Reflecting on my opinions with sadness, anger and often incredulity.
As I have grown older I have realised that much that I took for granted was wrong. In my maturity I don't agree with the follies of my youth. My core principals have not changed but may knowledge of how to achieve and apply them has.
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.
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.
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.
Continuing my series on basic animal husbandry I move to a serious technical subject – telling goats and sheep apart. Often, just after lambing, we hear people passing by our field and pointing out the animals to their children. A common mistake that they make, is that they mix up our sheep and goats, more specifically they don’t see the difference between the lambs of our primitive sheep and our goats. People have stereotyped views of lambs and sheep (woolly, cuddly, round and white – very occasionally black) and goats (horned, smelly, and angular) and this throws them, as our primitive sheep are multicoloured (browns, blacks and whites) and have quite spectacular horns. (The sheep assure me that they are not, however, smelly). This has been a long-standing area of confusion and we have records going back over many years on how to tell sheep and goats apart. Perhaps the most famous of these was in the Olivate Discourses when, in Chapter 25 of the Gospel of Mathew, they discussed the separation of the Sheep and the goats in the Judgment of Nations. In this section the animals are used to make the point that while they may look and sound alike (four legs, furry, making bleating noises) some are good while others are bad. I always thought that this parable was rather unfair on the goats. Mathew sees the goats as the sinister, evil half of the pair, who will not be saved nor be let sit on the right-hand side of God. Though wise on so many areas I think he made a mistake here – I think Mathew mixed up his goats and sheep. How can we avoid this error?
Some of the confusion is because of obvious similarities. They are both ruminants that chew the cud, they are both cloven hooved, they are similar sized, have the same number of legs, and both cook well in a slow oven. But they are not interchangeable. Goats have 60 chromosomes as opposed to the 54 of sheep. Goats have hair rather than wool. Goats have beards while sheep have manes, the goats’ upper lip is solid like ours while sheep have a split upper lip, and goats’ tails tend to stick up while sheep and lamb tails tend to dangle down. However, when you are peering over a hedge with a young child on your shoulders the number of chromosomes may not be a helpful method of discriminating goats and sheep. And despite all these other differences I would like to propose a different way to separate them which is not only easier but also more valuable.
The biggest difference by far between these two species is in their character. Although sheep are almost entirely domesticated, and very rarely seen in the wild, they remain fearful of man. Indeed, this is the character of sheep; they are timid and fearful. Anything that isn’t grass, or another sheep, is a worry and source of anxiety. Left with enough grazing sheep will happily get by eating and being sheep; disrupt this with anything other than a bucket of food and they will panic and run. In addition to being timid they also have little interest in what is going on. If you work in the field, putting up fences or pulling thistles, the sheep in the fled will be as far away from you as they can manage. If you pull down a tasty branch, they might venture close enough to eat some leaves but as soon as they are gone so are the sheep. The commonest view you will have of a sheep is of its rear end, with a bouncing dangling tail, as it runs away from you.
Goats being helpful
Goats, on the other hand, are curious and brave animals. They see the world as their buffet, everything might be food and thus is worth exploring. While sheep graze, plodding along eating the grass, goats browse – eating upwards, climbing and reaching for anything that might be edible. No matter where they are, they will find something of interest and try and eat it. Anything new in their environment intrigues them, whether it is a new gate or a new chainsaw it is worth exploring, it could just be edible or have edible bits to it – it is worth checking, just in case. This curiosity relates to people, if you are in the field working the goats will be beside you (you might be making something edible) sticking their noses into your business. They will taste everything your hair, your watch, your vest, your trousers. The only time your goats will be running away from you is when you want them to go in a different direction; they are stubborn and will always think that a different way to the way you suggest might be superior.
So, if the animal you are trying to determine is a small dot in the distance running away from you with a look of terror on its face then it is a sheep. If the animal is right beside you with its nose in your pocket testing if your wallet is edible then it is a goat. How did the Bible get it so wrong? Surely the brave, curious and intelligent animals are those we wish to emulate not the rather dim, timid creatures with no ability to smile.
Well, unfortunately, things are getting back to normal. I know that we need to try and re-establish some semblance of normal life if we are to survive, and that we must find some way to coexist with the coronavirus if the societal and economic damage that is developing doesn’t end up killing more of us than Covid19 itself. I always knew that the return phase might be the more difficult – if you terrify people so that they stay at home then, once the fear of death has been instilled, it might be difficult to get them to come back out again. Perhaps I needn’t have worried we seem to be rushing back to normal quiet quickly.
I had hoped that our “new normal” might have be rather different. I hoped that we would have learnt a lot during our incarceration and might come out refreshed and determined to build a better society. I’d envisaged that after our war was won, we would start to build a new world “fit for heroes”. I had hoped that we would have seen the need to improve our health and social care provision and felt grateful so that we would respect those that worked there better. I’d imagined that we might have seen the recklessness of long supply chains and vulnerability of food production and decided that we needed to ensure more self-reliance and better food security. I was certain that the dangers of the mass transit of people around the globe, again proving itself to be the best vector to create and distribute a pandemic, would ensure we looked at ways to reduce this type of travel. I was also sure that overcrowding and high population density, which already knew were bad for us, would be addressed when we saw the impact it had on the death statistics. However, it seems none of these are our immediate priorities.
Initially it looked promising. We organised ourselves to support each other, neighbours collected shopping for neighbours. We avoided waste and learnt how to cook from scratch. The government sat down with the trade unions and found ways to try and mitigate some of the effects of the lockdown. We went to our doors and windows to pay respect to those who were working to keep us safe and our society ticking over. There was an explosion of charitable feeling and actions. Scientists, as always, started to cooperate to find treatments but companies stopped competition and worked together to make ventilators and protective equipment. We felt as if “we are all in this together” and concerted efforts would pull us through this difficult time. But now that we are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and have the scent of freedom in our nostrils, it seems we are willing to jettison all of this and resume some aspects of “life as normal”.
We have taken to the streets with cavalier disregard to restoking the pandemic and have started to fight each other. Those not actively on the streets throwing punches and bottles are on social media throwing invectives and threats. Our media has decided to raise the temperature by partisan reporting; the BBC describing one event as “largely peaceful” when 28 police officers are injured and another as “violent protest” when 2 officers are injured. Any observer could see it was pretty equal thuggery on both occasions, but our media has stopped holding impartiality as a standard and no longer reports ‘without fear or favour’. In addition to this many of our politicians have decided that this is a way to court popularity and see riding this wild horse as a way to electoral success. They have made barely disguised calls for action to their favoured side of the public – these dog whistle calls have had their effect and packs of wolves have gathered on the streets to pull down lumps of carved stone. The culture of one group of people has been held up, like a rag to a bull, to inflame the passions of others in our population. Neighbour has been set against neighbour as the common ground of our society, our shared values and heritage, has been ripped up and thrown away.
Our early promises of working together to overcome the predicament we find ourselves in, as well as the promising to cooperate to build a better future, now seem increasingly distant. Powerful forces seem intent on dividing us up into smaller, increasingly hostile, groups. This may be in their interests, but it is not in ours. We need to reject this agenda; however it is presented, and focus on our common humanity. It is by doing this that we might have a chance or progressing, we don’t have to accept the bleak and depressing future that it being painted for us.
I came across this film while browsing on Amazon Prime. I was looking for something so that I might avoid the misery of watching the news and its endless litany of death and blame. Despite its big name stars, Mel Gibson and Sean Penn, and capable cast (Natalie Dormer, Steve Cougan, Laurence Fox, to name a few), I had not heard of it. I checked online and it was free from awards, aside from a nomination for the musical score, and had rather lacklustre reviews which told more of the politics of the film’s manufacture than of the film itself. However, user reviews were good so, trusting in the hive mind and the wisdom of crowds, I decided to give it a try. That, in summary, is how I discovered one of the best films made in recent years.
This is a drama documentary about the creation of a dictionary and the story of two men who are thrown together in this task. One is a Scottish autodidact. a polyglot or rare intelligence who is supported by his wife, and his faith, in his diligent attempt at a mammoth task. He fights against prejudice and doubt and stands steadfast despite setbacks. The other is an American doctor who, while insane with schizophrenia and labouring under delusional beliefs, shoots and kills the father and breadwinner of a poor London family. He is incarcerated in in an asylum and must face and cope with his delusions, depression , guilt and remorse. Like the Scot he is helped in his battle by his faith, his intelligence and the support and intervention of a woman (on his part, the widow of the man he killed).
This is a fascinating story well told. The acting is consistently good. accents authentic and emotion convincingly displayed. Likewise the dialogue is well written and entertaining, and as a bonus will expand your vocabulary – you will know what ‘assythment‘ means at the end if you did not at the beginning. But perhaps most importantly you will know the answer to the question “If Love … Then What?“; as, in addition to language, the most important theme of the film is that of love and redemption. It deals with them through issues of guilt, diligence and honour but does manage to consider these in a real sense, not in a glib way, and to consider more difficult aspects such as Agape and Grace.
I perhaps should not have been surprised or wary that the film garnered no awards or that its review were lukewarm. I knew Mel Gibson remains a persona non grata in media circles and would be unlikely to be given any gongs. But having seen the film I understand the empty awards shelf. A film driven by drama rather than action, entertaining with thoughts rather than deeds, a film celebrating moral steadfastness rather then the joys of transgression, a film that wasn’t riding on the back of any current bandwagon but looking at more basic principles, a film wondering at the love we can have form one and other without any sexual reward – how on earth could such a film win any wards ? It is probably too late for it to be recognised now and it may disappear into the bargain basement bin of films on free to view channels, but if you get the opportunity to see it and are in the mood for something moving then this is worth a few hours of your time.
Toppling tyrants is such an obviously good idea that I find myself unsettled that I have not been sharing in the exhilaration when I see the statutes pulled down by crowds. Statutes are erected to those that we want to honour and remember, it is our way of paying homage for great deeds. It is clearly the case that if we find we have made a mistake that we should rectify this. One of the first steps that any liberated peoples do on gaining their freedom is to destroy the signs of their prior oppression. We all cheered when we saw Saddam hit the dust, and Stalin and Enver Hoxha likewise. We await the day when Kim Jong-un totters and crashes.
I’ll look forward to seeing Sir Thomas Picton’s effigy being removed from Cardiff and Wales as it is clear that he was a sadistic man. It is wrong that a statute of him remains in the “Heroes of Wales” hall; he may have been a successful military man but his admission of the torture of a 14 year old slave girl and his reputation as the “Tyrant of Trinidad” weigh too heavily, overshadow, and obliterate, any positive contributions he may have made in his life. It is similar, though perhaps less obvious, with Edward Colston who’s statue met a watery grave in Bristol this week – it seems agreed that his financial philanthropy can’t outweigh his personal involvement in the slave trade. Like many wealthy he hoped his financial largesse and benevolence might buy him some grace, and for a while his charity did whitewash his reputation. But no longer.
So why my unease ? Why am I not outside cheering ? I suppose because obvious examples are obvious, and these are not a problem. But after these come many more, much more difficult decisions. It is very hard to look back without our views being coloured by our present knowledge and culture; this is as it should be. This allows us to be wise after the event. What was once a generally accepted fact is now known to be wrong, what was once customary and usual is now viewed with revulsion and horror. But we can not rewrite history to make it look as we would have wished it to be, to rewrite it in our present image would be a mistake. We are able to learn from history, to know the mistakes we made, to learn from them and atone for them. We can only do this if we know our history.
That does not mean we need to keep all of the statues and plaques that have been raised. If they are to stand they need to be understood, they need to be seen in their historical context. We might keep the statue of a victor but frame it in such a way as to reveal their subsequent trouncing. We might use the effigy of the wealthy industrialist who sponsored charitable works to remind us that apparent breeding, obvious wealth and social acceptance do not mean that someone may not be party to dreadful deeds.
There are two aspects of statue raising that we should also consider when we are pulling them down. What is the statue celebrating ? Who decided to raise the statue ?
What is being celebrated is important. A slaver who repents in late life and donates all his money, gained through immoral means, perhaps should continue to stand as a reminder that even when society tolerated an evil some individuals did not. So it is quite conceivable that the statute of someone who benefitted from slavery should stand – the obvious case. But there will be many, many more difficult cases. Whole societies benefitted from the process of slavery and whole nations and peoples were complicit in it (some still are). Some of those individuals have have statues erected for other acts or heroism, goodness or charity. It is these acts that are being celebrated and it is right that they are. Occasionally information will be discovered hat casts a previously celebrated individual in a new light and it is felt that their behaviours were so heinous that any honours need to be removed. Another obvious case at the other end of the spectrum. But in the middle we have those whose ‘distinction’ was only the action for which they are being celebrated, in these cases we will have to weigh these on their merits. Does the statue celebrate something we still revere ? Does the memory of the individual help us understand how we should behave ? Does the statue remind us of something we should really forget ? These questions would help us decide what stands and falls. But that leads us to our second question – who decides ?
In private spaces the owner clearly decides what artwork they wish to display. It is a private matter, but, in public spaces it is a public matter and one which needs the publics involvement. However, I mean the public and not ‘the mob’. Thirty or forty aroused individuals with ropes, no matter how well-meaning, do not have the right to take that decision from us. They are no different to the soldiers of an incoming, victorious army that pull down the icons of our old leader and replace them with a new effigy for us to worship. If we are going to make public statements of what is morally correct, what we feel should be revered, what or whom we should respect then we as the public must have our say.
When we start pulling down statues we are rewriting our history in a deliberate fashion. They are part of our memory of what were and what we did. It needs a conscious democratic and careful act to do this. As is often the case, George Orwell knew how dangerous this can be :-
“Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”
1984, George Orwell.
So I feel queasy when I watch a gang pull down public statues. I may agree that the statue should go, but my agreement is just chance. Next time they might be pulling down something I hold dear. Do I have to go out on the street and fight them to try and keep it standing ? This is the way of chaos. The passions of the street can be correct and seeking justice and just retribution; but they can also be the passions of the lynch mob. We skate around such things at our peril, as the great German director Werner Herzog said :-
“Civilization is like a thin layer of ice upon a deep ocean of chaos and darkness.”
My queasiness is the fear that I hear the sound of distant cracking.
Looking around the world it is obvious that there are concerns about the growing success of the populist movements; mainly right-wing but occasionally arising from the left wing of politics. America has been rocked by Trump’s victory and Britain by the Brexit Referendum, across Europe far-right parties have entered the governmental chambers and in Hungary and Poland taken power. This is not a problem limited to the west; Latin America has seen Brazil fall to Bolsonaro and in India Narendra Modi’s religiously tinged populism has proven electorally very successful.
Though local factors often colour the appearance of the local populist groups, and they do vary a little between them (Podemos in Spain leans to the left as do factions of the 5 Star movement in Italy), the causes seem similar much the world over. There is an increasing disengagement between the governed and those who govern them. People feel increasing disempowered from decision making which seems like more and more a remote activity over which local people have little say. As this has occurred, public involvement in society and its governance has declined with a serious reduction in the amount of community participation in government at any level. Indeed in many developed nations the number of the populace who turn out to vote has fallen by alarming levels, These changes have coincided with a growing wealth inequality so that the relative gap between rich and poor has widened greatly. All of these change provide a fertile ground for a world view that proposes the real battle, the real class war, is between us and them – ‘us’ the poor, the masses, the populace and ‘them’ the rich, the others, the elite.
This book explores the development of these changes and details them well. It does not shrug off the fact that they have occurred. It is correct that the power of the working class has waned (trade unionism is at an all time low), it is correct that power has been taken away from national democratic bodies and now resides with international, corporate friendly, agencies without democratic responsibility and that structures which previously gave support and strength to the masses (family, church, society) have been greatly weakened by by the growth of individualism and the fracturing of societal bonds. These changes have been promoted by the development of a “management elite” (as described by the one-time Trotskyist James Burnham ) or “technostructure” in the words of J.K. Galbraith whereby an oligarchy, a small group of people, hold concentrated power and run an increasingly unequal society with only the semblance of true democracy.
To this point the book is much like many, bewailing the populist advances and recognising the problems which have started this wave of protest. However, the book then proceeds to propose how society might avoid this. Not simply making a diagnosis but also suggesting a treatment. This is based upon the idea of “democratic pluralism” which looks for societies built up of a number of groups with significant power ;-
“For democratic pluralists, the state – usually a nation state, but sometimes multinational state or independent city state – is not a mass of individuals to whom a general will can be attributed, but a community made up of smaller communites.”
The three main foci of power he considers are the “guild” (labour and the economy), the “ward” (government) and the “congregation” (culture). The book discusses ways that these groups in these areas could work to create balanced power groups :-
“In the economic realm, the guild would would exercise countervailing power on behalf of working class citizens against employers and investors. In the realm of government, the ward would exercise countervailing power on behalf of working class citizens against organized money and organized expertise. And in the realm of culture, the congregation would exercise countervailing power on behalf of working class citizens against overclass media elites and overclass academic elites.”
Using a different approach in considering the power imbalances in our society, and the need to tackle the divide in inequality, the book proposes different solutions to perennial problems such as funding the welfare state, or managing immigration, which could defuse right-wing populist growth by rejecting racism and isolationism in favour of communitarianism and cooperation. He summarises the problem well –
“Demagogic populism is a symptom. Technocratic neoliberalism is the disease. Democratic pluralism is the cure.”
There are many books listing the problems we have. Many philosophical tracts describing the state we are in. However, as Karl Marx correctly said it is not enough just to describe the situation “the point is to change it” and the outline of a better, fairer system is sketched out here.
The practicalities of how we push for these changes is not the subject of this book but it may not need the upheaval of a revolution to attain it. As he is aware, under democratic pluralism there will still be a managerial elite although one with a positive and democratic philosophy. And, to end on a positive note :-
“Most members of the elite under the new policy regime will have been members of the elite under the old one. The fact that most ruling classes include large numbers of opportunistic careerists is a blessing in disguise. It means that radical revolution in policy can take place, without a radical replacement of personnel.”
It is very hard to watch America these days. After repeated mass shootings, shootings in schools, scandal after scandal, it is hard to imagine things could get worse. But then they do. Again we watch as yet another black man is choked to death by a policeman, then follows the protesting, and then the orange haired buffoon manages to pour gasoline on a gathering fire by his incendiary comments. All of this occurs against a backdrop of failure of politicians to cooperate in the face of a deadly pandemic.
Some of the events are easy to understand in themselves. Police brutality is no surprise, nor is police murder, when you have a routinely armed police force. It is not surprising to see that these atrocious events repeat when previous police officers have walked away from crimes due to effective bending of the “qualified immunity” rules. The “war on drugs” often seems to be a war by the state on its own people. Not all of its people; but its young black people who it incarcerates at horrifying levels. In a war against their own it is not difficult to see how tragedies like this occur.
The country’s growing wealth inequality leads to ever widening gaps between the ‘have’s and the ‘have-not’s and this gap is increasingly split along lines of race. This fuels the racism that persists in the country’s history and amplifies the anger and grievance. It is no surprise that young and old black people think ‘enough is enough – this has to stop’. I might be surprised if there were not raging protests. I too would want to lash out at the symbols of wealth and power.
I can even understand some of Trump’s statements. It is not an accident that he promotes further division. He has calculated that he can play to the audience on one side of the American divide and ‘to hell’ with the rest. He knows that he will never gain support from some sections of the populace and he will happily cast them adrift and ride roughshod over their concerns. It may be wrong, it may be counterproductive, but it is not, alas, surprising.
However, I do find some of the response difficult to understand. The needs for protest and action are clear and the need to counter inequality and injustice stares us in the face. There may be disagreements about tactics, especially in the midst of a pandemic, but these are minor. However, to loose sight of racism as the evil we face seems a major problem.
To reframe the issue as a problem of “whiteness” is a grave error. It fails on two levels. Firstly it fails as it lets the culprits off the hook. Those with wealth and power, who foster division and inequality, love the focus on whiteness – it takes the focus away from the plundering of developing countries of their resources and puts in on some white (conveniently dead) historical folk. It takes the focus away from the number of black people in our prisons and how they got there and puts it on the concerns of white folk and their feelings. Every middle class white writer bewailing their whiteness, while doing nothing to change the inequality in our society, is using their shouts of woke awareness to disguise their prospering from all that is wrong. Big companies have quickly learnt a new skill. Instead of ‘greenwashing’ their problems away they can use this new whitewashing strategy – just posture something about ‘whiteness’ but go on shuttering your factories so as to pay lower wages to different groups (and often different coloured) workers.
It fails because it doesn’t address the problem. The problem doesn’t rest with someone’s colour. A person’s colour does not stop them learning and changing. Knowing a person’s colour does not mean you now know how they will behave, you don’t know just by a person’s colour if they are guilty or innocent. This is the kind of error that some police officers make; they see the skin colour and stop thinking, they see the skin colour and think they know who’s right and wrong. To think that somebody’s white skin means that they must be racist, must be privileged, must be biased is to make the same mistake as the bigot. To think you can reduce a problem or a person down to the issue of their race is simply racist and no amount of sophistry about power balances will negate this. Because Black Lives Matter we need to defeat racism. We are not born racist, we have to learn it, and it looks as if we are well on our way to teaching the next generation.
The first of the four horsemen of the apocalypse was the crowned rider on the white horse bringing pestilence. Now that we have our very own modern ‘crowned’ pestilence in the form of the coronavirus many feel afraid and think that we may be living in the end of days. As we spend our lives locked in our houses watching the news report the grim daily body count of the dead it is difficult not to think “How will this end? Will I get coronavirus? Will I die?”
I don’t know the answers to the first two questions but I do know the answer to the third. The answer, as it always has been, is “Yes; you will die”. I don’t know if it will be through Covid19 or in some freak blender accident but I know it will happen.
This assurance is the only true thing we know. We all know that in the end we all die. Indeed throughout our development as a species it has been the prospect of our death that has guided us. Religious beliefs have looked at this and allowed us to use death to put our lives in context. Religions have helped us live while always and everywhere we are in the presence of death. Our awareness of our death is the defining point of our life – we have to ensure we set our house in order before we shuffle off our mortal coils.
I fear that over the past few generations, in our increasingly secular society, we have lost our familiarity with death. In the UK most deaths no longer occur at home but now most people die in forms of care; hospitals or nursing homes. We now don’t have a connection with our fate. Death is something that happens to other people, something that happens to people far away in the hospice, people far away much older than me.
I noticed when watching an advert on television for life assurance just how distanced we have become. This was one of the many adverts urging the elderly to buy a policy to pay for their funeral costs to spare their family the expense. In this an older man narrates that “if the worst happens I know my family are covered”. Why ‘if‘ rather than the correct ‘when‘? If we can’t even think of death when making an advert for funeral costs we are in a sorry state. These are life assurance policies as we are assured that death will eventually occur.
But in these times of plague this inability to consider death is causing problems. People feel that they should not die. They think if they spend enough money, eat enough healthy food, take enough exercise or pay enough taxes then they should be alright. There is a feeling that death is avoidable if we know what to do. This has lead to our rather wishful and juvenile planning regarding the lockdown.
The function of the lockdown was to “flatten the curve”, to slow the rate of infection progression so that our health care systems would not be overloaded – so that we would have unavoidable and unnecessary deaths due to lack of medical provision. It was never a lockdown to stop the virus in its tracks, it was always known that when it was eased (barring miracles) we would again have to face the virus. But hopefully, by then, we would have prepared adequately so that our health systems were ready and that we had started behaving in ways that would mitigate the virus’s spread.
It was never the plan that we would hunker down and wait for the cavalry in the form of a vaccine or treatment. Even if these occur it is not likely we will see them in the next few years and the personal and social costs of lockdown for this period of time could be even worse then the virus itself. It is inevitable that if no one is producing then a time when no one is consuming must follow. We in the developed West can’t hope that the poor abroad will continue to take the risks to attend fields and stock simply to fill our food supply chains. We should recall that, after the crowned horseman of pestilence came the next three riders- poverty, war and hell – the deaths through poverty and famine could be every bit as horrendous .
No matter how frightened we are, and I’ll admit to a fair degree of fear, we have to find ways to live alongside coronavirus, to find ways of living in the knowledge that there are things that may, at any time, kill us. It will force us to change our behaviour – saving expectantly all year to be packed into a sealed petrie dish and flown across the world (breathing the air recycled through lungs of your 200 fellow passengers) for your two week holiday may no longer seem a great way to live. Many of the long supply chains we have grown to rely upon may start to look like ever present risks. Being more self-reliant in food production, or having strong social care services, may now seem much more important priorities than lower taxes or cheaper costs when we make our political decisions.
There are many things we can do to learn how to cope with the new future. My only real fear is that is we continue with this plan of hiding until it goes away we will miss the opportunities to deal with it. My real fear is that we might ‘return to normal‘ and then we will have to restart the battle all over again.