Spring, Michele Hanson, Pinker, Kahneman, Brexit, Ursula LeGuin – a few one-sentence blogs

Time is pressing and I’m off on holiday to an island where I’ll face south across the ocean and follow the sun, and climb up to the cloud forest behind. But there are blogs that I’ve wanted to write. So I thought – how about a blog of single sentence. (Max two, but you’ll see how this expands.)

Brexit: in his speech to his party’s spring conference yesterday, LibDem leader Vince Cable argued that “nostalgia for a world where passports were blue, faces were white and the map was coloured imperial pink” had driven some older voters to Brexit. In response to the uproar from some in the Tory ranks I’d simply say that some truths are self-evident – and add the reminder that without anti-immigrant sentiment Brexit would have been decisively defeated.

Michele Hanson: the Guardian columnist died a few days ago, after 34 years (I think) of writing a column for the Guardian. I knew her a little back in the 70s, we had mutual friends, and I’ve caught up today with a few of the columns I didn’t read, and found them both downbeat and upbeat, wise, warm and rather wonderful – whether she’s writing on care homes, dogs, family, personal hygiene – she engaged so many people with moments and issues in life they could connect with.

At the other extreme my old bete noir, the fluffy-white-haired guru Steven Pinker, paired in this instance with the 18th century Scottish genius-philosopher, David Hume, whom Pinker neglects to mention when talking about the enlightenment – and who stated clearly and succinctly that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions”. In other words, don’t give reason space which it oughtn’t to have – give it, I’d argue, shared space, let one inform the other, and take both out beyond our private lives into the public sphere.

Thoughts from Tim Harford in the FT, quoting Daniel Kahneman: “When faced with a difficult question we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution.” In the case of the referendum the difficult question being “Should the UK remain in the EU”, and the easier substitution “Do I like the way this country is going”.

The last item was two sentences – so I’m adding a third from Harford as a separate item – a rather obvious cheat. “No voter can master every issue … referendums instead invite us to ignore the question, give the snake-oil peddlars an edge, concentrate our ignorance into a tightly-focused beam, and hold nobody accountable for results.” Right on.

For something completely different … Alexander Harris in the Tate Etc Magazine: “So I became a collector of early autumn evenings. In the ancient analogy … the time of youth is spring. But I remember only one or two spring days from my childhood – it is all autumn: the orange of the late crocosmia flowers meets the spotted yellow fringes of hawthorn leaves; blue skies deepen above glowing stone walls, and then it all softens to a yellowy grey haze…” That set me thinking, and I only half-agree, and maybe that’s because my pre-eminent spring memory is of a day in May walking in the Cheshire hills with my first girlfriend, and spring was suffused with birdsong and a funny feeling of elation, of walking on air, that I’ve never quite recaptured …

(Treating Alexander Harris’ quote as one sentence …)

A quote from Neil Collins, an old-friend from the 70s who I haven’t seen in maybe forty years, in the FT, in the context of the collapse of Toys R Us and Maplins: “Is yours a zombie company… [zombie being] defined as a company that has failed to earn its interest cost for two consecutive years and is valued at less than three times sales. …[The Deutsche Bank] comprehensive analysis of the world’s 3000 biggest businesses implies that more of them [this year than last] have discovered a strategy for survival – [instead of just] clinging on, merely waiting a mercy killing from rising interest rates.” Two reasons for including: one, a reminder to me and anyone who enjoys abstruse speculation that there’s a hard business world out there, and if we choose to rant against capitalism we have to remember how bloody hard and ruthless the business world is  … and, two, whatever’s happening in High Street retail, things are getting slightly better – are they???

Rediscovering Ursula LeGuin, someone else who’s died recently: there’s a new book which collects together her non-fiction, ‘Dreams Must Explain Themselves’. She had Taoist beliefs … that established an instant bond – the Tao, or Dao, the way, is the wisest, simplest yet most all-encompassing of notions; and she admired Calvino, Borges, Woolf, Twain, Tolstoy and Tolkien. And how about: “To think that realistic fiction is by definition superior to imaginative fiction is to think that imitation is superior to invention.” I’ll add my own comment – never curtail that sense of wonder, of fantasy and myth – walk on the wild as well as the wise side.

Four sentences. Time to exit.

The Plough and the Stars

Were I to write a review of the Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars, which I saw at the National Theatre last night, ‘bloody marvellous,’ might do it.

Intense, overwhelming, the agonies of Nora, which destroy her, and death of Bessie Burgess, shot by a British soldier who thinks she might be a sniper – they are sustained, stretched out, they leave the audience on a knife edge of emotion, they’re heart-rending and overwhelming. I felt when the lights went up at the end that I’d been an intruder, an uninvited guest, wanting but unable to intervene. This was not a time or place to applaud. (But of course we did.)

Curiously, one reviewer thought the play ‘so heavy going and full of crude stereotypes’ that it’s hard to care about the characters. Michael Billington, in the Guardian, on the other hand, got its measure: … once the play starts to exert its grip, it never lets go, and leaves you shaken and stirred’.

How an audience could fail to be stirred by this production – that disturbs me. Are we so inured to passion and poetry? So stultified by the easy emotions of endless evening soaps that we can’t distinguish real emotion – the real emotion of great theatre – from its cheap substitutes?

Let O’Casey have his say in the subject.

“The beauty, fire and poetry of drama [he’s writing about the early 1930s] have perished in a storm of fake realisms. Let real birds fly through the air; real animals roam through the jungle, real fish swim in the sea, but let us have art in the theatre. There is a deeper life than the life we see and hear with the open ear and the open eye and this is the life important and the life everlasting. So to hell with so-called realism, for it leads nowhere.”

He doesn’t mind going for the jugular, he’s not afraid of big characters and big emotion – and in The Plough and the Stars he gives the roles that rend the hearts to women. This isn’t a play about the front line – that’s around the corner, down the road, at the General Post Office. The confrontations, the aggression, are at home and in the local bar. Long after the event O’Casey reflected on his own life, and explained his aggression:

“I have lived a troublesome life in Ireland, in my youth hard times in the body, and in my manhood years, a hard time in the spirit. Hardship in my young days taught me how to fight hard, for if that characteristic wasn’t developed then, it meant that one became either a slave or a lick-spittle…. “So I learned how to resist all aggressive attempts to make me a docile one, and could hit back as hard as he who could hit hardest. This gift (for an earned gift it is) kept within me when I reached the world of thought as it had been in the world of hard labor – at times, I fear, fighting what I thought to be aggression where none was meant.”

‘…at times, I fear, fighting what I thought to be aggression where none was meant.’

Almost a throwaway line. I’ll always (this is ‘zenpolitics’ after all) argue against anger and aggression, and argue for facing up to it as soon as it arises. O’Casey faced up to it after the event. But given there are no perfections in life, and that theatre – as well as quiet places (walking maybe by the Liffey) – should always play its part in human existence, then I’m almost on O’Casey’s side. Sometimes anger simply does overwhelm. Better to realise that later (as O’Casey does!) than never.

And if one result is great drama, great theatre – well, should I be complaining?

[Quotations above taken from the New York Times O’Casey obituary.]

 

 

 

 

 

Truth isn’t indivisible

…it’s in the eye of the beholder.

Truth, as seen in the context of the referendum.

It’s suspect, handed down from above, seen as establishment truth. People came to distrust all facts as ‘handed down’. False information, rumour, scandal came to have the same status as facts.

Deliberate manipulation of the news, by mis-statement (the NHS £350 million), or by presentation (the infamous UKIP refugee advertisement).

The Remain campaign tried to fight fantasy with fact, ‘but they quickly found that the the currency of fact had been badly debased’.  (Katharine Viner.) Facts were labelled as Project Fear and ‘quickly neutralised by opposing facts’.  ‘This is a disastrous mistake that ends up by obscuring truth, and echoes how some report climate change.’

The BBC were, sadly, a prime example of this tendency.

Viner also refers to the way that many news organisations have ‘steered themselves away from public-interest journalism and toward ‘junk-food news’. Chasing readers, chasing advertising, and for online readers chasing clicks. What is equally worrying is the mixing of the two, apparently hard news with sex and scandal.

Hard news has to function in the same way – as scandal. Minimise the effort required of the reader.

Truth isn’t sufficient unto itself. It needs a helping hand.

Wearing blinkers

The news media took over the referendum, the two were made for each other. But whereas it was banner headlines for the tabloids, reinforcing opinions and prejudices, social media worked in a different way.

Katharine Viner in a long article (‘How technology disrupted the truth’, 12th July) in the Guardian focuses on the social media ‘filter bubble’ and the way Facebook is designed to ‘give us more of what they think we want … our own personal stream has been invisibly curated to re-inforce our existing beliefs’.

Viner as a Remain supporter couldn’t, the morning after, find any comment on Facebook from anyone happy with the result. And they were out there – with a vengeance. Many of us I know had the same experience. Despair and tears.

Social media also reinforced opinions and prejudices, but in a subtler and entirely private way. Compare the tabloids: everyday I could check the headlines on news-stands if I chose. And still do. But no-one but me knew what my Facebook pages were saying – unless I chose to share.

Many Remain supporters were too much inside their own bubble, protected from the anger and resentment in town and country. They underestimated what was driving the Leave vote deep down. In that way social media may have had a significant influence on the referendum outcome.

None of this justifies the way the tabloids set out to inflame, distort and misdlead. But they were tapping into something at a deeper level which many social media users just didn’t understand.

Two separate worlds. They didn’t connect. Do they now?

Words, words, words

Words, words, words…

I’ve read the Economist on Brexit, and now the New Statesman. I’ve browsed Daily Mail and Telegraph headlines, watched Panorama. Read the Guardian. Skipped through The Week. I’m gutted and I’m glutted.

A few conclusions, and that means, inevitably, more words.

I remain (in every sense) passionate about the European ideal, about being open and open-hearted toward the world, about influence gained by working with others rather than influence lost by retreating, and pretending we can win friends from behind closed doors.

There are so many narratives out there. One is a narrative of gloom. Reaching wider than Brexit, there’s a sense of a failing world, of which the EU, China, Russia and a USA enthralled by Trump are all aspects. The philosopher, John Gray (writing in the New Statesman), is a good example. ‘We have to throw away the old progressive playbook.’

‘Not for a moment,’ would be my reply. But an acceptance that the progressive road is a rocky one, and for every step forward there might be two steps back – yes, that we must accept.

(Gray is closer to the mark on Labour: ‘Leading Labour figures have denied that the party’s stance on immigration is central to the collapse of its working-class base.’ Look to de-industrialisation they argue. But they’re avoiding ‘an inconvenient truth’.)

Anger, resentment, betrayal – on the Remain side, felt so deeply a week last Friday morning. Anger, resentment, betrayal – on the Leave side, building up over many years.

On the Remain side we need to be wary of our language, and our emotions, and our surprise. At the same time we can be scornful of the likes of Libby Purves laying into disconsolate Remainers: ‘liberal and lefties weeping into their lattes.’ You don’t have to be liberal or leftie – you just have to European, and an optimist, and open in outlook.

It’s been helpful to run through a few of the reasons given by ordinary people explaining their reasons for voting to leave, on Panorama and elsewhere.

Immigration: ‘no room in schools, not safe in our jobs … a weaker economy a price worth paying… racism shouldn’t be used as a smear against the voiceless.’

‘The bosses love foreign workers… The housing situation is the UK is abysmal… Now to be poor is a sin… One million migrants into Germany…’

We can, on the Remain side, argue for ever that immigration has a substantial net benefit to the UK economy, but there’s no doubt that free movement between countries with different working conditions, radically different levels of pay and welfare benefits has impacted directly on the lower-paid and less-skilled. Free movement is an important (but arguably not a necessary) principle for a free market, but it’s caused significant dislocations. Yes, we should have anticipated this and provided the necessary health and education infrastructure. But we’ve been in a recession, and our focus has been elsewhere….

While there is no gainsaying the impact on jobs and pay, the experience of specific localities has been written up and wilfully exaggerated. This is where UKIP and the Mail, Sun and Express come into play. The fear of immigration, the supposed threat to our national character, has had a major influence nationwide, and helps explain the Leave vote in areas with low immigrant populations. Addressing dislocations caused by immigration will have little effect on this element of the Leave vote. Fear easily becomes prejudice and runs deep. And aligns with a disdain for the political class – also encouraged by the popular press.

There’s another narrative we heard on Panorama – the disappearance of the old shops from the High Street – as if this was a consequence of the EU. So much has been shovelled together and the EU was the first and easiest target – there are no such easier targets in general elections.

Beware referenda – populism is not ‘as it is being used today a term of abuse applied by establishment thinkers to people whose lives they have not troubled to understand’. (John Gray.)  Rather it is a chance for the population at large to vent its anger. And there are out there many skilled operators who know how to exploit that anger for their own purposes.

Try de-industrialisation as an argument with ordinary people. Immigration is much easier. Put the two together and muddle it with the loss of sovereignty argument and you have a potent mix.

(To return briefly to de-industrialisation.  The impact of China and global trade hardly gets a mention. And yet cheap imports have driven industrial decline more than any other factor. Trump talks up the issue but it hasn’t featured in the referendum debate. Instead we’ve had a focus on the EU as the source of all our ills. If we seek to revive our industry we should be working with Europe and not stigmatising it. The problem lies elsewhere.)

‘I would love to see the break-up of the EU. Nation states should be free from the voluntary shackles offered by cynical, deceitful, anti-democratic, sneering, control freaks.’  ‘The EU is doomed to fail.’

OK, I’m on the side of the cynical, deceitful… Much of that language one could apply to the manipulators of opinion in the popular press.  (Far from cynical, many of us are idealists – but our idealism is not rose-tinted. More than ever now it has to be practical.)

Deceitful, no, but, yes, the perception that Brussels has reached out too far is widespread, and many who voted to remain share that view. The EU is not doomed to fail. But cutting back on EU directives, worrying less about harmonisation, would be wise. Will the EU pick up on that message?

A comment from a Leaver on the left: ‘…we shall set our own agenda. We shall be able to keep our public services and not be forced to privatise them, and if we chose we can renationalise our industries…’

An awful lot from across the political spectrum can be stuffed into one pot. Many will be disappointed.

And finally, from another source, The Economist, we have the liberal agenda: ‘…liberals need to restore social mobility and ensure that economic growth translates in to rising wages… battling special interests, exposing incumbent companies to competition, and breaking down restrictive practices’. Yes, I agree, but that is a long process, and in truth we’re unlikely ever to get there, and en route there will many, maybe too many, casualties, and if there’s one message from all this, from Brexit and all its other manifestations in Europe and the USA it’s that

we have to look out for casualties.

We are in a crisis moment, at a turning-point. The new world we saw emerging after the fall of the Berlin Wall has turned a little sour. A new liberal, open dispensation seemed to be within our grasp. Instead we’ve seen the old hierarchies reinforced, new hierarchies emerge, new elites alongside the old, with aspirations to culture, to learning, to the good life, on the one hand – and a liking among too many for extraordinary ostentation…

… while the rest of us look on and maybe we aspire to achieve for ourselves, or we shrug and disregard, or we envy, or we disdain. The new order has brought radical disparities of wealth, at the same time as earnings as a percentage of capital have reduced. There’s a widespread sense of being left behind – a sense of a brave new post-war world disordered and old verities overturned.

For us true believers, we must continue to aspire, to work together, to put our trust in the younger generations – but we must address directly and immediately and with wisdom the big issues we’d turned a blind eye to for many years.

 

 

Kids Company – where lies truth?

I’ve read some pretty unpleasant things in the press about Kids Company, so I watched Lynn Alleway’s film based on interviews with Camila Batmanghelidjh (shown on the BBC last Wednesday) with great interest. While I’ve had no connections with the charity I’ve had the sense that it was doing something remarkable, and the way sections of the press turned on her and the charity last summer left me with grave misgivings. Accusations of failures to investigate physical and sexual abuse, in additional to claims of financial incompetence, finally brought charity down: the police have no found no evidence to support the accusations relating to abuse, but much much too late.

The film interviews sympathetically, but also shows how personal and inconsistent and extravagant many of the charity’s activities were, and Alleway concludes (with sadness) that Batmanghelidjh was living in a world of her own.

But – and I’ll quote the Guardian review of the film here – ‘however bonkers and badly run Kids Company was, it’s hard not to admire and support the idea behind it: to bring the love of a family to troubled lives. Nor is Camila’s motivation in question – she’s trying to do the right thing by the kids. And on an individual level it works, it can change lives for the better.’

The love of a family.

No other charity has attempted anything in this scale, or achieved so much – or been so profligate. Could Alan Yentob as chair of the trustees have kept her in check – did he want to, being aware of the good the charity was doing? And what are we left with, now that it’s gone? The loyalty and enthusiasm of the Kids Company staff were very evident from the film.

On the other hand – what the Kids Company was faced with, from the more callous sections of the press, is evident from the Telegraph  review of Lynn Alleway’s film:

‘Those who bring succour to the needy are deserving of society’s gratitude. None have gobbled up more of their fill than Camila Batmanghelidjh, the founder of Kids Company. Public knowledge of her love-spreading charity was greatly enhanced by a documentary made by Lynn Alleway 10 years ago. So when a vastly expanded Kids Company started to run out of money last year, Batmanghelidjh invited Alleway back to watch the fur fly from the inside….Alleway’s wasn’t especially keen to expose her subject as paranoid, narcissistic, belligerent, manipulative, self-pitying, evasive, irresponsible and needy. But Batmanghelidjh didn’t give her much other material to work with.’

And there’s much more in this vein. My disdain for this kind of review, this kind of reporting, is absolute.

There’s a factual note at the bottom of the review – the charity’s total income 2013:  £8,104,012; the number of children the charity said it was supporting at the time of its closure: 34,000.

34,000. Even if overstated, even its a significantly smaller number, that’s a lot of children being helped, and what has happened to them since then? That’s another story.

Maybe the Telegraph would like to report on this – and try and report accurately and honestly for a change.

Argument and counter-argument – the beauty of debate

I seem to be quoting the Daily Telegraph a lot recently, which is worrying.

I was once a Guardian reader, disgruntled long ago, really from the moment the paper moved south and lost its link to the Manchester liberal tradition. I am of course from Manchester, and biased.

One friend from my college days has me down as some kind of Trotskyite, and I’m loathe to disillusion him, as it’s good for my ego, though I could do without the ice axe.

Where do I stand? If you’ve read other posts of mine you’ll know that I’m an arch-parliamentarian. And who or what is that?  (Not a latter-day Civil War Puritan!)

Michael Sandel in ‘What Money Can’t Buy’ refers to ‘the parlous state of public discourse’, with particular reference to the USA, but it also to a lesser degree applies here in the UK. Thinking of Congress ‘it’s hard (Sandel argues) to imagine a reasoned public debate about such controversial moral questions as the right way to value procreation, children, education, health, the environment, citizenship, and other goods’. 

Thankfully we haven’t got that far, and parliament can still be a place for serious debate.

But outside of parliament, opinions can be dismissive, personalised, and especially on social media, downright nasty. ‘Some,’ to quote Sandel, ‘see in our politics a surfeit of moral conviction.’ People believe too deeply. Sandel, and I’m with him on this, takes a different view: ‘The problem with our politics is not too much moral argument, but too little.’

We’re used to big opinions but we’re frightened of any debate about moral issues and even more so spiritual issues, and when we do have them, as the BBC does on Sunday mornings, the debate is boxed in and artificial – as if moral issues need a forum, and can’t simply be part of everyday discourse.

Moral debate goes hand in hand with measured debate. Moral positions convince no-one if they’re asserted. Listening to the other side, argument and counter-argument, avoiding posturing, keeping open minds….

I mentioned mind-maps in an earlier blog, where arguments are laid out in a form where we can begin to make judgements. Where there are moral issues involved, discussing welfare issues, for example, we need them addressed, not skimped, a degree of balance, different viewpoints.  We’re living in time when economic arguments, masquerading as moral, trump moral too often.

Not too much to ask, but it doesn’t always make for good viewing. TV and media assume that what we want is a good scrap, and sometimes we do. But we also want to be well-informed, on facts and opinions – the two kept separate. 

Parliament can be and needs to be a model for such debate. It has a history as a great debating chamber, probably the greatest of all.

It can also be a bear-pit – and that makes for a good mix.