds expression in democracy as the most effective way to gain traction. Thomas Hobbes had a similar view of mankind, but saw our only hope as lying in contracting with an autocratic ruler. With Xi Jinping seeking president-and-party-leader-for-life status we’ve a good example of that alternative path closer to hand. Turkey likewise, and Hungary and Poland moving in that direction.

Reason simply isn’t enough on its own. It’s not solus reason that’s leading the charge, it’s religion, and reason together, and by religion (a maybe controversial definition!) I mean the exercise – the acting out – of an innate compassion, a rather un-Darwinian concept. Not just the compassion of mother to child, or a care worker to her charges, or a priest or minister toward his congregation, but compassion as an innate moral code that informs the wider political workings of society.

Pinker’s right in there, unworried about his PC status, arguing that the left, supposedly champions of the working-class and the left-behind, has focused too much on issues of sexual and cultural identity – and lost connection with the old working class. Marx is excluded from the pantheon but Hobbes indeed is one of the good guys. Fascinating as intellectual debate, but where is the connection with the everyday?

Reason is too chill to excite, too cerebral to inspire (unless you’re Pinker). We are where we are today because the passion and compassion of reformers, secular and religious, has consistently challenged enterprise and competition – to the benefit of all. Championing education, social welfare, safety nets in time of need. It’s when society believes in and acts out a shared morality that we move forward.

Pinker has run himself into hot water in recent weeks arguing that inequality isn’t a major issue for our times – the majority worldwide is in our times so much better off – but inequality is a key driver of social action. Inequality is tied in with a sense of being left behind, on the outside. There’s a big poker game running, but it’s (the UK) down south, or (the USA) up in the north-east, or out on the West Coast, and I’m not invited.

If society isn’t inclusive, if it isn’t compassionate, those who perceive themselves as excluded will set themselves up as ‘the majority’, will scale down compassion to actions within their own social group, and society will polarise, and nations seek out their own identities, and close borders, and all the grand tenets of the Enlightenment will be even more confined to discussion among academics.

This zenpolitics blog is about strategies for living, if that doesn’t sound too grand – I’ve summarised them before as enterprise and compassion, social justice and capability. Yes, there’s a violent side to all our natures, but it’s more our competitive instinct that dominates and drives society forward. Violence arises when we push back selfish boundaries too far.

Compassion and competition work together. If competition is centrifugal, tearing apart, at its extremes, violence, then compassion is the opposite, it is the instinct that binds – and it is innate. Pinker would scorn such notions.

Pinker’s wonderful to listen to – he signed my copy of Better Angels at a Royal Society of Arts talk some five years ago, and we had a few words back then. (Our subject – was war inevitable in 1914?) But his argument hasn’t the essential motor, the sine qua non, to progress.

It will fire the campus and the book pages. But beyond?

Slow investing, slow news

As an advocate of ‘slow news’ it was good to read Tim Harford’s article on ‘slow investing’ in the Weekend FT. He argues that ‘most investors should operate closer to the six-month timescale than to the frenetic fast-twitch world in which a coffee break lasts an eternity’.

Slow news – what do I mean by that? Maybe not six months (though I have tried a month, walking the Camino in Spain) – but always go for the long perspective, avoid the cumulative effect of ‘fast-twitch’ hourly fixes. And treat the big daily bulletins with caution: they’re no more than what takes the news editors’ fancy on any one day.

Likewise investment. Check your portfolio everyday and the pain of the downs tends, according to Harford, to outweigh the joy of the ups. There’s more reason to smile if you check less frequently: good years for investors happen almost three times more often than bad years.

(Check out Delayed Gratification magazine, published by the Slow Journalism Company.)

We obsess with detail. ‘To single out one murder during a battle where there is one person killed very minute would make little sense.’ (Quoted by Harford in his article.) Morally it does of course – we lose sight of the immediacy of violence if we treat the victims as a collective entity. On the other hand, we lose the bigger picture, and we become inured to violence by the endless repetition.

Detail obscures reality. The 2009 expenses scandal was arguably as much a media as a political scandal – a drip-feed of news day-by-day by media owners pursuing their own agenda. The Brexit campaign was (and still is) all about emotive soundbites obscuring the real picture.

I’d originally included comments about the scandal involving Oxfam employees in Haiti, but I’ve taken them down: who knows where truth lies. Enough to say, I’m treating headlines and assertions with caution, and not rushing to judgement.

But should I be making judgements? Slow news can’t be a pretext for disengagement. The zenpolitics blog has always been about engaging directly with the world, and yet maintaining balance. Upekkha in Sanskrit – equaninimity. It’s a tough act.


Elsewhere in the FT there an obit of an American cyber-libertarian, one John Perry Barlow. For one, I love the idea of a cyber-libertarian. I’m not certain it’s for me, but I covet the name. He wrote of the death of his fiancée in 1994: ‘All hope has at times seemed unjustified to me. But groundless hope, like unconditional love, is the only kind worth having.’

That strikes a chord. Ride the daily news roundabout, and what hope are we left with? I don’t want to get into arguments about whether the world is getting better or worse. But take hope as watchword, take a long-term view, plan for the long term, avoid the news obsessed doom-mongerers – take hope, even irrational hope, as a watchword, and we will do a damn sight better than over-obsessing with the everyday.

George Orwell – lessons for a post-truth world

How do you define an essay, and how does an essay differ from a blog, or an article by a newspaper columnist?

Bernard Crick in his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition (published in 2000)  of George Orwell’s essays attempts a definition: it can be moral, didactic and serious … it can be informal and flexible, ‘above all it leaves the reader in some uncertainty about what is going to be said next’.

By comparison so much contemporary discourse is predictable: read a blog, your favourite blog, and you’ve a good idea what it might say.

Orwell as we all do had favourite themes (though he often surprises), but he approaches them in ways that are never tedious or predictable. The Prevention of Literature begins at a PEN Club meeting, ostensibly celebrating John Milton and freedom of the press, where none of the speakers highlight that freedom of the press means the freedom to criticise and oppose. (Two speakers eulogise the Soviet Union.) Antisemitism in Britain begins with specific examples (‘No, I do not like the Jews … Mind you, I’m not anti-Semitic, of course’), Politics and the English Language with passages which exemplify ‘a few of the bad habits which spread by imitation’, and How the Poor Die takes off on a harrowing journey based on his own experience in Hopital X in Paris in 1929.

The greatest joy in reading Orwell is his lucidity – and the sheer breadth of his experience and reading. (In Books v Cigarettes he owns to having just 442 books, and yet his range of reference and quotation is remarkable. There were of course always libraries.) His essays are models – and reminders – for our own time, as they were for the 1940s.

Likewise his conclusions. ‘The Catholic and Communist are alike in assuming that an opponent cannot both be honest and intelligent.’ We no longer have a Russian ‘mythos’ (‘true individuality is only attained through identification with the community’) but we have ‘mythos’ which are all our own, and a society which in recent years has become more divided and less tolerant.

We don’t play with ideologies as they did in Orwell’s time. But we tailor what we say or write, more dangerously, we tailor what we think, to received notions, put identity and security before intellectual challenge.  ‘A bought mind’, now as then, ‘is a spoilt mind.’

Orwell continues: ‘Unless spontaneity enters at some point or another literary creation is impossible, and language itself becomes ossified.’ What applies to literature also applies to politics.

What we also get from Orwell is a portrayal of the mood of his times, the anxieties of a wartime and immediately post-war would where one spectre of totalitarianism has been removed but another is asserting itself ever more strongly, good minds all around Orwell are signing up, and tempering their beliefs and writing to what they deem a higher cause. Orwell doesn’t question the aim, the emancipation of the working class, but is adamant that Soviet Russia isn’t the vehicle by which that might be achieved.

(We also pick up on his anxieties about a post-Christian, avowedly humanist society, where socialism as as an ideal, as an alternative to the afterlife, has been compromised, maybe fatally.)

Totalitarian regimes require misinformation, they write and re-write their own histories (pro-Soviet intellectuals were caught out by the 1939 German/Soviet pact, and caught out again when Germany invaded Russia in 1941). But apologists for Russia weren’t the only enemy.

‘Any writer or journalist who wants to retain his integrity finds himself thwarted by the general drift of society rather than active persecution.’ Examples include ‘the concentration of the press in the hands of a few rich men, the grip of monopoly radio and films, the unwillingness of the public to spend money on books…’

Misinformation in our own time has been well-disguised: it’s about how the news is framed and who does the framing – about how we, as watchers and listeners and readers with it, are manipulated. But post-Brexit, post-Trump, in the recent German election, it’s out in the open. Which side is putting out ‘fake news’?

Many of the essays were written for Tribune, and that meant a left-wing and intellectual audience. I’d guess that Orwell would love to have written for a wider audience, to have hustled in alongside a newspaper magnate (or maybe not!) as Michael Foot did with Beaverbrook in the 1930s, or better still find popular media outlets that weren’t in the hands of rich men. 1984 and Animal Farm, written at the same time as the Tribune essays, did of course break through, but at the level of the educated middle- not working-class. So the best Orwell could do, the best he could hope for, was to influence other writers, other opinion-formers, to lay out a course between the intolerancies of the Tory (and Catholic, as he saw it) right and the radical and Sovietised left.

He does this with grace and precision at the conclusion of his essay of antisemitism, arguing for integrity based on self-examination:

‘I defy any modern intellectual to look closely and honestly into his own mind without coming upon nationalistic loyalties and hatreds of one kind or another. It is the fact that he can feel the emotional tug of such things, and yet see them dispassionately for what they are, that gives him his status as an intellectual.’

Hatreds and loyalties aren’t confined to nationalism of course. (Another subject on which Orwell writes with great insight.) My only caveat is his use of the word ‘intellectual’. It is not beyond all of us in our educated world to step back and step back and view our world dispassionately.

One obstacle, a fundamental one, to our doing so, is our use of language.  Orwell is explicit on the subject in Politics and the English language:

‘…the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language … one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy … where you make a stupid remark it will be obvious, even to yourself. Political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change all this in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits …’

There’s a mighty challenge here, and the first thing I must do is re-read what I’ve written here – is it an essay or a blog or just a few ruminations ? – and see how it fares when judged against Orwell’s high aspiration.