Pitchfork of Words

I’m finding something increasingly troubling. Being a frequent commentator on online forums, if I disagree, civility and respect for someone else’s opinion trumps any feelings that I have about the view expressed. My sense of self-worth is untarnished by disagreement. In recent times and in one particular publication, I am no longer to be trusted. At the behest of the AI which monitors online commentary, some of my remarks, however well-intended, have been rejected and at first I found myself, inexplicably, taking this seriously and being ‘offended’ that some faceless bot had had the temerity to deny me my right to speak. It is more than sad that such guardrails have to be put in place to protect those who have a voice, slim and timid, perhaps, but with no way of amplifying it. In hindsight, irksome as it is, I’m glad that these structures are in place. Some social media platforms, with gunslinging abandon, let people say what they damn well please and to hell with any fallout. I’m coming to the conclusion that the whole notion of a ‘safe space’ needs to be re-examined since these places are not psychologically safe at all. Were somebody to address me in the street in language that is entirely acceptable online, I’d call the police.

The flipside is, of course that if you tweeted something racist, sexist, homophobic or whatever after a drunken night out with your mates years ago, somebody might just find out when you apply for a new job and sink your application without trace. 

Sometimes, people write things online that are toxic, malevolent and downright evil, almost like a last despairing cry from the Inferno. J K Rowling has discovered this and it has been very costly for her, even though her view is shared by an overwhelming percentage of the population. Why do they do it? They do it because they can. They seem either unable or unwilling to grasp the idea that the recipient of their venom might feel threatened at worst and at the very least, upset that they’ve been the recipient of such burningly acidic commentary. If somebody threatens to kill you, it’s not unreasonable to suppose that at some stage they might actually attempt to do so. Such people are both pitiable and impoverished. Underlying the bubbling cesspit of rage in which they have simply become lost is something more – something almost bloodless and grasping. There’s a hunger to take but never to give back or pay it forward; there’s monolithic and seemingly interminable ingratitude. They float in a bubble of inflated entitlement, existing in an environment fuelled by economy of truth – it’s all relative, after all. Pronouncements are often bizarrely couched in the language of self-care; “I have a right to say what I want” is either said or implied. Sometimes there’s an expectation always to be helped and rewarded no matter whether deserving or not. Some use language that is totally lacking in emotional intelligence with an astonishing level of self-absorption. Many harbour unrealistic expectations of puritanical groupthink from others and this, together with an over-inflated sense of either ability or talent comes both an inability and extreme unwillingness to apologise without justification. Passion and virtue-signalling can be so well performed in a public space yet is almost totally absent in the intimacy of face-to-face friendship. In this context I’m again reminded of Jo Rowling and the whole debate about ‘transwomen are women’ and how those who have expressed a different view are crucified by an avalanche of invective.

There are far too many social-media-savvy folk who almost choke on sanctimony. They lack real compassion; they  speak fluidly about kindness but are unable to actually show any. I think such people have begun to lose their sense of self. Their behaviour and outward appearance sometimes mimics the particular worldview that has temporarily captured their attention and it changes over time, often with startling rapidity. A rapper, footballer or other influencer writes a sentence on Twitter and tens of thousands chirp in unison, until the next one comes along. It is as if the soul has splintered into several separate component parts and a schizophrenic is now firmly in charge, flitting like a butterfly from one persona to another. The person has become a people, inside. People whose social media lives are case studies in emotional aridity. People for whom friendship and its expectations of loyalty and support, no longer matter. People who are monomaniacally obsessed with whatever is the prevailing ideological orthodoxy and throw their friends under the bus in order to ‘belong’.

People who ask you to ‘educate’ yourself while not having actually read any books, unable to intelligently defend their own ideological positions, because by ‘educate,’ they actually mean ‘parrot what I say, flatten all nuance, wish away complexity.’

People who do not recognise that what they call a sophisticated take is really a simplistic mixture of abstraction and orthodoxy, dressed in the Emperor’s new clothes.

People wield words like ‘violence’ and ‘weaponise’ like tarnished pitchforks. People depend on obfuscation, having no compassion for anybody who might be genuinely curious or confused. Ask them a question and you are told that the answer is to repeat a mantra. Endlessly.

And so, we have a generation of young people on social media so terrified of having the ‘wrong’ opinions that they have robbed themselves of the opportunity to think and to learn and to grow.

Son et Lumière

The other day, I made the mistake of ordering something from the UK. In pre-Brexit days, I used to send them a chatty little note explaining what I’d like to be done with my parcel, usually in English and Bulgarian, just in case the delivery driver was a semiliterate post adolescent who had passed his driving test just last week and is a recent city incomer from a village in the mountains. This time I received a terse note in Bulgarian from the local Customs, saying that my packet was with them and if I gave them a customs declaration number, available on request from the local customs office after a five-hour wait in several queues and being dealt with by unsmiling postmenopausals, they’d release my parcel for delivery to me. The form was in pdf format. Speaking of semiliterates, I couldn’t read it, nor could I copy it into Google Translate. Fortunately, I had a friend who translated the form for me, especially the bit about sending the stuff back. It wasn’t the fault of the retailer, obviously, but I felt I had to find someone to blame, apart from myself, obviously, and the cancellation of my purchase did give me a frisson of schadenfreude. ‘It’s all your fault that we’ve left the EU and to hammer home the fact, the two pairs of chinos I ordered are winging their way back to your warehouse in Cheltenham.’ So there!  No doubt those who have been dealing with this kind of thing since January are sniggering into their beer, but, sadly, I had not. In these new, ‘woke’ days, admitting to being a Remainer is about as popular as admitting you have herpes.

There’s a marvellous scheme called the ‘Best for Britain’ initiative which was set up in 2017 to celebrate being British in the midst of what they perceived as a concerted act of wilful self-harm. It seems, however that it has run a bit short of euros since their latest fundraising initiative was probably thought up in a pub car park after a few too many glasses of warm English ale. It’s a celebration – if that’s the right word – perhaps ‘nakba’ might be more appropriate – of the anniversary of the day we as a nation decided that we’d be better off without straight bananas, the Erasmus project and no border in the Irish Sea. In short, we set about the Great Divorce, with apologies to William Blake who wrote about the Marriage of Heaven and Hell. This wonderfully bone-headed initiative is going to bother the already unhappy citizenry of Brussels and will occur on June 23, the fifth anniversary of the Leave vote. It rains a lot there so that’s obviously why they’re miserable. For a ‘donation’ you can have your name projected on to a spectacularly ugly building in Brussels just at a time when the pubs are emptying since you can’t buy booze in Belgium after 10pm because of Covid restrictions. The social media fallout will be immense. The stunt is being promoted along with a dazzling artist’s impression of what the light show may look like. Beneath it, however, is a note of caution from the organisers, saying: “The real projection is subject to weather, visibility and compliance with Covid-19 regulations.” That’s nice. Being looked after like that. Protected from both rainfall and disease. Better late than never.

The group said the anniversary of the Brexit vote was not “a moment we remember fondly”. Like boarding the train to Auschwitz.

“But this year, we’re marking the occasion by turning it into a message of hope,” it continued. A bit late. Pandora’s box has long since been opened, and the bats have flown away, chum. Perhaps “Ode to Joy” as a soundtrack endlessly repeated for the entire hour the show is scheduled to go on for. Rub salt in the wound, why don’t you.

“We are going to project the names of those citizens who voted to stay, or who regretted voting leave, or anyone else who wants to sign our message, on to buildings at the heart of Europe.” You rather wonder how many A. Hitlers have paid up. Now that would be a laugh.

Organisers optimistically predict there will be “thousands” of names and messages from supporters beamed “as close to the symbolic heart of Europe as possible”. See above. The train now standing at Platform Three will be to all stations to Dachau.

Remainers wishing to mark the occasion are not required to make a donation to Best for Britain, but its website adds: “ Campaign activity and stunts like this cost money, and we try to spend our money on direct campaigning.” It does indeed. In this case a spectacular waste of it. Were I living in Brussels and some clown beamed searchlights on to my building in the middle of the movie, I’d be less than complimentary to the organisers and those fatheaded enough to pay money to disrupt my viewing pleasure. When I found out that it was the Brits, I’d….Yes, I would. Really. Remember Waterloo. Or, er, not.

Chill Winds

Here’s an interesting fact. When 5,625 Americans were asked by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) whether they agreed with the QAnon allegation that “the government, media, and financial worlds in the US are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping paedophiles who run a global child sex trafficking operation,” 15 per cent said ‘yes’. In a world where any belief system has its own version of the truth, people cease to believe in something; instead they believe in anything, sometimes the more fanciful the better. It’s open season for conspiracy theories. 

Religion is a pastime for the old, the mentally feeble, the credulous and the unbalanced. It’s absurd, of course to actually confess that we subscribe to the miraculous, the ridiculousness of a resurrection, the overarching benevolence of a Deity when, as everyone knows – logical fallacy alert – enlightenment can solve all of our problems. If we assert that we do, no longer are we respectfully tolerated but aggressively pilloried – it’s but a step to re-education programs to teach us all the error of our ways.

Lazar Crestin ‘Rabbi Reading’.

There is a creeping, insidious progressive view that a sense of identity and loyalty to place and tribe has little importance in the modern world. It’s strange that it has taken us thousands of years to come to this realisation. People do not belong to affiliations of resonance any longer, or, as C S Lewis put it ‘people like us’, they attach themselves to a prevailing wind which blows where it wills and where we fly our intellectual kites in the hope that they will stay aloft. We are discouraged from questioning male and female roles, since, of course, gender is a construct and the strange idea that men and women are in some way unique and particular in terms of response and motivation is as old-fashioned as snuff. Cambridge University withdrew the offer of a Fellowship to Jordan Peterson because he dared to say what most of us actually thought. There are many who quite rightly fear falling foul of a cultish, bullying drive for diversity and ‘training’ has become a ubiquitous element in workplaces where we seem to need rather more than politeness and good manners when dealing with workmates, students and those with whom we come into contact. We are advised that everyone is in need of a personal pronoun and Heaven help us if we get it wrong.  In the public domain, we are no longer allowed to comment freely, lest we offend, never more so than in online newspapers where commentary, word order and language is scrutinised presumably by a soulless AI bot that decides whether anything we say might be perceived as offensive. We cannot even raise an eyebrow, this is a ‘microaggression’, apparently. If we do, someone, somewhere is going to drop a word in the right ‘woke’ ear and we may be hauled before a kangaroo court of right thinkers to explain ourselves. I suppose it’s a small comfort to learn that based on a survey of more than 11,000 British individuals, 72 per cent of us have no idea what is meant by a ‘microaggression’. This does not alter the fact that transgressions are both becoming more frequent and subject to harsher and harsher reprisals.

And yet, there is one belief that inexplicably gets a free pass – the belief that Palestine exists and one day will be a welcome addition to the UN. If ever we wanted a glance at a menagerie of conspiracy theories, we need look no further than the Arab-Israeli conflict, where to admit to being a Zionist is tantamount to confessing to being a Nazi. First strike – thousands of rockets were fired from Gaza into Israel – mercifully, 90% were stopped by Iron Dome and a goodly percentage fell inside Gaza itself. Israel again was forced to ‘mow the lawn’, attacking tunnels, launch sites and places where Hamas leaders gathered to cripple their ability to do further damage – with some success – the willingness of the Gazan leadership to use human shields and thus propagate the notion of victimhood is a well-worn path which as a piece of propaganda garners considerable public support principally from those who choose to accept the basic principles of the argument without doing much fact-checking to check its veracity. Hamas – implausibly – claimed victory and the world then went on an antisemitic rampage, violence flared in cities everywhere as people took to the streets to accuse the Israelis of war crimes. The avalanche and sheer disproportionality of protest is a clear demonstration of the logical fallacy that if enough people believe it it must be true. There is more than a little moral bankruptcy here in terms of the equivocation, Janus-like,  between the two diametrically opposed positions. Yes, it’s still between radical Islam and the Jews. Perhaps someone ought to point out that the likelihood of the Farthest Mosque being Al-Aqsa is remote; it was far more likely to have been situated somewhere in modern Saudi Arabia.

In the UK, the police were called to protect a head teacher, Mike Roper, after he said that the Palestinian flag was perceived by some as “a call to arms”. Students were wearing Palestinian-themed lanyards at school and his remarks were made in a school assembly. This resulted in protests at the school gates against Roper’s “racism” and “blatant Islamophobia”. Were this not so tragic, it would be laughable since Roper hadn’t criticised the Palestinians’ flag or their cause. He merely observed that some people viewed that flag and cause as a message of support for antisemitism and a call to arms against Jews, which he said it was never intended to be. He apologised. I would not have done. It is open to conjecture as to what might have happened if a student had turned up to school wearing a Magen David, or worse, a kippah.

We are facing an attack on truth and reason the like of which has not been seen for decades. The universities, the media and political classes have formed a watertight echo chamber of ‘progressive’ thinking and they will brook no dissent – truth being the first casualty. Countering false narratives, damping down the fires of incitement and chill winds of fear and consequent punishment is a responsibility not just for governments and leaders. It is the job of us all.

Getting it Right

I was in church today. Quite a frequent occurrence, despite the fact that I sometimes feel like the Oldest Member of the golf club – apologies to P G Wodehouse. Also, I’m the only white face and almost old enough to be grandfather to most. Nearly everybody else is black or at least brown with parentages from the UK, Cameroon, Nigeria, Pakistan and other places which, being elderly, I forget.  Also, they’re all medical students – I think – in various stages of training which I find oddly comforting in that should I suffer a sudden attack of angina there is help – albeit inexperienced – on hand. They are a kindly crew and let me play guitar with the worship team. 

Today’s presentation was basically about faith and works. For those unfamiliar with the idea, the basic premise is that it’s not enough to be a kind of armchair believer who loves an argument over the authorship of Deuteronomy, additionally one has to be prepared to actually do stuff as well. Loving one’s neighbour isn’t confined to a vague warm fuzzy feeling and a comforting pat on the shoulder but more to do with getting one’s hands dirty and occasionally opening one’s wallet. I was once told that sometimes people are so heavenly minded, they’re no earthly use; how often can we be misled by the beatific smile and the shining, if slightly glazed eyes. The idea that hopeful pleadings directed heavenward, with a tick list of requests, ensures that one’s passport is stamped at the Pearly Gates is, unfortunately not true. Rather, doing something constructive like weeding the garden for the bedridden old lady next door or helping someone with a pharmacy bill – that’s getting it right. It’s a bit more difficult to swallow since it requires effort – the kind of muscular faith in action that gets stuff done.

This being so, I was reminded of a post from some years ago and worth a repost today.

“Beneath blue skies in Switzerland, in the cheerful bustling town of Basel, there once lived a great theologian. Each week he taught a seminar at the university, chewing his pipe happily, while students crowded the floor, pressed hard against those ancient walls, laughing at his jokes and responding to his questions with nervous sincerity. He spent his evenings drinking wine and going to concerts and entertaining visitors from faraway places who asked him questions shyly in halting German. On weekends, he tossed bread to the ducks at the river or rode horses or went to see the animals at the zoo. On Sunday mornings he went to the prison and preached in the dimly lit whitewashed chapel; he spoke like a young man (though he was old, with a heart full of old men’s stories) and after the service he exchanged cigars and jokes with the inmates, assuring them that God was, after all, a very jolly God. People used to say that in order to hear the famous Dr Barth preach, they had to commit a crime.

But more than anything, the theologian loved returning each day to his study and to sit writing at his desk, a dark little question-mark hunched in his rumpled suit amidst curling pipe smoke and walls of books that peered down at his labours with all the curious attentiveness of indulgent friends or obstinate relatives. In this manner, day in day out, he filled reams of paper in his meticulous, cramped inky hand. Volume upon volume tumbled brick-like from his pen, solemn great tomes as big and hard and sturdy as workmen’s boots.

And so, while he sat writing and smoking, the fame of those books spread far and wide. Throughout Europe and in remote exotic places, people mentioned his books at dinner parties, taught them in seminaries, wrote books and then entire libraries about them. The Holy Father sought an audience with him. Martin Luther King asked him questions and leaned close to listen. The Japanese formed a school around his name. The Catholics held a council and invited him. The Americans splashed his frowning face across the cover of Time magazine. His birthdays were greeted with a clamour of praise and jubilation, while printing presses in many languages ground out books and journals and essays to honour or refute him. His followers proclaimed his heavy tomes to be the dawning of a new era, while some antagonists and former students devoted every waking hour to trying to prove him wrong on even a single point. Entire scholarly careers were thus busily occupied in this fashion.

The theologian was bemused by these attentions, but he enjoyed them in his own self-deprecating way. And though he travelled and shook hands and talked solemnly and accepted honorary degrees, always he returned before long to that stark little desk with its pipe and pen and tantalisingly clean sheets of paper—empty slates shimmering with promise, like that formless materia prima in the beginning beneath those vast and brooding wings.

Then one December night, while the snow slept on the ground and all the city’s children lay dreaming of Christmas, the theologian died.

Quite suddenly he awoke and found himself standing at the gates of heaven. An angel took him by the elbow and led him in, explaining in hushed tones that everyone was waiting. Inside the gate, the city was bustling with sound and colour, like Basel’s Market Square in the summertime. The theologian looked around. He tried to take it all in. Then somewhere in the crowd a voice shouted his name, and there followed a tumultuous cheer. Women and men pressed in close, clasping his hands and shoulders and pounding his back warmly. Children laughed, women waved and strong men clapped. Angels blushed and fluttered their wings in the sunlight.

The theologian felt quite overwhelmed by the crush of bodies, the vigorous handshakes, the beaming faces. He tried to smile and nod politely, as he had always done when receiving a foreign dignitary or an honorary doctorate. He was relieved when again the angel took him by the elbow and steered him through the crowd, out to a side-street off the busy square.

They walked on a little way, and the theologian, still trying to regain his composure, confessed that he hadn’t expected quite so warm a reception. The angel seemed surprised, and assured him that indeed everyone in the city knew his name. They had all been expecting him.

“For are you not Karl Barth?” the angel declaimed with a theatrical flourish. “Of course we have heard of the great Karl Barth!” The theologian nodded modestly, and the angel continued: “Aren’t you the one who visited the prisoners on Sunday mornings? Didn’t you eat and drink with them? Didn’t you tell them jokes to make their hearts glad? Didn’t you put fat cigars in their mouths, and strike a match for them? Didn’t you go to see them when even their own families had forgotten them? Why my dear fellow, there is not a person in this city who doesn’t know your name!”

The theologian had stopped in the street. He looked at the angel. “The prison? Well yes, I suppose… But I thought perhaps… my theology. My books…”

“Ah!” the smiling angel said, and touched his arm reassuringly. “There’s no need to worry about all that! That’s all forgiven now.”

“F—forgiven?”

“But of course! All those books are forgiven—every last word of it!” The angel took his hand. “No need to dwell on all that now—everything is forgiven here. Come now, there are still so many people waiting to meet you. And the prisoners you visited—they live down there by the river, in the best part of town—they’ve prepared a feast to welcome you. Come, come along now…”

And so, hand in hand beneath a summer sky, the angel and the theologian made their way together down the city street and all the people clapped their hands.”

Ars longa

Ars longa, vita brevis is a Latin translation of an aphorism originating from Greek, being the first two lines of the Aphorismi by the Greek physician and king of Kos, Hippocrates. Art is ‘long’ is a curious phrase and I’m not entirely sure what it means. Perhaps it just means ‘long-lasting’ in which case, David Hockney’s work on a iPad rather disabuses me of the idea. It came to my attention since I’ve been wondering about buying an original piece. I’ve been asking myself why I want one. Is it because I actually like the work; the artist has expended blood and tears over the minutest brushstrokes in a deep, emotional display of their talent, or is it because I want to own something unique? If the latter, it’s nothing more than Solomonic vanity and I need to dismiss the idea immediately. 

People go to galleries for a number of different reasons, one of the less direct reasons might be, I suppose, to capture something of the glamour or suffering of a particular period, the history, the ju-ju, the numinous je-ne-sais-quoi hidden inside a masterwork that cracks open the mind of the artist. ‘What kind of person did this?’ we ask ourselves. I sometimes wonder why not having a famous signature makes an equally talented piece of brushwork so much less valuable than one with? Perhaps it’s just the vanity of the rich flaunting their wealth that inflates the original ‘collectable’ one and infuriates everybody else. Also, provenance is such a fragile hand to play. When the Salvator Mundi was believed to be an autograph work by Leonardo da Vinci, it was allegedly worth $450 million. If, as has been reported, Leonardo contributed only a few brushstrokes to a painting by a workshop assistant, is the picture worth much more than the panel on which it was painted? There is obviously an intangible magic to the presence of the artist in any piece of work. You can touch a painted or carved surface which they themselves toiled over. There’s a disembodied, ethereal feeling of connection to the artist which even a perfect replica cannot imbue, other than by deception or mental sleight of hand. The interesting aspect is the value of work purportedly by legendary artists which has limited aesthetic appeal. Salvator Mundi is an absolutely wretched piece of work, yet its rather contentious association with da Vinci resulted in a ridiculous bidding war between obscenely rich individuals vying to own a piece of ‘magic’, something touched by the master to show off at dinner parties or to be locked away in a sanitised dungeon where the depredations of climate can’t destroy it further. The fact that it’s a ghastly basket case of a painting, over-restored and of questionable provenance, is irrelevant, as long as a connection to da Vinci can be reasonably established. I’ve seen sketches by da Vinci in France and Florence, and there’s a flowing alchemy, a genius hand rippling over spinal goosebumps, clearly visible in the media. One can barely conceive that the same hands presided over this over-restored gargoyle of a painting. The Christ-figure looks lecherous, cross-eyed and effeminate and only the ringlets look to be delicate enough to have been the work of the master. Ironically, it’s owned by the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, a Muslim.

One thing that great art cannot reproduce is its newness. We shall never see it in its initial and original glory as the master first produced it. Imagination does have limits – I recall seeing Botticelli’s ‘Venus’ in the Uffizi just after its restoration and wondered where this absolute perfection might originally have been hung by the Medici family.

Which brings me back to my own prospective and rather more modest purchase since I have a clear idea of where it is to be hung. The artist is very much alive, I am happy to say.

Back to the Future

This Friday, Pesach, or Passover begins. Jews all over the world celebrate the Exodus with eight days (seven in Israel) of holiday.

This from a simplified version…

As told in the Bible, after many decades of slavery to the Egyptian pharaohs, during which time the Israelites were subjected to backbreaking labor and unbearable horrors, G‑d saw the people’s distress and sent Moses to Pharaoh with a message: “Send forth My people, so that they may serve Me.” But despite numerous warnings, Pharaoh refused to heed G‑d’s command. G‑d then sent upon Egypt ten devastating plagues, afflicting them and destroying everything from their livestock to their crops.

At the stroke of midnight of 15 Nissan in the year 2448 from creation (1313 BCE), G‑d visited the last of the ten plagues on the Egyptians, killing all their firstborn. While doing so, G‑d spared the children of Israel, “passing over” their homes, recognisable from the blood of a slain lamb smeared on the lintels – hence the name of the holiday. Pharaoh’s resistance was broken, and he virtually chased his former slaves out of the land. The Israelites left in such a hurry, in fact, that the bread they baked as provisions for the way did not have time to rise. Six hundred thousand adult males, plus many more women and children, left Egypt on that day and began the trek to Mount Sinai and their birth as G‑d’s chosen people.

Pesach is deeply symbolic. Eating unleavened bread (matzah) commemorates the speed at which they left, bitter herbs a memorial to their slavery, four cups of wine in celebration. In ancient times the Passover observance included the sacrifice of the paschal lamb, which was roasted and eaten at the Seder or feast on the first night of the holiday. This was the case until the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70CE. Within the ceremony is the question put by the youngest child in the family. “Why is this night not like all other nights?” It is suggested that the question refocuses attention on what happened to obey a command that successive generations of Jews teach their children about the miraculous deliverance and that the story can thus never be forgotten.

The symbolism to the Christian community is obvious – Christ as Messiah is the paschal lamb who took upon himself the sin of the world. There is much to be said about this but again, every year at Easter, there is a looking back, a revisiting of history, a reminder, a memorial to an unvarnished past in the context of the present.

Much is made about things like revisionist history these days, where the past in terms, for example, of slavery or the treatment of women is reinterpreted in a modern, “woke” context; it is as if we want to shoehorn the present into a past which no longer fits with a rather distasteful triumphalism. How very foolish of us.

A metaphor follows us here. The last 120 or so years have been meteoric in terms of increase of knowledge; the electron – the powerhouse of the world  – having been discovered in 1897. Today, we know so much more about the building blocks and interactions of our Universe called the Standard Model. It’s all here from my science blog; I know at least one person who’ll want to look. This was IT – all nicely packaged, done and dusted. Except for gravity, of course, the thorn in the flesh. The last 124 years have been a breath in our history as a species yet with what hubris we look into the far past and celebrate as yet theoretical discoveries of the future. We send probes to the far reaches of our tiny solar system and use massively expensive colliders to take us further and further towards what Einstein called ‘the secrets of the Old One’. In so doing, we discover, like the layers of an onion, there may be more to come.

The particle physics community trembled with excitement. There might be something new on the horizon – the Beauty Particle, or quark, and, presumably, its antiparticle, optimistically named the Truth Particle, not seen since the creation of the Universe.

And yet, there is so much more that we do not know than what we do. Answers? There are none, except to look back at the past and marvel that we have come this far and accept with humility that greater visions may await us. Indeed, back to the future.

Kissing Glasgow

There’s a famous joke in Glasgow. “Hey, Jimmie, do ye know where the infirmary is? No? Then you’d better find out before ye bleed to death”. This being accompanied by a Glasgow kiss where the recipient receives the full force of the interlocutor’s head, roughly the mass of a bowling ball, on the bridge of the nose. Claret everywhere and whatever slight disagreement, say about green or blue on the football field has been forgotten amidst general hilarity.

I rather like Glasgow, grey-black and forbidding as its massive stones are. This no-mean city, famous for violence, fitba’, art and heroin, plus some fairly decent architecture, has been transformed. No longer are the drunks allowed to hold themselves up, helplessly, from lampposts in George Square, cursing everyone from the polis to the Pakis. Instead they smile behind their tartan masks and touch elbows in the Sturgeon-approved manner. Oh, are we feeling the love yet?

Scotland has become the first country in the world to abolish an emotion. Perhaps, in addition to abolishing blasphemy as well as nastiness about religion, (cognitive dissonance alert) next they will ban happiness, quickly followed by whisky, being, as it is, the root of all evil, from domestic violence to fascism.

All this because in the sunny uplands of woke the Hate Crime and Public Order Bill (Scotland), passed late last week, in which a party that has become incapable of tolerating dissent has outlawed it. The Covenanters are spinning in their graves. A “progressive” parliamentary party has legislated about what Scottish people can say to each other in the privacy of their own homes, and what they are allowed to say when they are outside them. The bill’s author and shepherd is  the Justice Minister, Yousaf Hamza, and  we’re not allowed to criticise him on two levels, first because he’s brown, a second generation Pakistani immigrant, and second because he’s in a permanent love-fest with the poison dwarf who rules the Holyrood roost. ‘Resistance’, as the Vogons memorably remarked, ‘is useless’.

This is what happens when woke gains hegemony. Imagine. You are sitting down to High Tea and Sturgeon’s tartan Stasi come knocking at the door, demanding to know whether you once said something a little bit derogatory about, say, Turkmenistanis, in front of the man who came round to read the meter. Hauled up in front of the sheriff, your excuse was that you’d eaten a bad curry the night before, whereupon a further charge of anti-Pakistani sentiment is laid at your door and you end up rolling Barlinnie skinnies for six months, while wife and family starve in the gutter.

In fairness, Scots are still allowed to hate some people. Women, for example. Not the ones who dress up as women or secrete a fully formed male organ inside their Janet Reger knickers; they are to be lauded and encouraged. No. Women who demonstrate their ability to bring forth children by using – er – tampons (am I still allowed to use the word…) are now to be universally loathed and a species called ‘womxn’ has taken their place. Tangentially and at the risk of causing foaming at the mouth, why were hundreds of members of the female gender, plus or minus the ‘x’, allowed to congregate on Clapham Common, shrieking about ‘reclaiming the street’ in contravention of COVID social distancing regulations? Short answer, they weren’t. Although we all abhor violent crime in general and ladies being abducted and murdered by complete strangers in particular, which is quite obviously worse than appalling, when does outrage trump social responsibility leading to a flouting of the law?

Also, we’re allowed, nay encouraged, to hate straight white men. Can’t stand them with their hairy chests and old-fashioned use of words like ‘responsibility’ and ‘morality’. Ghastliness such as this must now be consigned to the trashcan of history along with deer-stalker hats and shooting sticks. If I have the temerity to meekly suggest in public – or even in private with witnesses present – that it might not always be the best idea for two gentlemen – or even ladies – of the homosexual persuasion to be allowed to adopt a baby, over and above a heterosexual, upright and blameless Methodist couple, I am stoned, pilloried and spat upon in the Royal Court of Woke. I must therefore keep such noxious foul-smelling opinions to myself and may now only even think about them while sitting on the toilet.

Internecine hatred north of the Tweed is as ubiquitous as rain. In this case, perhaps the remainder of what passes for intelligent life up there will stand up, kilts and elbows akimbo, and shout ‘enough’. If not, may our auld enemy find peace in the arms of Brussels and learn about a new currency. With all speed. PS. You can keep the bagpipes.

Travel Hopeful

Palmer and Sam

I haven’t written a film review in a long time, perhaps because there haven’t been too many offerings that have really caught my attention. “JoJo Rabbit”, “The Call of the Wild”, “Little Women”; they were all memorable in their own way, not least because each had a compelling performance from lead actors. These days, I’m far less interested in the Oscars, suffocated as they have become by ego and political correctness, much more by the niche festivals like Toronto, Berlin, Venice and Sundance. From Sundance 2020 I still haven’t found a showing of the achingly tender “Minari” which I very much want to watch. It’s almost autobiographical, the fourth offering from Lee Isaac Chung, who directed, wrote the screenplay and produced it, winning the Grand Jury Prize.

But, for now, two films have caught my attention, both of which explore the interaction between adults and children.  Not since “True Grit” have I seen movies involving a deeply complex, sometimes conflicted performance from an adult paired beautifully with a child actor. Apple TV’s  “Palmer” tells the story of a former high school football star who, after twelve years in prison, returns to his grandmother’s home in small-town Louisiana. A deeply dysfunctional mother and her primary school aged child live in a trailer on the property.  Mother is a heroin addict with a part-time abusive boyfriend and she disappears for long periods, leaving the little boy alone. He is swept up by the grandmother and forms a deep, abiding bond with Justin Timberlake’s Palmer – the taciturn alpha male – with depth and intensity. What is interesting is that the little boy is gender fluid. He unselfconsciously plays with dolls, has little tea parties with a female classmate and dresses up for Hallowe’en in a Little Princess costume. Palmer is totally accepting, even when he takes the little boy to a football game and the child identifies more with the cheerleaders than the players on the field. Themes of fear of the different and responses to it perfuse the trajectory of the film – what is interesting is that the little boy is insouciantly optimistic and seems to accept the fact that he is simply not like the other kids, stoically putting up with the relentless physical and emotional bullying of both adults and his male classmates. With a quite beautiful soundtrack to support the spare, almost skeletal dialogue it all ends happily for everyone, mercifully.

Kidd and Johanna

The second is almost a Western, but not quite. Netflix’ “News of the World” is set five years after the end of the Civil War. Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks) is a character lost. A veteran of three wars, he now earns a meagre living moving from town to town as a non-fiction storyteller, a newsreader in places where news is hard to come by, reading to the crowds at ten cents a time. On the plains of Texas, he crosses paths with Johanna, a ten-year-old taken in by the Kiowa people six years earlier and raised as one of their own. Helena Zengel’s performance as Johanna is nothing short of masterful. The child is fiercely hostile to a world she’s never experienced and is being returned to her biological aunt and uncle very much against her will. Kidd agrees to deliver the almost feral Johanna where the law says she belongs and his grudging acceptance of responsibility for the child is an echo of Rooster Cogburn. As they travel great distances into the unforgiving wilderness, the two face challenges, both human and natural,  as they search for a place that either can call home. Again, a feel-good happy ending. I think I prefer these; perhaps I am just getting old and (horrors) a little bit sentimental.

Comparing the adult characters, Timberlake’s is much more monochromatic, locked into a straitjacket of conformity to the suffocating strictures of the small-town culture from which he came. Hanks’ character is far more nuanced and subtle but he had a much better script to work with. Both films have a subtext of hopeful travel – a theme to which were all can respond viscerally – since we are all on some kind of journey – few of us just sit down and wait for something to turn up, perhaps because it rarely does. Life is sometimes a game of hazard, a gamble, a courageous throw of the dice. Skill, as J Meade Faulkner put it, can make something of the worst of throws. With a little bit of luck.

Revisiting…

I’d like to republish a post I wrote five years ago. under the squirmingly pretentious heading “Exalting Curiosity”. The original had a lead image of Einstein looking through a magnifying glass. I have changed the image, for obvious reasons. The original post was written pre-Brexit, pre-Trump, pre-Covid, pre pretty much everything that we have to take for granted, endure or otherwise put up with. The gentleman wearing mittens, above, was a serious contender, Donald Trump was still a mere canvasser. In the UK, Jeremy Corbyn was being exalted by the young with almost godlike adulation. Oh, yes, the world has changed, the axis of time rolls forward. The people we talk about have changed, but, have the attitudes? Some have disappeared into a black hole where people forget, others still wave tattered flags on battlefields where the conflict has long since been lost. Has intolerance and bigotry been attenuated, even wiped out, or have ideas become more and more entrenched, their swords sharper? Was the storming of the Capitol by right wing insurrectionists just a social blister that had to be excised or does it presage something much deeper within the Western psyche? Is Antifa with its Neo-Marxist agenda a present reality or a spent force? So many questions, yet without solid, comfortable answers.

People seek answers in unlikely places. I have recently closed my Twitter account since, as Matthew Syed wrote in today’s Sunday Times, there are “platoons of people (who) have been sucked into the vortex of this cesspool — individuals whose rationality has been corrupted by the deep infrastructure of this perilous age… (it is) a digital cancer whose catastrophic influence on our consciousness has yet to be fully grasped. Its algorithms are like acid, silently eating away at the fabric of how we converse, engage and grow in collective wisdom. Its influence has seeped into every medium; by proxy, into every life”. I left because its ‘hedgehoggery’ (beautiful word) was distorting my sense of reality, crushing my sense of well-being and disabling my ability to think rationally. I feel refreshed and liberated in consequence.

It seemed to me that it was worth reviewing how far, if anywhere, we had come, how much we had learned and whether any vestige of information is still relevant, five years later. Five years seems both an awfully long time on the one hand and on the other just a blip, a shrug of the shoulders of the Universe. So, here it is. I wonder how much, if anything, we have learned.

Whatever happens somewhere, happens to us all, sooner or later. Whether it was the near-miss Grexit or the Iranian nuclear deal, their consequences mean that we’re all tied together by threads of different colours and stripes. So, I’m writing this just after the weird and wonderful Donald Trump and the wonderfully weird Bernie Sanders won in New Hampshire. So many opinions. So many words. So much…money. And videos, tweets and everything.

Why am I interested in the presidential race in a country I don’t live in? Because America is a huge rolling axis of influence in the world and what happens there eventually impacts, for good or ill, what happens elsewhere. We wish that this were not the case sometimes, especially when we don’t agree, but, it’s a fact.

In a number of Western democracies, the clamour for ‘change’ has become increasingly more strident. People seem not to fear the consequences of extreme and radical shift in the same way that they used to, perhaps because they don’t understand them. In an age of brevity, complex thinking is reduced to 140 characters, believably brief mantras that people take as their own and rally round.

In the UK, a radical left-wing opposition leader has harnessed the emotional energies and idealistic fervour of the young, pulling many towards what he sees as a more egalitarian form of democracy. I’d be interested to hear him speak. Similarly, in the US, a septuagenarian with a forty year old political agenda has been leading the charge for a new kind of government where Washington’s bureaucrats and Wall Street cannot use their power to determine outcomes and the kids are behind him. On the other side, a billionaire businessman with almost zero political experience has suggested a quite different agenda, the only thing that they have in common is the fact that both of them are advocating radical, seismic change whose consequences are cloudy at best.

An American actor was criticised with undeserved venom the other day for attending a Ted Cruz rally. His critics mistook curiosity for support which is precisely the kind of knee-jerk foolishness that ensures the wrong people end up in positions of power. He said:

If you can’t stand to listen to an idea, it does not prove that you oppose it. Refusing to show interest in a different perspective should not serve as a badge of pride in your own ideas. It actually serves the exact opposite function. It proves that you don’t even understand your own opinion. If you can’t understand the argument you disagree with, then you don’t have the right to disagree with it with any authority, nor do you really have a grasp on what your own idea means in its context.

American university campuses who seek to no-platform speakers might do well to consider this. Ruffling intellectual feathers are what universities are for.

Not all ideas need to be validated, or even respected. There are some beliefs fuelled by bigotry, intolerance and antisemitism for example that simply deserve to be tarred and feathered, thrown under buses or otherwise never given the time of day. But when some ideas are so ubiquitous that they are persuading large numbers of people it’s only an idiot who hums with his fingers in his ears. The world changes when enough people decide that it should.

If we shame curiosity,  we’ll always be afraid of the battle lines we draw to ward off the loony toons on one side or the batshit crazies on the other. Uphold curiosity. Exalt the ability to hold someone else’s belief in your mind for a moment. It’s liberating. Einstein once said ‘Curiosity has its own reason for existing’.

The new administration is calling for unity. As Captain Kirk memorably said: Make it so.

Climb the Hill

Inauguration Day is a celebration of leadership, the nearest thing the Americans get to a coronation. Instead of massed thousands, 200,000 flags were planted to represent them and small socially distanced groups listened and applauded outside the Capitol. Lady Gaga sang the anthem divinely and the astonishing former National Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman, unfazed by an audience of millions read her poem ‘The Hill We Climb’ – a splendidly articulate presentation, absolutely on point for the occasion. It contained elements of cynghanedd, a Welsh poetic form from the sixth century.

Solemnly, Joe Biden, the so-called caretaker President, was sworn in on a Bible which had been in his family since 1894.  He was impressive, the ‘I’ which so cynically characterised the Trump years was replaced by a resounding ‘we’ and the theme was unity in the face of a national polarisation so savage that five lives were lost when the Capitol building was stormed by right-wing insurrectionists on January 6. He spoke of the legacy he wanted to hand on to his children and grandchildren, an echo which struck a chord with me since it is one that great leaders often invoke. 

Donald Trump, breaking with precedent, in a final display of petulance and narcissism, declined to attend. Instead he used his impromptu farewell speech at Andrews Air Base to trumpet his successes before boarding a final flight to Florida on Air Force One. The ‘I’ had finally departed.

Two very different faces of leadership.

I wondered how I might have spoken in his position, indeed either of their positions. My thoughts turned to another leader, thrust into power in a time of crisis.

With a hat-tip to Jonathan Sacks, z”l, we may imagine ourselves the leader of a people that is enslaved and oppressed, that has suffered exile for more than two centuries. Now, after a series of miracles, it is about to go free. I am their leader. I assemble them and rise to address them. They are waiting expectantly for my words. This is a defining moment they will never forget. What will I speak about?

Some might answer: freedom. That was Abraham Lincoln’s decision in the Gettysburg Address when he invoked the memory of “a new nation, conceived in liberty,” and looked forward to “a new birth of freedom.” Some suggest that it would inspire the people by talking about the destination that lay ahead, the “land flowing with milk and honey.” Yet others say they would warn the people of the dangers and challenges that they would encounter on what Nelson Mandela called “the long walk to freedom.” Churchill did all three at various times.

Moses did none of the above. Collective freedom – the freedom of the ‘we’ had been gained. The next thing to do was to ask not ‘what do we do with it’ but ‘how to enshrine it in perpetuity’. He spoke and repeated three basic themes – children, education and the distant future.

It was one of the most counterintuitive acts in the history of leadership. Moses did not speak about today or tomorrow. He didn’t talk about fixing things up nor did he brag about what had been achieved. He spoke about the distant future and the duty of parents to educate their children in a poetry of remembrance.

We might easily replace ‘freedom’ with ‘democracy’ and an inauguration address is its passover. Its preservation in our day is a sacred duty and its fabric must not be torn apart by polarisation, violence and bloodshed where the ‘I’ seeks ascendancy over the ‘we’.  Those who fail to educate themselves and their children and learn from the mistakes of recent history will be condemned to repeat them and Biden’s call to unite carries with it the so very recent consequences when people did not. He didn’t sugarcoat the effort required to climb the hill and I have a feeling that he is prepared to back up words with action.