A Letter on Justice and Open Debate

It seems that many of our brightest are now recognising the dangerous cloud of censoriousness that is gathering over our culture. This Open Letter was published in Harper’s Magazine on the 7th of July 2020. I hope that it is not too late to reverse some of the damage done. There is nothing in this letter that would lead a reasonable person to cavil nor is there really anything to add.

https://harpers.org/a-letter-on-justice-and-open-debate/

A Letter on Justice and Open Debate

July 7, 2020
The below letter will be appearing in the Letters section of the magazine’s October issue. We welcome responses at letters@harpers.org

Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial. Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts. But this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity. As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second. The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy. But resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion—which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting. The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.

This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us.

Elliot Ackerman
Saladin Ambar, Rutgers University
Martin Amis
Anne Applebaum
Marie Arana, author
Margaret Atwood
John Banville
Mia Bay, historian
Louis Begley, writer
Roger Berkowitz, Bard College
Paul Berman, writer
Sheri Berman, Barnard College
Reginald Dwayne Betts, poet
Neil Blair, agent
David W. Blight, Yale University
Jennifer Finney Boylan, author
David Bromwich
David Brooks, columnist
Ian Buruma, Bard College
Lea Carpenter
Noam Chomsky, MIT (emeritus)
Nicholas A. Christakis, Yale University
Roger Cohen, writer
Ambassador Frances D. Cook, ret.
Drucilla Cornell, Founder, uBuntu Project
Kamel Daoud
Meghan Daum, writer
Gerald Early, Washington University-St. Louis
Jeffrey Eugenides, writer
Dexter Filkins
Federico Finchelstein, The New School
Caitlin Flanagan
Richard T. Ford, Stanford Law School
Kmele Foster
David Frum, journalist
Francis Fukuyama, Stanford University
Atul Gawande, Harvard University
Todd Gitlin, Columbia University
Kim Ghattas
Malcolm Gladwell
Michelle Goldberg, columnist
Rebecca Goldstein, writer
Anthony Grafton, Princeton University
David Greenberg, Rutgers University
Linda Greenhouse
Rinne B. Groff, playwright
Sarah Haider, activist
Jonathan Haidt, NYU-Stern
Roya Hakakian, writer
Shadi Hamid, Brookings Institution
Jeet Heer, The Nation
Katie Herzog, podcast host
Susannah Heschel, Dartmouth College
Adam Hochschild, author
Arlie Russell Hochschild, author
Eva Hoffman, writer
Coleman Hughes, writer/Manhattan Institute
Hussein Ibish, Arab Gulf States Institute
Michael Ignatieff
Zaid Jilani, journalist
Bill T. Jones, New York Live Arts
Wendy Kaminer, writer
Matthew Karp, Princeton University
Garry Kasparov, Renew Democracy Initiative
Daniel Kehlmann, writer
Randall Kennedy
Khaled Khalifa, writer
Parag Khanna, author
Laura Kipnis, Northwestern University
Frances Kissling, Center for Health, Ethics, Social Policy
Enrique Krauze, historian
Anthony Kronman, Yale University
Joy Ladin, Yeshiva University
Nicholas Lemann, Columbia University
Mark Lilla, Columbia University
Susie Linfield, New York University
Damon Linker, writer
Dahlia Lithwick, Slate
Steven Lukes, New York University
John R. MacArthur, publisher, writer
Susan Madrak, writer
Phoebe Maltz Bovy
, writer
Greil Marcus
Wynton Marsalis, Jazz at Lincoln Center
Kati Marton, author
Debra Mashek, scholar
Deirdre McCloskey, University of Illinois at Chicago
John McWhorter, Columbia University
Uday Mehta, City University of New York
Andrew Moravcsik, Princeton University
Yascha Mounk, Persuasion
Samuel Moyn, Yale University
Meera Nanda, writer and teacher
Cary Nelson, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Olivia Nuzzi, New York Magazine
Mark Oppenheimer, Yale University
Dael Orlandersmith, writer/performer
George Packer
Nell Irvin Painter, Princeton University (emerita)
Greg Pardlo, Rutgers University – Camden
Orlando Patterson, Harvard University
Steven Pinker, Harvard University
Letty Cottin Pogrebin
Katha Pollitt
, writer
Claire Bond Potter, The New School
Taufiq Rahim, New America Foundation
Zia Haider Rahman, writer
Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, University of Wisconsin
Jonathan Rauch, Brookings Institution/The Atlantic
Neil Roberts, political theorist
Melvin Rogers, Brown University
Kat Rosenfield, writer
Loretta J. Ross, Smith College
J.K. Rowling
Salman Rushdie, New York University
Karim Sadjadpour, Carnegie Endowment
Daryl Michael Scott, Howard University
Diana Senechal, teacher and writer
Jennifer Senior, columnist
Judith Shulevitz, writer
Jesse Singal, journalist
Anne-Marie Slaughter
Andrew Solomon, writer
Deborah Solomon, critic and biographer
Allison Stanger, Middlebury College
Paul Starr, American Prospect/Princeton University
Wendell Steavenson, writer
Gloria Steinem, writer and activist
Nadine Strossen, New York Law School
Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., Harvard Law School
Kian Tajbakhsh, Columbia University
Zephyr Teachout, Fordham University
Cynthia Tucker, University of South Alabama
Adaner Usmani, Harvard University
Chloe Valdary
Lucía Martínez Valdivia, Reed College
Helen Vendler, Harvard University
Judy B. Walzer
Michael Walzer
Eric K. Washington, historian
Caroline Weber, historian
Randi Weingarten, American Federation of Teachers
Bari Weiss
Sean Wilentz, Princeton University
Garry Wills
Thomas Chatterton Williams, writer
Robert F. Worth, journalist and author
Molly Worthen, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Matthew Yglesias
Emily Yoffe, journalist
Cathy Young, journalist
Fareed Zakaria
From https://harpers.org/a-letter-on-justice-and-open-debate/

Re-reading Struwwelpeter

Re-reading Struwwelpeter

Our neighbour is a author, most celebrated for her books for children and young adults. She recently had discussions with her publishers about new book ideas and had been informed that they advised against discussion of death or themes of mortality in books aimed at a young audience. This rather surprised me as most of the books I read, or had read to me, when I was young were primarily concerned with the grisly fates of bad children. All the fairy tales I can remember were light on fairies and rather heavy on wolves, ogres and axemen. I recall when I was reading the “Big Book of Children’s’ Tales” to my three children that these were not fantasy stories; these were largely morality tales, heavy on judgement and often quite gruesome. I remember the kids preferred the most gruesome ones the best.

I think her publisher might have been surprised had he seen my recent purchase. Stuwwelpeter by Dr. Heinrich Hoffman. I was able to find a hardback copy of this in good condition on ebay and have thoroughly enjoyed re-reading it. Published in 1845 this was one of the earliest children’s’ picture and story books. It was written by Dr. Hoffman a psychiatrist who was disappointed by the lack of good books for children. Unable to find one suitable for his own son’s birthday present he wrote his own which was subsequently published to great, international success. This is a collection of ‘improving’ tales with clear moral messages for the young reader.

It is still the case that children’s books often have an educational aspect and often have an ethical and moral message woven through the story. When I looked at the shortlists for children’s fiction this year in Britain it was clear that the majority still had such a message. However, there was a significant difference. The books were less concerned with a range of moral dilemmas but rather focussed on a very few themes. Indeed, if nearly all of them concerned the theme of tolerance of diversity and even those concerned with mental illness, or gender identity, also took this tack.

Tolerance of diversity is very obviously a good thing and we’d wish our children to be open minded and not to be prejudiced. However, I am not sure we need to inculcate this. The scientific evidence would tend to suggest that children are intrinsically open to others and do not fear or dislike people who look different to them. It seems very likely that racists and bigots have to be made, we have to teach these sins, children are not born that way. That this theme predominates in these books probably reflects the preoccupations and concerns of the writers, publishers and buyers of these books – this is a fear of adults rather than children. Having said this even in this collection there is one cautionary tale warning children against judging people by the colour of their skin.

The ten tales in this book tackle a wide range of concerns and give a range of instructions : Don’t be cruel (to people or animals); Don’t be greedy; Be prudent and careful; Be honest and don’t lie; Listen to good advice and Always remember your actions have consequences. This is an effective moral toolbox for young children and as useful today as it was then. More importantly the stories are told in rhymes that just cry out to be read aloud and are accompanied by illustrations which wonderfully detail the stories. As I have discovered, even the oldest decrepit grandfather can become an accomplished thespian when reading these stories with the powerful rhymes and the correct hand gestures. I think you will be able to guess the hand movements that accompany this part of “The Story of Little Suck-A-Thumb”:-

The great, long, red-legg'd scissor-man.
Oh! children, see! The tailor's come
And caught out little suck-a-thumb.
Snip! Snap! Snip! the scissors go;
And Conrad cried out --- Oh! Oh! Oh!
Snip! Snap! Snip! They go so fast,
That both his thumbs are off at last.

When my daughter saw that I had this book as bedtime reading for my grandchildren, I saw a worried frown pass over her forehead. I could see a question of “Is that suitable ?” cross her mind. I reminded her that she had grown up unscathed by its effect and had developed as a mature moral individual. Then as she looked again, and saw the pictures, the memories rushed back. She could remember the stores especially the tale of ‘Henrietta and the matches ‘and particularly recalled the kittens crying for poor deceased Henrietta. She remembered also that it made her very wary of playing with fire or matches, which was largely the point.

The acid test for this book, however, was not my opinion although I did enjoy it greatly. More importantly my two young grandchildren now look forward to reading from this book and have it as their bedtime favourite. They have no awareness that it is nearly two centuries old despite the dated pictures and the clothing of the characters. To them they are simply fun stories with engaging pictures which is largely what Heinrich Hoffman called it originally.

Lustige Geschichten und drollige Bilder
mit 15 schön kolorierten Tafeln
für Kinder von 3–6 Jahren

Funny stories and whimsical pictures
with 15 beautifully coloured panels
for children aged 3–6

Perhaps current manufacturers of children’s book could have a peek at Hoffman’s book (or those by Grimm, Andersen or Aesop) and realise that children can cope with the important themes of life and are receptive to thinking about moral issues.

In praise of the boring walk

In praise of the boring walk

In my language class we were discussing our favourite walks. One after another we recounted our tales of when we climbed Kilimanjaro, Machu Picchu, the Himalayas, the Alps, Ben Nevis, or Cader Idris. We all had stories of the landscapes, the geography and the breath-taking views. Some even had stories of the breath-taking altitude sickness that accompanied these treks. It was clear from the tales, and stunning photographs, that these were pinnacle experiences, the high-points of a vacation and events that will take prominent place in their memories, conversations and photograph albums. I was certainly aware that while I may not be a great mountaineer and may not have scaled the highest peaks as we discussed things I was as able as anyone at telling tall tales.

But I also realised that these were not the important walks for me. These were holiday experiences and once in a lifetime events. While they were enjoyable they were not important. Had any one of them not occurred, another memory would easily taken its place. Though they contributed a little to who I am it was only a little. If they had not occurred I’d be only slightly different and in no way diminished. I am sure there are many well-rounded individuals, with full inner lives, who have never watched the sun set over the Andes or seen it rise through the mist of Snowdonia. These, in fact, are not the walks that can make us. That needs a totally different approach to walking.

We all know that we should be more mobile and walk more. Millions of us wear electronic tags to count our steps and nag us to ensure we make our 10,000 a day. This exhortation to walk more is wise if more of us are to avoid early death and disability through the consequences of obesity and our sedentary lives. But there is more to walking than this. Regular daily, boring walking is important for our mental health and our souls (if not our soles). This doesn’t depend on steps or energy expenditure – this won’t take place on a treadmill with earphones playing a podcast – this needs repetitive, solitary, unstimulating walking. This is easy meditation. An easy way to be by yourself, removed from the pressures and stimulation of the world and to be in the company of your own thoughts, and your god if you have one.

I walk the same 3 kilometre route twice a day. It is extremely unlikely that I will encounter anything I haven’t seen before. I won’t turn a corner to a stunning new vista. Anything new I do encounter will be small scale – such as “I didn’t notice that branch has fallen“, or “look, the primroses are out!” This avoidance of novelty, or large scale discoveries, allows one to walk by habit and give more of your attention to your inner world and your thinking. Similarly, for these walks you must avoid it becoming something else, something less boring. If you plug in your earphones you will find you are listening to music, reading a book, or following a conversation rather than being obliged to talk to yourself. This is the key to a boring walk; you talk to yourself and discuss your own thoughts and feelings. You try and explain to yourself, why do acted as you did, or felt how your did. You can start to plan with yourself,  how you will be. You can start to create yourself anew. But none of this will happen if someone else is there, either real or virtual, as you will have to give your focus to them. The only companion that works on a boring walk is a dog with whom you are well aquainted. They physically help the walk by keeping the pace. They make the walk safer by alerting you to dangers and they will listen when you need to speak out loud to express your thoughts. They never insert their opinions into your train of thought and are the perfect sounding board. (If they do answer back, then seriously consider specialist medical advice).

The boring walk is perfect meditation without the need for gongs, mats, robes or any added philosophy. It fits any culture and any geography; everyone has a circuit they can walk that will become boring after it has been circumnavigated a few times. It just has to be long enough to allow you to throw off immediate practical concerns but not too long that it becomes physically challenging. I’d suggest the same circuit for about 30 minutes a day, repeated twice if you have more personal issues you need to address. Your best days will be those when a light drizzle and stiff breeze force you to wrap up and ensure you are further isolated from external distractions. Regular boring walks are much more important than flamboyant bursts of exotic trekking , and in any event, you will make your 10,000 steps and improve your physical health. Remember Mens sana in corpore sano cuts both ways.

White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo

I was rather late in reading this book. I had been aware of its good reviews, and status at the top of the bestsellers lists for some time, but it was only last week that I got around to reading it. I guess, prompted by the Black Lives Matter protests and recent news headlines, this seemed a good book to broaden my knowledge and awareness of the problems of racism. It is always a problem with books that generate a buzz and hype; that they do not live up to expectation and essentially disappoint. This was certainly the case with this book.

Although it is written by an academic (she is a tenured professor of education) it is aimed very squarely at the mass market. Thankfully, therefore it is relatively free of the some of the awful jargon that can accompany works in this area of research. However, in addition to having a simplified style it also has a very simplified content. In essence this is “dumbed down” and there is very little data or analysis beyond a few anecdotes from the authors own experience. I would wager that someone wishing to understand more about racism, particularly the societal aspects (how it is generated and maintained), will know no more after reading this book than before.

By the second half of the book it starts to be peppered by bullet lists which are clearly the PowerPoint presentations she uses in her consultancy work. The sense of ennui that these types of presentation cause when you sit and stare at them on a screen is carried over into the book. Some of the anecdotes are interesting, and illustrative of problems that exist, but sometimes the dialogue is toe-curlingly contrived and unbelievable. It is possible an American audience will derive more from this book than a European one. However, it is rather disappointing that a book about something as global a problem as racism pays no heed to differing cultures and is so parochial.

My initial feelings of disappointment, and of a missed opportunity, gradually changed towards one of more distress and annoyance (probably confirming my fragility) as I realised that this book will do nothing to reduce racism but might, counter-productively, increase it. The author of this book believes that we are prisoners of our skin colour. She can tell our motives and intentions by simply looking at our complexions. This book lumps everyone, black or white or other, into specific racial groups and treats them all as ciphers; nothing more than signifiers of that race, doomed by their skin colour to the collective guilt or victimhood they inherit from their ancestors. The differences between cultures, the powerful effects of important heroic individuals, and the changes seen in societies as attitudes to racism are tackled, are all ignored. Though possibly less malign than curent racist thinking, this is also a racialist agenda and it is a backward step. I fear that this effect is starting to be seen, when I watch the media or talk to my neighbours, it seems race-relations have taken a backward step rather than improve following recent events. Racialised thinking, suspicion and anger are now more prevalent rather then less. It is a sad and sorry tale.

I was glad therefore to see an open letter in The Spectator attacking this increase in racial division. The co-signatories, from a variety of different political and cultural backgrounds,  recognise the dangers that following this route can have. Unfortunately the author of White Fragility is not working with the angels in this case and is possibly promoting future problems. I think that this is important enough that I should finish with  the text of the open letter here :-

Dear fellow citizens,

In the wake of the horrifying and brutal killing of George Floyd, many in the UK expressed heartfelt solidarity; widespread protests showed a genuine commitment to opposing racism. Since then, however, activists, corporations and institutions seem to have seized the opportunity to exploit Floyd’s death to promote an ideological agenda that threatens to undermine British race relations.

The power of this ideology lies in the fear it inspires in those who would otherwise speak out, whatever their ethnicity. But speak out we must. We must oppose and expose the racial division being sown in the name of anti-racism.

The consequences of this toxic, racialised agenda are counter-productive and serious. We are all being divided by tactics and narratives many of us know to be untrue:

  • By splitting society into black lives or white lives, racial identity is being used to define who we all are and how we should fight injustice, as opposed to building a united movement to improve life for everyone.
  • Those who favour the identity-based politics of grievance and academic critical race theory are redefining racism. The achievements of civil rights movements in the past – that effected positive material impacts on the lives of ethnic minorities and increased equal treatment – are now being denied and undermined by those who claim racism is on the rise.
  • Demands that millions of people accept uncritically a prescriptive ‘white privilege’ agenda or be dubbed ignorant, racist or in denial is creating new tensions.
  • Under soulless acronyms such as BAME and POC, all ethnic minorities are robbed of individual agency, and assumed to be victims of injustice.
  • Free speech is being eroded by a McCarthyite culture of conformity in which to question the new dogma means to risk one’s livelihood and reputation.
  • Calls for the wholesale destruction of historical statues, symbols and works of art are fuelling an unhealthy war against the past and stirring up culture wars in the present.
  • An obsessive focus on the impact of colonialism threatens to turn history into a morality tale, rather than a complex, three-dimensional understanding of the past.
  • The common conflation of the issue of race in the US with the UK (in relation to criminal justice, for example) is unhelpful as it makes it difficult to discuss our specific historical circumstances and the contemporary challenges we face.
 

We are committed to supporting open-minded, fact-based investigation into the roots of our many social problems but reject simplistic explanations that reduce all injustice to racial factors.

We are dismayed at the moral cowardice of political and cultural institutions that refuse to speak out in defence of tolerant citizens who are being targeted as though their skin colour is synonymous with ‘unconscious’ bigotry.

We oppose the notion of collective guilt, and support the goals of those who have struggled to ensure that individuals are judged by the content of the character and not the colour of their skin.

We reject the proposition that the UK is inherently racist in 2020, with racial prejudice embedded into our educational, cultural and legal institutions. We salute the struggles of earlier generations of civil rights activists and the progress they made in defeating racist discrimination and attitudes.

We want a genuine movement to fight for equality of treatment. Where racism exists, it should be unapologetically challenged. We oppose those ideologues who seek to irrevocably damage our society by hijacking this important cause. We also oppose the opportunistic far right groups who are already exploiting this new climate of fear and disunity.

We will not be divided – by reactionary racists or culture warriors – who refuse to see us as individuals beyond our skin colour.

We call on people to share their insights and experiences (@DontDivideUsNow on Twitter and Instagram) and join us in challenging these regressive trends.

www.dontdivideus.com

email team@dontdivideus.com

 

I am non-binary

I am non-binary

Who would have imagined that, in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, I would discover that I am non-binary? We are in an extremely important phase of the pandemic at the moment; the nightmare of the first wave is subsiding and we are entering the lull before the probable second wave comes towards the end of the year. We have, perhaps, three months or so, to plan and prepare for the winter onslaught. We need to have fortunately bought a period of grace in which we might, if we work cooperatively and diligently, be able to limit the damage that the next wave of the virus will do.

It is not very likely that any vaccine or effective treatment will be available in time so we need to make other contingencies. Having our health service capacity enlarged is already well under way but this needs maintained and we need to start addressing non-coronavirus morbidity as well. Contact tracing needs developed but, vitally for this to work, we need to have low levels of infection as we go into the next phase. If our base rate of infection is too high then any track and trace system will be unable to cope and be ineffective. At the same time as all of this we need to restart our economy and society and find new ways to co-exist alongside the coronavirus, at least in the medium term. This creates a tension between the desire and need to open-up society and the economy and the worry and caution promoting prolongation of the lockdown.

This is increasingly being argued as if it were a binary choice: open or continue the lockdown – the economy or public health – money or lives !

Those wishing to relax the restrictions correctly remind us that without manufacturing there will be no consumption, without wealth there can be little health. The point out that if we continue the shut down then people will die as the death rates from poverty start to rise. They will also point out that failing to treat many conditions, for which we do have effective treatments, will cost us in avoidable deaths over the years to come. They will stress the adverse effects that a closed society will have on our mental health and the long term sequalae we might expect from this, as well as the horrific prospect of a “lost generation” of children and young people deprived of an education at the most vital time of their development. They will show us all of these numbers and tend to minimise the risks of a second wave. They will tell us we must gird our loins and forge a new way ahead out of this pandemic and advise us not to listen to those advising caution as they are just cowards afraid to take the necessary steps en route to victory.

On the other hand, those appreciating the danger of a second wave will point to all the dangers we ignore at our peril. The recent localised spikes and outbreaks when restrictions have been eased. They will correctly let us know that the likelihood of a vaccine is far from certain and extremely far from being close at hand. They will point to how poorly we have coped with following the rules and advise us that we can’t trust tour fellow citizens to take the degree of care necessary – ‘It is bad enough that they don’t take care of their own health but they also jeopardise the health of everyone else.” Correctly they will point out our great ignorance of many aspects of this disease – which groups are vulnerable? what behaviours are the most risky? What strategies reduce my risk? They will argue these are all largely unknown and, as a consequence, any opening up is cavalier and reckless.

Alas, these positions are often seen as binary opposites and people and politicians are taking their positions on either one side or the other. Debates are largely about whether one or the other approach is correct. Facts are massaged to support one case or another while other facts are generated to show the danger of the opposing view. At a time when we should be trying to understand, debate and work out an effective strategy we are treating this like a political hustings – denigrating everything the other side offers as stupid, at best, and possibly evil, at worst, while proclaiming themselves as our only saviours.

This is not a binary choice. We need to release some of the restrictions so we can build up our strength and armamentarium for the next round of the fight but we must also be vigilant and careful so as not to give away any ground or be caught of guard. If the analogy is a door, then it is indeed time to unlock it, but there is no need to leave it open. We can start to return to our work, our schools, our hospitals and our shops but not in the way we did before. We can start to consider non-essential activities to get some recuperation but these need to be different to how they were before We can’t suddenly start long-distance travel or tightly packed mass events. This is a period of respite not a victory party. This is also our time to try out new ways of living that might prove better in the long term: a time to find pleasure in smaller scale more local events; a time to review if our supply chains need to span so far across the globe or whether we could be more self-reliant; a time  to see if there are ways that the ecological benefits we have seen through reduced consumption could be made permanent.

No matter what the politicians tell us, it is not ‘A’ or ‘B’, not their way or their opponent’s way, it is a mixture of both. What we require to do now is to find out just what ratio is needed. This is difficult and we may find that our present politicians are not up to the job and that we need new voices. It will not be easy but, as they say, ‘If you can’t ride two horses at the same time you shouldn’t be in the circus

A tale of two stabbings

There was period at the start of the period of lockdown when there was hope that something good might follow all of this. People noticed the clearer air, the reduced traffic noise and smog, they discovered aspects of family life that had been lost to the daily grind of work, and noticed that many things which had once been seen as important were in fact frivolous and wasteful. But as the lockdown progressed we started to chaff against the restrictions and to desire top get back to our “old world” and its ways. It seems that, alas, we are rapidly doing this. The last days have seen the return of mass stabbings to our cities with killings in London and Glasgow. Horrible as this was to hear of the return mass murder; almost as depressing has been the realisation, in its telling of the events, of how debased and partisan our news media has become.

Throughout the lockdown the media has performed poorly. It was outraged and shocked when Dominic Cummings seemed to break the lockdown rules and warned that he was almost single-handedly creating a second wave of deaths. They lost this concern about the breaching of social distancing rules when thousands demonstrated for the Black Lives Matter campaign, only to rediscover their shock and horror about such behaviour when working-class city dwellers went to the beach, and just in time for Trump’s disastrous rally. At a time when we need to be given facts and details we can trust, when literally our lives depend upon it, we have a media that spends more energy in ensuring the correct political spin on a story than on its value for public health or safety.

The stories of the stabbings were unintentionally revealing. When the news initially broke in both cases the media’s call was initially for silence. The initial responses from the Scottish Government and the London Mayor’s office was to advice people to say nothing. There is always an awkward period just after an atrocity when the victims are not known and the intentions of the perpetrator are unclear. During this time, the media doesn’t know if this story fits the narrative or not. The range is horrifying to the media; it could range from “Islamic fundamentalist slaughters gays” to “White supremacist slaughters black men”. The media doesn’t know if the killers are the kind of people we are encouraged to hate (right wing, racists) or not and whether the victims are the right sort of people. There is during this time the great worry that killer could be one of the folk from ‘your team’ and it is best for everyone to be quiet until the correct story has been decided. Really there is no need for this. There is never a situation, outside of war, where the person doing multiple killings is the good guy, and, even in war, those killed are clearly the victims and deserve our sympathy.

Our initial responses should simply be our natural one’s; shock and horror that people have been killed and anger and outrage at the person who did it. We don’t need politicians to tell us to wait until they know the details so they can tell us if we are angry or not. It is our anger which worries them. They are worried that the conclusions we draw may lead us to be angry with the wrong people. We might be angry that our communities are breaking down, that our police force is underfunded, that our involvement in foreign wars has brought echoes of these wars to our high streets, or that there are groups promoting intolerance and division with impunity. These might not be the story as it is meant to be told, so we should shut up and wait.

The media wants to keep to its narratives, and this can prove awkward. What if the man killing the asylum seekers in Glasgow was another asylum seeker and not a rabid local bigot? Where is the story then? What if the killer in Reading did kill the three gay men in the park because of his own Islamic intolerance of homosexuality? What about the view of the religion of peace then? To control the narratives the media must either alter the attacker or the victim. It will either convert the attacker into a “madman”, so that insanity is the cause of their evil, or remove the features of the victims (“The police report that the victims were not attacked because they were gay”). Anything to remove discordant facts that might make the overall stories being told less consistent. In London the gayness of the victims was less important than the refugee status of the attacker (as they were also white, middle-class men) so it is more important to avoid the possibility of increasing islamophobia than it is to avoid appeasing homophobia. This is intersectionality at work; weighing up our value on the victimhood scale and seeing where we sit – sometimes our victim status is too low to be worthy of attention.

Thankfully, most people can see past this. Most people know that every person has the right to life and that any ideology which results in hatred and killing is shameful. We see past the reports that we receive to the truth behind the headlines that groups exist which wish to divide us up and control our lives. Sometimes we only see it “through a glass darkly” and it takes us time to appreciate what is going on. In difficult times, like the present, we need facts and open discussion so we can grope our way out of this dreadful situation. The same old stories that got us into this mess do not help.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Before I start; I have to make a couple of confessions about this book review.

Firstly, I did not properly ‘read’ the book I used an audio book. Sometimes this might only be a minor detail but here its is much more significant. The author uses very idiosyncratic punctuation and line spacing (as well as icons at the start of chapters). The effect of this was lost upon me as it was not perceptible in the audio book. It is possible some readers will gain some insights from these stylistic effects but when I started to read the book, in a conventional way, I didn’t find they added. Rather, they were slightly irritating, hence my decision to use an audio book. It is possible, had I persevered, that I may have got more from the text. However, ever since e.e. cummings I have always had a suspicion that devices such as these are a cover for a deeper lack of skill. Even George Bernard Shaw with his new alphabet never managed to improve his prose or by communication by using idiosyncratic developments in writing.

Secondly; I am not a member of the target demographic. As an old, white, heterosexual cis-male I am pretty sure the book was not written with my purchase in mind. However, I don’t tend to read books that are about me, or people like me; I already know about that. What I want to read is of other people and circumstances I haven’t had to deal with. So that I can understand more of the world and possibly change and develop. Thus I tend to read the big book award winners (She won the Booker jointly with Margaret Attwood for this book) whether or not they seem aimed at my part of the reading population. This usually works well and has lead me to discover many books I would otherwise have missed. This strategy may not have worked as well here. It is not that this book was not aimed at the likes of me but rather that it had a very particular audience in mind and I was not it. This audience may well like this book a great deal more than I did for reasons that will become clear.

The first thing that is clear is that Bernadie Evaristo is a very skilled writer. She is adept at description and can create scenes which carry a great punch and are very evocative.She manages to hold twelve stories together well and weave them cleverly into each other in a way that is both interesting and natural. The dialogue that she writes has an honesty and accuracy which helps carry the stories along and the whole thing has a light and lively feel. She handles a lot of characters, of varying age and social class but this is not altogether a success.

The characters are overdrawn to the extent of becoming caricatures. These are the icons of Vogue Magazine and the Guardian newspaper. They felt like stereotypes and charicatures rather than real people at times. This was rather like “Mills & Boon” for the people who attend parties in London hosted by Bonnie Greer and Afua Hirsch. Middle class metropolitans working in the arts might fantasize about Amazonian, lesbian, writer-directors, or men like Riefenstahl’s Masai warriors whose “eyes looked into my soul”, much as the more plebeian reader of romance novels fantasises about Cliff, the chisel jawed surgeon, who, after saving the baby, wraps the heroine in his strong arms. Again, I am wary, because although I found these characters rather two dimensional this might reflect my distance from their world, rather than the writing. Other readers might find those characters had more heft.

The male characters, who I might be able to appreciate better, were rarely little more than “pollinators“. When a male character was developed it was usually in a negative sense as a rapist, an abuser or an absent father. Though thankfully there was some appreciation of the horrendous toll that racism has taken on black men through the ages. However, overall, there was a tint of misandry, but this was painted with a fairly light brush. Unfortunately, the male characters were even less well developed, and none developed sufficiently to feel like a real person to the reader. They were never true individuals, simply the gremlins and demons in the fairy stories.

I can see why this appealed to the judges and I can see that this is a book by an author with talent. Some will also enjoy the novelty of the punctuation. Unfortunately, however, I fear that by overdrawing the characters and situations we are left with stories with little nuance and little explanation. A day spent reading the Guardian or New York Times would be just as revealing.

New arrivals

After having been a bit down spirited yesterday, I had a pleasant surprise when I went into the lower meadow this afternoon. I had intended to cut back some briers but instead met the Muscovy duck, who had been sitting, taking her brood out for their first walk.

I walked her and the drake, an Aylesbury, back up to the duck house and got them settled in. As you’ll see from the video they are already having their first disagreements about parenting. This is a respectable hatch, for her, of 8 ducklings. They will soon be able to meet the other ducklings (mixed breeds) that I hatched in the incubator recently.

Life always feels a bit brighter when there are new arrivals on the smallholding.

Beauty persists

It seems that, unfortunately, normal service has been resumed. We again have reports of terrorists running lethally amok in our capital city catching us unawares at rest. Three are dead and other remain critically ill in hospital. The public have decided that mass demonstrations are now safe despite what the medical experts warn. Each day reports of crowds packing our town centres show us just how transmission of a virus can be facilitated. Even the Germans have got in on the act with rioting reported in Stuttgart yesterday. Never one to follow experts, Mr Trump has decided that, like the other demonstrators, he can hold rallies without even insisting that masks are worn. It seems that surprisingly his supporters had more sense than he did and stayed away in their droves. The R number has jumped up again in Germany after initial excellent results, and we can see the increasing rates of infection in America especially in the South where it is going to play havoc with an elderly, diverse population with high levels of disadvantage. There is little to lift the spirit watching this slow-motion catastrophe unwind

This was never going to be a short game. We knew from the start that this we were in this long haul. We managed phase one but seem to be failing in the second round. We are acting as if we have won and starting to celebrate. It is a little like the scene in the movie when the psychopathic killer has been beaten after the lengthy fight. The heroes, in victory and relief, don’t watch as the dead villain’s hand creeps towards the gun. Like them we are about to discover that round two has just started. This is the round when we try and create a new way of life despite the presence of the coronavirus. It is no longer just adequate to hide away, we did that and regrouped, now is the time we need show we have learnt the lessons on social distancing and changing our behaviour. It is now we must learn how to live and work without being physically close. We have to find alternative ways of doing things. We shouldn’t be waiting for the pubs to reopen, or the package holidays in sunny climes to restart, we should be thinking what we can do instead of those activities.

There are potentially many improvements that might follow these changes; necessity is, after all, the mother of invention. There will be unexpected bonuses. It is highly likely that Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic is going to lose him the election later this year. While not a foregone conclusion it is nice to see a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. I am not sure Biden will make a great president but feel pretty confident in saying that he (and just about anyone else) is going to be better than the present incumbent. But there will be major challenges. The economic downturn that we are about to face is going to demand major political change if the years of increasing inequality and globalisation (which has benefitted capital at the expense of labour) are to be reversed. Other wise we can expect that the debt, as always, for the pandemic will fall on the shoulder of the poorest in our societies – the people who worked to pull us through this nightmare will be the one’s who have to pay to ensure that the wealth of the privileged is not threatened. When I look at the parties on the left in Europe and America, I am not sure that they are ready for this task. Unless they drop their focus on identity and individualism and regain their focus on the structural class and democratic issues, they will prove to be irrelevant. Not just irrelevant but worse – counterproductive – as they set one group of the working class against another and fail to mount an effective fightback. If they fail, then there are groups emerging on the right who will propose themselves as the saviours of the poor. The greatest risk factor for the development of fascism is economic collapse and the fear it engenders which make strong, tough talking leaders dangerously attractive.

While I get depressed, I try to take my own advice and try to find new ways to live happily. My social activities are minor and infrequent now, and I need to learn how to find pleasure in other ways. I used to enjoy concerts but these are unlikely to be a feature of my life for some time. However, we have thousands of hours of music and concerts available to us already. I have found that going back to look and listen to some old favourites obviates the need to find the new and fashionable. There is so much music I have never heard already recorded and available that I could never sate my appetite even if another new work were not created (Though I am sure that they will be).

It is a shame, but I can never describe music to someone else. The pleasure that it gives is personal and, I find, impossible to put into words. I am going to end this piece with the gift of a piece of music for you. I could use words such as sublime, beautiful, heart lifting, magnificent and they would all be correct, but they only tell you what the piece does to me. However, I trust that most of us are in essence similar and, whether you like this piece or not, that you will recognise the emotion and hope in this piece. A species that can create something as beautiful and powerful as this is surely going to knuckle down for the long battle against this virus and win.

Voces8 with Edward Nimrod (Lux Aeterna)

Bursting the bubble.

Bursting the bubble.

I was walking around the lanes by our house this morning. This is the usual way I start the day; I walk the lanes around the perimeter of the farm. Earlier in the year it was good to make a check first thing to ensure there were no new lambs born overnight. It is always good just to cast an eye over the stock and the fencing. Later in the year it is vital to check for wind or flood damage and to check no trees have been brought down. It is the start of my day’s routines and, these times of lockdown, it is my social life. I will often meet a neighbour, usually the smallholder down the valley checking his fields, walking or occasionally driving past. Keeping 2 meters apart we can pass a pleasant half an hour so as we share whatever information we have of the goings on locally. This morning it was the girl from the top of the valley en route to collect animal feed. I was surprised to see her as she has just recently got her driving licence and was using her mother’s car, so I had not expected to speak to her when the car stopped. I had expected one of her parents. She was enjoying the freedom of being able to drive but had not been able to use it properly. As just after she gained the right to drive, the lockdown started, and nobody was able to go anywhere. Even now we are limited in Wales to travel of less than 5 miles. We had a pleasant chat, discussed when shearing might take place this year and we went on with our days. It was an unremarkable to start to the day, but as I walked home, I realised that it was much more significant than that.

As I walked, I realised that, for all my adult life before moving here, I have lived in a variety of bubbles. It started after I left school and went to university. During my time at medical school I mixed with students, nearly everyone I met was within 5 years of my age and all had similar backgrounds; we were all swots from school starting out in the big wide world. Then after graduation my bubble became even more tightly defined. As a junior doctor my life became the hospital, I mixed almost exclusively with NHS employees, I had very few friends who were not healthcare professionals of some sort. Later, as I bought property and had children the bubble changed but didn’t really expand much. Life became focused on childcare and work – so now most of my acquaintances were still healthcare professionals but limited now to those with young children (Those without children were doing things like travelling or having fun. They also could not feign adequate interest in a conversation about the best playgroups in the area).

The children grew up and escaped, I progressed in my career and moved house a few times but latterly, before I moved here, my bubble was still around me. I now lived in a quite grand house in an area of the city where all the houses were quite fancy. Hence all the people were people who could afford fancy houses, that is, middle-aged middle-class people like me. I didn’t know my neighbours well but did join clubs and societies as there were many options for this in the city. However, these were places where I met people who had similar interest to myself. So, I met a more middle-aged, middle-class, professional people like myself. They tended to have the same set of worries and concerns as me, read the same newspapers as I did, and increasingly held the same views as me. In the days before twitter and facebook we already had echo chambers, it was rare to meet someone out of your own class, or age-group, or to hear discordant views. If people held them, they were too polite, or frightened, to express them. In the city there were so many people I could choose my friends but this simple act of choosing meant I tended to gather with people I anticipated I’d like. This reduced the diversity of my social circle and, I suppose, narrowed my life.

I would never have stopped and had a half hour chat with a teenager when I lived in the city. This is a difference in small towns and the country. In this setting we have less people living adjacent to us but paradoxically this promotes a wider spread of friendships. In the city I could elect to mix with a certain group of people, chosen by my employment or interests. Here this is not possible; my neighbours and acquaintances are who they are. They are chosen by geography not by me. In the village hall committee we have doctors, farmers, teachers, labourers, electricians and carpenters. The age range in the committee is from 17 to 80 something. A similar range of ages and occupations are involved in the local show organising committee or in meetings for the town council. I was first struck by the class differences in meetings as, before moving, I had been sequestered in a little urban enclave with little variation. However, over the years it has been the intergenerational communications that have impressed me most. Age is no real barrier to communication possibly simply because the old know the young. An older person, like myself, walking through the town doesn’t just see ‘kids’ or ‘youths’; I see Geraint’s son or Ceri’s daughter, or perhaps the guy who sheared our sheep or limed our field, or perhaps Meilir who works in the insurance office who organised our woodland cover.

As I walked home this morning, I was glad I’d heard a 17 year old’s views on lockdown and the protesting in London. Yesterday, hearing a sheep farmer’s views on Brexit was helpful in broadening my perspective, as it was when I talked to our local electrician about the organization of the Health Service in North Wales. If I’d stayed in the city, mixing only with the likes of myself, and getting confirmatory views from the media I’m sure I’d have been a bitter, angry and opinionated man railing against the stupidity of a world that doesn’t see things my way. Thankfully now I hear enough views to know that there is always more than one way to look at things. I also know that a feeling of certainty and confidence is often the feeling that presages disappointment. I am glad I have burst out of the small bubble I used to inhabit and now have a more diverse set of friends. There is a lot to be said for the wisdom of crowds.