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.

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’.