Making the case for silence

Zen is about silence. No soap box required.

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

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

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

You can’t command silence.

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

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

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

But that’s as maybe…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A sense of humour

Thinking back to my last post, on the subject of language….

NVC, Nonviolent Communication, is an organisation founded by Marshall Rosenberg several decades ago. (Check out the book.) The name speaks for itself. It sets the benchmark high.

Humour, surely, is non-violent. And yet …

A weeks ago (23rd March) in Central London  more than a million marchers kept their sense of humour. Below are a few placards:

We know about cliff edges in Cornwall….Brutalists against Brexit….Even Tesco has better deals….Without free movement we can’t get rid of Nigel and Boris….I’m British. I’ve taken to the streets I protest. Things must be jolly bad….I wasn’t old enough to vote. I am now….I’d rather run through a field of wheat….I’m so angry I could make a placard…On second thoughts…

The Sun newspaper absolutely failed to bring any humour to the party. ‘Snarky little placards’ is how The Sun describes the placards. Who I wonder came up with that joyful phrase? (Likewise, ‘No sane person is impressed, even by 5.6 million Remainers signing a petition.’)

Humour can breed hostility. I don’t think most marchers set out to goad. Their humour was simply a way of handling what they saw as a disaster. But it riled the other side…

George Orwell in his pamphlet ‘Politics and the English Language’ (1946) is concerned about the language of debate, at a rather more elevated level than The Sun. But his message is clear.

‘All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.’

When the atmosphere is bad, even humour is drawn in.

We are treading on egg-shells.

Ten years on

Ten years ago I was full of optimism.

More to the forefront than ever was our common identity, as human beings – coloured, black or white, male or female, or what or whoever they might be.

There might I thought come a time when love and compassion could be mentioned more readily in everyday discourse, without raising cynical hackles.

Zen with its focus on living in the present, and not in imagined pasts or impossible futures, might have something to teach us.

The personal would naturally elide into the social, and the political. The local into the big picture. Society would be more just, more open, and liberal democracy more firmly rooted.

I still have my optimism. But it’s tougher road to travel.

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Ten years on my starting-point remains the same – the innate sense of justice and compassion which lies within each of us. Violence is the distraction. For Thomas Hobbes, favourite political philosopher of many, on the other hand, violence is the reality, society a necessary construct to allow social values space to operate.

I’m arguing we should take compassion as the reality, and build out from there.

It’s hard to imagine the practice of compassion beginning at the top, with government, though it would be wonderful if it did. Its natural launch pad is the family, from which it extends out into neighbourhood, into local institutions, school, colleges, local government. Identification with neighbourhood is key. But identity too easily becomes exclusive, narcissistic, intolerant – identity operating against rather than with others. We operate our politics from behind barricades. We don’t talk at bus stops, on street corners, or in pubs. We prefer social media …

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Many see social media as a panacea for all our ills, people coming together. I’d question this.  Coming together is about eye contact, about all the nuances of expression, about changes from moment to moment, about listening more than speaking, about compromise – about the moment, about the instant – about holding hands, walking together, taking in the sky and sunset together – social media offer none of this.

Larry Diamond argued back in 2010 that new digital tools would empower ‘citizens to report news, expose wrongdoing, express opinions, mobilise protest, monitor elections, scrutinise government, deepen participation, and expand the horizons of freedom’. The Arab Spring, inspired by social media, followed. And we know what came later.

#MeToo is another matter – it proves how much of a driver for change social media can be. I’m counselling caution, not opposition.

Who are the gatekeepers of social media? We may think the digital world has left the analogue, the old pedestrian face-to-face outmoded and behind the curve. But we should beware. Keyboard democracy has the same instant appeal as referenda, and all the disadvantages, and more. The ‘will of the people’ is unrealisable, because there must always be a question-master, a rule-setter, an interpreter, a judge – whereas representative democracy has the rules, the check and balances, and, for the USA and Europe, the traditions in place.

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Politics is about compromise – it is the art of compromise. And it needs to be personal, and pragmatic. So when we move out of our localities, or our social media space, we need our social spaces to link up to find common ground with each other. We need to look beyond our immediate identities. Find common ground with other groups. Political parties exist for this purpose. They need to be broad churches, where change and compromise are the order of the day. Media which demand positions which are always consistent which never change, are the enemy here.

Political parties aren’t popular. At times they’ve had the world before them – ridden the wave, at other times they’ve turned inward, exclusive – one interest group triumphs, ideologues take over the agenda … I needn’t say more.  But I don’t believe they can be easily substituted. Gauging opinion via social media assumes an entirely open and unmanipulated space out there, and that doesn’t and will never happen.

So, yes, it’s the street corner, the pub, the club, the church – they’re the spaces where we start. With the individual, operating in person and not with a virtual identity. We move up the chain from there, by consultation and election, to representative institutions, places for debate and the exchange of ideas, ultimately to parliament.

There are vast differences of view out there. Conflict and change will remain the order of the day. But let us at least ensure the foundations of our institutions are dug down deep. They don’t belong in a virtual space, they belong in ordinary human contact – moving up and out on to larger stages.

Those institutions well established are our best guarantee that we will reach the right decisions – on identity, immigration, infrastructure, business, welfare, how wealth is distributed, how media should be owned and operate ….

For some what I’ve said here many seem obvious, others may see it as no more than faux sociology. But I’m not attempting here an academic proposition. Rather, no more than to outline the way the personal and political need to link if society is to prosper.

As individuals, while we may lay into politicians, we need to tread carefully railing against institutions. They’ve come about not by accident, but because they worked. Take note of China, Hungary, Turkey, Venezuela. Whatever you do with the bathwater, hold on to the baby.

The rise and rise of populism (1)

Theresa May has today come back with a draft Brexit deal from Brussels. Will it get through her cabinet meeting later today – will it get through parliament in the coming weeks? The convolutions over recent months have been extraordinary, and occupied newspapers, TV, parliament and civil servants, and intruded overly into all our lives. Our time could have been better spent elsewhere.

I wrote when I set up this blog that ‘zen is living in the moment and not somewhere else past or future’. We have done too much of the latter over the last two years. It is the reality of the moment we have to address.

In this blog and the following one I’m looking at the rise of populism and, with the help of an Economist article and a new book from the political theorist Yascha Mounk, attempting to put it in context.

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Bagehot (Economist 3rd November) is on the look-out for ‘intelligent explanations’ for Brexit and specifically the rise of populism that lies behind it, and he finds guidance in Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin’s book ‘National Populism’.

The authors identify ‘four Ds’ that they believe explain populism:

immigration, under the curious heading ‘destruction’;

distrust of established elites: 58% of Britons think that ‘politicians do not listen to me’;

deprivation: ‘a growing feeling of both absolute and relative deprivation … tipped the balance for significant groups of voters,’ in Bagehot’s words;

de-alignment: it’s true that Labour and Tories together at the last election won 82% of the vote, but ‘Brexit cuts like a knife though both main parties’.

Bagehot argues that all this should warn ‘the political elite should not to take the decision to re-fight the 2016 referendum lightly if the opportunity presents itself’.  Those whose opinions were ignored ‘could be dangerously radicalised if the vote went in favour of Remain’.

This is a dangerous argument in itself. If Brexit is a pathway to disaster for the country, as Remainers believe it is, and as events are proving, then we who might be immune to ‘dangerous radicalisation’ should not back off because we fear it from the other side.

Bagehot’s other conclusion, that nationalist populism will be an important part of British politics for decades, is probably true – but not certainly so.

Disinformation and dishonesty and simple deviousness (Ds again) played a significant part in swinging the referendum vote. (Or as a local leaflet has it: ‘manipulation, mistruths and campaign violations.’) They will be harder to counter as long as the media play the polarising game: restricting UK media ownership to fully resident and full UK-taxpaying citizens would be an important step forward.

But we have the media we have – in the UK and the USA. Looking beyond, we have immediate actions we could take, if the will is there. But there is also a deeper crisis, which immediate actions can ameliorate but not resolve – a crisis for democracy and for liberal democracy, in the very institutions which have underpinned our democracies in the post-war years. I’ll return to this in the post following.

As for immediate actions …. I don’t believe answers lie in new democratic institutions, citizens’ forums and the like, but returning power to local authorities would be an important step. Likewise, nation-wide investment in infrastructure: starting in, not ending in, or not even reaching (I’m thinking of HS2), deprived areas.  And a curtailing of arrogance among the elite – de-eliting the elite. Many MPs have a close relationship with their constituencies (see Isabel Hardman’s new book, ‘Why We Get the Wrong Politicians’): all need to do so, and the ‘club’ atmosphere of the Commons, and all signs of arrogance among MPs, need to be stamped down on hard. A surfeit of posh Tories and democratised Trotskyites hasn’t helped.

Fewer ‘free-traders’ would also help: arguments that there exist ‘free trade’ alternatives to the EU and the single market reassured many Leave voters that there was a real alternative to the EU. I grew tired of ‘free-traders’ referring to an economists’ ‘commissariat, as if there was a plot afoot among mendacious economists to fool the nation in the interests of … who? … global capitalism, I assume.

But immediate actions can’t level out the playing field between a rampant banking and global business sector, and the wider business sector, between a brutally acquisitive oligarchy for whom wealth brings power and influence, and the ordinary person, out of London, out west, or north, or east.

I’ll address this wider context in my next post.

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!

 

Buddhism and politics – never the twain shall meet?

‘Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.’ (Rudyard Kipling, Barrack-Room Ballads.)

I don’t claim to be a practising Buddhist. But there is no better way in my experience of understanding the world. That’s why I began this blog. To explore how Buddhism, and Zen especially, might connect with the ordinary world.

Unhappiness, dissatisfaction – in the world and with the world – dukkha – are the Buddhist’s starting-point.

‘Unhappiness arises because there is resistance and rejection … Rejection and resistance are part of anger because nothing will ever be exactly as we wish. If we are still looking for satisfaction in worldly matters, we haven’t seen Dhamma [the Buddhist truth] yet.’ (Ayya Khema)

So do we put worldly affairs behind us? If we’re following a path to enlightenment then, it seems, we must. And yet of course, we can’t. Monks cut their bonds with home, they move as far from obstacles as they can. This requires discipline and sacrifice. For a higher reward.

But the ordinary outside world will and must go on as before.

The Venerable Myokyo’s comments on Zen Master Daie help. (Zen Traces, September 2018.) Master Daie highlights the contrast between ‘gentlemen of affairs’ and ‘home leavers’ (meaning monks of course).

A gentleman of affairs – a nobleman back in Tang dynasty China. ‘Affairs’ – the daily grind, affairs as we understand them?  No, ‘this affair, this great affair of birth and death.’

What if we substitute ‘men and women going about their ordinary daily affairs’ for ‘gentlemen of affairs’. Bring ‘this great affair of birth and death’ down to earth.

If we are mindful in our daily affairs there is always something blocking our path – something we want and can’t have, something that simply isn’t right, something beautiful but beyond our reach, something ugly and too close to home. (I’m paraphrasing the Venerable Myokyo.)

For men and women in their daily affairs, as for the gentlemen of affairs, there is one route to follow. Faced with all the wants, likes, dislikes, loathings that block the path – ‘just sit down in meditation: not to get rid of them, but to look at them. To look at them clearly and recognise them. In that recognition they lose their power.’

We don’t all sit down to meditate.  But if we step back (meditation in its simplest form) and look at all our likes and loathings, and see them for what they are – our own projections on to the world, and not of the world itself – then they will lose their power.

Their emotive power. But we do not lose, surely, our power to distinguish between right and wrong. If we are political in that sense we can’t put our compassion behind us. We want to ensure that a world in which everyone may follow their own path, free from hindrance, and follow a path to enlightenment if they wish, will always be there.

There can be no guarantees that will be the case.

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?