Category Archives: awfully deep

To you, with regard

So what have I been writing about, these last couple of months (to a lack of interest which has, frankly, exceeded my low expectations)?

Well, I’ve been thinking about death; about the way that death affects us and appears to us; and about what we can infer from that about life and how to live it. Just the big stuff, then.

In post 1 I talked about the impassable, indescribable devastation that is being bereaved, before mentioning a curious experience which I and others have had after losing a loved one, and which seems oddly to be evoked in the Sermon on the Mount: Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. As I said in post 3, it’s as if for a moment someone is telling us “it’s all right”; let’s not beat about the bush, it’s as if they’re telling us “it’s all right”. I talked about this in more depth in post 8, suggesting a possible psychological mechanism for it while also accounting for my sense that it’s an essentially benign, constructive experience.

More broadly, what’s interesting about experiences like these is what they tell us about how we imagine personal survival, or rather how we imagine personhood: that intuitive sense of individual identity as something essential and even indestructible. I talked about this sense of there being an irreducible core of individual identity – the soul, roughly speaking – in post 2, with a bit of help from Neil Hannon. In post 4 I contrasted Emily Brontë’s frankly panpsychist articulation of her own sense of irreducible identity with Robyn Hitchcock’s frankly materialist version; I discussed these, together with George Eliot’s unsatisfactory but intriguing attempt to square the circle (eternal life, but not for people), in post 5.

As well as being a useful corrective to the mystical individualism of Emily Brontë, George Eliot’s social perspective – her sense that we may live on through our influence and our contribution to the continuing life of the human race – connects with another intuition: the sense that, if we are each an individual with a unique identity, it is possible for us to develop those identities while living together. The sense, in other words, that it is possible for humanity, as a whole, to be humane; to be kind. I pursued this sense in post 6 through some of the novels of Kurt Vonnegut, as well as relating it to the person-centred psychology of Carl Rogers (Rogers and Vonnegut are a good fit).

All of which is a kind of backdrop for the thought-experiment which I’d been carting around since last December, which I revealed to the world in post 7 and then debunked in post 9. Post 7: suppose that we survive eternally after death, our identities formed by the life journey we completed before dying. Wouldn’t we find ourselves suddenly in the benign presence of everyone there is – our worst enemies included? And doesn’t this give us the strongest incentive to live at once the fullest life and the best, kindest life we possibly can? (See the post to have it set out in detail.) Post 9: suppose, conversely, that our life journeys come to a full stop when we die and our unique identities are mercilessly snuffed out; doesn’t this indescribable, impassable devastation find its repressed reflection in fantasies of eternal, harmonious, individual survival? And doesn’t the ridiculous horror of death actually give us an even stronger incentive to live a fuller and a kinder life, while we can? Again, see the post to get the detail (and for a rebuttal of the Atheism Fallacy of which I am rather proud).

On a personal(!) note, I started this series rationally convinced that the Heaven fantasy I’d come up with was just that, a fantasy; all the same, I found it a very appealing fantasy, and did wonder if dwelling on it over several weeks was going to induce some sort of conversion experience. I’m glad I risked it; here at the end of the series I’m more certain than before that this life is all we get. If we want a moment worth waiting for, we’re going to have to make it.



To you, with regard (9)

Let’s put the lid on this series, and when I say ‘put the lid’ I mean ‘pull the rug’. (This is the hand, the hand that takes…)

A number of things follow from the thought-experiment I’ve been developing. If, after you die, you are going to be uniquely and recognisably you for eternity, it follows that you should spend whatever life you’ve got becoming the best you that you can – the most fulfilled, the most fully actualized, the version of you that you would want to be if you had the choice. You are, after all, not going to get another chance; once round the circuit and that’s what you’ve got – that’s what you are – for ever and ever and ever. Secondly, if you’re going to be you for eternity along with everyone else, it follows that everyone else is going to count for exactly as much as you do. Moreover, on that immaterial, timeless plane their equal value with you will be inescapably obvious; empathy won’t be optional, over yonder. This rules out pursuing (what may appear to be) self-fulfilment by hurting other people, as doing so will land you with an eternity of apologies – an eternity of genuine pain, really. Thirdly, if everyone’s around forever, it follows that everyone who has ever lived or ever will live is (always already) around forever: when you check in, you’ll be rapidly introduced to your grandparents and great-grandparents, but also to your grandchildren and great-grandchildren, in whatever level of fulfilled self-actualization they (will eventually have) achieved before (they will have eventually) died. And it pretty much follows from this that, if you ever get the feeling that somebody up there likes you, you’re right, and you may well be feeling Somebody’s empathetic vibrations. (Blessed are they that mourn, for they will be comforted.) Only that Somebody isn’t Him, it’s just them; to put it another way, it’s just us.

Put all of that together and it follows fairly directly that – to quote myself – it’s a good idea to be accepting of other people, to live as fulfilled a life as you can, to honour your parents, to have kids, and to harm other people as little as possible, and in particular not to find pleasure or justification in harming other people. It also follows that there is no need to suppose there is a God.

Now, let’s say that none of this is true. Syllogism: animals die, their bodies rot, and no trace of them is ever perceived again; human beings are animals; therefore… Alternatively: everything that exists can be observed in some reliable and predictable way; evidence of survival after death has never been reliably and predictably observed; therefore… Let’s say that death is the end – of everything we know, think of or can imagine. No eternal presence; no timeless, dimensionless tuning-fork note; no reuniting with lost ones, meeting heroes, apologising to enemies; no warm buzz of omnidirectional empathy. Our existence through time isn’t superseded (sublated) into eternity, it comes to a stop and is cancelled in a single terminal moment. Our unique identity isn’t perfected and eternally preserved, it’s lost amid a million others and eventually forgotten, with a million others. What follows from that? Where’s your laundry list of moral precepts now?

One answer – widely attributed to atheists but mainly espoused by depressives, cynics, libertines and revolutionaries – is that if nothing lasts, nothing matters: you’re never going to be held to account for what you do, so why not do whatever you want? What’s interesting about this answer is the bad faith that lurks within its apparent logic. Look at the disjunct between the two groups I mentioned just now – those who are supposed to believe that they can do whatever they like without any comeback, and those who actually hold this belief and act on it. Revolutionaries and suicides believe that there is no future; suicides and cynics believe that nothing they do really matters; cynics and libertines believe that conventional morality is bullshit; libertines and revolutionaries believe that their own goals and desires are the truest morality. Most people in those groups probably do share the two key beliefs that death is the end and that there is no God to sit in judgment on us – but this basic atheist credo clearly doesn’t get us all the way to suicidal depression, revolutionary fervour or libertinism, or even to outright cynicism. On the contrary, one can believe that human life is made all the more precious – and the challenge of living fully together all the more important – by the fact that there is no life beyond this one and no chance of coming back for another try: you get what you get, and that’s it.

Hence the suggestion of bad faith. To spell it out, if we’re saying that if nothing lasts, nothing matters what we’re actually saying is that if nothing we can know lasts longer than human life – and if there is no agency higher than human life – then nothing matters more than my own decisions and impulses. Syllogistically, I would be bound by a higher morality in my dealings with other people if there were a God or an afterlife; there is no God or afterlife; therefore… The problem with this train of thought is that, unless you’re going through a crisis of faith, the belief that there is no eternity and no God doesn’t come as news: if you hold that belief, you already believe that that’s how the world is. But this means that the first half of the syllogism collapses: it’s like saying “if 0=1, morality is true”. (Don’t take my word for it, check it yourself – can’t argue with the maths.) What you’re really saying is, lots of people tell us what to do on the basis that there’s something higher and more permanent than the lives of people in society; there isn’t; therefore we can do as we like. It’s bad logic, apart from anything else: you’re jumping over the step where you establish that the lives of people in society don’t have any intrinsic value.

Which brings us back to our laundry list. If each individual is unique and intrinsically valuable, but each one of us is snuffed out, annihilated, when we die; if each person’s life is a unique journey to self-actualization, but each journey stops, never to be resumed, at the instant of death, however soon it comes; what follows from that? (Apart from a strong urge to put back my head and howl like a dog for my father, for my mother, for Madeleine, for Les, for every friend and relative who’s gone before and been taken too soon.) If my life is this bizarre hybrid of a treasure and a bad joke, and if everyone else is in the same position as I am (and I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t), then surely Eliot Rosewater had it right:

At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies: “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

What I’m suggesting is that the whole idea of unique individual souls living on eternally – an idea which I’ve developed in a particular way in these posts, but which in itself is fairly uncontroversial among Christians – is an inverted reflection of the unbearable reality of death: death which ends time and extinguishes the individual. But this cuts both ways. Assume, in a kind of melancholic fantasy, that there is a God and a Heaven but that human life has no access to any of it – that some other beings are up there casting down their crowns around a glassy sea, while we poor homo sapiens die and rot – and certainly our lives would seem to be of little account. If there is nothing but human life (bounded by death), though, the scale we need to be working on is, precisely, the scale of human life bounded by death. And if, while we’re here, we’re each unique and valuable; and if, while it continues, each person’s life is a journey of self-actualization; and if each individual is ridiculously fragile and each life is absurdly unrepeatable; then it seems to follow – with, if anything, even more force – that it’s a good idea to be accepting of other people, to live as fulfilled a life as you can, to honour your parents, to have kids, and to harm other people as little as possible, and in particular not to find pleasure or justification in harming other people.

And when we die?

Tonight we fly
Over the houses
The streets and the trees
Over the dogs down below
They’ll bark at our shadows
As we float by on the breeze

Tonight we fly
Over the chimneytops
Skylights and slates
Looking into all your lives
And wondering why
Happiness is so hard to find

Over the doctor, over the soldier
Over the farmer, over the poacher
Over the preacher, over the gambler
Over the teacher, over the rambler
Over the rambler
Over the lawyer,
Over the dancer, over the voyeur,
Over the builder and the destroyer,
Over the hills and far away

Tonight we fly
Over the mountains
The beach and the sea
Over the friends that we’ve known
And those that we now know
Over their homes
And those who we’ve yet to meet
We’ll fly

Over the fathers
Over the mothers

And when we die
Over the sisters
Over the brothers

Oh, will we be that disappointed or sad
Over the children
Over the lovers

If heaven doesn’t exist?
What will we have missed?
Over the hills and far away
This life is the best we’ve ever had.

If you have been, thanks for reading these posts. I may publish a short round-up with links to earlier posts, but apart from that I’m not intending to continue the series. Normal service – i.e. closely-argued political nitpicking – will resume shortly.

To you, with regard (8)

And the voice said: “This is the hand, the hand that takes…”

Location: a busy street in a south Manchester suburb, on a sunny Saturday morning. We see PHIL coming out of a newsagent, a hessian shopping bag in one hand. A passer-by accosts him.
VOICE: Phil, could I have a word?
PHIL recognises the voice, turns towards it and answers without thinking.
PHIL: Sure, what’s it about? Oh, wait…
Seeing the bystander who had addressed him, PHIL freezes and shrinks back. His mouth moves uncertainly before he speaks again.
PHIL: You… I’m sorry, have we met? I know Jan had family, but…
The bystander returns PHIL’s baffled gaze with an expression combining patience, impatience and amusement.
BYSTANDER: Phil, it’s all right. You can say what you see. What was your immediate reaction when you heard my voice?
PHIL: I thought you were Jan.
BYSTANDER: And what was the one possibility you utterly refused to consider?
PHIL: That you were Jan.
JAN: Well, then. Which way are you headed?

PHIL and JAN walk up the road in silence. Eventually PHIL finds his voice again.
PHIL: So, you wanted a word?
JAN: Thought you were never going to ask. You’ve been thinking about regret.
It’s not a question.
PHIL: Well, since you… And thinking I’d never see you again… I mean, we had that disagreement… more of a misunderstanding really… and I never went to see you when you were in the… before…
JAN: Before I died, no – no, you didn’t. It’s all right, don’t worry.
PHIL: Don’t worry? That’s just it – if I was worrying I could do something about it. I’m a bit past worry.
JAN: You’re not, though – that’s the point. You’re not even on the same track as worry. I’m not explaining it very well – have a word with this gentleman.
They are approaching a bridge over a canal. A path branches off from the pavement to run down beside the canal. A FAIR-HAIRED MAN, wearing flared jeans and an embroidered waistcoat, has just pushed past them onto the path.
JAN: Not so fast! Peter, a word?
PETER BELLAMY stops, turns and grudgingly walks back to join them.

PHIL: You’re… you’re actually him. You’re actually Peter Bellamy. I don’t know what to say.
PB: Stop there, I should, you’ve already given me my next publicity campaign. “Peter Bellamy – He’s Actually Him.” How can I ever repay you. Don’t answer that, for God’s sake. My amazing talent of actually being Peter Bellamy doesn’t seem to pull the crowds somehow.
JAN: Come on, Peter, give it up – stop pretending that stuff still matters. Actually it’s regret that I was wanting to talk to you about – I was wondering if you could say a few words on the subject to my friend here.
PB: Oh, very well. [To PHIL] I guess you regret never having met me, or even seen me, when you could.
PHIL: Well, yes. I mean, I was thirty years old when you… I wasn’t into folk back then, but I’d been into Steeleye Span…
PB: You said it, not me. Go on.
PHIL: I had Pentangle albums, I’d gone to Lark Rise… But somehow I never even heard your name till much, much later. I’d heard one track by the Young Tradition, but I didn’t get it at the time – I just thought you sounded like a bunch of mad Yorkshire reactionaries who were determined to make themselves sound as antiquated as possible.
PB: Did we record with the Watersons? I don’t remember.
PHIL: I didn’t have a very good ear for accents. So when I found out what I’d missed – how much I’d missed – who I’d missed… It felt like claiming that I was into classical music when I’d been living round the corner from J.S. Bach and never known.
PB: You weren’t, though, were you? Living round the corner, I mean. Going to the same folk clubs, whatever.
PHIL: Well, no, our paths didn’t cross, that was…
PB: And you were talking in the pluperfect, which is a dead giveaway.
PHIL: Sorry?
PB: “How much I had missed” – pluperfect. You’re thinking in the pluperfect, and that’s why you’re wrong – and that’s why it’s all right. For a start you’ve got to distinguish between ‘losing’ and ‘having lost’. Losing is when you’re clinging on to the rockface and feeling it slip away from under your fingers; lost is when you’re falling, or when you’ve fallen, and it’s all over. Losing is sitting by the phone all day with the growing certainty that it isn’t going to ring; lost is remembering that day a year later. Or you can think of it in terms of songs. Take Reynardine or the Recruited Collier – some song that you sang a couple of times when you were just getting started and never thought about since.
PHIL: And will probably never sing again.
PB: And will probably never sing again – exactly. That’s lost. But you learned those songs, once – you learned the lines, forgot the lines, struggled to remember the lines, got them, lost them again, learned them again… That’s losing.
PHIL: I suppose so. But where are we going with this?
PB: I was planning on a bit of a walk by the canal, but since your friend roped me in… No, the point is: how do you feel about not knowing the second verse of Reynardine, or the penultimate verse of The Recruited Collier?
PHIL: I’d never really thought about it. Nothing, really – I don’t make any claim to know those songs.
PB: Although you did once?
PHIL: I did once, but they’re gone. They mean nothing to me.
PB: And those are songs you used to know. Suppose you heard that there were some interesting songs in a book you’ve never seen, and that the only copy’s been lost?
PHIL: That would be sad, but I wouldn’t regret it personally – that would be like taking responsibility for something that never happened or never could happen.
PB: And yet you think you regret not meeting someone you never could meet, not hearing music you never had any chance to hear. It may be sad – it might have been good if those things had happened – but there’s nothing there to regret. Your life is your life; what happened, happened. It’s all right. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to resume my walk, and if you won’t excuse me I’m afraid I’m going anyway. Val de ree, and so forth.

PHIL and JAN are standing side by side on the bridge over the canal, leaning over the parapet and looking out into nothing. For a few minutes nobody speaks. Eventually PHIL sighs.
PHIL: That’s reassuring up to a point, but surely there are things to regret in situations like…
JAN: Like mine?
PHIL: Yes! We shouldn’t have fallen out, I should have explained myself better, I should have made more of an effort… All those things I could have done, and now I can’t.
JAN: Now you can’t. Tell me, what would you think of a religious leader who said that everyone had a moral duty to avoid anger, pride, lust and the rest of them at all times? No exceptions – anyone who committed any of those sins, even inside their head, would be drummed out of the church. What would you think of that approach?
PHIL: I’d think that was cruel and exploitative, as it’s a standard that almost everyone is bound to fail.
JAN: Almost everyone, yes. And what would you think of the idea that everyone has a moral duty to go back in time, after they’ve sinned, and avoid committing the sinful act?
PHIL: I’d think that was ridiculous – you can’t have a moral duty to do something impossible.
JAN: No indeed. And you can’t have a duty towards someone who doesn’t exist. Maybe you did the wrong things back there, or not enough of the right things, and maybe you’ll want to do better if you’re in a similar situation in future. But you haven’t got anything to regret. You don’t owe me anything – how could you?
PHIL: So maybe I did owe you something…
JAN: And maybe I was well aware of that. Or maybe I thought you owed me something different from what you thought you owed me; maybe I would still have thought you owed me, even if you’d done everything you thought you ought to do. Whatever. The point is, that story’s over now. You can’t owe Jan something if there isn’t any Jan for you to owe anything to. Try and do better another time, but apart from that, go on, go in peace. It’s just you now.
PHIL: I suppose… when someone dies, we lose the person, but we also lose the whole entanglement of expectations and obligations and shared understandings and misunderstandings and grudges and guilt that grows up around a relationship over time. Laying all of that down, letting it all blow away, isn’t the same as having the other person actually tell you they don’t care about any of it, but it could feel like that. I suppose it’s the difference between a debt being settled and a debt being cancelled – which is to say, if you’re the one with the debt, there is no difference. Losing somebody is pain, but there’s also a release: a chance to wipe the slate, let all the nonsense go, see the person as they were and feel your affection for them as it was. A chance to hear those words –
PHIL straightens up, steps back from the parapet of the bridge, looks around. He is alone.
PHIL: “It’s all right. It’s really all right.”

To you, with regard (7)

Wherever I… was… I was happy. At peace. I knew that everyone I cared about was all right. I knew it. Time didn’t mean anything, nothing had form… but I was still me, you know? And I was warm and I was loved… and I was finished. Complete. I don’t understand about dimensions or theology or any of… but I think I was in heaven.
After Life (BtVS S6E3), script by Jane Espenson

Right, that’s enough background reading. Here’s the thought-experiment that sparked all this off, when I wandered into it late last year. Let’s assume that there is such a thing as Heaven, and let’s assume that conventional wisdom about Heaven has more or less got it right. By which I mean, not the clouds or the harps or the pearly gates or any of that apparatus, but the basic setup. What do we ‘know’ about Heaven? (I’m leaving Hell out of consideration for the time being, although I will come back to it. For now let’s just assume that everyone goes to the same place.) There are two key things, I think. One is that we go to Heaven as individuals – identifiable individuals, even; you are still you, your grandfather is still the person he was, and so on. The other is that Heaven is a place out of time; it’s eternal.

But what does ‘eternal’ mean?

Here there are many many sheep
And the people only sleep
Or awake to tell how gory and gruesome was their end
And I don’t have many friends
And it’s really very clean
And I’m thinking:

Juliet, you broke our little pact!
Juliet, I’m never coming back.

Up here in Heaven without you
I’m here in Heaven without you
Up here in Heaven without you
It is Hell knowing that your health
Will keep you out of here
For many many years
– Sparks, “Here in Heaven”

Well, it doesn’t mean that. Eternity can’t mean that time passes, for everyone but you, and you see it pass – watching while your children and grandchildren grow old, waiting for your double-crossing lover to get hit by a bus, etc. Why not? Because if you see it passing, it is passing for you (“oh look, now my widow’s got a new man – wonder if this one will last”); it’s just that its passage matters less to you, not least because you’ve got an infinite supply of it. And that would open up a whole range of possibilities which, I think, take Heaven in the ‘wrong’ – counter-intuitive – direction. For a start, if time can pass in Heaven, things can happen – and that means that Heaven can change, which probably isn’t something we want to allow. Take C.S. Lewis’s ‘worlds within worlds’ vision of Heaven in The Last Battle:

About half an hour later—or it might have been half a hundred years later, for time there is not like time here—Lucy stood with her dear friend, her oldest Narnian friend, the Faun Tumnus, looking down over the wall of that garden, and seeing all Narnia spread out below. … Then she turned inward again and stood with her back to the wall and looked at the garden.

“I see,” she said at last, thoughtfully. “I see now. This garden is like the stable. It is far bigger inside than it was outside.”

“Of course, Daughter of Eve,” said the Faun. “The further up and the further in you go, the bigger everything gets. The inside is larger than the outside.”

Lucy looked hard at the garden and saw that it was not really a garden but a whole world, with its own rivers and woods and sea and mountains. But they were not strange: she knew them all.

“I see,” she said. “This is still Narnia, and more real and more beautiful than the Narnia down below, just as it was more real and more beautiful than the Narnia outside the stable door! I see … world within world, Narnia within Narnia….”

“Yes,” said Mr. Tumnus, “like an onion: except that as you continue to go in and in, each circle is larger than the last.”

Further up and further in! But those woods – I can’t help thinking of Minecraft. Could you cut down the trees? Could you use the wood to make things? Could you cut down all the trees, pave Paradise and put up… well, presumably not. But what if you’d been a handyman in life and building an infinitely extensible log cabin was your idea of heavenly bliss? What if there were lots of people like you? Come to that, what if you had really happy memories of a car park and wanted to recreate that in heaven? Really, there’s no way of having large numbers of people coexisting, over indefinitely long time periods, without conflict developing and leading to at least relative unhappiness.

This is the case even if we aren’t talking about resource conflicts – in other words, even if we drop the rivers and woods and sea and mountains and assume there’s nothing there but people, perhaps sitting on clouds. Being reunited with lost friends and relatives has always seemed like one of the most appealing things about Heaven, closely followed by the chance to meet and get to know the heroes you never did know in this life. But if it all takes time, it could get awfully frustrating: what if Guy Debord or John Lennon wanted to talk to someone else (their own lost friends and relatives, maybe)? What if there were so many people wanting to talk to Picasso or Gandhi that you ended up getting stuck in a celestial signing queue? (“So amazing to finally meet you! Love your work!” “Yeah, great. Thanks. Who’s next?”) It starts to look as if Ron Mael had the right idea all along – eternity, if you think of it in terms of endless amounts of time, would get boring.

So eternity has to mean, not infinite time, but no time (Uchronia?) – and not a hack like “waking up to the same day over and over again” (which, as we know, would get a bit nightmarish after a while) but actually no time passing. When I imagine this kind of infinite stasis I picture the sound of a tuning fork: after the first impact it suddenly sounds as if that tone has always been there and will never fade away – 100% sustain, no attack or decay. Nothing happens, nothing changes. What’s interesting about this is that if there is no time, there can be no energy and hence no matter – whatever it is they do, sub-atomic particles take time to do it (or: they do it within a four-dimensional space-time reference frame). This in turn means no space; imagine space with no photons to traverse it and no matter to bend it out of shape, and what you’ve got isn’t just a void but a dimensionless void.

In Heaven, then, there is no space or time; there’s no light, no matter to be lit by it and no void to be dark. But there are (ex hypothesi) people – identifiable individuals; after spending however-many years looking out through a pair of eyes down here, your consciousness and character – whatever makes you you – is translated at death onto this timeless, spaceless plane. Now what? What logically follows from these (not particularly outlandish) premises about the afterlife?

You’re Already There. We know that there’s no time in Heaven. But that must mean, not just that when you arrive you’re there forever, but that when you arrive you will have been there forever. Which means that Heaven’s always already populated, not just with everyone who’s ever lived, but with everyone who ever will have lived. That family reunion will reunite you not just with your long-lost ancestors but with your descendants, even those born long after you died. For they too will, eventually, die – which means, from the perspective of eternity, their death has already been taken into account.

We Are What We Will Have Been (so we must be careful what we will have been). There are no concertinas in Heaven (yes, I know) – mainly because there’s no space, no matter and no time. But if I were to die tomorrow I would – theoretically – enter Heaven as the kind of person who plays concertina, and be that person for eternity; I’d also be the kind of person who had acquired that kind of musical knowledge at a fairly advanced age, and regretted not having done anything about it earlier. Whereas if I’d died ten years ago I would have (eternally) been the kind of person who vaguely wanted to learn another instrument and regretted not doing anything about it. In this way of thinking, the fulfilment that you’ve achieved by the time you die is yours for eternity – and so are the regrets you die with. If what you are – eternally – is in some way determined by the life you’ve lived, it’s pretty important to live a good life, whatever ‘good’ means in this context.

Try Not to Sin. The specific idea of sin, as distinct from ideas of wicked or wrongful action, is that a sin is something that goes on your record: your sins weigh you down. To paraphrase the previous point, if who you are for eternity is who you are when you die, you don’t want to die with too much on your conscience. So if it’s a good idea to get round to the things you keep meaning to get round to, it’s also a good idea not to do things you’ll regret – a category that includes things you think you shouldn’t be doing. This would also suggest a reason for thinking that suicide is a bad idea – it might get you there a bit sooner, but you’re better off staying here a bit longer and arriving in a better state, if that’s possible.

Getting to Know You. There isn’t a lot to do in Heaven, but why would there be? There’s no time and no space and no matter; as such, there are no material wants, no scarcity and no competition. There’s no advantage to be gained over anyone else, no risks and no opportunities, nothing to hope for and nothing to fear; there’s nothing to buy or sell, nothing to organize for or take part in. What there is is people: everyone who has ever lived or will ever have lived. Think of those long conversations with strangers, at the heel of a party or in the middle of a long journey, when there’s nothing to do but talk – about yourselves, what you’ve been doing, where you’re going, what you care about and hope for. Imagine having that kind of conversation with your Mum and Dad (finally); and with your long-lost ancestors, and with your descendants; and with your heroes; and with the people who slighted you and let you down in life, and with the people you slighted and let down. Not to mention total strangers – all those unique, irreplaceable individuals who happened never to come into contact with you. The moment of entering Heaven would feel like the longest and most exhaustive ‘meet and greet’ anyone could imagine. And the moment of entering Heaven would also be the eternity of being in Heaven.

Time (And/Or Something Else) Heals All Wounds. If you would meet and get to know multiple billions of people in a moment out of time (or an aeon), you would also be changed in the process: a single, irreversible and unavoidable process of change. Imagine what happens, in this model, when somebody dies feeling hatred for others, or any of a number of other emotions that wouldn’t have any function in Heaven. What are you going to feel towards the rest of humanity, when you’re sharing eternity with them (with no material wants, no advantage to be gained over anyone else, etc)? Nothing but curiosity, wonderment, fellow-feeling and love, surely; something a bit richer than Vonnegut’s two mutually-triggering signals of presence and recognition, but in that basic form. If someone dies after a life of feeling nothing but love and benign curiosity towards all their fellow humans, they’re basically going to fit right in. (Not that my thought experiment is telling you how to live your life, or anything.) But if someone dies after killing another person, or multiple other people – what would that reunion be like? Imagine Wilfred Owen’s “Strange Meeting“:

I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.

Like that, but not ending – as the poem ends, a couple of lines later – in a sleep that envelopes both the dreamer and the dead man in his dream. Like that, in fact, but not ending at all. Imagine going to your death a righteous, ideologically-justified killer, and then meeting your victims individually and getting to know them, to the point where you can experience the equal value of each one’s life with your own. Imagine the horror of that. Learning to relate to people you’d hated, feared and wronged, and relate to them as valued equals; feeling hatred, fear and righteous anger, then feeling the horror of what those emotions had led to and feeling them boil away; feeling the weight of what you’d done, perhaps for the first time; feeling the burden of guilt and feeling that in turn burn away in a kind of acid bath of pain, sorrow and forgiveness. Imagine that whole process condensed into an instant, so that your experience of entering Heaven would be an experience of hatred, confusion, horror, self-hatred, guilt and pain, culminating in love, acceptance and fellow-feeling. Then imagine that instant smeared out across the infinite expanse of eternity.

Now generalise from killers to everyone who’s ever done anyone any harm.

Heaven Is Other People, Hell Is Just You. Everyone, on this model, basically gets forgiven – what is there not to forgive anyone for, when everyone concerned is a massless, positionless entity on a timeless plane? – but the pathway to forgiveness runs through guilt and horror. Horror, that is, at yourself and the harm you did to others when you were alive: the more harm, the more horror. Have I just reinvented Hell? Hell, no (if you’ll pardon the expression) – but Purgatory, maybe. It’s a process of love and acceptance, fundamentally; it’s just that, for some people, getting to love and acceptance would in itself be an ordeal.

Lonely Planet. So Heaven would be this humanity-sized static hum of mutual recognition signals and general benevolence, coloured to a greater or lesser extent by the anguish caused by each person’s own deeds while alive. The good end happily and the bad – the bad also end happily, but with more difficulty. Moreover, given that the whole of the human race is represented on the eternal plane, what we have there in aggregate is total knowledge of the course of every human life, together with the capacity (or at least the certain knowledge that somebody has or had the capacity) to change or have changed any detail at any time. Benevolence towards humanity combined with omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotence (exercised through human agency): out there in Uchronia, the timeless human race as a whole loves you, wishes you well, knows exactly what you’re going to do and can transform your life at any moment, although it doesn’t generally intervene directly in this world. What does that remind you of?

This model of Heaven – which is to say, a couple of ‘common knowledge’ precepts about Heaven taken to their logical conclusion – seems not only to work without God but to culminate in something with properties that are very much those of God (if we set aside the whole world-creating part – and even that works metaphorically). We can even imagine, pushing the conceptual boat out a bit further, that subjective experience of (awareness of? contact with?) the benevolent eternal background hum of humanity could be mistaken for awareness of, or contact with, God.

To sum up, then: if you take it that individual identity survives death, and that it does so on an eternal plane, it follows that it’s a good idea to be accepting of other people, to live as fulfilled a life as you can, to honour your parents, to have kids, and to harm other people as little as possible, and in particular not to find pleasure or justification in harming other people. It also follows that there is no need to suppose there is a God.

(And the truth is as great as belief is.)

NEXT: So I said, “OK. Who is this really?”

To you, with regard (6)

Humanity is what we are: we’ve all benefited from other people being humane, we’ve all been humane to others, nothing comes more naturally.

Humanity is an accomplishment: even though everyone can treat others humanely and everyone deserves to be treated humanely, most people, most of the time, don’t and aren’t.

Humanity is utopian: a society where everyone was humane to everyone else all the time would have to be a subsistence-farming commune or something (and we suspect that it would get dull after a while).

The frustrating sense that all three of these statements are true – that society would be so much better if it were built on the care that we naturally, unthinkingly feel for family and close friends, but that this would be a titanic undertaking and we’re unlikely ever to see it – runs through a lot of Kurt Vonnegut’s work. There’s a character – I can’t remember which character or even which book – who decides to go and live in Indianapolis; he knows nothing about the city, but he’s read that Indiana was the first state to give Native Americans the vote and he thinks that whoever lives in a place like that must be pretty decent people. He arrives in Indianapolis in mid-winter; not knowing anyone and with nowhere to go, he spends the night on a bench at the bus station and freezes to death.

A similar story in a non-political vein, from Slapstick:

I have had some experiences with love, or think I have, anyway, although the ones I have liked best could easily be described as “common decency”. I treated somebody well for a little while, or even for a tremendously long time, and that person treated me well in return. Love need not have anything to do with it. …

Love is where you find it. I think it is foolish to go looking for it, and I think it can often be poisonous. I wish that people who are conventionally supposed to love each other would say to each other, when they fight, “Please – a little less love, and a little more common decency.”

And, from God Bless You, Mr Rosewater, here’s the blessing that Eliot Rosewater imagines himself pronouncing over newborn twins in lieu of a conventional baptism:

Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies: “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

The quiet frustration in that ‘God damn it’ always chokes me up – as if to say, it’s not hard; it really shouldn’t be hard.

Someone else who grappled with the challenge of kindness was the psychotherapist Carl Rogers. Here’s a statement of his therapeutic credo, from a 1957 paper.

For constructive personality change to occur, it is necessary that these conditions exist and continue over a period of time:

  1. Two persons are in psychological contact.
  2. The first, whom we shall term the client, is in a state of incongruence, being vulnerable or anxious.
  3. The second person, whom we shall term the therapist, is congruent or integrated in the relationship.
  4. The therapist experiences unconditional positive regard for the client.
  5. The therapist experiences an empathic understanding of the client’s internal frame of reference and endeavors to communicate this experience to the client.
  6. The communication to the client of the therapist’s empathic understanding and unconditional positive regard is to a minimal degree achieved.

No other conditions are necessary. If these six conditions exist, and continue over a period of time, this is sufficient. The process of construc- tive personality change will follow.

There’s a certain amount of throat-clearing and scene-setting there, as you can see. For our purposes the key conditions are the ones listed above as 3, 4 and 5 – what the therapist needs to do, or more precisely how the therapist needs to be. (Rogers and his followers later generalised this model to other settings, notably education (where what was at issue is not so much ‘constructive personality change’ as personal growth).)

The three key attributes, then, are congruence, unconditional positive regard and empathic understanding. Congruence can also be thought of as genuineness: the point is not that you feel perfectly integrated into the situation you’re in, but that you’re not managing the situation by faking or putting on a performance; you’re integrated in the sense that there’s no break between the ‘you’ who’s in the situation and the ‘you’ who you feel you are. So you don’t censor your reactions or tailor what you say to the role you’re playing; if you’re bored or frustrated, you ‘bring it in’. Empathic understanding means that you try to appreciate the way that the client’s feeling and get a sense of how they’re responding to the place that they’re in. Unconditional positive regard, lastly, is just that: the words, at least, need very little translation. The concept can be hard to get across, though: the idea of helping your patient feel good about herself, whatever she brings to you, can seem a bit counter-intuitive (let alone applying the idea to students). But the idea isn’t to approve of everything your client does, so much as to convey love and support for what she is – a good person, deep down, or at any rate someone with the capacity to be a good person. Unconditional positive regard is another way to talk about having faith in someone. Rogerian therapy is about sending an unhappy person the message that it’s possible to express one’s feelings spontaneously and honestly without worrying about it (congruence), that their feelings are worth feeling and expressing (empathic understanding), and that the world is a better place for having them in it (unconditional positive regard).

Back to Vonnegut; The Sirens of Titan this time.

It is the tension between the hot hemisphere of day-without-end and the cold hemisphere of night-without-end that makes Mercury sing. Mercury has no atmosphere, so the song it sings is for the sense of touch. …

There are creatures in the deep caves of Mercury. The song their planet sings is important to them, for the creatures are nourished by vibrations. They feed on mechanical energy. The creatures cling to the singing walls of their caves. In that way, they eat the song of Mercury. …

There is no need for a circulatory system in the creatures. They are so thin that life-giving vibrations can make all their cells tingle without intermediaries.  The creatures do not excrete. The creatures reproduce by flaking. The young, when shed by a parent, are indistinguishable from dandruff. There is only one sex. Every creature simply sheds flakes of his own kind, and his own kind is like everybody else’s kind. There is no childhood as such. Flakes begin flaking three Earthling hours after they themselves have been shed. They do not reach maturity, then deteriorate and die. They reach maturity and stay in full bloom, so to speak, for as long as Mercury cares to sing. There is no way in which one creature can harm another, and no motive for one’s harming another. Hunger, envy, ambition, fear, indignation, religion, and sexual lust are irrelevant and unknown.

The creatures have only one sense: touch. They have weak powers of telepathy. The messages they are capable of transmitting and receiving are almost as monotonous as the song of Mercury. They have only two possible messages. The first is an automatic response to the second, and the second is an automatic response to the first.

The first is, ”Here I am, here I am, here I am.”

The second is, ”So glad you are, so glad you are, so glad you are.”

“The first is an automatic response to the second, and the second is an automatic response to the first.” It’s not hard.

NEXT: so, where’s all this going?


To you, with regard (5)

All I ever been is me
All I know is I
And I will turn to nothing
In the second that I die

– Robyn Hitchcock, telling it like it (spoiler) probably is.

What interests me about that formulation is that the scepticism about the afterlife goes along with a strong sense of self – an awareness that whatever any one of us has experienced, wherever we’ve been, whatever we’ve done, ‘I’ have always been there. Whoever you are, there’s a unique consciousness looking out at the world through your eyes; it’s you, it always has been and it always will be – until you aren’t any more.

So on one level Robyn Hitchcock has a surprising amount in common with Emily Brontë: they both express a fascinated, wondering awareness of what it is to be here, what it is to be an ‘I’. On another level, of course, their disagreement is pretty fundamental. Emily Brontë envisages, not only her own removal from the scene, but the disappearance of the world, the sun, the universe; and she looks on it all with equanimity:

There is not room for Death
Nor atom that his might could render void
Since thou art Being and Breath
And what thou art may never be destroyed.

For what thou art is also right here:

Life, that in me hast rest,
As I Undying Life, have power in Thee

She pictures God as ‘resting’ by stepping his energy down to the level of creatures such as her – very much as matter effectively slows down spacetime from its default setting of c – while at the same time linking them back up to the source of all energy. Consciousness of self, for Emily Brontë, is consciousness of something immeasurably – infinitely – greater than her physical existence. Death is nothing to fear, because strictly speaking there is no death to fear: all there is is return to the source, reuniting the spark of creative power that looked out through her eyes with the vastness of the power that had created the world she saw.

When I was doing English Language O Level one of the exercises we had to do was ‘précis’. Tell me what this 500-word piece is saying, in 100 words; when you’ve done that, do it again in 50 words. Generally the source texts were on the flowery side; you’d get very good at skipping to the end of sentences, then working back through the sub-clauses and checking if any of them were needed. George Eliot’s poem reminded me of that. It’s 43 lines long, and a précis would look something like this:

O may I join the choir invisible
Of those immortal dead who live again
In minds made better by their presence: live

In good deeds, deep thoughts and generous impulses.

That’s heaven: to continue to have an effect in the world
Helping to make people’s lives better and better,
Ultimately bringing about the ideal state of affairs
Which we failed to achieve in our lives.
After the body dies, our better self
(Generous, contemplative, religious)
Will live on.

May I reach that purest heaven
Inspiring others to good and generous thoughts
(Lots of others, including people I don’t know).
So shall I join the choir invisible
Whose music is the gladness of the world.

Apologies to any George Eliot fans or poetry-lovers, but I think that’s the gist of it. Here’s the question (and you can check back with the original): what kind of survival is George Eliot talking about here? “So to live is heaven”, “This is life to come”, “that purest heaven”; is the ‘choir invisible’ Heaven? Or is it some more diffuse blending into the enspirited natural world, such as might appeal to a panpsychist like Emily Brontë or the young Wordsworth?

I think the answer is ‘neither of the above’. This poem is often linked to the closing lines of Middlemarch:

Her finely-touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Alexander broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

And, I think, rightly so. George Eliot’s imagination was social, as full of people as Emily Brontë’s was full of landscape. She envisages herself as living on, in a pure and near-eternal state, among other people, for as long as other people exist – or rather, through other people. Read the poem through carefully and you’ll see that there’s no reference to continuing subjective survival, no sense that Mary Anne Evans’s consciousness will continue after the heart in Mary Anne Evans’s body has stopped beating. The continuing existence George Eliot hopes for – the glorious, near-eternal, purest-Heavenly continuing existence – is the continuing existence of her influence on other people, as experienced by those people in their own lives. She hopes to have been a good enough person for her memory to inspire other people to be good, and to have been a wise enough person for her insights to help other people to be wise. And – this is the crucial, very George-Eliot-ian point – she recognises and gives thanks for all the other people who have already gone before: all the other people whose good deeds have inspired her to be good, whose insights have helped her to have insights of her own. She presents the history of humanity as a continuing story of collective improvement, continually renewed, and continually spurred on by the example of those who have gone before. It’s a big picture; something well worth aspiring to be part of. But it offers no glimmer of hope for the person who was looking out through Mary Anne Evans’s eyes. Yes, we will go on, as a species – not forever, but for a good while yet. But the same can’t be said for you as an individual: when you’re gone, you’re gone. It’s also worth noting briefly that, as well as there being no sense of personal survival, there’s no reference to God here – you aren’t there, and neither is anyone else (just us).


Robyn Hitchcock Emily Brontë George Eliot
Where do we start from? Me (“All I know is I”) Me and God (“Life, that in me hast rest”) Us; society, humanity
What happens after death? Nothing; we cease to exist There is no death, only reunion with God Nothing, but people remember us
Is God there? No Yes, and He’s right here too! No
Is there any point?
No, there’s just this life Yes, but it’s a mystery Yes, people will remember us

Three views of personal immortality or only two? I’ll leave it to you to decide.

It’s worth mentioning, incidentally, that Robyn Hitchcock has written about death and the afterlife several times, usually not in quite such clear-cut terms; perhaps “Where do you go when you die?” was a response to over-enthusiastic readings of some of his earlier work on the subject. Well, call me over-enthusiastic, but I have to say I prefer this (musically as well as in other ways).

When I was dead I wasn’t interested in sex
I didn’t even care what happened next
I was free as a penny whistle
And silent as a glove
I wasn’t me to speak of
Just a thousand ancient feelings
That vanished into nothing
Into love

NEXT: science fiction, with space travel and everything!

To you, with regard (4)

Three views on personal survival after death. (I was holding this post back until I had time to write some commentary, but if I do it this way you can decide what you think about them before I tell you what I think.) They date respectively from 1845, 1867 and 1998.

So: have a read of this.

No coward soul is mine
No trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere
I see Heaven’s glories shine
And Faith shines equal arming me from Fear

O God within my breast
Almighty ever-present Deity
Life, that in me hast rest,
As I Undying Life, have power in Thee

Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men’s hearts, unutterably vain,
Worthless as withered weeds
Or idlest froth amid the boundless main

To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast by thy infinity,
So surely anchored on
The steadfast rock of Immortality.

With wide-embracing love
Thy spirit animates eternal years
Pervades and broods above,
Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates and rears

Though earth and moon were gone
And suns and universes ceased to be
And Thou wert left alone
Every Existence would exist in thee

There is not room for Death
Nor atom that his might could render void
Since thou art Being and Breath
And what thou art may never be destroyed.

Got that?

Now, take a breath and have a go at this:

O may I join the choir invisible
Of those immortal dead who live again
In minds made better by their presence: live
In pulses stirred to generosity,
In deeds of daring rectitude, in scorn
For miserable aims that end with self,
In thoughts sublime that pierce the night like stars,
And with their mild persistence urge man’s search
To vaster issues.

So to live is heaven:
To make undying music in the world,
Breathing as beauteous order that controls
With growing sway the growing life of man.
So we inherit that sweet purity
For which we struggled, failed, and agonised
With widening retrospect that bred despair.
Rebellious flesh that would not be subdued,
A vicious parent shaming still its child
Poor anxious penitence, is quick dissolved;
Its discords, quenched by meeting harmonies,
Die in the large and charitable air.
And all our rarer, better, truer self,
That sobbed religiously in yearning song,
That watched to ease the burthen of the world,
Laboriously tracing what must be,
And what may yet be better – saw within
A worthier image for the sanctuary,
And shaped it forth before the multitude
Divinely human, raising worship so
To higher reference more mixed with love –
That better self shall live till human Time
Shall fold its eyelids, and the human sky
Be gathered like a scroll within the tomb
Unread for ever.

This is life to come,
Which martyred men have made more glorious
For us who strive to follow. May I reach
That purest heaven, be to other souls
The cup of strength in some great agony,
Enkindle generous ardour, feed pure love,
Beget the smiles that have no cruelty—
Be the sweet presence of a good diffused,
And in diffusion ever more intense.
So shall I join the choir invisible
Whose music is the gladness of the world.

And you know what to do with this:

Homework question: was that in fact three different views of personal survival, or only two? If two of them agree, which two?

To you, with regard (3)

Not the Victorian poetry – I’ll get to that soon – but a footnote to part 1. In that post I wrote briefly about the Beatitudes, ‘blessed are they that mourn’ in particular :

where the meek inherit the earth and the merciful are shown mercy, what mourners are to be endowed with is ‘comfort’; specifically, the Greek says that they will be visited or called upon

Karl Dallas on Peter Bellamy:

We met for the last time on November 5, 1990. It is surprising to me, in retrospect, that though we had been close for a quarter-century … I’d never done what I could call a “proper” interview with the man I’d always regarded as the primus inter pares of the post-MacColl revival.

We settled down on a Monday afternoon for a trawl through all those 25 years, talking about influences, pursuing that endless and ultimately fruitless search for a definition of folksong. Playing back the tapes today, the man lives again in my head as I transcribe the over two hours of conversation, the chuckles and belly laughs, the way he could bat a question back at me like a Wimbledon champion going for game-set-and-match, the muscular integrity of the man.

He was bitter over some things, and I felt his bitterness was wrongheaded, telling him so. That difference spilled over into the interview as published in Folk Roots, and after it appeared he sent me an annotated copy of it, indicating where he felt I had got it wrong. I was hurt by his criticism (we critics aren’t used to subjects who bite back) and for the first time I felt estranged from him. We never met again, and when he died I wondered (as I am sure must many of us) what part I might have played in his decision to take his own life. Of course, each of us has the right to end our story as we wish; to deny that right is to deny our very humanity, I do feel. But the guilt remains.

Looking back, as I re-play the tapes, I have to admit that the article I wrote was a great missed opportunity. By concentrating upon his strictures upon the folk scene (and some of its leading protagonists), I missed the greatness of the man, his enormous humanity, his wonderful contribution to the joy that this process we miscall a revival has given us all. At the funeral, I was still in shock, burdened by guilt. As I knelt in the chapel, I felt Peter’s very presence. He seemed surrounded by light. And I distinctly heard his words, in that unmistakable blend of Norfolk vowels and English grammar-school education. “It’s all right,” he seemed to be saying. “It’s really all right.”

I felt something similar – although much less intense – after my friend Les died recently. Although he was a huge influence on me musically, we were never at all close, partly because we didn’t agree on the types of music we really valued. I wasted a lot of energy alternately resenting not being in with Les’s musical ‘in crowd’ and reproaching myself for not making more of an effort to join in. Ideally I should have talked about it with Les, but he was never particularly voluble – and how do you talk to someone about the fact that you’ve never been close? Anyway, I was fortunate to be among the musicians at the get-together after Les’s funeral, where there was a small display of pictures of Les through the years, many from long before I’d known him. As I looked at the pictures, all that resentment and self-reproach came churning back up like indigestion. But then I felt… not Les’s presence or anything like that, but I did feel precisely those words: It’s all right. It’s really all right.

I remember, too, the evening of the day I heard my friend Madeleine had died; I had a whisky and a hot bath, and suddenly nothing was wrong, everything was perfectly, blissfully all right. It wasn’t just exhaustion (or alcohol); I remember reflecting on how strange this feeling was, even wondering vaguely if it was a stage of grieving that Elisabeth Kubler-Ross had missed. I went to bed and slept like a contented child. (Then in the morning it all began again, of course.)

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

I’m not insisting on the reality of these experiences. To put it another way, I absolutely am insisting on the reality of these experiences – they did really happen – but I’m not insisting there was anybody there but me. I do think there’s something interesting here, though.

To you, with regard (2)

THE STORY SO FAR. At the back end of last year (shortly before reading The Thing Itself) I had a weird idea – and though the dream was very small, it would not leave me…

A riddle:

I’m the darkness in the light
I’m the leftness in the right
I’m the rightness in the wrong
I’m the shortness in the long
I’m the goodness in the bad
I’m the saneness in the mad
I’m the sadness in the joy
I’m the gin in the gin-soaked boy

I’m the ghost in the machine
I’m the genius in the gene
I’m the beauty in the beast
I’m the sunset in the east
I’m the ruby in the dust
I’m the trust in the mistrust
I’m the Trojan horse in Troy
I’m the gin in the gin-soaked boy

I’m the tiger’s empty cage
I’m the mystery’s final page
I’m the stranger’s lonely glance
I’m the hero’s only chance
I’m the undiscovered land
I’m the single grain of sand
I’m the Christmas morning toy
I’m the gin in the gin-soaked boy

I’m the world you’ll never see
I’m the slave you’ll never free
I’m the truth you’ll never know
I’m the place you’ll never go
I’m the sound you’ll never hear
I’m the course you’ll never steer
I’m the will you’ll not destroy
I’m the gin in the gin-soaked boy

I’m the half truth in the lie
I’m the Why not? in the Why?
I’m the last roll in the die
I’m the old school in the tie
I’m the Spirit in the Sky
I’m the Catcher in the Rye
I’m the twinkle in her eye
I’m Jeff Goldblum in “The Fly”
Well, who am I?

Apparently Neil Hannon’s Mum got the answer straight away; I suspect his Dad did too.

NEXT: late Romantic poetry, Rogerian psychotherapy and The Sirens of Titan. Not necessarily in that order.

To you, with regard (1)

Bear with me; the next few posts are going to be a bit weird. For the avoidance of doubt, let me say up front that my position on personal survival after death is pretty much that set out in the Magnetic Fields song “No”:

Is there a man in heaven looking out for you?
Is there a place dead loved ones go?
Is there a source of wisdom that will see you through?
Will there be peace in our time?

But a thought experiment got hold of me a few months ago, and I’d like to explore it here. I’ll start with a couple more quotations.

It is useless for me to describe to you how terrible Violet, Klaus and even Sunny felt in the time that followed. If you have ever lost someone very important to you, then you already know how it feels, and if you haven’t, you cannot possibly imagine it.
– Lemony Snicket, The Bad Beginning

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
μακάριοι οἱ πενθοῦντες ὅτι αὐτοὶ παρακληθήσονται
– Matthew 5:4 (King James version and original)

‘Blessed’. It’s not saying that those who mourn will be all right in the end, it’s singling them out – along with the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart and poor in spirit – for bounty and privilege in the world that is to come. But where the meek inherit the earth and the merciful are shown mercy, what mourners are to be endowed with is ‘comfort’; specifically, the Greek says that they will be visited or called upon. (It’s the same verb stem as ‘paraclete’, a word widely used to refer to the Holy Spirit and literally meaning ‘the one that is summoned’.)

‘Blessed’, though. What’s that about?

NEXT: still no idea, but here’s some music.

Come on kids

Something that’s always puzzled me about David Goodhart and Eric Kaufmann – and about people like John Harris, whose writing shows less virulent signs of the same disease – is the question of what they think they’re doing. To put it another way, who do they think they’re talking to – and why?

1. My old man’s a diplomat, he wears a diplomat’s hat

If you’re a Marxist, these things are fairly straightforward. The telos, the good thing, is class consciousness, leading to the constitution of the working class as a class-for-itself; anything that hastens the development of class consciousness is to be welcomed and fostered, while anything that retards it is to be resisted and fought. Intellectuals have a job to do here, as class consciousness would involve the sustained recognition of lived realities which currently only become apparent patchily and intermittently; there’s a lot of They Live about this perspective, and more than a touch of The Thing Itself. Class consciousness would be a good thing because those realities are, well, real, and it’s always a step forward to recognise the real thing that ails you – particularly when the recognition is shared and you can act on it collectively (which is arguably what happens in strikes). Specifically, it’s a step forward into rational self-interest, out of myths and misunderstandings which misdirect our energies and keep us fighting among ourselves. As for the role of the intellectual, you can frame it (as Marx did) as the defection of parts of the ruling bourgeoisie to the rising class. Alternatively, you could just argue that workers are constantly engaging with the distorting perspectives of bourgeois ideology, and intellectual workers (like what I am) are in the privileged position of being able to do so consciously. Although at the moment the marking takes up most of the day, and at night I just like a cup of tea.

I dwell on all this awfully deep stuff because of a bizarre passage in DG’s recent FT column – the one about the ‘Somewheres’ and the ‘Anywheres’ – which suggests that he’s been thinking about the Marxist model too. DG went to Eton, and do you know, it’s been tough (in some unspecified way that doesn’t affect his ability to earn a living):

If you went to the most famous school in the land you are often regarded as a social freak, a tourist in your own country. But, as the patron saint of the Etonian awkward squad George Orwell knew, there is something to be said for being an insider-outsider. It helped to make me aware of the strangeness of some of the instincts of my north London liberal tribe in the 1980s and 1990s: the far greater concern for suffering in distant lands than just around the corner, the blank incomprehension of religious or national feeling and the disdain for the ordinary people we were meant to champion.

(Dickens was writing about Mrs Jellyby and the Borrioboola-Gha venture in 1852. Those liberals may be wrong-headed, but they’ve certainly got staying power.)

As Orwell also discovered, people don’t like it when you leave the tribe, and I have certainly lost a few friends as a result. At a recent public meeting, the writer David Aaronovitch told me that because I went to Eton I wasn’t able to side with Somewhere interests. This felt like crude class stereotyping but then it occurred to me that, perhaps for the first time in my life, I am behaving as Marxist intellectuals are meant to, transcending bourgeois class interests to speak to the concerns of the masses — no longer “bread and land” but “recognition and rootedness”.

I don’t think he’s joking. It doesn’t work, of course – the whole point of the Marxist model is that the concerns of the masses (if you want to use that phrase) are material, are in fact determinants of the reality of their imperfectly-perceived condition. Which is why a phrase like “bread and land” does work; in a similar vein, the Italian workerists of the 1970s summed up their political programme in the phrase “more pay, less work” (whence, indirectly, this). You don’t have to be a sociologist to know that we have a hierarchy of needs, the lower levels needing to be met before we care too much about the higher ones; a sense of belonging and respect is a genuine need, but the necessities of life – bread and the money to buy it – sit considerably further down the hierarchy.

(Stray thought – perhaps the fact that DG has never been hard up, but still feels that life has been a bit of a struggle, is more significant than it looks. Perhaps, deep down, he thinks that’s what life’s like – he thinks non-material interests are the ones that matter, because they’re the only ones he’s ever had to care about. I’m not going anywhere with this – it’s entirely speculative and a bit ad hom – but it would explain a lot.)

Anyway: if DG, EK and their co-thinkers aren’t recalling the working class to the reality of its material interests – which they aren’t, pretty much by definition; and if they’re not neutral observers, which I think we can discount almost as quickly; then what are they up to?

2. Rain down on me

One answer is suggested by EK’s report, and indeed by those other ‘real concerns’ merchants I mentioned earlier. For a start, here’s John Harris before and after the Stoke-on-Trent result (no prizes for spotting which is which):

Stoke-on-Trent Central is precisely the kind of seat where Nuttall’s aspirations to “replace Labour” might conceivably take wing …  a case study in the working-class disaffection that is now causing Labour no end of disquiet … a long-dormant political relationship between party and people [has] reached the point of an indifference tinged with bitterness … We should keep one eye on the looming contest in the Cumbrian seat of Copeland, but Stoke’s byelection is an altogether bigger story. Late last year, Richmond Park offered a story of what 48:52 politics might mean in places that backed remain; now we’re about to get a very vivid sense of changed political realities on the other side of the Brexit divide

Yes, it was all happening in Stoke!

Copeland was 30th on the Tory target list. The swing to the Tories, said the academic John Curtice, was bigger than even the disastrous national polls are suggesting. The Tories are the first governing party to win a byelection since 1982.

Stoke was less a triumph than a lesson in dogged campaigning, which highlighted the fact that the Labour leadership still has far too little to say to its alleged core vote. In essence, we now find ourselves back where we were before both these contests started.

Oh well, better luck next time. More seriously, here’s Harris from last September:

The party has held on to its support in England’s big cities, which may now be its true heartland … [but] Labour has become estranged from its old industrial home turf … Trade union membership is at an all-time low; heavy industry barely exists; conventional class consciousness has been superseded by the collective resentments that defined the referendum campaign. … Both Corbyn and Owen Smith [who he? Ed.] sound far too nostalgic: their shared language of full employment, seemingly unlimited spending and big-state interventions gives them away.

[the Left] will need more working-class voices; more people, too, who understand the attitudes and values of not only cities, but towns and villages. Most of all, it will somehow have to take back ideas of nationhood and belonging that have been so brazenly monopolised by the new populist right in response to people’s disaffection with globalisation. Here, the salient issue is England – which is the country of the Ukip-voting Fens and the north’s lost industrial backwaters, but also that of thriving cosmopolitan cities. Can the left tell a national story that speaks to both constituencies more convincingly than either the lofty promises of big-state socialism or the sink-or-swim message that defined New Labour’s embrace of globalisation? Can it retain its new metropolitan base and also calm the fears and furies of its core supporters?

What’s John Harris up to? The question shouldn’t need asking – surely it’s obvious that he simply wants what’s best for Labour. He’s sounding the alarm that Labour is losing ground in its “working-class heartlands” and losing touch with its “core supporters”, and that something else will be needed if the party’s ever to form a government. Which is fair enough, in itself, but I worry about what happens when this kind of logic is treated as fundamental. More support is generally better than less support, of course, but Labour can’t be all things to all people – we’ve got the Lib Dems for that. Apart from anything else, what you’re building support for needs to have some relation to what you do when you get into government, or you’re going to alienate the supporters you’ve just gained (and we’ve got the Lib Dems for that).

Let’s say, just as a working hypothesis, that the Labour Party has something to do with the interests of the working class. If class consciousness is high, all you need to do is keep up with it. (Labour hasn’t always passed that test, of course, but it’s not something we need to worry about now.) If class consciousness is low (as it currently is), is it Labour’s job to (a) build class consciousness or (b) gain support by appealing to whatever’s replaced it at the forefront of people’s minds? Harris unhesitatingly opts for (b), but this seems both dangerous and weirdly naive. Remember Lukes’s three faces of power – decision-making power, agenda-setting power and ideological power. If decision-making power created the bedroom tax, it was underpinned by the agenda-setting power that imposed the ‘austerity’ programme, which in turn was supported by the ideological power which had made so many people see benefit claimants as shiftless and unworthy. And if decision-making power created the low-wage, low-security economy in which full employment seems like a nostalgic dream, it was agenda-setting power that made seemingly unlimited spending politically impossible and ideological power that made big-state interventions a dirty word.

It’s exercises of power, in other words, that have reversed Labour policy, delegitimised Labour goals and discredited Labour doctrine. Rather than challenge them, Harris suggests we take all these exercises of power as read, and cast around for alternative ideals, goals and doctrines that might be more popular in the world they’ve created. We can’t go on with our nostalgic talk of public spending and full employment; we need to get with the programme and speak a language that resonates with popular prejudice, bigotry and fear. (If there’s another way of interpreting “the collective resentments that defined the referendum campaign”, I’d love to hear it.)

England is key to the story Harris wants to tell, but it’s an odd vision of England. England, country of the Ukip-voting Fens and the north’s lost industrial backwaters! These are revealing phrases, when you look at them. As far as I can work out, you can find fenland in six parliamentary constituencies, five if you exclude the city of Peterborough: NE Cambridgeshire, NW Cambridgeshire, NW Norfolk, SW Norfolk and South Holland. In all five, the Conservatives took more than 50% of the vote in 2015. Admittedly, UKIP were in second place in all but one (NW Norfolk), but they were bad second places – as in ‘less than half the winner’s votes’. As for Labour needing to have a message that plays well in the UKIPTory-voting Fens, one question: why? Out of those five seats, only NW Norfolk has been held by Labour at any time in the last forty years, and that was only for one term (1997-2001). What this means, of course, is that the New Labour landslide passed the Fens by – and what that means is that there’s no conceivable Labour target list that includes Fenland constituencies, unless it’s a list headed Mega Parl Maj! Biggest Evs! LOL. Peterborough, to be fair, was Labour from 1974 to 1979 and then again from 1997 to 2005, so a decent Labour performance certainly ought to include getting it back – but Labour held a strong second place there in both 2010 and 2015, so it’s hard to see that a drastic change of message is required.

Then there are those lost industrial backwaters. At the local folk club a few years ago, I got talking to a guy I know – good guitar player, decent singer, knows his Dylan – about where he’d lived as a kid. He’d lived in a house with no mains electricity – it wasn’t just his house, the street hadn’t been connected when it was built. They had mains gas and cold running water, but that was it – and naturally the loo was in the yard. He told me about when his family bought a radio, and how they had to run it off a car battery. His father worked down the pit, as did most of the men in the houses around; they walked to the pithead in the morning and walked home at night. Late 1950s, this would have been; not quite in my lifetime, but not far off. It’s all gone now – the houses, the colliery and all. This was in Bradford – not the one in Yorkshire, the one in Manchester; the site of the pit is about a mile and a half from Piccadilly Station. You can walk it from there in half an hour or so, mostly along by a canal, or there’s a tram stop right outside – the City of Manchester Stadium is there now. It’s like looking at pictures of the same scene in different eras, although in this case you’d be hard pressed to find any landmarks that you could match up. Blink: 1970s, lost industrial backwater (the pit closed in 1968). Blink: 2000s, thriving cosmopolitan city (the stadium was built for the 2002 Commonwealth Games and taken over by MCFC the following year). Blink: old industrial home turf. Blink: new metropolitan base. Same place; same postcode. What a difference a generation makes, if the money can be found.

Bradford didn’t need ideas of nationhood and belonging, it needed inward investment and plenty of it; I’d recommend something similar for Stoke-on-Trent, or Clacton or Boston or whever Harris is filing from next week. And if you find yourself looking at the City of Manchester Stadium, and the velodrome alongside it and the big ASDA between them, and regretting the loss of the ‘dad jobs‘ that Bradford pit used to provide, I suggest you seek out a miner or the son of a miner and say that to his face. Class consciousness is one thing, fake nostalgia for hard, dirty, dangerous jobs is quite another. Besides, there’s no rule that new jobs have to be insecure or poorly paid – although they certainly will be for as long as the bosses can get away with it. But you’re never going to demand decent wages and job security – you’re never going to see those things as your right – if you think that class consciousness doesn’t apply any more, and that it’s been superseded (no less) by shared resentment of foreigners.

Appeals to class don’t work any more, Harris’s logic runs; Labour needs to appeal to something; nationalism and xenophobia are something, and moreover they’re something with potential appeal across the board, from the cosmopolitan cities to the deindustrialised backwaters to the Tory-voting towns and villages of rural England. But this doesn’t really work. In my own city, ten council wards had UKIP in second place to Labour at the last round of elections, but six wards had a Lib Dem runner-up and eight a Green – good luck flying your St George’s flag down those streets. (And all the UKIP (and Green) runners-up were very distant. The Lib Dems actually took a seat.) The Tory-voting rural towns would certainly go for a British nationalist narrative, but what does that matter to Labour? (If we didn’t need them in 1997, we certainly don’t need them now.) As for the mining towns (and steel towns, and cotton towns, and fishing towns), what do you do when people have good reason to be angry and to make demands, but some of them are getting angry at the wrong thing and making demands that will only end up hurting them? Do you validate the misdirected anger and the futile, destructive demands?

The answer – from Harris, from DG and EK, from many others – seems to be Yes. But why? Is it defeatism – the big boys laid down the rules and set the agenda long ago, there’s nothing we can do but work with what we’ve got? (It’s an argument in bad faith if so – the Tories and their media have a lot of agenda-setting power, but the merest, lowliest Guardian columnist has some. The merest blogger has some.) Is it cynical opportunism – no time to build class consciousness between now and 2020, let’s just gather voters where we may? Or is it something else?

3. Some of us are having a hard, hard time

Justin Gest, one of a handful of likeminded writers cited in EK’s report, believes that the “I’m not racist but” defence is not what it seems:

Racism is … a ‘mute button’ pressed on someone while they are still crying out about a sense of loss—from a position of historic privilege, frequently in terms they have difficulty articulating. Therefore, the preface ‘I’m not racist’ is not a disclaimer but an exhortation to listen and not dismiss the claims of a purportedly new minority.

In this mindset, accusations of racism are just the kind of thing that they chuck at people like us to shut us up – so “I’m not racist” simply means “don’t shut me up”. The corollary – as Gest, to be fair, has noted – is that “I’m not racist” doesn’t mean that the speaker isn’t racist, or even cares about not being racist; in fact, “I’m not racist” translates as “don’t talk to me about racism, just let me speak”.

But perhaps let them speak is what we should do. Perhaps, by shutting them up, we’re alienating people who (to quote Gest from an article published earlier this year) “must be part of the Labour party if it is to have any future”; people to whom we on the Left “must listen carefully if [we] are to ever understand [our] countrymen and earn their support again”. People are having a hard time out there, and Gest names the causes accurately enough – the decline of established industries, the erosion of patterns of life built up around them, the insecurity created by globalisation and the hardships inflicted by neo-liberalism. And maybe we should listen to the perspectives of the people going through it, even if they’re “overtly tainted by racism and xenophobia”. If we can just tune out the overt racism – or redefine it as ‘racial self-interest’ – maybe there are lessons for us all here.

Well, you be the judge. Here are a few of the things that ‘Nancy’, one of Gest’s East London interviewees, had to say; she’s the person who he specifically said “must be part of the Labour Party” if the party is to have any future.

It has always been diverse what with us living so near the river. But I remember when we went around the houses for a Christmas charity about 10 years ago, and I noticed all the black faces. Now it’s a million times worse.

I know the Muslims want a mosque here, but they haven’t contributed to society. They don’t want to be involved in our community, in our society. The Africans take over everything and turn them into happy clappy churches. They’re all keen to praise God, but then go back to their fiddles [benefit fraud] and push past you to board the bus. I think it’s in their make-up.

I think the anti-racists have made it worse. They look for trouble. They construe everything as racist—like my union flag. But it’s not racist; it’s our country’s flag and it’s up for the Jubilee anyway.

If I could just bring back Maggie Thatcher. She would never have let all this happen.

I got off the train in Barking one night and there were dozens of Romanian women with children, and it’s clear they had been on the nick. Vile people, Romanians. Then you walk outside, and it’s so loud with all the halal shops and rubbish in the streets. We look like a suburb of Nairobi.

I think our government is terrible. The whole country wants to have a referendum about the EU, and David Cameron won’t do it. We’re being dictated by an unelected group of people about our own country. Germany wants to rule the world. We beat them in the war, but they’re still coming.

I vote every time. Last time, I voted UKIP. Before that, BNP. Once BNP got in, I thought they’d work for the community, but they didn’t. They’re far too right wing.

England is a white nation, but it has a black dot in the middle of it, and it’s spreading outward. With a lot of the children being half-caste, there won’t be a purely white person left.

I thought the BNP would prove that they were a force, but a lot of them didn’t even turn up for the Council meetings. I voted for them because I was just fed up. You couldn’t see an end to the black faces coming in. I shouldn’t be a minority.

Exercise for the reader: how many racist statements does Nancy make here, directed against which groups? DG defines racism as “irrational hatred, fear or contempt for another group”, while EK defines ‘racial self-interest (which is not racism)’ as “seeking to maximise the demographic advantage of [one’s own] group”. Repeat the exercise using these definitions. What do you notice?

Seriously, that’s the future of the Labour Party? Isn’t it possible that this is just a white working-class racist? And note that last line. “I shouldn’t be a minority” – the mindset of ethnic supremacists everywhere. There’s an old Serb nationalist slogan, “Samo sloga Srbina spasava” or “only unity saves the Serb”. There were Serb communities pretty much throughout the former Yugoslavia; the slogan said, not that they should return to Serbia, but that the territory where they lived should be united under Serb rule. They agreed with Nancy: Serbs shouldn’t be a minority, even where they were.

As for winning the likes of Nancy back to the Labour Party, I suggest that we use whatever ideological and agenda-setting power we have to focus on what even Gest acknowledges are the real issues – decline of secure employment, hardships of neo-liberalism etc – and stay well away from the unreal issues which fill Nancy’s unhappy days. If we can have a political conversation that’s about housing, jobs, health, education – the things that ultimately matter to people in their everyday lives, including people like Nancy – then we can win. And if we can shift that conversation so that it’s not conducted in terms of what the economy can bear but what ordinary people have a right to expect, we can not only win but actually make some changes.

Yes, I’m daydreaming of a return to the sunlit uplands of Butskellism – a mixed economy, a 33% basic rate of income tax, joint staff liaison committees, a fully public transport system and all. And even that seems an awful long way off at the moment. But it’s something worth dreaming of, if you’re on the Left. Nancy’s vision of England for the White English really isn’t. Nor is John Harris’s “nationhood and belonging”, if only because making a virtue of ‘belonging’ necessarily implies that there are some people who don’t belong (Harris doesn’t say much about them). And nor is DG’s “majority group rights” or EK’s “racial self-interest”. None of it works, none of it does anyone any good; its only potential is to mislead, divide and cause unnecessary hardship.

But if that’s the case, I’m driven back to my original question: what on earth is going on?

4. Love your neighbour, wherever they’re from

Jonathan Freedland’s Guardian review of DG’s book is an interesting specimen of this type of thinking, blockages and blind spots very much included.

faced with the chasm in attitudes DG charts, especially on immigration, liberals chose to put their fingers in their ears and sing la, la, la. The revulsion that greeted his own 2004 essay, and the ostracism that followed, were part of that reaction, born of a collective desire on the liberal left to hope that if they closed their eyes and branded the likes of [Gillian] Duffy as “bigoted”, the problem might just go away.

I don’t think anyone on the Left – even poor old Gordon Brown – has taken the view that racism and xenophobia should simply be ignored, or that silencing them is enough to make them go away. The point is to deny racism a hearing, but also to address the issues that actually affect people’s lives and create the discontent that sometimes takes racist expression. But apparently this is no go:

A more sophisticated form of ostrich-ism is the redefining of Somewhere anxiety about immigration as purely a material problem that might be solved economically: by, say, enforcing the minimum wage to prevent migrants from undercutting local pay, or by boosting the funds available for housing, health or education in areas that have taken in large numbers of newcomers. Such measures – championed by Jeremy Corbyn and Ed Miliband before him – are good and necessary, of course. But they skirt around the discontent voiced by Goodhart’s Somewheres, which is as much cultural as economic: the non-material sense that their hometown has changed unnervingly fast.

It’s a fine word, ‘cultural’, but here we need to call its bluff. Talk to people like Nancy and they’ll say one of two things. They’ll say that demographic changes have caused them real, material disadvantage; if that’s the case we need real, material responses, in the form of investment in public services and controls on landlords and employers (both of which have been under systematic attack since 2010). Alternatively, they’ll say that demographic changes haven’t done them any material harm, but that they don’t like them anyway; if that’s the case, tough. DG’s use of words like ‘cultural’ is a bait and switch; what the people he champions want to preserve isn’t a culture or a way of life, but the brute fact of White British dominance.

Freedland’s decision to baulk at the final fence is reassuring, but throws a disconcerting light on the rest of his argument.

Where DG goes wrong above all is on Britain’s ethnic and religious minorities. … he frames them throughout as the cloud on the Somewheres’ horizon, the blot that has darkened the Somewheres’ previously sunny landscape. It is their arrival that has changed Britain beyond recognition, their presence that has to be dealt with.

Yes, I think that’s pretty much what Nancy was saying.

surely the task now is not to look back to the time when homogeneity made a cohesive society easy, but to ask how today’s heterogeneous society might be made more cohesive, despite the difficulties. DG is right that people are more inclined to share with those they regard as their fellows: so the challenge is to make all citizens, including the newer ones, appear to each other as fellows.

This won’t be easy:

The patriotic pride invested in and unleashed by the likes of Mo Farah may seem trivial, but it shows that people can indeed come to see a relative newcomer as one of their own. But it takes effort from every level of society. It requires immigrants to work at becoming integrated of course, but it also demands that everyone else welcome and embrace them as Britons. … Goodhart’s book does not offer much advice on how we might get there, but it is a powerful reminder that we have to try.

To recap, ignoring working-class racism won’t work, shutting it out won’t work and trying to address the economic factors underlying it won’t work, because it’s a genuine and authentic phenomenon but a purely cultural one. That said (Freedland adds) actually taking it seriously would be wrong, so we need to take what’s good about it – the belief in social cohesion, the desire to share with kith and kin – and transform it into a kind of racialised liberalism; instead of rejecting immigrants as different, people would be encouraged to recognise immigrants as being just as British as you and me. Well, some immigrants – the ones who are willing to work at becoming integrated. Which would rule out those Romanians, of course, and those Muslims – and as for those Africans, well… Mo Farah, he’s all right. If only they were all like him, eh?

What’s a smart liberal hack like Freedland doing, putting his name to an argument so simultaneously weak and dodgy? But then, why have DG and EK spent so much time and effort finding euphemisms for racism? Why has Harris been alternately hailing the Brexit vote as a working-class revolt and pronouncing on the need to have a message that wins safe Tory seats? Why have UKIP got a near-permanent seat on Question Time, and why have the BBC profiled Marine le Pen three times (on one occasion flatly denying that either she or her father is a racist) and Emmanuel Macron not at all? Why this and why now?

I think there’s a big clue in Freedland’s reference to Corbyn and Miliband’s “ostrich-ism”, contrasted with the validation of “non-material”, “cultural” anxieties. Which is to say, I think it’s a “god that failed” problem. Faced with the Coalition’s combination of class-war savagery and rampant ineptitude, or with the present government’s determination to elevate pig-headed stupidity to an art form, the Left and the liberal centre need something to call on: not just a party or an alternative leader, but a social constituency and a world view. We need to be able to say who we’re talking to and in the name of what, in other words.

Going back to the top of the post, class consciousness would fit the bill perfectly. But class consciousness is gone: it’s been superseded by the collective resentments that defined the referendum campaign. (Bloke said. In the Guardian.) More to the point, I think, class consciousness as a frame of reference for Labour was thrown on the bonfire during the New Labour years; it became axiomatic that we weren’t orienting to the working class any more, let alone thinking in terms of fostering the development of class consciousness (like, strikes and things? why would you want to do that?) The trouble is, New Labour managerialism only really sings when it’s winning; it’s only available as a frame of reference for as long as it’s in power (hence its survival in mutant form in urban local authorities around the country). After seven years of disastrous Tory-led government, renewal – the emergence of a new force and a new vision of the world – is urgently needed, but where’s it going to come from? One thing’s for sure, it can’t be the old Left – everyone from the BBC to the New Statesman agrees that that’s dead and buried, has been for years. In passing, this assumption rather neatly explains both the defeatism between the lines of Harris’s (and others’) commentary on the Labour Party and the furious hostility of much of the centre-left towards Corbyn and his base – the old Left that refused to die. Both are illustrated by a plaintive tweet from the editor of the New Statesman in December 2015:

Labour in grip of London ultra-left liberals – Corbyn, McDonnell, Abbott. What’s needed is a patriotic social democratic party #OldhamWest

That’s #OldhamWest as in the seat that Labour held with 65% of the vote (up from 55% at the general election). But the efforts to undermine Corbyn have come on in leaps and bounds since then, so presumably Jason Cowley feels a bit happier now.

Anyway, New Labour isn’t on the menu any more, the old Left is dead and buried – no, it is, it really is – so who does that leave? Who else has got answers, a coherent world-view and a ready-made constituency to call on? As Laurie Penny puts it, bigotry and xenophobia have been sucked into the philosophical void at the heart of political narrative.

And that’s the process that DG, EK, Justin Gest, John Harris and far too many other self-professed liberals are contributing to; and that’s why we need Labour to stand firm against racism and xenophobia, addressing their root causes (where there are any); and that’s why we need to build class consciousness. It really is that simple.

Coda: The folks on the hill

Owen Jones is one commentator who’s now dissociating himself from the “working-class revolt” model of Brexit. While maintaining that “much of the referendum result can be attributed to working-class disaffection with an unjust status quo”, Owen points out that the demographics of the vote don’t make it possible to go any further than that. If we divide the population six ways – ABC1/C2DE, 18-34, 35-64, 65+ – post-referendum polling suggests that there was something like a 2:1 split in favour of Leave among the two older C2DE groups. But those two groups between them only account for a third of the population, which is to say that they accounted for about 22% of the 52% Leave vote. Which in turn means that, if you were to pick a Brexit voter at random, three times out of five you’d find somebody who didn’t fit the ‘disgruntled older working-class’ template. Brexit might not have passed without the element of working-class disaffection, but it certainly wouldn’t have passed on that alone. The only way that two-thirds of 35+-year-old C2DEs are going to swing a national vote is by forming part of a coalition that extends far beyond that relatively narrow group – a coalition that included, in this case, nearly 60% of 65+ ABC1s and very nearly half of the 35-64 ABC1s (the single largest group). Focusing on the (White) working class makes sense if you want to use them to give credibility to your vision of a new wave of respectable racism, but if you actually want to explain what happened last June it won’t really do the job. Apart from anything else, it certainly can’t explain what happened in places like Fareham, the 55%-Leave town Owen visited for his article.

For the most part it’s a good article – and all credit to Owen for openly backtracking from his earlier position. Still, old habits die hard:

For the left, class politics is about who has wealth and power, and who doesn’t, and eliminating the great inequalities that define society. The populist right, on the other hand, denounces “identity politics”, while indulging in exactly that: transforming class into a cultural and political identity, weaponised in their struggle against progressive Britain. The left must be able to counter that approach with arguments that resonate in Doncaster and Thanet, and no less in towns like Fareham.

No real quarrel with the second sentence, although I think it’s actually a bit simpler than that: I think what’s going on, here as in America, is an attempt to annex the ‘working class’ identity and claim it for Whiteness. (Read some of DG’s handwringing about preserving ‘traditions’ and ‘ways of life’, then see how many actual White working-class customs and folkways he mentions. My counter’s still on zero.) But “arguments that resonate … in towns like Fareham”? Owen, mate. Fareham has been a parliamentary constituency, with occasional boundary changes and two name changes, since 1885. That’s 35 General Elections (no by-elections), every single one of which has returned a Conservative (or Unionist) candidate. Nothing’s dislodged the Tory hold on Fareham, ever – not the 1997 landslide, not even the 1945 landslide. (To be fair, in 1945 Labour did get 47% of the vote in Fareham, but unfortunately the Tory candidate got 53%.) “Arguments that resonate in Fareham” is an answer to the question “how can we get an even bigger majority than Attlee?”, and I don’t think that’s one we need to ask at the moment. Forget Fareham and forget the Fens – that’s a different story, and not one that the Left should try to tell. We’ve got our own.

Real slap in the face

“If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” – W. I. Thomas

“At the shatterproof heart of the matter, things are as they seem” – John Cooper Clarke

Unless you’re reading this in a remote and non-English-speaking nation, or in the far distant future (hi! glad we made it!), you’ll be familiar with the phrase ‘real concerns’ and similar terms like ‘legitimate concerns’, ‘valid concerns’, ‘genuine grievances’, ‘real issues’. They’re generally deployed as argumentative trump cards when the appeal of right-wing populism is being discussed, and in particular the affinity between the relatively novel appeal of populist parties like UKIP and the long-established reality of racism. Sociologically speaking, the idea that racism might have something to do with support for UKIP isn’t a stretch. Given that racist and xenophobic views were accepted as normal until relatively recently, given that UKIP’s policies counterpose the defence of British interest to immigrants and the European Union, and given that UKIP activists are known to have used racist and xenophobic rhetoric, you might think it’s an open-and-shut case.

If you do make the connection, though, you’re liable to be told that, while some hypothetical working-class White racists might well vote for UKIP for racist reasons, these working-class UKIP voters most certainly aren’t racists: on the contrary, they have real concerns. So you’ll sometimes hear people airing their (real) concerns about immigration while strenuously maintaining that they aren’t racists, often to the accompaniment of somebody from the Guardian or New Statesman telling us not to ignore those people or judge them. This screams bad faith, to me; it reminds me of nothing so much as “Gee, Officer Krupke” (“Our concerns! Our concerns! Our legitimate concerns!”). Sometimes a commentator playing the real concerns card will takes a bit more critical distance – and may even acknowledge that if it looks like racism and quacks like racism, it probably is a bit on the racist side – but the conclusion is always the same: if we want to understand what’s going on out there, we need to resist the temptation to call out racism and concentrate on the real concerns.

So what’s going on here? Part of it is a tendency to reject any accusation of racism, seen as tantamount to accusing someone of being A Racist – which in turn is seen as marking that person out as utterly beyond the pale. Now, given this country’s imperial history, racism is in the cultural groundwater; pointing out that someone’s said something ‘a bit racist’ should be about as loaded as ‘a bit unthinking’ or ‘a bit outmoded’. The way it’s often received, though, ‘that’s a bit racist’ is about as acceptable as ‘gosh, you’re a bit of a paedophile’: the charge is no sooner heard than it’s rejected, generally with righteous indignation that anyone might think we were like that. The terminus of this way of thinking is the rejection of any and all charges of racism as cynical moves in a political game, with no content apart from their power to exclude and offend: as this young Trump voter put it, focusing on racism

really just annoys and angers conservatives more than anything, because it is usually a straw man attack … Accusing [opponents of] racism or sexism eliminates the possibility of an honest discussion about politics.

The way that racism has been tabooed, since about 2000, may not have helped here. If you impose a mandatory five-year prison sentence for dropping litter, it may seem that you’ve clamped down on litter to the point where the problem will rapidly be eradicated. In reality, courts would avoid imposing such an absurdly excessive sentence, the police would stop bringing charges, and the problem would go unchecked. Perhaps something similar happened with charges of racism: everyone knows that racism is something our society doesn’t tolerate, so the accusation has become too powerful to use – and if you do call someone a racist, you’re labelling them some sort of quasi-fascist renegade from decency. (It’s also possible that ordinary and well-intentioned people can hear ‘that’s a bit racist’ as constructive criticism and refrain from taking it personally – in which case the indignation of the ‘how dare you call me a racist?’ response is spurious as well as obfuscatory.)

Either way, the reaction to charges of racism is only half the picture; the other half is those ‘real concerns’ themselves. It’s an odd but powerful phrase. We’re always saying two things – what we assert and what we don’t assert – and never more so than when words like ‘true’, genuine’, ‘real’ are at stake. Clement Freud (relation) wrote once that anyone beginning a sentence with ‘Actually’ is invariably lying. I wouldn’t go that far, but I do believe that anyone speaking ‘really’, ‘truly’, ‘honestly’ (etc) is invariably saying more than one thing. To put it a bit less gnomically, when we affirm that X is true we’re also affirming that not-X is false; the reason the Christian Creeds seem so fiddly and pedantic, my father told me once, is that they’re systematically affirming all the things that non-believers don’t believe in.

So if somebody – John Harris, perhaps – tells you that UKIP supporters in Wisbech (say) may sound a bit racist but that we won’t win them back unless we address their real concerns, what work is that word ‘real’ doing? (To be fair, ‘real concerns’ don’t appear in that article, although Harris does talk of ‘whispers and worries’ and ‘issues [claimed to be] real, but endlessly denied’; he also tells us what those worries and issues are, which is handy for any Guardian readers who want to hear some racist rumours. We also learn about the ‘Immigration Issues in Wisbech’ Facebook forum, whose proprietor has “no issue whatsoever with people coming over here who want to do better for themselves”, but finds it suspicious that Eastern European immigrants “have not suffered [in the recession], and they’re opening up shops”. So you’ll be fine if you come over to do better for yourself, but mind you don’t do too well – that might be an issue.)

Anyway, real concerns – real in what sense? Or rather, real as opposed to not real, in what sense? The simplest possibility is what we might call real-vs-delusional: they think they’re worried about X, but their real problem is Y. But straight away we hit a problem: we weren’t being asked to consider people’s real problems (which they might not be aware of or understand) but their real concerns, which by definition are things that people should be able to articulate to some extent, even indirectly. (Psychotic thought patterns are delusional; neurotic thought patterns express underlying concerns.) So ‘real-vs-delusional’ isn’t going to be any use, unless we turn it on its head and use it to contrast delusional theories about how people think with the reality of what people actually say. But in that case we’re basically saying that the appearance is the reality, and our inquiry can stop before it begins. This (rather unsatisfactory) framework is what underlies the pseudo-radical belief that working-class people have privileged access to the reality of their own condition – and hence that the issues which working-class people believe they’re experiencing are ipso facto real issues, and anyone saying otherwise must be elitist, or dismissive or something.

We can do better than that. Another possible framework is ‘real-vs-epiphenomenal’. If you’re tired all the time because of an undiagnosed thyroid malfunction, your thyroid is your real problem. The tiredness exists, but it’s not a problem in its own right – it’s not its own cause, and it won’t go away unless you deal with the cause. Real-vs-epiphenomenal is a serviceable explanatory tool, contrasting the real with the only apparently real. Since Marx, historical materialism has given the Left a ready-made framework for this kind of diagnosis: you thought you were worn out because you were struggling to keep on top of your workload, but really the problem was the working conditions that had landed you with that workload and left you unable to challenge it.

So ‘listen to the real concerns’ could mean ‘listen to the issues people are really worried about, not the rhetoric and imagery they use to express those worries’ – and I think, on the Left, that’s our starting-point; that’s what we think we’re getting when we see ‘real’, ‘genuine’ and what have you being deployed. But it could also mean the diametric opposite – ‘don’t waste time with theory, just listen to what people are telling you’. There are other possibilities, but they all tend the same way as the second option. ‘Real-vs-potential’ says that the concerns being expressed shouldn’t be overlooked, as they represent the advent of some phenomenon which has always been possible but never been realised up to now. ‘Real concerns’, in other words, are concerns we thought we’d never have to listen to, but which have now become too ‘real’ to ignore. Relatedly, ‘real-vs-unreliable’ says that there are misleading and fraudulent explanations for what’s happening, and then there’s the real story. In this framing, ‘real concerns’ are concerns that people have held for some time but never come clean about, up till now.

Finally there’s ‘real-vs-honest’, in which a ‘real’ assertion is used to give credence and emphasis to a statement the speaker knows to be false. Therapists hear a lot of this sort of assertion, often with a negative – No, I’m sure I didn’t mean that! or No, I definitely don’t resent my mother… What seems to be going on in these situations is that the mind
(a) momentarily entertains the possibility of the negation – Do I hate my mother?
(b) rejects it as unpalatable
(c) checks the affirmation for plausibility – Can I think of examples of me being nice to my mother?
(d) finds it plausible – Damn right I can! – and
(e) reaffirms the affirmation, loudly and emphatically so as to blot out any memories of steps (a) and (b)
The trick that the mind wants to work here is to make that reaffirmation at (e) and move on – lay that down as the new reality and have it recognised as such, however shaky its foundations are; words like ‘real’ serve to weight the new ‘reality’ down. This is why therapists so often use silence; leaving a statement like this hanging can do wonders to unravel steps (c)-(e) and throw the person making it back to (a) and (b) – That is, I wouldn’t say I resent my mother, but…

Is any of this relevant, though? Aren’t we dealing with a simple and uncontroversial real-vs-epiphenomenal framing? If the apparent problem is “immigrants taking all the school places” or “landlords catering to immigrants buying up all the houses”, surely it’s reasonable to say that there are real problems there, viz. local authority schools being unable to expand in response to demand and an under-regulated private letting market. Those are real problems, after all – and problems which have nothing to do with immigration and an awful lot to do with the attack on public services that’s been under way since 2010. The problem is that, in the kind of article we’re talking about, concerns of that type are only sporadically acknowledged; they never seem to be what we’re being asked to focus on. All too often, people like Harris and Polly Toynbee start with the appearance of xenophobia towards immigrants, dig all the way down to the reality of ‘free movement’ and stop: hostility to current levels of migration is explained by the fact of current levels of migration. Why do people seem to hate new people coming to their town? Well, there are all these new people coming to their town, aren’t there – stands to reason. Case closed.

This kind of writing isn’t just unimaginative or superficial; the worst part is how sympathetically these supposed insights are presented. Lisa Mckenzie (or her sub-editor, to be fair) tells us that “[w]orking-class people are sick of being called ignorant or racist because of their valid concerns”. Her article lists a whole series of eminently valid concerns – housing, schooling, low wages, job insecurity – before returning, like a dog to its vomit, to how hard it is for working-class people to “talk about the effects of immigration on their lives”. (Which effects? We never find out.) Toynbee accepts both racism and conservatism as utterly natural, unchangeable features of the proletarian landscape, one of them an entirely understandable reaction when the other is challenged. “Their neighbourhoods have changed beyond recognition, without them being asked. Children emerging from the primary school next door, almost all from ethnic minorities, are just a visible reminder for anyone seeking easy answers to genuine grievance.” The assumption that racism comes easily is telling. In any case, if demographics ‘changed beyond recognition’ are the problem, then those kids aren’t just a scapegoat – they are the genuine grievance. (How do those children – and their parents – feel about ‘their’ neighbourhoods, I wonder. Or do we not count them?) As for Harris, when he’s not accusing the ‘metropolitan’ Left of sneering, he’s as good as celebrating the ‘working class revolt‘ that was the EU referendum. It’s just a shame he wasn’t around in 1968 to cover the dockers who marched for Powell (or did they?).

In short, the ‘real’ which we’re supposed to extract from the appearance of working-class racism, in all these articles (and so many others), isn’t real-vs-epiphenomenal (‘not racism but genuine social issues’). If anything, it’s real-vs-delusional (‘never mind the shrill voices of the fashionable metropolitan set, this is genuine working-class hatred of incomers’), with guilt-tripping elements of real-vs-potential and real-vs-unreliable (‘all this time we’ve been deceiving ourselves about the White working class not being racist, now we need to admit that they are’).

I’m not convinced these writers are innocent of ‘real-vs-honest’, either – the use of ‘real’ to end an (internal) argument and avoid facing uncomfortable facts. Mckenzie:

Working-class people in the UK can see a possibility that something might change for them if they vote to leave the EU. The women in east London and the men in the mining towns all tell me the worst thing is that things stay the same. The referendum has become a way in which they can have their say, and they are saying collectively that their lives have been better than they are today. And they are right.

I’m fighting the temptation just to write ‘State of that’ and fold my arms. (I’ve been on Twitter too long.) Just to make the most glaringly obvious point, somebody can be right about their life having been better in the past without also being right to cast a vote in a certain way – the two things really are that disconnected, and a writer who cared about not misleading her audience or misrepresenting her subject could have made that clear. The word ‘all’ in the second sentence is irritating me, too; right now I really want to know when Lisa Mckenzie carried out her research, how many ‘women in east London’ – and how many men, in how many ‘mining towns’ – she spoke to, and how many of them voiced that opinion.

But however many it was, every man and woman of them was lying – lying to themselves first of all, presumably, but lying nonetheless. ‘The worst is not as long as we can say “this is the worst”‘; every moment you’re above ground, if things stay the same for another moment, then the worst thing has not happened. And I mean, come on – have you got paid work? Imagine losing it. Are you out of work? Imagine not finding work ever again. Benefits been sanctioned? Imagine they never get reinstated. It’s always possible for things to get worse; anyone who’s ever been in poorly paid or insecure work, or out of work, knows that perfectly well. Cameron’s government disempowered and marginalised those people, then asked them to endorse the government’s claims that everything was just fine; it’s not surprising if they did cast their vote the other way. But in order to do that, they had to tell themselves that voting No to David Cameron wasn’t also voting for a gang of charlatans to implement a half-thought-out plan to create a poorer, meaner, more hateful country – which unfortunately it was. No wonder if people come up with a better story to explain their vote. We should certainly listen to these people’s valid concerns, but we shouldn’t have any patience for self-serving fictions.

Ultimately I agree with Jeremy Corbyn, up to a point: the real concerns of the working class are what they always were – jobs, housing, healthcare, education – and we urgently need to address them through a programme of milk-and-water Keynesian social democracy (which is about as radical as even the Left of the Labour Party gets these days). The preachers of real concerns, valid concerns, genuine issues, legitimate grievances purport to cut through the popular bigotry which the Tories and their allies have encouraged and show us what lies beneath, but somehow they always end up validating the bigotry itself. The idea that the people you’re interviewing don’t directly perceive the true nature of their problems – that the concerns they’re articulating may not be real at all – seems to be a step these commentators can’t or won’t take. These are real people (outside the Westminster bubble) so their concerns must be real, the logic seems to run. Impose my own interpretive framework on them? What kind of elitist do you take me for? But this is immensely dangerous; treat racism as a real concern – something that people can reasonably be expected to feel and express – and you make it a reality; you validate it as part of the actual political spectrum in Wisbech and Peterborough and Barking, and as a topic for respectable discussion in the Guardian and the New Statesman. Go much further down that route and we could be hearing that racism, as well as English nationalism, is “real – and rational“. Let’s not, eh?

He knows so much about these things


Eddie Izzard, interviewed (paraphrased?) in the Times magazine’s “What I’ve learnt” column, 7th May:

I’m not a transvestite. I have some of the same genetics as women, so I’m transgender. When I see a pair of nice heels I think, “Yeah, that could work. That could be kind of fun, kind of sexy.” Anyone can feel that. We’re obsessed with the differences between someone with a penis and someone with a vagina. Everyone should calm down and take a chill pill.

There is, as you’ve probably noticed, quite a lot of this stuff around at the moment. Opinions are divided – rather bitterly – as to just what it is we’re seeing. Is it a liberal movement, a claim for rights by a new constituency – are transgender people a disadvantaged and hitherto overlooked minority, whose struggles for recognition the rest of us should support? It’s worth pausing here to say that if that were all we were talking about, there wouldn’t be anything to talk about: singling out Sally (who I know or suspect to have been born male) for any kind of special treatment is no more appropriate or justifiable than doing so with Sam (who I know or suspect to be Jewish). That’s not controversial; it’s barely even political. In most social situations, the liberal assumption of universal human equality gets us all where we want to be: people are people, and that’s the only starting assumption anyone needs.

But it sometimes seems as if the trans thing is about something more than that, or something else entirely. Is it a more unsettling form of radicalism, a new wave of gender-subversive activism which seeks to challenge the pink/blue girl/boy female/male binary order most of us live in, rather than staking out a place within it or alongside it? Or is there something else again going on – something not particularly radical or even liberal? I mean, what does “a pair of nice heels” have to do with anything?

I was troubled by Eddie Izzard’s comments – not to mention his decision to rewrite his own identity as transgender rather than transvestite. (He’s been out as TV since the early 90s, but to my knowledge he’s never claimed to be transgender before this year.) I flashed back to this LRB column from a few years ago by an occasional cross-dresser: “I like wearing a dress and tights, and I want to look good in them, and I like being addressed as Stephanie … I like my life as Stephen just fine, so long as I get to be Stephanie now and again”. I wondered, is it wearing a dress or is it ‘be[ing] Stephanie’? Does Stephanie ever wear trousers? (My daughter’s been in trousers since she could walk – she only frocks up for parties.) The writer attends a makeup workshop at a trans convention:

The workshop itself was helpful but intimidating. ‘To be born woman is to know,’ Yeats wrote, ‘Although they do not talk of it at school,/That one must labour to be beautiful’: adults who weren’t born as women have a hard time learning later on. Among the lessons of the session were that girlish looks need more blush, sophisticated adult looks less, though they may need more mascara.

Heels and genetics, mascara and being ‘born woman’. The slippage goes both ways: first, wanting to look like a girl – to present in ways that have been coded as female – turns into being female; then it seems that being female (as 51% of the population are generally agreed to be) requires looking like a girl, labouring to be beautiful, dragging up. Just as it did in Yeats’s day, and just as it seemingly always had done. There’s a wrong turn somewhere here.

I was also reminded of a friend of mine, and of what we talked about one time when I dropped in on him just before Christmas. I found him and his family – wife and two kids – putting up decorations. They had some long, heavy coloured tinsel garlands, for hanging on the wall in swags; when I came in my friend had two of these draped around his neck like feather boas, and was giving one of them a twirl. The effect was very camp, but not in a mocking, exaggerated way; he looked remarkably comfortable like that, twirling his boa, chatting with his kids. I said “oi, Conchita!” or something similar. We got talking about Eurovision, and we agreed that Conchita Wurst’s performance had been stunning; my friend said what an amazing moment it had been when Conchita won, how inspiring and how right it had felt. (I remember we both avoided using the words ‘he’ and ‘she’ – Conchita this, Conchita that…)

Later, we talked some more about camp and about drag. My friend said he and his wife had bonded, years ago, over the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Frank in particular – that ‘sweet transvestite’, somehow coming across as both fussily camp and powerfully macho, in heels, stockings and a basque. Role model? I asked. He laughed – well, not exactly… but it would be nice sometimes to have that element of display, you know? I guess I was spoiled by glam rock… (And we talked a bit about Bowie.)

Later still, my friend said to me, You know, my best friend at school was always a girl – always. Well, not when we moved and I went to a single-sex school – but right up till then. Other kids said we were going together – when I was eleven or twelve, this was – but it wasn’t like that. From about the age of six it was always a girl I looked to, when I wanted someone I could talk to properly, someone I could trust. And of course when I started having girlfriends that’s what I wanted from them – someone to trust, someone to talk to. Always wanted to start with that, not with the dancing and flirting and silly fun stuff. Probably missed out. But I wouldn’t want a relationship that wasn’t based on it – friendship, I mean.

I don’t suppose I’ve ever told you about my trans period. Mmm? (I tried not to look startled.) No, I know I haven’t – I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone. I would have been about fourteen, struggling a bit with puberty. I was an intellectual little sod and I had very mixed feelings about being permanently randy, like you are at that age: puritanical mixed feelings, mostly. Basically I hated my body. I was at a boys’ school by this time, so I had lots of exposure to the less attractive side of masculinity – rugby, bullying, people going on and on and on about sex… I used to read the Guardian, including the women’s page; I had several female role models, people I’d always looked up to – older sisters, a godmother – but not much in the way of male ones… It all stacked up. Long story short, I turned against maleness in all its forms & decided that I should have been a girl. But I did have enough self-awareness to realise that if I were a girl I would still be attracted to girls; in my diary I referred to myself as a male lesbian.

You go through a lot in your early teens. Oh, you do – you try things out. It must have been around that time that I converted to Buddhism for a week; it wasn’t meant to be temporary, but it just happened it was the week before Easter, and on the day itself I had an intense emotional response to Christianity and promptly converted back. This lasted a good bit longer than that, though. It wasn’t an intellectual pose, either; the consciousness of not being a girl made me genuinely unhappy for quite a while.

What happened then? A couple of things. One was that I told my best friend, who was taken aback, but not in the way I’d expected – it turned out that he’d been working up the courage to tell me exactly the same thing about himself, and he clearly felt I’d stolen his thunder. I don’t remember ever discussing it with him again. But his actual sex life took off quite soon after that – and that he did discuss with me – which made the whole thing a bit academic. (I saw his name in the paper the other day, incidentally; he’s OK, and still a bloke.) The other thing I did was tell my Mum; she was sympathetic, but took the view that I should think about it for a good long time before committing myself to anything I might regret. She recommended Jan Morris’s Conundrum, which I got out of the library.

The classics, eh? Oh yes. Mum recommended Orlando, too, but I was more curious about somebody who’d actually been through it. The main thing I remember is how certain Jan Morris was, after completing gender reassignment, that she felt different, thought differently and even saw the world differently: she was more emotional than he had been as James but less interested in politics, and she’d acquired the ability to look at distant objects and see them as toys. (“So you see, Jan, these are small, but those are far away…”) I ran some of this past my mother; she didn’t quite give it the Nora Ephron treatment, but she was distinctly unconvinced. That stayed with me; it may have occurred to me even then that the qualities I admired, in the women I admired, didn’t include susceptibility to flattery or tolerance of being overcharged by tradesmen.

The other thing that stuck in my mind from that book, oddly enough, was Jan Morris’s retrospective celebration of the joys of being James Morris. There was a certain kind of energy and physical confidence which (Jan believed) went with being male as well as young and fit; and there was the memory of having sex with his (and subsequently her) partner, for which Jan didn’t see any need to apologise. “For when your lover pants beside you he is not necessarily enjoying the orthodox satisfactions of virility” – but this is your lover, and he is panting beside you, and that’s not nothing. It makes me think now that there might be loads of heterosexual men out there having sex without “enjoying the orthodox satisfactions of virility”, whatever that actually means; but Jan Morris didn’t reflect on that. Anyway, it was a small but definite influence on me, that book; a reality check (it can be done, she did it!) but with a bit of “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” thrown in (…and now she likes men holding the door for her?).

So you didn’t want to… Transition? (He grimaced.) No, there was no danger of… But actually, you know what, I’d say I did: I transitioned into being the person I wanted to be. It took me a few years, but I got there in the end. I remember thinking 27 was a very good age to be. Things have got better for me since then – much, much better. But by the time “Suedehead” came out I pretty much knew what was what.

Why do you telephone? Why indeed. Great unanswered questions of our time.

So what was 27? Mostly, 27 was not being one of the kids any more; it was feeling that I didn’t have anything to conform to any more – or to rebel against conforming to. It made everything a lot simpler. What was the person I’d wanted to be, after all – the person who I’d thought couldn’t possibly be male? Someone like my mother, my godmother, my aunt – someone intelligent but also caring, sympathetic but thoughtful, cultured but funny…

Sounds like quite a family. OK, someone like an idealised version of those people. But you take the point. Wanting to look good was part of it – I was so disappointed when I discovered ‘menswear’! – and wanting to move with a certain amount of grace, not just barging through everywhere. Hating my body was part of it, too; thankfully I got past that, eventually. But mostly it was about the kind of person I wanted to be – and after a while I found I could try to be that person without worrying, or being made to worry, about being a man. I mean, once you get to 27 there aren’t so many people calling you a ponce for using long words, or telling you that boys don’t talk about their feelings. There aren’t so many people policing the way you move or the clothes you wear, come to that, so you can pick up that side of it as well.

I don’t know if a 27-year-old woman would agree with that last part. Perhaps not. And that actually relates to one of the things that bothers me about the trans moment we seem to be in, culturally – the draggier end of it, anyway. Femininity seems to have become a site of transgression for men without ceasing to be a uniform for women. I’m willing to bet there are workplaces out there where a man who came in wearing makeup would be frowned on less than a woman who came in without it – he’s being bold and transgressive, she’s just not making an effort. It’s as if patriarchy reserved a second-class space for women – a space for emotion, not logic; for the body, not the mind; for falsity and display (“paint an inch thick”), not for the unadorned truth – and now men are even entering that space. While still trying to keep women inside it – we frock up to play at being something we’re not, but for women femininity is what they are. (When we’re talking about trans we always seem to be talking about women in the end.)

Aren’t you over-thinking this? What about that confused, lonely teenager who just wants… What about him? Didn’t I just explain that I was that teenager? I’m prepared to believe that my gender dysphoria was milder and more short-lived than many other teenagers’, but you’re not telling me that it wasn’t genuine. Besides, if it was mild and short-lived, mightn’t the reaction it got have something to do with that?

Are you complaining? No, I’m getting ahead of myself. What I’m saying is that the guarded tolerance with which my mother greeted my story gave me no encouragement, and no condemnation to react against either. I was left to share my feelings with my best friend, with my diary and with a book by Jan Morris. All of these did something to keep those feelings alive, but after a while I got interested in something else and they faded away. And, thirteen short years later, I was 27. It was a hell of a slog getting there – “will Nature make a man of me yet?” and so on – but growing up usually is.

So my message for that confused, lonely teenager is: “Hang on. You’ll be fine. It’ll all be all right. It doesn’t seem possible now, but it will be. You can be the person you want to be; you will be the person you want to be. And it doesn’t have to involve surgery, or drugs, or cross-dressing, or even changing your name.” (Although I was obsessed with changing my name when I was a teenager – the search for the perfect pseudonym occupied me for years.)

Should we call you Conchita after all? No, no, it was my surname I wanted to get rid of – I couldn’t imagine becoming a rock star with a name like mine. And it’s true, I never changed my name and I never did become a rock star.

So, “hang on”… And is that what you’d say to teenagers who think they might be gay? Should everyone wait till they’re 27? No, of course not. I would advise fourteen-year-olds not to think that whatever they’re going through is necessarily going to last forever – but they’d never believe me, so there’d be no point. But seriously – when I was seven years old I wasn’t attracted to women; I also wasn’t a practising Christian, a Labour voter or a well-meaning middle-class Guardian reader. My parents expected me to grow up to be all of those things – that was our house for you – and so it came to pass, by and large. But if I’d grown up to be gay, or a militant atheist, or even a Tory, it would still have been a story I could tell from a shared beginning, a story that could make sense. By contrast, my parents didn’t have any expectations that I would grow up ‘as’ a boy – they knew I was a boy, from the moment I was born. (So I was a boy who didn’t like football, who liked wearing bright colours, whose best friend was a girl – so what? Still a boy.) To say that your entire past is a lie – not that your beliefs or your desires have developed in ways you didn’t expect, but that you never were what you were – is an awfully big step, for you as well as for everyone around you. Besides which, saying what you’re not doesn’t enable you to say what you are. You may have a deep-rooted feeling of revulsion against the sex you were born into (I remember that feeling), but you can’t possibly feel that you are the other sex – you’ve no idea what being the other sex is like. I’m a straight, Labour-voting mild agnostic, but I know from personal experience what it’s like to believe in an empty and meaningless universe, what it’s like to vote against Labour and what it’s like to be attracted to another man. What it’s like to have periods – or what it’s like not to have a prostate – I can’t begin to imagine.

All this is without getting into what committing to a trans identity, particularly as a young adult, will commit you to from that point forward. At the very least, going down that route is letting yourself in for years of distress – that’s what I’d say to that teenager. This isn’t about intolerance or prejudice; it’s changing something fundamental about yourself, socially and culturally as well as physically fundamental. I can’t think of a bigger change you could make, with the possible exception of some forms of extreme body modification. So yes, if you possibly can, hang on. But it’s a hopeful message as well – not just “hang on, don’t risk it”. “Hang on – you’ll be fine. It’ll all be all right. It doesn’t seem possible now, but it will be.”

Some would say you’re trivialising… Yeah, maybe. As I say, it’s possible that the gender dysphoria I experienced was an unusually mild and fleeting thing; maybe most kids identifying as trans these days ‘just know‘ who they are, undeniably and unshakeably, and know it from an early age. But I’m not sure. I saw some research the other day vindicating the reality of trans kids’ gender identification. One way we know that trans identities are real & deep-rooted, apparently, is that trans kids tend to socialise and bond with kids of their adopted gender, not their birth gender. So, there you go – me and my female best friend, what does that tell you? (Or should we be asking about her and her male best friend? Good heavens, what kind of weirdoes were we back then?)

At the end of the day, I can only picture the cultural landscape that would face me if I were an unhappy fourteen-year-old boy in 2016, and if I’d become convinced (as for a time I did) that being the wrong sex was the root of all my problems. I picture it and I wonder. I think of the resources of information, support, validation and enablement which I’d be able to find and tap into, and I wonder what my life would be like by the time I got to 27, or even to 21. I don’t think it would have gone the way it did. I might have ended up perfectly happy; I don’t believe in the inevitability of trans misery. But I do believe that there are many routes that most lives can take, many ways that most people can find to be happy – 14-year-old people especially. And if there are many routes to happiness, it seems like a good idea to choose a route of minimum self-imposed transformation and maximum self-acceptance – acceptance of your life, your body, your self.

That sounds like the cue for a song. What, ‘Rise Like a Phoenix’?


Say what you’ll say

I read a restaurant review once in which the service was described as ‘pleasantly relaxed and unhurried’. I think we’ve all been to places like that. It’s also a good way of looking at my blogging routine, which is so pleasantly unhurried these days that I rarely get to a burning issue until (checks calendar… blimey) four or five days after everyone else.

The chances are you’ve formed your own opinion on the Livingstone affair, and even if you haven’t you’ve almost certainly read enough Livingstone-related blog posts to be going on with. (I’ll list some of the better pieces I’ve seen at the end of this post, in a spirit of old-school “Web logging”.) But I’m going to make a couple of points about it anyway, focusing mainly on the conversational dynamics of what’s gone on.

On racism and racists

When I was at school it wasn’t exactly OK to be racist – but then, it wasn’t exactly OK to run in the corridor or grow your hair long. It was more that open expressions of racism were frowned on in polite society; when we weren’t on our best behaviour, hearing racist attitudes expressed was entirely unsurprising. Widespread awareness that this kind of ambient racism was in fact not OK, anywhere, came much later. But something odd seems to have happened, over the generation or so that it’s taken to internalise the wrongness of racism. You’d think awareness of the danger of racism would bring a real humility with it, an attitude of “We know that racism is bad, but we also know that it was normal for so long that we’ve all effectively breathed it in, and any one of us may sometimes reproduce it in our thoughts and words”. Humility and self-doubt are tough to live with, though, and the stance that seems more common is “We know that racism is bad, and this knowledge protects us from ever being racist.” Which in turn leads easily to “We all know that racism is bad, so anyone who exhibits racism must have chosen it deliberately” – and so on down to “The problem of racism is the problem of (those) racist people, it’s nothing to do with us”. From humility to smug intolerance in three short steps.

I think this is bad news. Racism doesn’t live in a few bad people’s brains, it lives in images and attitudes and ways of thinking. Today’s 18-year-olds may leave school without a racist thought in their heads – and I think to a large extent they actually do; there is a real, generational foundation for the attitudes I sketched out above – but they’re soon reading papers and watching programmes produced by 30-, 40- and 50-year-olds, just like the rest of us. Racism can stay in the cultural groundwater for a long time. I’m not suggesting that we’re all cultural dupes, hapless victims of the racist tropes swirling around in a culture we never made; I’m not saying there’s no such thing as a racist. I don’t have to wrestle with my conscience for very long before applying the label of ‘racist’ to Nick Griffin, say, or Boris Johnson. But I do think it’s facile at best, and dangerous at worst, to assume that someone who’s made a racist statement is ipso facto a racist.

I also think that people’s motivations for doing so aren’t always pure. Consider two possible responses to a racist statement made by somebody not previously considered to be a racist – let’s call them Len.

ALEX (an accuser): Len, my long-time opponent, has made a racist statement. We need to tell him it’s not OK.
DAVE (a defender): Are you sure? That doesn’t sound like Len, my political ally and personal friend.
ALEX: [explains]
DAVE: Oh dear, that does sound racist. We need to tell Len that making racist statements isn’t OK.
ALEX: Let’s do just that. I’ll draft something and get it over to you.
DAVE: Thankyou for raising this issue. I’m glad that we could discuss it constructively, despite being political opponents.


ALEX (an accuser): Len, my long-time opponent, has made a racist statement. Len’s a racist!
DAVE (a defender): No, you’ve got that wrong. Len’s my political ally and personal friend; he’s no racist. What did he say?
ALEX: [explains]
DAVE: Oh dear, that does sound… But I’m sure Len isn’t a racist.
ALEX: Yeah, right! I’ve just told you what he said.
ALAN (another accuser): What did I tell you, Alex? They’re in denial about their own racism!
DAVE: No, hang on. Perhaps Len did say something he shouldn’t have said, perhaps it was a bit racist…
ALAN: Oh, so it’s OK as long as it’s only a bit racist. Very convenient!
ALEX: So you admit it was racist. You admit you’re defending a racist. What does that say about you?
DEREK (another defender): Look, Dave isn’t a racist. He was just trying to explain…
ALAN: That’s right, he was trying to explain away racism. Thanks for admitting it!
[continues indefinitely]

You get the idea – and I think you’d agree that in the last few days we’ve seen a lot more of scenario 2 than scenario 1. Which is unfortunate, as escalating from attacking a person’s actions to attacking that person as a person is one of the most counter-productive things you can possibly do – at least, it’s counter-productive if what you’re trying to do is to address those actions and put them right. The trouble is – and I’m reminded here of the awful truth about the Toclafane – it’s fun. Writing somebody a letter in the hope that they’ll change their ways in future is no fun at all, compared to the compulsive thrill of logic-twisting, question-begging and name-calling. These days, of course, every Alex and Alan who’s spoiling for a fight can mix it in 140-character instalments, with the added gratification of tag-team validation from all the other Alans and Alexes who identify with them on the issue of the day.

The dinosaur bone problem

When you do get stuck in a type-2 scenario, there’s a tendency to reach for the evidence and slap it down on the metaphorical table – see? see what they actually said? you can’t call them a racist/deny they’re a racist now! I recently baled out of an argument along very much these lines, when I realised that the other person and I were both quoting the same couple of lines at each other, each of us convinced that they proved our own position without the need to say more. The problem is that you can’t reliably infer motivation, let alone character, from a single action; you need a course of action to work with, a pattern of behaviour. (This even applies to single actions which seem to carry a fairly blunt and unequivocal message. Somebody burning a Union flag in public probably isn’t motivated by British patriotism, but are they: anarchists? Irish Republicans? Islamic extremists? disillusioned former patriots? apolitical provocateurs? police spies? Place your bets!)

On the basis of what Ken Livingstone said last Thursday, everyone from John Mann to Mark Regev has claimed that Ken is an anti-semite. Meanwhile, a whole bunch of people (see links at the end of this post) have argued back that there’s no reason to imagine that Ken’s an anti-semite, and plenty of reasons to think otherwise. But the claims and counter-claims have rested on the same evidence – sometimes grotesquely distorted, admittedly, but not always by any means. The problem is that we’re all looking at a fragment of evidence and inferring something much bigger from it, like cartoon paleontologists reconstructing a dinosaur from a single bone. And it depends which dinosaur you’re expecting to find. If you already believe that Livingstone’s an anti-semite, some weird statement about Hitler supporting Zionism fits right in to your mental model – you don’t even have to look at it closely. If you believe, as I do, that he’s no such thing, then it doesn’t look like a statement made by an anti-semite. Actually it looks more as if somebody who’s never shown any sign of holding anti-semitic attitudes – and who has stated that anti-semitism is as unacceptable as any other type of racism – had decided to say something grossly offensive to Zionists for cheap shock value, while discounting the offence it would predictably cause to Jews more widely. Because the sad fact is, that’s how racism works. It says, those people are different from you, so you don’t need to care about them; if you want to lash out, lash out at them. And it stays in the groundwater for a long time.

So one person can look at last Thursday’s interview and come away thinking that Ken’s a left-wing anti-semite who’s said something anti-semitic (confirmation!), while I come away thinking he’s a solid if unreliable socialist who’s said something anti-semitic (aberration!). The question is, what would I and this person have thought about Ken last Wednesday, if we’d been asked? Presumably I would have said he was a solid if unreliable socialist, and the other person would have said he was a left-wing anti-semite. The evidence made no difference, in other words. (Well, it made me think Ken was even less reliable than I’d thought, so there is that.) There is a ‘tipping-point’ narrative that gets trotted out on occasions like this – surely now we must realise that these aren’t just random aberrations: the aberrations are the pattern! The idea of changing your opinion of somebody on this basis, suddenly realising that you’re looking at a black cat with white patches and not vice versa, does have a kind of narrative plausibility : one unfortunate lapse by an otherwise blameless individual; two unfortunate lapses by an otherwise blameless individual; three unfortunate – hang on a minute! But I’m not sure how often it actually happens. Certainly you’ll rarely see a first-hand account from the ‘surely now‘ merchants. They say that what they’re describing ought to be a tipping point for their readers, but they’re way ahead of us; they sussed out whoever-it-is ages ago. (Has Nick Cohen ever said anything positive about Ken Livingstone?)

It goes back to what I think of as rule 1 of online debate – in fact, rule 1 of debate in general (apart from a few very specialised settings): Nobody’s above it all. Don’t expect consistent application of unchanging principles from anyone; everyone attacks their enemies, everyone defends their friends. I think we all basically know this; it’s the reason why something like the partial implosion of the SWP a few years back was big enough news to make the national press. Normally you go to Mark Steel to see the Right get a savage satirical tweaking, but Left attacks Right isn’t news; Left attacks Left is. It follows, incidentally, that calling on one’s opponents to disown this outrageous shyster or denounce that bit of cynical manoeuvring on their own side is utterly futile (at least on the surface – I’ll come back to this). If they were going to denounce their friends and allies, they wouldn’t have those friends and allies in the first place – and they wouldn’t be your opponent.

Why we fight

I got bullied on Twitter a bit back. I’m not going to make a big deal of it – it only really bothered me for a couple of hours, and I had kicked it off by saying something really unusually stupid; lots of people regularly endure worse, with less provocation. But it was interesting, if nothing else. It wasn’t pleasant to see two people happily chatting about how ludicrously, contemptibly wrong I was – still less so when the retweets started – but what really sticks in my mind is the mental state it put me in, which was one of obsessive second-guessing. I’d spend fifteen minutes at a time thinking of the objection or the defence I was going to put forward and working out how I was going to phrase it, then thinking of how they might reply to it, then scrapping my original objection and mentally rewording it – then thinking of ways they might counter that, thinking of possible replies to their replies, and so on. I felt like a mouse on a wheel; whenever I thought I was getting somewhere, moments later I’d have second thoughts and realise that if I said that they could still put me in the wrong, and I’d have to start again. Fortunately I was ‘away from keyboard’ for most of the evening in question, so most of these objections and defences never made it to the screen; eventually I managed to ignore it, and eventually it went away. But it wasn’t fun.

I think this gets at something about bullying, or at least one kind of bullying. It can be summed up in two statements: you’ve got to say something and what you say will be wrong. Just as abuse works by offering false reassurance (you’re contemptible/you know I love you), bullying offers false hope: nothing you’ve said up to now has been any good, but come on, let’s see what you’ve got… bzzt, wrong again! Bullying doesn’t depend on the existence of a relationship involving power, though. Some forms of bullying – e.g. in the workplace – do exploit an existing imbalance of power, but I think it’s far more characteristic for bullying to create its own power relation. The school bully doesn’t generally start out in a position of power or privilege over his or her victims, after all. Like school bullying, social media bullying is something anyone can do, given an appropriate victim; like school bullying, it looks ephemeral and trivial when viewed from outside; and like school bullying, it can have very real consequences.

Now: what’s the difference between this model of bullying and what’s going on in scenario 2 up yonder?

I’m not pitching for sympathy for Ken Livingstone – I don’t even feel sympathy for Ken Livingstone. But I think it’s useful to think of some of the reaction to those interviews in terms of bullying. To set the scene, never forget just how unprecedented Jeremy Corbyn’s election last year was. When I was active on the Left, a while ago, there was a big, broad ‘democratic socialist’ area for us to work in, well over to the Left of the then party leadership (er, Kinnock and Hattersley – I did say it was a while ago). I was in the Socialist Society; we were in in a similar sort of area to Chartist and Tribune and ILP and the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform and the New Statesman, give or take a bit of Labour Party chauvinism on the part of the first two. The Fabians, the Christian Socialists and the Graun were off to our right a bit; over to our Left were the Campaign Group and related hard-liners. We had good relations with some of the hard Left types (Benn), less good with others (Vlad Derer) and some we didn’t really want to talk to anyway (Scargill). Beyond them were the Trots, with the same three-way division; the ISG talked to us, the Mils didn’t, and nobody really wanted to talk to the SWP.

That was in the late 80s and early 90s. We know what happened to the Labour Party soon after that – how Roy Hattersley, for example, found that he’d moved from the Right of the Labour Party to the Left without changing any of his beliefs. The comfortable and well-populated democratic socialist area which the Socialist Society used to occupy is an extreme-left desert now, way out beyond Hattersley – the centre has shifted, and all those left-of-centre groups and publications have shifted with it, or else shut up shop. Bear in mind that, as a result, the Labour leadership has no dependable friends in the media (the Daily Mirror is probably the closest thing). The Graun and the New Statesman are still, by contemporary standards, left of centre; which is to say, they think the elected leader of the Labour Party is a dangerous extremist and feel a lot more comfortable with his sworn enemies.

Because not everyone has chased the ‘centre’ of the party to the Right. Out beyond where we were, there they still are: through everything that’s happened to the Left, Corbyn and Dennis Skinner and a few others kept saying what they’d believed all along, and kept being re-elected. Till finally the ‘centre’ could not hold – at least, it didn’t mean anything any more – and rough old Jeremy’s hour came round at last. The Labour Party of the late 80s looks like a commune of utopian socialists compared to its current incarnation, but even then there was no shortage of people who hated the Campaign Group almost as much as they hated the Tories. How the Right and ‘centre’ of the party must feel now, at having an unreconstructed Campaign Group member as leader – it must be dreadful for them. Really, I can almost sympathise.

Back to bullying. The point is that, however much the Right and ‘centre’ hated last year’s election result, there was nothing that Labour MPs could actually do about Corbyn, other than banging their desk lids at him (or pointedly refusing to bang their desk lids, or whatever that bit of nonsense was). And there was nothing that their friends in the media could do about it, other than wringing their hands, promoting backbench rebels and talking down the party’s prospects. Now, after all their laborious and ineffectual attempts to undermine him, Corbyn’s party enemies and their media friends have finally struck gold: someone’s actually done something wrong. And they are not going to let it go – the fact that it only benefits the Tories, even the fact that it was actually started by the Tories, means nothing beside the chance to get some hits in on the Left. In a dark moment I wondered if the attack on Naz Shah was actually planned as a set-up: take a young and inexperienced politician, pressurise her until she admits to what you want her to admit to, then sit back and wait for someone to walk into the trap of trying to defend her against unfair criticism (what do you mean, unfair? are you denying what she did? perhaps you’re the real problem…) If so, it succeeded beyond all expectations.

Pace Vaclav Havel, living in truth isn’t the power of the powerless. The power of the powerless is bullying somebody else powerless: for as long as you’re asking the questions, you’re the one in charge. But by the same token, a bully is someone who can’t get what he or she really wants. Don’t get angry with John Mann, feel sorry for him. (He’d hate that.)

This land is my land

I’ll end this overlong and overdue post with a couple of rays of hope, interspersed with something that doesn’t look like one at all: gloom sandwich. The first is the point I’ve just touched on: bullying considered as the power of the powerless. Bullying is horrible to endure – it has that obsessional, mouse-wheel quality of soaking up all your time and attention – but it’s not cost-free for the bully him- or herself; it takes up at least some of the bully’s time and attention, without actually getting them anywhere, or doing anything apart from disempowering the victim. Every bully has something they would much rather achieve – they would rather you would just shut up, or just not be there; it’s only because they can’t achieve that that they settle for bullying you. You don’t follow someone around, getting in his face and making a scene in public, if you can stop him saying what he’s saying; you don’t demand somebody clarify their position on X, their views of the implications of their position on X, their views on someone else’s interpretations of the implications of cont’d p. 94 if you can hold them to account for something they’ve actually done.

Not all the anti-Corbyn machinations can be described as bullying – some of them are much more serious (Jarvis, Reeves), as well as being much less noisy. But when you see a lot of people being relentlessly aggressive and unpleasant with no obvious goal or game plan, it’s worth considering that they’re being relentlessly aggressive and unpleasant because they’ve got no obvious goal or game plan. If they’re shouting at Corbyn, it’s because they can’t touch him: force an election and he’ll win again; try to change the rules and Corbyn’s supporters will block it. The only way Corbyn’s leadership of the party is going to end is if he resigns of his own accord – and bullying isn’t going to make that happen. (This is someone who’s been a politician since 1974; I think we can assume he’s developed a fairly thick skin over the years.) People like Mann – and their friends in the media – are making a noise for the sake of making a noise, because there’s nothing more effective that they can do.

But if Corbyn isn’t going to go away, neither is the issue that sparked all this off. Speaking as an ex-Zionist (long story, another time), I don’t think it will really do to say that 72% of British Jews identify as Zionists, therefore attacks on Zionism are tantamount to attacks on (most) British Jews. Zionism is a body of ideas, irrespective of how widely it’s held, and the expression of views opposed to it has to be legitimate. I’d hazard a guess that at least 72% of the population of Cheadle are staunch believers in capitalism, but we wouldn’t say that selling Socialist Worker in Cheadle should be banned because of the offence it might cause. (At least, I hope we wouldn’t.) At the same time, I don’t think it will really do to say that Zionism is just a body of ideas, or that Israel is just a nation state like any other. There’s an element of naivety – or even bad faith – in saying, in effect, “so 72% of British Jews identify as Zionists, so what?”. However much we might sympathise with the diasporist minority, however much we might wish there were more Bundists around, we need to recognise that support for the state of Israel – and investment in the dream of Zionism, as realised (however imperfectly) in the state of Israel – runs both broad and deep in the Jewish community. At the same time – coming back to my starting point – opposition to Zionism is a valid political position, and it’s one which is becoming increasingly vocal and visible. The two aren’t going to be reconciled by holding an inquiry or reaching an agreement on which terms can and can’t be used. On one side, support for a national home for a persecuted minority; on the other, opposition to an aggressive and unlawful occupying power. Nobody wants to oppose a national home for a persecuted minority, whatever Jonathan Freedland thinks, and I should hope that nobody wants to support an aggressive and unlawful occupying power, but avoiding both is harder than it sounds. (Note at the foot of Freedland’s piece: The illustration that originally accompanied this piece has been removed because it included a representation of the shape of Israel that failed to distinguish between Israel itself and the territories it has occupied since 1967.) There’s a real and intractable conflict here – which is only to be expected, considering that there’s a real and intractable conflict on the ground.

The good news (finally) is that, pace Freedland, this isn’t a conflict over the existence of the state of Israel – how could it be? – but over the direction of travel. (As political debate usually is.) Is Israel going to continue the direction of the last 49 years – more annexations, more settlements, more segregation, more collective punishment of the Palestinian people – or will there, finally, be a change of course? I’m optimistic; the strength of the international movement for boycott, disinvestment and sanctions is growing, and I don’t think it’ll be too long before Western governments see Israel very much as they saw South Africa in the 1980s – i.e. as a vital international ally which they continue to support in public, while recognising the need to put on the pressure behind closed doors. I think change is coming, and I suspect that when it does come it will come quite quickly. (1985: Thatcher describes sanctions against South Africa as a “tiny, tiny, tiny” concession to Commonwealth pressure. 1990: Mandela walks free.) So perhaps the bullying, illogic and assorted scenario-2 behaviour which so often accompanies accusations of anti-semitism is itself a sign of weakness (see also Fraser v UCU).

That’s all very well, but how am I going to fill the next two hours?

Here are some of the better pieces on the Livingstone brouhaha. I’m going to list them in date order, for simplicity and also to track how the story developed. I’m not going to defend every statement in every one of them (why would I?), but I do pretty much agree with everything in this list & think it’s worth reading – which isn’t the case for some of the stuff linked in the body of the post.

25th April
Open Democracy, “New accusations of antisemitism thrown at the left are flimsy”
Jamie Stern-Weiner on the Oxford University Labour Club and NUS anti-semitism stories. (Guido Fawkes exposed Naz Shah’s two-year-old Facebook post the following day.)

27th April
Open Democracy, “Jeremy Corbyn hasn’t got an ‘antisemitism problem’. His opponents do.”
Jamie Stern-Weiner provides a comprehensive overview of incidents of Labour Party anti-semitism, real and fabricated. Essential background reading.

28th April
Electronic Intifada, “How Israel lobby manufactured UK Labour Party’s anti-Semitism crisis”
Asa Winstanley goes into detail on the roots of the Oxford University Labour Club story.
Leninology, “The ‘anti-semitism’ panic”
Leninology, “Pitch forks at the ready”
Richard Seymour has been all over this from early on. The second of these pieces responds to Ken Livingstone’s intervention.
Guardian, “The elephant in the room in Labour’s antisemitism row”
By Keith Kahn-Harris; one of the few really worthwhile MSM pieces on all of this.

29th April
Open Democracy, “The multiple truths of the Labour antisemitism story”
Really excellent piece by Adam Ramsay – essential reading.
Jamie Stern-Weiner, “Ken Livingstone: gobshite yes, anti-semite no”
Does what it says on the tin.

30th April
Leninology, “Where the twain meet”
Richard Seymour does some serious thinking about anti-Zionism and anti-semitism.
lives; running, “The friends I want to have, and the friends I don’t”
Thoughtful, personal piece by Dave Renton.
Jamie Stern-Weiner, “Jonathan Freedland’s plea”
An acerbic, evidence-based response to Freedland.

1st May
Crooked Timber, “Antisemitism in the Labour Party – what’s going on?”
Long, thoughtful, considered piece from Dan Davies – essential reading. Even the comment thread went well to begin with.

3rd May
Whitey on the Moon, “Our Plea to Jonathan Freedland: Treat Israel As You Would Any Other Colonial State”
Excellent counter-argument to Freedland’s ‘plea’.
Jamie Stern-Weiner, “Labour’s phoney ‘anti-semitism’ scandal: the liars behind the lies”
Jamie has a go at Dan Hodges and Hugo Rifkind. Particularly interesting for the comments, in which Rifkind has a go right back.
Leninology, “Yes, it is a witch-hunt”
“no one is ‘innocent’, all of us have been politically impure. So the existence of real problems, where they exist, may provide the occasion or raw material for a witch-hunt, but it is not its point, and it is not a justification”
Open Democracy, “The American Jewish scholar behind Labour’s ‘antisemitism’ scandal breaks his silence”
Jamie Stern-Weiner interviews Norman Finkelstein. Essential reading.

100 Years Ago (4)

Let’s revisit the “working class drift” model. Here’s Stephen Bush:

Under Ed Miliband … Labour was divided between “people who drink wine, and people who drink lager”. Wine drinkers drifted away to the Green Party. Lager drinkers trickled away to Ukip. The result: thumping defeats across England and Wales. Under Corbyn, that Greenward drift has gone into reverse. … The Ukip trickle, however, is turning into a flood in some places.

And Rafael Behr:

the immediate worry is Ukip gobbling up Labour’s white working-class support

the malaise in Labour heartlands is … a function of votes long taken for granted, combined with a sense of Labour’s capture in the 90s by arrogant southern elites: that it was “poncified”. That expresses deeper alienation, connected to the decline of secure manufacturing jobs and to mass migration

[Corbynism feels like] a catalyst for decline … distinct from Blairism only in the sense that they are opposite sides of one Islington coin

Feel the liberal middle-class guilt: those poor white working-class voters, left stranded by the destruction of heavy industry, feeling beleaguered by immigration, finding nobody to speak for them but a bunch of privileged southerners who’d rather be speaking to immigrants anyway… Labour has abandoned its (White) working-class roots, and the White working class is returning the favour by drifting away from Labour. Moving to the Left is no help, because these days that just means attracting wine-drinking, Guardian-reading Green sympathisers (Bush) or another variety of soft southern elitists (Behr). What we need is… well, what do we need, at the end of all this? What do we need, to address the people of the heartlands whose deeper alienation is associated with mass migration, and who are so disconnected from political debate that they see no difference between Blair and Corbyn? What starts as introspective New Labour guilt-tripping ends as straightforward UKIP populism – anti-political (seriously, no difference between Blair and Corbyn?) and distinctly tinged with racism.

In another, saner world Labour Party watchers would have seen last week’s by-election as the test of whether there was any truth to the “working class drift” model, and would have greeted the result with whoops of joy. Because, surely, if this theory was ever going to work anywhere, it would work in Oldham, with the most left-wing leader Labour has had in decades. Ta-da – the theory’s been put to the test and it’s failed: there isn’t a vast, inexorable drift of working-class support to UKIP and away from Labour! Happy days! Better put that political obituary on hold, and get back to thinking about how we’re going to win next time.

In reality, of course, the reaction has been rather less positive. Some people have simply trotted out the same old story again: an article on LabourList takes the “it’ll happen next time, you mark my words” approach, while Roy Greenslade wonders whether to revise a piece he’d prepared earlier (“I spent days wondering whether I should publish this piece”) and decides not to bother:

It has been noticeable for many years that there has been a disconnect between the culture, lifestyle and social outlooks of the majority of the party’s MPs and the people they seek to represent. Note, for instance, Ukip’s level of support in Labour working class areas where its anti-immigrant message has proved a potent vote-gatherer.

I feel your pain, Roy. Or rather, pleasure, obviously – what Labour supporter wouldn’t be pleased by a result like that? (Come on, Luke Akehurst is pleased. Yes, it’s happened – I agree with Luke Akehurst, up to a point.)

But, as we saw in the first of these posts, most of the commentariat reacted to the good news by simply shifting from one line of attack to another, rather less plausible line. You can’t say working class voters are drifting away from Labour when the figures in front of you say they aren’t, but you can say that the majority wasn’t as big as it looked, it should have been bigger, it doesn’t matter anyway, and so on. (And look over there! Enver Hoxha!)

Coming from self-avowed Labour supporters, it’s all very odd – but maybe not inexplicable. One of Freud’s breakthroughs in analysing dreams was the – apparently dogmatic – insight that all dreams are wish fulfilment: the fear and disgust you feel in dreams are states of affairs you want to relive, either because they’re perversely coded as security and pleasure or because they’re a price you believe you should pay, and hence fantasise about paying, for those things. Working out why you have those attachments, and what they’re rooted in, is the job of dreamwork – the patient’s free-associating disentanglement of the dream and everything related to it (and everything that comes up in dreamwork is related to it). I’m not saying that the rise of UKIP is a fantasy – it’s out there and we’re stuck with it, at least for the time being (the party’s ever more overt racism is surely a sign of desperation). But UKIP’s clamorous success in the 2015 General Election owed a great deal to two one-off political events – the implosions of the BNP and the Liberal Democrats – and one anomalous condition which has thankfully ceased to obtain, viz. the attention and respect which the BBC paid to the party during the last parliament. I don’t think it’s the case that UKIP’s modus operandi is poaching votes in large numbers from Labour – still less that the party has a hotline to the collective unconscious of the ‘White working class’. If Labour people are having that kind of nightmares, it’s because they want to have them. Perhaps, deep down, they can’t imagine a working class that isn’t collectively ignorant and bigoted; perhaps they believe that sacrificing their liberal principles to appease ignorant bigots is the price they should pay for taking power.

Or perhaps it’s simpler than that. The aftermath of last week’s election reminded me forcibly of a period in the 1980s when by-elections always seemed to be greeted by Anthony King or Ivor Crewe announcing that this was a very disappointing result for Labour, even if Labour had just won the seat. I remember a Steve Bell strip in which an unnamed Newsnight pundit is challenged on his relentless negativity and replies, “Well, you just have to look at the facts. And the facts are that I don’t like the Labour Party, I never have liked the Labour Party and I never will like the Labour Party!”

And maybe that’s all there is to it. If King, Crewe, Peter Jenkins, Polly Toynbee(!) and the rest were relentlessly negative about the Labour Party in the 1980s, that’s not unrelated to the fact that they were pinning their hopes on an entirely different party – a party that could only succeed by replacing, or at least displacing, the Labour Party. Perhaps Behr, Bush, Cowley, Harris et al are also hankering after an entirely different party – not the SDP but the party that absorbed (or re-absorbed) some of its best people, which is to say New Labour. If so, though, it’s not at all clear what their game plan is. The SDP had a plan and followed it through: first split Labour, then discredit the party, then defeat it electorally (and Profit!). However, it didn’t work, and led most of the leading participants either into the political wilderness or round the houses and back into the Labour Party; it was also instrumental in giving the country 18 years of Tory government, which was a bit of an adverse side-effect. So the nostalgists for New Labour are fighting shy of splitting the party, and long may they do so (I agree with Luke on that one). But this isn’t accompanied by a broader rethink on how to replace the party with something entirely different, or even whether replacing the party with something entirely different is actually a good idea. Rather, they’ve simply skipped to step 2, discrediting the party, and set up camp there: attack the party’s leadership, pour scorn on the party’s members and talk down the party’s achievements, and repeat. (From Mao to Momentum to that disappointing result in Oldham… to Hoxha, and off we go again.) I don’t know what this is supposed to achieve, or how it’s supposed to achieve it; the sad thing is, I don’t think they do either. At this point I circle back to thinking about psychological explanations – if you know, deep down, that Labour Party politics is about abandoning your principles and playing to the middle ground, the rise of a politician like Corbyn must be almost physically painful. I picture the first draft of some of these columns reading something like this:

Jeremy Corbyn today no! no! wrong!

Jeremy Corbyn announced today that he NO! WRONG!

Jeremy wrong! WRONG! Not how we do it!

Then they go and make a coffee, take a few deep breaths and sublimate the rage into printable snark:

Jeremy Corbyn today shocked even his diehard acolytes with an announcement seemingly straight out of the Eastern Bloc playbook

and that feels a bit better, for a while.

In the fifth and final part: all right, clever clogs, what did happen in Oldham?

The gate to the law (part 1)

So why all the legal stuff? I seem to be posting little else these days; I’ve even started a separate blog, devoted to one specific corner of legal theory. Am I a lawyer? (No, I’m a lecturer in criminology.) Have I got a legal background? (No.) Is it connected with my work? (Well… no, not really. Not just yet.)

So what is the fascination of this (very specialised) field of study? And what has it got to do with my actual academic career – particularly bearing in mind that I began this career fairly late on (it’s my third, roughly speaking), and it took me several years of hard work to get across the starting line? It’s taken me long enough to get to here, in other words, so why am I digging over there?

I’ve been wondering about this, and here’s what I’ve come up with. Here’s the first instalment, at least; the rest will appear on another blog.

BROD: Then there’s no hope?
KAFKA: Plenty of hope, endless amounts of hope! But not for us.

It begins, as far as I can make out, with damnation. Continue reading

About a boycott

A few basic principles about boycotts.

1. Politically-motivated choice is legitimate

1.1. Jane is purchasing a good, which we’ll call G. What G is doesn’t matter – some oranges, a magazine subscription, a cultural event which her organisation will host. G1 and G2 – the offerings from suppliers S1 and S2 – are more or less equivalent in Jane’s estimation. She has to choose one or the other; she chooses G1 over G2 not because of anything to do with the good itself, but because political principle P predisposes her against supplier S2.

1.2. This choice, as described, is plainly legitimate. It’s a familiar kind of calculation: under apartheid, South African apples and wine were (probably) as good as similarly-priced alternatives; like many other people, I chose not to buy apartheid produce. Ultimately it is no different from a politically-motivated positive choice: the choice to shop at the Co-op rather than Tesco, say, or to take out a subscription to Red Pepper rather than the New Statesman.

1.3. Of course, we may not agree with the specific principle P which motivates Jane’s choice, and if so we may not approve of the choice. But we should not expect to approve of all Jane’s choices, unless we already know that we are in complete agreement with Jane. If Jane’s purchases are guided by her enthusiasm for veganism or her support for the Liberal Democrats, she is not going to make the same choices that I would make. Her choices are her concern.

1.4. One person’s choices may have effects on other people. If I disagree with Jane’s principles, then – to the extent that her choices affect me – I may well not be happy about them; if Jane is doing my shopping for me, I may even end up asking somebody else, with more sympathetic principles, to do it. But Jane’s choice – like my choice in this second scenario – remains legitimate: she is a free and rational individual who has the right to hold her own set of principles P and choose how to follow them, as are we all.

2. Boycotts are legitimate

2.1. A boycott is a special type of politically-motivated choice. Jane boycotts supplier S when she chooses to go without good G altogether rather than offend against principle P. It is intrinsic to a boycott that G is valuable. (If G were not of particular value – if it were a matter of choosing between broadly equivalent rival Gs – we would be looking at a choice rather than a boycott; and if G were of no value to Jane she would not have chosen to purchase it in the first place and the question would not arise.) A boycott is a sacrifice: Jane is giving up G, which she values, for the sake of P.

2.2. Somebody carrying out a boycott imposes a disproportionate cost on herself – disproportionate in the sense that P is taken as an absolute constraint, not to be weighed as one factor among others. This, too, is legitimate. When I was younger I had a particular fondness for Granny Smith apples – no other fruit hit the spot – but I would and did deprive myself of them rather than buy South African. Again, we can liken the disproportionate cost of a boycott to the disproportionate cost of a positive choice: the decision to take out a subscription to Red Pepper in the certain knowledge that one wouldn’t read it, for example. (Perhaps because one already had a subscription. It’s really quite good these days; the cultural coverage has improved a lot.)

2.2.1. The value of G is not an argument against boycotting S. A boycott is a sacrifice; the more valuable G is, the greater is the sacrifice undertaken in boycotting its supplier S. A boycott cannot be challenged by emphasising the value of G (but you really like Granny Smiths!). If anything, the value of G counts in favour of the boycott: if G is extraordinarily valuable, the boycott is an extraordinarily powerful demonstration of Jane’s commitment to P.

2.3. We saw, in the broader case of political choices, that one person’s choice can affect other people, and that someone who disagrees with P may not approve of choices motivated by P. Both of these points necessarily apply in the case of a boycott. Suppose that Jane is an extreme right-winger who supported the Pinochet regime and holds a grudge against all subsequent Chilean governments. Most people reading this will not approve of Jane choosing not to buy Chilean produce, all other factors being equal, on those grounds; a fortiori, we would certainly not approve of Jane applying an absolute boycott to Chilean goods on those grounds.

2.4. Nor would we be happy about Jane doing our shopping for us, if we were housebound or incapacitated. But Jane’s choices are still legitimate, despite the repugnance of their grounds – and hence of their consequences, or rather of the implications which can be drawn from their consequences.

2.4.1. The value of G to a third party is not an argument against boycotting S. The argument at 2.2.1. holds: the message of the boycott is now that Jane’s commitment to P is such that she is willing to bear the cost of disappointing other people by depriving them of G. An ethical greengrocer could choose to refuse to stock South African produce, even in the knowledge that its customers had a particular fondness for Granny Smiths and did not share her beliefs. The choice might not be good business, but it would be legitimate and should be respected as such.

3. Politics come first

3.1. It makes no sense to challenge a boycott as harmful or costly: a boycott is a sacrifice. It makes no sense to challenge a boycott as disproportionate: it is in the nature of boycotts to be disproportionate.

3.2. A boycott is a costly and disproportionate act carried out in commitment to a political principle. To the extent that we do not share that commitment, we will not approve of the boycott.

3.2.1. However, to the extent that we do not share that principle, we would not approve of any action motivated by it, just as we would not agree with any statement made to advance it.

3.2.2. The political discussion is separate from the question of the legitimacy of the tactics used.

3.3. The key question to be asked of a boycott is: assuming rational actors motivated by a genuine commitment to a political principle which can legitimately be held, can this disproportionate sacrifice be justified? (The question is not whether we believe that it is justified.)

3.3.1. This is a question expecting the answer Yes. A boycott is, in principle, a legitimate political tactic, irrespective of our position on the political cause involved. (It may on occasion not be the best tactic to use, but this is a question for the people using it.)

3.3.2. To say that a boycott is not a legitimate tactic is, generally, to say that the principle for which it is undertaken is not a legitimate political cause.

4. Inconsistency is irrelevant

4.1. If I have never stolen, I can steal for the first time. If I have never handled other people’s money without stealing, I can choose not to steal for the first time. Perhaps the acts I have never carried out are political: I have never taken out a magazine subscription on the basis of a positive political commitment, or crossed ‘apples’ off my shopping list on the basis of a negative commitment. This has no bearing on whether I choose to do either of these things in future.

4.2. The value of an action is not determined by whether the actor has ever done it before; the legitimacy of a choice is not determined by whether the actor has ever made that choice before.

4.3. To criticise somebody for imposing a boycott for the first time, in pursuit of a principle one supports, would amount either to holding them to account for something they are no longer doing or criticising them for an improvement in their conduct.

4.3.1. We may believe that the boycott is an aberration and that in future their conduct will return to its original course; however, this in itself does not give any grounds for criticising their present behaviour, which by definition we approve of.

4.4. We may criticise somebody for imposing a boycott for the first time, in pursuit of a principle we do not support; in this case, however, we would not be criticising their inconsistency but (simply) the fact that they were taking action in support of a principle we did not support.

4.5. The fact that a boycott is being imposed for the first time cannot make it illegitimate.

5. Selectivity is inevitable

5.1. In one light, selectivity at a given time and inconsistency over time are the same concern, and are equally irrelevant. Why did I steal from that particular newsagent when I’d never stolen before? Because that was where I happened to be. Why did I hand over this purse untouched when I’d always stolen from them before? Because that was the one I was handling when the pangs of conscience struck. There is no reason to ask these questions.

5.2. Someone boycotting a particular supplier S, on the basis of a particular (legitimate) principle P, can be accused of ‘singling out’ S. There may be many potential suppliers – S1, S2, S3… – whose deserve to be boycotted on the basis of P. Moreover, there are many legitimate political principles – P1, P2, P3… – on the basis of which boycotts could be implemented. Why this principle? Why this supplier?

5.2.1. To guide one’s conduct by every imaginable political principle (P1, P2, P3…) is an obvious absurdity.

5.2.2. To guide one’s conduct, to any significant extent, by every political principle to which one assents would in practice be impossibly burdensome, unless one’s political commitments were extremely limited.

5.3. The narrower goal of applying a single principle with complete consistency – boycotting every supplier who infringes it (or else boycotting none of them) – may seem realisable in theory, but reflection shows that complete consistency would require complete knowledge and the willingness to take any imaginable cost.

5.3.1. Complete consistency in the application of a single principle is an ideal rather than a standard: in Fuller’s terms, part of a morality of aspiration (a set of excellences one aims to realise) rather than a morality of duty (a set of minimum requirements one undertakes to meet).

5.3.2. To criticise somebody for inconsistency in the application of a principle one supports is to criticise them for failing to realise an ideal, not failing to meet a standard.

5.4. To criticise somebody for inconsistency in the application of a principle one does not support is, in general, to criticise them for acting on that principle at all (see 3.2.1.).

6. Equality is difficult

6.1. Although the effects of a boycott on third parties do not, in general, affect the legitimacy of the boycott (see 2.4.1.), a boycott whose effects tend systematically to disadvantage a particular population group – by depriving them of goods or services, or even by causing them offence and distress – may be illegitimate for that reason.

6.1.1. This is true of any action which has such effects; there is nothing about boycotts making them particularly liable to delegitimation on these grounds.

6.2. The principle of non-discrimination is unproblematic in the case of innate characteristics such as gender and ethnicity, and relatively unproblematic in the case of religion (which very often amounts to an innate characteristic, at least in the perceptions of the believer herself).

6.3. Extending it to political beliefs – even long-held and hard-to-change beliefs – is problematic, however.

6.3.1. To hold a political belief is to believe that certain changes should be made to the distribution of wealth, power and relatively advantage, and that certain arguments should be made and listened to more widely.

6.3.2. To pursue a political belief is to make arguments which may offend one’s opponents, and to attempt to realise changes which will disadvantage them.

6.4. There is an asymmetry built into prejudices against innate characteristics: the political actor who aims to disadvantage Jews, Muslims, women or children has many opponents who are not political actors.

6.4.1. By contrast, political prejudice is symmetrical: to be prejudiced against Liberal Democrats, for example, is to be prejudiced against political actors like oneself.

6.4.2. Within the political context, animosity towards other political actors is normal; within this context, the idea of political prejudice has very little meaning.

6.5. To delegitimate political discrimination is to cantonise politics as a specialised pursuit, only engaged in at set times and in certain places.

6.5.1. This is undesirable.

6.6. To delegitimate political discrimination in a given area is to delegitimate political action in that area.

6.6.1. In some areas (e.g. the employer/employee relationship) political action should in fact be illegitimate, making the delegitimation of political discrimination unproblematic.

6.6.2. In others, outlawing political discrimination (and hence political action) may be the only way to be sure of outlawing racial or religious discrimination.

6.7. In all cases, delegitimating political discrimination has a cost and should only be undertaken with that cost borne in mind.

When strangers were welcome here

There’s a particular move in populist politics which I think of as the Death Spiral. (I was going to call it the Death Spiral of Hate, but – while indubitably more precise – that wording is probably cranking it up a bit too high for the first paragraph of a post.) It’s a bit like conjuring a folk devil and a bit like a political bidding war; it’s more contained and predictable than the folk devil phenomenon, though, and it’s unlike a bidding war in not needing a partner (although others can certainly join in).

It goes like this. First, somebody in government (or in friendly media) stokes up hatred against a particular group. Then the government responds to public concern – well, you’ve got to respond to public concern, haven’t you? – and takes action against the group. Here’s the twist: the action that the government takes doesn’t lead the hatred to subside; the angry mob doesn’t put down the pitchforks and douse the torches, satisfied that somebody’s finally listened to them and done something. The government’s action leaves the well of popular hatred very much undrained; it may even top it up. Because then, after all, the public can once again express its very real concerns – and that will give the government something to respond to (you’ve got to respond to real public concerns). Once started, the process can go round and round indefinitely: the government and its supporters sing an endless call-and-response of resentment and self-righteous severity, opposition parties are wrong-footed or forced to tag along, and everybody’s happy – except the poor sods who are getting interned, denied benefits, etc.

For example: five years ago Louise Casey – then working for the Labour government as a consultant on ‘community’ issues – argued that community sentences should be made both tougher and more visible. People carrying out unpaid work as part of a non-custodial sentence should do it out in public where people can see; to make sure people do see, they should wear those orange boiler-suits out of Misfits, or hi-viz jackets, or both. So people doing ‘Community Payback’ would become a familiar sight; instead of thinking of community sentences as a soft option, people would see the reality of ‘community punishment’ and think… well, what? Would they think, those kids picking up litter are really suffering – that looks just as bad as prison to me! It seems more likely that they would see people in orange boiler suits who weren’t working particularly hard (they might be chatting among themselves, they might even be stopping for a fag) and think, I used to think community service was a soft option – now I’m sure!. Five years on, the perception of non-custodial sentences as a soft option certainly doesn’t seem to have gone away.

My son brought another example to my attention the other day. You know this proposal to deny benefits to immigrants until they’ve been here for three months? Won’t that make them more likely to take any job that’s going, even below the minimum wage, even working cash-in-hand? “Mmm, yeah,” I said. And won’t that… I caught up. “Won’t that create more competition with the very lowest-paid British workers, thereby creating even more resentment of immigrants and even more pressure to get tough on immigration, again? Yes, I think it will.”

Whatever else I could say about Louise Casey and David Cameron, I don’t think either of them is stupid; as PM, Cameron even has a kind of intellectual praetorian guard, responsible for making sure that his ideas are in working order (as well as for preserving him from contact with any ideas from the outside world). I think he knows what he’s doing (as did Casey); I think he’s identified an appetite that will grow with feeding, and he’s making sure it’s fed.

It’s sometimes argued that populism is directionless and reactive, subject to lurches in any number of directions; it’s sometimes even argued that populism can or should be used by the Left (“where’s the Nigel Farage of the Left?” and so forth). On this way of thinking, ‘Death Spiral’ effects emerge when populism just happens to lurch in the direction of giving an unpopular minority a kicking. They may be no more than an unfortunate side-effect of giving the people what they think they want, in other words. Ed Miliband’s intervention gives the lie to this argument and throws the Death Spiral into relief, by demonstrating that it’s not the only way to address people’s worries about immigration. While it doesn’t necessarily go as far as Mike would have liked (and certainly isn’t framed in his terms), Ed’s statement takes on those who attack economic immigration and effectively calls their bluff. After all, the problem of low-paid immigrants – to the extent that there is such a problem – is by definition a problem of employers choosing to (a) employ immigrants to the exclusion of native workers and, not unrelatedly (b) to pay immigrants less than native workers; constrain those choices (whether from above, as Ed prefers, or from below) and a material source of conflict between two groups of workers disappears. (Those two groups may still hate each other on the basis of free-floating prejudice, but those feelings tend to fade over time – at least, they do if they aren’t reinforced.) Marxists know that the important antagonisms start with material interests, and that that’s where the changes need to be made. And so does Ed.

Another group which is supposed to take a grown-up view of immigration are the economic liberals, and particularly the intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic of right-libertarianism. Bryan Caplan certainly sets the right tone at the outset of his 2012 Cato Journal paper (PDF), arguing that there are no relevant differences between a Haitian being denied entry to the US and a US citizen going to Haiti on a relief mission and then being denied re-entry. (Oh, very well, a US citizen and all of his/her family went to Haiti to help out, and they were all denied re-entry. Happy now?) But we needn’t join Caplan in his helicopter to appreciate the force of his arguments against restrictions on immigration. Caplan addresses four arguments against free immigration, focusing on its effects on low-waged workers, welfare spending, cultural cohesion and the political sphere; he argues in each case that the costs may not be as high as they’re made out to be, and that any costs which are incurred can be mitigated at a lower overall cost than the cost currently imposed by restricting immigration. He concludes:

there are cheaper and more humane solutions for each and every complaint. If immigrants hurt American workers, we can charge immigrants higher taxes or admission fees, and use the revenue to compensate the losers. If immigrants burden American taxpayers, we can make immigrants ineligible for benefits. If immigrants hurt American culture, we can impose tests of English fluency and cultural literacy. If immigrants hurt American liberty, we can refuse to give them the right to vote.

There’s a lot to like about this paper (I’ve always considered myself a libertarian Marxist), but two aspects of Caplan’s argument gave me pause. One, exemplified by the passage quoted above, is the nonchalantly instrumental use made of some fairly sweeping restrictions on citizenship. It seems to me that to declare that any member of a defined category of individuals will be denied the vote – or denied welfare benefits, or taxed at a higher rate on equivalent income – is to institutionalise inequality, making members of that category significantly unequal to the majority in their enjoyment of the benefits of citizenship. In other words, Caplan is entertaining the possibility of addressing the lack of liberty involved in shutting people out from a given country by letting those people in as second-class citizens. (I don’t say Caplan is proposing doing so, as the main argument of his paper is that the disadvantages of free immigration are either non-existent or much less significant than we imagine. The second-class citizen solution is put forward as a subsidiary argument.)

I find this troubling on a number of levels. Firstly, if we’re talking in terms of nation states – as we plainly are if we’re talking about taxation and welfare benefits – I think it’s legitimate to treat the question of who is allowed to enter a country quite separately from the question of how people are treated within the country. Ultimately I’m for a world with no border controls and no borders, but ultimately I’m for a world with no wage labour. In the mean time, I think that making everybody within an arbitrary area on the map a full citizen, but making it difficult to enter that area, is a more equitable solution than making the border permeable but introducing gradations of citizenship within it. If that’s the only way to get to open borders, in other words, then I’m not so keen on open borders as I was. Secondly, I value citizenship as a good in itself, and I believe that universality (within a given political unit) is one of its key attributes; I’m unhappy with any solution (to any problem) which turns on instituting different categories of citizenship. (Needless to say, I’m opposed to this even – or especially – in cases where it is actually being done: I believe that people who don’t look for work should not be denied unemployment benefit, that visitors to the UK should not be made to pay for healthcare, that prisoners should not be deprived of the vote, and so on.) Thirdly, I wonder what the introduction of graduated citizenship for non-natives would do to citizenship as an experienced social category: would it accustom people to the idea of multiple citizenships, making it possible for further gradations to be introduced and for full citizenship to be restricted to a smaller group? Lastly, I’m particularly troubled by the thought of living in a country where second-class citizenship is imposed on a recognisable and unpopular minority – or, to put it another way, being ruled by a government which imposes second-class citizenship on such a minority. I wouldn’t like to live under a government like that for precisely the same reason that I wouldn’t want to live under a government that closed the borders: in both cases, the government would be differentially imposing restrictions on people disliked by most of its voters. It seems to me that there’s a certain political tone-deafness about Caplan’s paper when he floats these proposals. Immigration restrictions might be enacted by an anti-immigrant government courting immigrant-hating voters, but the same would surely be true of restrictions on benefits or voting rights for immigrants. Even if they were enacted in the purest spirit of right-libertarianism, they would be received as blows against an unpopular minority – and those who welcomed them would soon grow hungry for more.

Secondly, there’s an odd passage in the section in which Caplan addresses the effects of free immigration on the political sphere. The worry here – more of a worry for right-libertarians than for me, or indeed most of us – is that immigrants might bring a ‘statist’ political culture with them and shift their host country’s political spectrum to the Left. After noting that there isn’t much evidence of this happening (for good or ill), Caplan moves on to the effect of ethnic diversity on social solidarity, as expressed in support for a redistributive state. He cites research to the effect that the relationship between the two is inverse – more diversity, less solidarity – and comments:

Social democrats may find this tension between diversity and solidarity disturbing. But libertarians should rejoice: increasing foreigners’ freedom of movement may indirectly increase natives’ freedom to decide who deserves their charity.

Ahem. We weren’t actually talking about charity as such in fact that’s rather the point. (Sorry, just had to say that.) Anyway, there’s more where that came from:

Immigrants are the ultimate out-group. Even today, Americans publicly complain about “immigrants” in language they would never use for blacks or gays. If the knowledge that foreigners attend “our” public schools and seek treatment in “our” hospitals does not undermine support for government spending on education and health care, nothing will.

OK… what just happened? Right-libertarians should support free immigration, not only despite widespread hatred of immigrants but, in part, because of it? The thinking seems to be that right-libertarians should welcome a proprietary, in-group-based attitude to public services, because the extension of those services to immigrants will undermine that attitude and hence discredit the public services themselves. Pride in public services is all to the good, as long as it comes into conflict with the reality of public provision and generates disillusion; and hatred of immigrants is all to the good, as long as its main effect is to undermine social solidarity. Unrestricted immigration may lead to the development of a society of endemic self-centredness and mistrust (by multiplying the objects of distrust and fear), but this in itself should be welcomed: a cohesive, high-trust society is a society where people tend to support public provision of services.

What Caplan is expressing, or – what’s the word? – adumbrating here is the logic of the Death Spiral. If you start pointing out how public money is being spent on the wrong services (and especially) for the wrong people, that won’t lead to a trimmed and rationalised set of public services which everyone can be happy with – it’ll lead to an endless whittling away of those services, as more and more occasions for outrage are unearthed. What’s interesting about Caplan’s argument is that the Death Spiral is set out quite openly and frankly: the more immigrants are seen to be using public services, the more pressure there will be to reduce those services – and the less tolerance there will be for immigrants using them.

The underlying logic of the Death Spiral is cynical and simple: there is an out-group, there are people who will be satisfied by seeing it get a kicking, and their satisfaction can be exploited – either for political support or to further a larger objective, as in Caplan’s argument. We’re dealing here with what John Rawls called “other-directed preferences”. Rawls argued that a just political order should give equal weight to all citizens’ preferences, but only their “self-directed” preferences: my desire to have the vote, a decent education and opportunities in life should be recognised, but not my desire to deprive you of those things – even if there were a lot of ‘me’s and only a few ‘you’s. I think it’s definitive of populism that it valorises, and orchestrates, other-directed preferences: populism isn’t always socially reactionary, but even the mildest, most herbivorous populism expresses preferences directed at politicians (generally binding and restricting their actions). With Marxism, other-directed preferences aren’t part of the package, the odd revenge fantasy about bankers excepted; in action, Marxism is all about universal needs and generalised empowerment to achieve them. As for right-Libertarianism, Caplan’s unconcern for universal citizenship and his willingness to turn his hand to a Death Spiral argument both make me wonder. Certainly we shouldn’t judge the whole tribe by the Randians, with their grim relish in the come-uppance of the second-handers. Maybe right-Libertarianism isn’t just about dismantling public services, replacing citizenship entitlements with a cash nexus, and be damned to anyone who happens to be dependent on public provision when it all comes down; maybe at its core it’s a genuinely universalisable creed, which can be grounded in my, your, his and her own preference for liberty in just the same way that Marxism can be grounded in our shared preference to eat. But I wonder.

Bavarian gentians

Not every man has felt the pure delight
– the un-self-conscious delight – of sitting forward
suddenly upright and alert, a swallow of beer
still coating the back of his throat as he sits forward
alert on the stained and punctured leather cushion
Detroit soul hanging in the air unheard… it is not
as I say, every man who has known
the unthought joy of budging forward, alert,
glass in hand or close by, saying aloud
(and none too quietly), “Are you on crack?”
addressing the query to a book about the law.

Reach me a gentian, give me a torch… I’m currently reading A debate over rights, for the second and probably not the last time. Heaven knows if I’ll ever make a living – or even score a research grant – out of this stuff, but as reading matter goes I am really enjoying it.

More importantly, I’m liking the directions it’s leading me. To be perhaps more clear than I usually am on this topic, it’s been my conviction for a while that (firstly) there’s something deeply unsatisfactory – something less than fully or universally human – about models of subjecthood predicated on a Kantian model of the rights-bearing individual; and that (secondly) all currently available alternatives – whether they start from a utilitarian calculation of costs and benefits to society as a whole or from less hard-edged assertions of the rights of the ‘community’ – are even worse. We – particularly a Marxist ‘we’ – need something better than a Kantian liberal model of society as composed of individual bearers of jointly compossible rights, but in order to get there I believe we’ll need to wring the liberal model dry, or push it till it breaks. It’s going to be a big job – and, in fairness, reading Kramer et al in a pub may not seem like much of a contribution to it. But it is giving me food for thought in great quantities – even, or especially, those passages I strongly disagree with – which I appreciate greatly. Thanks again, Matthew and Nigel.

Relax and float downstream

Updated 25/11 (third section)

1. And though she feels as if she’s in a play

When I was little, I had an imaginary friend. He used to go with me wherever I went. I used to talk to him inside my head and I knew that he could hear me. And sometimes I’d make wishes, and if I was very lucky he would grant them for me. Then I got a bit older, and I stopped going to church.
– Jimmy Carr

One more religion post, this one inspired by Derren Brown.

On the Fear and Faith programme broadcast last week, Derren Brown induced what he presented as a counterfeit religious experience in an unsuspecting – and unbelieving – volunteer. After talking to her for fifteen minutes in a highly atmospheric church crypt, he left her alone; at this point she felt a sudden urge to stand up and was overwhelmed by a sense of unconditional love, together with the sense that it had been available to her all her life. Some time later, Derren Brown explained how the trick had been worked (with lots of quasi-hypnotic suggestion techniques on his part) and impressed on her that she had done it all herself: the emotion was real, but it was all her own work, with no need to invoke God to explain it.

My immediate reaction was that Derren Brown had completely missed the point of what he was doing. He’d essentially love-bombed this woman, making her feel happy and important; then he’d talked to her about experiences of awe and wonderment, and about the incomprehensible vastness of the universe; then he’d evoked feelings of being cherished, of your life mattering in some absolute sense despite only being an infinitesimal speck within the vastness of the universe. (And then he’d left her alone in a church.) Whatever other NLPish cueing techniques he’d used, just by his manner and his choice of topics he’d steered this woman into feeling ‘religious’ emotions – but they’re emotions which are entirely real, valid and appropriate. You do matter; the universe that surrounds you (in time and space) is vast and incomprehensible; and there’s no better reaction to the massive contradiction between those two facts than a sense of wonder and gladness. So we’ve proved… what?

According to Derren Brown, we’d proved that it was possible to have a religious experience “without God”. Now, Derren Brown was a born-again Christian at one time, so to some extent he knows whereof he speaks, but this strikes me as a bizarre overstatement. For anyone who believes in God, God is in the vastness of the universe, as well as being in that sense of your existence being important and in your reaction to all this. In short, God was there all along. When it comes to the experience of believing in God, on the other hand, that sense of a rush of unconditional love is quite a specific experience; it’s certainly not something believers routinely feel, between one Sunday and the next. What matters in practice is not feeling that God is talking to you, but feeling that you’re trying to talk to God.

Derren Brown (and Jimmy Carr, also an ex-fundamentalist) would probably say that all this openness and doubt and silence is all very well, but it’s not religion as we know it; I could be talking about yoga, or Buddhism at a pinch, but not Christianity. Christianity, surely, is all about knowing that God exists, knowing that God has a plan for you and knowing that God is talking to you from day to day; this is precisely the background faith that Derren Brown’s volunteer didn’t have, which is why we can say that she had her experience ‘without God’.

I don’t know. It strikes me that the knowledge which comes from faith, however certain, is very different from the knowledge that comes from living in the world. Faith is always in dialogue with doubt; if faith-based knowledge was entirely free from doubt it would just be knowledge.

Or is it that simple?

2. And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free

Someone came up to me, and he said to me
I know something that you don’t know.
I was captured by this stance, I gave a second glance
And said “I’ll follow where you go”
– Peter Perrett

This sense of faith as always being accompanied by doubt is what I was getting at in an earlier post about religion. Talking about the idea of religion as a comforter, with particular reference to death, I said

And in any case, just how much comfort can those ‘comforting’ beliefs really be, even if you manage to believe them? I’ve been to a couple of funerals where the continuing existence of the departed was emphasised heavily, and I felt that every restatement was prefixed by a tacit This certainly doesn’t appear to be true, but by God, it’s worth at least trying to believe.

I wonder just how much comfort that comforting knowledge could be – or perhaps what kind of comfort. In the watches of the night, surely the happiest clapper would find it hard to feel any real confidence that God would sort it all out. At my father’s funeral, the vicar told me my father still loved me. I didn’t believe him, but if I had it would just have given me something else for doubt to grapple with. I think what’s healthy and psychologically adaptive about religion is a kind of turning towards something vast and incomprehensible, in a spirit of humility and trust: there’s stuff in our lives that’s beyond understanding, we don’t have to sort it all out, it will be all right. Perhaps explicit religious beliefs – such as the professed belief that my father did still exist, despite all the evidence to the contrary – are a kind of mental exercise: here’s something vitally important to you which absolutely doesn’t make sense, but go with it and it will be all right.

Faith, I think, is always in a dance with doubt. But there are different kinds of dance, and some of them are less healthy than others. Ever since the first of these posts on religion I’ve been thinking I should link to this post; I read it seven years ago and I’ve never forgotten it. The mentality I’m describing goes something like “Something appalling has happened; God let it happen; we can’t understand it but it’ll all make sense some time, and it’ll be all right eventually“. What Justin described in that post is more like “Something appalling has happened; God let it happen; that’s the kind of thing he does, he could do it to us again any time, and we don’t deserve any better“. In other words, instead of opening to grief and bafflement in a spirit of trust, it closes down that grief and makes sense of it – and it makes sense of it by calling it a good thing and bowing down to whatever inflicted it. Doubt is in the dance only to the extent that it’s being emphatically trampled on by faith as it strives for certainty – and since the only things certain in life are loss and death, a God of loss and death is what faith gets pinned on. This is a life-denying, self-abasing, anti-human attitude – and if that was reliably what religion meant, I’d have nothing to do with religion.

Or there’s another form of dance with doubt which can also go under the name of religious belief, although this one takes other forms as well. It doesn’t usually last very long, either; it’s a bit of a young person’s game. I’m thinking of the kind of faith which enacts that doggedly repeated repression of doubt, but in the name of hopeful certainties: as if to say, I would ask questions about eternal life and the Creation and everything, but look – shiny! Everything‘s shiny! The closest I’ve come to this is when I was a novice conspiracy theorist; I fell for the old once you have eliminated the impossible trick over and over again, and found myself clutching some remarkably shiny truths about what was really going on. You can go down quite a rabbit-hole this way, and to be honest it can be quite a trip: the moment that scepticism says Can this be right? It doesn’t fit with how I think the world works, faith counters with Ah, but maybe that’s not really how the world works…, and you’re off again. Believing you’ve tapped into something that’s at once true, comprehensible and important is a heady experience, and letting doubt in on it seems like no fun at all. This kind of faith essentially shouts doubt down, or asks it to wait outside; once the dancing starts properly the faith is liable to collapse.

3. Hold on to that feeling

Sometimes you confuse me with Santa Claus
It’s the big white beard, I suppose
– Elvis Costello

I suppose that combination of true, important and comprehensible is what both these forms of belief share: they both offer truths that make life matter and make it understandable. To put it another way, they both present believers with the contradiction between our belief in our own specialness and the vast indifference of the universe, and they both resolve it. One worldview pictures God as the boss of the world, and from this perspective there is no mystery about why your little life has been trampled on: God did it, because that’s what he does, and he does it because he can. (Besides, who’s to say that you deserved anything better?) The other has God as a Father Christmas figure, with gifts for all the good boys and girls: your life can be as blessed as you feel it should be, and it will be, in the future. Just be good, be patient and don’t stop believing…

It was interesting seeing Derren Brown explaining the characteristics of the religious belief he was going to induce; interesting, as well, seeing how animated he became as he talked about ideas like that of God looking down on each one of us and intervening in our lives. I felt that he, having been a born-again Christian, was harking back to a young person’s religion stocked with shiny, doubt-repressing beliefs: the kind of religion which would interpret the volunteer’s experience by saying yes, that definitely was God’s love you felt, no, it couldn’t have been anything else, yes, that definitely was God actually talking directly to you, absolutely definitely, I wouldn’t consider any other explanation for a moment (and repeat).

If you’re trying to ward off that kind of religious belief, then saying “those are real emotions you’re feeling, but God didn’t produce them” makes a degree of sense – it certainly lets some light in. But if religion is an orientation to the baffling vastness that somehow contains our incomprehensibly significant lives, and if God is a name for that vastness and some people’s experiences of it, then what Derren Brown’s volunteer experienced wasn’t a fake religious experience at all – it was the real thing.

One final analogy, which came to me after I’d read a passage from (bizarrely enough) Derren Brown’s book Tricks of the Mind. Despite (or because of) being an alarmingly proficient hypnotist himself, Derren Brown is very concerned about the ethics of hypnosis, believing that it can do a lot of harm in the hands of untrained or thoughtless users. He argues that it’s essential to talk hypnotic subjects down, so that when they leave they’re in no doubt that they’re no longer hypnotised. You can see his point. A mysterious influence you can’t understand – seemingly preventing you from getting up, lowering your arm, remembering your own name or whatever – is all good fun in a theatre, but it’s not something you’d want cluttering up your mind once you’re back in the real world. What interested me was the comparison which he drew with magic – where, clearly, audiences do experience something they can’t understand and go home without having it explained. Quote:

it seems wrong that the argument that ‘hypnosis isn’t real’ should absolve the hypnotist of all responsibility towards the welfare of his participants. If a hypnotist were able to say to his audience, ‘If you come up, please just play along with everything,’ it might be argued that the subjects should then be responsible themselves. However, given that he is going to manipulate, bully or cajole rather vulnerable people into anything from playing along to really living out what he suggests, and in a way that might be very confusing or unsettling for them, there is a sense in which one should not just immediately decide that he can walk away from any duty of care.

Now perhaps one might argue that according to that logic, a magician should then be held responsible if a participant in a card trick takes the magic way too seriously and loses so much sleep following the performance that he develops an illness. However, this would be a very unusual case, and clearly a reasonable person would not be expected to react in that way. In our hypnosis scenario, though, it is more understandable that a participant might leave the show troubled if handled unprofessionally.

I think what’s troubling about hypnosis, if not handled properly, is that it puts the subject through something which seems entirely real but doesn’t make any sense – and then leaves the subject to try and make sense of it. Magic does something similar, except that it tells the people who experience it, loud and clear, not to worry about making sense of it: it’s just magic. Leaving a hypnotic subject suspecting that she might still be subconsciously under another person’s control – or for that matter leaving her believing that hypnosis has transformed her life for the better – is very much the way those two narrow, doubt-repressing forms of religious belief work. Derren Brown’s scruples about the correct use of hypnosis, as well as being very much to his credit, are of a piece with his opposition to religion, as he sees it. The irony is that the magician – performing the impossible and then saying, You’ve seen what you’ve seen, don’t worry about making sense of it – is creating something much more like what I’d consider a religious experience.

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