Not all news is political…

Writing a blog can be a little like penning an article for a newspaper. Only it isn’t. You don’t have editors, querying content, or facts, or insisting on cuts, or rubbishing it altogether – denying your piece its ‘nihil obstat’ (as the Catholic Church would have it), ‘there is no objection.’

I’ve been my own editor in this case. I’ve objected and made changes. My original blog, ‘The very great and the very small’, is no more. If you did read that blog you’ll see I’ve re-worked the material, and put it into a different context.

I often put aside articles or news items that in some way or another hit home. It could be snippet or a long article in a periodical. They’re discussion points. I sometimes imagine myself in a college senior common room, chatting to specialists from a wide range of disciplines, non-specialist engaging with specialist. It could be Eng Lit meets astrophysics, microbiologist meets political scientist, or …

They get on to today’s news.

Politics… version one of this blog referred to the government’s £275m Culture Recovery Fund, and the £784,000 that’s been awarded to Cheltenham Festivals, which include science, jazz, classical music, and of course books.  As a regular visitor to Cheltenham’s remarkable festivals this is good news. I also mentioned, as a stark contrast, a Liverpool publican and his worries about his business’s future if Liverpool suffers a level three, almost total, lockdown for any length of time.

But that didn’t begin to do the subject justice, encompassing as it does local or national lockdowns, ‘circuit breakers’ – or avoiding lockdowns altogether, with at-risk groups self-isolating on a voluntary basis. Over in France Macron is bringing in curfews.

At which point a voice might say – no politics. Likewise no religion, and certainly no sex or scandal…

So my grumble (anger?) about the way the term ‘creative destruction’ has been used during the pandemic – it will be under-performing and less successful businesses which will go to wall, so we shouldn’t worry too much – would be not be allowed.

We move on to another subject.

Astrophysics… we have the Nobel Prize for Physics, awarded to three scientists for their work on black holes. There’s a black hole, Sagittarius A, is the very heart of our galaxy. It’s a mere four million times the mass of our sun, and it is of course invisible, because light can’t escape from it.

The first-ever image a black hole (outlined against the visible gases swirling around it) was released in April 2019. It’s at the centre of galaxy M87, which is a mere 53 million light years from earth. 53 million years for the light to reach us … roughly when the first primitive primates evolved, according to a New Scientist timeline of human evolution.

Chemistry … the Nobel Prize this year has been awarded to two scientists for their work on gene editing (editing ‘parts of the genome by removing, adding or altering sections of the DNA sequence’). Out of it could come new therapies for cancer, disease-resistant crops, ‘and which may, perhaps, end hereditary disease in human beings’.

Before we exult too much, we should remember that Covid-19 is not a hereditary disease. But human ingenuity, we hope and trust, will find a way.

History … another item I’ve recently put aside is a review by Christopher Clark of a new book on the Austrian stateman Metternich, which contains a quote from Napoleon, the simple brutality of which brought me up short. ‘You are no soldier,’ Napoleon said to Metternich, ‘and you do not know what goes on in the soul of a soldier. I was brought up in military camps, I know only the camps, and a man such as I does not give a fuck about the lives of a million men.’ (‘Fuck’ it seems is a fair translation.)

Contrast, lest we forget, what’s happening in Yemen, or on a smaller scale in Nagorna Karabakh. The simple, brute indifference to life. Or the 5.6 million Syrians are refugees, the 6.2 million displaced within Syria.

Are we getting political? Just where lies the divide? Migration and refugees are contentious subjects. And we’re back as if we hadn’t left them to refugees in the English Channel, to Brexit… to the American election, and the Mexican border fence.

If this is all part of a post-prandial conversation, then time, I think, for a coffee break.

Notes from the countryside

I’ve explored the local countryside this year as never before. Not only discovered plants and flowers I never knew existed, but also put names to flowers, and corrected the names I’d got wrong. I’ve also noted how plants come into flower in our local Cotswold area at the same time – it seems on the same day. There is a deep pattern to this floral madness!

The presenters of the BBC’s Springwatch series have found the same. Locked down they’ve taken the opportunity to explore their immediate localities, again as never before. The series has now come to an end, after three weeks. I came to it late this year, but the programmes I’ve seen have been a delight. Badgers in Cornwall, storks in Sussex, goshawks in Montgomeryshire – with a focus on nests and fledglings. It’s easy to be sentimental about small birds, but the spectacle of goshawks feeding fledglings and squabs to their young goes without comment. Which is as it should be.

Dung beetles were a highlight. They are coprophages – dung-eaters. What impressed me is the way they are adapted, with hard shells and burrowing capabilities, and sensory apparatus to pick up smells, to their task. The result of evolution over hundreds of millions of years. It is the precision of their adaptation that struck home. Evolution tends to perfection.

The beavers damming a small stream in a copse on a Cornish farm were another highlight. The way they both hold back the flow of water, to create ponds, and release it, to avoid it swamping their lodges. With benefits to the local ecology downstream.

What also struck me was the aerial view of the ponds. Such a small areas, so vast the fields around. The farmer, naturalist and author, John Lewis-Stempel, raised eyebrows several years ago for criticising Springwatch. It can convey a false reality – the areas in which wildlife survives or, better, prospers, are vanishingly small.

The government’s Agriculture bill has passed its first reading in parliament. The big controversy has been around the government’s voting down a widely-supported amendment that would have guaranteed that imports meet the UK’s current high standards of environment, animal welfare and food safety. The argument being that all restrictions on free trade are by definition bad. It is a sad example of free-market dogma overriding common sense.

It doesn’t give me any confidence that the Agriculture Bill will come to grips with the big issues facing the countryside. It phases out the direct payments to farmers that lie at the heart of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, and replaces them with a system that rewards farmers for the provision of ‘public goods’, which include ‘better quality air and water, improved soil health, public access to the countryside, animal welfare, and flood-risk reduction’.

The focus on Covid 19 has meant that the bill has had little press coverage, and the bill’s ability seriously to address conservation – and restoration – has hardly been discussed.

Can we have any confidence that issues of conservation, and indeed of ownership, will be seriously addressed? Lewis-Stempel highlights how disastrous pesticides and herbicides and the practice of ploughing fields to their margins have been for wildlife and wild flowers. ‘I have had a gutful of chemical farming.’

Springwatch, I appreciate, cannot be political. The BBC’s Countryfile also skates round political issues. Farming is usually conveyed in a positive light. They are both, Springwatch especially, fine programmes. But we cannot allow ourselves to be shielded from realities. As with climate issues we need to break out from within our comfort-zone carapace, and pick up a few cudgels.

The way ahead for the countryside is, and will not be, an easy one.

Statues – we’ve been here before

The world this morning is white. Or black. The inbetween where wisdom lies is in danger of being squeezed.

Tory MPs are on their knees attempting to wipe graffiti of the Churchill statue in Parliament Square. Priti Patel goes ultra vires telling Bristol police they must prosecute demonstrators who tore down the Colston statue. Melanie Phillips in The Times asserts that ‘On both sides of the Atlantic, this mayhem is the result of decades of appeasing those determined to bring down Western culture.’

(Am I, I wonder, one of those seeking to bring down Western culture, or one of the appeasers? I think I’ll reverse the charge in this case. This mayhem has more to do with people like Ms Phillips who choose white over black, or for that matter black over white.)

On the other hand, I’m hardly in favour of lining up dustcarts or convenient quaysides as dumping grounds for every statue which offends. Colston had to go. He just went sooner. But Cecil Rhodes?

Nelson Mandela, with his ‘Cecil, you and I are going to have to work together now’ line, suggested a way forward. Statues may once have been celebrations of individuals. Now they help us connect with how we’ve got to where we are, and how brutal that process often was. Colston was simply in too public a place, and his slave-trading simply too egregious a crime.

(Chris Patten, Chancellor of Oxford University, quoted Mandela this morning on the Today programme. It is a very apposite quote, but Patten came over as too complacent. We aren’t where we were four years ago, or indeed where we were in 2003.)

I’ve a personal interest in Rhodes. Oriel, where his statue stands, all but invisible, high above the High Street, is my college. It’s almost as if, more than a hundred years ago, even then they didn’t want to shout about Rhodes. Most of us never knew he was there. (We frequented a hot dog stand on the other side of the road, but never thought to look up.) Oriel decided four years ago that the statue should stay. Now they are in a bind. Most statues are more or less public property. Councils can decide. The Rhodes statue is Oriel’s and the college risks being drawn into a very public and very animated debate.

We know where the Daily Telegraph will stand, and donors to Oxford college finances may well, many of them, be Telegraph readers. If the college decides to remove the statue donors may look elsewhere. That’s the impression that’s given. Whether true or not, I can’t say.

But what matters more is the wider debate. The Black Lives Matter debate, about inclusion and job opportunities and education. In the USA it’s focused around the police. Our police function as guardians, not enforcers, and while there are policing issues, it’s important to keep the focus on the wider issues of inclusion. I want to see action which is radical and conclusive, so we don’t have to keep returning to the issue of discrimination. Likewise I want to see NHS and healthcare workers, and all support staff, properly recognised, and remunerated. That included immigrant populations. Minimum salaries shouldn’t guide immigration policies. The contribution immigrants make to society, and it is huge, is a far far better guide.

I’m an historian by training, and history isn’t about identifying with your favourite bits of the past. (Though history is a marvellous diversion.) Or the more nefarious bits. We shouldn’t get hung up on Cecil. If it’s anything, history is about recognising the interplay between continuity and change, and how they work out in the present. So don’t get stuck in an antiquated timeframe. Be aware that values change, and in our time they have changed radically for the better. Western culture, and that includes much though not all of religion as practised in the West, now has a much wider and more inclusive moral basis. Pope Francis is a good exemplar.

We’re in danger in the current debate of getting stuck behind our statues. Letting them dictate its terms. We’d do far better to seek out the ground we hold in common, and work out from there.

Have we gone too far for that? I’d like to see most – not all, but most – statues remain. Let them help us connect with our history. Whether that should include Cecil Rhodes or not, the next few days will tell.

I don’t want to see a much important debate highjacked by the fate of statues. Nor do I want see my college becoming the subject of public opprobrium. If in the end the statue has to go, then so be it.

Taking a break from politics

I am going to take a break from this blog for a while.  It will be hard to do. Blogging can be compulsive. (Two posts already today.) That’s why I must take a break. But before I do, I thought I’d sign off with a ‘where we are now’, ‘where I stand’ statement. With so many distractions, so much delay and prevarication, so many assertions, so much absurdity, it’s not a bad idea to put down a few thoughts.

How different this list from one I might have written ten years ago, when the outlook, recent financial crash notwithstanding, was somehow more rosy. You could, back then, at least trust the integrity of the protagonists.

In no particular order (apologies to Strictly contestants), though the first two or three are fundamental:

# pride in nation, as a citizen of Britain, of Europe, of the world, the best way, the only effective way, to exercise influence – linked to the awareness, and self-awareness, I mentioned in a recent post on the Tory leadership contest

# the dangers of referenda, trying to tie down that which will not be tied, as opposed to the sovereignty of parliament, which allows flexibility – the right to change your mind as a core feature of democracy

# recognising a free trade agenda as a chimera – your closest neighbours are always your best partners, and the benefits of the EU will only be appreciated when withdrawn, when too late – you get ‘owt for nowt’ (no benefits if no contributions)

# you negotiate better as part of a trading bloc – the importance of being part of, and a key player in, one of the three big economic groupings of the planet, the benefits from membership over more than forty years (delusional to think we would have reached better agreements negotiating on our own)

# global capitalism, how best to influence, to rein it in, while retaining its benefits – hard enough anyway, impossible to have any significant impact if we are a ‘free-trading’, Singapore-style economy

# the importance of collective action on climate change and conservation, on migration – working with the EU, not out on our own, likewise, on automation, and changes in the workplace

# opposing false notions of sovereignty, rebutting claims that we have sacrificed too much power either to the European Commission or European courts – what we gain in influence far outweighs what we lose – remembering also that we in the UK are pioneers of human rights – our influence across Europe has been profound

# working within the power structures that now prevail – opposing any reversion to old ideas of British and latter-day imperial clout, not least notions of an ‘Anglosphere’

# misrepresentations (Boris Johnson-style) of EU practice and policy

# Brexit impeding the EU reform agenda – the EU needs reform, in some areas radical reform, and we could and should be driving that process

# too easy to forget, it seems, how the EU has guaranteed the peace since 1945, and how remarkable that is

# the alternative to the EU – throwing in our lot with Donald Trump, over whom we will have no influence, and signing up to trade deals on US terms

# the simple necessity of bringing our media back home, and making owners and editors publicly accountable, the importance of debate and the pursuit of truth – too many newspapers have become house journals of parties or factions

# the dangers of populism, fake news, alternative truths, post-truth, opinion masquerading as fact

# the delusional appeal of personality politics, where personality trumps policy, where the shouters drown out argument – Farage-style conspiracy theorists

# the dangers of authoritarian, illiberal capitalism – the downgrading of democracy whether it’s China, or Turkey, or Hungary

# Brexit as a knowingly false agenda – 1) claiming a no-risk, no-danger, all-benefit scenario against all evidence, 2) bringing in a free trade agenda, never a priority of the wider population, under the cover of anxiety over immigration

# the sidelining of social welfare, the removal of safeguards and regulations advocated by Dominic Raab and others – the irony that there are Labour supporters of a Brexit driven through by hard-line libertarians

# the real risk of a possible break-up of the UK – think yourself into the shoes of a Scottish nationalist or a Northern Irish Catholic, soon to be the majority religion

# and finally, the omnipresent danger of unintended consequences – as Daniel Hannan, said of the Brexit saga to date, ‘it hasn’t quite worked out as he expected’

 

Making the case for silence

Zen is about silence. No soap box required.

I want to call out for silence – to call, not shout. Nothing comes of shouting, rabble rousing, name-calling – only further division, and the defeat of reason. We have too much shouting out there. Endless Brexit arguments and silence aren’t easy companions.

Silence is something we can all share, all people and all persuasions, all races and religions … silence makes no demands, it is there if you wish to find it …. silence leaves he or she who shouts loud out in the cold … it gives space to think and consider, has little time for short cuts and easy solutions.

I remember my son being disciplined by the school librarian for telling the librarian to shut up because her continued calls of silence were breaking his concentration.

You can’t command silence.

But silence is unexciting. Why not follow the pied piper? Or he or she who shouts loudest?

Shouting divides. With the European elections around the corner we find ourselves more polarised than ever.  ‘We are the people.’ The 52%. But what did we vote for? Brexit at any price? Remain also has its ranters. Shouting embeds ideas, good, on occasion, usually bad.

Reasoned argument is beyond ideology, beyond ‘big’ ideas, beyond assumptions. Reasoned argument requires silence. A prayer before we start. OK, unfashionable. It doesn’t have to be a prayer. But silence. Time to reflect. And, maybe, he who is most eager to speak should go last. Or speak not at all.

But that’s as maybe…

We’re faced with big subjects, big themes – with globalisation (which is ironically the natural and only outcome of a ‘free trade’ position), on the one hand, and the sense, and the reality, of being left behind by elites, by the big cities, the bankers, even by the younger generation, on the other. Pay is pegged back, annual increments a rarity, austerity has for many been brutal.

‘There is a real question about whether democratic capitalism is working, when it’s only working for part of the population.’ The words of Nobel-winning economist Angus Deaton. Could the country be at a tipping point?

More than ever, we need to step back. We need silence. An end to shouting. Instead we need engagement, close engagement, with all the areas I mention above – engagement across Europe and not just in this country. That’s been our role in the past, and I see no reason to give up on that now.

In the recent past many of us have been too cautious, too reasonable – too slow. Silence has been a negative state. A place we retreat to. A place to hide. (We treat elites as somehow inevitable. We shrug and get on with life.)

I’ve found the last three years one hell of a challenge. (I am not alone of course.) The sense that there’s a continuity between my private world and the wider political world out there has been broken. Extremes and wild ideas have become common currency. If I acquiesced in a too-slow change of pace before, I can no longer do so now.

Silence has to be more positive, more active, more pro-active. More political.

But it must still be silence. Paring back the rush of ideas, allowing quiet space in between, that space which anger and emotion too easily fill. Don’t be fooled by the loudest voice. Or a half-truth in a headline.

There’s wisdom, a real wisdom, in silence. If wisdom isn’t too unfashionable a term these days.

Where are we now? – the day of a no-confidence vote in Theresa May

Anyone who wants a day-by-day and blow-by-blow of politics will have been disappointed in recent times by this blog. Others are better qualified than I am to debate the Northern Irish backstop. But if only for the record I thought I’d put down a few comments, on Ireland and a few other Brexit issues.

Tonight at 6pm there will be a vote of no-confidence in the prime minister. It looks like she will win, but the legacy can only be a yet more divided party. What a frightful, appalling mess – and only one aspect, a passing moment, in a much bigger crisis.

The no-confidence vote follows only two days after Theresa May’s decision to postpone the parliamentary vote on her agreement with the EU, on the basis that she would be seeking improvements specifically with regard to the backstop. That such a delay should be announced just a day to spare is outrageous in itself, and even more when one considers that the EU has asserted, and so too the different countries within the EU, that the agreement is the final wording. They have other issues they want to get on with. The UK has the status of an annoying distraction.

The politicians and pundits in the UK (think back to their pronouncements in 2016) who thought the EU would give way because it was in their economic self-interest to do so radically misunderstood how EU countries read the economic runes. And rather than helping pull Europe apart Brexit has brought other EU countries closer together.

*

It’s curious how Tory Brexiteers failed to foresee the Irish difficulty (‘I believe that the land border with Ireland can remain as free-flowing after a Brexit vote as it is today,’ Theresa Villiers, former Northern Island Secretary, April 2016), or Brexit’s implications for the agreement – open borders between north and south were a cornerstone of the Good Friday agreement. (‘One key to the entire arrangement was the open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland that the European Union guaranteed.’)

We also have to consider the miserable shenanigans of the DUP, selling their vote to the government for money, advocating an impossible open-border Brexit while the province itself voted Remain.

Looking beyond, the Brexit vote marked out a pre-existing social divide, but prior to 2016 territories hadn’t been delineated, nor had the debate become entrenched and embittered. I accept the argument that the referendum gave Leavers a voice (though the EU was the wrong target). But Leave’s political and media advocates, before the vote and even more since, have turned a divide into a chasm unprecedented in British politics. And we have the curious argument that we should all now go along with Mrs May’s agreement because not to do so would tear the country apart, which would of course hand victory entirely to those who have feverishly fed the current tensions. Project Fear is now a taint attached even to the Governor of the Bank of England.

Hearing Brexit supporters on radio phone-ins brings home how much they’ve been gulled – for example, outside the EU we will be able to negotiate much better deals than anything the EU could. Statement of fact.

Back to Tory MPs’ no-confidence vote in Mrs May. Her opponents believe that one of their hardliners (‘free-traders’ being the false appellation they give themselves), Johnson, Raab or the like, will somehow be able to hammer out a new agreement, despite clear statements across the EU that what has been agreed is final. Or, alternatively, preside over a no-deal Brexit, which would of course create problems, but nothing that couldn’t be managed. They show little knowledge of the simple maxim that change rarely delivers the expected outcome, or indeed of chaos theory.

And on specifics – how weak the UK’s negotiation position outside the EU would be, how beholden to Trump, how our supposed gain in sovereignty would be matched by a far greater decline in influence, how a perceived glorious history is a dangerous chalice to drink from, how any kind of no-deal would devastate both our food exports and our food imports. Reading the Institute of Economic Affairs website is a useful experience.

Mrs Thatcher comes up in conversation. She saw referenda as tools of potential dictators. She was hostile to any kind of federated Europe, but well understood the economic benefits of a Europe-wide market for British goods. She was also a passionate supporter of an elective and representative democracy, as you’d expect of the daughter of a dedicated local politician such as Alderman Thatcher back in Grantham. But the Thatcher legacy has been ousted, and the ‘swivel-eyed loons’* as a Cameron supporter once called them have worked their way to the fore – an example of how a pressure group, with the backing from expatriate-owned media, can turn politics on its head. They’ve needed many accidents and Labour weakness to help them on their way, but they’ve never lacked staying power.

Accidents – immigration swung the referendum against Remain. The free-trade Brexiteers contribution was to use the immigration issue to their advantage, to promise a Britain that would function better without the EU than within. A false promise that was given equal status to wiser counsels by the media, and not least by the BBC.

Even now that supposed even-handedness continues. And the chasm continues to be fed and watered.

*I always try and use moderate language, to find the middle ground. But when that middle ground has been so spectacularly abandoned, and indeed there is a streak of madness in all the fury, should one still, even then, seek to moderate one’s language?

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.

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.

Time to chill out?

Tomorrow I’m heading off to Herefordshire for ten days’ vipassana (insight) meditation. Up in the very small hours and no contact with the outside world, and silent throughout. I will put all politics behind me. I will have no way of knowing the American election result until five days after the result is announced. Much as the result concerns me I will be better for it. Clinton or Trump, the world will take what direction it will. Likewise Brexit. I in my small corner will re-engage when the time comes, just to be part of the process.

But continue with my blog? Time to let the world loose, spare the world – and myself – my take on it? Who listens, who reads? All along, over seven years, I’ve tried to put over my own considered view. To understand the world from a (sort of!) Zen perspective, but at the same time to engage.

Some of us may choose to stand apart, others to engage. Both are equally valid. As I put it when I stared this blog seven years ago I wanted to [take] the trash and the hyperbole out of politics and [try] to look at people and issues in a way that’s detached from emotion and as they really are. Can be very hard to find these days. Zen is living in the moment and not somewhere else past or future….

The downside? Blogs take over. You organise your moment-by-moment, hour-by-hour thinking in terms of how it might appear in a blog. It’s harder to skim, to browse, to just absorb what you read or hear.

Worse, blogs and creativity, blogs and poetry are uneasy bedfellows. There’s a randomness, an complete unexectedness, something of the suck-it-and-see about poetry. You’ve a starting-point and a sense of direction. And no idea of an ending

With a blog it’s all about argument and conclusion. Though occasionally, as in my last All Hallows post, a little bit of creativity creeps in.

So will I return to this blog when I’m back from my time-out?

There has to be something obsessive about a political blog, and I may want to put obsession behind me. To walk and run and sing and play my guitar; to meditate and dream, to create; to give practical help to a charity, a church, even a political party. To go with the flow of the world, rather than try and arrest it – try and put it down in print and words.

We shall see. Maybe I’ll start Zentravel blog, and the Tao, the Camino, the way, will be my inspiration. Maybe Zenpolitics will become occasional, and less politicised. More chilled.

Do come back and take a look sometime

 

 

 

 

Rights, compassion and all that serious stuff

Our concepts of justice and social justice are closely tied to our ideas about the rights we enjoy as human beings. Rights easily taken for granted, and all too easily abused.

That takes us to another question, one that’s long concerned me – what lies behind the rights we enjoy? An external authority? Or something beyond that – are the rights we enjoy innate in who we are?

If this sounds heavy duty, please do bear with me. It gets to the core of why I set up the zenpolitics blog: how we can relate compassion, and the practice of compassion, to our everyday lives, and beyond that, to political life.

Negative rights assume self-interest is paramount: we respect the rights of others to pursue their interest to the extent that they respect our rights to do the same. Our loyalties are tied to family and community and to country: emotions attach to those loyalties, but they link back to our own selfish interest.

Positive rights assume a wider concept of interest, where the interests of self and others are ultimately the same, based on a natural justice common to all. From this derives everything from the right to vote and to an education, to the rights of the child, as in the UN Charter, and indeed to natural justice, where justice, and the legal system that enacts it, is common to all.

A natural justice common to all? Based on what? It can’t simply be a convenient construct, or rely on a hypothetical contract between citizens, which can be interpreted many different ways and swing as mood and opinion swings, or government or media interests dictate. (Though for many a construct or contract is as far as they’re prepared to go, following a trail blazed by Thomas Hobbes.) It must rely on something that goes deeper.

Religions avow an external authority, but I’m not sure we need religion as such. When we put ourselves beyond the addictive emotions, beyond anger, fear, desire, pride – beyond the attachments which cloud our judgement in everyday life, we find in the silence – a silence of mind – that compassion and fellow-feeling come entirely naturally. Compassion isn’t an emotion but a state of mind.

In Buddhist terms, your ‘original face’, in Christian terms, we’re back before the Fall, for the humanist we’re simply in touch with human nature. In the debate whether mankind is intrinsically evil or good I come down firmly on the side of good.

Silence – we have to find silence. Not a few moments walking to the station, or even walking the hills. Silence is silencing all the voices and emotions that take over our lives without our realising it. That’s where we go beyond our selfish selves, and find something else. Where the feelings of others are as important as our own.

The ‘others’ are not just our family, our peer group, community, country – they are by definition (compassion isn’t partial) all mankind.

We fall short all the time of course, sometimes a million miles short. But silence is our reference point.