Archive for the ‘Political’ Category

Everyday Gnosticism

July 28, 2021

Another day, another thinkpiece about conspiracy theories. This one is an extract from a book by John V Petrocelli, published at Lithub. Petrocelli begins with NBA player Kyrie Irving’s startling claims in a 2017 podcast:

This is not even a conspiracy theory. The Earth is flat. The Earth is flat. The Earth is flat… What I’ve been taught is that the Earth is round. But if you really think about it … There is no concrete information except for the information that they’re giving us. They’re particularly putting you in the direction of what to believe and what not to believe. The truth is right there, you just got to go searching for it.

Petrocelli seems to suggest that trying to argue Irving out of his beliefs won’t work:

If someone believes that it is more likely that thousands of scientists, worldwide, are colluding in a conspiracy to hide the true shape of the Earth, then explaining otherwise won’t get you very far. Despite the public criticism Kyrie received for his flat-Earth theory, he stood firm and remained unconvinced, saying in 2018, ‘I don’t know. I really don’t,’ and added that people should ‘do [their] own research for what [they] want to believe in’ because ‘our educational system is flawed.’ It is one thing to suggest people do their research and another thing to make claims about things one clearly knows nothing about—but something tells me Kyrie hasn’t really cared to look at genuine research evidence.

I’ve written about this stuff before. But since then, I have been reading Daemon Voices by the phenomenal Philip Pullman. Daemon Voices is a book of essays, collected over two decades, but with a striking consistency in their themes of faith, scepticism and the imagination.

Something I had not come across, until I read this collection, was Gnosticism. Pullman explains it like this:

To sum it up briefly and crudely, the Gnostic myth says that this world – the material universe we live in – was created not by a good God but by an evil Demiurge, who made it as a kind of prison for the sparks of divinity that had fallen, or been stolen, from the inconceivably distant true God who was their true source… It’s the duty of the Gnostics, the knowing ones, to try and escape from this world, out of the clutches of the Demiurge and his angelic archons, and find a way back to that original and unknown and far-off God.

As Pullman says, this idea puts believers at the very heart of its story. You are important and special, you are a spark of divinity in a fake world. Pullman saw – writing in 2002 – the shades of Gnostic myth in mainstream conspiracy – ‘at the popular end we have The X-Files and The Matrix and the Truman Show, which are all pure Gnosticism.’ Since then of course the Matrix ‘red pill’ concept has been adopted by the more malign reaches of conspiracy theorising – QAnon, anti vaxxers, incels, antisemites – but you can also see how good people like Kyrie Irving can drift toward the harmless moonbattery of flat earthers.

Pullman goes on to say this:

This notion that the world we know with our senses is a crude and imperfect copy of something much better somewhere else is one of the most striking and powerful inventions of the human mind. It’s also one of the most perverse and pernicious…. it encourages us to disbelieve the evidence of our senses, and allows us to suspect everything of being false. It leads to a state of mind that’s hostile to experience. It encourages us to see a toad lurking beneath every flower, and if we can’t see one, it’s because the toads now are extra cunning and have learned to become invisible. It’s a state of mind that leads to a hatred of the physical world.

And that is a terrible thing, because we are nowhere without ‘the physical world, this world, of food and drink and sex and music and laughter’.

I’m sure the Gnostic myth is very well known, but it was new to me, and I think it gives more insight than much science writing into susceptibility to conspiracism. For myths are more powerful than truths.

Notes on a Scandal

June 29, 2021

Until then, hypocrisy had had its moments, in politics, in religion, in commerce; it had played its part in innumerable social interactions; and it had starred in many Victorian novels, and so on… Looking back, hypocrisy might have smiled at its earlier reticence, for it soon grew accustomed to the commanding heights.

– Martin Amis, Koba the Dread

What follows is some observations, not necessarily coherent or insightful, about the Hancock affair

I know I’m late with this but it’s the kind of story that just runs on forever. Yet it’s a surprise that we are surprised. The authoritarian populist ideology on which this government is based doesn’t see the hypocrisy in the whole thing. They are democrats, as long as people elect ‘strong leaders’. The ‘strong leaders’ can do pretty much what they want while the rest of us work the fields. Scandals that erupt around the lords and ladies don’t ‘cut through’, and even if they did – it wouldn’t matter. As I’ve said before – rules are for the smallfolk to follow. Lockdowns are for the little people.

I totally get the reaction of some people who say that adultery is wrong and not morally neutral. Adultery breaks up families, causes emotional harm and social discohesion. So there is an argument for saying ‘If his wife can’t trust him, who can trust him?’ I get that. Still, you can’t prosecute Hancock for adultery and most people wouldn’t think we should be able to. These are moral judgements, not legal ones.

Until COVID-19. The pandemic has blurred the lines between legal and moral judgements. Under lockdown if you meet up with more than six people, sit in a pub without ordering a ‘substantial meal’, enter a shop without a mask, sing in a choir, hug someone (I am generalising because the rules over the last year or so have been complex and subject to arbitrary change) … you are seen as breaking the law, and worse, you are literally endangering lives. The confusion between COVID-19 laws and public health guidance makes it more difficult, and accompanying official law/guidance is the personal judgements people have made about what endangers public health – complaints about people spitting in the street, children blowing bubbles, rowdy people on trains, people sitting in beer gardens, the list is endless. I keep coming back to that essay by Regina Rini, written at the beginning of the pandemic: ‘We cease thinking about victims as persons, but instead as vectors of disease.’ Being a person in a time of COVID-19 is not easy.

Things are more relaxed now than they were in spring 2020 or winter 20-21 and indeed it’s becoming difficult to remember what the atmosphere was like in those scary febrile days. The fear, misanthropy, conformity, judgmentalism was stark. Dominic Cummings became the lightning rod for all this last year, although he wasn’t seen as a hypocrite (Cummings, probably wrongly, was characterised as laissez-faire on the virus). Until the Barnard Castle story broke, support for the government had been near uniform. There was a sense that he had broken if not the letter of the law but the spirit of the lockdown. Matt Hancock is a different person to Cummings – he was the government’s foremost public health bore and lockdown zealot who slammed SAGE advisor Neil Ferguson when the professor was himself exposed in May 2020.

When was the last time ministers screwing around became big news? You have to go back to the 1990s. Matt Hancock is big news now because the pandemic has litigated how and when people can interact with each other. Interactions can spread the virus. And what has grabbed people’s intention about the story is not the possible breach of law (or is it guidance?) the fact that Hancock’s relationship with Coladangelo (at least in some form) predated her employment for him, not the implications for public integrity or details about the COVID-19 stimulus money train. People are watching because of the kiss, the thrill and the secret of adultery, and they have a good reason to watch because what Hancock and Coladangelo did was against ‘the rules’. And we are going to have to live with this virus for a while yet. So pretty much everything about a politician’s private life is now open season.

What gets me is the fretting that people won’t ‘respect the rules’ because of Hancock’s example. Again the idea that the public’s actions can be so influenced by one disgraced minister, to the degree that it could increase COVID-19 rates. Again the idea of us as peasants watching intently the great game of thrones. Don’t get me wrong. Politicians are public servants, they are worthy of respect until they lose it. But they are not role models and people don’t think of them as role models.

People get the government they deserve. It’s said that the various political misdeeds exposed in the newspapers fail to ‘cut through’ because ordinary people are not interested in them. If you want to keep voting for a bunch of grasping, thieving, pompous bores, snobs and petty tyrants that’s fine. If hypocrisy is the compliment vice pays to virtue then it’s a backhanded compliment with the joke very much on the rest of us. Democracy depends on an informed citizen population. We have had eleven years to get to know this lot, and I think we have given them a fair hearing.

The Barbour County Registrars

May 10, 2021

The last time I voted was in 2019. It was a simple thing. There are polling stations right near my home. You didn’t even need to take the poll card. You can do it around full time work, and the school run. You just walked into the booth and did it. 

If there’s something to be patriotic about in British politics it’s the ease of our voting system. Once we got rid of the property-owning qualifications, and the ban on women’s participation, voting became a simple process that gives (mostly) clear and decisive results. Liberals like me might not always like the outcomes, like the Leave vote in 2016, but at least you know what the results are. Sure, some of us might periodically argue for something like AV or proportional representation, but this never comes to anything and there’s something about the declamatory thump of first-past-the-post. 

Naturally, the government wants to make voting more complicated

Voter ID is a bad idea that never dies. There are many constitutional innovations I would import from the United States. Voter ID isn’t one of them. I remember coverage of Georgians waiting five hours on a dusty road to vote in the 2020 election. Having lost that one, the Republicans have redoubled legislative efforts to make voting more complicated still. Voting rights have a controversial history in that country, as in ours. Robert Caro, in his Master of the Senate, detailed the bureaucratic hurdles that faced Black electors in just one Alabama county of 1957:

The Barbour County registrars used a less sophisticated technique. They asked more reasonable questions – the names of local, state, and national officials – but if an applicant missed even one question, he would not be given the application that had to be filled out before he could receive a certificate, and somehow, even if a black applicant felt sure he had answered every question correctly, often the registrars would say there was one he had missed, although they would refuse to tell him which it was. Margaret Frost had already experienced this technique, for she had tried to register before – in January of 1957 – and forty years later, when she was an elderly woman, she could still remember how, after she had answered several questions, the Board’s chairman, William (Beel) Stokes, had told her she had missed one, adding, ‘You all go home and study a little more,’ and she could still remember how carefully blank the faces of Stokes and his two colleagues had been, the amusement showing only in their eyes.

As staff attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Centre, Caren Short, told the Guardian: ‘The real reason these laws are passed is to suppress the vote, and that is in fact what happens.’

ID is increasingly crucial to citizenship. The Windrush scandal in 2018 saw thousands of people lose their jobs, their bank accounts, even get deported, in essence because they could not provide reams of documentation going back many years.

Of course I am confident this is not the rationale here. When ministers get up to defend the proposal they will not say ‘We do not want certain people to vote.’ They will say it’s no different from showing your driver’s licence to get a mortgage, they will say they want to stop electoral fraud, they will make reasonable arguments (although perhaps with a hint of amusement in their eyes?) 

But we have already tried voter ID in this country, albeit on a local basis. In spring 2019 more than 800 people were turned away from polling stations in a small trial – and, considering the margins of victory for local politicians, that 800 can make quite a difference. Far from protecting the integrity of voting systems, the Tory plans potentially make local government even less accountable and more corrupt than it is at present. In all the bluster about Hartlepool and the Great Realignment of British politics, few pundits noted that the turnout last week was just 42.3%. Why didn’t the other 60-odd% vote? Why does the government want to make it harder for them to do so?

I don’t want to make a political attack here. I can absolutely imagine Labour governments bringing this stupid idea back to life.

But if the Great Realignment means anything, it is that the Conservatives are now the party of clipboard-wielding busybodies. You need two forms of ID to get a job (or keep one), you need two forms of ID to rent or buy somewhere, you will need papers to get into the pub and now you will need photo ID to get into the voting booth. ‘Active state’? You may keep it. 

Something Something Richard Hofstadter

December 23, 2020

Everyone talks about conspiracy theories at the moment, but they talk about conspiracy theories in old ways. This is Sarah Churchwell, writing after the US election:

In 1964 the historian Richard Hofstadter identified what he called the ‘paranoid style in American politics’, a perspective that shaped the stories Americans too often told themselves. Paranoia offers a master trope for interpreting ‘the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy’ in American political narratives, from 18th-century Illuminati paranoia to the Papist conspiracies of 19th-century nativism, to the enduring anti-communist hysterias of the 20th century. Hofstadter predicted that paranoid energies would periodically be released in America when ‘historical catastrophes or frustrations’ exacerbated the religious traditions and social structures that fostered those energies, catalysing them into ‘mass movements or political parties’.

And this is Oliver Kamm, also from November, writing about the ‘Great Reset’ COVID-19 conspiracy theory:

The historian Richard Hofstadter identified this strain of thinking in American public life in a classic essay titled ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics’ in 1964. He showed that the fevered allegations of McCarthyism, which were then a recent aberration in US politics, had a historical lineage. American society, he said, ‘has served again and again as an arena for uncommonly angry minds’.

Going back a few years, here is science writer Martin Robbins, with a long essay covering Trump, the Jeremy Corbyn movement and UKIP.

Like many UKIP supporters, Corbyn occupies an anti-political ground where the traditional distinctions between left and right are less meaningful. Corbyn and his UKIP counterpart are both natural Eurosceptics, both insular and protectionist when it comes to Britain’s place in the world, both weirdly sympathetic to Putin, both aligned with the left behind working class and suspicious of political, economic or intellectual elites (Corbyn rejects scientific consensus on everything from alternative medicine to nuclear power). Both have adopted – and been adopted by – what Richard Hofstadter called ‘the paranoid style’ in his famous 1964 essay: ‘a sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy’.

Much has happened in politics since 1964. Hofstadter’s paranoid style was realised ‘when the representatives of a particular social interest — perhaps because of the very unrealistic and unrealizable nature of its demands — are shut out of the political process.’ Hofstadter wrote that ‘This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals… and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration.’ It is this picture of conspiracy theorists that has dated the most, because the impression is of unhappy, highly-strung people kept out of the conversation. Robbins says: ‘we should ask about the circumstances and decisions that created such a large group of the frustrated and ignored in the first place.’

What has changed? That today’s conspiracists walk the halls of power. Viktor Orbán parlayed the Soros myth into national leadership. Trump ruled America for four years. (Hofstadter in his day saw a successful conspiracist in ‘Tail-Gunner’ Joe McCarthy.) Your crazy uncle at the Christmas dinner table might not become prime minister any time soon. But he can set up a YouTube channel, get subscribers, leverage that into regular appearances as a ‘British expert’ on Sputnik or Press TV. Conspiracists want money. They want power. Mona Charen remembered taking National Review cruises in the 1990s where the conservative elites mingled and networked. Conspiracy theories proliferated. ‘Once, during the Clinton administration, people at my dinner table were repeating the story that Hillary had killed Vince Foster,’ Charen writes. And she noticed something else:

These people were not hard up. They hadn’t been displaced from their union jobs by outsourcing. The ladies wore designer dresses and the men sported pinky diamonds. In 2020, people earning more than $100,000 voted for Trump over Biden by 11 points, whereas Biden earned the support of those earning less than $50,000 by 15 points.

Once conspiracy theorists do become successful, the conspiracies are used to maintain power. Peter Pomerantsev writes in This Is Not Propaganda that

In a world where even the most authoritarian regimes struggle to impose censorship, one has to surround audiences with so much cynicism about anybody’s motives, persuade them that behind every seemingly benign motivation is a nefarious, if impossible-to-prove, plot, that they lose faith in the possibility of an alternative, a tactic a renowned Russian media analyst called Vasily Gatov calls ‘white jamming’.

There is a subgenre of articles that advise us ‘how to talk to conspiracy theorists’ as if you are looking at people with Asperger’s or learning difficulties who have to be carefully coaxed into engagement with reality. ‘Recognise that everyone has had their lives turned upside down, and is seeking explanations,’ says fact checker Claire Wardle in a recent BBC feature. ‘Conspiracy theories tend to be simple, powerful stories that explain the world. Reality is complex and messy, which is harder for our brains to process.’ The piece also tells us to ‘Remember that people often believe conspiracy theories because deep down, they’re worried or anxious. Try to understand those feelings – particularly in a year like the one we’ve just had.’

David Aaronovitch, in his 2009 study Voodoo Histories, realised that ‘The imagined model of an ignorant priest-ridden peasantry or proletariat, replacing religious or superstitious belief with equally far-fetched notions of how society works, turns out to be completely wrong. It has typically been the professors, the university students, the artists, the managers, the journalists and the civil servants who have concocted and disseminated the conspiracies.’ How then do you talk to someone who is professional, solvent, sound of mind, but is deeply into conspiracy theories for their own reasons? Hofstadter’s ‘paranoid style’ arises ‘when the representatives of a particular social interest — perhaps because of the very unrealistic and unrealizable nature of its demands — are shut out of the political process’ – well, they’re not shut out now. ‘This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals… and since these goals are not even remotely attainable…’ Not remotely attainable? Seriously?

Writers who have actually studied modern authoritarianism know that it has adapted well to the digital age and that old certainties no longer apply. Anne Applebaum, in Twilight of Democracy, wrote that ‘Some enjoy chaos, or seek to promote chaos, as a prelude to imposing a new kind of order.’ The National Review cruisers who support Trump and Brexit, Aaronovitch’s professors and intellectuals – they aren’t going to be stuck in burning cities or starving in lorry queues. Psychologist Jovan Byford in that BBC feature says that ‘Conspiracy theories instil in believers a sense of superiority. It’s an important generator of self-esteem.’ To quote Charen again: ‘A theme that unified these conspiracy-minded people was a sense of superiority—not inferiority. They felt that they had access to the hidden truth that the deluded masses didn’t understand.’

Chaos is good – as long as it happens to others. Smash the world and there’s a chance you’ll get to rule over the ruins. This is, of course, the point of Trump’s ‘Stop the Steal’ movement. His challenges to the 2020 election have been thrown out of every court in the land, but that’s not the point – the point is to create a ‘stab in the back’ myth and delegitimise Biden, in preparation for a 2024 run either by Trump himself or one of his proxies. A cognitive neuroscientist told Five Thirty-Eight that ‘I think the current situation is going to be much, much worse than birtherism in terms of people believing it, and believing it for the long run.’

Conspiracy theorists know what they are doing. They have changed. Our arguments against them need to change too.

Art Versus Illusions

November 24, 2020

The idea of poets going off to war is always counterintuitive, and of all poets the least warlike must have been E E Cummings. From an early age he possessed endless sympathy. In childhood (in Cambridge, Massachusetts) the sight of cattle led to the abattoir left a huge impact on him: ‘And gradually I realise they’re going ‘to the slaughterhouse’, are being driven to their deaths: I stand hushed, almost unbreathing, feeling the helplessness of a pity which is for some whole world.’ As an old man living on the family farm, he hated having to kill the porcupines that would strip his precious Porter apple trees. If only the porcupines could compromise by just eating the apples, he wrote, and not shredding the tree, it would save him from this evil duty (‘I inspected my victim:no,he was not dead;but terribly wounded,unable even to move’… ‘So far as I’m concerned,porcupines could eat apples forever’.)

Cummings enlisted as an ambulance man and left for Europe in April, 1917. He volunteered with numerous Harvard friends but became closest to a man named W Slater Brown. The twosome were near inseparable and carried their artistic temperaments into the warzone. J Alison Rosenblitt writes that ‘Cummings disliked the ‘typical’ and boorish Americans with whom he was posted, and he and Brown socialised mostly with the French… and they spent a portion of their free time at a cafe favoured by French soldiers, the poilus, where they traded gossip and songs.’ One time the French soldiers asked the two Americans to sing ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’; although they only knew the chorus, Cummings simply made up the verses, and they rhymed. When the two men were thrown into military prison in Noyon, they were able to communicate by whistling Petrushka – ‘one of the avant-garde ballets which he and Brown had seen together in Paris… He returned the whistle, and then so did Brown, and so on for half an hour. It was an efficient signal.’ At times the book feels like the war diaries of Frasier and Niles Crane. 

Oh, what a lovely war, then? Not at all. For all the laughter and gallivanting around in Paris (Rosenblitt does her best to rescue Cummings’s formative lover, Marie Louise Lallemand, from the condescension of previous biographers) this story of Cummings and Brown is a bleak story in a bleak part of history. The Blackadder view of WW1 as a pointless slaughter is simplification. And yet. In 1916, Rosenblitt writes, ‘The German offensive at Verdun and the French counterattack lasted from February to November. The Germans sustained casualties of over 300,000 and cost the Allies the same. Meanwhile, on the British section of the front, the offensive at the Somme in the summer of 1916 led to more than 400,000 British casualties and more than 200,000 German casualties.’ 900,000 lives. 

With the war at a deadly stalemate, authorities on both sides focused on civilian and military attitudes. If only soldiers had the right kind of fighting spirit, the belief went, all would be well. Rosenblitt writes that ‘insistence on the importance of morale became all the more attractive as a means of denying the new realities of artillery firepower and clinging to the belief that victory came out of – and therefore also proved – the moral superiority of a nation.’ In this context, Brown’s anarchic spirit proved critical. He was more impulsive and headstrong than Cummings and his letters home, in which he wrote of French atrocities in a wry and detached tone (‘The priest then pulled out 18 ears which he had in his pocket and proved it…. This incident only proves to what a state of bravery and self sacrifice war leads men’) led to his arrest. The unit commander saw an opportunity to get rid of two subversives for the price of one and implicated Cummings as well, so both Americans were packed off to the military prison complex. 

The descriptions of prison life at La Ferté-Macé are horrible even for a Great War history. The guards had been kept out of the war because of physical or mental invalidies; feeling the stigma of not fighting in hyper-patriotic France, they took out their feelings of inadequacies on the prisoners. Cummings recalled a guard, notorious for petty sadism, jumping out at a queue of female prisoners, on the daily slop-out: ‘And I saw once a little girl eleven years old scream in terror and drop her pail of slops,spilling most of it on her feet;and seize it in a clutch of frail child’s fingers,and stagger,sobbing and shaking,past the Fiend… never in my life before had I wanted to kill to thoroughly extinguish and to entirely murder.’

Cummings felt protective of this girl – ‘the helplessness of a pity which is for some whole world’ – but he was not a sentimentalist or a coward. He and Brown bore their imprisonment with fortitude, and seem to have been respected by other inmates. What impressed me also about Cummings was his practicality. After his own release from prison, he immediately set about securing the release of Brown, who had been moved on to a jail in Précigné. By this point Brown’s family in America had kicked off; relatives wrote to the State Department, enlisted the help of lawyers and senators, but Brown’s relatives did not find out the whole story of the case and their letters were muddled. Cummings – at this point an ex convict in Paris – went straight to the secretary of the US embassy in Paris, a man named Wiley, and argued that Brown’s subversive offences were on account of his youth and temperament and should be forgiven. It worked: Brown too was released. Cummings succeeded where the lawyers and senators had failed, because he knew the right person to go to, and what representations to make. Rosenblitt writes: ‘If it had not been for Cummings and Mr Wiley, Brown would clearly have remained in prison until the end of the war and could have died there.’

‘Still others did not find out until after the fighting had ceased that what they had taken for reality was illusion,’ Cummings wrote in his 1927 essay ‘Armistice’. He goes back to this: ‘war calls upon most human beings to sacrifice their happiness in exchange for the most temporary of illusions.’ Illusions. That’s what comes up so often in this history, this tangle of generals and diplomats and bureaucrats that the poets blundered into – the desire of authorities to shape public perception of the war, and strength of feeling about it. Rosenblitt makes the case for Cummings as a populist poet. It is his commitment to plain truth as well as beauty that makes him one.

The Language of Birds

November 17, 2020

Modern fantasy has a certain offputting feel. Even George R R Martin’s very accomplished Game of Thrones novels have their moments of false wisdom, pretentious solemnity and arrant silliness. S E Lister‘s Augury at first seems like more of the same. Her world is set on a city at the base of a mountain. On the mountain is the temple of the Augurs, where anyone can go for advice and comfort. One day, the Augur prophesies a cataclysm – flood and fire – that will wash the city away. She tells everybody to run. And the authorities in the city don’t like this at all. 

What makes Augury a fine novel is not just Lister’s atmospherics – you can smell the roasting meat, hear the strange voices, feel under your feet the cold stones of her city – but the strong, subtle plot that gets moving from almost the very first page. At the Emperor’s feast a steward named Lennes, the house accountant, a dull and unimaginative man, suddenly takes it upon himself to repeat the Augur’s prophecy in dramatic tones that grab the whole evening – ‘Then there came from the mouth a starred lizard, a salamander. Its eyes were coal and its breath was fire. The lizard crawled from the mouth and down the mountain towards the city. Its body was aflame, and it carried the flames into the city. The voice said to me, What is decaying must burn.‘ Lennes’s sudden mystical outburst does not go down well with the high priest Athraxus, who in a brutal scene plunges his fist into the steward’s mouth and pulls out a chunk of his teeth. 

Grand Viziers are always complete and utter bastards, Terry Pratchett wrote, and high priests tend to get put into the same category. Athraxus is head of the Dark Temple, a faith quite unlike the gentle wisdom of the Augur. Whereas anyone can go to the Augur’s priestesses, for help, the Dark Temple calls to the city’s one per cent, its aristocrats and magistrates and wealthy merchants, who learn the Temple’s secrets in proportion to the amount of money they give in offering, a Scientology sliding scale of revelation. Lister says – in one of her eerie interludes of straight narration – that ‘your story is not your own. Your story is ours to portion out as we please, to be sold back to you at a price.’ Athraxus himself is a fearsome villain who has the Augur captured and tortured, and sets the machinery of the state against her temple. But for all his fury the person he hates most is his own son, the fair-minded dreamer Myloxenes. ‘Thank the gods your mother has bedded so many,’ he shouts. ‘I comfort myself that you could be a bastard.’ 

Against Athraxus and his dark priests a small resistance movement forms: teenage priestesses Saba and Aemilia, the villain’s son Mylo and Antonus, the emperor’s brother. Antonus’s story is particularly poignant because he was originally meant to be the emperor, rather than his brother Laonatus – until a house fire of dubious origin that has left him limping ever since. Laonatus himself is the ideal figurehead for a Grand Vizier type like Athraxus: he’s a lazy degenerate fool who ‘worries about the dim corners of knowledge; about the mysterious migratory destinations of sacred birds; the pages in his father’s annals where records have been poorly kept, the nature and habits of the giant-men who are said to live in the arid country far over the mountains. Just as his bedside lamp is burning dry, Laonatus will rise and upend some dusty case of charts, then call for more lamps so that he can spend the small hours examining them… His chamber-slaves and closest attendants must learn all kinds of unblinking patience.’ Athraxus runs rings round him, gets his okay on all kinds of atrocities, but Antonus is more level headed and would have been a more resolute and better ruler.

The real insight here is not into the lives of great men but the experience of women in fantasy. Saba and Aemilia, like so many other priestesses, are at the Augur’s temple because they have nowhere else to go: without the Augur and the protective space she provides for women they would have been forced into prostitution. Antonus’s wife Junia was ‘ruined’ – raped – and given to Antonus as a gesture of magnanimity from his imperial brother. How she accepts this fate, even flourishes within it, is one of the strongest storylines in this work. It’s no wonder midwives in Lister’s world greet the delivery of girl babies as a curse. Even the Emperor’s wives, Mandane and Cassandane, have been turned into glorified brood-mares. But the courage of Junia, the priestesses, Hestia the wise fool and the Augur herself hold out hope that whatever comes after the coming catastrophe, won’t be so patriarchal. 

This is a novel about religion, and faith, and habits of faith and thought. Laonatus, Athraxus and the ruling elite take as gospel that their city, as corrupt and dysfunctional as it is, will simply go on forever – they are the classic Atlantis men in the Brecht poem, bellowing for their slaves even as the waves roar in. Athraxus’s temple has forced out the household and kitchen gods – the little deities of lares and pennates that were lost in the great march toward monotheism – but once the great catastrophe really does hit the city he seems completely unmoored, a man without a country and a failed magician. Saba and Aemilia have learned to grasp the future through animal entrails and the patterns of birds as they arc across the sky. For good or bad, people are wired up to see patterns in things, codes in the sky, the meaning of life. As Lister says: ‘We all of us dream in the dark.’

12,000 Rules for Life

November 13, 2020

It’s said that 2020 is the year of the plague. On a banal level it’s just the year of new rules. We are all used to rules on a local level, rules are a huge part of our culture, rules of manners, rules of service, rules of procedure. Anyone who’s ever dealt with a large organisation will be familiar with The Rules. You will deal with frontline workers who have no discretion but to follow The Rules. Getting stuff done relies on negotiating your way up to a ‘decision maker’ who will be one of the rare people who can disregard or bend The Rules. Benefit agencies are the worst for this but the same problems come up everywhere. 

It’s an everyday experience that can nearly break a person. There are famous Englishmen who became so sick of small rules that they fled the country altogether: Christopher Hitchens wrote in his autobiography that ‘Life in Britain had seemed like one long antechamber to a room that had too many barriers to entry’, and left for America in the early 1980s; around the same time, John Cleese had an American guest bellowing in Fawlty Towers that ‘What the hell’s wrong with this country, you can’t get a drink until three, can’t eat after nine… goddamnit, is the war still on?’ The rules that so infuriated the US visitor in the 1970s were just as inflexible ten years later. Matthew Collin, in his classic social history Altered States, tells us that on New Year’s Eve, 1989, the end of the decade, the year of the Fall of the Wall, the hour of last orders in English pubs was half past ten, no later. Small wonder Collins’s generation took to the fields.

We have come a long way since 1989 but some things remain the same. Politics remains, in large part, an argument over who gets to make the rules and what rules get applied to different groups. Even Brexit, which was supposed to be a revolt against supranational rules and regulations, has been yet another rule generating exercise. Whether we leave with a deal or not (and we are approaching midnight with still nothing on the table) individuals and businesses are being advised to ‘get ready’ for the fun new rules that will make buying, trading and travelling around much more complicated. Revolt in England 2016 was about the freedom to follow new rules. 

Then, of course, came the coronavirus pandemic. There has been much criticism of the government’s handling of this deadly disease. I would say that HMG’s big weakness was to plan our COVID-19 strategy in terms of rules. The pandemic had been foreseen, forewarned, war-gamed: the state could have locked in a decent test and trace system before the virus even hit our shores. Other countries – poorer and less developed than the UK – locked testing in fast, and kept far more of their citizens alive, but oh no, for the UK government that sort of thing’s just too difficult. It had to be about The Rules. So the government introduced a whole new set of virus rules, and then, when people complained that the new rules did not go far enough, imposed a national lockdown.

Don’t get me wrong. A lot of the coronavirus rules are common-sensisms that we can all do. I’m fine with hand washing and social distancing, I’m fine with masks (although many people, forgotten by the rule makers, have respiratory or anxiety issues that make mask wearing problematic). I even accept there are good arguments for national lockdowns, my arguments against them are really just about spreading awareness of the nasty unforeseen social consequences that lockdowns cause.

My point is that HMG got carried away with The Rules. We had a summer lull during which the government could have finally sorted out a test and trace system that worked, but no, again, that’s too difficult. Again it had to be about The Rules, albeit in a new form. HMG lifted national lockdown but introduced a whole new set of rules depending on what area of the country you lived in, including a 1989-style curfew at ten o’clock. The optics of closing down Manchester but keeping Westminster open were not great (how inept do you have to be, politically, to make Andy Burnham look good?) and the public health benefits of these rules were not immediately apparent so public compliance, strong for months by this point, weakened. Meanwhile the virus toll rose. The thing about HMG, they’re great at making new rules for people, it’s just results they can’t do

And of course public confidence was lost long before that, with the Cummings affair. Everyone says Cummings acted improperly, Cummings and HMG said he didn’t. Who was right is not the issue. Plenty of people broke lockdown for the sake of family commitments. Cummings was crucial because he illustrated the problem of the rule makers, a problem that causes, among the rulebound English, periodic eruptions of fury. More revealing was a story that hit a few weeks later, when more of the Vote Leave clique were revealed to have broken lockdown rules at a barbecue on the Isle of Wight. Among the guests was deputy Spectator editor Freddy Gray. He told the Guardian that

You’ve busted me. I did invite Bob over to discuss the app – since we had had a falling out over the article I had written. I did not, however, tell him that it would be a massive rave in the garden involving children flagrantly eating barbecue food, champagne and a baby being flung around.

Bob didn’t stay long. I apologised for having caused him distress with my app article and he said no hard feelings. We talked about a follow-up piece on how the app was performing, as I moved on to white wine. Bob didn’t drink – though I believe he may have eaten one or possibly two sausages.

It’s worth quoting Gray, in his clubbable irony, for what he doesn’t say: lockdowns are for the little people. Rules are for the smallfolk to follow. The incident also illustrates why, although they believe strongly in The Rules, elites aren’t crazy about actual laws, which are always written down and which apply to everyone. That’s why Tories talk forever about repealing the Human Rights Act. That’s why the Home Office is constantly going on about ‘activist lawyers’ preventing it from deporting our way into prosperity. 

I’m a middle class liberal and my people are fond of The Rules. We are wary of rule-breakers in politics because we remember that the hard right weaponised that kind of transgressiveness to tear up working conditions, health and safety laws, food standards, and E&D protections. But again, politics has moved on, the 2016 populist rule-breakers have taken rule-making further than we PC liberals ever dreamed of. It’s time for liberals to rediscover our cynicism and hostility towards authority.

To paraphrase the Roman Tacitus, ‘The more corrupt the state, the more numerous The Rules!’

The Hotel Old England

June 13, 2020

Last night I reread Zadie Smith’s essay on Fawlty Towers, finding more depth and humanity in it than I remembered from the first time. She remembered watching the box sets with her father when he was dying in a care home by the sea. Smith quotes this from Prunella Scales:

It was probably—may have been—my idea that [Sybil] should be a bit less posh than him, because we couldn’t see otherwise what would have attracted them to each other. I have a sort of vision of her family being in catering on the south coast, you know, and her working behind a bar somewhere, he being demobbed from his national service and getting his gratuity, you know, and going in for a drink and this . . . barmaid behind the bar and she fancied him because he was so posh. And they sort of thought they’d get married and run a hotel together and it was all a bit sort of romantic and idealistic, and the grim reality then caught up with them.

About her father, Smith writes: ‘In life, he found Britain hard. It was a nation divided by postcodes and accents, schools and last names. The humour of its people helped make it bearable.’

A lot of this humanity went into the show itself, which was liberal for its time. Basil complains about 1970s trades-union mediocrity but the 1980s ‘customer is king’ ethos wouldn’t have pleased him either, as we see during his confrontation with the demanding American diner Harry Hamilton. For Basil the guests exist in his hotel at his pleasure. He’s a neurotic man with a few pretensions, obsessed with class and sex, and likes to be – in John Cleese’s words – ‘a little bit grand’. ‘Zoom. What was that? That was your life, mate,’ Basil mutters to himself. ‘Do I get another? No, sorry mate, that’s your lot.’ Basil works off his angst by shouting into the sky. His wife Sybil is more disciplined and takes time for self care, by way of golf, flirtation and long phone calls with her innumerable friends (‘Ooh, I know. He doesn’t deserve you.’) Now and again though, you glimpse the storm. ‘When I think of what I could have had!’ she yells at Basil. There are lighter moments too, like the anniversary episode, which no one likes but gives a more gentle take on their relationship. I don’t think either one would consider leaving the marriage. After dumping on Harry Hamilton’s Californian sunshine lifestyle (‘It must be rather tiring’) Basil gets into an argument with the entire guest population which ends with him storming out into the night. But he just stands in the rain for a moment before marching back into the hotel, to check in as a guest.

Politics was the least of Fawlty Towers. As the psychiatrist says, there’s enough material there for an entire conference.

What prompted this ramble on my part was of course the news that UKTV has taken down ‘The Germans’ episode because of its racist slurs. It ends with Basil doing his Hitler goose step impression in front of a shocked German family. The writers had to do a lot of work to set this up: even the unhinged Basil wouldn’t make such a spectacle of himself under normal circumstances, so they write in a head injury for him and he self discharges against the doctor’s advice. Permanent guest Major Gowen uses foul racist language early in the episode. He’s an eccentric with a limited grip on events, shuffling through his daily routines (‘Is the bar open yet, Fawlty? No particular hurry…’) and sometimes offering a skewed take on whatever’s going on in the episode. As thousands of people have pointed out the joke of the episode is on Basil and the Major for being stuck in the past.

The Guardian article says:

Growing scrutiny over historic racism in archive entertainment programmes is prompting broadcasters to check their back catalogues and respond to criticism of shows that were once considered to be family entertainment.

There has been a substantial uptick in the attention paid to such issues as a result of the global Black Lives Matter movement, which is forcing media companies around the world to address racism within their organisations and in the output they produce and continue to publish.

I am not sure the framing is right here. Fawlty Towers was screened before most of the BLM protestors were even born. And who in BLM has asked networks to take down old TV shows? I’m no expert on Black Lives Matter but it strikes me as a libertarian movement that supports people of colour to be free and live their lives outside the industry of prison-probation-parole, live their lives without being hassled or even killed by law enforcement. American police are militarised and use army ranks. Everyone’s armed, so the stakes are higher. The gesture politics of TV companies is light years away from the American cities where cops are valorised and speaking out against them carries real risk. (Read Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker’s Busted for a look at how bad things can get in police cities.)

I would not say there are not similar problems in the UK. Nor do I condemn the tearing down of statues. But the fall of Edward Colston strikes me as a watershed moment where the conversation shifted towards symbols and issues and away from what’s actually going on in the world. You can see the talking heads and sixth-form debaters, initially wrong-footed by the protests, find the familiar grooves of what passes for argument in their circles. Has cancel culture gone too far? Shouldn’t comedy make you uncomfortable? What, we can’t even watch Little Britain now?

There is much talk about reckoning with Britain’s past, as if that’s a new and brave thing. But we have had the reckoning many times. One of the problems Brexit caused (and Remainers like me were just as guilty of this) was that it has encouraged the British to look inward into our culture and past, rather than outward at what was going on in the world, indeed at what was going on in our own country. We have been living in this hotel for too long. We should be brave enough to walk into the rainy night and see what’s out there.

Is the bar open yet, Fawlty?

(Image: Wikipedia)

Liberals in Lockdown

May 17, 2020

It’s not made the papers, but there’s been a lot of noise and merriment about the anti lockdown protests happening this weekend. Social media echoed with images of mad old men holding enormous placards and Piers Corbyn being dragged away in handcuffs. The derision is understandable – the London Hyde Park demo drew only dozens, rather than hundreds, of people, which makes it more successful at least than the ‘mass gathering’ planned for Leeds Hyde Park, which attracted no protestors at all. The LS6ers don’t much like conspirazoids. And on a Saturday, they don’t get up before noon.

There have been small periodic protests since beginning of lockdown and they have come to represent the silly and toxic opposition to lockdown – Spiked Online, the increasingly deranged comment pages of the Daily Telegraph, Nigel Farage patrolling Dover beaches looking for immigrants, the idiots who tear down 5G poles, the President telling us to drink bleach and the rowdy yokels of certain American states. The worst people in politics gather in opposition to lockdown.

And yet, part of me’s with the yodellers in pickup trucks.

We’re used to the slow-witted David Icke and his pathetic followers shouting and grifting on the internet – they’ve been doing it for years. These weekend proved they are in the minority. But what of the stalwart supporters of the corona lockdown?

It’s a truism to say that the pandemic has brought out the best in us. Chaos tells you who people are. Hundreds of thousands signed up to the NHS volunteering scheme. Colonel Moore raised millions padding around his garden. Neighbours help each other out with food and medication deliveries. And every Thursday sundown rings with applause and pots and pans.

But there has also been a darkness to this time, and not all of it has come from the conspirazoids.

Toronto philosopher Regina Rini wrote on the ethics of disease control at the beginning of the pandemic when cases were first beginning to appear in her country.

What is so ethically troubling about epidemic disease is that it pushes us toward the objective attitude. We cease thinking about victims as persons, but instead as vectors of disease or ambling contaminated surfaces. Thinking of people as systems to be brought under orderly control helps us tamp down our own fear, even as it erases their humanity. When this disconnected attitude joins itself to underlying social prejudice – against Jews in medieval Europe or gay men with HIV in the 1980s – our response goes beyond the merely crass to the harmful and threatening. In all but the most extreme cases, the disease itself ends up being less dangerous to human wellbeing than the panicked, bigoted attitude.

In her piece Rini accepted the need for social distancing. Brute virology doesn’t care about our feelings. But she also urged ‘moral caution’ – we need still to look at people as people, not just ‘vectors of disease’.

The weekend before Boris declared lockdown, people were outraged at the numbers of city dwellers hanging out in parks and rushing out for a last pint on Friday evening. Walking through East London on March 19, NS editor George Eaton complained that he had ‘seen pubs and restaurants still half full – ‘nudging’ doesn’t appear to be working.’

But it takes time for awareness of threat to filter down. Once it did, we got the message – loud and clear.

In mid April, poet Salena Godden wrote:

I saw Goody Proctor
and John Proctor
walking side-by-side
holding hands
with devils breath

I saw Goody Proctor
clapping for the NHS
she were too very close
to her neighbour
and both
without bra or manners

Godden’s satire of public lockdown attitudes was close but didn’t cover half of it. Under the local kindness and volunteering was a drive of enthusiastic conformism that couldn’t stop hunting heresies. Neighbours shopped neighbours for jogging too much, shopped carers for visited loved ones, shopped people for sitting in their back gardens. Northampton police chief Nick Adderly told the BBC that ‘We are getting calls from people who say ‘I think my neighbour is going out on a second run – I want you to come and arrest them’.’ I’ve heard of forces having to set up new COVID-19 reporting mechanisms to divert the surges of reports that overwhelmed 101 and 999 dispatch centres. That’s a hyperbolic comparison – Britain in lockdown is not Soviet Russia! – but I couldn’t help being reminded of Robert Conquest’s line from The Great Terror: ‘Nevertheless, just as Nazism provided an institutionalised outlet for the sadist, Stalinist totalitarianism on the whole automatically encouraged the mean and malicious. The carriers of personal and office feuds, the poison-pen letter writers, who are a minor nuisance in any society, flourished and increased.’

Like Conquest says – the enthusiastic citizen rule enforcers are a part of any society at any time. It’s a part of human nature to follow The Rules and judge others by how well they can follow the Rules, in what strength of fidelity and detail. What has annoyed me is the atmosphere of enthusiastic conformity among the commentariat. It was not just the strength of their support for national emergency legislation – what David Allen Green called The Clamour – but a refusal to admit or even entertain potential adverse consequences of policy – and in a national emergency that’s any policy. A bemused Marie le Conte remarked that ‘I’ve been feeling so out of step with most of Twitter recently; it should be possible to talk about how tough the lockdown is’.

Not on Gov.UK Twitter, it wasn’t. Liberal Remainers who were up in arms, and rightly so, when Boris suspended Parliament last year, said nothing when it shut itself down for COVID-19. Unprecedented authoritarian legislation? Dead silence from the progressives. The questions of inequality, class and privilege that run through Britain under lockdown like the lettering in a stick of rock did not interest them either. Nothing on the people trapped in substandard housing or abusive relationships, the asylum seekers dispossessed because their informal networks have been shut down. Nothing on the surge in mental illness or the thousands of non-COVID deaths at home. Where there was criticism of the government, it was that emergency measures were not passed soon enough, or did not go far enough. Follow guidelines, and listen to the experts (not that gov.UK Twitter’s own lack of expertise in infectious diseases did not prevent it lecturing us at length).

Of course what liberals say on social media is a minor issue and probably doesn’t affect anything but it represents, I think, an embarrassing failure of intellect. It will become more embarrassing for them as other countries begin to open borders and public spaces (dumping on every country that eases restrictions reveals the insecurity of our own intelligentsia’s position on this issue.) Chaos tells you who people are. Most people are wary of the COVID-19 conspiracy theorists – no one wants to be associated with them. But I am also looking around at my fellow liberals. And I’m afraid to say I am a little wary of them, too.

(Image: LeedsLive)

Mental Health in Lockdown

May 8, 2020

There is a tendency in political commentators to support, near uncritically, the government’s COVID-19 lockdown, to hit hard at the lockdown’s few dissenters, and to downplay adverse consequences of the lockdown. Oliver Kamm’s latest article for Cap-X isn’t coming from what I call ‘Gov.Uk Twitter’ but it shades into that sensibility at times. His bold claim is that ‘The critics of the lockdown in Britain typically stress not only the immense costs to the economy of current policies but also the psychological toll of keeping people isolated. That objection is wrong.’

When Kamm talks about mental illness he speaks with authority. He suffered from clinical depression, and was also targeted by political nuts online, who sought to intimidate and psychologically break him. So this para is not throat clearing: I have respect for Kamm but I believe (respectfully) that he is wrong in this case.

Kamm does acknowledge potential harms of the lockdown, and the questions of privilege that run through it: he concedes that ‘low mood is what you’d expect when we can’t visit our friends or loved ones, engage in normal recreation, or even just change the scenery by getting on a train. It will particularly affect those who live in cramped or substandard accommodation, without access to green spaces, and in dysfunctional or abusive domestic relationships.’

Keeping ourselves sane, however, ‘will require challenging two myths that are incompatible but that perversely give sustenance to each other.’ For his myths, Kamm picks two bad takes on mental health and society – the callous cod libertarianism of the dimwitted Spiked Online crew, and the argument of the 2010s left that capitalism fries our brains by keeping us poor, or by making us rich. These are indeed stupid takes that reading about mental health you will encounter.

Once the straw men have been bundled back into the haybarn, however (Kamm quotes a Laurie Penny column going back to 2015) what exactly is Kamm’s advice? It is Gov.UK Twitter advice: ‘Following the advice of PHE to stay in touch with people, to support others, to look after your physical wellbeing and to take time to focus on the present will make our society as well as ourselves more resilient in dark times.’ Of course, Kamm concedes again, ‘while the habits recommended by PHE can make you more resilient against mental illness, resilience itself is not a remedy for those who have depressive disorders.’

For depression, Kamm recommends cognitive behavioural therapy: ‘A stressful event, such as bereavement or the breakup of an important relationship, can stimulate a self-reinforcing chain of negative thoughts and stress. CBT works to correct these disorders of thought. It is cheap for the health service to provide and has a record of success.’ The therapy is particularly useful in lockdown as you will be able to do it online.

But chances are, you know what CBT is – because it’s everywhere. Employers use it, jobcentres use it, it’s a tool that’s been proven useful so naturally organisations see it as the go to and cure all. But CBT is just that – one tool in the box – it’s not necessarily going to work on its own and it’s not going to work for everyone. Individuals are complex. Different tools and methods are needed.

Say you have a recurring, intrusive thought – ‘I am going to die of the coronavirus.’ You lose sleep, have panic attacks, become low and afraid. A CBT practitioner will help you develop counterpoints to that bad thought, such as:

  • I am catastrophising – the worst thing doesn’t always happen
  • I practice social distancing – I am doing everything I should to avoid catching the virus
  • Even if I get the coronavirus – I probably won’t die

The problem is – in many people the more you engage with irrational intrusive thoughts the more these thoughts will dominate your mental landscape. You are wandering deeper into the woods, and looking inward rather than outside at the wider world. That’s a particular danger during the pandemic when we are encouraged to be agoraphobics in the home and OCD outside it.

The mind is amazing but most of the stuff it throws up is not relevant or even interesting. It’s best to take a step back from your own thought processes and treat the mind as a fast-flowing river that carries everything quickly downstream. Being in the present, and the wider world, is the way forward.

Of course – I am no clinician – CBT may work very well in the majority of people. But rolling out CBT barely made a dent in the mental illness epidemic under the austerity years of the 2010s. Most people supported austerity when it came in ten years ago, just as most people support lockdown today. But it is not easy to function under conditions of austerity. Weeks turn into months, and resilience ebbs.

In Life After Dark, social historian Dave Haslam wrote that ‘The bouyant demand for literary and other sorts of festivals and for live music suggest that face-to-face, primary experiences and social occasions have virtues the virtual world lack.’ Primary experience keeps us sane. Restricting it can only do psychological harm.

This is not the place for a critique of the lockdown. It may well be right and necessary. But I would like some acknowledgement that even if it is the best policy it will have adverse consequences. And one of those consequences will be an impact on mental health.