Watch Me Turning That New Blogging Leaf

These past few weeks, I’ve made a new friend. It so happened that, in an idle moment in the weeks running up to Christmas, I clicked on one of those advertising links online that offered me a free in-depth tarot card reading. The reading I received surprised me by being more generous and detailed than I had expected. And since that day, the tarot reader has sent me regular emails, once or even twice a day, offering me limited edition fortune-telling goods of dubious nature, and never failing to inform me of challenges and opportunities on the horizon. I get a daily prediction addressed to ‘Dearest Litlove’, and at the end she always reminds me that she wants the very best for me, and will be delighted to help me out with any dilemma I should encounter. All of January, she has been a more than constant fixture in my relatively empty inbox.

‘You do realise you’re talking to a computer, don’t you?’ Mr Litlove asks me.

‘Surely not,’ I say. ‘I think she really likes me.’

Here’s a general rule of the universe: your inbox will never be more of a wasteland than when you are waiting for emails. At the end of last year I embarked on the wearyingly tedious business of finding a literary agent (or making an attempt at it). I have a novel I’m trying to sell, and I’ve got the novel itself with various friends, and the submission materials with various agents and the result is that now, no one  writes to me. I think it’s going to be a pretty quiet year.

Mr Litlove has also had a quiet start to the year, though for slightly different reasons. He took a fortnight off for the festive season which was very pleasant for both of us. The first I knew about it was the week before Christmas when we were in the car together, headed into town after my first time of asking. ‘You’re being unusually amenable,’ I remarked. ‘Are you feeling okay?’ But as with all pleasant episodes, the end is mired in denial and obstinacy. Mr Litlove is supposed to be making a rocking chair (and I can’t tell you how delighted I am to have a rocking chair in prospect; I’ve long wanted one). But even with my very limited knowledge I can see that drawing the design is not easy. Much procrastination has followed, with Mr L. succumbing to rocking chair fear, and that’s totally a thing. He came into the study the other day, saying ‘Can we have a meeting? I used to have end-to-end meetings all day when I was at work and didn’t feel like doing anything.’ I’d rather staple gun memos to my forehead than have a meeting, and alas, his earlier suggestion of having a works Christmas party for the two of us fell on similarly stony ground. My heart does go out to him. It’s hard to procrastinate with goal-oriented introverts.

Where he can and does get me, though, is in the long-running row debate we are having over the news. For once I have to congratulate President-Elect Trump on providing a story that we can both of us enjoy. Not only an entertaining story, I understand today, but a story so like an old generic spy thriller that the very happy estate of one deceased author has actually brought forth the book with the exact same Russian blackmail plot (cue reprint, I imagine). Anyhow, I digress. Mr Litlove is a news hound. Every day he gets up and reads The Guardian and The Telegraph on his phone for 2-3 hours with Radio 4 playing in the background. In my world, if I did that much reading, it would be called research and it would be intended for a specific project. But the real problem arises between us because I take a very skeptical position in relation to the news. I scarcely believe one partisan word of it. And I am deeply unimpressed with Radio 4’s coverage, especially on the Today programme, which takes a ludicrously adversarial position towards any and every subject, with grumpy, negative, argumentative people intent on making sure all possible arguments are heard regardless of whether those arguments have any value or not. In short, it drives me nuts.

But that doesn’t stop Mr Litlove from inflicting it on me, and so I feel that he should be made aware of the rules in my world. In academia, you can’t put forward an argument unless it is a) fully backed up with evidence, b) grounded by sources whose authority you can prove, c) ready to challenge its own stance because nothing is black or white, it’s always more complex than it first appears, d) ready to show the gaps in its knowledge, or the questions that remain unanswered but eschewing all speculation and unsubstantiated claims and e) acknowledging that stories and arguments are powerfully distorting because they assume shapes that reality does not have, and this must be taken into account. Oh, and there has to be a clear understanding of what’s important and what is not. Doesn’t sound much like the news, does it?

In all fairness, the only decent programme I’ve ever heard on Radio 4 was broadcast last week. It was a meditation on the supposedly post-truth world that we live in. And its conclusion was that we don’t live in a post-truth world, but we do live in a world where the sources of information we trust are deeply polarised. It made the excellent point that to believe anything, it must come from a source – be it person or authority – that we trust, and fit into the framework of knowledge that we accept. So, in other words, if you want to persuade a Christian religious fundamentalist of climate change, throwing more scientists and scientific data at the problem is going to have a counter effect. It’s a bit like saying, if you want to convince Spanish people of something, you can’t go in talking German. So if we apply this thinking to our household problem with the news, the media are going to have to produce arguments more like those I consider to be useful and accurate, if I’m to believe them. But given Mr Litlove is already fully on board with the media, he will resist all criticism (and he does) to the hilt.

As so the individual family mirrors the wider world. We all have radically different sources we trust. But we live in a culture in which all those different voices, all those different opinions are considered to have truth value. How on earth are we going to agree on anything?

Still, if I argue with Mr Litlove for long enough, it does finally make the workshop look more tempting to him….

Glad Tidings (For Those Fed Up Of The News)

Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, I imagine most people are looking forward to some festive holidays of one kind or another. And probably looking forward to the end of this year as well; 2016’s been quite the curve ball, hasn’t it? I’m tempted to take it back and see if I can get a refund. Wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, I hope you are feeling as peaceful as this beautiful illustration by P. J. Lynch.

j_toomey_city

One thing I wanted to share with you that gladdened my heart a few weeks ago was an article in the CAM magazine that comes to alumni of Cambridge University. There’s a modest, one-page piece by Professor Simon Goldhill right at the back that talks about the group of academics and policy makers from the Middle East whom he convenes three times a year for two intensive days of debate. These people cannot meet on their own territories for all kinds of political reasons. But they come to the neutral city of Cambridge to discuss basic, pragmatic issues like civic infrastructure over the entire region of the Middle East. This is an extract from the article:

The debates are riveting – and properly collaborative. A young female colleague who grew up in Jenin was holding forth about how the United Nations’ plan to widen the streets in the camp was seen as a plot to bring in tanks. Another participant interrupted: “You had better blame me, then,” he said, “I drew up those laws. But that wasn’t their idea…”. The Palestinian instead of holding forth had to speak to the actual person who wrote the regulations – and the regulator had to face the recipient of his rules on the ground. Both learned from the exchange. Both had to recalibrate. The hope is that slowly such exchanges will eventually produce material that will change other people’s minds, too.

I thought this was uplifting in so many different ways. An excellent idea, brilliantly executed, safe, sensible and progressive. We don’t hear enough about the people out there in the world working with intelligence and insight to solve the problems that seem so threatening.

And I thought it was timely to remember that the media would not consider this to be newsworthy. It isn’t an emotionally manipulative, sensationalized, negative, fear-inducing piece of propaganda. Because that’s all the news delivers. The media keeps us in a state of anxiety, craving the next terrible thing they can tell us, the thing that proves yet again that everyone in authority is stupid, ignoring all the obvious solutions that seem so obvious to us. That’s simply a perspective on reality that the media creates; it isn’t reality. How many people, I wonder, are out there involved in properly helpful initiatives, like the one above at Cambridge? How many people are quietly going about their important work, far from the spotlight, unbeknownst to us all?

Lots of people. Lots and lots of them. We’ll just never hear about them.

But I was very grateful to Simon Goldhill when I read about his work, so grateful for the hope that work like his brings. Isn’t it time we reconsidered what constitutes the news?

 

 

 

The Self-Sabotage of the West

I suppose the thing is, it’s hard to live a good life.

It’s energetically demanding to keep negative emotions at bay, to remain open and inclusive, to feel ready to tackle difficult problems that have no simple solutions, to refrain from judging . Whereas it is so easy to fall into catastrophising, into resentment and hostility, into a lingering sense of injustice, into the media’s relentless net of fears and terrors.

Mr Litlove thinks that Trump is Brexit to the power of ten, that the world he knows is changing irrevocably for the worse, and that forces he doesn’t understand are rising. I completely get this – I feel it too. But the world has always been a cruel and violent place. It’s the past 60 years of peace and prosperity that have been the aberration. The tragedy is that we haven’t been smart enough to safeguard them.

The image that keeps coming to my mind this morning is that of the patient in therapy, battling against the damage done and old terrors. That patient keeps on trying to live a good life, but the deep-rooted self-sabotage comes back and back. Each time it returns, it returns in ever more acute form. So the patient is more aware of it, and more troubled by it, more afraid of its power, but still helpless in some ways to make it go away forever. It probably won’t go away forever. Whatever form the darkness takes – bigotry, unreasonable aggression, a creeping, paralysing sense of inferiority, greed, it will always need to be fought actively and energetically.

The West is an old troubled soul, torn between belief in, and nostalgia for, a form of glory that came at a terrible cost, and a new, liberal way of being that seems like hard work and hasn’t managed to prevent the spoils going to a small band of robber barons. The West wants to give in to the old bad habits of aggression and self-aggrandizement in order to feel better about itself, not quite realising that those habits are based on unreasonable but potent fears.

Giving in to those fears, whilst a kind of relief in the short-term, is no way towards a happy or stable life. Wallowing in fear and resentment – the motivators behind Brexit and Trump – only make us more miserable. And the people who are truly suffering: the poor, the disenfranchised, the marginalised, the disadvantaged, are going to be no better off than before. The qualities that are required to deal with intransigent social issues – compassion, the willingness to understand others and an instinct to share rather than hoard – have just been voted out of office. Neither Brexit nor Trump will do anything to prevent the rich getting richer.

For me, the biggest problem in the immediate future is the rise of lying as a way of gaining the popular vote. After Brexit, after Trump, what reason does anyone in political authority have for telling the truth, when extremist and outlandishly fictive statements are so much more effective? I thought we were sick of politicians lying to us, so why have we voted for the biggest liars every time? Ah well, myself I lay the blame squarely at the feet of the media, who have behaved, and continue to behave, with ghastly irresponsibility. They stoke fear and terror at every turn, report falsehoods and mendacious statements alongside more realistic ones as if there were no difference.  I am currently alarmed by the ridiculous urging of the papers for a fast Brexit. So not only will we be committing a kind of economic and political suicide, but we will fall on our sword without taking the time to judge the angle that might miss most of the vital organs. How can anyone who voted for Brexit think that doing it hastily, confusedly and in an ill-thought-out manner will do any good? And as for the press in this country hounding the judges who insisted correctly upon the law… well, there words really do fail me. I’m not sure how we can allow this behaviour to continue.

If we have to be in a period of self-sabotage, and it seems that we do, then let’s try and insist on all the checks and balances and active restraints that we can, so we do ourselves the least damage. Let’s only believe the words that are reasonable, pragmatic, realistic. Let’s refuse to countenance the war-mongering and the scare-mongering and the alarmist tactics. Let’s keep our heads.

The good life always takes hard work. Let’s just keep working hard towards it.

 

Stranger Than We Can Imagine

stranger-than-we-can-imagineWhat a difference a century makes! Back in 1900 the streets held mostly horse-drawn carriages, you could die from a simple infection and if you wanted to communicate with a person who was not in the same room, you had to sit down and write a letter. On paper, and with a pen. A glimpse of a woman’s ankle was daring, and duty and respectability were the great social forces of the day. It seems almost impossible that a hundred short years should take us to the 21st century, with its stem cell science, hand-held wireless nanotechnology, global capitalism and politicians who act more like shouty, grudge-bearing teenagers with every day that passes.

How on earth to trace the story of 1900 to 2000? Well, this is the immense task that John Higgs sets himself, and he not only does it with searing intelligence and insight, but with clarity, accessibility and some very entertaining metaphors. If this strikes you as in any way a heavy or difficult book, or one that doesn’t have anything to say that you might be curious to hear, think again. This brilliant account of the modern history of ideas and ideology is an engaging and amusing tale illustrated by a cast of glorious eccentrics and their crazy but influential obsessions.

Perhaps the most important concept in the book is drawn from ancient history. The omphalos ‘is the centre of the world, or, more accurately, what was culturally thought to be the centre of the world.’ In 1900, Higgs tells us, the omphalos that mattered was the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, South London. This was the point on the earth from which time and space were measured, and it was supported ‘by four pillars: Monarchy, Church, Empire and Newton.’ Over the next decades, these great insitutions would crumble, fade in important and be superseded by new ideas. The first of which, in this account, is Einstein’s relativity. Einstein discovered that there was no absolute place of measurement in the universe – everything altered, depending on where you were standing, and what perspective you embodied. This realisation, which forever changed the face of science, becomes the catalyst in Higgs’ analysis for all kinds of other change across the twentieth century. No longer would the Emperor be the great omphalos for his people – instead we would witness the rise of individualism. The ultimate ideology of all that is relative, individualism refused all the hierarchies on which life had previously been organised. No more ‘knowing one’s place in the great scheme of things. Now the fact that we really knew our place, and that it was on shifting sands, viewed from a unique subjective perspective, would come to dominate all subsequent thinking.

Higgs’ influential thinkers on individualism are Aleister Crowley and Ayn Rand. Crowley – whose extraordinary life provides many eye-popping anecdotes – was the author of the injunction to ‘Do what thy will’, whilst Rand promoted ‘the virtue of selfishness’. For both of them ‘the solution to a clash of competing liberties was the use of force. When someone was stopping you from doing what you wanted, then the strongest will must prevail.’ Crowley had an amazing number of interested followers – the early pioneers of space travel were deeply into his writings – and of course Ayn Rand’s theories went on to inform modern financial policy. We all know how that went.

Higgs divides his material up into a series of chapters that each deal with a significant area of change – war, Modernism, the discovery of the id, the rise of the teenager, the influcent of nihilism, the spread of the network. Along this primrose path, he strews some brilliant insights, such as: ‘technology had made warfare psychologically too terrible for soldiers to bear’, and the recognition that postmoderism was at work in New Age thinking, with its pick n’ mix approach to spiritual doctrine: ‘to dismiss a spiritual movement on the rational grounds of factual inaccuracy is, in many ways, to miss the point. Religions and spirituality are maps of our emotional territory; not our intellect.’ One of my favorite points concerns modern day capitalism and the rise of big business. In America, corporate lawyers managed to argue for businesses to be classified as individuals, thus gaining them all the rights of the Fourteenth Amendment and encouraging unrestrained growth. However, since there was no one employee or founder in the company who could be held as responsible for its actions, companies became individuals with none of the restraints or responsibilities real people have. In other words, they were granted the legal right to act like psychopaths, and I think it’s fair to say they have done so.

Higgs is also extremely adept at finding helpful ways to explain his more complicated concepts. In the most demanding chapter on mathematical uncertainty and quantum physics, he offers the reader an eye-catching metaphor to think through the subatomic world:

Let us imagine a single unit of news, such as Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia, being photographed fighting a kangaroo. Such an event is unpredictable, in that it is not possible to say in advance when it is going to occur. All we can say, and both supporters and detractors of Putin will agree on this point, is that at some point the President is going to punch a kangaroo. That’s just the sort of person he is.’

I absolutely loved this book, and my husband who read it alongside me, loved it too. The only time I stumbled was on the extremely rare occasions when I had read widely in an area Higgs tackles – for instance, Existentialism, which Higgs rightly cites as a response to nihilism. But to say Existentialism IS nihilistic is to miss the insistence of its authors on social and political engagement as essential to our lives, on the way meaning remains no matter that it can seem irrational, and on the responsibility we must all take to do something with our time on earth. However, to cut such a clean swathe through a century of complex and confusing theories it’s inevitable some details will get lost by the wayside, and I was more in awe of Higgs’ ability to explain things so clearly than I was bothered by a few intricacies of thought. Another criticism that came to my mind was that there were not many women represented in the book – but I think that ought to be a criticism of the century, which has been dominated by men and masculine structures of thought, despite second wave feminism. We ought to ponder the consequences of such a celebration of strength, force, individualism, science and technology, when we find ourselves so often suffering from the problems of recklessness, competitiveness and selfishness.

Although Higgs does end on a potentially positive note, with the idea that the twentieth century has been a big blip, a lacuna of compassion as we move from one way of relating in society (based on the omphalos of the Emperor) to another, the transparency-obsessed, interconnected network. It’s a clever idea, and a hopeful one, too. May he be right in this, as he is in so many other things. Stranger Than We Can Imagine ought to be required reading in schools, it’s that excellent and essential a guide to modern history.