Babylon, Brushes and Birthdays.

Pastry heaven

Damn the Babylonians. Their astronomy was a bit primitive but they figured out that the stellar patterns returned to the same place roughly every 360 days. It took us about two thousand years, but we now know the actual figure is 365.25 days for planet Earth to haul its carcass around the sun. All this to say that one more notch was added to my bedpost yesterday and the admittedly vague spectre of the Grim Reaper is a little bit closer to the horizon. Some take the addition of a new number to life’s clock better than others.  I felt a little like W B Yeats, a gloomy sort of chap who at dinner with H G Wells in the 1930s bemoaned the fact that that all his friends were dead. “But, you’re not”, H G replied. “I’ll have the steak.”

Which is rather how I’d quite like to look at it.

I had a lovely time on my birthday, pampered by cinema tickets and dinner with cake worthy of Pouchkine in Paris, so much so that I almost imagined myself to be four again when I was sick at my birthday party through gross and unfettered indulgence. I’d’ve liked to have posted a picture, of the cake, not me being sick, of course, but it all got eaten, thus the picture above, second-rate as it is, will have to do.

Three or four years ago, my beautiful, talented and exceptionally competent daughter left her electric toothbrush at my house. Despite the fleeting thought that she privately considered my dental practices to be woefully inefficient and the article was left as a dark reminder to do better, I used it faithfully, having changed the head for reasons both aesthetic and hygienic. It had a rechargeable battery which could not be reached, changed or interfered with unless one was an expert with a soldering iron, a degree in electrical engineering and endless patience. It reminded me with a little red light if I was pressing too hard, had a timer that momentarily slowed it every fifteen seconds so that the requisite two or even three minutes’ industrious lathering could be counted off and a little battery light to tell me it when it needed recharging. In recent days, however, like the gloomy W B, and perhaps myself, it had reached its geriatric years and needed now to be confined to the place of repose where all toothbrushes go when they die. I other words, I chucked it away. Having replaced it at the supermarket the other day, the new but somewhat inferior item was busily recharging when she-who-must-be-obeyed walked in. Her face fell when she saw my new brush. I wondered guiltily if I had been remiss in some way, like not replacing the loo roll. She then produced a gift, beautifully wrapped in silver paper. In childish haste, I tore it open and nestling therein was a beautiful, top-of-the-range electric toothbrush, complete with carrying case. This was a Van Gogh compared to the fingerpainting I had bought.

I laughed so hard I almost split my hernia stitches, since now I have two toothbrushes, one for the mountains and one for here. She saw the funny side. Eventually. After hitting me on the head a few times with a Tupperware box containing feta cheese (OK, I lied about that last bit but there was a homicidal gleam in her eye…)

I’d like it placed on record that I enjoyed the best birthday I have had in a while. Thanks too to all the Facebook crowd who took the trouble to send good wishes and in some cases, kisses, all of which were gratefully appreciated.

Scraping the Stubble

Many might remember that is was Christmas a few days ago, so we can all start saving to the next Saturnalia bacchanal. I received a present. Unusually, since most people think I’m dead.

But this post isn’t about presents. It’s about what most of us gentlemen, not blessed with a valet or living in Mayfair, or the hairy types who grow fungus on their faces because it’s ‘woke’ and who spend most of their time writing code which appears on multiple screens like on the set of a futuristic movie.

I mean, of course, scraping the stubble that appears as if by magic every morning on a man’s face, as if the beard fairy has visited overnight.

There are a number of ways to deal with this problem. It’s like mowing the lawn, a necessary but evil trick of Nature who, of course will one day inherit the Earth.

I refer, of course to the ART OF SHAVING.

There are a number of possibilities. First, you are late. Stumbling, semi-conscious into the shower, one grabs the disposable which has been hanging for weeks beside the shampoo that always gives you dandruff, stand like a guard dog underneath the blessed flow and scrape industriously, ignoring the pain and flecks of rust on the blade. Sometimes, the handle is pink, and after a microsecond of reflection and the fleeting thought that she’ll never find out, one sweeps the affected area with as much detail as a nasty hangover permits and hopes for the best. One ends up looking like a badly trimmed privet hedge but hopefully nobody will notice and one then proceeds to the bedroom and puts on ones socks, not realising that both of them are inside out. This is what can best be described as the Speedy Motors method, where all work is done by apprentices.

Those of us who have renounced daily toil, however, have a different method. I mentioned Christmas. A particularly kind friend, of which more anon, spent hours, yes, hours on the Internet (using up my bandwidth, I might add), selecting a beautiful, heavy shaving ‘set’, consisting of a badger hair brush, a little cup thingy to hold the soap and a razor with its own little holder. All mounted on a plinth heavy enough to support Nelson’s column. The thing is a work of art. The brush has black tips and a brown superstructure so the animal who donated it can rest assured it died in a good cause. The razor handle is heavy, straight and manly, none of these ‘fit in your hand’ things which are tailor made for castrating a cat. The Italian soap comes in a container which precisely fits the little silver cup for which it was intended. And the soap has a little twirl on the end like a Mr Whippy ice cream. One is almost tempted to lick it. Hot water – one Internet source recommends 120 Celsius but I was damned if I was going to shove the thing in a pressure cooker, so the blade relaxed nicely at 80 or so degrees. Clockwise stirring of the soap produced a profusion of lather with the brush, so after a refreshing splash of water on the face, one then applies the product, smelling faintly of sandalwood. Nothing too heavy, otherwise you smell like a pimp. Brushing is an act of sheer sensuality, it’s like being stroked by a cat and produces a Santa-like profusion. The blade glides effortlessly, sweeping the detritus away like a leaf-blower, with no epidermal damage. A quick finish on the sideburns with an open razor (the kind that Glasgow hoodlums carried) to just straighten up the edges, followed by a hot towel to open the pores and some Ferragamo cologne to close them up again. Just a little tip about open razors – if moved horizontally, the resultant profusion of blood makes one look like one of Dracula’s recent victims.

A man can now face his day with the confidence of a job well done, knowing that he can fire someone in a heartbeat. The fact that his bed is as unmade as Tracey Emin’s and his shirt is unironed is a detail best overlooked.

O Tannenbaum

‘your leaves are so unchanging…’

People crave certainty, and now we have at least a way forward, so there is a little hope that the green leaves of the political Christmas tree may not change kaleidoscopically for the next few years and at least we’re going to get Brexit done and forge a path into the future where we’re all more or less facing in the same direction. The nation breathed a collective sigh of relief that the nightmare is reaching its end.

I’ve never been an ‘activist’, in the sense that I waved flags, shouted myself hoarse in Trafalgar Square, or screamed obscenities at MPs going about their lawful business in The Palace of Westminster. Why? Because not an iota of difference is made by barbarians except by force. And the force is not one of argument, dialectic, discussion. It derives from emotionally fueled and mostly irrational thinking which if repeated often enough they believe that it turns the axis of opinion so far that we the bystanders become nonplussed as to precisely where the truth really lies, yet have little real choice but to go with the flow.

In 2016, we were all subjected to a tsunami of warnings so barbaric that some were persuaded into believing that should this leviathan called Brexit – unthinkable, unendurable and without precedent – economic and cultural suicide was the eventual abyss into which we would all fall, with cries of ‘I told you so’. More presciently, a transcendent anger began to grow like a dirty, defiant snowball into an incredulity that people could be so pig-headed as to reject all that advice that looked in those far off days to be a racing certainty, leading to snarling vituperation, infighting and blind rage.

Brexit created its own sideshows. The Extinction Rebellion movement, fuelled by juvenile enthusiasm and a series of half-truths steered by skilful shadowy manipulators who as the howling and screeching and missed schooling so amply demonstrates is going to make a few people a lot of money. Momentum, what a masterstroke of deception. The cleverly constructed buttress surrounding a mediocre but susceptible political nobody metamorphosing into near god-like adulation of a man from the liberal, “woke” metropolitan heartlands with his own National Anthem. These events are not unconnected and they are mirrored across the continent. Friends in France are woefully stranded over Christma in France because of a deliberately disruptive, almost callously direputable rail strike. Wildcat picketing was smirkingly advertised as an electoral promise in the UK. They were all battlegrounds for a paradigm shift-a shift in cultural identity not seen since the 1960s, when great social upheaval spearheaded by the young, set the bedrock for the Thatcher years, and lest it be forgotten, Enoch Powell had a spectacular tidal wave of populist following after the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in April 1968. Less than five percent would have clearly understood both the rage and adulation engendered by his quote from the Aeneid – he was, after all, one of the finest classicists of his generation. He was sacked, not because of the contents of the speech but because Edward Heath saw him as a potential rival. He may have represented the atavistic, perhaps unreasoning fear of a generation increasingly populated by unfamiliarly dark skin, but the new arrivals were doing exactly what we did to them, initially having a reluctance to assimilation into a culture not their own. We failed to teach and to welcome hence learned the colonial price which one day would have to be repaid. And yet, many have made their home here successfully and those who have not or will not find themselves at the fringes of a society which simply tried to offer them all this country could afford in terms of opportunity. Entitlement is not enough. Human rights are not enough unless partnered with responsibility and willingness to adapt to which most people who have lived abroad will readily attest.

But, this is not true for all. The majority notwithstanding, a wave of Muslim immigrants, some imprisoned for terrorist offences, many equipped with zeal and determination do not assimilate but the great difference is that a number have no desire to do so, a willingness to ‘play the deradicalisation game’, to seek their own hegemony based upon false and unrealistic perceptions of their faith, and who regard their own legal systems as superior to our own, which was not the case in 1968. Herein lies the dark, subversive difference.

This resonates with many of the problems identified in Ian Acheson’s 2016 review including Muslim gang culture, prisoners advocating support for Isis, Factional divides between supporters of different extremist groups, including Al-Qaeda, aggressive conversions, self-styled prison “emirs”, intimidation of prison imams whose desire is to propagate a moderate form of worship and the availability of extremist literature have proliferated like bindweed.

A British jail has been severely criticised for its deradicalisation policies – a so-called imam suggesting that the Queen is an enemy of Islam and must die.

This used to be called treason and the perpetrator found his head on a spike.

How could such polarity be allowed to happen? Brexit is a symptom, not a cause. Whether we like it or not, we are one nation, all of us immigrants, all of us were once strangers in lands we have learned to call our own. Those in power, often holding on by their fingernails, have signally failed to recognise that there had been a seismic shift, the leaves of our own Christmas tree had never changed hue so spectacularly as in the last few weeks, yet remained green. Europe had turned on her axis and more and more European governments, many with the spectre of colonisation hanging like outriders in their own pasts have been reaching back into the roots of their own national identities, flawed as they sometimes were. 

I am no more an Islamophobe, Christianophobe, Judaeophobe or any other kind of phobe. Let all men be subject to the dictates of their own conscience, fearless in the face of those who disagree, bold enough to confront sloppy logic, intimidation and barbarity, not by howling down those who disagree, nor by flags and anthems whose only real purpose is to cow and to frighten their enemies, and inspire loyalty in their allies, which came as rather a shock to the British Labour movement since it seemed that the voices of quiet reason ultimately prevailed.

I was reminded of ‘The Red Flag’ sung by Labour at the end of every party conference. The lyrics in full make interesting reading. To the tune of ‘O Tannenbaum’ whose leaves didn’t change colour, except became a little bit unpredictably bluer this Christmas.

The people’s flag is deepest red,
It shrouded oft our martyred dead,
And ere their limbs grew stiff and cold,
Their hearts’ blood dyed its ev’ry fold.

Then raise the scarlet standard high.
Within its shade we’ll live and die,
Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer,
We’ll keep the red flag flying here.

As it says, “a soft answer turns away wrath”, sadly absent in these lyrics. It seems we are an ideologically hawkish species for which such an attitude becomes virtually impossible. Inspired by such moral selfishness, I wish the House, with its absurd, medievally confrontational agendas, a very happy Christmas, in the hope that they would learn together and let us all go forward, as one nation, in a spirit of compromise, a willingness to listen to ‘the other’.

And the grace to admit when we are wrong.

If…

The gentleman financier was perturbed. This was unusual – he seldom worried except when the Bentley gave trouble starting in cold weather or one of his children needed to be vaccinated. 

His wife, the archetypal Mrs Longsuffering, was used to his moods – or ‘preoccupations’ as she preferred to call them. Under normal circumstances, any financial concerns he may have had would be amply dissipated after his country had shaken off the tyrannical shackles of the European behemoth with its rapacious, unrelenting greed and love of regulation only bettered by a regimental sergeant major. And yet, a pencil-thin worry line had unaccountably appeared above the bridge of his aquiline, patrician nose.

He awoke at four a.m, reviewing in his quite prodigiously organised mind the events of the last few days. He was politeness personified, and was regularly seen tramping amiably around his mostly rural constituency, blessedly free of council estate wastelands where rotting bicycles and unlaid concrete paving stones competed for position amidst unmown grass and empty beer cans. Rumour had it that he was frequently accompanied by an elderly lady and a small boy, similarly attired to himself. His days had been spent in civilised debate, for the most part, uninterrupted by hecklers, both the growling and the shrill. He greeted mothers with babies who smelt almost permanently of vomit and food banks, elderly retired colonels, complexions made florid by more than a passing acquaintance with Uncle Johnnie Walker and sullenly mutinous young men in need of a haircut who lacked both manners and political acumen, with an equanimity born of having attended some of the most prestigious educational establishments his country could offer. His opponents bayed like distant bloodhounds, but they troubled him less than a spot of dandruff on his Savile Row suit. For the most part, they were invariably and almost universally complaining that that their tuition fees were too high and their grandmothers had had to spend several hours lying unattended on hospital trollies. Their bile had been thickened by hours of sociology seminars conducted by purple-haired lesbians hankering after long-forgotten days of secondary picketing.

He would rise shortly, exercise the dogs, eat a healthy breakfast – Cook knew what he liked – the narcissists dream of voting for himself slightly tarnished by a new poll released only yesterday which, unthinkably might return a no-name opponent with the eagerness and political ability of a basset hound to the House upon whose benches he had languidly reclined some months previously.

Meanwhile in a constituency flanked by two prisons, one for men, the other women – both possibly having transgender facilities – a candidate of a different stripe was naggingly troubled, mostly, by the possibility of a ballot box beating. Almost all the polls suggested a downhill cruise to yet another victory. He lived in a modest dwelling, cycled assiduously, grew root vegetables and the homeless man in the opposite doorway had been given a Harris tweed jacket. His immediate neighbours appeared to consist of a twitter of chic little outlets with curious sounding names, many of which appeared to sell some kind of expertise, providing brand partners with tailored, communicative and strategic representation. His speeches were carefully choreographed by a squadron of acolytes who scripted his remarks to the few, not the many, and who only allowed him to speak to the benign and the certain whose commitment to the cause was full-throated and unwavering. What could possibly go wrong? Yet, there were clouds. Not storm force, but bigger than a clenched fist, presaging a downpour which he, with all his legendary activism and skill, seemed unable to dislodge from an otherwise sunny mental horizon.

Isaac Asimov once wrote a short story where an entire democratic process for the election of a President was pared down by a computer to the opinion of one solitary voter.

If. Just imagine…

Opsimathy for Dummies

I love words. I think that despite having feet like violin cases, I am the only person I know who once used the word ‘terpsichorean’ in a text message. Big, fat, impressive words, the fatter the better. Today, I learned a new one – linguists will smile pityingly – opsimathy. An opsimath is an individual who begins, or continues, to study or perhaps even learn new stuff late in life. The notion of being a toothless old lion and quite over the hill is both distasteful and inevitable  – one still thinks of oneself as about thirty something who’d quite like to drive a Ferrari and ski the Poubelle couloir in Chamonix.  Tempus, however, fugit. The word is derived from the Greek ὀψέ (opsé), meaning ‘late’, and μανθάνω (manthánō), meaning ‘learn’. Not really a surprise, I’m just being showy-offy about knowing a word or two of the language of Plato and his best student, Aristotle. As the Emperor Augustus once famously remarked  “a radish may know no Greek, but I do!”

Opsimathy was once frowned upon by clever men from Oxford who ‘know all that there is to be knowed’.

…as any fule kno

 It was used as a put-down with implications of feckless indolence or, more brutally, laziness, and considered less effective by them as teach us, otherwise known as “educators” derived from the Latin for ‘lead forth” as ‘any fule kno’. – thank you, Nigel Molesworth – than the mightily effective work reception class teachers do in early learning. What a gargantuan sentence that was. So sorry. This is a trend that is slowly being turned on its head. Which is really rather comforting for folk like me It seems that clubs or societies exist for us. The emergence of these “opsimath clubs” has demonstrated that opsimathy has shed much of its negative, sneering nuance, and that this approach may, in fact, be almost desirable. Oh. Nice to be so ‘woke’ innit.

Grandma Moses

Notable opsimaths include Grandma Moses, who learned to paint when she was 78. One of her paintings was sold forty five years after her death for $1.2 million. Rabbi Akiva the “Chief of the Sages” who, according to the Talmud, began studying from a place of total lack of education and illiteracy at age 40, and Cato the Elder, who learned  Greek when he was 80.

Which does give me some hope. Where I live, I am basically an illiterate, even having trouble reading the Cyrillic letters. A local four-year-old does better than me. Perhaps a good start might be to learn to ask ‘how much is it to the bus station?’ in the local language.

Nevertheless, hope, as they say, springs eternal. Can’t see myself taking up fine art – my ex-wife was an artist and teacher; it was said of her that she could teach a chimp to paint. The only chimp she couldn’t teach was me.

Perhaps a new, exciting and totally different opportunity may yet present itself before the neurons, pickled in whisky, gently fail and the world simply looks benign and meaninglessly woolly.

Weird Stuff

Voltaire was right.

“Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities”.

And, while we’re here…

Let’s just say that some people believe weird stuff and leave it at that. It turns out that just one of the fascinating reasons that people accept odd ideas is that they keep getting repeated, even if only to debunk them. OK. Delete first sentence. We’re arriving at a place where we can’t just ‘leave it’.

So, where does all this misinformation come from, why do people believe it and act on it and how can right-thinking people counter it? I wonder… Here’s an obvious starting point: rumour and fiction. People love sensational stories – just look how much fun everybody is currently having with the hapless Duke of York, about whom all that can be said with certainty is that years ago he put his arm around a pretty girl and he’s not good at choosing his friends. The twitterati are awash with a mixture of harrumph, bile and glee. Meanwhile, the Prince has lost his job. The media love to zero in on tales that make the punters happy, disgusted or afraid: anything that provokes a strong emotional response. Why? Because it sells.

Neutral stories, which are probably more likely to be true, but much more tedious, therefore get short shrift. More bizarrely, people have been shown to believe things that they’ve read in novels that have clearly been totally made up. This is true even when they are obviously works of fiction, also, indeed, when they are told the fiction contains misinformation. Finally, they are infinitely persuadable, to the point of utter nonsensical gullibility, Which is how Hitler persuaded people it was not only OK but a genetic imperative to gas the Jews, the Roma and all kinds of others not meeting the standard of Aryan perfection. People believe the fairy tale even when the real facts are relatively well-known perhaps because people’s defences tend to be lower when they’re exposed to populism. The first Kazakhstani fake journalist Borat, aka Sasha Baron Cohen once went into a bar in  Arizona and persuaded the entire bar to sing “Throw the Jew down the Well”.  

SBC addressed the Anti-Defamation League recently as his most unpopular persona, himself. His remarks are both chilling and worth a few minutes. Most disturbingly, he suggested “what could Goebbels have done with Facebook?”

Social media is the bête noir of the truth and it’s a drip-feed. Its “usual” – or mainstream – sources do have a tendency to oversimplification and, once in a while, when it occurs to somebody, they attempt to provide balance. The need for balance is in and of itself fictitious and it’s interesting not least because the issues themselves aren’t always ‘balanced’. For example, over 95% of climate scientists agree that the Earth is warming due to greenhouse-gas emissions, but their anthropogenic cause is steadily gaining traction by sheer, mindless repetition. Tim Berners-Lee, the so-called Father of the Internet, recently had a few harsh words to say about tech giants; the permissibility of every Joe getting a shout and the sheer irresponsibility of the playground – or cage fight– that social media has become. People with no qualifications, experience or maturity can post whatever they like. Sieving the wheat from the chaff is something which people with an education are supposed to be quite good at, but it turns out not always to be the case. Here’s a frightening fact. Look up “weight loss diets”.A tiny percentage of the links offer properly sound dietary advice. The rest is a mish-mash of crackpot ideas, things that worked for somebody’s cousin’s mother and the digital equivalent of snake-oil salesmanship. Also, people tend to seek out information that confirms their existing points of view and this is an exercise that has become much easier now that the Internet provides such a huge range of viewpoints. No matter what you believe, even if you’re as crazy as a bedbug, there’s always somebody else out there who believes the same shit as you do.

Why do people believe misinformation? It’s pretty clear that lies and half-truths are floating about all over the place. But if we all know that politicians, the media and the internet sometimes – even more often than not – tell whopping great porkies – £359million springs to mind – then how come some people end up believing them? The problem is that the way people go about believing things (or not) is fundamentally weird. Few of us bother to actually check solid facts for ourselves; most of us use mental short-cuts, presumably to save ourselves the trouble of actually doing any hard mental processing.  We often pond-skate over the argument by asking ourselves “Does it feel right?” In other words, does the new information square with what I already understand, or believe?  Then, “Does it make sense?” Things that are easy to understand are easier to believe. Our minds tend to reject complicated stuff – it’s too demanding to process – defending itself by saying: “Oh, it’s probably a lie, but, who cares?”

At the heart of critical thinking is this question: “Is the source believable?” People who seem authoritative, like those in positions of power, are more likely to be believed. For example, doctors can create havoc by giving bad advice in public because people tend to believe them.

Also “Who else believes it?”  People prefer to go along with the herd. Unfortunately, people also have an in inbuilt bias towards thinking that most other people agree with them, even if, in reality, they don’t. But this still doesn’t explain why people continue to believe all kinds of weird stuff, even after it’s been proven to them that it’s false. Like Russian intervention in Western elections. It turns out that even once misinformation has been completely retracted and those involved have admitted it was all a farrago of lies, the misinformation virus is difficult to kill. It simply migrates to a more willing host.

One compelling reason for this is based on how memory works: we tend to find it much easier to recall the gist of things rather than the exact details. Usually this is handy because it means we can learn specific things, such as cooking meat makes it easier to digest, and generalise it to the fact that cooking makes many foods more palatable. The downside is that it’s easy for people to remember the gist of some piece of misinformation like fairies live at the bottom of the garden, but forget that they heard it from a totally unreliable source (a wide-eyed three-year-old). So, it’s not a bad idea to have a few tools in the box to enable us to attack the spectre of misinformation when it sticks one of its many heads over the parapet.

Firstly, offer ‘truth plus’. Changing people’s minds isn’t just about telling them they are wrong; if only it were. To be convinced, people need to hear an alternative account that explains why something happened, not just that the information is wrong. Ideally, it should also explain the motivations for the lie. Embellishment of the truth adds validity.

Secondly, the KISS rule applies- ‘keep it simple, stupid…’ This alternative account shouldn’t be too complicated. The shorter it is, the sweeter it will work. Give people too much and they switch off.

Next, try to avoid repeating the myth. Remember that people find the gist of things easiest to recall. By repeating the myth, you’re shooting yourself in the foot by imprinting it on people’s minds.

Remember when you were little? Mama fed you saying ‘here comes the airplane…’  and you opened your mouth to get the rice pudding, or whatever. So tell people beforehand that there is misleading information coming. Afterwards keep banging it home, repeating the facts. Each repetition builds up the rebuttal’s strength in people’s minds. The power of repetition to influence people is clear – just look at how any dictatorship works, or mantras like ‘for the many, not the few’.

Most of the previous are basically defensive tools. It doesn’t hurt to go on the attack from time to time. Go after them. What is the source of the misinformation? And what do they know? Nothing! Encouraging people to be a little more sceptical can help. One of the challenges here is that people tend to believe those who say things that fit in with their worldview. Jeremy Corbyn is a past master at this. So that’s why it’s important to affirm the worldview of your audience, which tends to keep them onside, even if you’re telling them things they don’t want to hear. For example, Winston Churchill was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during the darkest days of the Second World War when the threat of Nazi Germany loomed largest. On his election in May 1940 he made a speech to the British House of Commons. He said: “I would say to the House …I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering.”

Not a great manifesto pledge, much like ‘get Brexit done’ but, see what follows:

“You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: Victory. Victory at all costs – Victory in spite of all terror – Victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.”

For years afterward, his famous V sign reinforced the point. Telling people things they don’t want to hear is a balancing act. You have to go far enough to make the point, then overcome their natural resistance by identity affirmation. So, as Churchill did, you might indirectly get people to think about things that are important to them like their family, friends and ideals.

Finally, much as we’d all love to believe that the late lamented Terry Pratchett’s Discworld is real, there isn’t really a waterfall at the edge, and the four elephants that hold it up aren’t standing on a giant turtle, after all. What a shame. We’ll have to make to with reality instead.

Single Jehovah’s Witnesses

Canary Wharf, business suits…

Being a pensioner, thus not very bright by definition, when I first heard the acronym ‘SJWs, I thought it referred to “Single Jehovah’s Witnesses”. I imagined this to be a dating website where optimistic young ladies could find young gentlemen with a similar religious persuasion. But, no. Somebody put me straight, obviously. There’s something grandiloquent about the notion of “social justice warriors”, something apparently praiseworthy, to be emulated or at least admired since the current tidal wave of public opinion runs inexorably in their favour – for the moment. The sight of a climate change protester being forcibly removed from the roof of a London commuter train by those simply wishing to get home was both cheering and indicative. The 17th century mathematician and theologian Blaise Pascal wrote “Justice is as much a matter of fashion as charm.” How richly such a truth is demonstrated in our times. Seldom have the demands of (social) justice been so manifestly faddish, blown hither and yon by the caprice of public opinion, relentlessly fuelled by social media, any dissent being asphyxiated by an avalanche of protest. We now talk endlessly of climate change. Not Tibet, or the Yazidis or Christian persecutions any longer. Being identified as a victim of injustice, in the present case, the entire planet, is short term, until something else flits across the screens of public consciousness.

SJWs are intolerant of criticism. The suggestion that some of the primary propositions upon which their protests hinge are plainly wrong is rejected as reactionary thinking, worthy only of ridicule, the more public the better. Overthrow the prevailing power structures, and injustice will simply vanish is both the strategy and the creed. Anyone who questions this vision is not just wrong but evil. Plenty of activism, disruption and days out in the city, with the thrillingly illicit possibility of arrest and hence vindication is the driving force. Solutions are sparse, perhaps non-existent, but, of course, that doesn’t really matter – others will find those.

At the heart of so many SJ initiatives is the overarching theme of equality (good) and merit (bad). These imperatives are inescapably locked in either competition or conflict, both practically and ideologically. A society that was perfectly just by meritocratic standards would be quite unjust in egalitarian terms. Some injustices may be worse than others, but no world is imaginable in which all the demands of social justice are fully realised.

For example, income and wealth distribution are partly random. But so is the distribution of genes. Some have to manage with a pair of sixes, others get four aces dealt them. Gross disparities in educational opportunity are accepted as long as they cannot be defended in terms of merit. Selection by ability such as in UK grammar schools is rejected by large swathes of progressive opinion; people seem to find it less objectionable to send their children to schools where selection is by parental income.

There’s a hypocrisy here. Hypocrisy requires a measure of self-awareness, and there is little evidence of that in the sunny uplands of certainty that the SJW inhabits. When people buy an expensive education for their children, perhaps they are in fact sidestepping the whole uncomfortable notion of meritocracy. No doubt egalitarians who send their children to private schools, buy in private tutors or are well-heeled enough to buy a house in a catchment area containing a socially selective comprehensive are stacking the life-chances of their offspring against those of the majority. But why should any child be denied the good fortune of having progressive parents?

Extinction Rebellion, the apotheosis of egalitarian thinking, will of course go ‘the way of all flesh’ eventually, the irony being that its primary support base is derived from those who have benefited most from a meritocratic worldview. We remain hopeful that at the very least they won’t do too much damage.

When it does not lead to tragedy, the pursuit of social justice can quickly turn comedic. There was something darkly amusing about the short shrift given to the people who climbed on top of the trains and, perhaps, rightly so.

Sheep

This being Yom Kippur, a reflection. A look back at things well done and a resolve to do better. No more golden calves.

People crave certainty. At least in some of us there’s a stubborn, persistent hankering and adulation for leaders which is why dictators flourish. Indeed, in the kernel of personality there seems to exist this idea that it’s OK, indeed desirable to be a sheep where all one has to do is to follow instructions and all will be well. Highly structured religions are full of instructions to be followed on pain of serious, everlasting and frequently painful retribution. One point eight billion people worldwide subscribe to a religion based around a man who lived in a cave and received visions which were orally transmitted by an archangel over a long time and over 170 years later somebody thought to write them down. History, or better, historical fact has been overlain by the dust of centuries, redacted by opinion, scholarship and sheer manipulation, to form a set of rules that all its adherents mostly abide by, with more or less fervour. When actually written down it seems fatuous and naïve, a collage made up of small, half-remembered pieces picked up and hastily sewn into some kind of semi-coherent whole.

The Jews have an even longer period as their rituals and practices evolved from pre-Canaanite traditions into a massive lexicon of mitzvot, regulations and rabbinic pronouncements which have provided fertile ground for opinion, debate and argument.  Moses Maimonides, the great twelfth century rabbi, wrote his ‘guide to the perplexed’ to shed light on the fundamentals and to provide a bedrock of certainty which could be relied upon to stand the test of being assailed over time by other, divergent views. Christianity stands or falls on the messianic principle, as the wild olive of the Gentiles is grafted into the Jewish branch to ingather all into a soteriologically secure sheepfold of belief. 

I was thinking about my own experiences in light of some of these ideas. Brought up by a righteous father and confused and basically monochromatically inept mother, I believed what I was told to believe for longer than most. Argument with Sunday school teachers was a sport I learned in mid-teens when dissent was considered rebellious and “as the sin of witchcraft”, the only consequence being the development of an overloaded sense of guilt and an inability to match up to exacting but entirely artificial standards. Grace seemed too easy to obtain and too hard to justify one’s receipt of it. Toes were dipped into the experiential, the miraculous, the emotionally-fuelled and intellectually impoverished with a brief but delicious diversion into the theatrics of Anglo-Catholicism, an opera for the sensations; all the awe and wonder held together by the granite of scriptural certainty.

Things changed. And yet, the old ideas persist, as if woven into a childhood garment that one can never quite outgrow or throw off. I have watched the church as it has metamorphosed so spectacularly in the last few decades, from a 1950s conformity and a sense of treading a well-worn yet secure path, one sheep following another, into a smorgasbord of different doctrinal emphases, as evangelicalism gave way to charism and emotion, which in turn spawned rock concert church plus a bit of sermonising, prosperity gospels which asserted that one could simply pray one’s demands into existence like Janis Joplin’s Mercedes-Benz, with much head-wagging from the Calvinists and traditionalists. We cast about for someone to blame and a theology which had been in the sights of the intellectuals for a hundred and fifty years became the culprit. Things began to change with the Germans who began to disembowel the ancient texts as one might dissect Chaucer or Shakespeare and meaning, myth and poetry swirled around in one’s mind like gauzy silken scarves, through which it became more and more difficult to visualise truth, so much so that it is today not inconceivable to refer to an atheist archbishop. So, we abandoned the idea that truth even exists, and moral relativism became the post-church, postmodern doctrine du jour. Modern miracles were relegated to dewy-eyed Pentecostal adherents for whom healing, prophecy and deliverance were part and parcel of everyday experience. For most, such improbables perfused downwards and backwards so first century miracles were disassembled and reconfigured to be consistent with the more intellectually acceptable position of our being disinterested observers rather than active participants.

I have seen more than most, experienced either directly or indirectly some of the axial shifts and changes in moments of inertia that ‘church’ has become. And yet, in spite of all efforts to make sense of so much, the less I really know and understand. Wisdom is compensation to the old for lack of knowledge in one’s youth, but it is not easily come by.

Belief systems are in disarray, and they themselves serve as a metaphor for a worldwide and accelerating confusion which in some cases has descended into near-panic, so amply demonstrated by near-hysteria over climate change and our purported part in it. The oldest democracy in the world is headed towards a cliff edge at full throttle with no clear plan as to what happens when we fall off and the consequences are thought by some to be apocalyptic. The many-headed hydra of radical Islam has been imprisoned but not killed off, civil disobedience is considered almost legitimate and wars rage ceaselessly, swapping participants as if bringing on the substitutes of protest to replace the faithful in a football match.

I read today that Greta Thunberg is the bookie’s favourite for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un are in the frame as well, along with many others, perhaps far more deserving. If she gets it, it will serve as a metaphor for the clouds of unknowing in which much of the world seems currently enmeshed. We know so very little, yet sheep follow sheep, all bleating in unison and often with no real understanding of why they do so. Some have grown teeth and claws, ready to savage, upend and attempt to destroy the fragile democratic systems on which so much of our security has been built. They seem prepared to demolish the political status quo with no idea what to replace it with, play follow-the leader with the gullible, the blind and the delusional and moreover, are rewarded for doing so.

And yet, faith refuses to lie down and die, at least for me. I have seen too much for full-blown denial, too little to volunteer for the armies of righteousness. In the maelstrom, there exists the eye of the storm, where order replaces chaos and stillness the crashing and battering of mountainous waves. I fail to find it, so very often, but I know it’s there.

Good Advice for Parents

I have five grandchildren  who, I think, are well parented. Their parents are for the most part wise and moral, ethically thoughtful and pretty much above normal reproach. But, the herd mentality is generating a different kind of parent. As the old Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young song says “teach your children well”. This suggests that parents have sufficient discernment to do so. Big people can be more rabidly hateful, especially online, and think nothing of trashing reputations, espousing violence, or often anonymously invoking intolerant racism, misogyny, religious bigotry – you name it –  in support of what are frequently half-baked, ill thought through or frequently wrong opinions.

So, here’s a quick summary for parents, carers and those who are supposed to give a damn.

First of all, people don’t matter. Human beings are objects like axes wielded in battles in order to win. Actual flesh and blood exists as a mirror image of your stereotypes and caricatures and has no intrinsic value. The moment you can dehumanise a person you’ve never met, is the moment you free yourself from any responsibility for the damage you do to them or applaud someone else doing. Anonymous commenters on forums, are you listening?

Next, one must never, ever apologise. Admitting fault is a prima facie sign of weakness and you will be devoured for it, so  don’t do it. When you are found to be wrong or have spoken in error, be a politician and never admit it. No matter how far adrift of  the facts, how grievous the mistake or how divorced from reality you’ve been, simply attack your critic’s credibility and, more importantly, his integrity, but never admit the error and never, under any circumstances, say you are sorry.

The more differences there are around you, the more there is to fear. Threats always come from those who aren’t like you. If someone’s skin colour or dress or sexual orientation or nation of origin isn’t exactly the same as your own, they must be either treated with extreme suspicion or be avoided altogether. It’s never a good idea to deliberately seek out people who aren’t like you. Introversion, exclusion and self-preservation are the best defences against all the world’s evils which are ranged against you and exist only to hurt you.

Forget the advice of all the do-gooders, teachers, pastors and self-help books, because the bottom line is, it’s all about you. Leave behind all that mediaeval nonsense about loving your neighbour as yourself or doing unto others that which you would like to have done to you. Other people are unimportant. In this selfish, cold-hearted universe you are the solitary star around which every other body revolves. The more you allow other people to be seen and heard, the less you will be able to control them. This is a zero-sum game and there is only one winner. Make sure it’s you.

To empathise with another human being is a flaw and if you’re strong enough it can be resisted. Sitting with people, sometimes in quiet companionship, as they pour out their story to you and to get to feel a little bit of their pain – this kind of thing just slows you down. The more callous, the less vulnerable you become. The greatest self-protection is to simply not to give a damn about anyone else. Bleeding hearts just make a mess.

And, don’t forget – a really important one for the boys. Women are cheaper than men. Consent? Irrelevant. Female autonomy is a myth. A woman’s body does not belong to her; she exists solely for your satisfaction. Doesn’t matter if she’s a wife, a prostitute or the girl crossing the street, it applies to them all. Most of the time, you’ll just get away with it.

The big myth is that ‘cheats never prosper’. Of course they do, but like the poker player with the ace up his sleeve, the purpose of cheating is winning, of getting a better grade or beating someone more deserving to the top prize. The end always justifies the means, no matter how mendacious, despicable or cruel and the more you can rig the system in your favour, the happier you will be. Play fair? Not a chance. Be honest? Never.

White people are just…better. All those people who bang on about equality are deluded fools. Sometimes it’s useful to pretend it matters, but don’t believe it for a second. White people were destined from the beginning to rule the Earth because they are smarter, stronger and better equipped to subdue all the inferiors who aren’t really made in God’s image. Also, your convictions are for sale but only to the highest bidder, laws were made for other people so it’s OK to bend them or even break them with impunity, not forgetting to lie as often as it takes for people to actually believe it. Religion is about as useful as a rented tuxedo, by all means wear it when occasion demands but don’t hesitate to take it off when you no longer feel the need of it.

Well, that’s about it. We can only marvel at Aldous Huxley’s comment ‘Oh, brave new world, that has such people in it.’

Cannon Fodder


London, Friday 19th September 2019

I’ve written about this before, but the sheer scale of Friday’s gatherings has prompted me to add something to an earlier post. It won’t be popular, many will sneer, laugh or both, but I’m unconcerned. Unless you’ve been living under a stone for the last few days, the outpouring of children missing school and on to the streets to ‘protest’ about the lack of Governmental effort worldwide about ‘climate change’ can have barely escaped you. The numbers are staggering. Three to five million is a very conservative estimate, with the the poster child herself, Greta Thunberg addressing a crowd of anything between a hundred thousand and a quarter of a million in New York alone. News outlets picked up the baton, endlessly recycling images of children from all over the world. who it is alleged were given permission to skip school on Friday. Even in downtown Kabul a few hundred gathered.

But, is it really true that mankind is unilaterally responsible? There is a far more complex and less threatening picture of what’s happening to the climate that the alarmists would have us believe. Indeed, such is their unscientific hysteria that even some of the most prominent alarmists have become themselves even more more alarmed by their activities.

Petteri Taalas, the secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), told the Talouselämä magazine in Finland of his concerns about doomsday climate extremists calling for radical action to prevent apocalypse.

“It is not going to be the end of the world. The world is just becoming more challenging. In parts of the globe living conditions are becoming worse.”

He has also controversially suggested that radical environmentalists are now a major problem. I am inclined to agree with him.

 Paraphrasing: “Climate experts have been attacked by these people and they claim that we should be much more radical. They are prophets of doom, extremists who make threats, carrying the world with them on a tidal wave of outrage, loosely based on fact.”

This is exactly the kind of scenario that children raised on fantasy video games are most likely to be impressed by.  They are less impressed by scholarship, much more by the roller coaster ride of emotion that goes with it. The psychology of a movement such as this is irresistibly magnetic for the young.(italics mine)

Even NASAs work on solar activity, which is the engine for climate change – far more significant than the emission of greenhouse gases – has been largely suppressed on their Web pages, in response to the howling rage of those whose agenda is damaged if its results come to light. Man-made climate change deniers are shouted down, ridiculed and pilloried in their communities. Research grants to support climate  change denial are routinely withheld.

It seems that something is happening – this is undeniable – spectacular pictures of great ice sheets collapsing in Antarctica make for  gripping viewing but, although the effects are self-evident the detailed causes are not well understood – data is conflicting as to cause and effect and if we dared be truthful with ourselves and stand against the hurricane of popular opinion, the thought might just occur to us that in the mists of our misunderstanding it is quite conceivable the our planet goes through cyclic changes about which we know very little. If we choose to build cities in low-lying areas, it is not the fault of rich capitalists in London or Washington that the sea reclaims what it once had.

Global movements like this need organisation. And money. Wherever money is spent, there is investment, an expectation of a return. 

Who is investing and why? George Soros’ name has been linked, together with other shadowy financial heavyweights. Smart money is investing in climate change – this is the new Eldorado and pension funds from all over the world will be plundered to make vast amounts of capital available to turn the profligate West at least towards greener pastures. The Chinese are a different kettle of fish – they spend billions on coal fired power stations and are largely unmoved by the Green revolution.

There is a capitalist-anti-capitalist tension driving these movements. As usual the bankers and investors will just sit back and watch the money come rolling in, while the unconscionable exploitation of children as cannon-fodder is unlikely to dissipate any time soon.