Thoughts for the day

I posted this five minutes before I heard that Prince Philip had died. I’d have delayed a day had I known. He’s been around all my life: my first memory is the excitement when it was realised his car would be passing the end of our road on a visit to Cheshire. I must have been 6 years old. He was, in modern parlance, a bit of a legend. I’ll miss not having him around.

*

My aim is to stay within the three minutes or less allocated to Thought for the Day on the Today programme on Radio 4.

Thoughts, not thought – misunderstanding the Astra-Zeneca risk; ‘truth’ and Boris Johnson; and Anthony Blunt and Karl Marx on the one hand and Tory ideologues and Ayn Rand on the other – the dangers of early student allegiance being carried over into real life.

The Astra-Zeneca vaccine: there should be only one way to present the data. How many cases, how many deaths, the total number of people vaccinated, so, for example, 79 cases and 19 deaths out of 20 million people vaccinated. A one-in-a-million risk of death. We need upfront and absolute clarity on this, Also, what the instance of this kind of blood-clotting is in the non-vaccinated population, so we can compare, and appreciate how marginal is the increased risk, if it exists at all, over and above the existing risk we run of this kind of blood-clotting.

Cognitive bias, which is so little appreciated, comes into play in a big way.  We hear there are nineteen deaths out of twenty million. We can as readily visualise a million, or maybe something more like ten thousand, than we can twenty million. Lower numbers are easier to grasp, and the lower the number the higher the perceived risk…  Just let that word ‘risk’ out if the bag, and you’re in trouble. (Comparisons to the likelihood of deaths on the road really do not help at all.)

Moving on, there’s a well-known quote, which goes as follows:

‘There will be no checks on goods going from GB to NI and NI to GB because we are going to come out of the EU whole and entire. That was the objective we secured.’

Peter Oborne has documented in his new book, The Assault on Truth, all the instances of Boris Johnson lying in public statements and to parliament. We are so used it we assume it doesn’t matter. The ‘real’ truth will somehow out in the end. But the story once out is out there, and even if we discount the amiable jocular manner the damage is done. When is the prime minister serious? Is he ever? Should we trust him on vaccination data, and how they’re interpreted?Thank God we have chief scientific advisers alongside. Watching Jeremy Hunt, Johnson’s rival for the leadership, on TV talking about the vaccine crisis two nights ago: how refreshing to see a politician on top of his brief.

Watching the Channel 4 programme, Queen Elizabeth and the Spy in the Palace, a documentary as clumsy as its title (at its worst implying that appeasement and Nazi sympathies were natural bedfellows – with newsreel footage edited to promote that impression). I puzzled over what is, for me, the real story. Why a 1930s Cambridge undergraduate from a super-privileged background should support a regime which would put the proletariat in charge and consign the likes of him, Blunt himself, and Guy Burgess to an early and likely unpleasant death. And ‘support’ to the extent of betrayal. What came after the war is best seen as one almighty covering of tracks, rather than continuing Soviet allegiance. (How much did Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother know? That is a good story. And his fate had the cover-up failed?)

University is a time when you crystallise your view of the world. What you might have half-sensed at  school becomes full-bodied. William Hague speaking to the Conservative Party Conference aged 14 was worryingly early. No-one should be so sure so young. Students experiencing eureka moments reading Ayn Rand, and holding to that allegiance until at least some sense in knocked into them in later life. Marxist students evolving into Militant, but remaining resolutely distant from the ordinary working man. Hippies … outsiders, who stay outside, and remain resolutely harmless. And today we have woke and anti-woke and no-platforming. I’m not saying we should deny our early allegiances. But we should allow life experience to temper them with sharp doses of reality.

More ‘thoughts for the day’ to follow….

Flying the flag

In yesterday’s news we had government minister Robert Jenrick ‘flying the flag’ on UK public buildings (the government will be making it a regulation), and displaying the flag prominently behind him in a BBC interview – and gentle comments from BBC journalists about the prominence of that flag being turned against the BBC. All staged in the cause of the new hard-right Tory jingoism.

Cass Sunstein’s new book This Is Not Normal is just out. Timely: it’s what Jenrick and other revanchist (meaning ‘recovering lost territory’) Tories are about. Trying to change the ‘normal’. Taking us back. Politics as a battleground. He won’t change the younger generation, so why polarise other than for electoral advantage – unless he really believes that we can turn back history by endless harping on about the past.

I’ll give no ground to anyone when it comes to pride in country – and that means patriotism. I’m English, and I’m British.  But I’m not lost in past glories, nor do I believe that we as a nation are better than other nations. What I want our focus to be on what we can offer other nations – and what they can offer us. Bringing the world closer together, while retaining our identities.

We polarise at our peril. We desperately need shared conversations and shared conclusions.

Zen is about being comfortable in the moment, and that means not grasping on to something – ‘grasping’ is a good word here. Not craving something you can’t have – in this context, the past. Or trying to define the future in terms of the past.

You can’t go back there. You can prop up all the ancient statues, send demonstrators down for ten years according to new draft legislation – but you can’t go back to the past.

Statues commemorate ‘heroes’ who died a natural death. Let their statues do the same. They occupy some important public spaces. Maybe a 50-year year max lifespan before they’re taken down – a hundred years for a big hero?

I’m being fanciful, but life is so much more fun that way. I came upon the following from a Buddhist commentary yesterday:  

‘But, if you have genuine insight and see clearly this bundle [life in all its aspects], constantly changing, now laughing, now crying, now being afraid, now having the silliest notions, now being quite sincere, now being very willing, now being compassionate: and you will see this bundle constantly changing through life; well, that is how it will go on.’*

I also read about a monk who would  ‘without breaking stride … gently close a gate that had blown open, and carefully pick up things that had blown down’. ‘Without breaking stride.’ Not easy I appreciate, but there’s a message here. Don’t stop. Don’t look back.

A quote from Sam Harris (see his app, ‘Waking Up’), an ardent secularist who learnt much from his stay in a Buddhist monastery, also caught my eye: ‘It’s in the nature of everything to fall apart… everything from our bodies, our relationships, our institutions, our understanding of the world … everything requires continuous maintenance…’

What struck me was that phrase, ‘everything requires continuous maintenance’. That’s what parliamentary democracy, deliberative democracy, open democracy, or whatever you call it – that’s what it’s all about. We’re in the here and now, and there’s much work to do here, not in some distant dream world.  

*from a commentary by the Venerable Myokyo-ni on ‘The Record of Rinzai’

Getting yourself noticed

My recent reading has as always taken in various reviews, articles, books. One day last week they seemed to come together, on the theme of ‘getting noticed’. But not in the sense of shouting from the rooftops. This blog is after all combining ‘zen’ and ‘politics’. In politics you do have to make yourself heard. Zen exists below the radar. And ‘getting noticed’ doesn’t mean you won’t be as quickly forgotten.

Mary Wollstonecraft did get noticed in her own time. And then she was all but forgotten. Proto-feminist, author of ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’, resident in Paris during the Terror, she was also mother of Mary Shelley, by William Godwin. (Grandmother of Frankenstein you might say.) She died in 1797. Godwin’s biography of his wife published the following year did her no favours. The opposite. ‘The more fully we are presented with the picture and story,’ Godwin wrote, ‘the more generally we shall find ourselves attached to their fate, and a sympathy in their excellencies.’ He was wrong, desperately so. Robert Southey accused Godwin of ‘a want all feeling in stripping his wife naked’. (See Richard Holmes’ This Long Pursuit.) That was mild compared to other execrations.

It’s taken two hundred years, but in our time she’s celebrated.

For someone totally different – I chanced on Hans Keller, refugee from Hitler, BBC musicologist, influential post-WW2 and through to the 1970s. Keller was in the Reithian BBC tradition, which had as its aims to ‘educate, inform, entertain’. Classical music was party of that educative purpose.

Wollstonecraft has found herself on the right side of history. Not so Keller. He wrote in 1973: ‘If we can bring ourselves to learn and practise the art of not listening to the radio, of turning it off… radio can become a cultural force of unprecedented potency.’ ‘As Nicholas Grace reviewing a new biography of Keller concludes: ‘Keller’s island of Reithian paternalism was soon to be swept away by a digital tsunami.’ (London Review of Book, February)

He may be all but forgotten, but how we listen to music, and how we concentrate when listening, they are still issues, and extend well beyond the confines of music.

Wollstonecraft and Keller brought to mind a few heroes of mine. The Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, who became a leading Civil Rights campaigner in the USA. George Orwell of course. He understood the absurdities of power better than anyone. It’s why he remains a point of reference for so many of us today. One example in my reading from last week. ‘Nationalism,’ Orwell wrote in 1945, is ‘the political doctrine of a delusional fantasist.’

People had hopes back then that we’d seen the back of the likes of Hitler and Mussolini. But nationalism still rides high. And Orwell remains as relevant as ever.

This is where where I could so easily veer away from Zen, from the pursuit of wisdom, if you will, to raw politics. I could list the hyper-nationalists of our time. From Putin across and down. Or the petty nationalists. I could include the UK reducing its foreign budget, and that would take me right back into the mire.

Also, in an earlier version of this blog I had Ed Miliband and Keir Starmer not getting heard. Rafael Behr in the Guardian suggesting that part of Starmer’s problem lay in ‘a lack of rudimentary storytelling’. In UK politics Covid and Brexit are the dominant stories. The story of the old Toryism of Major, Heseltine and Clark has all but disappeared: no-one is doing the telling.

They will find their way into future blogs. This blog has been about under the radar. We could all add the names of poets and novelists and adventurers and scientists. Just for now, Wollstonecraft and Keller, Orwell and Merton must suffice.

Imagine yourself at the Cabinet table…

Maybe I should begin with Joe Biden, sworn in as US president yesterday. But I will come to him in a moment. First, by way of contrast…

Yes, you’ve made it to the top. Johnson is presiding. Gavin Williamson, Education Secretary, rambles as he did on the BBC Today programme this morning. ‘Can we have clarity?’ barks the PM. ‘Command your brief, and your audience.’ ‘Do not make promises you can’t keep.’

Do you imagine this happens in cabinet, or privately? From the PM, or any minister? Rishi Sunak is a banker, not a natural interrogator. Gove has his own agenda, and as for the rest…

Look over the pond. Check out Biden’s appointments to his cabinet. (See below.) He’s not reliant on members of Congress, he can pick whoever’s best for the job, which includes of course members of Congress. It wouldn’t matter in this country if parliament attracted the best people. But with local party selection committees often representing hardliners, the best people don’t put themselves forward. The range of opinions among MPs has narrowed down, especially after the last election. The more moderate Tories were all but wiped out. Where now are the contrarians?

I mentioned Williamson. He has, I concede, a tough brief. So too Matt Hancock. Johnson is hopeless beyond repair. How about Robert Jenrick, as Housing and Communities Secretary?

He is a lawyer and property developer. His contribution this week has been a resort to populism to hide the shambles. He’s announced that removing statues will require planning permission once legislation has been passed by parliament. You may or may not agree. It’s his language I abhor, with references to ‘baying mobs’, ‘town hall militants’ and ‘woke worthies’. (As an aside: the Victorians had a unique ability fill town squares with statues and churchyards with gravestones: is our sense of our history such that they must remain there forever?)

This is Trump speak. Maybe now we will see less of it. Michael Gove’s ‘warm and generous friend’ has been outed and ousted. For America’s rust belt read England’s ‘red wall’ seats in the north of England. Might alarm bells now be ringing that resorting to populism doesn’t guarantee your political future?

Remember the old phrase, ‘divide et impera’, from your schooldays? Divide and rule. Time to put it to bed. Part of the strategy was to undermine the civil service. But Cummings was removed before he’d got too far with his ‘shit list’. So traditions of good advice, whether or not heeded, will at least be maintained.

The election of Joe Biden has given us hope. We’re having to pinch ourselves. The Democrats even won those two Georgia seats to give him control, by a single vice-presidential casting vote, of the Senate.  

‘We can treat each other with dignity and respect. We can join forces, stop the shouting, and lower the temperature.’ I won’t forget Biden’s shades-of-Lincoln inauguration speech. One small detail noticed by The Times: Mike Pence, departing vice-president and his wife ‘were escorted down the steps of the Capitol by (Kamala) Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff. They paused for a minute-long conversation during which Mr Pence and Ms Harris both laughed.’ One small detail, and a week or two back, so unlikely.

I’ve had a look at Biden’s cabinet appointees, to see what their backgrounds were. We won’t, I’m confident, be getting the partisan language we got from Trump appointees. What the list tells me is that they’ve been out in the world, and earned their place in his cabinet the hard way. I’ll conclude this post with a few examples, courtesy of the US PBS Newshour:

Connecticut Public Schools commissioner and former elementary school teacher Miguel Cardona to be Secretary of the Department of Education.

Antony Blinken, deputy secretary of State during President Barack Obama’s administration and a key adviser on the administration’s response to Russian incursion into Crimea in 2014, to be Secretary of State.

Merrick Garland, currently a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, to be Attorney General. He was Obama’s nominee for the 2016  Supreme Court vacancy.

Former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm to be Secretary of the Department of Energy. Granholm served as governor of Michigan from 2003 to 2011, the first woman to hold that role.

Janet Yellen to be Treasury Secretary. She served as head of the Council of Economic Advisors under Clinton and became the first woman to chair the Federal Reserve, the U.S. central bank, in 2014.

William J. Burns to lead the Central Intelligence Agency. Burns, currently president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, previously worked in government as Deputy Secretary of State.

You can check all the appointees out via PBS. It’s an impressive list.

Cities: a matter of life and death

‘….we have as much right to bomb Rome as the Italians had to bomb London.’ (Anthony Eden, Foreign Secretary, addressing the House of Commons, 1943)

We prize our buildings. We fight to save buildings we love. There are preservation orders on old buildings, but likewise on the best examples of Brutalism. But further afield we lose whole cities. We bomb whole cities. Think of the souks of Aleppo. Or Raqqa: its obliteration a necessary price for ousting IS. And the Russian and Syrian bombardment of Idlib.

Had Obama brought the USA in against Assad, would old Damascus have survived assault?

I’ve been reading about a new American approach to command and control: ‘Joint All-domain Command and Control, or JADC2’, a network that links ‘every sensor and every shooter’ wherever they might be. It’s been tested with fighter jets, ground-based artillery, surface-to-air missiles and ‘hunter-killer’ drones. Is it re-assuring to know that it could ‘inform a commander that a building to be destroyed could first be emptied by an ability to activate its fire-alarm or sprinklers’? (The Economist)

My starting-point for this post was the fabric of cities, and by far the greater evil is the taking out of populations. But people and buildings and centuries of history are all intertwined. Fabric and culture are, in war, every bit as dispensable as populations. 

World War Two took obliteration to whole new levels. Coventry, and the London Blitz. Retaliation when it came was brutal, born it was argued of military necessity. Think of Dresden, and above all Hiroshima. Military necessity – or war crime?

Revenge also played a part. I’ve a been looking at newspaper cuttings, saved by my father, from World War 2. A headline from the Daily Telegraph and Morning Post of January 21st, 1943 struck me.

‘M.P.s CALL FOR THE BOMBING OF ROME. Anthony Eden addressed the House of Commons: ‘….we have as much right to bomb Rome as the Italians had to bomb London. [Mussolini enthused about bombing London, but no Italian bombers got anywhere near London as far as I’m aware], and we should do so to the best of our ability, and as heavily as possible if the course of the war should render such action convenient and helpful.’

The report continues: ‘The House was full at the time and an enthusiastic cheer came from the crowded benches.’

From the Manchester Guardian of April 1st, 1944 – curious it is this date, but it was no April Fool. The press cutting was kept because Orde Wingate, leader of the British Forces in Burma, had been killed. Below and to the left of the Wingate report is the headline: ‘BITTEREST AIR FIGHT OF THE WAR. R.A.F.’s Three-Hour Battle in Great Attack on Nuremberg.’ 94 aircraft were reported as lost. Of about 1000 in total – that was the number of bombers involved in earlier attacks of Leipzig and Berlin.

How much of classical Rome would have survived? Would we have had a firestorm, as wiped out Dresden? As for Nuremberg, this was the old city of Albrecht Durer, and the Meistersingers.

It has always been thus. Carthage was taken off the map by the Romans after the Punic Wars. Was this genocide? Jerusalem was destroyed by first by Babylonian forces and then the Romans. There are too many examples.

In the last few months we’ve had Armenians fleeing cities ahead of Azerbaijani forces. Turkey and Russia, which could have intervened, chose not to.

Looking to the future, awareness is everything. I trust we never again have, in the West or anywhere, I trust anywhere, the imperatives, or the blood lust, which lead to destruction of whole cities and whole peoples. Never again the enthusiasm shown in the House of Commons for bombing Rome. Or indeed Dresden … but that wasn’t put before the Commons as far as I’m aware. Or Hiroshima before Congress. Democratic accountability is a casualty of wartime.

I’m avoiding retrospective judgements. The truth is powerful enough on its own. But could there not now be a new and universal commitment, encompassing Americans, Europeans, Chinese, and the wider Muslim world, to spare all centres of population?

Maybe in the age of JADC2 and drone warfare, which has its own horrors, military strategists might find this easier. Maybe.

Mill country – from Hebden Bridge to Stroud

[The first paragraphs of this blog originally appeared as the blog, ‘One cheer for enterprise and two for poor’. I’d taken my cue from EM Forster’s short book from 1950, Two Cheers for Democracy. I’ve decided rather late that both title and allusion are too obscure – but there still is a story to tell.]

Back in 1907 there was a creditors’ meeting in Manchester. A low-key winding-up. Not such an unusual occurrence. In this case it was ‘Mr Joseph Spencer, carrying on business… as tailor and outfitter’. He was my great-grandfather.

You saw an opportunity, you seized it, ‘set up shop’, a mill maybe – or literally a shop. That’s what Joseph Spencer did, in Hebden Bridge in Upper Calderdale, that hybrid seriously-Yorkshire but edging-Lancashire area which, with the Rochdale Canal sneaking through the Pennines, linked to Manchester as much as Halifax, and manufactured cotton goods (especially fustian) which traded on the Manchester Exchange.

In the 1890s he looked west, across the border, and opened further shops in Burnley, Accrington and Oldham, and in 1901 transferred his main business to Deansgate Arcade in Manchester. His son, my grandfather, Thomas, aged 22, stayed behind to run the Hebden Bridge business.

I will need to research further whether Joseph simply over-traded and ran out of money, or whether there was a wider slump. Either way, it’s in the nature of enterprise. Our lives run on enterprise, our own, or that of others. Small traders live on the edge, big businesses ossify. Get taken over, or in extremis, they collapse. Shipbuilding and steel. Coal. BHS, Arcadia, Debenhams.

My house in Stroud, in Gloucestershire, is next to the old Severn-Thames canal. An abundance of Cotswold wool, fast-flowing rivers in the ‘five valleys’ and, later, coal brought up the Severn, drove a multitude of mills, many of which, re-purposed, still survive.  It seems I can’t escape from mills, though it was wool in Stroud, and cotton (and especially fustian) in Hebden Bridge.

Across the canal from my house a mill turned out military uniforms, and a few yards to the west two mills co-existed with the railway viaduct which sweeps over both the canal and the river Frome. To the north, up on the hill, was the workhouse, a substantial structure, an ever-present reminder of how the wheel of fortune goes up, and also comes down.

It’s a peaceful landscape now. As indeed is Hebden Bridge. Both places, as I’m finding, have remarkable stories to tell. Once upon a time they were all energy, and noise, the endless working out of success and failure. All has leaked away downriver. (In Hebden Bridge’s case with an occasional big flood. The Frome in Stroud runs a deeper channel.) Downriver – and overseas.

There are many remarkable personal stories to tell. My great-grandfather’s being one. He was fortunate. He wasn’t brought low by his bankruptcy. But it’s a useful reminder to me (if Covid wasn’t enough!) how fickle fortune can be.

A day in the life … in my life – Christmas shopping, Donald Trump, The Economist, writing blogs, workhouses, and a few other matters of consequence

It was an ordinary day. A haircut, and a mid-morning shop on Cheltenham’s High Street. 10th December, a festive time, but it didn’t look or feel that way. Shops with long queues outside, and yet it seemed far too many people inside. We wouldn’t have noticed before, but we do now. We are all watching our step, watching our neigbbours. Smiles would work wonders, but our smiles are masked.

Something else brought me down. Headlines about Johnson and his meeting-of-no-minds dinner with Ursula von der Leyen. The sheer and utter stupidity of a no-deal Brexit looms ever closer. In four words – putting party before country.

I was happy to be back home to a bowl of Hazel’s parsnip soup.

I then set about writing a blog. Being a glutton for punishment. Donald Trump, as actor, as a master of theatre, stage manager and scriptwriter and leading actor – the only actor. How his script, ‘fake news’, had literally trumped ‘post-truth’. We have our own news, these days, we’re partisan, and proud of it, and objective criteria by which we might identify what is actually true (as far as that’s ever possible) – well, that’s a mug’s game. And are we all at it – left as well as right of the political spectrum?

Trump is having a last throw in Texas: the state’s attorney-general is seeking to invalidate the votes in four states including Georgia. What would happen, I wonder, if he was successful? If the Supreme Court ruled in his favour, and electoral college votes were put in the hands of Republican-controlled legislatures, and the national vote was overturned. A divided America would be fractured. And just where the fracture lines would fall – who can say?

Good material. But my blog was too wordy, and not punchy enough.

I put it to one side, and listened instead to The Economist editors’ online review of 2020, for subscribers to the magazine. Covid and the way it was reported, competence and otherwise in the way it was handled, the implications for globalism, and supply chains, and future growth. The way the editors’ puzzle over the stories of now, and what could be the stories of the future.  The increased role of the state, something that’s likely to continue. Digital culture and changes in the workplace. The threat posed by China. The US election. Biden. The role of populism. The way the old generations have cornered resources – how underspending on infrastructure and housing and education have worked against the young. And, maybe above all, the importance of retaining and reinforcing our belief in classical English (NOT American!) liberalism – of open societies and free markets. The value of reasoned debate, and competence, and ‘remaking the social contact’, between the state and the people, and state and the market.  

Sometimes I wish The Economist would reach down and get its hands dirty a little more. Be more open to alternative economic models. Speak with more passion. But it does what it does with supreme competence, and I wouldn’t have it, with so much fakery around, any other way.

After that – my Trump blog was binned. Poor fare by comparison.

But my day wasn’t over. I’d volunteered to write up the report on our local history society’s evening meeting – Zoom of course. The subject was the Stroud workhouse, and the speaker a local Labour councillor who’d down some excellent research. Stroud, if you don’t know it, is an old industrial area, focused around the woollen industry, with a long and remarkable history. It’s tucked away in the steep valleys of the western Cotswolds. I’ve lived here now for three years.

Workhouses took over from earlier forms of parish relief following the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act. Having to seek relief became a badge of shame. Couples and families were separated. By the 1930s workhouses had become more or less infirmaries – for the aged and infirm. The Stroud workhouse closed in 1940 and its remaining residents were shipped off to any corner of the Cotswolds that would have them.

I thought of our own times, how Covid has had knock-on effects across all areas of medicine and social care. The backlog of hip operations could take three years to clear. Resources had to be directed elsewhere in World War Two, just as they are now. 1948 finally pulled the curtain down on the old Poor Law, with the establishment of the modern welfare state and the NHS.

What will the post-Covid years bring?   

Time for a late night whisky – Benromach – a birthday present from my son.

Time to reflect.

The only thing we have to fear …

Zenpolitics is what it says on the tin – it is about politics. The day-to-day, policy issues, political economy, all feature, but what’s always intrigued me is how people engage with politics – how they can best connect with politics in an open and constructive way. That’s where Zen comes in. We need the ability and the time, to step back and evaluate. To gain distance before we judge. And we need to be aware of all the pitfalls: where antagonisms and fear and anger and conspiracy take over, where we assume the worst before we look for the best, where cynicism overrides good sense.

See how this works out in what follows.

Henry Kissinger, back in the 1970s Richard Nixon’s Secretary of State, and a prolific writer on political matters, identified what he called ‘the conservative dilemma’. Christopher Clark, in a review of the 19th century statesman, Count Metternich, is my source for the following:

‘Conservatism is the fruit of instability, Kissinger wrote, because in a society that is still cohesive, ‘it would occur to no one to be a conservative.’ It thus falls to conservatives to defend, in times of change, what had once been taken for granted. And – here is the rub – ‘the act of defence introduces rigidity.’ The deeper the fissure becomes between the defenders of order and the partisans of change, the greater the ‘temptation to dogmatism’ until, at some point, no further communication is possible between the contenders, because they no longer speak the same language. ‘Stability and reform, liberty and authority, come to appear as antithetical, and political contests turn doctrinal instead of empirical.’

This is, in broad terms, where we find ourselves now. The deeper divide, the more we fear the ‘other’, the more ready we are to assume the worst of people and organisations – however mainstream, and however, until recent times, considered to be more or less ordinary.

Consider now this agonised passage from Daniella Pletka, senior research fellow at the right-wing think-tank, the American Enterprise Institute, from an article in the Washington Post.

‘I fear the grip of Manhattan-San Francisco progressive mores that increasingly permeate my daily newspapers, my children’s curriculums and my local government. I fear the virtue-signalling bullies who increasingly try to dominate or silence public discourse — and encourage my children to think that their being White is intrinsically evil, that America’s founding is akin to original sin. I fear the growing self-censorship that guides many people’s every utterance, and the leftist vigilantes who view every personal choice — from recipes to hairdos — through their twisted prisms of politics and culture. An entirely Democratic-run Washington, urged on by progressives’ media allies, would no doubt only accelerate these trends.’

Remember the famous Roosevelt quote: ‘The only thing we have to fear… is fear itself.’

And where might fear, and those who play on our fears, take us?

Let’s turn to the Murdoch-owned Fox News, under the editorial control (as it was) of Roger Ailes (if you haven’t seen the movie, Bombshell, make it a priority to do so).  Deborah Friedell writes in the London Review of Books as follows:

‘For Ailes, the election of Barack Obama was the ‘Alamo’, ‘the worst thing’ that could happen to America. If you watched Fox News, Barack Hussein Obama (they liked using his full name) was a racist with a ‘deep-seated hatred for white people’, who as a child in Indonesia had been indoctrinated at a madrassa funded by ‘Saudis’. While he was president, a Marxist-Islamist takeover of America was always imminent. On Fox and Friends, Trump would ask questions about Obama’s birth certificate – did it exist? In the afternoon Glenn Beck would suggest that the Federal Emergency Management Agency might be building concentration camps to house Obama’s opponents. Beck eventually walked that back and was rewarded with a series of death threats … In the years that followed, there was no Trumpian scandal that Fox News presenters couldn’t explain away. Impeachment was said to be a deep state coup to undo the presidential election. Children separated from their parents at the southern border were being held in ‘summer camps’ – that’s if they weren’t, as Ann Coulter alleged, “child actors”.’

New-wave Republicans find conspiracies everywhere. It’s become the default position. Courtesy of Trump, conspiracy is assumed to be the Democrats stock-in-trade, at root a conspiracy against the American way of life.

In the UK before Brexit we individualised (at least the Tory right-wing did) our scapegoats – the cheap matching of strivers against skivers and scroungers. The BBC being a ‘state’ institution, however hands-off, was always a target, and under Cummings direction has been even more so. Likewise the ‘metropolitan elite’ – from being descriptive, it’s now a term of abuse: we’re one step short of organised conspiracy against ordinary folk.

Covid has taken conspiracy to another level: 50% of Americans would refuse to take a Covid vaccine, I recall seeing in one recent poll. Back in July one in six UK citizens said they’d refuse a Covid vaccine. There must always be doubt about efficacy, and concern over possible dangers, and the public needs all the evidence they require to have full confidence in a new vaccine. Introduce even the possibility of conspiracy, doubt is venomised, and opposition so easily becomes toxic.

If only we knew our history better. We’d understand how conspiracy theories have always functioned: Freemasonry, the Illuminati, the ‘New World Order’ (an elite conspiring to totalitarian world government); the deaths of JFK and Princess Diana; and at whole other level the fictitious Protocol of the Elders of Zion, which fed into anti-Jewish sentiment, with terrible outcomes.

We tread dangerous ground. The conspiratorial right walk it with a sublime disregard for the consequences. There are, just this month, a few hopeful straws in the wind. The election of Joe Biden (but witness yesterday’s big ‘voter fraud’, pro-Trump march  in Washington DC); the ejection of Dominic Cummings from Downing Street (surely he should have departed with nothing – what was in the infamous box?); the Daily Mail finally acknowledging their appalling error in supporting Andrew Wakeford’s linkage of MMR vaccination and autism. As a recent Mail leader put it, ‘Knowing what we all know now, it should never have been given such credence – and that is a matter of profound regret.’ They have now embarked on a strong pro-vaccination campaign – and all power to them. Today we have Labour arguing for emergency laws to ‘stamp out dangerous’ anti-vaccine content online.

Tempering that we had, on the Andrew Marr show this Sunday morning, George Eustice, the Environment Secretary, arguing a no-deal Brexit case. The motor industry and agriculture, and Northern Ireland supermarkets, to name but three sectors, would, their leaders argue, be hugely impacted by no-deal tariffs, but it would, according to Eustice, all somehow come out OK in the wash. They were wrong to be concerned. Did he have any inkling of how foolish he looked?

And finally, another Brexiteer insider (time now, post-Cummings for Johnson to some selective culling?), the Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden. He is, according to the Telegraph, beginning fresh negotiations with the BBC over the licence fee. There will be a new panel to assess the future of public service broadcasting. Dowden suggest in an article that there is a genuine debate over whether ‘we need them at all’.

Maybe post-Cummings we will see an end to this idiocy. Compare the BBC and Fox News. Fox demonstrates down what unholy avenues unaccountable media in private hands can take us.

The BBC has to answer to the British public – Fox only has to answer to Rupert Murdoch.

Orwell in our own time

‘Is the English press honest or dishonest? At normal times it is deeply dishonest.’ (A quote from Orwell’s essay, The Lion and the Unicorn, 1941).

We ask the same question today. And too often come up with the same answer.

And we’ve Orwell on the subject of Boys’ Weeklies (a remarkable essay from 1940), which pumped into boys ‘the conviction that … there is nothing wrong with laissez-faire capitalism, that foreigners are unimportant comics and that the British Empire is a sort of charity concern that will last forever’.

So what indeed is new. We have to assume, to judge from their actions, that the current crop of right-wing Tories grew up reading similar material.

I enjoyed Wizard and Hotspur and Eagle and the like as a child. I did absorb creaky ideas of Empire, but happily it was Roy of the Rovers (front pages of Tiger magazine) who was my hero.

Though, come to think of it, Orwell wasn’t too keen on football … The Moscow Dynamos team had just visited the UK. This was 1945. He hoped we’d send a second-rate team to Moscow that was sure to be beaten, and wouldn’t represent Britain as a whole. ‘There are quite enough real causes of trouble already, and we need not add to them by encouraging young men to kick each other on the shins amid the roars of infuriated spectators.’

He got this one wrong. An introduction to Marcus Rashford might have helped him.

But, football apart, he usually gets it right. He set himself a high standard, not least in language itself. ‘What above all is important is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way round.’  (Politics and the English Language, an essay from 1946.) He put down six ground rules, one of which is ‘never use a long word where a short one will do’, and another (and this one’s a serious challenge), ‘never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.’

And his final ‘rule’: Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.’ Orwell was writing in 1946. The war was over, but the totalitarian state still very much a reality.

He concludes: ‘Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties …, is designed to make lies sound truthful, and murder respectable.’

Michael Gove take note. (I’m not, I should point out, accusing Michael Gove of murder…)

**

Zenpolitics – I argue in this blog for compassion, for seeing the other person’s point of view. Against anger and cynicism, as if they could be avoided by the exercise of good old English common sense – by following a few of Orwell’s rules.

But it’s not always so easy.

Read Orwell, and the anger is there, and all the more powerful for not being overt: ‘One thing that has always shown that the English ruling class is morally fairly sound, is that in time of war they are ready enough to get themselves killed.’

No longer. And how do we define ‘ruling class’ these days? By a readyness to shelter in tax havens, or on ocean-going yachts?

**

We have to take sides.

Our opponents are angry, we trade accusations. We will be flattened if we hold to the moral, un-confrontational high ground. We have simply to make our arguments better, and more cogent. We have to take sides.

How do we respond to China’s persecution of the Uighurs, its suppression of Hong Kong liberties  … to Huawei – partner or threat? … to our decline from being a key and influential operator within Europe to being a lackey of the USA … to indifference to Russian hacking … to the way ‘free trade’ arguments high-jacked Brexit … to the inadequacies of our response to Covid 19?

To focus on Covid – does it help to accuse? Yes, it does.  If we don’t have a ‘mission’ to investigate, then an investigation will not happen. (Or, as Boris Johnson would wish, we’ll have it a few safe years down the line. Preferably after the next election.) And anger will course come into play – linking tardiness of response and lack of preparation to the numbers of lives lost.

Mrs America, the splendid American TV series about Phyllis Schlafly and her opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, features two of the great early advocates of feminism, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. Friedan (Tracey Ullman) and Schlafly (Cate Blanchett) are debating on TV, and Friedan loses her cool. Steinem (Rose Byrne) had wanted to avoid confrontation, which she saw could work to Schlafly’s advantage – give her publicity. But Steinem came to realise that Friedan was right. The debate had to be polarised. You had to take sides.

We have, in the here and now, the ‘cancel culture’ debate, which is all about taking sides. Do we call out statue-retainers – or supporters of JK Rowling? Is now the time to strike out once and for all for the rights, the absolutely equal rights, in all areas of life, of black people and white people, and likewise for transgender rights? Many of us are in ‘take no prisoners’ mode.

It’s at this point in an argument that we wonder if we should step back. Maybe taking sides isn’t as easy as we thought. Anger generates resistance. We may believe in an outcome, but want to bring a wider public along with us.

How would Orwell have responded?  There’s a book to be written on that subject! By putting over facts and argument as clearly and cogently as possible – his starting-point in the ’30s and ’40s has to be our starting-point now.  We will know pretty quickly what side we’re on. 

How will they see us fifty years from now?

Impute a moral basis to society and you’re immediately on dangerous ground. If it’s hard to define morality in individuals how much harder is it to define morality in society. To keep the subject at a practical level I’m taking the UN declaration on human rights (see below) is a starting-point. But, as the issue of climate change exemplifies, it is only a starting-point. We have a responsibility to our own generations – but also to future generations.

American writer, Rebecca Solnit, in ‘Hope in the Dark’ (new edition 2016) asks ‘how human beings a half century or a century from now will view us … when climate change was recognised, and there was so much that could be done about it .. They may … see us as people who squandered their patrimony … regard us as people who rearranged the china when the house was on fire.’

She may be right, but new generations have always had the ability to adapt to their circumstances. Their world is the ‘new’ normal. Radicals will challenge it, as ever. And conservatives defend, as if the world had always been this way.

We must always beware complacency. Politics (not society as while) has over the last forty years lost its moral narrative. So many would argue. Some on the political right would counter that society shouldn’t have a moral narrative: the market, the free market, is the best determinant of human fortunes, and the state should interfere in only the most minimalist of ways. This also includes any attempt at world governance, so the United Nations and its various agencies, the WHO and the like, will always be suspect.

The Preamble to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a reminder of how moral purpose was defined in 1948 – and a marker against which we can judge our present society.

Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom, … Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations

(NB The Preamble refers to ‘peoples’, not ‘nations’.)

Steven Pinker (psychologist, and author of ‘Enlightenment Now’, published in 2018) might not dissent, but he has an optimism which many of us wouldn’t share. He sees the progress in reducing inequality around the world (primarily in China and developing countries) as proof that moral purpose is still embedded in our society. Looked at in numerical terms there’s also been a massive reduction in violence (see ‘The Better Angels  of Our Nature’, published in 2011). This, he’d argue, is the working out of reason, the highest Enlightenment ideal.

There are powerful counter-arguments against both positions.  Inequality, and indeed poverty, and violence are still deep-woven into our society. Natural or man-induced calamities could have catastrophic consequences.

Reason, for Pinker, underpins progress and progress is essential, and sustainable. Take the environment as an example. He sees the damage done by carbon emissions, but the answer, he argues, is not to rail against consumption. Consumption is tied to many human goods, not least keeping cool in summer, and warm in winter. To quote from Andrew Anthony’s 2018 interview with Pinker in The Guardian, ‘how do we get the most human benefit with the least human damage’.

Pinker is right. We need, all of us, to take great care in lambasting consumption. Most people might well agree in principle, but demur when it affects them. We cannot avoid in society as currently constituted the kind of focus on science and technology, working in a capitalist context, that Pinker would advocate.

But how does Pinker imagine we got to where we are now? He rests too comfortably in the present. His argument for reason of necessity plays down the role the passions have played in driving social progress over the more than 250 years since the ‘Encyclopedie’ was published in 1750s France.

The old working class has to a great degree been ‘brought into the community – as voters, as citizens, as participants’. (See ‘Ill Fares The Land’, by the historian, Tony Judt, 2010) We didn’t get there simply by the exercise of reason. We avoided revolution, in Western Europe, but not by much. Post-war society addressed the five wants (squalor, want, ignorance, disease, and idleness) highlighted in 1942 by William Beveridge head on. But we’re now faced with what Judt described as ‘the social consequences of technological change’, as the nature of work changes radically. Judt was prescient. The historian, Peter Hennessy, has recently put forward five wants for a post-Covid times: solving social care, social housing, technical education, climate change, artificial intelligence.

Finding answers will require passion and moral purpose, and the application of enlightened and far-sighted ideas. Consumption will not get us there. (Though high levels of consumption are imperative if we’re to keep the economy firing at the level it will need to do if goals are to be met. High ideals, in the old phrase, butter no parsnips.)

Yes, capitalism will drive the foreseeable future as it has the recent past. (How it might be reconstituted is a whole other subject.) But it will challenged by, and ultimately will have no choice but to come to terms with, crises of inequality, population, resource exploitation and climate which could spell the world’s demise.

Pinker is not wrong: we have made progress in the context of human values and living conditions. But we are also radically dis-connecting from the natural world, changing permanently our ways of communicating, and our environment. We are heading into territory we don’t understand. We may or may not have the wherewithal to deal with this new dispensation when we get there. Dis-connect is high risk. Having the wherewithal doesn’t mean it will in any sense be a good place.

Science in this sense cannot be morally neutral. And does sometimes get on a roll, and head in directions which are high risk.  The theory of evolution took on a life of its own. The splitting of the atom opened a Pandora’s box we have no way of closing. Neuroscience and AI are working in tandem toward higher forms of intelligence which may yet radically change who we are as human beings. *

Rebecca Solnit imagined an observer in fifty tears time who is very much a replica of a typical individual in our own time. But we may be moving into very different spaces by that time.

Back to the UN Charter and its focus on ‘the dignity and worth of human person’. We vest in them specific meanings which we cannot take for granted.

—- —- —-

* The Economist, referring to academics who worry about existential risk, which could be super-eruptions, climate collapse, geomagnetic storms and the like, comments that they ‘frequently apply a time-agnostic version of utilitarianism which sees “humanity’s long-term potential” as something far grander than the lives of billions on Earth today: trillions and trillions of happy lives of equal worth lived over countless millennia to come’.   The Economist is referring specifically to Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute.  We should indeed be engaged deeply  in such matters. But while doing so let’s never forget – the worth and the moral worth of each individual in the here and now has to be our starting-point.