Wednesday, 23 February 2022

State of Mind

I was lucky enough to be born into a world where complete strangers would routinely bid you a good morning, or simply greet each other with a hearty ‘hello there!’. Although such niceties may seem alien to modern city folk, the rural north was a haven of pleasantness even through the odd bit of grim. We knew what was normal and we would recognise the odd with mostly indulgent indifference. It was not our place to single people out for their peculiarities; that was between the families and their doctor, so long as it was contained.

As I grew older people would ask “How are you?” and later on, “All right?” and whenever this came from somebody I knew I took it at face value, often (to my later embarrassment) relaying the fine details of the progress of my day. I don’t know why nobody explained to me that a casual inquiry was merely another way of acknowledging ones existence and not a freedom of information request regarding my medical history. I eventually learned to return such entreaties with a simple “Grand!” or else some other non-specific affirmation. It was a simpler world.

You didn’t pry and (when you had learned) you didn’t volunteer. But now we live in an age where people teem and swarm in city masses, never catching a glance or, if accidentally doing so, apologetically lowering our eyes and pushing on. Heaven forfend that you would politely hail a fellow passenger on life’s journey. Yes, people are talking out loud but rarely to those in their immediate vicinity; a casual observer from the past might assume they are talking to invisible folk… or more likely that they are all mad.

But here’s the thing. When once the phrase ‘mental health’ was reserved for those in genuine need of professional help, nowadays it is almost part of the standard litany of social interaction. “How was the party?” “Nice weather, lately.” “Did you see the match?” and “How’s your mental health?” Not “How are you feeling or, the ubiquitous “All right?” but, right on the nose “Are you some sort of nutjob?”

Maybe it is the desperation in modern society for everybody to have some form of ailment which impedes their progress, or else explains the lack of it. Maybe it is meddlesome interest in the private affairs of others. Whatever it is it has become all pervasive. Listen out for it and everywhere you will hear interviewers raising the subject. Not “How did you feel about it” but, “What was your mental state at the time?” And of course, once you trot out this sort of invasive line of questioning, along come the body language experts, the sexperts, the perversely curious, all of whom construct labyrinthine arguments and convoluted buy-my-book explanations.

Stop asking me if I'm okay!

The cure for ‘mental health’ (which everyday contraction I find somewhat sinisterly simplistic) it seems is always lengthy, expensive and increases, rather than decreases the burden people feel. Whereas once you’d have said “Fine, son, how about you?” now you are enjoined to share your anxiety, unload your pain and generally bring down everybody around you. I don’t think this is an improvement; I don’t think it is of any help. I think we should all do our bit for good mental health by responding to enquiries about it with a traditional, “None of your fucking business.” 

Monday, 21 February 2022

Futurology

None of us know the future. None of us. And past attempts at futurology have often been hilariously wrong-footed. You would think that an intelligent person would learn from this, that to be so rock-solid sure of your position can be an unwise move. If anything these days, certainty is the least solid ground from which to preach, given that the world is awash with information, partial information, misinformation and deliberate disinformation. No sirree, Bob, I’m not certain at all

Not so, Dr Gareth Dale, of Brunel University, who regularly pontificates about climate change and the coming age. As he did on last week’s The Moral Maze, an excellent discussion forum which often provides me with food for thought. The panellists and the expert witnesses they get to hear and interrogate offer food for thought and room for manoeuvre. An open-minded listener will often find their preconceptions challenged and their dogged determination to stick to a position founded on sand as directly opposing positions suddenly seem entirely reasonable.

The question was “What’s our moral responsibility to the future?” and as expected a range of opinion was aired from, ‘make the present bearable’ to ‘make unspeakable sacrifices for the good of future generations, even though they will almost certainly never thank us’. We get it right, they live happy lives, our actions go unremarked. We get it wrong, they suffer, we (the long dead) are blamed but unaccountable. It seems as if either way we can’t win.

Dr Dale was, of course, the harbinger of doom and gloom. To him, every disaster prediction is unassailable truth and the world will end in a fireball unless we cease all joy now. It could have been Greta Thunderbug herself, with the total lack of nuance, the finger of blame and the insistence that life on Earth now depends on living humans self-flagellating and doing without… everything. We had a taste of that in the format of Storm Eunice (‘EU nice?’ as some wag remarked.) and a sour taste it was. Power out for much of the weekend meant that, had we not had a coal-fired stove and an open log hearth we would have been cold as well as in the dark.

There is little romantic about candlelight when it is not by choice. I expect Dr Dale has a very nice salary, an assured pension and drives a lovely new electric car, which he charges up at work on his employers dime. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that he has a solar array and a powerwall; all things denied to those on even average incomes. I surmise all this because I have learned that those who demand sacrifice rarely offer up themselves.

Let’s do what ‘they’ do when seeking to prove a point. Let’s take a quote out of context. In one of Dr Dale’s screeds he writes: “A major chimney of pollution could be sealed off by relieving the rich of their superyachts and private jets, ending their frequent flying, and revoking their license to drill.” That’s a pretty unequivocal position. Considering he teaches Politics at Brunel University, I wonder how impartially he presents his lectures. (It need hardly be said that he utterly despises Boris Johnson.)

The amount of knowledge out there today is unprecedented. The Internet makes it accessible to all. But it is of little use if the weight and complexity of it all is too much for any individual to process. We rely on expert interpretation, but expertise rarely comes without its own prejudices, and it remains almost impossible to find a truly balanced appraisal of the facts. Whether that be in science, medicine, social studies, politics, justice… whatever, we are all held in a perpetual state of ignorance.

My approach has been to embrace that ignorance while seeking to find my own way through the mists. Trust no individual sources and beware the madness of crowds. It’s a lonely path, along which companions will accompany you just so far before you discover your own schisms. The present is a mish-mash of distorted versions of events and even the past is not a completely open book. How then, does anybody have the sheer brass neck to claim to know what comes next?

Thursday, 10 February 2022

Nowt to do wi' me

I often wonder why we are here. And while I have considered that science has yet to provide an answer I don’t take easily to religion, either. The entirety of human history has failed to record a single provable nugget of evidence for the existence of a god or gods, but then science hasn’t proved the absence. Overall, though, I am happy to go along with the scientific method; that is, the theory that there is no god has withstood all attempts to disprove it.

But I don’t need any unifying theory for the reason for existence. Our time is short enough without getting overly worried about a question nobody has yet answered. As the Rochdale Cowboy, Mike Harding once observed “There I was, awake in the middle of the night, gazing up at the heavens and seeing the myriad pinpoints of light. Were there other worlds? What’s it all about? Then I realised it had bugger all to do with me so I went back to bed.”

I’m a pragmatist, on the whole, and as phlegmatically British in character as it is possible to be. I don’t need a reason, and I don’t need a cause. Maybe it is due to being brought up to strive for the best but when push comes to shove, you can like it or lump it. In wondering what it is all about I have decided that happiness – in all its dizzying difference of definition – is overrated. I’ve long thought that the human propensity for envy is a corrosive drag on our development.

People around the world suffer floods, droughts, hunger, incarceration, slavery and all manner of other privations, yet we in the west complain if we can’t get precisely what we want when we want. Infantile longing for stuff we can’t afford drives young men to lease ridiculous cars to advertise a status they have yet to and may never earn. And marketing inventiveness and cunning relentlessly promotes such excesses as botoxed brows and unbelievably ugly pneumatic lips. What is wrong with us? Why can’t we learn to live with what we’ve got, accept we’ve largely got what we need, and appreciate the effort of working harder for what we desire?

Being brought up with ‘mustn’t grumble’ and the unavailability of credit made my generation and those before it somewhat stoic in the face of disaster. ‘Not bad’ used to be an extreme compliment, whereas hyperbolically describing the new artwork on a can of so-called energy drink (active ingredients, sugar and caffeine; nothing more) as ‘awesome’ leaves you nowhere to go for a genuine superlative. We have literally talked ourselves out of our own language.

You can’t turn the clock back, I suppose, but I do long for the times when people were genuinely grateful for what they received and pride came from achievement, not acquisition. Our national life is less healthy for the notions of uncritical freedom, of unlimited rights. Putting genies back into bottles is notoriously tricky, but maybe it is possible to stopper the bottle to prevent any more stupidity leaking out. Ah, who am I kidding? Fuck it, knock yourself out, help yourself… just don’t come begging for more when you’ve run out of all proportion.

Wednesday, 9 February 2022

Do it Yourself

Once upon a time, girls and boys (can we even say that any more?) the United Kingdom of Great Island and Smaller Ireland and all the other little islands wanted for little. It had power and influence, commanded respect and housed a population it could feed and defend who, if they wished, could ascend the social ladder from humble beginnings to become the captains of industry, the commanders of legions and proudly call themselves British.

And that’s where it all started to go wrong. Comfortable and secure, a coming generation of leaders held a vision of universal suffrage, cradle to grave welfare and an economy built on hope, ambition and hard graft. The ordinary working man could buy his own home in which to raise a family, the scions of which would prosper and aspire to even greater heights. And then the Ponzi model of governance was launched.

Now, we increase taxes and import yet more low-grade taxpayers to prop up an economy built on borrowing. And the beneficiaries of the borrowing are rarely those who have to pay it back. The cost of bailing out banks, of subsidising loss-making industry, uncompetitive institutions and forever funding useless hobby-horses such as the diversity and inclusion machine is forever borne by those who can least afford it.

The Marxist infiltration of the establishment began long ago and now we have nepotistic dynasties of politicians and civil servants still wedded to the ideas that all we have to do is carry on and the universe will provide. No need to train our own when we can freely import other, cheaper manpower. No real need to educate when anybody who can learn a new lexicon can earn a handsome living from repeating and distorting the flimsy philosophies of crank thinkers.

Food and energy security – national security itself – can be safely handed over to higher powers such as the EU. And while we’re at it, why make hard decisions about law and order and rights when those same remote and unknown mandarins will happily do this for us? This is England, we are one of the richest countries in the world, we’re fine, they told us for decades.

But how can it be, that in a country this wealthy, that we have poverty and squalor, life-limiting ignorance and worsening health outcomes? How has the population become so dependent on hyper-processed food, entertainment on demand, instant gratification and no-blame antisocial behaviours? How? Lazy, incompetent, foolish, vainglorious politicians. Politicians more focused on how they look, what their ‘legacy’ might be, and surviving the mud-wrestling pit of Westminster to fight again… to be elected.

But recent events have demonstrated quite clearly that the world is not our friend. The EU would happily punish us for leaving its deadly embrace and the USA no longer cares because we no longer matter. If there is going to be any hope for the future, it is time to stop relying on everybody else and stop blaming everybody else. The next 50-100 years should be spent on rebuilding this country as an independent, apron-string free nation.

And it won’t be easy. An economy built on fried chicken shacks, betting shops and black market labour does nothing for honest working people. A leadership whose gaze is forever fixed on its dwindling international reputation cannot possibly claim to represent the people of this country. And a commentariat obsessed with making the abnormal normal, by berating the normal will only increase and exacerbate the tensions and divisions.

I don’t think we are anywhere near being capable of even beginning this journey, and certainly there is no sign of any consensus among the electable political options. Ghandi may well have been right. If you want to see change, be that change. You might not make waves and rebuild the world, but at least you might be able to cause a ripple which affects your world. Worth a try, surely?

Monday, 7 February 2022

Party Time

I dunno, you wait fifty years for a new political party then dozens of them all turn up at once! There seems to be an appetite for change, and everybody seems to know what tasty dish will sate that hunger. A little bit of racism here, some misogyny over there, a dash of identity politics, easy on the rich jus of social justice, and a sprightly garnish of Little England to set it off. At least, that’s what the media seems to think.

The big issues of the national consciousness, the truly difficult, life-essential missions – gender, climate panic, diversity, ending slavery, pulling down statues, defending the indefensible – that’s already sewn up by the big three parties… - [checks] … big two parties. So the new, smaller parties are relegated to engaging the public on the silly little policies such as immigration, wealth distribution and poverty, work and welfare and pensions, housing, homelessness, national defence, policing and all of that trivial nonsense.

Goodness me, what woolly headed nonsense they spout. Imagine actually prosecuting criminals instead of getting in a fizz over hurty words! And what are these ‘borders’ of which the neo-Nazis speak? Don’t they know we’re in the age of Aquarius? And don’t get us started on rights. No, these insignificant parties who claim to speak for the disenfranchised, they are just trotting out the same old tropes that the old Conservatives used to believe in.

Modern polling techniques have been refined so that we can now accurately record the fact that the majority of people we choose to question will tell us what we want to hear. I don’t know who the stormtroopers of Ukip, For Britain, Britain First, Reclaim, Traditional Unionist Voice, the Christian People’s Alliance, the Wessex Regionalists and the Church of the Militant Elvis Party think they are representing, but I’m pretty sure their people never get asked.

Such is the rarefied air that the political pundits breathe that they never have to inhale the toxic fumes of desperation, the miasma of hopelessness, that emanate from the methane plant of humanity which is beneath their dignity. Ordinary people – the dopes with a vote they don’t deserve – are only good for entertainment, after all. Look how fat, look how ugly; they are no better than animals, are they?

Maybe they have a point, but if you are going to keep 90% of your population in ignorant servitude it might be a good idea, now and then, to check in on their welfare. After all, the police force are recruited from their ranks, as are the military. Many of them can use tools and, despite what the political classes seem to think, many are perfectly capable of forming opinions and holding grudges. Plus, they exist in far greater number than do you.

Splitters!

The chances of all the smaller parties coming together, agreeing on matters and becoming an effective alternative to the Tories and Labour is, I’m afraid, pie in the sky. And even if they did, their electoral chances are vanishingly small. Maybe the real way ahead is for everybody to re-join, or join for the first time, the main party which they think they can live with and then change them from within. Yes, yes, I know we think it’s been tried, but has it? Something to think about, maybe… 

Saturday, 5 February 2022

One for all?

In 1964, when Marshall McLuhan declared “The medium is the message” he could have been talking directly about Britain right now. He was suggesting that the primary focus of concern may not be the message itself, but the way the media portray it. How very prescient of the world we find ourselves in today, where the buck stops at the top for one side, but is diverted to some sub-department for the other.

A picture of the PM holding a can of beer has the entire media circus in a froth while remaining strangely silent about ‘Lord’ Ahmed of Rotherham being jailed, actually jailed, for child sex offences. How can it be that somebody who once sat in the House of Lords being convicted for what is largely considered to be one the very worst of crimes gets less airplay than a man with a can? The medium is the message, folks.

Everybody – you, me, even the people who study this sort of thing – is affected by confirmation bias; a propensity to believe in evidence for what we already believe. And none of us – neither you, nor me, nor the people who study this sort of thing – are immune to its tentacles. We will believe five outrageous lies about our enemies before we accept a single and obvious unpalatable truth about our friends. But journalism is supposed, at least, to attempt to portray all sides and let the consumer decide.

But that isn’t what is happening. Your dad may have forgotten your birthday. He may have spent your pocket money on the horses. He may have got drunk the night before your big day. But he’s still your dad and for all his faults he always will be. (although I accept this analogy falls flat for the many households in which not a single child knows his father, but they are not so likely to ever read this). The instinct to protect somebody with whom you connect is strong, no matter what other people tell you.

I have never been na├»ve enough to expect the rule makers to follow the rules. I have always accepted that with power comes privilege, and this is exercised throughout all of human society. Everybody who voted Boris for ‘president’ was well aware of who they were voting for. The so-called Red Wall didn’t vote for the Conservative Party, they voted for Boris. So without him at the helm the Tories are toast, come the next election.

The press pack knows this, and no matter what stories they tell themselves about their true motivation, their real desire is to see the Labour Party back on the throne. And not the Corbynite, red-through Labour Party, but the Blairites and their associated movements which were so instrumental in deliberately and systematically breaking down what was left of community and shared values in this country.

The country is tired of CakeGate, it really is. And while the media continues to listen to the commentariat minority who keep feeding their feeble little flame, the furnace of popular opinion is being fanned by far greater bellows. The bellows of people about to lose their livelihoods, to suffer freezing homes and to be dispossessed of their own homeland.

Look into my eyes...

So, switch off when the BBC start their news programmes with scurrilous stories about ‘parties’ at No. 10. Click elsewhere when a link invites you to a news page filled with bile and outrage about something that matters not one jot. Cancel your subscriptions, and stop buying the bloody printed copies. To the journalists there is only one thing worse than complaining about the press; it’s not reading the press.


Friday, 4 February 2022

The Levellers

 Lisa Nandy, quite rightly, queried “Is this it?” following Michael Gove’s lacklustre lecture on levelling up, the government’s slogan-rich but content-free ambition for Britain. What Britain needs is not ‘an agenda’ but real action. People want proper education, decent jobs and dignity, and most of all, I suspect, the freedom to get on with their lives without the constant nannying of the state.

It is said that 1 in 5 of the population is disabled. Oh, come off it. That can only be the case if you accept the determination of some to reduce every difference to the status of a special need. Soon, being taller or shorter than the average height will no doubt qualify you for some sort of payout, programme or pressure group. You prefer it in red? Fire up the FundMe! What an insult to people with genuine needs.

Soaking the rich will do nothing. As has been demonstrated many times in many places, over-tax the successful and they will take their success elsewhere. Windfall taxes are nothing but toothless, headline grabbing soundbites. What is needed is a restructuring of society, but in our own image – not the fanciful rainbow nation of misfits the current crop of social engineers covet.

The problems of the third world can never be solved, or their privations eased by allowing a tiny fraction of their number to sink us under the millstone of diversity. We don’t want strangers to care for our elderly. We don’t need yet more cheap labour to undercut our wages. We need a country in which every worker should be able to achieve the simple dream of a roof over their head to call their own and something better for their children in the future.

Yes it will take years, generations, even. But we have to start somewhere. If we said, right now, "everybody here who has a British passport is a Briton and entitled to a stake in the future, but we are full up, so no more", the cheers would lift the roof. We might need to accept shortfalls in those industries which have, for years, taken on minimum wage immigrants and turned many low-status jobs into work that only foreigners do, but surely that was more than a bit racist anyway.

Where do we get the workforce, especially the educated workers to fill the gaps? Well, why not start on those hundreds of thousands, if not millions, whose ‘work’ does nothing of any worth; redeploy Human Resources staff, useless consultants for faddish causes, diversity twonks,  and everybody engaged in perpetuating the race, class and gender wars. Cancel their roles entirely and get them into frontline jobs. Some of them will be brilliant, some of them will go hungry, but their sacrifices are necessary and would be welcomed.

And then turn to the rest and ask them what they want. The ordinary working men and women of this country should be the key to the future. It can’t be impossible to pay them properly, incentivise them to want to get on, encourage them to push their children to do better still, as used to happen not so very long ago.

More engineers and scientists?

It will take decades and a lot of people may have to face a life which doesn’t give them an easy time, but faced with this or the alternative – that the UK becomes a dumping ground for the world’s problems and everybody below median income becomes a ward of state - is unthinkable. Government has to own up to the fact that there is no one-term fix; if we want a country fit to live in it has to be a lifelong endeavour, with everybody on the same team; Team GB.

Wednesday, 2 February 2022

Nudge nudge

We’ve all, at some time or other tried to coerce people into doing something they didn’t want to do by disguising it as something else. “Here comes the choo-choo!” and “a starving child in Africa would be grateful for that… “ Many manipulative people regularly try to sell you an idea by trying to make you think it was yours. And the perennial marketing maxim is: Sell the sizzle, not the sausage. Nudge.

‘Special’ offers are advertised for limited periods only, the notion that if you buy in bulk everything is cheaper, even though you really just end up with more than you wanted of stuff you didn’t need. Shelves and packaging are carefully arranged and designed so that premium priced products look good and are easy to find, while the bargain basement product clearly advertises its poverty appeal. Nudge.

Of course, a discerning consumer would never be led astray by such devices; once you know the trick the magic becomes mundane. One would think. And yet still we fall for the same old ploys, even when we know the bargain is a con, the opportunity is only an opportunity for the producer and no matter how many lottery tickets we buy, the chances are slim-to-nothing of a big win. But, hey, those lucky dips, amirite?

The art of nudging, in a wide population sense is all around us. Get the kids to lecture the parents on climate change, baffle them with pseudoscience and saturate the airwaves with lefty commentator after lefty commentator to sell the idea that right wing terrorism which has claimed practically zero lives (even then, only by labelling oddball loners as members of some shadowy group to which they’ve never belonged) is far more dangerous than islamic terrorism which daily accounts for untold misery and death worldwide.

Embed guilt and shame over slavery, of which none of us have ever been guilty, in order to engender superior treatment for people of whom none have ever been slaves. Critical race theory, black lives matter, social justice, climate crisis, the ever imperilled NHS… they are all nudges to coerce people into doing things they may not otherwise contemplate. They are all quite open and obvious tactics.

But the government now stands accused of stealth nudging and as always somebody - in this case author Laura Dodsworth - needs somebody else to blame. Her open letter to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee will strike a chord with those already predisposed to assume that the government is always up to no good. She refers to the Behavioural Insights Team as if they were Dr Evil’s devilish psyops henchmen, whose every waking moment is hell bent on harm.

But I see a couple of flaws in her argument. For one, as a great many people have been saying for two years now, governments have been engaged in a very obvious Project Fear, about as far from stealth as you could imagine. For another, wouldn’t it be very odd indeed if governments didn’t seek to influence behaviour by coercive rather than compulsive means? The great tyranny that some are intent on seeing wouldn’t bother with subtle appeals to reason, it would surely just plough ahead and compel.

You will begin to feel sleepy...

And, of course, such tactics are hardly new, or necessarily sinister. Walls have ears. Dig for Victory. Coughs and sneezes spread diseases. All campaigns from the past to persuade, coerce, cajole us into behaviours which benefit us all. And pretty much every movie, TV drama and soap opera these days is riddled with right-on messaging; it can’t be intended to produce no effect at all. Laura has a book to sell you. This doesn’t mean that she is necessarily wrong in her basic premise, but it is hardly an earth-shattering revelation and I, for one, believe her conclusions are overblown.

Tuesday, 1 February 2022

Biting the Hand

In history there have always been those behind the scenes, tugging at the levers of power. Wives, mistresses, meddlesome priests; some unknown, some who have achieved notoriety, some written into the history books and others whose flame briefly flared then sputtered and died to become a mere footnote. What fate, I wonder, awaits Dominic Cummings?

Rasputin-like he appeared to instil fear and awe in his enemies and was never shy in naming them. Many cheered when he made public his mission to take on the establishment. Many felt that he had too much of a hold on Boris Johnson’s thinking, but the odd combination of the product of Eton and privilege alongside a bright student from relatively humble beginnings seemed to strike a chord.

The electorate gave this unlikely combo a mandate not seen in many years and watched as they set out to work. Cummings once described by a tutor as "fizzing with ideas, unconvinced by any received set of views… determined to bring down things that don’t work." Sought to recruit others to his factory of chaos, from which would emerge a new order, with Boris at the helm of a dreadnought of state.

It didn’t quite pan out. And even as Keir Starmer accuses Johnson of blaming everybody but himself, Cummings has come out and placed the blame squarely at the Prime Minister’s feet. In a recent statement he has declared it his mission to remove the PM from office, likening the task to ‘fixing the drains’.

Whilst few would disagree with many of his unflattering appraisals, he is hardly executing his plot in the requisite Machiavellian manner. No iron fist in a velvet glove for him, but a massive, all-too obvious demolition ball which threatens to bring down not just the figurehead but the whole edifice. Never particularly likeable, or convivial, always a bit of a misanthrope, he now seems more like a Marvel super-villain, plotting the destruction of the world he has never really understood. The world of humans turned its back on him, but he will wreak his revenge, mwuhahahaa!

Post politics, Boris will continue to enjoy fame and notoriety and no doubt a wide circle of shallow but fun friends. It is doubtful anybody will want to consult his genius, but neither will he haunt the world stage like the wizened Phantom of the Opera, Tony Blair, forever seeking ever more influence. Boris will move on, pen a few well remunerated newspaper articles, write the odd book and grow disgracefully old.

Cummings plots his next move...

Cummings, on the other hand will barely be remembered. No Robespierre, he, as that same tutor suggested. No power behind the throne, no architect of change. No doubt he will find himself leading an uninfluential think tank, poorly funded and far from any inner circle. If he is likened to any well-known character it will probably be Gollum. Crazed, enraged and forever looking for his precious, apparently unaware that the key to his reward was Boris himself.