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.

Trump, Clinton, the Media and Sexism

Watching the Presidential election campaign from three thousand miles away is undoubtedly very different to being in America in the midst of it all. But from here, I have to say, it’s the strangest battle I have ever witnessed. It seems to me that the candidates are being judged on radically different criteria. If Clinton came out with one of the extraordinary statements that Trump makes on a regular basis, she’d be torn to shreds by the media, but Trump seems to be bullet-proof. And whilst Clinton is digging out every tax statement she’s ever made, and even opening her medical records for scrutiny (which surely ought to be prohibited on basic privacy laws), Trump blithely fudges all similar demands. The only way I can square this is by assuming the race pits a Good Girl against a Bad Boy, with all the stereotypical reactions this engenders. If Clinton is caught out in a lie then that’s a terrible crime, as Good Girls never lie. But Trump can say whatever outrageous thing he likes, because that’s wholly in keeping with what Bad Boys do.

But what’s happening also seems to go beyond sexism and into all kinds of stranger cultural territories. I have interpretations, which may or may not be right, it’s impossible to say. But I share them with you, for what it’s worth. As Brexit has so clearly shown us, we do get the political situation we deserve, rather than the one we need.

Let’s begin with the strangeness that was Hillary Clinton’s pneumonia. Not that it was strange for her to get pneumonia – that was the only reasonable bit. People do fall ill. And I would have thought that being a bit stressed, a bit tired, and meeting thousands of people, a percentage of whom are likely to be contagious, is a good way of catching something. Clinton’s pneumonia elicited a wave of anti-compassion that must at least say something about the weird relationship we have to illness, but let’s leave that to one side. I heard it described as ‘a poor campaign strategy’, which raised my eyebrows by a few inches. And then apparently the problem was that Clinton had tried to cover up her illness and not admit to it. So she lied, and this is all kinds of wrong.

Which, if nothing else, does indicate that the reality of being Hillary Clinton in the here and now is something no media pundit wants to take into account. I mean, just think about it. There you are, running for President of America with a massive schedule lined up, and you start to get ill. What’s the first thing you’re going to do? Hold a press conference? Of course not; you’ll do what anyone does in those circumstances. You’ll try to push through, make the least of it, look as normal as you possibly can and not breathe a word of complaint. You’ll do it for as long as you can because you don’t want to let anyone down, and anyway, tomorrow you may feel better.

That’s real, right? That’s what real people do. I can’t shake the feeling that if Trump had done that, he’d be hailed as a hero. But women live by different rules, and women really aren’t allowed to get sick. There used to be an advert on telly here in the UK for a painkiller or something, that featured two women, pushing kids in buggies, who meet in the street. They hail each other and stop to chat, discussing their busy day in prospect. It’s clear they both have stinking colds. Then they ask about each other’s husbands, who of course have the same cold but are both home in bed. See, this is what women do: they push through cheerfully and determinedly. There are no other acceptable options. This is the fantasy about female strength, and women are relied upon to make that fantasy real.

It’s no coincidence that the women on the advert are mothers. When children are little, they require their mothers not to be real. They badly need a wholly reliable presence: normal, calm, reassuring, focused entirely upon them. Good mothers do not bring their personal worries, problems and fears into the mothering realm. And I fear that the consequence of this selfless mothering is that women are forever more forbidden a chunk of their reality. They are not real people first and foremost; they are functions first and foremost.

I think it’s also a hangover from all those centuries of women being primarily wives and mothers, or else ornaments and trophies. That objectification joins up with the relationship we all had as small beings to our mothers, and the reality of being female, which includes, say, menstruation, illness, ageing, and feeling totally used by our families, becomes obscene, rather distasteful and best screened off from view. If Hillary Clinton lets slip her reality, shows her human weakness, then it’s more distressing and appalling than if Trump does it. There’s something wrong about a woman not fulfilling her function flawlessly, whereas men are allowed to be real people first, and we admire how they overcome their reality in their achievements. I think this is why men get made such a fuss of if they change a nappy or feed a baby. That man, with his important personal concerns and interests, actually took time out of his real life to do a menial chore! How amazing!

What gets more depressing is how women climb onto the objectification bandwagon in this way. There is a strong tendency for women to fight and compete over their functionality. Again, motherhood is an excellent example for this. It has become completely hamstrung by a complex and impossibly demanding set of rules, and women will be the first to call other women out on not abiding by them. In fact, there’s a tendency for women to have rules for other women in just about every situation, and to judge very harshly other women whose rules may be different. If there is a third wave of feminism that is in any way effective, it will have to tackle the brutality that can arise between women whose rules and opinions do not cohere. Note the way that men back each other up, note the basic fraternity that always means they forgive each other every flaw and petty crime. They have terrific compassion for other men involved in the business of being men. Women could learn from this.

It does go some way towards explaining the extraordinarily kind attitude that seems to prevail towards Trump and his little ways. Every time I switch the radio on or turn to the internet, it seems that Trump is getting publicity for something terrible and untrue that he has said. But the whole tenor of the reporting is genial amazement. Is it that Trump goes so far beyond the boundaries of truth and acceptability that no one knows what to make of him? No one can find the words to describe what he is doing and so he can’t be called out on it?

Well I’m prepared to give that a try. Between you and me, I think that Donald Trump may actually be mentally unbalanced. Not as a joke, but as something that it might be a good idea to worry about. And I say this on the basis that he seems incapable of distinguishing inner reality from outer reality, which is the prime factor in all psychosis. For instance (there are a wealth of examples), his recent claim that Barack Obama is the co-founder of ISIS alongside Hillary Clinton. Even when clearly directed by his campaign managers to claim this statement was somehow sarcastic or a joke, he could not stop himself from endorsing the reality of it (as he sees it) again.

Freud was the first person to identify the disparity that exists between our inner psychic reality and the world out there. The two are not the same, because our subjective perspectives, an amalgam of hopes, fears, memories, associations and prejudices, colour everything we look at. So, for example, I remember watching an encounter between a graduate student and the Head of Department in a corridor at the Modern Languages Faculty. They stopped and spoke to each other for a moment, then moved on. The graduate came up  to me and said: ‘Well I am SO glad you were here to witness that! Did you see the way she laid into me! I can’t believe she just did that!’ And the honest answer from me would have been, no I did not see that happen at all. It looked like a perfectly ordinary and featureless meeting to me. But the graduate was unshakeable in her convictions. Her hopes and fears had got in the way.

And inner reality is a very emotional place. Nothing is stored inside our heads without some sort of emotion attached to it. We don’t even know that clouds bring rain without some sort of tagging system saying #goodthing or #badthing. It’s a terrifically complex system. But at our most sane, we are aware that some events trigger us more than others, that mood affects our judgement, that we have sacred cows and terrible fears and a stealthy tendency towards crazy thinking. However. We are deeply protective of the crazy parts (probably because they carry very tender emotions along with them) and so if that crazy thinking gets validated out in the real world, it has an unusual force to it. That graduate student longed for me to say, ‘Oh yes! My God! What outrageous behaviour by our Head of Department!’. Similarly when the apocalypse comes in the specific form of our private fantasy of apocalypse, we will be packing our bags to move to higher ground while repeating on a loop, ‘YES! I knew I was right to worry about that! Didn’t I say so? Haven’t I been saying so all along? I am justified at last!’

This is what the media has been doing for donkey’s years now. It plays on our crazy thoughts. It encourages and validates them. It blows on the embers of hatred, prejudice and envy. And politicians, seeing how effective this is, how much it makes people pay attention and feel engaged, have jumped on that bandwagon for all they are worth.

So to my mind, the media don’t know how to tackle Trump because he is their creature. He is a walking manifestation of every item of media hysteria and paranoia that has festered in an anxious mind. Donald Trump is what happens when tabloid newspapers have an orgy.

I imagine all the journalists out there, watching Trump go to work and thinking to themselves, if this guy becomes President, I’ll never have a slow day again. On Monday, he’ll create new laws that mean any woman not matching his criteria of physical acceptability must remain on house arrest. On Tuesday he’ll drop a nuclear bomb on North Korea. On Wednesday he’ll say that anyone with Hispanic ancestors within the previous century has to be deported. My career will be made!

What we wish for is as dangerous as what we fear. When will we learn that we are terrible at knowing what is good for us? It’s a good thing that outer reality is not the same as inner reality – life would be unliveable if it weren’t! It’s a relief that our fears come to nothing so regularly; moderation, good sense and reason are our salvation. Why do we not hold men up to the image of the Good Father the way we demand women be Good Mothers? The Good Father is a steady, calm reality check. He thinks before he reacts. He encourages fairness, justice, and honor, even when they go against powerful emotions. He is courteous and understanding. Wouldn’t it be good to expect a male President to embody the best of masculinity? Wouldn’t that be reasonable?

I suppose my ultimate point here is that we hold men and women to very different standards, and that is more than mere sexism – it arises from deeply-held archetypes that promote extreme reactions. Isn’t it about time we looked long and hard at that disparity?

 

[I am so sorry to have been away yet again – more issues with my eyes, I’m afraid. Anyway, that’s a long story for another day! In the meantime, I just had to get the above off my chest…]

In Which My Mother Helps Me Consider What’s Important

By what guidelines do you think we are judging good and bad, right and wrong, at this moment in Western society? I found I was asking the question in the wake of Andrea Leadsom’s comments about motherhood, and the furore over Black Lives Matter in America. And I am wondering whether the answer lies in the odd pickle we seem to be getting ourselves into over the difference between morality and ethics. Let me explain, and to do so, I’m going to talk about my mother.

My mother was born into an age of morality. Back in the 40s, behaviour was judged by an absolute system of black and white rules. There were no excuses, no mitigating circumstances, and very little in the way of compassion. Couples could not live together without getting married, babies could only be born into marriages, homosexuality was a sin, foreigners were not to be trusted, you kept your house tidy and turned up to church on a Sunday, and respectability was all. Of course what went on in private was entirely unregulated. What mattered was to show yourself to be on the right side of the rules in the public space.

Now, my mother was a war baby. My grandmother never told her who her father was, and my mother had to grow up with the stigma this conferred. My mother, who has a mind like a steel trap, let me assure you, grew up with far less education than she should have had because school was an uncomfortable place for her, and she was wounded in her self-esteem. She has never had the confidence to which her looks, abilities and character should entitle her. And yet could anyone be more innocent in the situation in which she found herself? Nothing my mother did warranted the stigma that attached to her in her early years. I can only hope her life spent as the essential heart of a close-knit, loving family has managed to make up in some way for this rank injustice.

Over the 60s and 70s people began to wake up to the unnecessarily stringent harshness of their morality. They began to understand that people should not be condemned for the rest of their lives because they made a mistake, or because they were different to the rigid standard of ‘normal’. And this was because morality was gradually giving way to ethics. Morals are the rules imposed on a group, whereas ethics are the guiding principles we choose for ourselves. Morals are specific to historical time and place, whereas ethics are eternal, and transcend the society we live in. The way I understand this is that ethics are often primarily concerned with how we treat the other person, based on the understanding that what unites us is much more profound than what separates us; we must all suffer the difficulties of the human condition.

Two of the great forces in this shift into ethics were feminism and civil rights. In both cases the premise of the argument is that men and women and people of all skin colours are fundamentally the same. But society has made some of those groups second-class citizens in the eyes of others, thanks to longterm, systematic discrimination. Much as those people who had been discriminated against were angry, and with every right to be so, their intention – explicit in feminist circles – was to ‘raise consciousness’. In other words, to remind others of basic human similarity, to help others understand what it was like to walk in their shoes, and to promote the ethical necessity to ensure fairness, justice and equality for all.

The psychologist Alfred Adler argued that one of the great motivating forces in each individual is to make up for the painful feelings of inferiority we harbour by finding ways to feel superior. He felt that childhood would pretty much wound everyone, one way or another. We’d all emerge from it feeling awkwardly, shamefully inferior in some respect or other, and the counterpart of that unpleasant condition would be to search ruthlessly for reassurances of our superiority. Now, morality is a fabulous way to do this, because it has simple rules and no excuses. If we catch someone trangressing a moral boundary we have every right to look down on them. They have done wrong. They are inexcusable and must be punished.

But ethics has a very different perspective. The ethical position suggests we consider how we ALL struggle with these feelings of inferiority, and that the way to move forward isn’t to seek this fallacious sense of being superior to others, but to have compassion for ALL our wounds and weaknesses, in our broader collective.

If women and ethnic minorities hadn’t believed that the people around them could be enlightened and changed, there wouldn’t have been much point in them fighting for the right to equality. The ethical position acknowledges that the world is often a badly misguided place, full of damaging and dangerous misunderstandings, but it is fundamentally optimistic. From that shared place of humanity, we might all choose to deal with our fears and our insecurities in better ways, in the fullness of justice and compassion. And it is a choice. Morals are imposed, but ethics are the principles we choose for ourselves, and so the path towards them is always an education.

We are supposed to live now in an age of ethics, where we understand that each individual is the same but different, and that’s okay. But of course it isn’t okay, because there’s a tendency for people to want to turn ethics into a morality, to have absolute rules that brook no excuses. So if someone makes a sexist comment, we want to invoke a moral rule. There’s a tendency to want vengeance, to shout that this is wholly unacceptable, the person has fallen on the wrong side of the law and must be punished; they must be humiliated and ashamed. I can understand a warrior stance against backsliding, but I wonder if some people believe that only anger, shame and humiliation will educate (though schools gave up with that approach a while back, because it causes as many problems as it solves). In any case, all this is a moral perspective on the problem, a case of people being wrong or right, good or bad, without nuance.

An ethical perspective would be to educate or enlighten the person who made the sexist comment; to challenge them for sure, but not to aggress them. In ethics, the question is fundamentally how you treat the other person. Sure, it’s wrong to insult someone in a sexist way. But to scream for the blood of that person on social media, to humiliate them in public, to ensure that they lose their livelihood for their mistake, well, that’s every bit as unethical as the insult was in the first place.

And why should we not turn our ethics into a morality? Well, because of people like my mother, that’s why. Because morality can be so harsh and unbending, so restricted in its ruling, and yet so specific to its time that innocent people do get caught in the crossfire of something that’s ridiculous 50 years later. That’s why we let the law deal with the timeless rules of morality, with the extreme cases of murder, grievous harm, theft, slander, and so on. Because morality can ruin people’s lives if they end up on the wrong side of it. And, with rare exceptions, that’s too harsh for the everyday problems of getting along together in a mixed society.

So we’ve had a couple of big ethical issues happen in the Western world lately. Andrea Leadsom’s foolish remarks about motherhood, and the Black People Matter argument over in the States. In both of these cases the debate has moved almost instantaneously into a punitive, vengeful, moral realm. I place the blame on the media, which is the punitive, vengeful, moral realm par excellence. The media are totally unethical – they will ruin anyone’s lives without a second thought if they can make moral mileage out of it.

I seriously think that we should not let the media have our conversations for us. Ethics rise naturally to the surface when we become real to one another. When we speak openly, not defensively, from our vulnerabilities. When we actually listen because we want to understand the problem. Forget the media – sisters, let’s talk about how irrelevant it is to our friendships whether we have kids or not. Black, white, East, West, we all need to keep talking to people who are different to us, to be reminded time and again how much we share. Then these screaming headlines in the papers – Having Children Makes You A Better Person! – Black Lives Matter Is A Racist Comment! – can be met with the words ‘don’t be so ridiculous’, and a turning towards positive things. What unites us is far more powerful than what separates us.

I think we have to keep asking ourselves: what is truly important in a life of limited time and energy? Is it more important to express anger and hatred, or love and kindness? Is it more important to catch people out, or to explain to them why they made a mistake? Is it more important to reassure ourselves we’re right, or to recognise the insecurities that make us all crazy sometimes?

Here’s what I think is important: try to understand the other person, and be kind. Understanding and compassion neutralise far more powerfully than any violence can.

 

p.s. In case you were wondering, I told my mother what I was writing and gained her permission to tell some of her story. Thank you, Mum!