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!

 

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?

Swift, clean victories

There’s an intriguing book just published by military historian, Lawrence Freedman, entitled The Future of War: A History: it focuses on (to quote the Economist review, 20th October) ‘how ideas about future wars could be fought have shaped the reality, with usually baleful results’.

‘Swift, clean victories’ have long been ‘baked into concepts of future war’, WW1 being a prime example. It would all be over by Christmas. In our own time we’ve civil wars rather than wars between nations, urban and guerrilla war, and hybrid, cyber warfare. Wars feed on themselves, self-perpetuate as they ever did.

Freedman’s message to policy-makers, the review concludes, is to beware those who tout ‘the ease and speed with which victory can be achieved while underestimating the resourcefulness of adversaries’.

I’m reminded of the current Brexit discussion. First create your adversary, as we’ve done, and then under-estimate his capabilities, and all the while assume that radical change, and even outright victory (and it would be seen as ‘victory’: we are combatants), can be achieved quickly.

I’ll bring in Richard Thaler here, recently-announced winner of the Nobel Prize for economics, and developer of ‘nudge’ theory. Thaler understand choices ‘as battles between two cognitive forces: a “doer” part of the brain focused on short-term rewards, and a “planner” focused on the long-term’. For Daniel Kahneman a related divide is exemplified in the title of his bestseller, ‘Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow’.

Our instinct for short-term success overpowers our planning instinct, we always want the quickest route, and we fool ourselves into thinking we have the wherewithal, the strategy, the materiel, to get us there.

There is, it seems, an inevitability about this process. There’s a quote from Steven Pinker, writing about Kahneman (Guardian, February 2014): ‘he gave me a comment that really sat with me: he noted that the idea of human nature with inherent flaws was consistent with a tragic view of the human condition and it’s a part of being human that we have to live with that tragedy.’  Pinker also argues that ‘we have the means to overcome some of our limitations, through education, through institutions, through enlightenment’.

I’ll take him at his word on ‘enlightenment’. There’s another side to human nature, as inherent as the flaws that Pinker alludes to, that takes us beyond  the ‘doer’ and the ‘planner’, the fast and the slow. Practised down the generations, put simply it’s self-awareness, living in the moment, bringing our reason, our planning instinct, to bear on our immediate or short-term actions.

In the spirit of zenpolitics,and in the absence of any apposite zen koans to hand, I’ll quote the 13th century Turkish (though born in Afghanistan) mystic, Rumi (I love the langauge): ‘…your inspired reason goes forward without obstacles/at the careful and measured pace of a camel’.

As for over-reliance on reason: ‘Discursive reason’s a vulture, my poor friend:/Its wings beat above a decaying corpse./The Saint’s reason is like the wings of Gabriel: …’

I’m touching on a vast subject here. Two Nobel prize winners on the one hand, three-millennia-old tradition and practice on the other. They don’t need to be in conflict, and both would warn against the pursuit of ‘swift, clean victories’.

 

The story so far – fifteen months on the disaster trail

The shadow over politics, the Brexit shadow, is one vast distraction. I feel I have to escape the shadow before I address other political subjects. But those other subjects – they’re all impacted in some way by Brexit, not least by the uncertainty associated with Brexit.

Take the environment, for example. UK environmental law is tied into European. Projects are EU-financed, standards, ideals, aspirations are shared. I remember at Finistera, at the end of the Camino, last autumn, noting how environment projects there were funded by the EU. I’d shared the Camino with many nations, and I loved that confirmation that many nations shared those standards, lived by a common framework. We know that Brexit free-traders cosy up to climate-change deniers, are casual about man-made changes to the environment – human ingenuity, they argue, has coped, and will always cope. All hinges on that one word ‘cope’.  Does the world we have around us, and that we’re projecting for our futures, mean that we’ve ‘coped’?

Human rights – the European Convention on Human Rights, which followed on from the UN Convention, and unlike the UN Convention is legally enforceable. Before the European courts. So for that reason we should exit it, according to Theresa May. As Philippe Sands (author of the remarkable East-West Street) pointed out when talking at the Cheltenham Literary Festival last Sunday, more than any other country we – the UK – gave Europe the convention. It was a British inspiration. Hersch Lauterpacht, who pioneered so much (beginning life in Lviv, in modern Ukraine: he left in the 1920s, his family were wiped out in the holocaust), was latterly a Cambridge professor.

Farming policy: how will policy change, how will farmers be financed, once we exit the EU, and exit the Common Agricultural Policy? CAP funding is based primarily on the amount of land farmed , so big farmers (mostly Tory supporters) benefit most. On the other hand, to quote a Scottish hill-farmer in a Reuters report: ‘The bloody-mindedness of the French or the Irish in standing up for agriculture was not just standing up for their farmers but brought a good deal for us as well.’ Post-Brexit, where will the money be directed? We are promised ‘a major policy overhaul’. Will the acreage farmed continue to dictate funding?  How might our landscapes change? Will the much-hyped new trade deals bring in cheaper farm imports , with knock-on effects on farm prices – other farming countries have more clout than we do. And what of cheap farm labour from Eastern Europe?  Michael Gove wants to prioritise the environment in any new scheme. But we’ve no idea how that will work out in practice, and legislation will be fast-tracked through parliament – fundamental changes pushed through with minimal public debate.

The Cheltenham Literary Festival has brought to the town an impressive range of politicians, journalists, singers (Peggy Seeger), mountaineers (Chris Bonington), sportsmen (Mike Brearley, Jonny Bairstow), TV stars, performers, poets, novelists….

Among the politicians was Chris Patten. I’ll leave his words to speak for themselves.

Referenda ‘are fundamentally anti-democratic in our system and I wouldn’t have anything to do with them’. (I can’t recall Patten’s exact words in Cheltenham – I’m quoting from another interview he gave.) Leavers in the Brexit campaign peddled a dubious notion of sovereignty (‘dubious’ was his polite word in Cheltenham – I see that elsewhere he’s spoken of ‘all this ideological crap about sovereignty and taking back control’). Brexit itself is ‘the single most calamitous act of self-harm in my lifetime’.

Philippe Sands, also at Cheltenham, put the remarkable achievement that the EU represents in the context of the preceding centuries of war. How casual can we be to turn our backs? He mentioned that Boris Johnson has been a friend for thirty years. How, he wondered, do you sustain such friendships in present times? Brexit has brought the obsessive tendencies of the further reaches of the Right, and Left, to centre stage. The centre ground of rational idea-based, truth-invigilated debate, is out of fashion.

Boris’s dad, Stanley, has written a novel. He and Vince Cable, also a new novelist, were a Cheltenham double-act. Boris’s novel assumes a Russian plot behind Brexit, enough to bring Brexit down. But he himself has changed sides from EU-supporting environmentalist to that contradiction in terms, a Brexit-supporting environmentalist.

Vince Cable outlined how higher education, the number of foreign students in the UK, intra-university cooperation across Europe were being threatened by Brexit. Stanley’s response, ‘Vince may be right, but he may not be.’ That was the limit of his response.

‘He may not be’ – that is standard Brexit-speak. You don’t need to address the detailed argument. It’s enough to suggest these days that’s there’s another point of view, however weak. And that point of view gets equal billing. The climate-change debate over again.

Jeremy Hunt, health secretary, is a one-time Remainer, now a Leaver – the damage, he suggests, to the economy that leaving was supposed to cause hasn’t happened. Is he now a convert to the hard-Brexit free-traders’ prognosis of a free-trade nirvana which will somehow subvert a world where protectionism and self interest are ever more asserting themselves? Or the Hammond soft version?

As the economy,  we haven’t left yet, we’re in a phoney-war period, a state of suspended grace which might just allow us to pull back from the brink – but the brink is too enticing. That itself is another aspect of Brexit – how supposed conservatives, the slow and steady incremental movers of politics, overnight become practitioners of brinkmanship.

Brexit is not only a bizarre course in terms of the economy, it is extraordinarily damaging to the democratic process, not just by giving referenda precedence over parliamentary democracy (so we have the question, can an act of parliament over-ride a referendum result – where does sovereignty lie?) but by polarising debate, taking out the common ground that most of the Right and Left shared until 2015.

Not only is the common ground not shared – it’s now scorned. So the John Majors, Chris Pattens, Nick Cleggs – they are old-school, flag-wavers of a different age. That would apply to me, and to most of my peers …

 

Gloucester, Easter Sunday morning

Easter Sunday, and a forecast of dullness belied by brilliant sun, and a blue sky which set off the white stone of Gloucester Cathedral. 8pm, early morning communion in the choir, before the high altar. Above us the great 14th century window reputedly commemorating the battle of Crecy. About thirty people at communion, come 11pm the cathedral will be packed, chairs await them in every corner of nave and aisle. After communion I waited awhile, and stood at the back of the nave, looking toward organ and altar, and all was (for a few minutes) empty, not a soul, just the great Norman columns in stately procession toward the transept, and the simple vaulted ceiling, in sharp contrast to the wonderful fan vaulting of the choir.

(Should anyone wonder why a blog with zen in its title should be comfortable with early communion… There’s a silence, a time for contemplation, in the early morning. I’ll say no more than that.)

In the cathedral precinct there’s major landscaping, and fences everywhere, but lift your eyes to the cathedral walls, the tower and the sky, and there is all the space, and all the serenity you could wish for in the world.

Ivor Gurney has a close association with the cathedral.  The son of a Gloucester tailor, he was composer, writer of songs, poet, and a celebrant of the Gloucestershire landscape, in his poems from the front, and in his letters. Windows in the Lady Chapel commemorate him, and I always pay a visit when I come to the cathedral – but not today. The Lady Chapel is fenced off, major renovations until the autumn. They will make for easier access, and maybe more people will find sanctuary there, and take in the wonderful stained glass (by Tom Denny) of the Gurney memorial. He survived the first war, but his mind didn’t, incarcerated in a mental home in Kent he longed for his home county, and the Severn vale, where he’d walked countless times…

One place he walked was Cranham, whose woods he celebrated, and where I am now. Reached via the Portway, down and up which I drove an hour or two ago. Gurney would have walked, and he’d have seen that amphitheatre of woodland and meadow opening up ahead, farms either side, and a vast sky above. He was obsessed with the idea of beauty, above all the beauty of his home county. It gave him comfort in France. He recalls in a letter home how the tower of the church of Merville reminds him of Gloucester’s tower. Both churches rise above the landscape, are landmarks, and inspirations.

Walking back to my car, I passed along pedestrianised streets, stained, a little ragged, forlorn, and empty on an Easter Sunday morning. Only Macdonalds and Burger King open, and they only just. How would Gurney have responded to the decay of his old city? To the contrast between shops, and cathedral and precinct, an absolute contrast. How I wondered as I walked back could the city be revived, made vibrant and colourful as a city centre should be – and keep all the while the quiet and sanctity and celebration of the cathedral and its surrounds.

One of many questions this Easter, an Easter where questions seem to crowd in on all sides – so many questions where there are no obvious answers.

The day after…

So we’re the day after. Theresa May has invoked Article 50, officially received by Donald Tusk. From a Brit to a Pole, a document that’s tantamount to a surrender of our status in the world. Ironic, remembering 1939, when we went to war for Poland.

I’ve often thought post referendum that this blog belonged to another age. Might a Zen approach to politics, bringing wisdom and compassion, as understood in Buddhist terms, to bear, no longer be of its time?

Engagement, street-corner politics, arguing, rallying, taking sides, contrasting opposites – we may seek to hold to the truth but when the other side embellishes or distorts then we have to counter – and the language of attack and counter-attack isn’t always sweet. I tried the counter-attack last year. But that’s for another blog. For now, a simple statement, from the Buddha, no less:

How wonderful, how miraculous that all beings are endowed with the wisdom of the Tathagata [someone who has achieved enlightenment]. Only sadly human beings because of their attachments are not aware of it.

The ultimate attachment is to ‘I’, which is out there all the time asserting its identity, in a state of more or less insecurity, seeking reassurance, arguing, shoring up its position.

24-hour news is part of this. Listening every few hours, even every hour. Always engaged with the minutiae, and responding yea or nay to each news item – agreeing, disagreeing. Encouraged, depressed. Even if we’ve escaped the high and lows we’re always in there with the buzz of it all.

As a contrast, take a simple image, water in a glass vessel, conforming to its size and shape. We want to change the moment, or change the world. We pour the water out, find another vessel.

But imagine the universe as a vessel, and the laws which govern it – the laws of the tao (see the Tao Te Ching), the Buddha wisdom, the Christian gospel message of love, which is universal – as the water within.

The day-to-day is about change. That is what life is, change and becoming. But chucking out the water, changing the vessel, endless agitation, that can never be the way forward. The way of wisdom moves more slowly, wisdom lies in silence and in a quieter, more measured understanding.

And that is not the mood or way of our times!

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.