stephenpalmersf

Notes from sf author Stephen Palmer

Category: Opinion

UK PR

Nick Clegg, Friday 9 June 2017: “Tonight has once again proved that if you live by the sword you die by the sword.”

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How To Win Friends And Ignore People

Ignoring people used to be a character fault – the height of rudeness – but in the internet age it could become an increasingly powerful force for humanity.

With the internet, so much now is about attention. (It wasn’t always that way of course.) It’s a truism that too many people have the attention span of a gnat and flick from nothing to nothing via nothing in their search for something to capture their imaginations, but in fact the many media/technology corporations out there are all desperately battling for your attention; and the struggle can only become more intense as the internet continues to dominate our lives.

I’ve long been struck by how difficult people find it to ignore provocation delivered to them via the internet – often through social media. Lefties go into paroxysms of rage at the Daily Mail, and presumably right-wingers do the same at the Guardian. But, as I mentioned in my blog Silence, organisations like the Daily Mail have no interest in reducing the 50/50 split of our polarised society, nor have any desire to stop the resulting flame wars. In fact, they’re doing everything they can to encourage polarisation.

Outraged people who share partisan provocation, on Facebook via memes for example, are falling right into the trap set up for them. A classic Daily Mail example occurred recently, when a “girls’ jobs/boys’ jobs” Theresa May topper was contrasted with the “Labour back to the 1970s” headline. Did the innumerable critics on Facebook really think that Daily Mail writers hadn’t noticed this juxtaposition? Did they think it was accidental? No – it was entirely deliberate. The sole aim of the writers behind the Daily Mail is to create a strong emotional reaction in their readers, and then in the opponents of their readers. The purpose of creating such reactions is to achieve and perpetuate tribal loyalty: that is, a constant, regulated stream of money flowing into the Daily Mail’s coffers. The actual “content” of such pieces, though limited to the usual anti-immigrant, anti Labour, anti-women stance, is irrelevant. But it suits the Daily Mail to be reactionary and bigoted because that is one of the most effective ways to split the country into tribes.

Sharing Daily Mail headlines online, however appalling those are deemed to be, is doing the work of its writers for them. They want their opponents to share. They want division, and everyone who shares such material is part of the problem. Without the oxygen of publicity – massively amplified by the characteristics of global communication – the Daily Mail and all its absurdities would stumble into the e-wilderness.

The problem is of course that most people find it impossible to restrain themselves. This is in part a natural human reaction in complex society, but it’s also an aspect of the internet and social media, which allows instant reaction and comment, thus bypassing reason, and even any attempt at basic thought. Yet our reactions can be modified, with a bit of effort.

Another example of the negative outcomes of such promotion is the case of Katie Hopkins. Reviled alongside Nigel Farage as “one of the most hated people in Britain,” millions of people are doing her a favour every year by constantly retweeting, reposting or otherwise disseminating her brand of ludicrous ignorance. But Katie Hopkins has a particular psychological problem, one shared by Donald Trump – she is intensely narcissistic. As a consequence she cannot survive without the attention given to her by the mass media and the internet. This is the motivation for her behaviour. Her utterances, like those of the Daily Mail, are to all intents and purposes content free, despite their apparent right-wing nature. They exist only to rile others and therefore get Hopkins more attention. They are effectively meaningless utterances. If people want Katie Hopkins to go away all they have to do is realise that there is no content then ignore her. But doing that requires self-control as much as it requires insight, and for many it’s easier not to bother.

The most extreme form of modern over-attention is terrorism. As Yuval Noah Harari observed in his book Homo Deus, “How, then do terrorists manage to dominate the headlines and change the political situation around the world? By provoking their enemies to overreact. In essence, terrorism is a show… In most cases, the overreaction to terrorism poses a far greater threat to our security than the terrorists themselves.” But it would take a considerable amount of effort for news organisations, based as they are now on a 24/7 schedule, to ignore, say, the terrorist incident in Manchester. In our current cultural environment that would be considered insulting to the victims. It’s hard to imagine it ever happening, in fact. Yet this is what needs to be done to counter terrorism, which entirely relies for its effect on media over-attention. Modern media methods are highly conducive to terrorism, and many people have argued that they foster it via the media’s modus operandi. Unfortunately, such modern media methods are like fertiliser in earth; it’s a vicious circle now. To ignore terrorists would require the beginning of a positive feedback loop, and at the moment there is only negative feedback – worse events, more and more media coverage. It would seem that humanity is trapped with the consequences of its own clever inventions.

Solutions are of a type despite the range of phenomena here. The solution to Katie Hopkins is not to be provoked by her. But this, as I said above, is difficult – it involves effort. And this illustrates the great irony of the situation we find ourselves in, whether we are social media users or not. You would think that ignoring is passive in nature, that it involves turning away, doing nothing. But in fact ignoring is an active deed. The passive deed in this case is to go with the flow and not think about the situation in its entirety, to follow simplistic drives, to react, to be appalled, to shout. That is passivity, and it is what Katie Hopkins, the Daily Mail and terrorists want you to do. They expect their readers to remain passive by going with the flow. In fact, they’re banking on that. The active response is to take the decision to ignore; to follow another path.

Where that path leads is up to individuals. Politics is of no use whatsoever here. Our world is so complex now it is for the very first time showing signs of evolving faster than human beings can mentally cope with. This means we are heading into very dangerous waters. But individuals can still make an individual response, if they want to. It depends on what questions you ask yourself.

My guess is that over the duration of the next generation we will begin to enter a post-politics world in the West. The gap between politicians and public has never been wider – and it will widen further. Politicians, already out-of-touch, won’t only be so, they’ll be shown to be so, time after time after time. The weapon of satire will mutate into something much more relevant: action. The independence of communities will begin to become a factor, making mere national devolution look like a charade. And as politicians show they are incapable of reacting to the speed of change, let alone to legislate with it in mind, they will be rejected in a move which will make ‘60s counterculture look like playground games.

Good grief!

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Why register?

Is voting in a British general election a right, a duty, as most people think? Was it worth registering to vote in 2017? Many Western countries are trying out electronic, internet-mediated forms of voting, with the vast majority of them assuming that the ubiquity of social media and general internet use, and the ease and convenience of online voting, will increase voter turnout. The case seems pretty obvious. It can be a pain having to go to a voting station. It might be raining. Hell, it might be snowing. Voting might involve a long journey, for instance if you live in a rural location. And voting by post is a bit of a faff.

A recent BBC technology report (spring 2017) highlighted the situation in Estonia.

Estonia is the only country where online voting has become widely used. In the most recent parliamentary elections almost one in three votes was cast online, but officials admit the system has not boosted turnout. “It didn’t take people from the no-voting area because that’s not enough,” Priit Vinkel, head of the electoral office in Estonia, told Newsbeat. “Having a novel, convenient method of voting is not enough…”

So the indisputable convenience of online voting – that simple act of pressing a button – was not enough to increase voter participation. Voter turnout remained exactly the same.

But voter turnout has nothing to do with voting methods. It is typical of established political thinkers to assume that the problem is one of logistics, since they are beholden to the standard view: you must vote, it is your national duty, women died for the vote, therefore you must vote. The standard view blames voters themselves for their apathy, and this view is much amplified by the media. It is typical too of those enamoured of the status quo to encourage belief in a system that specifically and deliberately disenfranchises the majority of people in Britain. Both Labour and the Tories benefit from keeping the first-past-the-post system, and both parties have continually refused to seriously consider a fair system. When in 2010 the LibDems were allowed a referendum on PR, the Tories knew perfectly well that the entrenched system would win out. All they had to do was play on fears of coalition, national chaos etc then let the apathy created by the chasm between voters and politicians do the rest of the work. Easy.

This is how the apathy discussion typically goes around election time. Register now! Too many young people don’t register and don’t vote. You must register! If you don’t register, you can’t vote, and you can’t complain.

Let’s shift this mode of argument to another sphere to expose how ludicrous it is. Suppose Britain is divided up into 600+ localities in which the relevant factor is whether or not individuals have green eyes. You’ll be allowed a meaningful vote or some other interaction if green eyed individuals are around half of the population of your locality, but if you don’t like the status quo the system will blame you for not taking part, even though eye colour is a factor determined by heredity. Or, you could wear contact lenses. Register now! You must register for contact lenses!

Just as having green eyes is a factor of heredity and nothing to do with politics, so living in a particular constituency is nothing to do with politics. You could for instance live in North Shropshire, which has been true blue since 1835. That’s before Queen Victoria. I mean, we’re talking Blackadder territory here…

Voting in a general election is a vote in an approximate direction only – a system where we give credence to our leaders in the vain hope that they will get on with it in a decent manner; without fiddling their expenses, for instance. This is partial democracy. A two party first-past-the-post system is identical in all meaningful qualities to a one party system. Both systems maintain a stranglehold on the nation through an explicitly unfair system; two sides of the same bad penny. Both Labour and the Tories exploit first-past-the-post and the consequent abyss between individuals and politicians in a quite unscrupulous manner. The British electoral system is just about fit for the 19th century.

Voter apathy has nothing to do with voting methods, electronic, internet, pencil and paper or otherwise. Voter apathy is not the fault of voters. Voter apathy is caused by a political system utterly unfit for purpose, one that deliberately disenfranchises people then blames them for their lack of interest.

Some people say, well, if you vote against the main party in a safe constituency at least you’ve had your say and you’ve added to the numbers of the losing candidates, which is noticeable. That’s pure self-delusion. Nobody remembers who came second. In a first-past-the-post system nobody gives a damn who came second.

Did you register to vote? Did you follow the lead of everybody exhorting you to register, in social media memes, newspaper articles or pieces to camera, all of which failed to mention the context? Well, if you happened to live in a marginal seat, then fine. But of the 650 seats in the House of Commons around 200 this year are generally considered to be marginal, and therefore meaningful.

Makes sense to you? Thought not. Welcome to 19th century Britain.

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The Largest Lie

The largest lie of politics is back in play again, and the full lie will be told on June 9th.

This lie is: your political act as a British individual is voting in a general election.

The overwhelming majority of British politicians want you to believe this lie because politics in Britain, as in most Western countries, is a passive activity – indeed, it is now a spectator activity also. Politics would become an active procedure if your vote mattered: if you felt that, by casting a vote, your activity was relevant and meaningful. But it is not, for several reasons. The main reason is that, in a first-past-the-post electoral system, any vote cast in a safe seat for any of the political parties is meaningless, with the exception of votes cast for the ruling party where the voter genuinely wants that party to win. Only in marginal seats – the minority in Britain – does voting have any general human meaning, since in those seats there is a direct connection between the act of voting and the outcome. The majority of people in Britain are disenfranchised by this archaic and ludicrous system.

The second main reason your vote is not meaningful is that we are organised on the national scale, as we shall be for the foreseeable future. This means we operate a partial democracy. We individuals do not vote actively and democratically – we elect our rulers, then sit back to await events. This system automatically halts any chance of politics being relevant to individuals in communities, and, at least as important, meaningful to them.

To quote Erich Fromm: “Democracy can resist the authoritarian threat if it is transformed from a passive democracy into an active democracy – in which the affairs of the community are as close and as important to the individual citizens as their private affairs or, better, in which the well-being of the community becomes each citizen’s private concern. By participating in the community, people find life becomes more interesting and stimulating. Indeed, a true political democracy can be defined as one in which life is just that, interesting.”

In other words, the media-spread lie that somehow a “national voice” is being expressed in a British general election is nothing but delusion. There is no such thing as a national voice in a country of 60 million people: the idea is utter fantasy, designed in the main to divert attention from the paralysing lack of activity inherent in the current system. A national voice could only be heard by some sort of abstract national entity. But there is no such thing. We are human beings. We are small, and we live in communities. Voter apathy exists in the main because of the lack of meaningful connection between voting and politics as it is done in Britain.

In my opinion (and I’m aware that this opinion is shared by few), no meaningful change, with the exception of occasional historical accidents, can take place within a political system which is authoritarian, passive due to scale or type, or which in other ways acts directly against the needs of human individuals. The only alternative is to reject such systems and lead by example.

If voting is a meaningless activity, what do you do if you live in a safe seat such as North Shropshire, or if like me you find the entire charade a sick, ridiculous, pointless waste of time? The lie is: voting as a British individual is your only political act. Politicians want you to believe this lie. But it is not true. Politics in such flawed situations can be other things, which the “leaders” you elect do not want you to consider. The British system expects you to place all your faith in one single leader – a typical conceit of patriarchy. The system expects you to accept the status quo. The system in fact expects you to manifest the status quo as part of national duty. But the system in 21st century Britain is designed for a male-dominated economic elite and nobody else.

Your alternative political acts include: consumer strikes, consumer choice (eg going vegetarian and buying Fair Trade), and refusing to accept the “right” of stockholders and other management forces to control the economic agenda. When I was an employee of Waterstones in the early 2000s, Waterstones became a company with stocks and shares, and all employees were given free shares as a consequence of this change. I was the only member of staff in my store to refuse these shares on moral grounds, a decision which iirc lost me about £300. Other alternative political acts are more long-duration and nebulous, and include exposing patriarchy in all its forms, rejecting and exposing the lies of capitalism, and so on. This can be done by communication. In the age of the internet that is much more difficult than it used to be, but it is still a meaningful activity, especially if through chance you have a louder voice than others. Of course, not everybody is comfortable with only long-term activity.

Idealists locate the directions of paths. Realists find the paving materials. But we do need both.

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History Not Repeating Itself

“We think as progress being a straight line forever upwards,” said Atwood. “But it never has been so, you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then – bang – you’re Hitler’s Germany. That can happen very suddenly.” – Margaret Atwood, The Guardian, 13 February.

In this blog post I want to write about a couple of the points made above – (i) that progress is a ‘straight line upwards’ and that (ii) a fascist dictatorship could suddenly appear. Margaret Atwood is of course the highly lauded author of such classics as The Handmaid’s Tale (in which context she was speaking in the above quote), The Blind Assassin, Oryx & Crake, and other excellent books.

A “bubbling up of Puritan values” as Atwood put it in the Guardian article isn’t quite the same thing as preparing for the arrival of a fascist dictatorship, but I don’t think she was necessarily saying one will lead to the other. What interests me is the notion – widely discussed and widely believed in liberal, free-thinking democracies – that it is possible for a new fascist dictatorship to arise. I think the chances are massively against this.

Admittedly, I was thinking of the West when I began pondering. China is hardly a model of democratic values, as are many other countries around the world. But Atwood’s outstanding work The Handmaid’s Tale is American through and through.

I think there is one main factor stopping a new fascist dictatorship from getting power – the post-war shrinking of the world and the subsequent arrival of the internet.

In other blog posts I’ve been quite negative about the internet, but I don’t think it’s all bad. What makes the big change for the West since 1945 is the improved condition of politics, media and social life. We as individual nations are much more intimate with one another than we used to be. In the 1920s and 1930s the internal state of Germany or France was far less knowable to the average British or American person. There was no television and little radio, the main news source being newspapers, all of whom were as biased (or opinionated) as they are today. But now any small political event in France is immediately known around the world. We have billions of photographs of such countries, of their landscapes, peoples and cultures. As individuals we know far more about France or Germany than we ever did when Hitler was consolidating his position. There are more words, more images, more video clips, more webcams.

I think this is why a fascist dictatorship will never again rise in the West, unless there is some catastrophic event like a nuclear war involving us. In this post-1945 case, I do think the lesson of history has for once been learned. The irony is however that the increase in ‘national intimacy’ has been accompanied by a reduction in individual, human connection – with other individuals, with communities, with societies; and this I think is to do with the increasing role of technology, not least the internet, in our lives.

Could Atwood’s first point be wrong though? If progress is not a ‘straight line upward’ then a new Dark Ages (not that the original Dark Ages were dark, but let’s use the term generally) could lie in the future. But might that be the case?

In my opinion progress is a straight line upward if you look over a long enough time scale. The time scale I’d like to suggest is 40,000 years.

That may not seem a particularly relevant time scale, but hold on a moment… The aspect of human cultural development that I want to focus on is how we interact with the real world – what sort of relationship we have with it. 40,000 years ago this was likely a shamanistic, animistic, magical-thinking kind of relationship, when human beings imagined that objects, aspects of the environment and imaginary places were full of spirits. Much later, after the end of the Ice Age and with the arrival of agriculture, animal husbandry and settlements in the Near East, those religious notions changed. Later on they changed again, to the Abrahamic monotheistic religions of the modern West. Then, about half a millennium ago, the crucial change occurred, as the scientific method led to an understanding that the real world is independent of human imagination. This change freed human beings at last to view the real world as it is – through their own filters, yes, but on the assumption that the real world is independent of human beings and has to be tested in order to find things out about it.

This is what I mean by a line of progress. We’ve gone from imagining that spirits exist in trees, rocks and rivers, through imagining that gods live in the skies and beneath the ground, through imagining one god somewhere in the universe, to realising that the universe came about regardless of our myths and legends. We know that the universe is independent of us.

We can apply this progress to thinking about the long-term future. I personally don’t think cultures, when taken over long periods of time, do revert to more primitive (eg fascist) states, though I think that might, perhaps, be possible in some limited circumstances such as nuclear war. But in a nutshell – we can’t unlearn what we know now. We know too much, even though what remains unknown is vast. We know too much to revert to imaginary concepts. We know too much about human biological evolution and human cultural evolution – and most importantly of all, we are at last beginning to understand the true nature of consciousness and the human condition. All this, I think, can never be unlearned.

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The Freedom Delusion

On Monday 30th January, Myron Ebell, adviser to Donald Trump’s administration, who has has denied the dangers of human-created climate change for many years, denounced the world’s environmental movement. “The environmental movement is,” he said, “in my view, the greatest threat to freedom and prosperity in the modern world. Our special interest is, I would say, freedom.”

What are we to make of these comments? On the face of it they seem the standard declaration of any right-wing American man, but in this blog post I thought it might be worth delving a little deeper into Ebell’s climate change denial, and also putting such claims into the context of American culture.

First, it’s worth noting that the phrase ‘climate change denial’ has a satisfactory tone of negativity to it, like the phrase ‘holocaust denial.’ As with evolution by natural selection deniers, the overwhelming majority of climate change deniers have no grasp of how science works. Science is a human activity, and at its leading edge is prone to error, fraud, and even an occasional ‘epic fail’ (to use Brian Cox’s term). But what makes science true and useful is its irreversible and profound attachment to reality. Regardless of the details Darwin got wrong about evolution, and regardless of what details climate change scientists get wrong, the central core of evolutionary theory and of climate change theory are unassailable – which is why the overwhelming majority of scientists accept them. They have changed from hypotheses to theories.

What then is the motive for denying human-induced climate change? Well, let’s consider the context. Americans consume and discard five times the average Western amount of products and consumables – and vastly more than that compared with the global norm. Theirs is a world of consumption based on the standard capitalist assumption that perpetual economic growth is possible on a finite planet. So it can be seen already that such a people, given the opportunity to relinquish 4/5 of their consumption, are not likely to take up the offer.

Of course, Americans might be persuaded to pull back most of their consumption if they could see the damage it was doing to themselves and to the planet. Is there then anything stopping them from taking such a view?

There is – and that thing is exactly what Ebell referred to in his denouncement. It is freedom.

For Americans, freedom is sacrosanct. Freedom for the vast majority of Americans is the heart of what their country is – the ‘land of the free.’ But could they have taken that notion to an unrealistic extreme?

Recently I’ve been writing about narcissism, using the word in its general sense rather than the specifically ‘vain’ sense. Erich Fromm said: The narcissistic orientation is one in which a person experiences as real only that which exists within themself, while the phenomena in the outside world have no reality in themselves, but are experienced only from the viewpoint of their being useful or dangerous. But it isn’t just individuals who suffer from narcissism. Fromm himself was eloquent on the subject of group narcissism, in which the attitudes of a collection of people are similarly divorced from reality. We see this phenomenon in football matches, in religious violence and in cultural bigotry. In any situation where there is infantile tit-for-tat revenge you can be sure group narcissism is at work amongst narcissistic individuals. As Frank Herbert observed: revenge is for children.

Most Americans – especially the libertarians and the right-wingers – are wedded to freedom in an entirely unrealistic manner. Theirs is an attitude of freedom at the expense of everyone and everything else. And this is a specifically narcissistic attitude. It says: what matters above all is not the community, not the society, not the culture – it is me. My freedom trumps all other concerns. This unrealistic extreme exists in Europe too.

Is theirs a reasonable attitude? No. There is no such thing as complete freedom in the American mode. That is an delusion caused by cultural narcissism, a specific refusal to accept that human beings live in communities; in societies. In fact, we human beings enjoy quite limited freedom. We are restricted by the finite planet that we live on, but also by hundreds of smaller concerns, such as the communities we live in, to which we have many obligations. But to the narcissist such obligations don’t exist. All that matters is personal freedom, to the detriment of community, of culture, of the planet.

This, unfortunately, is what is happening in America right now. Myron Ebell said, “The environmental movement is… the greatest threat to freedom and prosperity in the modern world.” By this he meant it was the greatest threat to his self-centred enjoyment of products and consumables made at the expense of the rest of the human world, and of the planet. “Our special interest is… freedom,” he added. By this he meant that the restrictions of life created by the existence of the human race should not apply to him. He must be free at the expense of all other concerns.

This attitude exists right across the globe in a myriad of forms. We remain a primitive race when considered in terms of 40,000 years of scientific progress (i.e. understanding of the real world) and cultural development. The absurd attitude lies at the heart of the British class system, of the Indian caste system, of patriarchy, of capitalism, fascism and communism, of prejudice, bigotry and all forms of wilful ignorance.

There is still a lot of work to be done. All cultural attitudes that ignore, brush off, pervert or re-work the real world betray the narcissistic orientation. It is the great infection at the heart of human life, one we are all born with, and which we all have to overcome individually and as cultures. But that work is difficult. Self-deception is the strongest weapon in narcissism’s armoury – the hardest one to beat, by far. The planet will survive humanity’s appearance, but we will not if we consistently reject reality.

Narcissism is, in my view, the greatest threat to happiness and sanity in the modern world. Our special interest is, I would say, humanity.

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Narcissism & Donald II

In my blog Narcissism & Donald I wrote about Donald Trump’s personality disorder, using the general description of narcissism utilised by psychologists such as Erich Fromm. That post was written during the election campaign, so, now that the man is president, what changes or other factors can we observe in this intensely narcissistic person? And what about the minions surrounding him?

Within two days of the inauguration things were pretty much as expected. Despite photographic proof that anybody living in the real world could see and check, the president decided that his fantasy version of the day’s events was the truth of the matter. As a consequence, the ‘war’ between him and his team and the media continues. This inability to live in the real world is absolutely typical of the narcissist. All of reality is filtered through the president’s narcissism. It doesn’t matter what happens in the real world – all he has to do is state what he believes, or wants, and all will be well. But not only will all be well for him. Trump believes that as a direct consequence of this all will be well for the world.

Equally as worrying is the craven, idiotic stance of some of his supporters. Challenged by presenter Chuck Todd on NBC – who asked her why press secretary Sean Spicer’s first appearance had been to “utter a probable falsehood” – Kellyanne Conway answered that she had during Todd’s interview been presenting “alternative facts.” “Alternative facts are not facts. They are falsehoods,” Todd replied. To those used to living in the real world the mere notion of ‘alternative facts’ is laughable; but the president and his supporters don’t live in the real world.

Many have remarked on Donald Trump’s thin skin, but this again is exactly what we would expect of a narcissist. With a personality so fragile it is held together only by vastly inflated self-aggrandisement, just one criticism is required to make a puncture. The narcissist’s response is to attack and deny, thereby returning the sense of self-worth to its former level. This, in more structured form, is why narcissists are always vengeful people. Revenge is re-balancing. Revenge negates ‘insult’ or ‘criticism’ by returning self-worth to its former value.

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of Donald Trump’s victory is that it will massively confirm his fantasy that everything he does is correct, true and worthy. When narcissists fail in the real world – as they inevitably do, since they have no grasp of that world – they react with rage. The new president will do exactly this as the weeks and months go by. But when through chance or design they do succeed it adds to the imaginary sense that they are the centre of the world – even its raison d’être. The classic example of this is Napoleon (to whom the new president is remarkably similar.) When Napoleon succeeded, it was, he said, because of his Destiny. When he failed, he mentally collapsed or went into a fury.

It’s intriguing to ponder how all this might end. Like many commentators, I don’t think Donald Trump will last four years. There are various options. Like Stalin, he might end his presidency in a haze of imaginary plots and conspiracies – I think this is the most likely outcome. Some of these plots of course may be based in real events. Or like Hitler he might end it in utter self-destruction, taking America down with him. Possibly that might happen when the Trump/Putin relationship deteriorates, as it is sure to do. Or, like Napoleon, he might simply be out-manoeuvred by superior forces. I think this is also likely, with those ‘superior forces’ being those in the Republican Party who see Trump for what he is.

All hail President Pence!

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A New American Faith

We should not be surprised that – as the journal Scientific American observed in a recent article – ‘… people seem to double down on their beliefs in the teeth of overwhelming evidence against them. The reason is related to the worldview perceived to be under threat by the conflicting data. Creationists, for example, dispute the evidence for evolution in fossils and DNA because they are concerned about secular forces encroaching on religious faith. Anti-vaxxers distrust big pharma and think that money corrupts medicine, which leads them to believe that vaccines cause autism despite the inconvenient truth that the one and only study claiming such a link was retracted and its lead author accused of fraud… In these examples, proponents’ deepest held worldviews were perceived to be threatened by sceptics, making facts the enemy to be slayed.’

This is exactly how religious faith works. Contradictory, if not actually ludicrous beliefs are held by groups of adherents, and facts simply make them believe more – and more deeply. As someone interested in the world and our relationship to it I’ve long been perplexed by this process of “faith-testing,” and I used it in The Girl With One Friend, where Erasmus and Pastor Richardson duel over Erasmus’ growing apostasy.

When I was growing up, I didn’t have a world-view forced into me. My parents are both non-religious, and although I went to a C. of E. school from the ages of six to eleven I was an atheist even then, with Christianity bouncing off me. My world view accumulated slowly, based in what I experienced around me. In other circles this is called the scientific method. Of course, it could be argued that atheism is a world-view (which it is), and that it was forced into me, but that ignores the fundamental point – I discovered the world over a long period of time through a method which assumes the independent existence of that world, and which tests it. Science does not care what I or anybody else believes.

We see this odd phenomenon of “faith-testing” at work now in American politics, as the dread day Friday 20th January hoves into view. The overwhelming majority of Donald Trump’s followers support him using principles of religious faith, carried over to the political world. Facts simply make them believe more, because facts threaten them. The contradictory nature of the beliefs of these supporters is identical to the contradictory nature of the beliefs of religious people – in the case of Donald Trump’s supporters a hotch-potch of stuff based in incoherent anger at their ruling class, absurd principles of freedom, and the ugly narcissistic codes of misogyny and racism, which have always loomed large in America’s ultra-Christian culture.

So we should not be surprised at the teflon-coated quality of Donald Trump’s supporters. Just like him, they don’t interface with the real world, where facts reside. They interact with their imaginary construct, supported by everyone else around them and inspired by the man himself. The real world, with its inconvenient truths, is not for them. Donald Trump leads a new religious sect, and is its only source is him. He is the messiah of himself; and it seems quite a lot of people do actually believe in him.

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Silence

On Tuesday this week, the Guardian featured a blog entitled: It’s impossible for robots to steal your job – no matter what the Daily Mail says. The subtitle was: The Daily Mail has reported that robots could ‘steal’ 15 million UK jobs. But it’s practically impossible to ‘steal’ a job, so why is the notion so persistent?

There followed a lengthy, detailed discussion of why this particular Daily Mail report was a load of nonsense. The comments section below was full of reasoned – and not-so-reasoned – arguments as to why the article might be right or wrong, discussing the merits of the stance that robots may or may not take jobs.

To me, there was one obvious point that was not mentioned amongst all this activity. The Daily Mail is written by children for children. Its headlines and leading pieces are not intended to inform, to discuss, or even to promote a particular world-view (such as the Daily Mail and the Daily Express in particular are notorious for). The sole aim of the writers behind the Daily Mail is to create a strong emotional reaction in the reader – and then in the opponents of the reader. The purpose of creating such reactions in readers is to achieve and perpetuate tribal loyalty: that is, a constant stream of money flowing into the Daily Mail’s coffers.

The actual content of such pieces, although limited to the usual anti-immigrant, anti-women stance and so on, is irrelevant. But it suits the Daily Mail to be reactionary and bigoted because that is the best way to split the country into tribes.

There is only one reasonable reaction to comics such as the Daily Mail, and that is to completely ignore them. A wall of silence is the one thing they can’t oppose. That is why I never link to or comment on “outrageous” pieces in such publications – for instance on Facebook – because that is exactly what the Daily Mail wants me to do. It wants the oxygen of publicity, it wants to provoke an irrational emotional reaction, it wants to see warring tribes.

The wall of silence is the only response.

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Independent Science

Does it matter that the activity of science across the world at the moment is overwhelmingly in the hands of commercial interests? So long as the science is done, who cares?

Well, James Lovelock might care. Britain’s most independent scientist (an appellation the man is rightly fond of, and proud of) isn’t restricted in what he researches, is able to use his intuition, instinct and massive experience to answer questions other scientists wouldn’t think of. Recently he said of his position, “In most nations of the developed world, they rule out the greater and more interesting parts of hands-on science. True, it might be possible for a present-day Descartes, Einstein or Newton to think and use paper or a PC to record and expand their thoughts, but a Faraday or a Darwin would be buried in paperwork and obliged to spend their time solving problems concerning health and safety, and political correctness, today’s equivalent of the theocratic oppression of Galileo. In the world of corporate science there would be little time left for their singular and breath-taking ideas.”

With the vast majority of science now done to make money for a small elite who exist inside commercial and corporate structures, what does this mean for the future? It could be worse than you think. Take the issue of hybrid corn. In decades past, a farmer who used a particularly good strain of corn would keep back a small proportion of seed to plant for the following year. In this way, further in the past, and over a longer time period, agriculturalists did experiments with genetics, creating strains of corn that best suited the needs of the communities they lived in. But hybrid seeds, which now flood the world via the companies that make them, have one crucial difference. Though they give larger yields, because they are hybrids they never breed true. And that means a farmer has to buy seed every year from a company. This then is the main reason for the flood of hybrid varieties. Under the cover of offering a larger yield, the agricultural world – that is, all our food production – is owned by commerce.

This to my mind does not seem right. And the example given above can be extended to many other vitally important area, not least health.

Erich Fromm saw the dangers decades ago, when the level of commercial control was much less. One of his suggestions for a humane future was to break the deeply unhealthy link between science and commerce by creating an independent science auditing structure. This would of course have an additional benefit, since so much of the damage done by capitalism has been on the planet’s ecosystems. It has long been a call from environmentalists that the future consequences of any scientific development be factored into the cost and ethics of making that development.

But as James Lovelock said: “You mustn’t take what I say as gospel because no one can second-guess the future.” So let’s get independent. Let’s listen to the planet, not to money, which makes people the juvenile dependents of its corporate culture.

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