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Stewart Hotston

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Influence

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

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

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.

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