Reporting back from Cheltenham 2018

The Cheltenham Literature Festival that is – they also have music and jazz and science festivals!

It is wet, thoroughly so, and there is a wedding in the village, and the mist is down, a still presence yet the wind blows the leaves in the ash tree, and the lawn, emptied of leaves when we mowed it close yesterday, is now covered again. We have a talk at the literature festival, Neil MacGregor, late of the National Gallery and British Museum…

We parked nearby, and scurried to the food tent, where we drank coffees without any form of literary aid, not even a newspaper. Though The Times sponsors. Where were they? Then another scurry, across the gardens to the Town Hall …

MacGregor subject in his recent radio programmes and new book is on sacred objects, and their place in society. They focus the connection between religion and community, whether it’s the Lion Man, carved from mammoth ivory, discovered in a cave near Ulm, dating back 40,000 years …  or a 19th century model from Siberia (a Siberian people under threat from Tsarist expansion putting down a marker) of a celebration of the solstice, also made from mammoth ivory, this time recovered from the melting permafrost… or Our Lady of Kazan, the protectress of the old Russia, and the new, with a photo of Putin and his torso bathing beneath the icon. (Not the original but a 16th century copy, but that hardly matters – and even the copy has a remarkable story.)

The icon supports power, and the state, whereas the Virgin of Guadeloupe marks a vision of a local peasant boy of the Virgin, which a reluctant church accepted as genuine, and it then became the symbol of all Mexicans, of the Mexican people. MacGregor also highlighted the statue given decades ago by America to France representing the flame of the Statue of Liberty, but given its situation above the tunnel in Paris where Princess Diana died, now a shrine to Diana, who has become a modern protectress for many.

What I wondered is how a resurgent China fits into this picture. China has its own symbols, establishing continuities with the past just as the Cultural Revolution tried to remove them. This is the all-powerful State overriding the local and the individual – co-opting the individual. Will we, can we, ever re-establish our connection with the sacred? Will state symbols come to dominate? Or the symbols of mass culture? Will they be the limits of the sacred?

To the festival the following afternoon, for a debate on the financial crash and its continuing legacy, with Alastair Darling, Kamal Ahmed and Rachel Lomax, former deputy-governor of the Bank of England. A high-quality discussion, with the hard experience of the first two providing insights – for example, the instant support from the USA when asked by Darling to keep the support going for RBS after the markets closed in the UK – would that kind of cooperation happen now? As for the banks, punishment has been meted out on a much bigger state in the USA, but accountability has hardly changed. And as for future issues – fintech, automation, AI – they didn’t really come to grips with any of this. But they only had an hour…

Back home, and hour or two’s respite, supper, then into Cheltenham again for a Leonard Cohen evening, with a conversation between three Cohen devotees, a rock musician, a music journalist, and a wonderful white-haired 70-year-old Canadian, Ted Goossen whose main job is translating from the Japanese (the new Murakami novel also features at the festival, and he’s translated) but he’s been singing Cohen songs in clubs since he was 16 – which suggest 1964 or 1965, beating me by a year or so.

Suzanne remains the first love of many. Chelsea Hotel was the journalist’s favourite – she focused on the word ‘that’ when Cohen says in the last line he doesn’t think of her (‘her’ being Janis Joplin) ‘that often’. Cohen returned to meditation seriously in his last years: Goossen spoke movingly about this side of Cohen, and the Zen connection. Likewise mention of Cohen’s love of Lorca, and duende, that mood of celebration and dance and melancholy that is so much part of Andalucia.

The second half of the evening had a big amateur orchestra and singers, The Fantasy Orchestra, combining in crazy yet wonderfully musical fashion to play and sing a variety of songs, memorably a big and bubbling lady in a cotton ‘William Morris’ dress who belted out So long Marianne, and had us singing along with the chorus… ‘Ring the bells that still can ring’- the message hit home. ‘There is a crack, a crack in everything,’ words that have cheered me through the recent dark times. They ended with Hallelujah – what I hadn’t realised is how long Cohen had laboured over the lyric – some eighty versions.

We all sang the chorus … not quite the usual Cheltenham event!

 

Political dream worlds – the case of Daniel Hannan

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams …

WB Yeats was writing about love… but I’m thinking here of shattered political dreams. Dreams of love, yes, they drive our lives, and they are, just occasionally, fulfilled. But they are personal, one to one. And we accept and expect the risk.

But do not transfer the world of dreams to politics. Aspirations, yes. Not dreams.

Why do some people who are trained as historians not act like them? Bring the rigour that history requires to argument? One reason is that they see history as story, they’re story-tellers, conjurers of dream worlds, they fit the realities to the story and they come to believe the story. Another is that they engage in hypotheses, and parade them as fact, without the rigour of peer-review that we get in scientific disciplines. Story and hypotheses can of course inspire each other.

Why would, for example, the arch-Brexiteer and free-trader Daniel Hannan (and Oxford-educated historian) miss the mark by such a margin? Brexit, he wrote on the Conservative Home website back in May, isn’t working out as he thought it would. I remember a piece he wrote in the Daily Telegraph before the referendum vote about how a post-Brexit Britain would look in ten years’ time. He imagined the future – or rather, a future, anticipated it as if truth and certainty were engrained within it, which no trained historian should do. He believed his own imaginings. Hope became a certain future reality.

He fooled himself, and he gave substance to the visions of others.

The past is full of accidents, wrong turnings, expectations which are never realised, impossible to realise, based on dreams and imaginings. We have no choice but to have radical ideas, our world requires it, on the way the world economy functions, disparities of wealth, population growth and movements, the poverty of much of mass-culture, climate change – Christ, yes! – be radical. But pursue change incrementally. Avoid the sudden turnings.

The NHS, which we are busy celebrating, came about and has survived over seventy years, because it was of its time, it was a logical and necessary step. It may seem to us, with our hindsights, like the fulfilment of a dream, but it was anything but.  It came out of the hard necessities of its time.

Fifty shades of folly

I thought I’d touch this morning on the many kinds of folly. Not fifty, I have to admit. But it makes a good title for this post.

Zenpolitics, born in the measured Obama era, in the first months, didn’t allow for folly. That was my big mistake. There’s much to criticise, much to be angry about, in the years 2009 to 2016, but the wheels just about stayed on track. We argued the parameters of austerity, whether they should be wider or narrower, about the boundaries of wealth and enterprise, and the constrictions of poverty and exclusion.

But I didn’t allow for folly. Which isn’t to say the follies I highlight below are in any way new. They are as ancient as the hills, in one form or another. But they now have become by twists of fate the dominant discourse.

Once folly take root, it shows up in many guises.  One of the most common, and damaging, is taking outlying incidents as the norm. Regaling us with incidents (I’m quoting a recent conversation of mine, typical maybe of half the nation, if polls are to be believed) involving Lithuanian criminals, and benefit scroungers, and over-crowded schools, as if these were the norm across the country.

Anecdote and emotion dictate the debate.

Taking sides is another variant of folly – you’re one one side or the other, no shades of grey inbetween, and that multitude who live on the other side of town from you, and claim benefits, they’re all shrinkers and shirkers.

Following the same line of thought, you’re a refugee, or you’re an economic migrant. The former good, the later bad. No shades of grey. And no recognition of the fact that all our forebears  were migrants once upon a time.

In dealing with mass movements of population, maybe the greatest issue of our time, it does no service to either argument or individual to stigmatise.

Brexit might in time, with a clear run, have learnt to speak truth, but with a siege mentality taking hold the old shibboleths are gaining new traction. The same mentality is feeding another kind of folly. Denial. Denial that it could all go wrong – has gone wrong. The comforting belief that Northern Ireland can be shunted forward forever as an issue. That we have a plethora of options other than a customs union with the EU.

Only last week the outgoing president of the CBI said that sections of UK industry faced extinction unless the UK stayed in the customs union.  And yet that is precisely what our prime minister has ruled out.

Denial invites rhetoric. Boris Johnson recently argued to Conservative donors that Britain is at risk of ending up in ‘a sort or anteroom of the EU’. He blamed this on insufficient resolve from the PM, and strong resistance from – the establishment. That old and easy target. (Who are Tory MPs, other than the establishment?) Keep the faith, and all will be well, I believe was the tenor of Johnson’s speech. Churchillian rhetoric may have a time and place. But it sounds foolish now.

That take us neatly on to another kind of folly – the strong leader. Oh, how we need one. Trump ‘would go in bloody hard’, argued Johnson. So we would be pugnacious toward the EU, and go cap-in-hand to a US president we can’t afford to offend… And we’re assuming that Trump will emerge triumphant from all his bombast.

And if he does, and the idea of strong leader triumphs, representative democracy will be the loser. It’s argued that American democracy is strong enough in its institutions to withstand Trump. Would our unwritten constitution stand up so well? It is folly to put it to the test – to attack the judiciary, to bandy words like traitor.

The folly of blame, and panic. Blaming the prime minister who ‘is a Remain voter who has sold out the Brexiteers at every possible opportunity’. (I’ve borrowed the paraphrase from the Economist.) Brexiteers are being stabbed in the back. Much could be said about the resolute incompetence our PM, but I’ll spare her that charge.

But I will level another – the curious pusillanimity of Remain-supporting Tory MPs who have lined up behind Brexit, mealy-mouthing their change of mind and heart, engaging in protracted acts of self-preservation, in the face of possible de-selection.

They may wish to row back from their conversion, but having changed their minds once would they dare do so again? They’re trapped. Maybe a few journalists out there, on the Telegraph, and the Spectator, find they’re in the same place. They’ve spoken out so strongly in the past – dare they turn their coats now?

The likes of Arron Banks have long sought to change the frame within which we see and understand our world – to something less liberal and more confrontational, the loner doing better than the pack, ideas backed by the Koch brothers in the USA, and realised after a fashion in Donald Trump. Folly lies in the failure of so many to realise that the frame has been manipulated, by money, Super-PACs in the USA, media owners in the US and UK, so they think they’re on the same song sheet they always were, but someone’s changed changed the words, and they haven’t noticed.

We haven’t reached that point here, but Trump’s caging of immigrant children, after separating them from their parents, should be simply inconceivable. Yet swathes of the American public went along with it. And Tory politicians here were slow to condemn, fearful of upsetting a government on whom they will depend to an unconscionable degree if a hard Brexit were ever to happen.

The frame becomes a cage. The folly of not reading and remembering your history.

Folly also lies in an increased propensity to lie as your position weakens. Brexit supporters always played fast and lose with the truth – promises come cheap and uncosted. The increase in NHS funding promised this week resurrected the idea of a Brexit dividend for the NHS, famously associated with the Brexit red bus. All serious commentators make it clear that the British economy will sustain significant damage as a result of Brexit. And even if that only applies to the short and medium term, and trade secretary Liam Fox is able to conjure trade deals further down the line that magic our GDP to new levels (an unlikely scenario) – that is the long term. The increases in NHS funding are for the period up to 2023-4. There can be no Brexit dividend over that period.

We have here a simple unvarnished untruth. Folly shades readily into untruth to protect itself. We’re engaged now in the most egregious and protracted act of folly in modern British history. When a pressure group surprised by power flounders. Historians will have a field day. Unless of course folly wins the day, and as in other countries historians come to toe a party line.

Hay Book Festival 2018 – Philippe Sands

The Hay Festival, as always, delivers. Tuesday (29th May) was a warm and cloudy day, shirt-sleeves after midday, which means the fair can be an outdoor as well as in-tent affair, and that always helps.

My first stop was Philippe Sands. His title, ‘Words, Memory and Imagination – 1945 and Today’. The title didn’t entice. It was enough that it was Philippe Sands.  What follows are expanded notes I took during his talk, with a few interpolations of my own.

Sands recounts the story behind his book, East-West Street, on which I’ve posted before. East-West Street is a street in a then Polish (now Ukrainian) town where his Jewish grandfather’s family had lived for centuries. He discovers how his grandfather’s life intertwined with that of Raphael Lemkin and Hersch Lauterpacht, two great lawyers and key figures  behind modern, and recent, notions of the pre-eminence of human rights, genocide,  crimes against humanity, and limitations on state sovereignty.  They studied at the same university in Lvov as Sands’ grandfather.   

Sands has spoken about the book on many occasions before. This time he puts it in the context of a letter to his friend Ahmet Altan, a Turkish novelist recently sentenced to life imprisonment by a Turkish court. ‘My dear friend, Ahmet,’ he says from time to time, as if his talk is addressing him directly.

[I’m adding here Ahmet’s own words before his trial: ‘I am writing these words from a prison cell … But wait. Before you start playing the drums of mercy for me listen to what I will tell you … They may have the power to imprison me but no one has the power to keep me in prison. I am a writer. I am neither where I am nor where I am not.’]

Why, Sands asks, did his book, East-West Street, appeal to so many?  

1] We like in the context of the big picture small details which we can connect to. Often those small details have a personal connection.   

One such is that Richard Strauss (a favourite composer for many of us) composed a song for Hans Frank in 1943. Frank as Hitler’s controller in Poland was directly responsible for the murder of tens of thousands of Jews. He was a fine musician, a classically-trained pianist.  

2] The issues surrounding identity, so brutal in his grandfather’s time, and still so powerful today, across Europe and America – only a few brave Federal judges stopped a complete ban on all Muslins entering America. The assumption that someone who is a stranger to me must also be my enemy. 

3] More broadly, the connection to our own time. The authoritarian regimes of the 1930s, and the rules-based order that established itself after 1945, and how that order is under threat.

Hinterland – we all have our hinterland, and for writers it’s out of that that comes our writing. Ahmet has his readers, Sands has his. 

(What it would feel like to be incarcerated? That’s what I asked myself. And for life? For only speaking words… That’s what I asked myself as Sands spoke.)

Ahmet takes great delight in knowing his readers are still out there, he feels it like ‘a cloud touching his face’, as he put it, or something similar. Sands had to be taken through eight locked doors to meet him. He was Ahmet’s first visitor: his wife is only allowed to talk to him, on the phone, every two weeks. Sands gets to see him (and Ahmet’s brother, also incarcerated, who ‘only wanted to talk about globalisation’) in person. He’s representing the international court in The Hague, that’s how he gets access.  

Ahmet smuggles writings out. He and Sands meet and laugh at the absurdity of his situation. He’s lost weight – he has weights to work out with. (Where does civilised life begin, where end?) 

Ahmet implied that money moved out, and moved in, or something similar – enough to suggest someone high up was taking their cut. That was enough.

Judges – Appeal Court judges – are ‘enemies of the people’, in the Daily Mail’s language. Compare the UK and Turkey, where judges serve the president. Is this what the Mail would like? Remember we are the country who with the USA provided the leading lawyers at the Nuremberg trials. We established the European Convention on Human Rights, which Theresa May would now have us leave. ‘Citizens of the world are citizens of nowhere,’ she insisted. Does she, Sands asks, really understand what she’s talk about? (How much was she simply being fed lines by her team?) Compare also Boris Johnson’s reference to ‘half-Kenyan Obama’, as his explanation for Obama’s attitude to Brexit UK. Africans ‘with melon smiles’ – Johnson’s words. ‘Piccaninnies.’ And it’s he who represents us.

Johnson and May welcome Turkish president Erdogan a few days ago: the talk was only of trade, not the fate of novelists, teachers and journalists. We no longer have influence in the world, not least because we need trade deals too much – our trading partners know that.

The Chagos Islands – we lost a UN vote last year on whether or not the islanders have a right to return, which the our own Supreme Court has asserted they do not. Our main European allies abstained rather than support us. The case will now be referred to the International Court of Justice. And as for the ICJ – after ninety years of being represented there we now have no judge. It’s powerful evidence of our declining influence.  

Regarding Brexit, Sands believes the best we can hope for, and the likely outcome, is a Norway-style agreement – single market etc, but no influence. The idea that we could use arbitration effectively instead of the European Court of Justice is absurd. Arbitration at an international level, which is a specialist area for Sands, is both slow and unpredictable. 

Thousands of people have written to Sands. The Scotsman who voted yes to the union, but no wonders whether he wants to stay in an isolationist UK? How would he vote now?

Are we facing a breakdown of the post-1945 rules-based order? Ahmet still has hope. Turkey is not done for yet. But, worldwide, authoritarian and identity-focused politics are an ever-more-powerful threat. Europe and America need to take the lead, but is there out there a clearly expressed alternative scenario? Compare the current edition of the Economist on the subject of the Democrats in the USA. The Democrats are strong on race and gender issues, but what is their position on the America First agenda, resentments toward the rest of the world, trade with China, blue collar jobs, immigration – the agenda which helped Trump win the election? How can the Democrats regain some of that support which went to Trump?

How shallow is the support for Trump? Salman Rushdie in an interview later in the day at Hay recalled addressing a meeting in Florida recently. They were mostly Republicans, but they were civilised and courteous. ‘Didn’t he agree that the New York Times was simply telling lies?’ No. ‘The evidence for climate change is simply not there.’ But it is, argued Rushdie. ‘Where’s the evidence?’ he’s asked. His answer – just because you believe the world is flat, doesn’t mean that it is flat – it will still be round.  

Sands received a standing ovation at the end of his talk. Maybe from two-thirds of the audience. His talk was one hour long, no time for questions. Applause lasted at least a minute – maybe more like ninety seconds – I’ve never known anything like it at Hay.

And yet – for a couple chatting next to me as I left – ‘it didn’t seem to be going anywhere,’ he argued, though it did have a clearer focus at end. His partner agreed. Yes, Sands does range widely – but he never loses coherence.  It’s funny how what might seem heroic to me might be a matter of a shrug and indifference to others.

Europe or America – too much ‘us against them’

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, just another 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 is, 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 course 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 underline the point.

 

*

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.

**

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.

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?

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.