Comedy rules – two great American novels 

We were in my last blog on the road in America, fifty years ago, give or take.

It put me in the mood for more America. Better wild and offbeat, I thought, rather than Frantzen-style intensive scrutiny. So having read the blurb I picked up Paul Beatty’s new novel, The Sellout, and read it just a week before it won the Man Booker prize last Tuesday. And that put me in the mood for a novel written almost fifty years ago, John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces.

We’re in New Orleans, well away from all the California fun and games. Toole creates one of the great comic heroes, Ignatius J Reilly. A medievalist by education and inclination, preferring his own room and company, yet forced to work he creates chaos in the sales office of Levy Pants, and confusion in the streets as a hot-dog salesman. He is wonderfully quotable.

Optimism nauseates me. It is perverse. Since man’s fall his proper position in the universe has been one of misery.’ Advising us to avoid all of history apart from the early medieval he recommends that ‘for the contemporary period , you should study some selected comic books’. Strangely prophetic. ‘I suspect that I am the result of a particularly weak conception on the part of my father. His sperm was probably emitted in a rather offhand manner.’

Ignatius’s New Orleans is a place I’d want to visit: I was there in 1971, and might have met him, had he existed… but I listened to jazz and didn’t scratch below the surface.

Likewise Dickens, the LA ghetto brought back to life in Paul Beatty’s novel. Dickens had somehow dropped off the map. Along with segregation – blacks shutting out whites – Beatty’s hero and narrator wants to put it back. He also unwittingly takes on Hominy, a one-time child actor who insists on being his slave. So as a black man he’s taken before the courts, on charges of slavery and segregation, and the novel begins and ends with the case brought before the Supreme Court. Black comedy in every sense, but such is Beatty’s commitment to irreverence that he absolutely gets way with it.

Unlike Jonathan Frantzen’s families, who I wouldn’t want to meet, I’d love to have got acquainted with Toole’s and Beatty’s characters in real life. Though maybe not more than acquainted….

And now we have Donald Trump acting out one of the great American comedy turns. Only it’s not comedy. Would he was a novel, and we could laugh.

America shares its life with us. We could be put off but we know, or we should know, that our own lives in our own countries are just as absurd, just as lost and lonely, mixed-up, angry, funny, devoted, passionate. So two cheers for America. If only we could slip in there, past the miserable souls who staff the airport arrival halls – and wearing ear mufflers which let in the roar of both the big city and the prairie winds but shut out the news networks which blight every bar and home.

Something for Google to look into. I don’t want a Google glass which enhances my experience. Rather mufflers that screen out …

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.

A citizen of the world 

“If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word citizenship means.”

My response?

I am, Mrs May, a citizen of the the UK, a citizen of Europe and a citizen of the world. Your comment shows how narrow your concept of citizenship, and in a connected world, how worthless. The patriotism you espouse is insularity, and treads close to, and encourages, jingoism.

Define citizenship as I have done, take your patriotism out into the world, share and understand the patriotism of others, and we will quite simply have a better world. Talk of strengthening borders and keeping foreign workers out, when openness and welcome have always been defining characteristics of our country, is the cry of a lady of comfortable circumstances, rooted in her own and not her country’s past. It’s is the cry of someone wanting to hold on to what she has, before she thinks what she can offer to others.

I’m not belittling that very personal attachment and pride we have in our country. I’m attacking those who would define it in their own interest, and respond with fear and a closed mind when all our futures lie in an open mind and heart.

And the others I have in mind? The young, the generations coming through who understand that we live in a global and connected world, and that the old narrow definitions of citizenship have a new and wider context.

Not only is Mrs May self-serving she also works directly against her country’s interest. In leaving the EU we not only put in peril trading relationships, we also seriously impair that remarkable influence we’ve had across Europe over the last forty years, where our democratic traditions and practice, our legal norms, the standards we espouse for society, the environment and the workplace have become accepted practice across much of the continent.

Mrs May’s citizenship is a straitjacket. A heavy boot on the hopes of future generations. Do not, Prime Minister, tread on their dreams.

1968 and all that

There’s a perverse pleasure in wading through reviews of books and articles on subjects I know nothing about and may never encounter again. On occasion something hits home. One example: Terry Eagleton in the special Cheltenham Festival Times Literary Supplement edition, on everyone’s favourite subject, post-structuralism:

‘In its curious blend of scepticism and euphoria post-structuralism is a form of libertarian pessimism – one which dreams of a world free from the constraints of norms and institutions, but which is not so incorrigibly naïve as to believe it could ever come about.’  

I could dine out on that one!

‘The revolutionary elan of 1968’ was followed by ‘the disenchanted mood of its political aftermath’. I remember 1968. Too well.

It’s a pattern oft-repeated. More recently we’ve had the frustrations of the Obama years, when ‘yes we can’ didn’t quite happen. (Maybe it never will.) The aftermath of the 1989 and the fall of the Wall. Occupy and the now empty squares of New York and London. Above all the Arab Spring, and its brutal aftermath.

But we won’t and can’t let our optimism die. I’m one of millions now and forever who believe in social justice, opportunity, capability, compassion. We rejoice when we see progress, we’re despondent when we see it pushed back. But we don’t despair.

We don’t of course always agree with each other. Do we work with the system, or oppose it – and by what means? The divide between global and anti-global perspectives is vast. Many (not all) proponents of big government and small government have the same end in view but believe in radically different ways of getting there.

I supported and support Obama, always believed Occupy wasn’t sustainable … Bernie Sanders I admire, Corbyn I don’t. We will bicker and insult and traduce the motives of others, while still aspiring to the same humanity.

And we will undermine each others’ efforts. Refuse to vote for Hillary. Battle it out for the soul and machinery of the Labour Party. And if we’re not careful – and we haven’t been of course – let another party in, a party which doesn’t define compassion and social justice quite as we do… which puts up barriers rather than engage with the world. Abandons institutions rather than seeks to reform them. Follows the populist piper, who advocates easy solutions, and plays to prejudice.

There are many good reasons for retiring to a monastery or a country cottage or sitting room and TV, and disengaging – and yet we hang in there. If we keep open minds, listen to each other, avoid scorn and hubris, remember that we’re ultimately on the same side – then we might just make progress.

Countering Extremism 

Another remarkable discussion at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. This time on countering extremism. How best to handle radical Islam is a contentious issue. And that’s a significant impediment in itself. But first and foremost, we have to be better informed.

Peter Frankopan, who chaired the panel of three (see * below for the participants) asked the audience, a full house in the town hall, how many of us had read the Koran. Maybe two or three put up their hands. We rely too much on opinions, commentators and hearsay, selective reporting and prejudice. Sadly I guess most of us won’t be rushing off to buy and read copies. But we owe it to ourselves, to the Muslim communities in our midst, and to our own futures, to be better informed.

Continue as we are now, and we will continue as polarised communities.

Radical Islamists argue that the West and Islam are incompatible, put a distorted view of Islam up against a immoral West beyond redemption. So young Muslims, already feeling excluded, feel they have to take sides.

As a society, whatever faith or non-faith we profess, we need counter-arguments, and at the core of these arguments must be inclusion – Muslims should be, must be, as much a part of this society as Christians. Prejudice is a conflicting and self-defeating agenda.  Achieve inclusion, and we can make  democracy, liberty, free speech shared values, across all communities.

Inclusion requires commitment on both sides, on all sides. We have a long way to go.

*Chaired by Peter Frankopan, and drawing on the experience of Sara Khan, founder of the charity Inspire, which challenges extremist ideologies in Muslim communities, Peter Neumann, academic and author of ‘Radicalised’, and Hanif Qadir, a one-time recruit to radical Islam now working with young people in danger from radicalisation.

Taking time off from Brexit

I’ve written a lot about the referendum and Brexit in this blog. It is after all a blog with ‘politics’ in the title. But we’re all tired of reading analyses of one kind or another, about hard and soft Brexit, free trade and customs unions, the democratic deficit, immigration levels and the like.

And I want to get back to writing on other subjects, could be political, but just not Brexit, chill out, write poetry, seeking out high mountain or deep country retreats – or more prosaically, just get on with ordinary life.

That said, I’m not signing off without one last submission! With a focus on the action – the actions – we should be taking.

There’s a sense at the moment that events are running away from us. We’re anticipating dire consequences from the Brexit vote – but that means we’re looking out for those consequences – almost willing them – to prove ourselves right. And that’s no place to be.

A sense that more than ever in my lifetime we are headed in the wrong direction, and led by the wrong people – amateurs in a ruthless world. Rarely has hope – false hope – so triumphed over pragmatism.

Nor should we forget anger. Anger over the simple mendacity of many in the Leave campaign. But also over our own foolishness for not seeing it coming, for not realising the potential for a protest vote – and not understanding earlier why that protest vote might happen.

We now need to take action, to build up and sustain pressure – working with others, as part of campaigning groups, as supporter/members of the pressure groups, or pro-EU political parties – the Lib Dems, or an actively opposing opposition, as I hope Labour will become after the September leadership election. (It may be another kind of Labour, a breakaway or a reborn Labour, as it needs to be if it’s to regain support among the old blue-collar, working-class vote.)

‘Actions’ in italics.

All the while we have to keep that open and open-market, European, international, global perspective. International agreements by continent or wider are a much more effective, more reliable way forward than agreements at a single country level. (Which isn’t to say we should be immediately signing up to TTIP!) Europe is also an attitude of mind, relating back to how we connect with the world.

But – don’t so much shout in from the roof-tops, develop a wider, quieter strategy, but one that’s no less determined. There was too much shouting during the referendum campaign.

And too little awareness – now I hope radically changed for everyone on the Remain side – of economic and social and political realities, too little awareness of what life is really like beyond city borders – the sense of a government that doesn’t listen, the decline in prosperity and pride in traditional working-class areas, and the hostility and alienation felt even in prosperous Tory outer suburbia. If immigrants bring increasing wealth to the country, where is the infrastructure, the investment in the NHS and schools? If industries close down, where are not just the re-training packages but the industries, the services, the actual physical jobs to allow people to re-engage with society?

We may find we’ve common ground with Brexiters here – arguing for (sensible, nationwide – not HS2) infrastructure and investment.

Cameron and Osborne all but turned their backs on the problem. Inadequate re-training, and little sense of a wider industrial strategy. The irony is that it’s now the Brexiters, the old-style grumbling Tories of the shires who have to take action, when it’s just they who have been happy to turn their backs on run-down, de-industrialised areas in the past.

There are critical procedural considerations – how we can best secure votes in parliament before before Article 50 is invoked, and likewise on the results of negotiations, if we get that far. And how we can make certain we win those votes, should they happen. In the first instance – by supporting individual MPs, think tanks, pressure groups – and political parties, Labour I hope as well as the LibDems. 

God knows how the immigration debate will play out over time. Business and the NHS and social care depend on immigrants, and if the economy expands, and the NHS and social care improve their services, we will require continuing high levels of immigration. If we’re to stand a chance of retaining a sane immigration strategy it will need some radically re-thinking at an EU level – which we must argue for.

The sovereignty debate is one where opinion if it changes will only do so over time. It’s become confused with national identity, and too many people have argued that British and European identities are not compatible. The EU has to a great extent only itself to blame. It has now to show, and we have to argue hard for, a radically improved awareness of national concerns and susceptibilities. It will go to the wall, and one country after another will exit, if it doesn’t. Federalism must be put out to the very longest grass .

And that, for now, is it on the subject of Brexit!!

Zenpolitics, and the world, six years on

It’s not a bad idea in these tortured times to remind myself why I began this blog. ‘What is zenpolitics,’ I asked. My answer? ‘Taking the trash and hyperbole out of politics and trying to look at people and issues in a way that’s detached from emotion and as they really are.’

Six years now since I wrote that, and it’s even harder now. The Brexit campaign has focused all the uncertainty in British politics but instead of providing resolution has brought animosity, and potential chaos. Politics should always be about gradual not sudden change – not a thought everyone shares, I appreciate – it’s a subject for another time, another post.

But now we have an elephant in the room, as someone said. We are all obsessed and divided and old-style political discussion has gone out of the window. A good thing?

Referenda do damage, they polarise, the original subject of debate gets lost in hyperbole, in distortions, it too readily becomes a protest vote. They’re prey to propaganda, to manipulation. Referenda were a distant and unlikely possibility six years ago. Now they are subverting the parliamentary democracy which gives a forum for rational – and emotional – debate, which falls prey to all sorts of issues and irregularities, but nonetheless gives a sane and measured and balanced way forward.

In the US it’s no better, and potentially worse. US presidential elections reflect a traditional divide, they have a slow almost two-year (if not a four-year!) build up, and they are multi-issue. But this time it’s a protest vote, whipped up on the one side by special interests with vast amounts of advertising spend at their disposal, now turned on its head by Donald Trump, and on the other side by an equally disillusioned younger and streetwise population – both sides equally out of step with Washington politics. In the US and the UK vast numbers of people no longer feel a part of the traditional democratic process.

Behind all this are the challenges of globalisation and new technologies – the decline of traditional industries, a switch from a unified and organised and socially cohesive labour force to a fragmented and lower-paid workforce engaged in lower-paid service industries, influenced and exacerbated by massive trade imbalances with China – resulting in a growing divide between those who benefit from these changes, usually educated and skilled, and those who do not.

And out of this we have alienation, discontent – and, given a forum, we have protest. And we have the blind (and Tory economic policy under Osborne has to fit under that heading) who fail to see the

impact of that alienation, and how it has to be directly addressed. And the manipulators, who turn it to their own purposes – anti-immigrant sentiment, or neo-liberal economic agendas.

Blind – we’ve all been blind. Back to my original zenpolitics aspiration – ‘trying to look at people and politics… the way they really are’. More than ever that has to be the aspiration. And it’s now, with so much emotion and obsession, that much harder.

All the while, the other big issues haven’t gone away – the refugee crisis, Syria, IS. Population movements in Africa, where the population explosion is hitting hardest. Russia and Ukraine. China and the South China Sea. And suddenly, almost but not quite out of the blue, we have Turkey, an attempted coup, and a profoundly foolish but populist regime which will lead Turkey further down the road to either chaos or autocracy.

And here in the UK – we now obsess with Brexit, where the very best outcome will be that we achieve something close to our existing economic performance, and the worst – better not to contemplate.

There are bigger issues, much bigger issues, out there, and we have turned foolishly inward.

I wanted with zenpolitics to take the emotional out of politics. But we need emotion at times to drive the engagement we need to have to put our own world, here in the UK, back on to a saner track.

But above all we need to, and I repeat, ‘see things as they really are’. In a world of fractured and misleading debate that is a mighty challenge.