White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo

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

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

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

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

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

Dear fellow citizens,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

www.dontdivideus.com

email team@dontdivideus.com

 

I am non-binary

I am non-binary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

Donald Trump is the president of the United States of America. This is a difficult fact to comprehend. How did this come about ? What changes have occurred in American society that lead to this ? This book as been touted as having some of the answers to this; how large groups of voters came to feel alienated from regular society and shifted to voting for Donald Trump. In the hope for answers, and some possible clarity, I thought I’d give this book a try.

First things first, this book does not answer this question. The answer to the question on the lips of people across the globe is not to be found in this autobiography. I fear that decades from now we will still be debating and analysing the changes that occurred , across the globe, and trying to formulate answers as to how right-wing, rather than left-leaning, populism captured the public spirit.However, despite this I’d still think that you should read this book as it does give a valuable insight into cultural changes that have occurred in the last few generations in America and which are important in the populist revival. The political analysis is slight, and debatable, but the social commentary is very valuable.

This is an autobiography written by a relatively young man. His story is interesting as he has overcome considerable adversity to improve his lot, to ensure that his troubled upbringing didn’t determine his future. It is a life that has shown the promise of social mobility and how it is possible to break from the grip of poverty. As such, it is a very emotional story with pages of great sadness when we consider his tempestuous and troubled early days, but great warmth when we discover that he does manage to overcome these.

It is a little like ‘Angela’s Ashes’ with prescription drug abuse taking the place of alcoholism and Appalacia taking the stead of Ireland. Perhaps the most striking thing about the story is how universal it is. This is the story of disadvantaged working class people. Although set firmly in Hillbilly territory I could read it as the story of the Scottish working class, the marginalised black working class, or any of the other groups who now form the inhabitants of “fly-over country“. The ex-heavy industry workers in the North East of England, those who have deserted Labour and voted Brexit, will see echos of their actions in the actions of the American ex-steel workers leaving the Democrats and voting for Trump.

J.D. Vance perhaps thinks that these changes are too universal. He doesn’t recognise that he is rather unusual in that he has managed to break free from this system. He tends, at times, to sound as if he is saying “if I did it, so can you” and not to recognise that he is a rather unusual individual who has managed to do what most of us do not.

But his description of life at the bottom is very telling and helpful. Poverty is still with us. Relative material poverty is possibly inescapable but this continues to bedevil our society. However, this is the type of poverty easiest to deal with it is simply a redistribution of wealth that is required. But there is a worse form of poverty, which is harder to treat, and this is cultural and moral poverty. This is the type of poverty which keeps the inequality and worsens it.

This is the poverty of ambition and expectation when people think there is nothing better to be had. It is the poverty of labour when people do not have work to give their lives meaning. The importance of work can not be overestimated, it is not chance that the name of the socialist party in the UK is “the Labour Party” as it is labour which gives us meaningfulness in our lives. Even if welfare states met our every material need, if we do not have work we can’t develop relationships, develop a feeling of status in society, and a sense of pride. In the 70’s we campaigned on the left for “The Right to Work” this is much more important than any handout, however organised.

The poverty of family and community is also factor. The family has always been a bulwark against the excesses of capitalism and our refuge. We now find support for the family as an uncomfortable idea feeling it is antiquated and old fashioned moralizing. However, before we jettison the family it might behove us to think what is going to replace the support it clearly gave.

Working class communities used to be a bedrock of support for those at the bottom of the heap.They organised burial societies, cooperatives, unions, savings societies, education groups and a myriad of other societies to offer mutual support. These will never be adequately replaced by a centralises state offering. This may replace the bread but it won’t replace the love or the dignity.

Bread and circuses‘ were used to keep the lower orders in their place in the past and in an increasingly unequal society this strategy is again coming to the fore. We are offered drugs, alcohol and pornography to keep our senses satiated and our desires low. If we are sedated, doped or post-coital we will be less likely to think our lives could, or should, be better. It is no surprise that the major dystopian novels of the last century warned us of a future when easy sex and easy drugs kept a population docile and cowed with the minimum of force.

This book does reveal what is happening to our culture and is a useful ‘view from the bottom’ about this. While it may not explain Trump, the advice to try and regain some of our working class ideals; the love of family, the sense of community and togetherness, the dignity of labour, and the importance of mutuality, might allow the left to rediscover it roots and help prevent the coming of a second Trump.

My preferred pronouns are .. ..

My preferred pronouns are .. ..

I read a very interesting article by Rachel Mankowitz on the problems that languages have with the changed views we now hold about gender in society. This an interesting read about language, religion and gender focussing mainly on Hebrew and it is well worth a read. It certainly made me think about the muddle we have created for ourselves with the issue of pronouns.

There are areas that I think have been clearly problematic with pronoun use. This I when they have been used to promote gender roles inappropriately. Sentences like “The nurse felt her heart race as the doctor raised his scalpel to make the first incision” are potentially harmful to society, as they portray, and foster, job stereotypes – nurses are women and surgeons are men. As a society we have really progressed from the idea that a certain chromosome mix, or specific genital anatomy, is important for a job or a task (other than the realms or childbirth, breastfeeding or possibly types of prostitution). We should be careful when we use gendered pronouns to relates to large groups as they create assumptions we may not intend.

However, most of the time we use pronouns it is to try and use a shorthand to identify an individual by reducing the options but without unnecessary specificity. The sentence “Alan left Alan’s clothes in Alan’s house” sounds far too hectoring or emphatic compared to “He left his clothes in his house”. Describing gossip or arguments with “he said, she said” is much easier than “Mr. Smith said, Mrs. Smith said“. We use pronouns to reduce the likelihood of errors in communication often by using one of the most basic of differences we notice about people. Often apparent gender is enough but sometimes not (e.g. “Her, her on the left with the red hair”). If one was to look at a group of 10 men and be asked “Who took the ball ?” to answer “he did” will not be adequate. We all use pronouns and adjectives instinctively like this; we use words to convey what we want to communicate as clearly as we can.

This not where the problems lie. The problems occur when people feel the need to select their pronouns. The statement “My preferred pronouns are ..” is problematic.

The first problem is minor. This problem arises when someone expressed this statement completely unnecessarily. Someone, often a stale white guy in a position of authority or a celebrity with falling ratings, will announce “My preferred pronouns are He/Him” as if there had been any prior doubts whatsoever. There was no need to advise us, we knew what pronouns to use, and the only reason this statement is made is to attract positive attention. The hope is that we will now think “He is a cool and aware dude not the boring old fart I had thought“. This actually rarely works in any event, most people can see through this, it is about as effective as a elderly vicar wearing jeans and a Limp Bizkit T-shirt saying ‘Yo ! I’m gettin’ down with the kids‘. Unless people have transitioned, or are in the process of doing so, there must be relatively few times this is necessary. I don’t like this but it is a minor irritation.

It is often felt that this statement is used to avoid hurt and insult during future conversations. Thankfully most of us have no intention of being insulting or disrespectful to others and in our conversations we will try and be polite and friendly. I am sure that if I met Trump or Boris I’d probably have a conversation that didn’t use the terms buffoon or egotistical maniac even once. Even when we disagree, we rarely insult people face to face; it is counter productive. But even if one actively wanted to be hurtful pronouns are not the issue here, because in English the first and second person pronouns are not gendered. If you refer back to the statement “My preferred pronouns.. ” it is clear that my pronouns are “I / Me” and the second person pronouns are “You / Yours“, so in any conversation there is no need to use a gendered pronoun at all. Unless you are unpleasant and nasty enough there is unlikely to be any accidental misgendering or insult – “Shall I pass you your clothes ? When did you start your job?” – you would have to work at being unpleasant to do it through the medium of pronouns. This statement about pronouns is rarely to prevent hurt or insult.

The real reason behind this request, and the reason for my objection to it, is that it is compels others to speak in a specific way about a third party. This is the insistence that, when a first person speaks to a second person about a third person then, the first person must use specific pronouns. This compulsion is rarely necessary ; if somebody looks as if they are living in the female gender role, or have told us they are, then we will probably use “she/ her”, and apparent occupant of the male gender role will likely be referred to as “he/him”. If the situation means we don’t know the gender , or feel that the situation is ambiguous, then we will probably use non-gendered terms such as “they / their” or “person/ people”. We are lucky in English that the third person “they/ their” can be used in the singular and plural. This is not always easy in other languages, in Welsh for example ‘they/their’ ( nhw/ eu) is always plural and requires plural noun forms. But again there are non-gendered placeholders that can be used.

Nobody has the right to insist that others talk about them in a specific manner. No minister of religion can insist on being called “reverend”, no politician can insist on being termed “the respected”, no one can insist on any particular adjectives or pronouns. Unless we threaten or slander or libel others we are free to communicate as we wish. Thankfully nearly all of us speak clearly and kindly. However, we would be foolish if we thought that the answer to racism, misogyny, homophobia, or any other hateful idea is to ban the speech that people can use. These ideas will die when they are confronted and exposed not when words are banned or specific pronouns are demanded.

A final irritation I have about this trend is that it appears a further step on the road to defining ourselves by a very limited aspect of ourselves. This statement tends to say that “The most important thing about me is where I fit in the current range of genders“. Now, unless I am thinking of wooing you to capture your sexual favours, this may be the least important aspect of you to me. I might prefer to think of you as “the vet” or “the lawyer” rather than as “Xi / Xim” or “She / Her”.

If I can see the gender role you present I’ll probably use the apt gendered pronoun, on the other hand it if it is very ambiguous I’ll probably be cautious. The third person, under discussion, by their words and behaviour will be able to help me choose. Conversations let us navigate these difficulties and find ways to talk to each other civilly. It is better to find this out together than to think we can prescribe what language other can use about us.

I could imagine that if I heard my overheard my neighbours talking about me and saying “Have you seen the state of the sheep on dickhead’s farm ?” then I might be upset. I would have two strategies I could consider. I could try to stop being a “dickhead” or I could insist that they called me “the wise one”; I know which strategy might have some hopes of success.

Discover the lack of diversity.

Discover the lack of diversity.

When I was young I protected the opinions I held like tender plants. I shielded them from harm and fed them well. I read newspapers and articles that confirmed my fledgling biases and listened to authorities in the media who reminded me that my viewpoint was correct. One of the great pleasures of being older is that not I have much more knowledge, experience and better judgement I am free to think as I will. I do not have to follow any particular herd I don’t need to toe any party line. My opinions are no longer those given to me but those I have forged for myself over many years. 

I am also aware that others go though the same process as myself; discarding, forming and reforming their views, and that, as a consequence, good ideas can come from very diverse sources. I am also clear that many things I held as self-evident were in fact wrong, and it is inconceivable that my current views are immutable and cast in stone. Even faith can only survive if it is tested from time to time. 

For the reasons above I like to try and vary my sources of information and try to consider opinions from differing viewpoints. This is why I prefer using Wordpress to other ‘social media’ the range of opinions is broader and the content is less trivial and partisan. The essay/blog format is better suited to discussing ideas than the short sentence format which is better suited to rispostes, oaths and threats. It might also be anticipated that I’d enjoy the “Discover” section on the Wordpress Reader. This is described as “A daily selection of the best content published on WordPress, collected for you by humans who love to read” and sounds like a place to find new ideas and interests. I hate to be churlish but this is anything but.  

Each day the same type of pages are promoted with similar themes and topics. Even when the themes vary, the opinions on culture, politics, religion, society or any subject are the same and predictable. There are no discordant voices and no ‘surprising takes’ on any issue covered. It is rather like a pull-out supplement for the Huffington Post; bland and pappy, afraid to venture where there might be controversy, no voice appears from out of the wilderness to tell us we are wrong or misguided. While the race and gender mix of the authors is probably a good representative spread of our community, the lack of diversity of opinions held in this section is the only ‘discovery’ I have ever made. I am aware that I am not perhaps their target demographic but I can’t imagine everyone wants to read the same, unchallenging pieces day after day.

Heavens, this used to be the prerogative of the elderly. We old folk were meant to be the ones that wanted the same ‘nice’, comforting, ‘everything will work out fine’ stories day after day – indeed we had a magazine dedicated to this “The People’s Friend” (The world’s longest running women’s magazine). It used to be the young who wanted to explore new ideas, to kick over the traces and to shock. But perhaps with the fears of being “triggered” or experiencing “micro-aggressions” (Surely less troublesome than full throated aggression) it is the young now who want to curl up in the evening with a pipe, a good book, and their slippers. (Though the pipe is perhaps a bit dangerous). To be fair, it is likely that WordPress’s curators are too afraid to include anything which might give cause for offence to anyone for fear of being sued. This avoidance of controversy is guaranteed to lead them to curate the bland

A previous blogging platform I used had a useful feature. It had the option to read a random blog piece by just clicking a button. Using this I found many interesting sites (as well as many tedious and shocking ones), some of which I continue to read regularly and are sites I would not have found were it not for this act of chance. Wordpress itself had a “daily word” prompt blog. This allowed bloggers to create content in responce to a single word prompt and gave rise to a site with many varied authors taking very approaches to the subject matter. This also was a good source of discovery of new talent and content. Unfortunately this has now gone and we are left with the anodyne offering of the Discover page. 

I have found one partial remedy. Take a word, at random, from the last paragraph of the blog you are reading. Don’t select, just plump for any one regardless – e.g. ‘partial’ ‘reading’ ‘paragraph” – and type this into the search bar of the reader. Surprises await you. Not always good ones but still often enough to make the endeavour worthwhile. Give it a go, you’ll certainly have more chance of making a discovery than with the official route. 

A growing rift.

We still have a long way to go but we are making some progress in dealing with the poor representation of some groups in government. Although the number of women and those of minority ethnic groups has increased they are still not properly represented in our governing class. Thankfully we are aware of this and are starting to address this. However, there is an area where we are making no progress and, if anything, seem to be going backwards. It is an important area, as it is possibly part of the reason that underpins much of the disengagement and distrust people have with our political class.

The last two generations have witnessed the growth of a professional political class. Our politicians may be a closer mix, in terms of gender and race, to ourselves, but are further away in terms of class and wealth. Over the years our representatives have become less and less like us, when one considers their background, and much more like each other. We may have seen some inadequate improvement in gender and race diversity, we have seen a worsening in terms of social class.

When the Labour Government took power in 1945 and started major works which set up the modern British welfare state half of the member of the cabinet had previously held blue collar jobs. In our most recent cabinets not one member has held such a job. All the parliamentarians have been white collar workers and, more than this, previously worked in law, politics, education or journalism. They are drawn from a very small and apparently select pool of the population.

It is not just in the UK that this trend has occurred. At the time of John F Kennedy 71% of senators held university degrees, by the time of Barack Obama took office the figure was 99%. In France and Germany it is a similar tale. Not only are our ‘rulers. far away from us in terms of their occupations but increasingly also in terms of incomes and wealth. In 2014 all those elected to Congress were in the top 1% of America’s income distribution. It is sobering to think that the median net worth of a senator in 2018 is $3,200,000.

The concerns of the top 1% of the income group and those working in the realms of law, politics,  or journalism are not likely to be reflective of those working in blue collar manual jobs, or the poor without jobs at all. I think this is the reason that our politicians are seen as distant and non-representative; because they are distant and non-representative. They do not live in our communities, nor come from them, they do not share the lives and experience of the majority of us. If this trend continues, and there is little evidence to suggest it won’t, then increasingly populist politicians will be able to tap into this gulf. A rift is developing between the public and those who rule them. This rift could prove a powerful fault line for those who wished to gather and use the growing alienation and anger which exists. Allowing politics to become a specialist pursuit of the wealthy, educated elite could prove to be a very dangerous mistake. We need to push for more involvement of the demos, the crowd, the common people, in our democracy if we are to ensure it stays safe and healthy.

 

Dangerous Nonsense

It was Benjamin Franklin’s opinion that “Nothing is of more importance to the public weal, than to form and train up youth in wisdom and virtueand I would hazard that very few people would disagree with him. Assisting our people to grow and develop is a key function of every society and it is the reason that education and academia are held in high regard. For over a decade I worked in a University Department of Medicine as a lower level academic and teacher and found this, initially, the most rewarding aspect of my career. Working with students to develop their understanding of medicine, to enlarge their store of knowledge, and to help them develop skills in critical thinking was the most satisfying post I ever held. Possibly even more satisfying than my time in clinical work. I was aware that was I helping train some doctors who, being much more able than I, would go on to help many more patients than I ever would myself.

Towards the end of my spell in the academic world I had started to become a little disillusioned. Fads and popular theories came and went without adequate critical appraisal and I feared the traditions of intellectual independence and rigour in analysis were starting to weaken under pressure from political and financial interference.  I stepped sideways back into the NHS for last working years but continued to watch what was happening to my Alma Mater and education in general. It has not been  pleasant or reassuring to observe what has followed.

The first onslaught appeared to be on academic freedom and on the idea of free speech. Lecturers were boycotted or banned if they held contentious opinions. A movement to de-platform speakers caught many off-guard and seemed to reach a pinnacle when Germaine Greer was banned by feminists from speaking on campus as her views on transgender issues are not currently mainstream. I’d recalled my university days, as both staff and student, as days of debate and discussion, often heated, often noisy, but always free and ultimately enlightening. I felt, increasingly, that we were failing our students with the growth of ‘safe spaces’, ‘trigger warnings’ and the avoidance of discussion.

This coddling was worrisome but much worse was to follow. As I had said, I had seen fads come and go. Usually when critical analysis was brought bear on the current pet theory it started to wither and retreat. However, now that debate is curtailed many theories last longer without proper scrutiny and start to establish themselves as the orthodox view without being having been based on good scientific enquiry. There are now many statements made that are accepted as fact and are now sheltered from questioning. These statements, have just be believed, it is increasingly heretical to question them.

For example take the problem of rape. Here is a terrible crime that concerns us all. We need to find every means at our disposal make this less frequent. Any initial reading on the subject will lead one to encounter the statement that “Rape is about control and power” not sex. In scientific terms this is quite an easy theory to test as it is falsifiable and testable. Unfortunately, on the times when good studies are undertaken about rape they tend to repeatedly reveal that, in a sizable proportion of cases, the driving factor in the crime was the sexual urge. None the less, you will find it very difficult to find anyone who doesn’t repeat the mantra “it’s not about sex, it’s about power” when discussing how we might deal with the problem with rape. This is to our shame as it is a missed opportunity; the task force set up by Obama found (The Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network) found that using this understanding (that rape is sometimes driven by sexual drives) there are means to reduce its frequency. This is surely what we all want and it is a grave error if we uncritically continue with a theory that reduces our ability to understand this issue and tackle it.

In many other areas statements are made with religious authority : concerning obesity – one can be fit at any weight;  concerning racism – once can not be racist towards white people; concerning transgender – every child with gender dysphoria is starting on a permanent path of transition; concerning intelligence – genetic factors are of little importance. These statements fly in the face of prior, tested and scrutinised, claims but flourish while they are guarded from criticism. Like the religious authorities of old, our current academic priesthood brook no questions and cloud their statements in jargon and obfuscation. Alan Sokal the physicist recognised this a generation ago when he hoaxed the editors of “Social Text” with his nonsense paper “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity to Social Text“.  Unfortunately, this broadside failed to slow down these changes which continued to expand and affect more academic departments.

Thankfully the struggle continues. Three academics have taken the hoax and multiplied it. They submitted a number of clearly broken papers with clearly implausible, indeed frankly unbelievable, findings to  a number of journals. As long as they wrote  including the current shibboleths and mantras they could get almost anything accepted for publication: Pages from Mein Kampf (replacing references to jews to white men) was accepted by a gender journal, an article watching dogs in a dog park was accepted as confirmation of rape culture in America, and an article suggesting men should masturbate with sex toys anally to reduce their transphobia and homohysteria was felt to be a valuable advance in our understanding of society. Their article in Areo magazine is a long read but well worth it. It is scarcely believable what they managed to have published, although perhaps it is telling that the paper published  in Gender, Place and Culture on “The feminist post-humanist politics of what squirrels eat” was not a hoax (with academic work of this quality it is hard to tell).

These issues are depressing but I am glad to say that at least some humour can be had at their expense. As you would expect, when the Emperor wears his new clothes he manages to garner a laugh from those who are still able to think independently.

 

I still have hope that it is in nature of youth to rebel and to question authority. I hope that these attacks are the beginnings of a revolt against this new clerisy that has taken charge of our institutions. It is very dangerous to allow those in power to away our ability to question and reason independently. Dietrich Bonhoeffer recognised this as he watched, and lost his life fighting against, the rise of fascism when he wrote in his article “On Stupidity” :-

“On closer observation, it becomes apparent that every strong upsurge of power in the public sphere, be it of a political or a religious nature, infects a large part of humankind with stupidity. … The power of the one needs the stupidity of the other.

The process at work here is not that particular human capacities, for instance, the intellect, suddenly atrophy or fail. Instead, it seems that under the overwhelming impact of rising power, humans are deprived of their inner independence and, more or less consciously, give up establishing an autonomous position toward the emerging circumstances.

The fact that the stupid person is often stubborn must not blind us to the fact that he is not independent. In conversation with him, one virtually feels that one is dealing not at all with him as a person, but with slogans, catchwords, and the like that have taken possession of him.

He is under a spell, blinded, misused, and abused in his very being. Having thus become a mindless tool, the stupid person will also be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil. This is where the danger of diabolical misuse lurks, for it is this that can once and for all destroy human beings.”

 

Here you go Timmy – an Iguana !

Here you go Timmy – an Iguana !

Words change their meaning over time and there is nothing we can do about it. We can’t stop it and we shouldn’t try. The original meaning of prevent was simply to come (vene) before (pre) something,  a synonym for precede,  as in “I prevented the dawning of the morning, and cried.” (Psalm 119:147). The word no longer has this meaning except in that it carried the idea of something preceding a potential event and stopping it. To use the archaic meaning today  could cause problems, what would the police make of the statement “I prevented the burglar entering the house” ? I doubt it would help communication. Words change their meanings and we adapt and use them appropriately.

However, it is important to know that these changes are taking place as sometimes they also signify a significant change in society as well as vocabulary. I though of this while watching television adverts for potato products. Adverts about families are very keen to stress that “families come in all shapes and sizes” and that the old idea of mother-father-children is archaic and redundant. I wondered if this was true. It is true that dogs come in all shapes and sizes (from chiwawas to great danes) as do cats and other types of animal.  But what is it that makes a dog a dog and and  a cat a cat ? Are they all just animals and it is unimportant ? Will Timmy, with his heart set on a puppy for Christmas, be over the moon with his Iguana – animals come in all shapes and sizes ?

What is it in a family, whatever form it takes, that makes it a family ? Why are a group of workmates not a family ? Why is my estranged brother still family even  though I don’t see him ? Why is my best friend, who I see daily and has supported me through thick and thin, not my family ? I think there are two factors.

Firstly there is the biological relationship.  We are genetically linked to our family. My brother and cousins share a genetic closeness with me that others do not. The same applies to family trees in animals. Two dogs, no matter how different, are more alike that a dog and a cat no matter how superficially similar. This relationship by blood is very important. I watch on the farm as animals maintain their family groups for life despite the hurdles that are put in their way. Humans are no different, and the maternal and paternal bonds are the most obvious sign of this blood relationship. The feelings of parents for children are very special and lead to very special behaviours which nurture and protect children as they grow. It is one of the core values of the family both to the individual child and to our society. This blood relationship is half of the answer, but only half.

Parents are not blood related, this would be a very bad idea. Their linkage is purely personal and social. It is a choice commonly described as based on ‘love’. But what makes this bond any different to any other ? I think there are clues in two common sayings. Firstly we believe “You can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family” and secondly we often hear crime syndicates, such as the mafia, described as the family because “nobody leaves the family”. I think the second bond that makes families different is that the bonds are binding and life-long. Once you enter into this relationship it is difficult, or impossible, to leave. I have my suspicions that this enduring closeness, this living together through good times and bad, is actually what creates love. Attraction brings people together, love develops when we travel through life with a companion, when we share our life with another person.

This combination of blood relationships and life-long commitments have been a boon to humans, and other animals, in creating stable social structures in which to grow offspring. It is true that today we feel we have evolved beyond the need for these traditional structures  but the evidence would not tend to support this belief. Our statements that families ‘come in all shapes and sizes’ is more a statement of hope that the way we live now is as effective as the old family based on consanguinity and permanent relationships. Time will tell.

Family now has a new meaning as a ‘collection of people who elect, for the time being, to live together in some arrangement’. We should be aware of this when we use the term today, as we can no longer make the presumptions we formerly did. Family no longer means we can presume constancy, the presence of parental love, the likelihood of altruistic behaviour, and so on. It is a word so diminished of meaning as to have little value (though it does help sell chips on television adverts), it might mean mum, dad and the kids or it might mean two dads and no kids or a kid with two mums and one dad. It starts to be able to include a dog, or a cat, a budgie or an iguana. Not only is it not helpful it might also impair communication as people think it still has its archaic meaning. They may make unwarranted assumptions based on their past associations of the word ‘family’.

Let’s leave family to its new meaning and try and find a new term for the families animals, and increasingly fewer humans, live within. A word to describe a unit formed for the duration of the life of the members, usually in order to  bear and nurture children. Perhaps another archaic word could be brought out of retirement and pressed into service, what about either of ‘kith and kin’ ?

 

Intellectual Dark Web

Intellectual Dark Web

Today’s daily prompt of “rebel” was timely as I realised I would be able to offer a little bit of public service to those of you who wish to rebel against stifling conformity and try a bit of free thinking. In an excellent article in the New York Times Bari Weiss discusses the new intellectuals who are changing the face of current debate and starting to offer some hope that free thinking and debate have not died. She suggests that there is an Intellectual Dark Web where rebellious debate is gathering momentum, it is really worth  a few moments of your time to check this out.

 

The State : Its historical role. (Piotr Kropotkin)

The State : Its historical role. (Piotr Kropotkin)

One of the great advantages of the e-book and e-readers is the ability to gain access to a huge library of published work for free. Most of the classics from the ancient world are available and a large library of modern and, not so modern, work is available for the easy job of a little bit of browsing. It is hard to believe but most of us now have access to a library that would have made Croesus jealous. Emperors and kings a hundred years ago would not have believed, and would have envied, the texts which I have available today. It is almost impossible to think of a philosopher, political theorist, or other man or woman of letters that is not easily available either for free or for a very modest price. I find this wealth of literature captivating. I browse the 56,00 books available at the Gutenburg Project, or the 15,000,000 texts and books (including 550,000 modern ebooks) of the Internet Archive and wonder at the riches available. But this surfeit of choice does bring problems – ironically, “What to read next ?

thestatehistrolesmall

There are problems when choosing books from this library. Some have become very dated and are only really interesting as historical artefacts. Others were a fad of their day and really didn’t need to weather the years. Many other are well written and important but with the passage of time modern readers have changed. Modern readers can find the dense, heavy prose difficult to read and, at times, the vocabulary can be archaic and thus not understood. A further difficulty in understanding can arise from a prior presumption that readers would be familiar with the classics and the bible which is no longer a safe generalization. This having been said, I have been pleasantly surprised how many do stand the passage of time. H.G. Wells still reads as if he were writing yesterday and his science fiction is still enjoyable despite the appearance of the horse and cart along side the rocket ship.

I have tried to cope with this problem by the simple strategy of trying to read the classics of which I have heard. This includes reading books which I thought I had already read, as sometimes I found that I had never actually done so. My knowledge of the book was apparently achieved through cultural osmosis rather than actual reading. Sometimes this has been startling when I discover what was the actual content of the book.  Sometimes I have reread classics simple because I was too young first time around. Some books were wasted on me as a callow youth and it is only reading them now, with the hindsight and hopefully wisdom of age, that they truly make sense. This was my strategy which lead me to Kropotkin’s “The State : Its Historic Role

With regards to readability this is not a problem, it is clearly written and its still is easy on the modern reader. There are references to important political events which would have been known to any informed reader in 1897 but which might be more hazily recalled for the reader over a century later. Occasionally he makes assumptions that authors discussing the Paris Commune, or describing the Lombardy League, will be known to us. However, this is not sufficient a problem to impair the enjoyment from the text.

The basics of the text are his views on the historic development of the state and the crushing of  societal developments which existed before this. He describes the development of the Communes and the Guilds across Europe and how this allowed the mutual aid which provides support for the members of societies. His concern is that society is in our nature, as it was in the animals from whom we evolved,  and mankind will always find way to create supportive societies and does not require the state to do this.

“Man did not create society; society existed before Man.”

“Far from being the bloodthirsty beast he was made out to be in order to justify the need to dominate him , Man has always preferred peace and quiet .”

“Henceforth , the village community consisting entirely or partly of individual families – all united , however , by the possession in common of the land – became the essential link for centuries to come .”

Unfortunately my knowledge of medieval history is rather poor and I find it difficult to assess the accuracy of his descriptions of medieval city life. He is clearly very impressed with the early municipalism and syndicalism that he describes :-

“Was it not in fact the rule of the guild that two brothers should sit at the bedside of each sick brother – a custom which certainly required devotion in those times of contagious diseases and the plague – and to follow him as far as the grave , and then look after his widow and children ? Abject poverty , misery , uncertainty of the morrow for the majority , and the isolation of poverty , which are the characteristics of our modern cities , were quite unknown in those ‘ free oases , which emerged in the twelfth century amidst the feudal jungle ’ .”

But he pays rather scant regard to the problems of the serf in feudal society  and to the other well documented problems for the poor of this time. However, he does detail the developing strategies that were made to provide support and succour which operated at a more local and personal level prior to the development of the state. Though I fear that sometimes he was donning spectacles with a strong rosy hue when reading his source texts.

He sees the state developing through the cooperation of chiefs and Kings, the Church and the priesthood as well as the judiciary :-

“And who are these barbarians ? It is the State : the Triple Alliance , finally constituted , of the military chief , the Roman judge and the priest – the three constituting a mutual assurance for domination – the three , united in one power which will command in the name of the interests of society – and will crush that same society .”

He describes the operation of these agencies to impose their power, in the form of the state, over prior voluntary organizations. He pays particular attention to the role of religious belief in the development of anarchist ideas and thinking. He is very aware that the Protestant revolutions did much to free the minds of men at the same time as the established church tried to limit thought and opinion. He ultimately reports that in this ideological battle for the soul of man the established church won.

“Lutherian Reform which had sprung from popular Anabaptism , was supported by the State , massacred the people and crushed the movement from which it had drawn its strength in the beginning .”

He is scathing of Martin Luther who he views as a turncoat who, by the end,  encouraged “the massacre of the peasants with more virulence than the pope“. In general Piotr Kropotkin deals well with these issues. There was much greater understanding by these seminal authors, compared to contemporary anarchist writers, that to build an anarchist society depended on a change in the hearts and minds of men and women. These early writers saw the importance of personal responsibility and morality and dealt with the need for a root and branch reform of societal relationships in a much more thorough manner. These were not simple economic or political arguments but moral and spiritual also.

Once the state has started on its development he was aware that it would brook no opposition. He describes the hostility the state has to any autonomous societies or support organizations  as it views these are threats. It sees them as “a state within the state” which can not be tolerated. Any alternative forms of mutual aid are opposed and although our instincts are to band together and help each other this is discouraged if it is not done by the agencies, and under the control,  of the state.

“Peasants in a village have a large number of interests in common : household interests , neighborhood , and constant relationships . They are inevitably led to come together for a thousand different things . But the State does not want this , nor can it allow them to join together ! After all the State gives them the school and the priest , the gendarme and the judge – this should be sufficient .”

In our present days where the state has a large welfare component these factors are still important. Self help and mutual assistance is lost while centralised state provision takes it place.

“ The neighbor , the comrade , the companion – forget them . You will henceforth only know them through the intermediary of some organ or other of your State . And every one of you will make a virtue out of being equally subjected to it . ”

“ No direct moral obligations towards your neighbor , nor even any feeling of solidarity ; all your obligations are to the State ”

In many areas of the western world social care, health care, and education are removed from the individual. While basic safety and care may be provided the ability of the individual to participate in these matters is severely curtailed and their personal responsibility reduced. Further, it is the cooperative arrangement of these types of aid and support which creates our societies. It is possible, as we are discovering, that it is possible to have a large state providing many aspects of welfare but at the same time to have small or absent communities , an alienated and atomised population and very little society.

In the future, our ability to create societies which support our diverse peoples is going to be the biggest challenge in the face of the spreading state and globalisation. Anarchists and libertarians will need to take their part in this challenge and some of the history in the book may usefully guide them. His call to action is still valid as it is not simply and economic change we require but widespread social change.

Throughout the history of our civilization , two traditions , two opposing tendencies have confronted each other : the Roman and the Popular ; the imperial and the federalist ; the authoritarian and the libertarian . And this is so , once more , on the eve of the social revolution .