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Stewart Hotston

Writing, Editing, Watching and Reading

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Culture

The financial impact of Covid 19

I’ve just read and watched the unprecedented statement from the British Chancellor of the Exchequer. Shortly after him, within a matter of hours or days the US Congress will come to a similar place – with their own twist on it of course.

Someone asked me just what this money is. Where does it come from and what is it really – a loan, a repo or something else, maybe money printing.
The answer is, qualitatively the same for all people putting in place fiscal stimulus right now.

It’s based on several things but probably the best analogue are the warbonds which had no maturity but would be called at the appropriate time (the last of which weren’t called until last decade). It is unprecedented. It’s also impossible to foresee the long term consequences of this. I’m sure people are thinking about them. Ironically perhaps – this is how you get inflation because supply side is going to become more and more strained the longer borders are closed and people can’t work. Prices can and will go up because of that – not because we’ve got more money. However, this will clearly be offset by people not actually having money. It’s a hugely risky strategy – but clearly the risks of doing nothing will be worse. Rishi Sunak has just promised to cover 80% of salary up to 2500 per month indefinitely. This is astonishing and tremendously welcome but tells you just how scared everyone is by the economic impact of this. If you’re not taking this seriously right now then you are, simply, a fool. A government composed of right wing nationalists and fiscal conservatives for whom Hayek and the Chicago school remain idols have just announced Universal Basic Income and an effective socialisation of salary and all of society’s risks. This is the tiger making dinner for the rabbit, it’s the coyote apologising to Roadrunner. (and for those in the know…don’t be Peck.) The term unprecedented here is both correct and far too small to underscore what’s going on.

Back to the question of ‘how do we pay for this?’

Well I mentioned warbonds earlier. Specifically those from WWI and II. They didn’t think about how they would repay – the nation was supposed to be facing an existential crisis. So they borrowed from a future they hoped was there to be borrowed from. The sense of desperation here is the same. We fail and it’s a generational depression to make the financial crisis look like losing your lunch money vs. losing your house and being forced to live on the street.

If we successfully meet this challenge? Well then we’ll worry about the implications then. What’s clear is no western country, especially the UK, will be the same after this. The US still has a journey to go on but they too will be no less different after this is over and, perhaps a silver lining, but this will be a real insulation against partisan politics and especially popularists because the virus respects nobody. It’s not an innoculation but like a large volcanic eruption can stall climate change, this can stall the growth of populism if only for a time.

I’m not sure there’s anything further to say – beyond this point everything is speculation. There are precious few voices I’m interested in listening to on this right now – I’m kind of absorbing lots and filtering 95% of it as the noise people make when they’re scared – it’s all shouting and fear and fastening onto any details which people see that appear new.

Yet the above is relevant. The government is doing something beyond the wildest fantasies of any serious economist I know – including me. You may criticise them all you like but I’ll have less respect for you if you do (see my reference to Peck). I guarantee you, you don’t know better and you wouldn’t do better. The choices made today by Sunak and by other European countries ahead of him this week and by the US over the weekend are literally undreamt of – not simply because the world economy was never structured to allow it (and there’ll be a lot of previously important influencers in the system who will now either fall into line or disappear into irrelevance) but because fundamentally literally no one could imagine this situation and moreover, no one can foresee the consequences of this in a month, a year or a decade.

Stories and Uncertainty

Humans are story telling creatures. We are adapted to look for patterns and this can play out in our stories about ourselves and how we see the world. There’s no evidence to suggest our propensity to see patterns in randomness is the grounding for our being creatures who search for meaning but what is meaning except a pattern which we can articulate and whose framework we can place ourselves within.

The last few weeks at work have seen many, many high level discussions about the future. Or THE FUTURE if you prefer. Which isn’t that different to normal. When we do deals, when we’re planning strategy across the UK, Europe, APAC and the US we spend a lot of time on these questions.

However, right now there is no narrative we can construct which makes sense. Everything is fraught with problems. Every strategy governments and (more relevant for me, companies) come up with can be picked apart.

We invest on the basis of stories which make sense when picked apart. There will be maths, rigour etc. But in the end they serve to tell a coherent narrative upon which we will make decisions.

Where our stories fail we experience crisis. At least in my experience. Where our stories won’t explain we flail. Sometimes we look for new stories but what I observe most often is fragmentation. We look for elements and fractions which confirm the interpretation of the world we want to be true. It is not a moral failing even if it is a failing of mindful discipline. We all struggle with this. Here’s my own case – when CV-19 first hit in Jan, I didn’t believe it would strike us as it has done. H1N1, the last global pandemic hit 100m infections and about 1m dead. It hadn’t seen anything like the kind of response we’re talking about now. We’re at 200,000 infections globally right now…compared to 100,000,000 for H1N1. So I just couldn’t see how the two had any kind of equivalence. And I said so quite loudly – partly, especially into Feb, there was a decent amount of hysteria already festering around the edges of the markets.

However, my story was wrong. I was wrong. I was wrong a second time – which is I couldn’t conceive of us shutting ourselves away for what is (people are saying) likely to be months not weeks. Certainly we have been given no end date.

Yet all of this hasn’t stopped people from all walks complaining bitterly and loudly that those trying to grapple with these decisions have got it wrong every step of the way. There may well be some element of that criticism that’s correct. Yet correct in what sense? Do we want to minimise deaths? Of course! Do we want to make sure we don’t cripple the economy? Of course! Do we want to ensure we come through this outbreak more resilient should it resurge? Of course! Can we do all three? Nobody knows. And no one has a mandate to say which combination of those three priorities is the preferred one and the one we’re going to aim for. There is no story here which is nuanced enough to allow for the deeply complex uncertainties to be expressed in a simple linear narrative. Hence we struggle to articulate both the issues and our fears. You could even argue that our inability to articulate the issues exacerbates our sense of anxiety. It’s certainly led to me reading more about the subject (even if much of that material turns out to be complete guff).

Then there are those who deliberately peddle nonsense like the fake cases of people taking ibuprofen on Cork who died from complications with CV-19. Or whatever version you came across. A set of falsehoods so egregious even the BBC was moved to write an article discussing the case.

Some smart arse will reply ‘but the chief medical officer said…’. Yes they said ‘don’t use it if it’s dangerous for you. Which is freaking common sense and, perhaps surprisingly, applied before CV-19. So don’t @ me with your counterfactuals.

(ed: he’s taken his pills, rant over)

What’s the point of this post? A couple of things drove me to write it.

First – we are in a time when stories about the way the world works are not going to serve us. Venal corporations vs. valiant individuals will not help. Corrupt government vs. the populace won’t help. Callous youth against vulnerable boomers won’t help. We have to do better.

We have to tell a different story – one where we don’t know the end, where we don’t know the rules of the story and are actual participants rather than the writers of it, rather than observers who’ve divined how it’s going to end and are on the ‘right side’.

I believe this can make us kinder – because to exist in this kind of story is to admit we don’t know and if we don’t know, the kind of empathy we’d like to have expressed towards us should also allow us to express empathy to others. Because we’re all in the same boat.

Second. We have to accept (if not embrace) the uncertainty inherent in our situation. We have to be wary of any stories right now which purport to tell us how the world is, how it’s working and how it’s going to turn out. I’m not proposing ignoring well researched evidence and science. What I’m saying is we have to simply gather than information and refuse to draw conclusions because the period of time in which the dataset’s being written is weeks and months, not the 24 hour news cycle. I recognise how stressful this is.

There’s an old maxim for people floating on the stock exchange – don’t look at the prices. Buffet said the same to investors – don’t second guess, don’t even check. Just invest and go away until such time as you need the money.

It applies here – constant reviewing of the information won’t yield insight. Especially when we’re dealing with radical uncertainty. Imagine one of those old war games on consoles/PCs such as Command & Conquer. Right now we’re effectively still in the home base and the fog of war covers the whole map – looking again and again at the map won’t help us because we can’t see the critical information needed to arrive at meaningful conclusions. We have no choice but to accept we are living with uncertainty. We still have to make decisions. Which is a right pain – but you know what? It’s highly unlikely we’ll make them any less badly than normal – because most of us are bad at making decisions anyway – factoring in the wrong considerations, biases and emotions as a matter of course.

All of this is a long way of saying – there are a lot of pressures out there right now which can be interpreted as telling us to act selfishly, to see others as ripe for ridicule and disdain and constant criticism. However, this is the perfect time to remind ourselves we live in stories of the everyday where none of us can be certain and hence all of us can be kind.

The Sinking of Skywalker

This post contains ALL THE SPOILERS

DO NOT READ UNLESS YOU’VE SEEN THE FILM

So. I’ve seen it. I preface the below with the following disclaimer: it is just a film. It is entertainment and there are far more serious issues in the world, and in my country, right now.

However…it is also a presentation of how our culture sees itself. There’s reams of academic literature exploring how presentation of popular culture shows a mirror on the concerns and occupations of the people participating. And, in case the reaction to The Last Jedi hadn’t made you aware, Star Wars has become a battle ground between a certain class of those who think the world should serve them, reflect their preconceptions and prejudices and exclude those not like them and those who think, basically, the opposite.

I’m in the latter camp – I’m looking for representation. I’m looking for challenge, for change and for more than nostalgia for a type of society that has NEVER existed except in the myths told by the powerful to justify their actions.

Ok. If you’ve made it this far I’m ready to actually start. I’m going to list a few things I like about the film and then I’m going to really let go.

First. I like Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley. They are both fantastic in all three films. The commit to the material and both of them manage to deliver nuanced and emotional content. I could especially watch Driver all day long.

I also think John Boyega is great.

I think Chewie’s response to Leia’s death is the only really genuine emotional point in the film. Nothing else comes close.

And as ever, Hamill comes to the screen with an ironic but authentic presence. I feel like we truly missed a great actor of his generation. It helps that he appears to be a genuinely cracking human being as well.

The problems, for me, start with the opening crawl. The film simply announces the Emperor is back. No explanation. No sense of why or how anyone could have not foreseen this. No sense of being able to trace his signal back. Instead we have a preamble focussing on Kylo Ren rather than the heroes (and that’s a foreshadowing if ever there was one) who basically montages his way to secret hideout and then discovers all the secrets. I mean…really? And those secrets completely change everything he previously thought…well those convictions were easy to dismiss.

Then we have a completely pointless ‘spy’ narrative. It appears only to serve to establish there’s no time to save the galaxy from this unspecified threat (which by the way the spy can’t know about yet, since Ren himself also doesn’t know the details at this point). But hey, who needs continuity???

And here we see hyperspace travel, which has been clearly held up as taking hours, days or weeks across the entire canon now being completely discarded. (let’s not even talk about tie fighters which can hyperspace despite NEVER having been able to do this before).

By this point and I’ve already got questions…who saved Palpatine and took him half way across the galaxy to a safe space where snowflakes couldn’t get at him? Who fed him, watered him and doused him with anti-cancer drugs after they found him in a nuclear fusion reactor…?

How did his face not get BURNT OFF by the heat of an exploding nuclear reaction??? How did he create Snoke? We never find out. How did he become EVERY VOICE YOU’VE EVER HEARD?

I mean. Well I got nothing here. Because just then a thousand star destroyers rise up out of the mud…just like that. Who’s crewing them? Who’s feeding that crew? Who’s doing all of this???

It turns out Hux is the spy…the basic ruler of the first order. The chap who masterminded StarKiller base. Selling HIMSELF out. Why? Because like a five year old who’s had his candy taken away ‘I want the other kid to lose’. How this guy ever charmed his way to ruling a galaxy spanning super advanced nation of neo-nazis is anyone’s guess at this point. But it’s ok, because he has an ornate wooden walking stick in his quarters for the very day he gets shot in the leg…thank goodness. He obviously was a great Cub Scout.

So the resistance still has an unspecified number of ships (as does Ren, even after their disastrous losses in TLJ). So they just fly about wherever and whenever. The resistance generals leave the resistance behind instead of leading them and head off from one frolick to another without any clue what they’re doing excepting chasing down one macguffin after another. And it doesn’t matter when they get destroyed because it turns out there’s always another one. Oh, and I love that the Sith Wayfinder can be crushed by a human hand but can survive an inferno which melts a Tie Fighter…which was just so handily parked exactly where a random and ranging melee brawl happens to finish…

Ren gets his gang of Incels together and with a chimpanzee they spend an unnecessarily long time reforging his helmet. Indeed the chimpanzee probably has a more meaningful role than Rose, Finn’s love interest from TLJ and the moral heart of that film. But of course, certain white men hated her so she got sidelined and her emotional connection to the film severed. These Knights of Ren aren’t Sith, they aren’t jedi gone bad and don’t have anything to recommend them except old fashioned medieval melee weapons…which you can tell isn’t going to end well for them. And hey, it doesn’t, but who cares because by the end of the film they’ve done precisely NOTHING. Even Rey has to fight people with lasers…these guys have sharps…which are nasty except when pitted against LASERS! A pathetic waste.

So Rey’s been trained. Except she hasn’t passed some test we’re not really sure about because it’s not made clear. She’s almost all powerful and can teleport items across the entire galaxy. And she has powers other jedi considered rare (or were previously completely unseen). Now, I don’t object to this except they’re not consistent and only appear to get her out of being stuck. Like force memories (from Fallen Order). No prior use but all of a sudden she’s all about them.

And apparently her parents were important. Now this is where I really lose my shit. One of the things I loved about the Last Jedi was its message we are all capable of changing the world. That there is no divine right of kings, no special people who are special because of their blood, or their wealth or their parents. Instead we’re brought right back to, oh yes, the concept of there’s a specially powerful aristocracy and the rest of us should just shut up and listen and do what they say. And the entire argument between Sith and Jedi becomes an argument between two sides of the same group -those who are divinely chosen. It’s profoundly anti-democratic and deeply depressing that this is the message we’re choosing to privilege. It also suggest the nastiness of caste systems and is an argument that’s been used to justify slavery, racism, sexism and on and on across human history. You’d think we’d be able to jettison it – especially when TLJ did exactly that.

By the way…who’s flying the star destroyers? (I know, I’ve already asked but really, have you got an answer?)

Then there’s the fleet that arrives out of nowhere. It looks spectacular but…we’re told explicitly the hyperspace lanes are blocked…we’re also told no one came before. This is an important point. Except one ship disappears off and brings the entirety of the galaxy’s civilian population to fight the fascists (which is great btw!). How did they unblock the spacelanes? How did they convince people who, previously, had stayed the hell away? There’s no more hope now than earlier…so what changed their mind? Why weren’t the heroes doing this bit? Scouts could have been sent to…you know…SCOUT. The heroes and leaders could have been…oh, I don’t know…leading?

I feel sorry for Oscar Isaac. Poe is charming and dashing but clearly emotionally stunted because he learned this great lesson in TLJ and the immediately forgets it all over again and gets most of his mates killed doing exactly what he learned not to do the movie before.

By the way…when you need to insert into the script lines like ‘but that’s impossible’ not once but like three times? You’ve jumped the freaking shark, come back and given it a hotdog for being a good boy and then jumped it again and you’re so embarrassed by this you even confess it to the audience.

C3PO – I mean you sacrificed everything for this plot only to be brought back from the ‘dead’ just like that. Chewie…we thought you too were sacrificed to show Rey’s power and the conflict in her…only for you too to be still alive.

And Harrison Ford…I mean…were you a force ghost? An ordinary ghost? A memory? A hallucination? I mean…what? Was Ren actually mentally ill and the film simply crassly uses that to change Ren’s thinking?

Ren…you wanted to kill the old…and then you didn’t. For no reason except you discovered Rey was a Palpatine…which makes no sense. Much like the rest of the film, but hey. I like your character. I like your neo nazist portrayal, I like how it meant you could have been a proper bad guy. I hate how they made you back into a child doing someone else’s bidding. Oh, you have a plan? No you don’t because the PLOT says otherwise. What you have is a suddenly sexual crush on Rey who sees you like the boy next door and if only you become that boy next door you can be the good guy. After killing millions there’ll be no consequences for you and you’ll get the girl. Good old white boys will be boys after all.

And Poor Finn. You loved Rose. Or at least she loved you. But there’s no room for her anymore and even if you also love Poe, we can’t let that happen between two main characters can we??? Oh no, keep the gay stuff for two minor unnamed characters who get to kiss at the end. Argh! So Finn has no story. No arc. No meaning. Except hey, what’s this? Other POC who were stormtroopers too..probably slaves? yes, let’s not use that word but let’s heavily imply it. Then let’s only have relationships between people of the same colour – because white men complained about mixing of races on twitter. And let’s make this a slave rebellion on horses! Woo! Oh…wait. No. let’s not do that.

And, you know, after telling the audience for 8 films and an entire canon that it takes huge effort and a moon-sized base to create a planet destroying laser…let’s just tack one onto every spaceship the bad guys own…no need to supply chains, no need for ANY resources because we have the emperor in our back pocket and he can shoot lightening into space and only hit his enemies! In fact, who needs spaceships at all…apparently he doesn’t (he even says this) which dies beg the question…why have them at all you numbnutz?

And oh dear me…she did have important parents? And she’s not angry at them? And Palpatine didn’t have control over them? The emperor who says, at every fricking opportunity, this is just as I planned? Pretty poor planning/management skills there old Palps. You might need to watch a couple of TED talks mate, get a grip on family planning and strategic thinking.

It also entirely undermines Rey’s emotional journey – she’s no longer struggling with moral choices – she’s simply obeying her blood…more divine right moral absolution. It wasn’t me and even if it was, God said I could do it and who are you to question me?

I actually like the swapping of lightsabers. I liked the confrontation between Rey and Palpatine. I liked Chewie. I liked a whole bunch of moments in this mess. And it looked beautiful (although TFA and TLJ had more standout compositions) and the soundscape was great.

The film offers no reasons for many of the characters’ choices. No reason for Ren to change his mind, no reason for Lando to actually help, no reason for why Luke comes along and says ‘hey, all the stuff I learned in the last movie, when Yoda finished my training…it was all ponk. I was just wrong. Ignore me!’ No reason for Finn and Rose to not be together, no reason for why Poe was a spice smuggler or why he left, no reason offered for why Luke was looking for the Sith homeworld, no reason for why the rest of the galaxy decided now was the time to pitch up and help (when the enemy fleet is a hundred times bigger than the last time), no reason for Dominic Monaghan, no reason for why R2-D2 is almost entirely absent from the film.

BB8 is irrelevant and his hairdryer friend operates purely as a plot delivery mechanism.

I’d love to say this is lazy writing and some of it surely is. But I think it’s worse than that. I think it’s design by twitter and reddit. I think it’s design by reference to what the alt-right want in their films. Less non-whites, less mixed relationships, more white guys being the saviour, more white guys full stop. More mavericks, less cooperation and less community making the difference. I mean, it’s hard not to read into the people turning up to destroy the fleet as being anything other than a militia…so we have a defence of the 2nd amendment right there (another preoccupation of the alt-right checked off).

I apologise this is garbled. so a summary to finish.

  1. This film destroys all the good work of TLJ in taking Star Wars in new directions
  2. Even if you hate TLJ, it also completely ignores the universe set up over the last 40 years
  3. It has no character development worth a damn since there are no sacrifices by any major characters. Even Ren is redeemed and gets off without having to face the consequences of his actions.
  4. Who’s flying the frickin star destroyers???
  5. It makes the universe others have spent so long making feel real feel like a toybox with a kid simply saying ‘and then this happens and then this happens’. A crushing of the narrative rules.
  6. Characters are safe from harm because of plot armour. They’re also safe from thinking because of plot requirements.
  7. Worst of all, the above combines to make a chronically dull film which, although it’s clear it doesn’t like fascism, accommodates it in Kylo Ren and has no answers to the questions posed by evil. To be honest, it’s not even clear why Rey dies after her confrontation with Palpatine except it’s narratively expedient.

In the end it’s just a film. But my kids watch it and see the kind of world they think might be possible politically through stuff like this. To me its messages are retrograde and need to be rejected and to make it worse? It’s boring and meaningless with no consequences. It might be nostalgic crack for a certain demographic but the rest of us are left looking at it and shaking our heads as we move off to find content which actually interests and represents us

The problem with winning power

There’s a saying – ‘No one ever changed the world by being nice’. I don’t know how true it is, but I believe it about 60%. Certainly peaceful protest has succeeded in moving the chairs around but I’m not sure whether it’s only when peaceful protest and violent resistance meet that societies really change. You could say I’m really, truly hoping Greta Thunberg manages to inspire us Gen Xers and Millennials fulfil out duty to future generations and change the world before it gets overwhelmingly violent.

However, the above is really only by way of starting this short essay.

I’ve been pondering why it is so many of us here in the UK (and also our friends across the pond) find it hard to occupy the middle ground now.

One obvious argument from my side of the debate is that it’s fine to not discuss my future with nazis and fascists. It’s a pretty strong argument. And I also think, when faced with such extremism it’s valid to argue the call to moderation is one I should set on fire because it too is my enemy for giving space to those who won’t be satisfied until I’m no longer part of the world we currently share.

However. This doesn’t satisfy me. It might be right and it is definitely a simple argument to grasp.

yet it can’t be the whole story. Why not? Because I think we can only unravel the mess we appear to be in (or the period of enhanced and lively political engagement depending on your point of view) by understanding a little of what really constitutes it.

I know it’s trite and probably cliched to say this, but really we’re talking about power. But I don’t think what I’m about to say isn’t your normal discussion about power.

Those of you who are friends of mine on facebook will have seen me mention the work of Mary Douglas this past week. In particular books such as Natural Symbols and Purity and Danger. Much of what I want to think through here will be (inelegantly) crabbed from her thinking, so really, do yourself a favour and go read them instead of me!

Assuming you’re still here I want to think about power not in its exercise, but in what it means for communities. Power is, in most meaningful senses, about agency. It is about being able to act as one wishes. This is additionally so for communities. The big difference is that communities are made up of many people and so have sets of rules by which those people know they are a part and know they are outside. Rules of taboo, punishment, transgression etc. are all about saying who belongs and who is outside. To use the technical term, they are what defines the sectarian nature of any community.

Part of a community exercising its agency is to say ‘you are not a part of us’ or indeed to say ‘you belong here’. The interplay of the individuals own agency and that of their community is important and communities can crush those within (and without) through the means of enforcing their shared understanding of belonging. In a very real sense, to break the law (whether it’s to each coffee cremes when everyone agrees they’re an abomination or to engage in cannibalism) is to set oneself against the community.

So far so dry.

I want to briefly tie this into the superhero narrative we have and which modern western culture appears to find so appealing in the mainstream now. (and I’m a massive geek, so @ me here because I’m a big consumer/lover of this content) There’s a very common narrative that superheroes are really crypto-fascists. It’s a strong reading and one I basically support but it’s not deep enough. The problem with superheroes is that they’re basically representative in a large way of how we wish the world worked. Simplistically we wish we could, as individuals, go off and, with magical powers, fix all that’s wrong. Additionally, we tend to wish those problems could be personified and dealt with in a single struggle where it was clear what was right and what was wrong.

Apologies – I’m being overly simplistic. Yet I believe the above cod-psychology holds if we think about how communities address their concerns – and that’s through stories. We tell one another stories of how bad our enemies are, of how they’re lying, evil and happy to commit unforgivable sins. Not because we wish them ill as a primary motive but because it helps us defend our own values and helps mark them out as being separate to us, as being outside us.

For highly sectarian communities (and this is definitely a feature of the extremist politics we experience now) the barriers between being in and out are very sharp. For more moderate communities you see fuzziness, tolerance, a gradient which provides a lot of wiggle room. I think we’ll all recognise that right now, we experience both on our side and that of the other a very sharp divide. You’re either with us or against us. I’m being descriptive here rather than explicative so a little bit of the latter.

Sectarian communities are effectively defensive in nature. Their world view is one filled with insecurity and fear – fear of being corrupted, of the community failing. It can fail because of only one thing – that the outsider somehow corrupts us, that we weren’t pure enough. You’ll see this played out wherever you see ideological drives for purity – such as Momentum trying to oust the deputy leader of the Labour party or the withdrawing of the whip from 21 Tory MPs for daring to dissent. Game theory tells us those are disastrous moves BUT that’s not the rationality in play. The rationality in play behind these kinds of actions are ones designed to maintain purity, to identify and keep the corrupted outside of the community lest they corrupt us to. This drive to stave off the end of the community is built from three elements. One is agency – the community has values it wishes to actualise. The second is it feels threatened, it feels like if it loses it might disappear and this drives the third element – it believes in the story which makes it a community. These elements combine to create a set of motivations that are not those of trading power and achieving progress but of defence and survival.

People who are looking to survive will act as they deem necessary – if you believe losing the argument represents an existential threat, it becomes possible to justify any action as reasonable because to fail to take it could lead to having no life to regret sticking to ones values over. See this article in Time Magazine for a great example of a value driven community (US Evangelicalism) which has fallen into the sectarian trap of believing it’s under siege and acting defensively as a result.

This brings me to the main point of this post. Why votes and ‘opinions’ appear to have become the pivot points around which we’re building our mutual sectarianism. Led by the hard right, which is a community under deep existential threat in the West (at least), they’re acting as defensive communities – a vote like the referendum becomes not about facts but about the power it will give them to establish borders around their values. These values are shifting because they’re not that important – it’s the exercise of power in the name of survival which is important here. The actual values can be fleshed out later – do we mean full on fascism – well maybe, if that’s what served to protect ‘our way of life’. It’s also why a second referendum on Europe for the UK is irrelevant (even if legally vital) because those who won the first time around see that as the boundary which protects them. Anything to the contrary is simply another attack on them. You cannot overstate the insecurity this community feels across a whole range of social issues which crystallise around the idea of those who are outside and the pollution they bring when they are invited inside. As an aside – we can then see that many of these people aren’t ‘racist’ in the old fashioned NF/BNP/KKK sense. But they are racist because they see their identity centrally as white english speakers and the ‘other’ as outside of that. They’re just as prejudiced towards Polish people as they are Indians and Chinese.

When people get on the news and say ‘there’ll be riots if you betray 17.2 million people’ they’re not talking rationally as we understand it. They are, however, talking rationally from their point of view. THey’re expressing that their boundaries are being crossed and they will act to protect their definition of who is inside and who belongs outside. They will purify those inside who are ‘not true believers’ and they will guard the gates to stop anyone from coming inside. They’re not saying there will be riots (although there may be) – they’re saying ‘this is THIS important to me’.

I don’t know if this is particularly enlightening. I hope it is. I’m trying to say why the facts as people in my community find so important are so irrelevant to these types of community. I’m trying to say why they can’t see the legal frameworks, the four estates and our cherished checks and balances are vital to restricting magical untamed power from wrecking havoc. Why? Because, right now, they want power (their power) to wreck untamed damage on those outside their community who they perceive to be at their borders massing for invasion. To be clear I don’t mean actual invasion, I mean psychological invasion, an invasion where their myths are cast down, their narratives about how the world is and should be are shattered and replaced with new ones.

How can we talk to these people? Should we? We have to remember they have set a specific set of values as matters of purity and taboo. For many of us those items are too extreme or basic for us to often know how to tackle.

I would say this – these values bring them comfort. Othering those not like them (Remainers, poc, women with agency, foreigners, experts etc.) provide them comfort when they can actively exclude them. They already feel defensive and this act helps them feel as if their walls are impregnable. It gives them agency. Helping people exit from cults is very difficult and there’s a good JSTOR paper on how the exit process can cause more damage than healing.

If we are to tackle this, we must continue to propose our own myths, to dismantle their taboos. We don’t dismantle taboos with facts alone. It can’t be done. We can only dismantle taboos and ideas about purity by establishing our own forms of these values. This runs the risk of direct conflict as different mythic ideas clash. I think if we’re interested in establishing that racism is NOT ok then we have to accept that potential outcome.

So…to conclude. Like properly.

  • we should give up the notion that facts will convince people who are defending values
  • We MUST develop our own positive myths around why the society we want to live in is a good one and we must be prepared to defend it. i.e. we have to fight them a little on their own ground
  • We must remember that constitutional, legal and social niceties, conventions and norms are seen as contemptuous if they serve the ‘other’ for communities under siege
  • We must continue to defend the above for all the obvious reasons as well as the fact they protect us from ourselves
  • We cannot be neutral but we can also call people in these communities to their positive values – to their better natures. Almost no member of those communities sees themselves as bad people and we can use our own myths and narratives to call out those positives.
  • Attacking them, belittling them and humiliating people who feel defensive will only make them more defensive. However, when their ideas clash with mine, I must call them out but as one peer to another. We should always treat them, not necessarily with respect of their ideas but with the knowledge that their values are significant for them and we should therefore take them seriously. Seriously enough to oppose them.
  • Finally – narratives among the community of outrage are explicitly designed to build those values and to ensure emotional engagement remains high. As I’ve said elsewhere, we must develop our own myths and stories if we are going to counter these kinds of arguments. But how we build positive myths is for another day.

Why can’t we get there from here?

I was fortunate enough to speak at the LSFRC’s Productive Future’s conference yesterday at UCL’s School of Art. I managed to see a couple of other sessions too and they were universally well presented and provoked plenty of discussion afterwards in each case. I particularly liked Dan Hassler-Forest’s paper on the economics of the mega-franchise.

Below are my, edited, notes on the paper/speech I gave. Long story short – I have been concerned for a while now that much science fiction is lagging on the issues that really face us today – one of which is our relationship to energy. In the notes below I posit a couple of reasons why I think we struggle to develop that relationship as writers and I add one additional argument based in our relationship to neo-liberal capitalism which arose out of a question I was asked at the end of the talk.

Introduction

Thank you for having me. I’m coming at this as an economist, scientist and author. These three elements of my background will inform the construction of my argument and I’ll present my own thoughts based through these lenses. Before we get going though, a little bit about what we’re going to cover.

  • what we’re going to cover
    • Definitions – energy
    • Physical considerations – that is, the what, the who and the where of our relationship to energy
    • Theory – what would a physicist say about energy? How does that divert from socially constructed meanings ascribed to energy
    • Science Fiction and how what we write reveals about us
    • The future – what kinds of subjects would I love to see us thinking about more carefully
    • Conclusion – what can we hope for through literature
    • Time for questions
  • But first a little about me – physicist, economist, banker, author blah, blah, blah.

Overview of Energy – a question of definitions

  • Energy is a word used in all sorts of contexts – from hard science where energy is a fundamental building block of everything to new age philosophy through to synonyms for our gas and electricity supplies.
  • In science fiction we have energy weapons (just about any space opera), light sabres, psychic energy (c.f babylon 5, Star Trek, Transcendence etc. etc.). The list goes on. For me, the concept of energy is multi-variate in nature with definitions as poorly defined as they are widely spread.
  • For the purposes of this presentation I’m interested in three uses of the word
    • Energy as a physical resource – such as solar, oil and fission
    • Energy as in physics – a raw measure of joules, electron volts etc.
    • Energy as in useful sources of power for cars, ships, people and spacecraft – agnostic about the physical resources. i.e. how we use and consider energy as a motive force.

Physical Considerations – where, how, who – The Politics and Economics

  • The energy we use is not invisible or intangible. It takes up space, needs to be moved and managed and, in most cases, comes from a primary resource such as wood, water and oil.
  • The implications of this are perhaps well understood by companies and politicians but not by the average lay person – modern supply chains are complex, multi-national and hidden by design even from the individuals working within them. Getting oil from the gulf of Mexico to a car in China is a chain that crosses dozens of countries, navigates months of time and passes through companies employed hundreds of thousands of people. See here for instance for a fantastic infographic on the subject. Rutherford’s maxim that complicated ideas should be explainable to a barmaid does not stand.
  • This is partly a capitalist imperative – to reduce the agency of consumers who are forced into dependency because they cannot source their own supplies and cannot tinker. All innovation must be created by an economically motived agent, not a community agent because this is how you maximise profit for your shareholders.
  • Most ordinary people do not think about how their electricity is generated. They couldn’t tell you what green electricity really is – if you asked them how does green electricity get to your house they’d not be able to tell you it was a stupid question.
  • Furthermore the scale of the energy market – whose financial instruments, derivatives, futures and contracts with multiple benchmarks, currencies and timescales is too overwhelming for even experts to really understand. You only have to look at Goldman’s predictions of oil going to $200 a barrel in May 2008 about thirty days before it collapsed to less than $37 in Feb 2009 demonstrates the point well.[1]
  • So where does that leave us? There are a couple of strong narratives both in factual reporting and in fiction.
  • The first of these is that we don’t need to think about energy. We live, in advanced late stage capitalist economies, post scarcity. Energy is infinite (or at least abundant in the fact that it is ALWAYS there when we turn on the lights). The infrastructure we’ve built guarantees it fades into the background as a certainty we don’t need to consider – unlike for most of history where we’ve had to concern ourselves each day with whether we’ll have enough calories to make it through.
  • The second is well demonstrated in M L Ross’ book summarising the Curse of Resource Wealth first posited by Auty et al.[2]. Resource rich countries do not benefit from their resources. Or at least, the majority of the people in those countries. Consider Nigeria[3] where political violence between the state, local politicians, the companies and locals appear to be the only booming business despite the vast reserves of oil.
  • As always the truth is more complicated. Britain, Norway and the US, to name just three, have or have had deep resource benefits and did end up as ‘failed states’. In my mind it’s really more a sense of post colonial classification as post colonial powers look on at the eviscerated cultures they’ve then abandoned and scratch their heads to an answer. Any answer will do that doesn’t implicate their decade or centuries long pillaging as being largely responsible for environments in which these kinds of outcomes find fertile soil[4]. Better yet a narrative that blames those left behind for their own woes.
  • Contemporary thrillers understand that energy is politically volatile – there are many movies and novels about oil for instance (the very best of them being Oil! which was remade as the Oscar winning There Will Be Blood) but they often draw a straight line between governments and corporations as bad and people on the ground as good. They do not explore how those governments are often simply reflecting the actual exigencies of what their populations are demanding in terms of services and standards of living.
  • This comes back to the first idea – that we don’t need to think about energy and its intersection with the wider population.
  • Popular explorations of geopolitics and how societies survive have also entirely overlooked these links – Tim Marshal’s Prisoners of Geography and Jared Diamond’s Collapse or his Gun, Germs and Steel have strong central theses about why politics turn into guns being fired and they are not driven by the need for energy. Jared’s theories about scarcity and even his ideas about the impact of the horse skirt the edges of this but don’t take the heart of it seriously – that a need for energy security – be it fuel to cook, fuel to heat our homes and mine our bitcoin drives much of the conflict we’ve witnessed over the last 50 years.
  • The problem is, energy security is effectively at the heart of US projections of power. It also informs Russia’s tilt to supplying energy to China after Western sanctions hit, activity in the Yemen. I met a number of oil industry executives in 2003-2005 and they were exceptionally clear we went to war in Iraq because of energy security concerns over and above anything else. I remember one conversation on this matter with a CEO stood on their construction floor where they were building new drill bits which were ordered before the resolution was passed at the UN authorising the invasion.
  • Energy has huge social, economic and political meaning.

Theoretical Considerations – Domain, Range and Extensibility

  • Having explored the physical I want to step back a bit and think more abstractly before bringing these two threads back together and addressing speculative fiction’s coverage of energy more directly.
  • Energy is, in its purest sense – not dependent on people. The largest delivery mechanism of energy to the planet earth is the Sun, the second is our molten iron core. Neither of these need our input or can even be influenced by us.  
  • How does that come into culture and is it helpful where it does?
  • Most discussions about energy are filtered into common language designed to make them graspable. It’s that mechanism that more often than not leaves us unable to really grasp the neutrality of the science of energy. By which I mean we’re at its mercy not that it doesn’t matter.
  • For instance, Electron mass is ½ MeV. And the mass of that very famous particle because of which most people have heard  of CERN, the Higgs Particle is 125 GeV. Does this mean anything to anyone except physicists? If you tried to write a sci fi thriller about this where would you even begin?
  • How many calories have you eaten today? Most of us can’t parse that statement realistically without help from apps and information on the back of food containers. Why not? Because it’s hard, not because we’re dumb (although that’s often the underlying message of press coverage).
  • So forget asking what we mean by the horse power of your car? Or how much energy is there in the universe.
  • When thinking about how we can parse this into Sci Fiction, and perhaps into normal everyday language we should borrow an idea from mathematics about Domain, Range and Extensibility.
  • Energy is everywhere. This is its Domain
  • However, energy cannot be extracted from all things. Even if all work requires energy – this is its Range
  • Another way of saying this is as follows: not all types of energy are equally available to us (i.e. high energy photon which had 10Kcals of energy, enough to heat a cup of tea but no real way of harnessing it. Or when we burn petrol we don’t recoognise that the heat and noise oof the conversion are forms of lost energy which we’ve failed to capture).
  • We know energy is tough to harness and that laws of entropy mean there are ever diminishing returns for us. Carnot’s engine is learnt by undergrads but is not well known elsewhere. Yet it impacts what we can reasonably expect humanity to achieve. What energy can we expect to be able to harness? How can we do it and how do we cope with the possibility we will always be on the losing side of the equation?
  • These are questions not well addressed by a Science Fiction grounded in post scarcity economics. We tend to see worlds which have everything they need regardless of their energy system or we have apocalypse where there’s nothing (although they still somehow have enough to eat with some notable exceptions such as McCarthy’s superb The Road)
  • There is a religious impulse in this thinking – a strong desire to see one of the basics of a society which works as one where we have abundant energy so we can then focus on the surface elements rather than the infrastructure. You can see in many sci-fi texts (cf. Alita: Battle Angel) that the poor live among the infrastructure and the rich do not see it. In real life we are the rich in the West and we do not see the infrastructure of our energy consumption and so do not question either our position nor its impact on others except by waving our hands in their direction as if it’s their fault.
  • Further still, we are too often left with magical thinking in our forecasts about human energy consumption. Consider climate change, bitcoin and AI. I’m avoiding references here because I, too, am a writer and it’s just not done to highlight other people’s creative choices.
  • Mini-conclusion – energy is vitally important. Most people can articulate that but they can’t articulate why. They also have no grasp of what we mean by energy – be it theoretically or physically considered. People have no better idea what a barrel of oil can power, where it comes from or how many are produced a day than they do about HE photons or the impact of a gamma ray burst and its implications for a goldilocks zone within most galaxies.

Science Fiction – common flaws, notable successes

So now I want to discuss how all this scene setting influences the landscape of what we discuss in science fiction. We can all name the most common tropes:

  • Faster than light and other forms of space travel – Star Trek, Star Wars and any number of other texts such as Interstellar and Children of Time.
    • The flaws to this are beyond the lack of science supporting it.
    • The flaws are about the energy requirements and about how they could drive wars and conflict, cooperation and entirely new branches of science. c.f the energy requirements of the current writer’s favourite, the Alcubierre drive.
  • Cryptocurrencies – a new breed of thrillers and discussions from people like
    • Neal Stephenson, myself, Kim Stanley Robinson, Doctorow and Friedman
    • Bitcoin mining is energetically expensive and remains a poorly scaling store of value with no real economic application at this point despite its obvious libertarian political rationale – see the FT Alphaville blog for reams of articles on this point. Izabella Kaminska in particular.
  • Fusion – free energy. The Abyss! Space Opera.
    • It’s ok to completely ignore this stuff and just write soap. Personally, I’m not advocating we only see hard SF.
    • But sci fi can do so much more. It can present to us the challenge of energy and scarcity. Think about the Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi which is the stand out example of addressing these issues.
  • The AI – from 2001 to Diamond Age to Ancillary Justice
  • Construction and maintenance of Cityscapes – Lavie Tidhar in Central Station, Rendevous with Rama and SevenEves and Red Mars.
  • Production of Metamaterials – relatively poor examples of how new materials can change everything. Again, we end up looking at people like Stephenson but too often they’re macguffins rather than realistic looks at how new tech changes everything. By Light Alone by Adam Roberts is interesting.
  • The support of transhumanism – any Kurzweilian approach to humanity. Zero K by Delilo is a really strong mainstream example which crosses boundaries.

The thing is they rarely talk through the key technological and economic problems of these technologies because, most of the time the technology is magic – not necessarily even internally consistent.

  • After all, AGI is terribly expensive to run.
  • Who provides the power to maintain a brain in a computer?
  • Why mine for materials in space when the energy required to get there would out weight the benefits from what could be brought back to earth by orders of magnitude?
  • As we’re all aware, in the real world, pursuit of energy security drives politics. Science Fiction is all too often the preserve of a homogeneous (and by this we mean white) cultural artefact and so entirely misses the political and racial streams of energy security.

The Future – plausible, implausible, impossible

My thesis then is this: energy is hyperreal. It is too large and too broadly defined an idea to be grasped well, even by subject matter experts. Hence we see speculative fictions struggling with how we get from where we are today to other futures – we struggle with developing the idea of Asimov’s Future History when it comes to energy. Part of this is by the cultural/political design of neoliberal capitalism, part of it is simply the scale of the political energy economy is too large for people to grasp.

Our abiding energy myth in western democracy is about abundance. It’s so ubiquitous we don’t even have memes about it being added to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

We have no new myths about energy scarcity yet. No stories we tell of how we arrived as a post scarcity environment for some and not for others, how we fought wars to create this world and how those wars are going to be fought and fought again as long as there isn’t truly abundant energy for all.

Here’s a trio of ideas I’d love to see in the literature – stories presenting possible futures to us where these kinds of technology are present but are also central to the worlds we’re creating.

  • There’s already a burgeoning field of Energy Economics[5], [6], [7] with its own journals and conferences. This is an exciting real world development and its subjects of study are ready made for political science fiction. I really hope that given we’re developing a language and pattern of thought which actually addresses these issues today we will start to see stories picking up on this and bringing these ideas into the mainstream
  • Zero carbon footprints – the challenge of lifestyles which could accommodate this and the importance of deflationary economics – the conflict in the heart of capitalism against deflation. My own employer is working toward being carbon neutral – if large companies can do this then there is language and conflict to explore.
  • Deflationary economic systems – Nouriel Roubini interview on FT Alphachat

What can we do through literature?

As we see new language discussing how we get from here to there I truly hope speculative fiction develops stories about the journey and not just the aftermath.

Explore the challenges of developing new technologies which are fantastically energy hungry

What are the challenges for authors though? Economics of course – stories have to sell. But also audience tastes. Info dumping, political appetite and making a point all turn readers off.

But speculative fiction can change the dimensions of the Overton window to allow us to see discussions about the hidden infrastructure as normal, about peeling it back being what we do.

Additional references

https://www.frontier-economics.com/uk/en/sectors/energy/

https://www.nber.org/programs/eee/eee.html

http://www.biee.org/

https://www.nature.com/subjects/energy-economics

https://www.journals.elsevier.com/energy-economics


[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/21/business/21oil.html

[2] https://press.princeton.edu/titles/9686.html

[3] https://www.giga-hamburg.de/en/system/files/publications/wp120_maehler.pdf

[4] Political Research Quarterly, volume: 67 issue: 4, page(s): 769-782

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Energy_economics

[6] https://www.iaee.org/

[7] https://www.oxfordenergy.org/publication-category/energy-economics/?v=7516fd43adaa

Let the past die

I’m here to talk about The Last Jedi. Again. Like twelve months after everyone else stopped. Why? Because of this podcast from the Financial Times’ Alphachat series (which I totally recommend by the way). In Andrea Nagle draws an insight which hadn’t occurred to me: that conservatism in the States is under attack but not from the left. It is under attack from the Alt-Right.

She outlines how the Alt-Right’s (we can call them neofascists if you like) mantra has developed over the last decade and how one of its defining features is a break from traditional conservatism. This break occurs because a new generation of right leaning people look at conservatism and see it capitulating each and every time it’s been challenged over the last thirty years. They see the only way to shore up and overturn the losses is to discard that form of conservatism and create something new.

Not only that, but this becomes a call to ideological radicalism rather than an incremental movement towards old ideas. No longer hold to compromise positions but simply develop new principles (communicated as old principles because the strength of the MYTHs of conservatism remain as seductive as ever). These principles become hills to die on and, if the chance occurs, to skewer others on as well. Gone are fiscal probity – in comes racism, anti-immigration. Discussions about PURITY (and for that see Mary Douglas’s excellent Purity and Danger for a clear explanation of why this is such a powerful myth).

A great place for these kinds of myths to reform and take new shape is among populations that have created ideas about being under siege. In technical terms they’ve become sectarian. Evangelical Christianity is a superb example of this in the US (and increasingly in the UK). See this superb long piece on the relationship between the two in the US. I don’t agree with it all, but the central insight that Evangelicals have entirely lost touch with the core tenets of Jesus and swapped them out for a fin de siecle long defeat narrative is spot on.

The above is all quite academic. I want to tie this into a central theme – why we shouldn’t laugh at Kylo Ren. Nor should we dismiss him. And by that I mean we shouldn’t laugh at Brexiters, nor Trumpists, nor dismiss them.

The second point should be obvious by now. Kylo Ren runs the First Order. Trump is President, Brexiters are possibly going to get the very worst of their wet dreams come true. Dismissing them is like dismissing the massive great hole in the side of the Titanic. SO for the rest of this, read Trump or Alt-Right, or Fascist or even Boris Johnson into every mention of Kylo Ren.

Kylo Ren is a terrifying opponent because he was born to power. He was given every chance to have empathy for others, to do good in the world. At each step he’s mixed with those who HAVE done good in the world yet somehow has decided the world works differently to every model he’s been shown.

As well as having had every privilege, he’s also very wealthy. He’s had mentoring along the lines of conservatism. Snoke, Hux and others have helped him see a coherent view of the world in opposition to those who he never clicked with. His own internal struggles somehow make more sense to him when he sees it from Snoke’s point of view. Yet they still lose Starkiller base. They still can’t defeat the common people and their republic – even after totally dismantling all the protections, systems and ways of expressing themselves. The eradication of the new republic still doesn’t let them win!

So he thinks and realises the old ways, the conservatives, can never win. They need to go. When Kylo Ren says ‘destroy the past’ he doesn’t mean destroy the republic, although he certainly thinks they need to go. He’s actually talking about the First Order. Not only does he kill Snoke but when Hux disagrees with him (quite sensibly), he publicly assaults and humiliates him.

Kylo Ren is not a child throwing temper tantrum. He is not ineffectual or mad or stupid. He is only absurd because he’s destroying conventions we’ve accepted as right and normal. It is surreal but it’s not stupid.

Those around Kylo Ren don’t last long. But Ren doesn’t need them to. He’s building something new and part of the vision of that is chaotic and constructive destruction. He’s bought into the idea of blood shed makes everyone stronger and if it’s those around him in service of his vision that’s probably about as strong a message as he can send – we are ALL to be sacrificed to build a new world.

Further still – he knows he’s the only one to really understand what’s he’s trying to do, so he must endure, he must be in control lest the less pure, the less insightful water down his vision. When Trump Christians say they prefer Trump to Pence (an Arch- evangelical) they back it up with ‘because Pence is too nice to do what needs to be done’.

After a while his people are suspicious over everyone but him.

His failures don’t matter except to his enemies. His successes matter to everyone.

Kylo Ren is a perfect embodiment of the enemies liberal and social democracies face right now. He is an uncaring populist, a demagogue and a man with a vision most of us can’t begin to comprehend because of the horror true implementation implies.

The Last Jedi also contains some strong arguments for how to defeat people like this both in popular opinion but also practically.

Lesson 1 – Luke’s fight with Ren. Luke doesn’t fight Ren. He simply distracts him while everyone else organises. He stands up to Ren but does not engage him on his own terms. He let Ren wash himself out while his own people look on in horror at his foolishness.

Lesson 2 – the survival of the rebels creates a MYTH of overcoming an enemy who wants to destroy the world the rest of us have built.

Lesson 3 – sacrifice – Admiral Holdo’s sacrifice to stop the enemy fleet is something NONE of Ren’s team would ever consider doing. They would sacrifice others for themselves and their ends but never themselves for others. If we want the world we have now to continue and to improve Holdo is a massive lesson for us about how we build it.

Lesson 4 – The detour to Canto. It’s absolutely vital to the story because it shows how others prosper on our suffering. It shows life under fascism it shows that the rich don’t care if you suffer and they SHOULD NOT be idolised. Celebrities are an opiate we should put in a bin and burn far from home.

Lesson 5 – Mavericks get you killed. Don’t rely on those who think they know best when they have no plan or that plan relies on defying everything we’ve learned. Everything Poe Dameron does gets people killed. Everything he does fails and from it he takes that he’s succeeded. Until he learns he HAS to work with others everything he touches turns to shit. It’s vital we learn this lesson because we, as a culture, have swallowed the idea of ‘big men’ being the arbiters of history and being our heroes who make everything right again. It’s the biggest piece of bullshit going and if we fall for it, like Poe, we’re really just weakened shadows of Kylo Ren.

I maintain The Last Jedi remains the best Star Wars film. If only because it’s got everything in it I want about the politics of now and is, ultimately, a message of hope about how nobodies like Finn, Rose and Rey can make a difference.

There are no easy solutions

WARNING – I’m cross and may well also be imperious and condescending in what follows.

Hard problems are hard. They can be complex, sophisticated and often intractable. I work in an environment where projects typically take months or years from start to finish and involve dozens of people from multiple groups – many of which have conflicting aims and agendas. My main role is to bring these people together and keep them together throughout the time necessary to get complicated, difficult projects done and to find ways to reconcile many situations where there’s no good answer, where someone doesn’t get their way (or multiple people).

I say the above not to sound great but because my experience of the world is framed from this kind of experience I tend to assume everyone else views the world this way. I realise, if only from watching people’s responses to the Brexit process that most people don’t live this kind of experience.

This week Hansard published a report suggesting that a growing number of people would settle for a strong leader, a benign dictator if you will and after I’d stopped despairing I wondered why people might be feeling like that.

I was reminded of a number of conversations I’ve had about how parliament has operated in the first quarter of 2019. Many, many people I come across are despairing of how the Brexit process has gone – they lament the foolishness, the self-centredness and apparent dimwittedness of our parliamentarians.

I want to propose a counterpoint to this – as part of a larger discussion about difficult subjects being difficult. From my perspective parliament has done exactly what it should have done through this process. It has taken on what is a very, very hard problem – how to deliver something most people don’t want and just as many people don’t understand and a similar number can’t say what they want. In taking this on, Parliament has, in my view, adequately reflected the country and the constitution has performed admirably. It has held off an executive which has authoritarian tendencies (if one is being generous one might suggest this is driven by frustration at the challenge of the problem). It has been unable to make up its mind – which if one reflects on just how close the vote was is pretty reasonable. It has broken along the lines of the issue – not ideology (although that has driven individual pockets of action). All in all, our system has delivered to us exactly what it’s designed for – representation. You might think it should deliver what you want, or perhaps ANY decision – but that would be its failure.

BUT I think there’s more to say on this. Brexit, like many technically hard problems (and I mean that in the philosophical sense in which there may be no answer we can derive that we can know to be optimal or even satisfactory) is a challenge for which there isn’t an easy answer.

I have witnessed over the last few months a growing demand that someone ‘DO SOMETHING ALREADY’. I want to push back against you if this is your feeling. You are wrong to ask for this. Not only that, but you are endangering the very systems designed to ensure we make the best decisions we can. You might complain about the people engaging in solving our problems as being venal, corrupt, imperfect or worse. Fine, that’s probably true to a greater or lesser degree. However, you are wrong to suppose those elements are the sole driving forces behind the apparent chaos of the process we are witnessing.

We are witnessing this process through a glass darkly. 24 news cycles might suggest we have insight into what’s going on but we really don’t. We’re as far from seeing what’s being calculated as we ever were. Distance has been replaced by obfuscation – leaving us right where we started before continuous coverage. It is a mistake to think that because you’ve read about it you have any real idea of what’s behind decisions presented to us.

Secondly, people are flawed. However, they’re no more flawed than you. If you think otherwise, I’ll show you someone with the really dangerous flaw of not having any self-awareness. The systems we generally agree make for good decision making factor these in – not to rule those foibles out but to ensure they have as little impact as possible. All people try to find ways around these rules (whether you’re illegally downloading music, speeding or deciding on a hostile immigration environment, the calculus is strikingly similar). The rules exist to hold us back, yes, but they also help us avoid the mistakes others have made or foreseen could occur without them.

Thirdly – solving hard problems takes time. No one person can resolve them, no simple answer will unlock them and no short-cut will deliver what you want without hurting everyone else. The art of diplomacy is helping everyone win when everyone knows they won’t like such an outcome. It’s why negotiating trade deals, climate change agreements and large commercial contracts take years to close. People work hard throughout that period in small incremental steps not because they’re slacking but because THIS IS THE ONLY WAY to success.

The excuse that people are tired of the process is really an admission that they themselves aren’t really capable of engaging in the same level of depth. At best it’s a failure of imagination wrt how difficult problems can be and at worst it’s an arrogance nearly always unsupported by that person’s own life achievements (and yes, I am being deliberately dismissive).

The complaint that those involved are morons…well it’s harder to argue that’s at least partly true. However, it is also often a shorthand for saying the problem’s simple and we should get on with it…by which we mean the world should like we want it to and no one else matters. This is a selfish, shortsighted view and one I have time for than being ‘tired’ of the whole thing.

The idea that simply refusing to compromise will win the day? Sigh. It does explain why so many families have kith and kin to whom they’ve not spoken to for years. Even if you can get away with such relationship destroying misery…well good luck next time and good luck when you need someone else to aid you.

So…long story short. Please relish this process, or at the very least understand it is very, very hard and what we’re witnessing are our systems working very hard to manage that somehow. British democracy is working well. British politics is being disrupted and tired ideologies on both left and right are being torn to shreds. These are all good things and we would really run a mile from morons who say ‘if we had a monarch in charge it would be better.’

I like open democracy. I dislike monarchies of all forms and the Sultan of Brunei should remind us just how dangerous they really are. Soooo, could we all agree that open democracies are worth cherishing and protecting from their detractors?

The alternative Non-fiction authors list

So this has been a challenge. I’ve struggled – realising a little about my preferences for non-fiction and, frankly, the absolute dearth of mainstream non-fiction by POC that isn’t somehow about race or the impact of colonialism. I probably need to say that when I think of non-fiction I don’t mean self help or biography. I mean either skirting the academe or thoroughly enmeshed within it. I mean philosophy, science, mathematics, history etc.

I googled ‘author’ for the picture for this post…the entry is a white male…because of course it ****ing is. However, this isn’t a post where I rant about the racist skew of search engines. It’s not even a post where I rant about how the academe is basically skewed towards white people (men) or how we can lament how it’s easier for a white person to get commissioned to write about non-white issues than it is for those being written about. For instance, I can’t/won’t write about Henrietta Lack’s because it’s a white person who was entrusted to write her story (even if, hint, hint, you should totally read it).

I promised a list of non-white authors who wrote non-fiction I, personally, think you need to encounter. Some of this is inevitably about race and empire but much of it is not.

Man, beast and zombies by Kenan Malik

There ain’t no black in the union jack by Paul Gilroy

Life on the Edge: the coming age of quantum biology by Jim Al-Khalili

Why I stopped talking to white people about race by Renni Eddo Lodge

I know why the caged bird sings by Maya Angelou

Orientalism by Edward Said

The Emperor of all maladies by Siddartha Mukherjee

What young India wants by Chetan Bhagat

What I talk about when I talk about running by Haruki Murakami

New Daughters of Africa, edited by Margaret Busby

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

Cosmopolitanism by Kwame Anthony Appiah

Lastly, and because he had a massive impact on my life: The wretched of the earth by Franz Fanon

Captain Marvel has a problem

The problem is not with the film – which is an excellent entry into the series. The problem is with the standards it’s being held to.

Apparently she’s ‘not emotional enough’, ‘not vulnerable enough’, there’s not enough interiority, there’s not enough for us to know who she is as a person. These criticisms have come from both sides of the aisle and a surprising number of them have come from people who you’d think would take a moment to listen to how they sound when read out loud.

I’ve read that it’s no Black Panther, as if every film has to be that one (and let’s set aside the issues with that comparison for a moment – we’ll come back to it).

At the same time she’s ‘too powerful’, telling girls they can take on ‘200lb men’ and therefore has no dramatic tension.

My response to these criticisms can effectively be summed up as ‘sexist much?’

I did think about taking each of the, by turns, more or less subtle sexist tropes reviewers and commentators have rolled out to justify why this can’t possibly deserve a bunch of plaudits but hey, I’m going to have a rant instead.

Carol Danvers doesn’t need to impress you. She doesn’t need to prove herself. She’s a character with a military background who’s fought her way to being taken seriously by being disciplined, risk taking, self controlled, brilliant and defiant. She hasn’t done it by taking on your advice about being personable, vulnerable or seeking to please decision makers. One of the most insidious forms of control men use on women (and whites on non-whites) is to demand that not only do they do it better than their peers but that they have to be nice and never get angry while they do it. Don’t get angry when you’re treated bad, don’t object to dismissal, don’t vent when the mediocre are promoted ahead of you or when the very design of the system prefers others. The risk of being emotional (or at least showing how the system being stacked against you makes you feel) is always weaponised against you.

‘Ah,’ they say. ‘We were right to distrust you, you’re clearly not in control, you’re clearly a risk.’ And when you’re pleasing, they say ‘well they’re eager to please, they probably can’t stand up when they need to.’ The structure is to provide no route to winning trust because it was never going to be given in the first place.

Carol Danvers achieved being a fighter pilot despite that environment which the film makers deliver without being ‘on point’, without sticking in your face.

And what about Tony Stark? Or Thor? Overpowered much? Check. Brooding idiots much? Check. Refusing to be vulnerable? Check. Called out on it….oh, is that tumbleweed?

The double standards about Captain Marvel are everywhere (except for the wonderful Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo who review it as if it’s any other film). It’s dispiriting to see women demanding Carol Danvers display an emotional core they don’t ask of Bruce Banner or Steve Rogers. It’s less surprising but just as annoying to see men objecting to her power, to the fact she’s not epitomising some socially constructed feminine ideal (and if otherwise utterly brilliant Wonder Woman has a fault, apart from it’s unnecessary third act, it’s this – Gal Gadot’s body is as much the star of the film for the camera as is the character).

This film is political – it says women don’t need mens’ permission to be themselves, they don’t need society’s permission and they don’t need other womens’ permission either. They can be good, bad, strong or weak all by themselves.

Is Captain Marvel any good? For me? Yes, I think it’s up there with Thor Ragnarok. It’s not about men struggling to find their purpose, it’s not about bromancial conflict, it’s not about who’s got the bigger dick powers. She’s not a genius, she’s not a billionaire, she’s not a member of a royal family and nor is she destined for greatness. Like Captain America, she’s someone who fought hard for what was important to her, struggled with being accepted BECAUSE of what she wanted in life and overcame on her own terms. It is the best origin story since Captain America – the first avenger and in large part because it follows many of the same beats. However, it doesn’t need a love interest like Steve did and she isn’t actualised in finding a lover to give her meaning.

It’s also about imperialism and in that sense it’s a direct counter to Black Panther. One of my problems with Black Panther is that it’s basically the same old ‘a son ruling by divine right has a crisis but overcomes his enemy to establish that he is the right person to RULE EVERYONE ELSE AS A TYRANT.

Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse and now Captain Marvel have both demonstrated a new story – the everyperson overcoming because they are who they are and that’s like us (mostly). You may be the type of person who wants ‘the special’ to rule over us or prove they’re the right person to be in charge but me? I like democracy thanks and I like being able to think for myself and change the world around me. Hey, you probably dislike The Last Jedi for the same reasons – because a nobody changes the world and the maverick (man) bungles it every step along the way. If you are, please let me have your vote because you don’t really want it do you.

In terms of what the film says to my daughter Captain Marvel is better than Black Panther. In terms of what it says to my son, it’s better than Black Panther.

As a film? I think it’s really hard to compare them – they’re not the same thing. One is a large sprawling dynastic epic the other a small, almost parochial story about the right to be who we want to be. It’s like asking which of The Magnificent Seven and Ghostbusters is the better war movie.

Go see this movie – it has amazing role models (and I don’t just mean for women). Go see it because it’s full of joy. Go see it because, frankly, I want to see more movies like this and I want to rub it in the faces of the giant man babies finding ever more spurious and tiny handed reasons to object to anyone other than them being portrayed as godlike.

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