A place in the sun.

A place in the sun.

Day time television has always looked like a punishment for the unemployed. It is as if this diet of crude pap is put on during the day because it might push those out of work back into the labour market just to avoid the constant reruns of failed programmes. Or perhaps this dross is ladled out because the channel heads don’t care about this audience, thinking they are old or disabled, and knowing they don’t have enough disposable income to warrant expensive advertising. Hence the cheapest programmes are gather together and broadcast to fill airspace.

Unfortunately when I break my working day I stop for a cup of tea and a biscuit and to relax sometimes make the mistake of turning on the TV. I tend to avoid the news channels during the day, as they steal to much of my time, and hence make the mistake of watching the mainstream channels. This has lead me to see the interminable repeats of house renovation programmes, countless Judges remonstrating about the morals the modern world, and far too many tales of neighbours or landlords from hell. But the worst of these, by far, are the repeats of “A Place in the Sun” and related second home shows.

I feel these are the worst because they tend to draw me in. They show wonderful locations and interesting houses which capture my attention, before I know it I have spent half an hour watching a couple buying a second home. But why is this so terrible ?

If you have been fortunate to have avoided these programmes I will explain the format. An elderly, often just retired, couple with a large amount of money decide that they would like a holiday home. They try and appear nonchalant and unassuming while the presenters show them a number of properties which will really suit “you guys“. Usually they see four houses in their chosen location and the presenter try and whip up enthusiasm to purchase within the couples’ usual budget of £250,000.

This is the issue. I am watching a programme in which a rich person is thinking how they will spend a quarter of a million pounds. If the programme followed a man trying to decide between the Lamborghini, Aston Martin or Ferrari we would know instinctively this is the rich buying toys but we tend not to notice it when it is a second home. However, this is buying a home to occasionally live in for fun, perhaps 2 to 4 weeks of the year – this is a toy, not a house.

Had they been buying expensive cars the situation might not have been quite so bad. If you spend £330,000 pounds on a Ferrari Dino GT it does say a lot about you. It says you have more money than sense, little awareness about the plight of the poor, an ignorance of the inequality in our society, and probably also a small set of genitals.

When people buy there holiday home they are also going to have to double a lot of running costs. In days when we are meant to worry about climate change buying something that requires either a long-haul flight or long-distance drive to use seem very unwise. These houses are normally bought in areas much poorer than the area the purchaser comes from, thus they parade their wealth amongst people much less well off than them. This is extreme conspicuous consumption; consumption made all the more conspicuous by being broadcast on television.

Despite the buyers wish to immerse themselves in the culture of the new area they will never be anything other than wealthy tourists. If they want to experience the culture then they could learn the language and take a job working as a cleaner in the town. In many of these areas the second home market is the very thing that is destroying the local culture and turning what were fishing towns, or farming villages, into ghost towns. This market prices houses out of reach for the locals, there is no real need for schools or factories when the population is largely elderly, and off-season these towns are deserted with a large section of the houses empty and shuttered.

Now I am aware that this is ‘their money’ and the people on this show have the right to do with it as they wish. But all of us, as members of our communities, have a responsibility to think of how others may see our actions. If I was to spend a large sum (on the show often 10 times the median family disposable income) purely for my own pleasure I think I would be rather shamefaced. I think the reason the couples on the show look so unassuming and diffident is because they know this. They know it is unbecoming to display your wealth and that there are many ways to gain pleasure from your position of privilege that are not as self-centred or ecologically damaging. I feel a little sorry for them, but I feel angrier at myself for having watched this drivel.

However, this and similar programmes do show the degree to which our society is unjust and unequal and it is a sense of moral injustice that underpins many revolutionary changes. The French were horrified when it was suggested that Marie-Antoinette said “ let them eat cake” on hearing of the peasants starving, the excesses of the Russian royal family helped prompt the Soviet revolution and, more recently, the decadence of the Shah in Iran lit the fuse that exploded the Islamic Revolution lead by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979. So, looking on the bright side, perhaps these shows with their bouncy presenters and wealthy participants revealing their wealth and ignorance to the populace might help build the sense of moral injustice we need to force a change. Hopefully.

A plague o’ both your houses.

Democracy has many problems as the old story of the lamb and two wolves voting on what to have for supper clearly illustrates. However, as Winston Churchill opined ” democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried“. Democratic systems are probably the only way that mankind can live in reasonable harmony and in stable and fair communities. However, for democracy to work a few basic principles need to be observed.

The democratic process needs to be inclusive, so that no-one and their opinion is excluded. It needs to equitable; each person’s vote must carry the same weight are every other persons. There should be a secret ballot so that there is no possibility that others can coerce the voter’s decision, and the democratic unit should be small enough that every vote does count and the system avoids, as far as is possible, the risks of the tyranny of the majority. Finally, the executive of the state must act in accordance of the democratic decisions, it can not pick and chose amongst the outcomes which it agrees with and which it will effect.

Britain’s system had in the main held to these principles and could lay a reasonable claim to the title of “the mother of all parliaments” but over recent times this seems a much less apt description.

I am not simply talking about the reneging on the results of the EU referendum, which three years after the vote has still not been enacted in any form whatsoever, but also of the recent shambles in the house of commons when the constitutional safeguards that we normally relied upon have been sorely, and perhaps fatally, tested.

Firstly we had Boris Johnson attempting to prorogue parliament in such a way as to reduce the amount of time for discussion and scrutiny in the House of Commons. There is also a strong suspicion that he lied when he described the reasons and processes behind this.

Secondly we had John Bercow, the speaker of the house, shamefacedly ignoring the traditions of neutrality of the speaker and being vocally and proudly partial. While this might be seen as useful to some MPs at the moment, as it suits their long-game, we may strongly regret tolerating this precedent in the future when less benign options are being processed.

Thirdly we have our opposition parties trying to avoid an election. Some, like the liberals, have a sizeable component of MP’s who never stood under the banner of the party they now purport to represent. To these parties it is more important to overturn Brexit than it is to even know public opinion, let alone follow it. They clearly think the public has made a mistake and want to correct it but are fearful that the public might not yet have got onboard with the message. Their priority is their agenda, it is not working in agreement with the outcome of a democratic process.

It reminds me of Bertolt Brecht’s poem “Die Lösung (The Solution)

Die Lösung

After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writers’ Union
Had leaflets distributed on the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could only win it back
By increased work quotas.

Would it not in that case be simpler
for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

Bertolt Brecht 1953

Even if the opposition parties do get around to thinking they should put a democratic veneer on this charade we will still have problems. A second referendum violates the basic democratic principle of “one person – one vote” – they are saying “those of you who voted last time don’t count we want the vote of a new populace“, as Brecht suggests.

When we do this once we can do it again, and we are damaging faith in democracy itself. If the state starts to ignore democratic decisions then the whole basis of democracy is undermined. There has been precious little regard for our political leaders over recent years, it seems there soon will be even less. Why vote when your vote may not count or the system is so rigged that change is not forthcoming ? I think none of the main parties can expect to see their popular base growing and I would be very surprised if we didn’t continue to see populist parties, on the left and the right, who listen to the public (or at least pretend to) growing in strength. The blame for this can squarely be placed at the doors of the existing parties. To misquote Shakespeare :-

A plague on all your houses.

Proroguing Parliament : The shame of the left.

Proroguing Parliament : The shame of the left.

Where have the left gone. At a time when we really need an effective radical left-wing movement to protect the interests of the working class they are nowhere to be seen. There are anti-democratic forces trying to frustrate the outcome of the recent referendum in which the people of Britain voted against increased globalization and increasing power to the corporations. This should have been a first step on a path to create a better Britain, one in which corporate needs would be forced to play second fiddle to the communities needs. It should have been the time when a radical revision of our society and economy started. But the radicals are nowhere to be seen.

The likes of Owen Jones and Paul Mason who, prior to the referendum, clearly knew the dangers that the EU posed to working class communities, and the poor, now happily toe the party line. Jeremy Corbyn has spent three years trying to hide his true opinions in the hope that it will buy him time and power. Like their wealthy friends, the TV executives, the bankers, the business men, the celebrities, the judges and the well-off metropolitan middle class, they sing from the same hymn sheet and tell the people to get back in their box. They tell the working class that they are uneducated and don’t know what is good for them, and they should be thankful for the guidance of their betters. They smear them as elderly racists; ignoring their concerns about youth unemployment, wage levels, and a failing welfare state, claiming they are only concerned about skin colour. An opportunity to create a better, fairer, more open society is being squandered and thwarted by media ‘liberals’ and ‘lefties’ who don’t want to risk turning off the state support that supports their ventures. As long as their lifestyles are safe then to hell with the poor, the unemployed, the elderly and the marginalized .

We seem to be on the cusp of a constitutional crisis : one group want to thwart the will of the majority, in response, another group want to undermine our parliamentary democracy. There can be no happy outcome to this crisis. The flames of a populist revolt are being fanned by both sides but the right is in the position to seize the fire and use it. The previous ‘firebrands’ of the left are now acting as puppets trying to placate the mob and maintain the status quo, any authority they once had will soon evaporate leaving the right with less opposition. It is no wonder that we have witnessed the death of the major socialist parties across Europe, their unwillingness to defend labour against capital means they are largely an irrelevance. This may have been their time to rekindle their relevance but it seems that they have missed their opportunity.

In their place will be the right-wing and the nationalists. The blame for their success can squarely be placed at the door of the current left, they left the majority of us who voted for Brexit with only Boris Johnson to protect our interests – shame on you.

A simple test for nationalists.

A simple test for nationalists.

Brexit has changed everything. This seemingly simple referendum on our membership of a trading club has had effects much larger than many had anticipated. These are not just simple economic effects, the strength of the Pound or the change in our GDP, but major political and social changes as well. Our ‘two party’, ‘First Past the Post” parliamentary system has creaked and groaned with the strain of trying to contain the effects. The two major parties have lost their support bases and also their raison d’etre and at the same time the public has witnessed just how tawdry and self-serving the whole mess has become.

However, perhaps the biggest change is that the possible dissolution of the United Kingdom itself no longer appears improbable. It looks increasingly likely that Scotland will vote to secede from the Union, Northern Ireland may consider that a way to remain in the E.U. is to reunite, and following shocks such as these the increasingly ‘indy-curious’ Wales may follow suite. As an opponent of Big Government I will be happy to see all, or any, of these changes. However, while I share the joy of the nationalists in recent events, I am still rather reluctant to consider myself a signed up nationalist.

Nations have been created over the great span of history. While it is true that they represent some common interests such as language, culture or even kinship the main motive force in their generation has been power and authority. Wars and revolts have been fought to draw lines on maps which define nations and state who controls what happens in certain patches of land. This was obvious when it was King against King but it is no less true when it is State against State. Nations are there to define the edges of power; to say who controls what happens where.

However, any boundaries which we create should not be based on power and authority they should be based on assistance and support. Our instincts are to live in communities not political structures or economies. People naturally find ways to band together to their mutual benefit and to share common interests and goals. Such groupings are natural and should be supported. If people of a certain language, or religion, or cultural practice want to voluntarily band together then, as long as they don’t infringe on others, they should be encouraged in their mutual venture. The smaller these communities are, the more democratic they are; as each individuals voice carries a greater weight. Further, as they are voluntary people can vote with their feet if they see changes in their chosen community which they can’t tolerate. Nations tend not to be voluntary. Entry to and exit from the nation tends to be controlled and nation states tend to enforce their view of the national culture on any dissenting members.

Whenever nationhood affords a smaller block for democratic organization this is usually a good thing. If nations seek to expand their areas of control this is universally bad. This is the question for nationalists. Does your vision of nationhood bring democracy closer to people, make the demos a smaller group, and reduce the power and authority that others have over people ? If it does, then your nationalism may be beneficial. Are you also happy that, once nationhood is established, the people may decide that an even smaller unit for self governance makes more sense (e.g. “North Wales”, “Y Fro Gymraeg”, “The Shetlands”, “Yorkshire”, “Gaeltacht”) ? If your answer is not ‘yes’ to this then you are missing the point; you are just redrawing lines on maps rather than expanding peoples’ freedom.

If your view of your nation is monolithic and you see it as something good in itself you are following a dangerous path. There will be the risks that you will enforce your views on the national culture, or tongue, or religion on all those who live in your newly defined patch. There is the danger that you will see yourself as better than others who have the misfortune not to live in your nation and, finally, there is the danger that you might think you have the right or duty to export your nation’s benefits to your neighbours whether they want them or not.

So the question for nationalists is easy. Do you want to take a big power structure and break it down into smaller pieces, or, do you want to take your small nation and make if bigger and stronger ?

If it is the former then go ahead and get on with it but remember once you have created a smaller national group there may be scope for further reductions (counties, cantons, districts) which you should also embrace.

If it is the latter, an urge for a stronger bigger nation, then stop ! Remember it was precisely this drive for power and expanded authority which lead you to want to fight for your nation in the first place. You needed to throw off the yoke of another’s power, don’t start fashioning another yoke for others.

It has been said that “Small is beautiful” and there is truth in this statement. In the age of globalization nations can be the smaller building blocks which allow us to build a better future, but sometimes nations themselves can be too large and need to be broken down into smaller, more beautiful communities. I remain a nationalist but only in as far as I am an anti-imperialist, anything more starts to become rather risky.

Forget Minority Rights

Forget Minority Rights

It will probably appear counter-intuitive but I feel that we are making a serious error with the idea of minority rights. I know it sounds as if these could only be for the good, something to be protected and promoted, but I fear that we have got wrong of the wrong end of the stick.

The concerns about the rights of minorities started around the Congress of Vienna in 1814 in response to concerns about the situation of Jewish and Polish minorities following partition. Over the subsequent years further declarations have been made to protect minorities and the most recently the United Nations and the European Union have codified some minority rights and brought them into international law.

What could be wrong with minority rights, surely we all want to protect endangered minority groups ? Yes, of course we do but minority rights are not what do this. The rights which protect minorities are the same universal rights that every individual has. If you are a Christian in an Islamic State, or vice versa a Muslim in a Christian State (or any other permutation of religions) it is not your right as a Christian or Muslim which protects you but your individual right to freedom of thought, freedom of religion and freedom of association which protect you.

Universal human rights protect individuals and this is the smallest minority – the minority of one. All societies have a mix of peoples and some groups will be in the majority and others the minority and over time these groups will change in nature and composition. We can never predict who the next minority will be (I’d wager 100 years ago that no-one anticipated needing rights for people who changed their gender from male to female or vice versa) therefore it is important that we have rights that are so basic and clear that they protect all of us no matter what sized minority we inhabit.

In essence universal human rights are minority rights. If we give special rights then they are not universal and it is doubtful if we could consider these rights. If these minority rights compel others to act in a special way these are not so much rights as legal duties on others. If these are legal constructs rather than rights then they are much more fragile. If we select one minority for special legal treatment we can later change and select some other group. These ‘rights’ are not unalienable because they are given and consequently can be taken away.

The risk to all minorities is the Tyranny of the Majority. The safeguard against this is that every individual has the same rights and freedoms; the smallest minority is the minority of one. We are all in this minority, and it is because we are protected as an individual that we are protected as a member of a minority group no matter how many, or few, individuals are in that particular group.

I am not advocating that we do not consider special treatment for groups we might consider vulnerable. We may as a society feel we need to create legislation to protect them. However, we should be aware that these are special laws with special legal benefits or responsibilities. Creating law this way means that issues be properly discussed and designed and adapted over time. Laws operate under the framework of rights and play second-fiddle to them. Laws must conform to our rights, our rights can never be made to conform with our laws.

The safeguard for everyone in a democracy is the liberty of the individual, and no minority right can usurp the right of any other individual who may be in the majority or in some other minority. So lets forget about minority rights and instead respect, promote and safeguard the rights of the individual : they are the rights we all share.

Post-apocalyptic Lathe Shifting

Post-apocalyptic Lathe Shifting

Yesterday my neighbour had a large lathe, to turn and mill metal, delivered to his door. Four guys pulled the palette off the lorry and drove off leaving it in his drive. It was enormous and heavy, and he was unable to move it. Luckily, shortly after this, a van with some local youths, on their way back from shearing sheep, passed by. They noticed his dilemma, stopped and helped him lift the crate up to his workshop.

After unpacking the lathe and assembling its stand in the workshop another problem became apparent. The machine weighed 300kg it was going to be difficult to lift it up, through the door, and onto its stand. I was passing, walking the dogs, and started to help. We fashioned a moving shelf with a car jack and a metal plate but, even with crowbars, we couldn’t get the machine up onto the shelf.

Luckily another farmer was passing bringing hay back from a field recently cut. We flagged him down and asked if he would help us with the last leg of the lathe’s journey. This was no minor request. This weighed over quarter of a ton, was difficult to handle and could cause serious injury, or death, if it toppled and fell. But none the less we all set to and after an hour of panting, groaning and swearing the job was done. We gossiped for a while about politics and Brexit, then I completed my walk with the dog, the farmer finished his journey with the hay, and my neighbour settled down to read the lathe’s handbook.

What struck me, as I was walking the dog, was how ready people are to help each other. Happy to help for no reward other than to be helpful. It struck me how often I see this. Or local community hall is run and shared by volunteers who maintain the grounds at their own cost and who give hours of time to organize local events. I recalled spending an afternoon with a man I did not know as we cut and cleared a tree which had fallen and blocked the road, and a prior evening when a different stranger had helped me round up someone’s sheep that had got out through a broken fence and were wandering the lanes. I have an evening booked, later this week, to go to the pub with some people in the town who, like me are Community First Responders, and give up some of their free time to help should anyone be in need.

Life would scarcely be liveable were it not for these multiple acts of kindness from strangers. If I drop my wallet, or leave my phone on the table, as I leave a cafe someone will call to alert me or run after me to make sure I don’t lost my property. Anyone with the misfortune to be in an accident will recall the offers of help from bystanders. Anyone lost knows you can ask a passerby for directions. Every day our interactions with others is usually helpful. When we walk on a busy pavement in the city we do not jump and jostle for space but step aside and ensure we can all move as freely as possible. It’s the way we are made, it’s our nature, we are designed to be helpful.

It is for this reason that I get annoyed with post-apocalyptic films and novels which suggest that when the state is destroyed we will all descend into barbarism. The usual scenario is, that after a disaster, man-made or natural, all the authorities have gone and our heroes have to travel across a land populated by villains intent on rape and murder. These dystopias paint a bleak picture of life without the state. The message is clear, without the state to protect us we world all be at risk from the murderous impulses of our neighbours.

This runs counter to our general experience. We rarely call on the state to defend us and every day we experience pleasant or useful communal interactions with our fellows. Our instincts to be sociable and create society are so innate and quotidian that we fail to notice them. Rather, we only notice when people fail to be nice and are, on rare occasions, rude to us.

There is a misconception that the state creates society. It does not, individuals by their nature create society. The state, by contrast, creates power; rather than fostering cooperation it creates compulsion and obligation. Humans do not by instinct kill each other, if you want to see violent and cruel behaviour you need a ruling class to compel it. The mass killings our species has seen (wars, genocide or pogroms) have always been instigated by a state and a call to the authority of a God, King, Nation or ideology. We have to compel people to go to war and sometimes shoot them if they won’t go – to encourage the others. People spontaneously build communities and society not war and oppression, you need a state for that.

Even the benign aspects of the state carry their risks. If, ‘for or own good’, the state looks after our welfare it takes it out of our hands. It means we do not make the choices and priorities, and we do not make the social bonds and links to promote our welfare. Charity, locality planning and fraternal organizations all become weakened when the state steps in. As the sociologist Frank Furedi noted :-

“Indeed, it can be argued that state intervention in everyday life corrodes community life no less, and arguably even more, than market forces. In many societies, people who come to rely on the state depend far less on each other and on their community. When what matters is access to the state then many citizens can become distracted, and stop cooperating and working with fellow members of their community”

In a practical sense, here is some free advice. If you ever find yourself lost in the desert, or jungle, or crossing barren windswept plains after a nuclear holocaust, and you see other people don’t run away from them. They are your best hope, do what all your instincts tell you to do and run towards them shouting for help; they probably will.

If we ever do see the breakdown of the state then I will be even more reliant on my friend and neighbours. We would quickly reorganise our local community again and people might take the opportunity not to return to power structures that we had lost, with all the inequality that accompanied it. The world would go on but sone of those who leeched of our backs would now have to fund a way to be helpful and productive.

The state might tell us whether we can buy a lathe or not, or might put taxes on its purchase to fund its own agenda, and it may punish someone if they steal it from us, but it doesn’t do much else. It didn’t design it, make it, or transport it, individuals working cooperatively did that. The state didn’t help us move the lathe in the past and we will still be able to move it, despite its weight, once the state has gone.

Drug Deaths in Scotland

Drug Deaths in Scotland

Deaths due to drug abuse in Scotland have hit an all-time high. In 2018 1,187 people died in Scotland as a consequence of drug abuse a rise of 27% on the already frightening figures of 2017. This places Scotland in a class of its own in Europe with a level of drug-related deaths twice that of the next nearest country (Estonia). It would be difficult to underplay the size of the problem. The drug-related death rate in Scotland is now three times the size of that in the U.K. as a whole and last year more people died in Scotland from drug misuse than from the direct effects of alcohol!

BBC News, Graph of drug deaths by EU country

The figures did unnerve me but unfortunately they did not come as a surprise. In the decade before I moved to Wales, I worked as a consultant psychiatrist in a deprived area of Scotland and had witnessed first hand the growing problem. More importantly, I had also seen the developing drug strategy which was being pursued. This policy seemed doomed to failure and almost guaranteed to increase the amount of death and injury due to recreational drug use.

The main reason for this was that the strategy in Scotland had only one string to its bow and that string was Harm Reduction. This took a number of forms including needle exchanges, methadone prescribing, safe spaces and the like. While harm reduction can be valuable it is not enough on its own unless you can reduce the harm to negligible levels (which is not going to be the case with something like drug use). The simple logic is that if you reduce the rate of harm to half of what is was before then this will look impressive, but if at the same time you triple the number of people taking the risk then you will have increased, not reduced, the total amount of harm done. The evidence is that Scotland has many, many more people abusing drugs than previously and thus as a consequence many more deaths. It is important to note that about half of these deaths involve methadone which is the prescribed opiate which was intended to reduce the harm.

More people taking these drugs leads to more deaths and a false sense of security by harm reduction strategies may compound the problem. The need is to reduce the harm, but more importantly, to reduce the usage of drugs. It is unlikely that laws against usage will make any great headway, there is little evidence that laws deter people from drug use. Indeed, there is a little evidence that illegality enhances the cachet of drugs in some groups and promotes their use. This cachet is further enhanced by our culture’s tendency to glamourize drug use; watch any late evening chat show or read any interview with a modern media star and see the use of drugs being used as a badge to garner respect. In the recent race to become the Tory party leader, and hence Prime Minister of the UK, had the unedifying spectacle of all the candidates competitively ‘confessing‘ their drug misuse in an attempt to win the youth vote.

In addition to this cultural acceptance of drug use there is the further problem that, now, drug misuse is an access route into welfare benefits. In a country, such as Scotland, with high levels of unemployment and poverty there will be some pressures to look at the problem of addictions differently – when being on the sick role as an addict could mean being prescribed opiates (methadone) by the state and receiving money in the form of Personal Independence Payments. (Addictions UK for example have a service to help secure payments when you have an addiction). The biggest problem facing those with addiction problems is securing autonomy and independence again, compounding a drug dependency with a welfare dependency will simply amplify the problem.

In an ideal society people would be free to decide on their use of drugs but also responsible for the consequences of taking them. There is little to suggest that the state will be able to make this aspect of our behaviour disappear but there is good reason to think that it has the capacity to make problems worse. Prescribed opiates are now killing as many people as illicit ones, and we have developed a large industry which lives on the backs of those trapped in cycles of dependency. The last decades have seen Scotland move to a much more authoritarian and controlling nation state. This change has important social and cultural effects and these figures showing a dreadful loss of life, and hinting at even worse disability and hurt, should act as a wake up call to the risks involved.

Resource

Closeup of young girl in heroine overdose holding syringe and lying on pavement. Copy space

Let’s say a big thank you to all the w@nkers !

Let’s say a big thank you to all the w@nkers !

I know that my blog title appears possibly crude, especially the inclusion of an ampersand in the text. However, I have no wish to offend and do indeed want to offer my thanks to people who have been horribly maligned over many years. I had been thinking recently about the importance of attitudes to sexual behaviour in our modern society. We have known for many years how potent the sexual drive is in guiding human behaviour. This potency has lead been used to sell everything from apples to zinc baths, advertisers know that the our sexual urge is one of the strongest tools in their armoury. Generations of young men and women have striven and improved themselves in the hope of attracting mates and society has had untold benefits from this as they sublimated their sexual urges into self improvement, artistic endeavours, sporting success or charity. Unfortunately it has also been used to drive men to war and nations into conflict. It is indeed our primal and basic drive.

I have been concerned, however, on a rather different method of influencing us by our sexual desires. For millennia the state, usually through religious bodies, has used sexual desire to control us. It has stated that some very basic impulses are to be shunned, to be avoided and to be shameful. By telling us that those who fornicate wrongly, and don’t limit their desires to the prescribed form and frequency, are damned and the lowest of the low they created shame and fearfulness. Every young boy or girl whose hand slid to their waist knew they faced hellfire and eternal suffering. Or, if they escaped the horrors of hell then they would succumb to the secular terrors of insanity or blindness. Indeed after the priests had lost their hold over the public the medical experts were there ready to step into the breach and warn us of the terrible fates that would befall us if we were one of these morally weak degenerates.

The intention of these concerns about sexual behaviour was never the well being of the individual, despite the medicalization of the ‘problem’. The intention was always precisely to cause anxiety and doubt. To take something everyone did (to lust after a beauty, to fantasize over others) and to make it shameful turned us all into sinners whose only escape was to ask forgiveness from our betters. So shameful were our thoughts that we could not discuss them with our family or friends we had to admit them in the privacy of the confessional or the discuss them behind the doctor’s closed doors. It meant we all knew we were failures, we all carried a secret shame which could be revealed to our harm at any point, we all had the anxiety of being found out as morally imperfect.

This strategy is still being used today though the vendors of our shame and anxiety have changed. It is no longer the church that inculcates our doubts and shame. Now the elite in our media ensure that we know the mantras that we should repeat and the sins that we might harbour. We know, that now, it is a sin to say “A lesbian doesn’t have a penis” and hateful to exert that “Woman: noun, adult human female” might be a statement of fact. Apart from some specially chosen ‘facts’ it is now impossible to consider that there may be some innate differences between men and women. Anyone doubting this had best keep their tongue still if they wish to keep their friends and job. There is a veritable minefield of ideas about what is, and what is not, normal sexual behaviour, so difficult is this area, that it is best avoided all together.

All these statements do the same old thing. They keep the public anxious and ill-at-ease, fearful of saying the wrong thing. It makes us watchful of our superiors so we might be given the cues of what is permissible to think and to say. This keep our superiors in a position of strength over us. They hold the keys to the ideas that imprison us and can unleash the hounds when they decide we have transgressed. It can be terrifying to watch social media these days when people are pilloried for statements that would have been commonplace a decade ago. It is alarming when we see someone cast as a heretic for ideas that are similar to our own.

As in prior times, the easiest thing to do in these situations is to say nothing and keep your head down and bowed. It is even safer to agree with the inquisitors and to call out the heretics. After all while they are persecuting them they will be too busy to get round to you. This silence is now palpable. In politics across the globe the common people are afraid to voice their true opinions. They know they are viewed as the uncultured, immoral mob and worry, if they say what they think, they will be dammed. This means no one takes their opinions seriously and nobody discusses their concerns. It is adequate just to say that these are just deplorable, uneducated and unrefined folk who haven’t recognised the error of their ways. So when pollsters call, or interviews are held, we all toe the line and confirm what we know is safe to say. Many elections recently have stunned the pollsters when the results have been very different to predictions. Just as in years gone by nobody ever admitted to masturbating or lustful thoughts nowadays nobody doubts it is better today to use the term “pregnant people” rather than “pregnant women”, and that sometimes it is best to place a rapist, with a penis, in a female prison, when they are asked by someone holding a microphone or notepad.

As these inanities multiply I often become depressed and worry people are loosing their rational facilities: How can people not see the contradictions in these statements ? Why do people not speak up ? Do people believe this guff ? Then I remember the wankers; the millions of young men and women who over the years heard the dire warnings to their bodies an souls (Even today I had some trepidation using the word in the title such is the fear that has been instilled in us). downloadI remember them facing with the eternal torment of the demons and fires of hell as their parents and elders had warned them. I remember them thinking of a life of blindness or of dribbling insanity that the medical profession had clearly warned them lay ahead. I remember that despite this, these wankers slid their hands below the bedcovers and ignored them all. They knew, not with 100% certainty, that it was guff that they were being told. They doubted what the authorities told them and then went and did what came naturally.

So I am optimistic that as we move forward people will still think that their desires are normal, their common sense is indeed sensible and common to most of us, that though our superiors may demand lip-service to current sexual shibboleths we know they are wrong and maybe in the future we might be able to talk honestly about our opinions. We will look back, have a laugh, and feel sheepish about what we said. Perhaps one day the time will come when we can recognise that we don’t need this guidance and we can talk and interact as free individuals, unashamed to express our opinions. Then, if our opinions are wrong, we have a fighting chance of learning this and correcting them, rather than spouting the incorrect opinions of others.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

I have, over a period of nearly half a century, read this book three times. Interestingly it has made a very different impression on me on each occasion.

I first read the book in my late teens. This book was one of the important texts of the day and every young man and woman had read it. One would have risked being seen as uncultured if one hadn’t read this book. I knew that it was an acclaimed dystopian vision of the future and an important warning of the dangers of totalitarianism by one of the century’s greatest thinkers. However, I have to be honest and say that much of this was lost upon me. At the time I was in the revolutionary socialist phase of my development and thus found the warnings about the dangers from an over powerful state rather fanciful. Though I did see the risks associated with increasing consumerism I couldn’t really see the risks of increasing technological advancement. As a child of the 60s the Harold Wilson’s “white heat of technology” speech was still ringing in my ears. But essentially the major problem was that I was an adolescent male. The idea that a future could be full of easy sex and free recreational drugs didn’t really scare me. At some level I think I might have thought it a utopia rather than a dystopia.

A few decades passed until I read the book again. Now I was a middle-aged man with a mortgage, children and many responsibilities. I re-read this book and discovered what all the fuss was about. This was a book that really frightened me. As a parent of children, I could see the dangers that he foresaw. The risks of the loss of liberty, the debasement of relationships and art, the dangers in shallow and glib answers to deep and difficult problems were all things I now knew first hand. He was warning us of an exploitative, consumerist society where little matters other than consumption and the fulfilment of appetites. As a ‘baby boomer’ I had witnessed these changes first hand and worried, if the changes continued unabated, what the future my children might inherit.

Recently, again after an internal of some decades, I read the book again (It had been chosen by my book club).If my first reading had led to disbelief, and the second to anxiety, the third reading led to depression. Now with enough years under my belt I was able to see that the book was not just a dystopian novel but Huxley has been shown to be eerily prescient and the book is, with hindsight, rather prophetic. The decoupling of sex from reproduction and relationships now seems almost complete in our days of contraception and tinder. The predicted use of psychotropics to cure us of our angst and unhappiness is now well established. His warning that there would an assault on the idea of the family (as it suits neither capitalism nor communism) seems to be starting in earnest. Many aspects of family life (the education of children, the care of the elderly, for example) and now the responsibility of the state and when the family is discussed it is often seen as a problem – the place where unspeakable evils happen to children or where parents fill their childrens’ heads with antiquated cultural views. Huxley feared that we would not be able to play without the use of gadgets we have to buy and anyone who has watched the changes to play in children and adults can see that this is a growing problem. He feared art would become debased, and films (or rather the “feelies”) would descend to simple tales of excitement, ” .. plays, where there’s nothing but helicopters flying about, and you feel the people kissing’; anyone who has seen Die Hard 5 or The Fast and The Furious 9 know that this has already happened. Some of his wildest predictions have some echoes to recent changes:-

‘Why do the smoke-stacks have those things like balconies round them?’ enquired Lenina. ‘Phosphorus recovery,’ exclaimed Henry telegraphically. ‘On their way up the chimney the gases go through four separate treatments. P2O5 used to go right out of circulation every time they cremated someone. Now they recover over ninety-eight per cent of it. More than a kilo and a half per adult corpse. Which makes the best part of four hundred tons of phosphorus every year from England alone.’ Henry spoke with a happy pride, rejoicing wholeheartedly in the achievement, as though it had been his own. ‘Fine to think we can go on being socially useful even after we’re dead. Making plants grow.‘ Brave New World (p. 31). Random House. Kindle Edition.

We now presume consent for organ donation, our dead bodies are not a gift to others but presumed property of the state – just as the motto of the Brave New World proclaims – “Everybody belongs to everyone else“.

If there is a problem with the novel it is that it tries to cover too much ground and there are many, many themes. There are trenchant discussions on the role of suffering in life, the place of religion in society and whether truth and happiness can ever be compatible. It does rather lead the penultimate chapter to be less part of the novel and more a philosophical essay. However, these are minor flaws in what is an excellent novel. If you have not read it you really should. If you have already read it then it may be worthwhile reading it again if, like me, you were a callow youth first time around.

Three rolls of fencing.

Three rolls of fencing.

I was on pleasant walk to post a letter this afternoon when I had an opportunity for a short thought experiment. As I walked along the road, with the dog, I noticed that the fence at the side of the road had been removed in preparation for being replaced. Every hundred yards or so there were neatly stacked piles of fence posts and rolls of fencing; some new and some tidily rewound ready to be reused. Everything was left ready for tomorrow’s task of refencing a large field.

I looked at these piles of equipment and recalled that I need to refence or middle field and will need to do this next month before I am able move the sheep. I then had the ‘thought experiment’ – “Why don’t I steal the fencing?”. This equipment, like so many other pieces of farm equipment, had been left here unguarded and with no protection, why don’t I just take some? If would be so easy just to lift it up and take it home.

The first reason I considered was that perhaps I didn’t need or want this stuff. This was easy to dismiss. Fencing is an never ending job on farms, a bit like painting the Forth Road Bridge, once you get to one end it is time to go back to the beginning and start again. Nor was it because this material is so inexpensive as to not be worth stealing. Although fence posts are relatively cheap, the fencing itself is reasonably dear and this is a noticeable cost in the farm budget. These weren’t the reasons.

I then considered the law and issues of crime and punishment. I knew that this was against the law, as taking without permission would be stealing. However, this would only influence my decision if I had a chance of falling into the hands of the justice system. In other words, it would only be an issue if I might, possibly  be caught. The risks of this were really quite negligible. One bit of fence wire is much like any other and who would be able to prove that this was not my wire once it was on my land. No, if I stole this wire punishment by the legal system would not be my biggest concern. Punishment in another way, however, might well be the reason.

The obvious reason I don’t take the wire is because I know it is wrong and that if I acted wrongly I would feel bad. The anticipation of guilt is the main barrier to bad actions. This guilt is modulated by a number of factors but, in today’s walk, community seemed to be the biggest modifier. I know who is repairing that fence. I know who would be hurt by my actions. I know that they, like I have, had left things out because they trust that their neighbours will behave well. My guilt would be even worse if I broke this trust. My knowledge of who was involved was the biggest factor in my decision. If I did steal from them,even if they never found out I would know. This knowledge, that I had stolen from them, would be corrosive to my soul and very difficult to bear.

All our lives, from when we are able to be independant, we are trying to balance the drive to keep our individuality whilst seeking to enjoin ourselves in community. Our first step is usually to find a partner, then to create a family, while all the time trying to find a community, or kinship group, in which to thrive. It is no surprise that the Lord’s Prayer asks for “our daily bread”, rather than “my daily bread”, and to pardon “our trespasses” not “my trespasses”. We only exist, as people, when we are in relationships with others. John Donne described this well in his poem “No Man Is An Island” :-

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; 
It tolls for thee. 

But as we build bigger and bigger communities there may be a cost. The anthropologist Robin Dunbar estimated, that due to the limitations of the size of our cortex, we can only get truly to know between 100 and 200 people. This number, usually rounded to 150, is Dunbar’s Number and is the limit of people we can know in any real and significant manner. Above this number,  communities start to require stricter rules and regulations to ensure good behaviour from its members. Above this number, the knowing interaction between individuals, and filial feelings, can no longer be relied upon to ensure decent behaviour.

I found the idea of stealing the wire “unthinkable” and I believe in part this was due to my temptation occuring in a smaller community. Were I tempted in a larger group, with anonymity for me and for my victim, I am not sure I could be relied upon to behave as well. Those of us who wish people to behave well, to seek out the good, and to become better people need to think about this. Rather than devising more, strict rules, which might more strictly control behaviour, but at the expense of weakening moral abilities, we should perhaps ensure that our communities are small and human sized. In larger communities there is a danger we become a myriad of individuals, in a huge shoal of individuals, requiring supervision to ensure we don’t harm one and other. In smaller communities the instinctive urges we have to look after ourselves while working cooperatively with our fellows are well balanced and effective.  Larger societies don’t just end up concentrating power they need to concentrate power and it is for this reason that we should resist this danger.