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Stewart Hotston

Writing, Editing, Watching and Reading

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Influence

Democracy isn’t broken but the ships sailing on it are sinking

I’ll start this post by saying it’s not about Brexit. It’s not about the ERG’s contemptuous hankering after full throttled no holds barred capitalism to feather their already overflowing beds. It’s not about the Labour party’s utter lack of morals while in opposition – being populist and opportunistic while appearing to have no real sense of what it means to represent the people who vote for them.

Oh no. It’s about about what the hell the above means for us one year from now, five years from now and when my children are old enough to think about voting for themselves.

I contend that democracy remains one of the greatest inventions of humanity. Representative democracy across two chambers with an independent judiciary and free press puts it up there with the ECHR and the US Constitution. Human society is an amazing thing – a repository for our learning, for checks and balances which can bring benefits to everyone that no individual could ever accrue for themselves (despite what baffling morons like Ayn Rand believe).

Gav Smith recently posted how no one would ever vote for the conservatives again. He’s probably partially right. There’s a discussion there about how, even if that were the case, Labour would find it hard to win a majority. 

The question I want to ask is this: what are the current political parties for?

Labour’s history is amazing – its genesis and the ideas behind it were ground breaking and challenging to the whole of society. 

Conservatism, even if we can afford to be a bit more jaded about it also has a history well worth thinking through carefully and not dismissing out of hand. The world looked very different 50 and 100 years ago.

However, I would contend their peak impact, socially and culturally, is past. All major parties are on the decline – both in terms of membership but also because the things they care about more vociferously appear to be of decreasing relevance to people like you and me. 

Stated policies are often unachievable (despite being popular) and then abandoned. People demand honesty but then crucify those who make mistakes. Perhaps most difficult is that most people don’t belong to political parties, don’t attend meetings and don’t act on behalf of those parties even if they are members. 

However, this isn’t people’s fault. That would be to mistake parties having a god given right to exist. They don’t. Parties that don’t represent us should die. Actually, they should be taken out and shot before they start doing us harm because poorly populated parties become the province of the extremist and the incompetent – often because those two types of character find meaning and safety within the identity of political parties. 

We’ve seen, with the rise of populism (and all the incoherence associated with it), a genuine disgust over the ineffectiveness, hypocrisy and perceived corruption of the major parties. If populism tells us one thing worth knowing it’s that our major parties are dead and they just don’t know it yet. 

So back to the question – where do we go from here? With increasingly damanging and irrelevant major parties the challenge for the ordinary person is who to vote for. Do I vote for a party which doesn’t represent me (for instance, I have witnessed outright antisemitism in the labour party and more generalised classism, sexism and racism among conservatives), hold my nose and hope it is, on balance ok or is there another alternative?

I’d love to see the rise of an alternative, centrist, party. One that supported universal basic income, the rights of entrepreneurs, scientific and social innovation and the protection of our most needy. Who wouldn’t? However, of the recent attempts to see parties like this launched every one has disappeared without trace. 

We appear to be stuck with two major parties (and the SNP and LD as minorities) because the system they are a part of gives them some kind of vulcan death grip on airtime, funding and organisation. Yet I’d say there’s an equally important reason why nothing’s growing up in the middle – because we, as a society, have stopped congregating together, stopped having common enough experiences (in work especially) to provide the necessary fertile ground for a new party to emerge based on common understanding and policies. 

This leaves me bewildered. Not because I don’t understand the reasons for why we don’t appear to be able to replace our current sinking ships with something better suited to the modern society we live in but because I don’t see any way to replace them without some major upheavals in the way we live as British citizens. 

Let me put this another way. I’m a natural labour voter. In principle at least. But I can’t vote for Corbyn. I also can’t vote for a party which refuses to act as effective opposition. So who do I vote for? 

I don’t want to vote for the Conversatives for reasons I hope the utter farce they’ve made of Brexit makes obvious. Indeed, their average voter is literally not going to exist within two decades, leaving them quite literally dead in the water. 

I don’t want to vote for the Lib Dems or the Greens who are basically ideologically hollow and unforgivably naive respectively and can’t vote for the SNP (although I’m not especially happy about voting for any nationalist party). 

Let me lay out some of the issues I wish would form more substantial parts of policy:

  1. How we fund increasing social costs with an aging population while admitting this may well be a circle than can’t be squared
  2. How we look after our weakest most vulnerable people rather than assuming they’re scroungers and chancers
  3. Climate Change – God we need serious politicians on this and literally anyone other than Lord Lawson
  4. The labour market increasingly appears to be operating as a panopticon with no rights for average workers (and certainly no funding to take on abusive employers). We appear to be volunteering for this rather than challenging the rights of employers to police our morality
  5. Public space is disappearing faster than during the enclosures but we say nothing as those representing us close down our rights to congregate and travel freely with no accountability or right of challenge
  6. Law and order. Science says a lot of things about this but we’re stuck with firing world leading scientists who dare to speak the truth about drugs, incarceration and institutional racism
  7. Access to law – legal aid is a vital component of an independent judiciary. Too many people can’t access legal redress because they can’t afford to it. This MUST change. If we believe all people should be subject to the same laws we must invest in a system that allows it

There is no party focussing on this. They may have policies, I’m sure I’m going to get people mansplaining to me about the party they’re signed up to. Guys…I’m pretty smart. I’m also pretty widely read. I understand what’s being said and if you can point to where these are actually being implemented I’ll sign up. Seriously. 

The title of this post was about sinking ships. If it’s not obvious by now I think our parties are those ships and they’re doomed. yet there aren’t other ships to transfer onto. Which leaves me with a huge conundrum – democracy only works if the demos participates. Yet without a compelling set of representatives many people will opt out rather than feel compromised. They see their representatives not representing them and they feel robbed of power. This isn’t apathy – this is powerlessness. Because we’re less organised than before (even if more connected) we tend to lack the ability to challenge our representatives effectively when they stray from what we want them to reflect of our views. In a world where most of our representatives are disconnected from the challenges we face (mainly because so many of them are independently wealthy, privileged and highly educated) it’s an easy route to take to turning away from them completely. 

Can democracy reinvent itself with new, compelling, reasons to participate? I really, really hope so because right now I can’t see what comes after the current ships sink. 

My own prognoses for this would be as follows:

  1. double the number of MPs – the original number was set to be able to realistically engage with local communities. This was when the population was half the size. Ergo, more MPs actually means better representation
  2. Double their salary. Crikey – there’s just a few hundred of them. We spend more money on keeping the crinkle cut yellow buffoon safe when he comes visiting. It’s a drop in the ocean and, if we truly value democracy, we should be prepared to invest in the system that keeps it working in our favour. It would also mean that we can attract good people from backgrounds who can’t afford to give up other careers (including looking after their children) for what might be just five years in office. 
  3. Create a democratic second chamber with longer terms (say 10 or 15 years) which operates a little like the US Senate only without the gerrymandering. It has shown itself to be a very effective check and balance on the short-termism of the parliamentary executive.

I suspect the above would help only a little. The bigger issue is how we develop new parties who reflect what the majority believe and desire rather than listening to the extremes on both sides. I’m not suggesting referenda – please save me from the tyranny majority rule. I’m suggesting hoping, praying for a system where my representatives reflect my positions more than half the time rather than substantially less. 

If the above doesn’t happen a democratic deficit we’re only just now beginning to observe will grow like a disease, eating at the bones of our society until we’re left ripe for authoritarianism of one form or another and we’ll be defenceless to resist. 

An angry writer

Brexit was a wake-up call for me. Trump came later but I still wasn’t done grieving for the world I knew by then. I have to say I was so angry I didn’t know what to do with myself. The Brexit results – 24th June 2016 – were delivered on my birthday, so as someone who loves mixing with other cultures, values the freedom to move throughout Europe and who believes in the rule of law (and that law serves us and helps reign in our worst impulses) the vote to leave symbolised so much more than the catastrophe that’s unfolded since.

This is a long way of saying that what I’m interested in writing about has changed.

Authors such as Jesmyn Ward, Hari Kunzru, Paul Beatty, Colson Whitehead and Octavia Butler have taken me on a journey – and there’s probably no better phrase than they’ve awakened me. I feel like I’ve often felt the revolutionary impulse, but given I’m a banker with a family and house you could be very much forgiven for thinking if I did have it, I’ve certainly not lived it.

Richard Sennett writes about this in his book, The Corrosion of Character, where he says that in a highly regulated work environment, we no longer have to have moral expressions because so much of what we do is decided for us. I agree to some extent – the main issue for me is that the possibility of expressing our morality is shrunk to simply what we think in private with it taking a HUGE energy to get us over the threshold that leads us to act beyond the routines we have in everyday life.

The last two novels I’ve written have had anger at the heart of them. The first is looking at the cost of being free in contemporary society – what do we give up for convenience and what happens to us when that convenience is used against us? My thesis is that we’re so enmeshed in the web of making daily life more bearable (in the face of intense pressures to work and perform according to society’s norms) that when we do have to go against that flow it can unravel our lives almost instantaneously.

Zygmunt Bauman writes about how there is an implicit morality running through this conformity and that if we do deviate it’s seen as being a sign there’s something wrong with us rather than with the thing we’re fighting. In other words, as victims or resistors – we are seen as the problem – especially if it’s the mainstream we’re struggling against.

My current WIP is about slavery – openly about slavery and its evils both for the owners and the enslaved. It’s about why slavery ends, why it persists and questions whether equity for the enslaved can be achieved peacefully.

I’ve also written three short stories for publication in the last year. ALl three have been shot through with anger – in the characters, at the worlds they live in and with what options are available to them.

All of the above deal with injustice of some sort explicitly. I would wager it’s utterly impossible to write about the micro-aggressions that make live incrementally more stressful for less privileged people meaningfully in a book as simply part of the story rather than the driving narrative. The refusal to give up a seat, the cat calling, the drive by racist chant, the being followed around a super store or the soft exclusion from social activities. When writing, one feels the need to make the point, so larger, more obvious issues tend to get focussed on, but it’s the micro-aggressions that frame the entire debate; they provide the psychic landscape for the larger events to occur without shocking us into action.

Consider the murder to Kamal Khashoggi – it’s been shocking but in part only because we’re aware of it after a masterful media campaign by the Turkish government. Don’t get me wrong – what has happened is absolutely awful – but check out the Committee to Protect Journalist‘s project and you’ll see literally hundreds of murdered reporters just from 2018 alone. Where is the outrage for their spent lives?

Through this process I’ve realised that the writing that most excites me carries a sense of righteous anger with it. Anger at in justice, anger at oppression.

Don’t get me wrong – it also carries hope that we can overcome, that we can keep fighting back the darkness in our souls, but first ANGER.

I’m just plotting out a novel (in between working on my actual WIP) and it will be explicitly about truth and why we want journalists to shut the hell up with their insistence on shining a light into dark places. It’s obvs sci fi – but it’s also obvs about who we are right now, today.

I don’t think anger can be sustained without it becoming bitterness – so I want to channel it into my writing and into, more active perhaps, forms of protest. But I want to persuade others to act, not simply act myself and it seems to me that putting stories out there which remind us we should be outraged, that help up empathise with others and which show us evil can be fought back and the good fought FOR might be the most useful thing I can do.

Please, please, please go to the CPJ’s website above and look at their resources/advocacy requests. If one of you does this I’ll feel like I’ve done something to make the world a better place today.

Why identity matters to us all but may stop you selling your stuff to others

My last three long works have, or are going to feature a multiplicity of genders, races and that’s by design. On the completed side, there’s a hard science fiction novella featuring an all female cast and a novel with multiple sexual identities across the main characters. My current WIP is a long work – which is based in a society where gender fluidity is the norm and slaves are identified because they’re non-gendered.

I’m happy with these stories, love what they’ve allowed me to explore and I’ve deliberately chosen to construct them in this manner.

I’ve adopted this approach because I want to tell stories with these characters at the heart of what I’m writing – to explore their challenges and, in no small part, to allow me to work through the issues such ideas bring up. I’m not preaching to anyone about it and, to be honest, I’ve worked pretty hard to make these characters meaningful in their own sense – so that it’s not a side show that all the characters are female, or that there are people of every skin colour present. They’re there because they are – not to make a point, not to fulfil a stereotype or satisfy an agenda.

Yet this week, as I prepared for a number of panels in the upcoming FCon, I was reminded by one of the panel members as they discussed their experience of the world of publishing, just how hard it is to get from the word on the page to the audience. Furthermore, just how much hostility there is for all of the ideas I’m loving writing about. Homophobia, transphobia, plain old racism and deeply rooted sexism and misogyny appear to be present at almost every gate to getting stories out there (except self-publishing, because then you can just get on with it).

There’s a reason why non-white people are voted off Strictly and it’s the same reason why marketing people are wary of stories that are going to exclude possible audiences – because it hurts sales. It’s collusion with those forms of oppression – collusion with those ignorant hateful attitudes for sure, but it’s something else too.

Poor sales mean businesses stop making money and then people lose their jobs and whatever progressive hopes and ideas they had lose their channel into the public debate.

You can hate gatekeepers because they are the unwilling (I hope) face of society’s wider nastiness – they’re the people we see – the casting agents wanting young beautiful (by their standards) women to portray having sex with maverick older white men as the dominant picture of success. Literary agents who only want fantasy stories about the orphaned wunderkind who comes along to ‘magic/assassin/mythical’ school and beats everyone at their own game and changes the world within a context of hetero-normative relationships and maintaining the status quo of those in power…again.

Yet they are just that – gatekeepers – they understand the calculus and often, regardless of their personal preferences, are completely powerless to affect any change.

Do I wish they were braver? Of course I do (and the completed works of my own I’ve listed above have found homes), but when being brave gets your head chopped off does that have any point? Sometimes I think yes – better to resist fascists than capitulate. However, other times I think better to make small compromises on the promise of making the other side move at the same time. Sometimes not ceding the floor is the right thing to do just as much as sometimes you have to rip the other side’s face off or die trying (metaphorically of course, although I’m a sword fighter…so…I think it’s probably ok to punch nazis since they want to stuff me in a gas chamber).

I’m not going to stop writing stories with themes that I’m passionate about – with characters that I deliberately want to see from all edges of society who aren’t secretly super powered divinely ordained kings of old (which is why, incidentally The Last Jedi is brave enough to kick your faces in – who the hell wants to discover the galaxy’s fate is actually in the hands of a divinely chosen single fricking family??? I thought we were done with divine right…right?)

However, I think I need to acknowledge that many people out there aren’t going to want to read them – because I don’t judge my cis or trans characters. I don’t tell you that there’s a moral choice between hetero, homosexual or other identity. I’m interested in what those perspectives tell us about who we are for their own sake.

I wish I knew how to say this better. Sometimes people want to be homemakers. Sometimes they want to be part of a team and sometimes they want to self destruct. It’s these nuances that make writing (and living) so interesting. They don’t always fit in with the dominant narratives our society feeds us as ‘natural’ but screw that – shouldn’t we be questioning what we believe is natural, shouldn’t we approach our comfort zones and disrupt them? Isn’t that part of the point of fiction?

I hear the ‘I just want to be entertained’ argument a lot. Generally that’s code for ‘I want to escape to a fantasy that suits my prejudices’, which is of course why so many people hated TLJ – because it punctured the idea that maverick men can save the universe alone.

I’ve had this discussion with my kids – that films should make us FEEL something. That we should be wary of being manipulated by how other people tell stories but we should remain open to being moved to wonder, sadness, joy, despair and rage. Stories that deliver us out the other side having only confirmed our unspoken prejudices are, generally, unrepresentative and regressive (and I’ll debate that with you all day long) – stories that leave us washed out, excited, exhilarated, worried, scared, hungry and angry – those are the ones worth something.

I hope to write those stories. Sometimes I think I manage it. Regardless of that, I hope you can be brave enough to buy stories that aren’t obviously about people like you, that aren’t showing you nothing but a blurred out mirror with only the bits you like reflecting back.

Why? because then my friends who write together with those buy, market and publish those stories will be able to justify changing the world – because you’ll have done it first.

GUEST POST: on the NHS by Dave Palfreyman

I generally avoid talking about Brexit, I don’t consider myself an expert, there are many more educated on the subject than I. what I can talk about is the NHS. with 24 years service I’ve seen a lot of changes over the years and managed many transformation processes. Like everyone else in the UK I am also a user of it as much as I’m an employee of it.

The brainchild of Aneurin Bevan, then Deputy leader of the Labour party in 1948, the NHS is now in the top five largest employers worldwide, it rubs shoulders with the US Department of Defence, McDonalds, Walmart, and the Chinese Army. We treat something like 1 million patients every 36 hours. It costs us approx. £2.4billion per week to do that. Those who are good at maths will have already worked out that this is about £125billion a year. That is some serious money.

The Health budget in 2016-17 was 19% of the national expenditure so the government of the day understandably want to make it as efficient and effective as possible.  The single biggest problem that we the NHS face is that of constant demands for reform and scrutiny. We have no issue with scrutiny. We should seek to improve our game, but reform, dear gods, another one? The problem is that we never stop getting reformed. The NHS reals from reform after reform after reform, like a punch drunk boxer. staff constantly have to deal with reversed decision making that leaves them feeling uncertain and vulnerable. Not an ideal situation to be in when you have others to look after.

We spend millions on change every year. The costs associated with investigations and reports from Francis report, the Cavendish report,  the Keogh report and the Berwick report etc, make your eyes water.

Right First time. That’s one of the many ethos’ of the NHS to which we aspire to, but sadly despite our best efforts, we occasionally fall short. We waste millions a year on dispensing medication that does not get used and has to be thrown away, supplies that are past their best before date gets destroyed despite still being in a sterile packaging. We lose hundreds if not thousands of hours on missed appointments, waiting lists though significantly better than two years ago are still pretty high for some services. more so when you talk about children and adolescent mental health services, because its funding is peanuts by comparison. Trying to get appointment with the GP is a nightmare and we the patient often feel like we are not listened to leading to frustration and anger.

We are often told the NHS has too many managers, yet the Kings Fund analysis suggests we have has less than is required for this size of company, particularly given the complexity of health care.,  Cost improvement savings are often born by the management teams rather than the front line services. Twice I have “taken one for the team”, and agreed to be redeployed to protect front line staff and services putting my livelihood on the line for sustained service delivery.

When we as customers are not happy we complain. When it comes to the NHS  we demand that our MPs sort it out, who then demand reform, and around we go again.

What’s in it for me?  Well, the flag ship service obviously is its critical care departments, including good old A&E. If you are critically injured you can expect the best possible treatment. The NHS will do its utmost  in trying to save a life no matter the cost. After that, the NHS offers a bewildering array of services from regular health screening to palliative care, and everything in between. We have become all things to all people. It is the envy of the world, and we are proud to be number 1 in a list of the top 10 health services in the world.  But it comes with a hefty price tag as I have already said.

Paying for it long term is a constant issue for the government, and the NHS.  recently the NHS Confederation has said it needs an increase of five percent per year to meet the demands currently placed upon it, and none of the parties in the last election proposed those sort of numbers. That big red bus was nothing more than a figment of our imagination.

The House of Lords NHS sustainability committee in 2017 said we need a 2.4% increase just to stay in line with current inflation. Over the last few years we’ve had about 1 – 1.5% I think we got .4% this year.

So what is the answer? Well the simple answer is if we want a free health service like the one we are familiar with then we have to pay for it in taxation, possibly a further few pennies in the pound. We could reduce the amount of services we currently get for free, and pay for them through private health insurance, this already happens with dentistry, and most social care. Or we could just scrap everything except critical care.  That would certainly put a lot more money in the government’s spending pot. But that does not help older people that have retired and have no money. We would see mortality figures rising sharply over winter.  I believe the UK does want an NHS and it is prepared to pay for it, so we are stuck with option 1.

Long term funding not just for the next 5 years needs a consistent sustained increase to remain offering the services we currently are able to access. We have been cutting for so long that services are failing and failings at best mean long  delays or appointments getting cancelled. At worst it could, and has led to failure of care that has had catastrophic consequences to peoples lives.

After all that what’s the conclusion?

Yes more money would be helpful,  but that’s only half the story. we the NHS recognise that we are not perfect. Sadly we are prone to human failings, however we make every effort to learn from our mistakes and attempt to prevent them happening again. We should be accountable to the government for the delivery of public services but we need a buffer that protects us from the eb and flow of political manoeuvrings so we have time to make sense of the latest round of changes we’ve just gone through.

What really is not helpful is another reform. Please, no more. A cross party governance process that has a single vision and direction with some stability  would give us a chance to consolidate the changes that are constantly being imposed so that we can develop and improve. Consider the NHS as an oil tanker, which you are asking us to manoeuvre like a speed boat. Go easy, handle it with care, after all its 70 years old you know.

 

We need to talk about race

I’ve just finished the book that is the image for this post. It’s a book I read in one sitting today, sat on a plane that hasn’t gone anywhere because of unidentified baggage that needs to be removed…the sweet ironic serendipity of that occurrence is not lost on me.

It’s a book that’s given me some language for feelings and experiences I’ve had throughout my entire life – stuff that I’ve not been able to articulate properly, scenarios that I’ve entered into time and again and thought were perhaps unique to me. Turns out they and the feelings they provoke are not unique to me at all.

A little then on what’s going on from reading this book.

I grew up in a school where I was the only boy of colour. There was a Hindu girl called Aneeka. Later on there were a couple of other people of colour four/five years below me. When they arrived, the four of us were dragged into a new lunchtime club whose only participants were those of us who weren’t white. The person running it told me they’d written to my parents but hadn’t heard back. When I asked my mother about this she angrily responded that she didn’t want me going to it. I didn’t understand why then although I already thought it wasn’t relevant to me and didn’t go back for my own reasons. I experienced a lot of racial hostility growing up – not least from the kid next to me writing NF on everything I owned whenever he got the chance (I was clueless what it stood for and found it hilarious that he was so insistent on writing such nonsense on my pencil case, my skin, my books). I managed to avoid getting beaten up for being brown more than I got beaten up – most often I’d just start talking about how beating me up wouldn’t make them feel better and they often just walked away. Having said that it didn’t always work.

I didn’t know any other brown people, didn’t know anything about Indian culture – didn’t eat curry at home until I was 15 because my white father didn’t like it (except he did and ate it on the sly for years until my mother caught him…you can imagine the row that provoked, and the liberation afterwards. It’s almost comic now). I remember finding a book of racist jokes in the glove compartment of the car – not that the jokes were ‘racist’ the title of the sheets of paper with literally hundreds of racist one liners was ‘racist jokes’.

I remember the normal fights I had, the ones that are about growing up, about nothing more than being a boy, in school with lots of other people with hormones. But I also remember the calls of paki, nigger, twix, that I smelled of shit, of curry, that I should wash better because i was dirty.

I could go on.

I remember the people who were racist because of ignorance rather than hatred – those who thought my ‘eyes shined’, that my teeth were whiter because i was brown, that I must be able dance well or have a bigger penis. That they didn’t see me as brown or black, that they didn’t like blacks but I was ok, ‘not like them’. That I must know ‘XYZ because they’re one of your lot’ or that I’d be good at this subject because my lot are.

More recently I’ve also experienced the opposite – the people who wonder why I don’t speak Urdu or Hindi, who realise I’m a ‘coconut’ and stop talking to me. I’m not trying to virtue top-trump here, but I’m stuck in the middle. Belonging to neither side properly. Heck, I’ve got six different nationalities in me – the largest two being Jewish and Italian…not that racists realise they’ve got more than one reason to despise my very flesh for the crime of existing. Miscegenation is something most racists don’t realise I’m also the guilty product of. Quite where I’d be sent to if ‘sent home’ I don’t know…Poland maybe?

I also remember being friends with people, with having good times where it didn’t matter that I was brown. (I shudder to write that). Kids have a keen sense of difference but not context, so in many cases although they’re aware of the differences, they have no measure of significance – you’re different to me because you’ve got blue eyes, you’re smart, you’re rich and you’re brown – they’re all true and all unremarkable. I remember being punched out of nowhere in a pub and a dozen people standing up and surrounding me – letting the aggressor and their three mates know in no uncertain terms they’d better leave or end up in the ground. All while I stood there wondering what the hell had happened.

I was brought up in a home where race wasn’t talked about. It still isn’t. I think I’m probably fine with that at the moment.

Taking a look at myself in the light of this book I see how I’ve grown up trying to be safe – and I mean that literally – to build a life where I, Stewart, was unassailable. Where I could weather the hostility of public places like trains – such as people asking if I was sure I meant to enter first class.

I come at life therefore with the scars of not belonging, of having been rejected simply for existing. I think these lead to a certain set of triggers that I’m generally aware or and I believe that, most of the time, I’ve turned to strengths.

  • I find it hard to accept people lying to me. Maybe not uncommon and it’s something I can forgive but it’s also liable to induce blind rage in me because I experienced so many friends at school be friendly only to then use that friendship as a way of getting in with others by racially abusing me.
  • I expect not to be listened to – now, you might think I’m very well listened too, but I’m not talking about actuality here, I’m talking about what’s in my head. This is a subtle one – it’s the ‘why would we listen to you’ point. Now, I have a generally too high opinion of myself – but I think that desire to be smart, to know stuff, to be in control (oh so much control) comes directly from the desire to be safe from those who’d harm me.
  • I find it hard to be open about my insecurities – I find that I’m ready to read teasing as a personal attack more than others. I look at some of my best friends a observe how much they tease one another and I know people don’t tease me the same way and I wonder just how prickly I am because my default is to assume people want to hurt.
  • I find it hard to take sides. I am indifferent to conflict – at ease with it because I’ve experienced so much of it. This marks me out on its own. However I’m also an inveterate refuser to take sides and to hide the truth. I have experienced this only confirming my fears about being rejected because I have a tendency to test whether people want me for myself or because they want me on their ‘side’.
  • I have a sleeping anger (see above) – although part of that is a Hotston thing I see in all the members of my family. It’s a flash bang kind of anger and it really rarely shows itself. I’ve never, ever, entered into violence on the back of it, but it’s there and its horrible. I’ve used it to very positive effect throughout my life – whether negotiating big deals or dealing with bullies. Anger, on its own, isn’t a bad thing.
  • I’ve gotten used to caring about stuff most of my friends don’t care about (in the same visceral way). I have friends who care more if I swear than about the subject I’m swearing about – if you see what I mean? Their cares come from a place of such mundanity that they have literally no way of accessing the more primal, existential issues I find myself dealing with.

The above are the big, obvious ones. I find that the stuff Eddo-Lodge is writing about is so much more sub-surface. It’s the everyday micro-aggressions of white men and women who think they are the norm, that my colour is an exception, that I’m probably muslim, that I’m probably unsafe if I’m angry, and why am I angry anyway, why can’t I speak about my outrage in a calm, rational way? And if I can do that, it can’t be that serious after all can it? It’s the fact that racism is structural. That I always have to justify why it exists, to prove that people are being racist not just in themselves but also within their organisations. There are the times where because I’m so primed to see it that I’ve called it completely wrong (as my good friend Ned will testify over a specific event in Denmark many years ago). That moderates are the worst. That moderates think we should obey the law and everything will be ok…as if Stephen Lawrence was just an unfortunate event and not a sign of deeply rooted state sanctioned racism. That somehow there can be reverse racism…there can only be racism if power is involved, otherwise its simple, individual prejudice. Racism, in my mind at least, involved power, involves groups of people impacting others’ lives purely on the basis that they don’t like their appearance.

I am also aware of how few people respond to me when I bring these issues up. Of particular disappointment to me is how few Christians (and I am one, so not singling them out except that I am a part of that community) seem to have any awareness of the issues and, worse yet for me, any apparent care for them. This isn’t a post designed to have you come up to me and say any of the following by the way:

  • I’ve been meaning to talk to you
  • Sorry
  • I’m supportive

Mainly because a lot of people in my life are supportive and do talk to me about these things and humbly and humblingly try to work out how to walk this path with me – they’re just not Christians – which, as I say, is a particular disappointment.

I’m suddenly at 1700 words and realise I could write and write on this subject but I’m not sure I could shed any light. Eddo-Lodge’s book has made me realise that so many of the things that make me angry are about those tiny little actions that confirm you’re being judged on how you look. That these triggers can flip me over a table. They help explain why I’ve spent so much of my life driven to succeed – because I want to have enough to be safe. How sad is that – that I can’t be happy except that I think I’ve got enough buffers to be safe. I’ve read books on the holocaust and on slavery and how racism, fascism and the like grow from minor actions to ways of oppressing millions because ordinary people didn’t object. I look at those paths and see my own self sitting precariously exposed, the first in the line for if the majority decided those who weren’t white needed to suffer.

It’s why I mourned the brexit vote because it was driven by fear of the other for so many people, because it was a siren call to people who were closet racists to be more open about their hatred, to embolden them.

Britain is racist. Beyond the normal facts that we all harbour prejudices. It is structurally racist. Now – it’s so much better than almost every other country on earth – don’t get me wrong. BUT. I see in Eddo-Lodge’s book a reflection of myself that made me weep on the train home today, because I suddenly see that when I was angry because I was being singled out for being a trouble maker, or for refusing to conform to a white idea of normality, it was just that – because somehow I was resisting being turned into something I’m not. That it’s ok to be me.

I’ve been joking for some years with white friends of mine about my colour, openly talking about the skews against me and in their favour simply because they’re white. Many of them can now talk back to me about it – we’ve all been on a journey to where that’s possible. They’ve been respectful to me in that journey because none of us had the vocabulary to talk about it meaningfully when I first realised I needed to talk about the subject. It’s a difficult balance. I joke about it often because to challenge each and every instance in which I see those prejudices expressed would be exhausting beyond belief. Humour is a much easier and communal response even when I’m actually deprecating my own position. Fortunately, I’m a successful bruiser of a man who’s also pretty confident in who he is – so I can roll with it and be provocative and see fumbled attempts at entering that debate without losing my shit.

Ok, this is now officially too long for a blog post. You want to talk about this? Talk to me in person because this is important to me and I will make time for you 🙂

Can democracy survive?

It’s clear to many of us right now that much of what we’ve taken for granted these last forty years is under threat. Even more than that for those of us who’ve become adults in the last twenty years is that much of what we count as progress – sexual equality, conversations about justice in race, culture, history and even language, identity, representation are under threat by a whole host of voices that shout loud, hate dissent from their point of view, have no sense of irony and are, in the end, pretty damned smart about how they play their tunes to get people onside.

I’m not going to rehearse the litany of actual people, events and decisions that challenge me everyday at the moment. I want to examine here two related subjects that don’t need us to look at whether Presidents are racist or if Parliament should be sovereign.

The first of these is whether democracy can survive. This seems like an overly dramatic question. I can hear people saying ‘don’t be so extreme’. Except it’s a question worth asking, right? What if people who we see calling ‘fake news’ and not giving a fig about being caught lying repeatedly really don’t care for other people having a say? What if the right wing press hates dissent and fact based decision making because ideologies don’t allow for other points of view being valid?

When someone breaks with the social contract, makes an argument that’s extreme or completely selfish or focussed only on their own interests to the lack of all others, ceding ground to them normalises their activity and also provides space for them to take from the rest of us permanently. In these cases ceding ground to the edges (be it left or right, intolerant or utterly apathetic) is a slippery slope. I used to hate the slippery slope argument as being vacuous. I was wrong. It’s slippery because once these people start to get their way they are able to control the narrative, to cast the rest of us as fools, as weak, as too straight for our own good. ‘Look,’ they say. ‘The world didn’t end just because I got my way.’

To an extent they’re right. Except they’re dead wrong as well. Each time they take, each time they shut us down, each time they hate on us, they’re changing the world a very little bit. In the end they want no dissent and will change the world to make it so. It’s creeping, it’s hard to see the piano move when it’s only an inch at a time but make no mistake. It’s moving.

Most people like this, most BULLIES, for that’s what they are, work on the assumption that the majority won’t stand up to them and they’re generally right. Most people walk on by. Not all, but sometimes it’s enough to let them get away with it. When these people are in power they cluster together like turds in a rock festival portaloo. When they’re unchallenged newspapers start to print their narrative, culture starts to make their arguments for them, their opponents are lost because they’re moving to oppose them too late with arguments that are now too little, too redundant to get their supporters active.

The second is our inability to believe in evil. I don’t mean the kind of evil we associate with serial killers, they seem unbelievable even if fascinating. I mean proper evil, the mundane evil of following orders, of Nuremberg defences, of bureaucracy killing people because the rules said it was right, that we needed a hostile environment. I mean austerity that kills people of cold and hunger, of disability tests that humiliate and impoverish. Of the approach that assumes rich people are morally better, that they should go to jail less, that they don’t have to live by the same rules. Am I concerned with racism? With sexism? Of course I am, but these other things are precursors or metanarratives that provide fertile, non-conflictual ground within which racism and other forms of prejudice can grow without fear of being weeded out. Why? Because all forms of evil render those around us as less than human. As soon as dehumanisation of anyone in society is considered acceptable evil has taken root. Left unchecked it leads to children in cages because they’re no longer human, no longer deserve to be treated like ‘us’. It leads to MPs objecting to upskirting laws, it leads to trolls on line who hate on those different to themselves.

The real problem I have with evil, beyond that it’s evil, is my own response to it. So many times I’m too weary to fight back, too worried about how I’ll be perceived, about the fact that relationships may falter, that people will think it’s all I care about. THere’s a price to standing up to evil, to those who hate us and it exhausts us fighting it all the time, hollows us out, tempts us to be like those we oppose. If we oppose. So often I’m on my way somewhere important, I’ve got other responsibilities to satisfy, work to do. It isn’t easy to think that if I do risk so much it will make a difference, that it will change anything! It’s easier to think ‘I’ll just keep on cooking eggs, because it’s really unlikely they’ll do anything to hurt me or mine.’

Except of course when they do it’ll be too late to resist it.

So what then? Is democracy doomed? Is liberal society finished as strong men (in that horrible utterly toxic sense of strength) pat each other on the back while crapping on those who would build consensus, who would think carefully about consequences?

Quite possibly, but I think we have plenty left in our arsenal to oppose these enemies of ours.

Here ‘s my list of how to defeat them.

  1. Recognise them as what they are – your enemy. It will be emotionally challenging to have an enemy, to live with that. But they see you that way already and it doesn’t take two to start a fight, just one person will to hurt another.
  2. Find a way to articulate what you love. We spend so long calling out their bad behaviour or crying about how bad things are going to be that those around us could be forgiven for wondering what we’re actually fighting FOR. For instance. I love equality of opportunity, I love mercy, I love grace and justice. I love respecting others around me. I am a PROUD social justice warrior and I’m proud to say that I want to treat others as if they matter, to help them do better, to help them be all they can be. It’s what I love about humanity and this world I’m in. I will fight FOR that.
  3. Get active. See the cost and do it anyway because this is what we forget: the cost today to oppose our enemies is infinitely SMALLER than the cost that will come when those who hate, those who care only for themselves, get their own way. Look for opportunities to get involved in your community, in charity work, in acts of forgiveness and in acts of saying ‘this is the way to live – the way that values others.’
  4. Resist the urge to become like those who hate the way we want to live – be they craven politicians or compassionless rich or fundamentalist ideologues – oppose them by being defiantly who you are. After all, that’s what drives them fricking nuts in the first place. Call them on their behaviour unapologetically, insistently and don’t back down until you’ve got your way. It’s ok to be a pain in the ass. For goodness sake they are.
  5. Focus on what matters. I see allies splintering apart because they’re played by the enemy or because they’re too worried about the pennies to realise the pounds are slipping through their fingers. Hold on to your perspective, hold on to dissent (unless the dissenter wants you to become less human and/or dead – then kick them hard where it hurts) and make sure you support others who dissent as well.
  6. Finally, in my list of 5(+1) write to those in power, talk to them, don’t block them out, don’t let them live in a bubble, in a world in which they hear only those who approve of their craven ideologies. Act within the rules as much as possible. There may come a time for physical resistance but it’s not now.(after all, nearly all major societal changes involved some form of violent protest alongside long term peaceful protest – be it enfranchisement, ending slavery, equal rights for minorities etc. etc. etc.)

Remember – we’re all flawed, we’ve all got stuff the enemy can attack us over. So it goes – but don’t give up or shy away just because of that. Get into it and fight for what matters. We were naive to expect the fights our parents and grandparents had to settle the matter once and for all. Now’s the time to waken up and be prepared to get angry, to hold that anger and to act for the type of society we love – one built on respect, support and dignity.

Crisis? What Crisis?

I see the words shambles, crisis, clueless, hopeless, disaster, fury, anger, not fit for purpose and half a dozen other key words in the paper most days.

I wonder what happened to create this febrile sense of disaster that seems to hover over us every time something happens that we weren’t expecting.

Don’t get me wrong, these phrases are often used for events that are, undoubtedly, tragic and demanding of our compassion and generosity.

Yet in the scheme of things we’re still here (bar the one real crisis I can see right now, which involves the US and DPRK in an increasingly worrying and shrill stand off – there’s no doubting the eventual victor but real uncertainty about the number of people who might die and the impact on relationships across dozens of allies and opponents in the wake of this being resolved).

Then I look back at history and think about the number of people who died young, the children who died before they reached the age of five. I think of the pogroms, the persecutions, the real disasters that wiped entire civilisations from the earth and I wonder why we get so incensed.

I’ve got one, really simple explanation. That we, in the rich late capitalist nations of Western Europe, North America and APAC, have never had it so good.

Until now. In the face of communities creaking from the first decline in life expectancy in  generations, in the first generation to be poorer than their parents since 1945 and with a rapidly changing tech environment that leaves people feeling quite insecure we find our expectations about what normal is to be completely skewed.

We’ve had it good – medicine, travel, food, jobs – all abundantly available within historically stable societies. This is a massive miracle cast by humanity like a spell that’s now starting to expire.

I propose that we’ve got so used to the good stuff that now we see the cracks appearing – rather than remembering the fights that had to be committed to in order to win these freedoms and luxuries, we stand around lost as to why this is happening to us. In our short termism, we lose the strength we could have in remembering just how bloody hard it was to get to this point.

I think that if we remembered how hard it was for those who were there at the time to win enfranchisement for women, rights to reproductive decision making, the end of slavery, gay equality, prohibiting discrimination based on physical identity, the gutting of the class system and LGBT rights we’d realise that those fights will never (unfortunately) be over because cultures flow like tides, responding to scarcity, the need to have identities that keep others out and certainty of material wealth over and above others.

I’m not saying we should be depressed! Far from it. I’m saying that we should smell some of the good things we’ve got going and decide if these are the things we want to leave to future generations. If they are then we need to alter what we think of as normal. Normal isn’t a state of having it good – that’s a momentary achievement we should always celebrate. Normal is fighting for what we want – collectively, constructively – and channeling some of our energy into making sure we’re ready to stand up for it. Not once, not twice, but all the time.

In some ways, I’m saying that the lethargy we feel about politics is misplaced and comes from a feeling of powerless that arises not because we’re powerless but because we’ve forgotten just how hard those who came before fought for what we’ve got.

Preach over.

Nineworlds – observations from my first con

I went to #Nineworlds this weekend just gone in Hammersmith (which is in London, UK for those of you who may be unfamiliar). It’s a fan led conference that’s deeply concerned with the stories we tell ourselves and how those help (or hinder) us when we try to construct our identities (whatever those might be). This could be dry, pretentious, domineering or just plain pedantic but #Nineworlds manages to engage with all of the things it cares about successfully – being witty, passionate, respectful and intelligent.

It was also very welcoming, compassionate and wonderfully cool.

I was lucky enough to be speaking on two panels; the first on how we might deal with historic texts which present us now with themes and subject matter that are difficult to reconcile with what we think of as acceptable – be that explicit/implicit racism, sexism or views on what gender identities are acceptable (or even normative). It was a really fun/deep panel and my co-panellists were interesting, from very different backgrounds to me and together I hope we managed to discuss some interesting angles on this subject – I’ve got a post on this theme coming soon and I’ll use that to re-present some of my thinking on this.

What was most wonderful about that panel though was that during the questions, one of the audience members was brave enough to challenge us on something we had been blind to – the trope of the disabled person being morally deficient and how villains were often disabled in some manner as if they deserved it and specifically because the physical circumstance tagged them as evil. That contribution meant the world to me because I was worried about the discussion being didactic and that someone could contribute as they did meant we succeeded in not speaking at the room but in talking among a community.

The other panel was on AI, Robots and the future of work – and was really an excuse to talk about all those subjects we read about weekly where another advance creates something for us to scratch our heads over – be it machine learning running data centres more efficiently, Amazon warehouses being in the dark because the robots don’t need lights or medical diagnoses being done through automated pattern spotting. And yes, we did also talk about socialist utopias, work, the price of labour and the impact of class, race and location on how we live that experience.

My favourite moments being twofold – a story that made people gasp with shock and seeing David Thomas Moore turn into Citizen Smith.

Aside from that I bundled along to a number of panels – my favourite ones being Dr Magnethands, which is a game I shall be inflicting on friends at parties and one on writing from different points of view. That latter one was the writer in me wanting to learn, wanting to see if how I approach my work makes sense and how I could be smarter about it.

Anyway, I’m now knackered, but home. So adieu to #Nineworlds and thanks again.

Oh, and particular thanks to people who shared drinks and panels with me like David Thomas Moore, Jon Oliver, Joseph Adetifa, Sasha Garwood Lloyd, Dolly Garland, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Peter Smallridge, D Franklin, Ed Boff, Sarah Groenwegen, Matthew Blakstad, Peter Ray Allison and Jeannette Ng to mention just a few. (And obvious apologies if I’ve missed you off this list – the fault is mine, not yours!)

Future Perfect – why politics, culture and people matter when building a world

A Family War is set in the nearish future and, as importantly, it’s set in our world. I’ve written about world building elsewhere, about how it’s vital to think through how technology and science might impact upon the world one is building but today I want to talk specifically about the other part of world building – the people and the politics. This is a fairly dense post – I’ve had some people say to me that SciFi isn’t their thing – especially stories that are as much about the questions by which we live as they are about technology. I can only apologise and promise that the book itself is a proper thriller with running, jumping and shooting of guns. Yet underneath all that there’s a living breathing idea of how things might be.
In A Family War I was primarily driven by a number of real world concerns and non-fiction pieces. Primarily, Martin Gilbert’s harrowing history of the holocaust (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Holocaust-Martin-Gilbert/dp/0006371949) which was what prompted Helena’s story in the first place. I had read this over the course of three months and apart from the horror of the events themselves I wanted to understand just how it was that so many people went to their deaths without resisting. I always felt it was anathema to how I’d respond but then reading about tens of thousands of people who ‘willingly’ boarded trains knowing it would be the end of them – it’s not something I’ve ever been able to process (I saw willingly, I simply mean nothing more than they didn’t attack the soldiers, who they outnumbered, in a bid to live – I’m not judging, I’m simply saying I don’t understand it). I think I understand it a little bit now – with a family of my own who I might consider taking short term decisions for in case it meant that we could walk away in the long term. However, I fight with proper swords every week so I’m probably not the average person anyway.
I wanted to examine how a society built with full post war clarity about the Nazi regime could head back there. It was clear to me it wouldn’t be based on the same surface level detail. There wouldn’t be another Hitler or national socialism. Globalisation appears too deeply embedded or that to happen. Of course, by most measures we’re only really obtaining a similar level of free trade now that existed in the 1920s, so what goes around could still come around. Veering away from Nazis in the future, I decided to explore the impact of technology on human society. This fell into how tech would impact human well being, human productivity and our freedom to engage in leisure – the last of these a subject that’s only really a couple of centuries old.
Looking at productivity first, one could easily see that many people are shifted out of the middle class into lower paid and less secure jobs as machine learning optimise processes far more quickly than human/manual control could ever do. The Luddite call of ‘tech is destroying our jobs’ is never wholly wrong even if it is most often a futile protest – new jobs arise to replace the old but look at how many people you need to man a farm or build a car if you want to see how technology can impact an economy, a society and their communities. Add to that recent research by Saez, Bloomberg and Macquarie that shows that although income inequality hasn’t gotten markedly worse since the 1990s for the advanced western democracies, the middle ground has been eroded. More people work than before and they work in less secure jobs demanding fewer skills. Although the overall measure of inequality (GINI) shows a status quo, inside this data we are seeing the rich remain rich while the majority become poorer overall even while the poorest are better off now than they have been before. It a complicated picture but has some specific implications for what I wanted to write about.
Namely that tech would reduce people’s freedom to act economically even while giving them freedom to connect and express themselves. In other words a rise in freedom of self-representation would run in parallel to a decline in individual economic autonomy. For me this meant that the dividends of peace, economic growth and democracy would consume themselves as capitalist forms of governance slowly shaped the most advanced societies on the planet (be they democratic like Europe or Technocratic like China). In the end, I don’t think most forms of democracy are self-sustaining as they’re too open to being hijacked by demagogues. The US has great forms of protection from these kinds of attacks and even it finds itself twisted far away from what its founders imagined. The UK has always had a democracy designed to empower the elites but this has, ironically, provided for much stability. It too is now facing a turbulent period although the system itself does not appear to be under threat.
However, democracy can destroy itself simply through attempting to appease the majority when the majority decide they don’t want freedom of choice, movement, thought or opportunity. It may take time to get there but for most people in prosperous environments (and by this I mean they have enough food, medicine and movement to want to be left alone on a day to day basis) the pressure to protect the system that provides for the stability to deliver that prosperity is hardly felt.
In trying to arrive at the world in which Helena exists then, I wanted to undo democracy but leave behind the sense of prosperity it delivers. The easiest way for democracy to be undone is for commercial interests to undermine it – for instance corporates whose profits are large but whose products are damaging to either their consumers (eg. smoking) or the world at large (eg. petroleum). If entities in the same vein can impose proper free supranational free trade agreements – especially around how they pay tax to individual sovereigns it becomes hard for those countries to exercise any kind of influence over them. Over time they will seek to protect their goods and property (in a similar evolutionary trajectory to how nation states arose) and become principalities in their own right – but ones who boundaries are no longer physical but instead technological.
For the average person on the street it means that the following is a reasonable trajectory to the kind of society they find themselves in – democracy, increasing state strength, failing state strength, rising corporate influence, subsuming of weaker states, mutual patronage of stronger states with corporates. Can and does democracy ever come back around? Hard to say, but looking at the violence, political physical and ideological that was required to get universal suffrage in the first place it seems that once it’s gone it’s hard to get back.
So I assumed that democracy of the kind we in the UK enjoy now (of the John Hyland variety of representative democracy) faded away, replaced with a technocratic system which eventually evolved into an oligarchic system as is already observed in much of the rest of the world. This was obviously easier to justify when one considered that for the richest, life spans had increased into the centuries, so companies and influencers did not get naturally recycled by old age. As justice for most people is unaffordable, I could then implement a Rawlsian system of relative merits where as long as their immediate peers weren’t perceived to have unfairly prospered, most people would accept their lot if they were left to get on with it. One day I’ll write a system where the justice on offer is that envisioned by Amartya Sen
I’m waffling here, so a little summary before I finish up. We go from here to Helena’s world, a world of material plenty but of spiritual and social poverty for the majority quite easily. Although I’ve used the impact of technology (gene therapy, automation of skilled jobs, impact of machine learning (not even AI)), the same trajectory of declining democracy, a hollowed out society without a middle class and a corporate strength that overrides sovereign states is not one that’s hard to imagine occurring anyway.
Helena’s story is about how this dystopia comes into question, how it’s own centre falls apart. In that sense I think it’s a story for our times and I hope you do to. Book two, A People’s War will explore these issues further because Helena will face events she could not have realised were behind what happened to her in A Family War.

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Damyanti Biswas is an author, blogger, animal-lover, spiritualist. Her work is represented by Ed Wilson from the Johnson & Alcock agency. When not pottering about with her plants or her aquariums, you can find her nose deep in a book, or baking up a storm.

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