stephenpalmersf

Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

Religion Week, 3: Explanation

No human being can live without a meaning framework. Such frameworks are essential to our conscious lives. For the overwhelming majority of our species’ time on this planet, these frameworks have been spiritual or religious. Atheism however is also a meaning framework, as is humanism.

Our method of creating frameworks of meaning is explanation. Human beings cannot remain passive in the face of some unexplained fact or experience. Consciousness requires them to augment their model of reality with this fact or experience: it has to be explained. Explanation is an essential ability, since our minds have to survive by creating a model of reality, and this model has to be as complete as possible. Snippets of reality cannot simply be ignored.

This is why human beings became such good pattern recognisers. Pattern recognition is the construction of whole explanations by knitting together smaller facts. We build explanations up into stories, which we then believe.

It is the case however that cumulative processes of explanation begin in the main with imagined explanations – for instance, the notion of a deity creating the universe, or of celestial and infernal realms. The complete absence of evidence for such imaginary explanations was, for early and all subsequent societies up to around the middle of the second millennium, not a problem. All that mattered was that the explanation worked for them.

From the twin dynamics of explanation and framework comes meaning. Meaning is coherence: wholeness. It is the experience of a consistent mental model. Yet a self-consistent model is not necessarily one also consistent with reality. Meaning in the past was a narrative generally agreed by a community which explained to their satisfaction fundamental, universal questions: how the universe began, how it will end, how human life begins, what happens when human beings die, and what the purpose of life is. Most traditions also have a strong sense of how life should be lived – a moral component. In almost all known cases these answers and traditions are couched in terms of myths, which, before the takeover of men and organised religion, were stories of life and living, essential to all. Karen Armstrong wrote the best introduction to the structure, meaning and purpose of myths in her book A Short History Of Myth.

So, human narratives did not in the distant past have to correspond with reality. At the very beginning, this was because we knew so little about the real world. Five thousand years ago we still knew very little. A thousand years ago we knew little, but things were changing by a process of cumulative understanding. A hundred years ago we had a new method of understanding the world, one which, unlike spirituality and religion, assumed the independence of the real world, and which therefore asked questions of the world rather than imposing an imaginary narrative upon it.

This may be the great redemption of humanity. True understanding is a one way process.

Religion Week, 2: Soul

The idea of human beings having a spirit or a soul is humanity’s oldest lie. But it was an inevitable and essential lie. We could not have survived as a species after about 100,000 years ago without it.

The first people to bury their dead, the Neanderthals, were fully conscious, and must have had a concept of life – of self-awareness, aliveness, of the importance of other people – to have had a concept of death. They were aware of themselves as unique individuals with unique identities. This posed one of the deepest of humanity’s problems: how to understand what happened when life stopped.

Given two observations made by every human being, there was only one answer for early humanity, one that became entrenched in thought for tens of thousands of years. These two observations were that individuals were conscious and unique, and that they died. Understanding that human beings were self-aware, and that they died, decayed, and disappeared after a few decades of life, early humanity had no option but to assume that this uniqueness was not in fact annihilated; that some non-physical part, some symbol of the uniqueness of every human being, of their personalities, did survive death. It was an unavoidable conclusion for those early peoples with their restricted understanding of the world; and it was the only explanation, it being impossible for them to imagine non-existence. It was inevitable that they presume the existence of an ethereal spirit which seemed to reside within the body. This explanation did away with what at the time was the inconceivable dilemma of not existing. They believed physical death could be transcended by continued mental life.

Other feelings would have led them to this conclusion. Those early conscious peoples would have felt emotions and love, and their relationships would have been crucial for sane survival. It was thus inevitable that, upon the death of somebody, they wondered what had happened to that unique and irreplaceable character. In such an atmosphere, the notion of an immortal non-corporeal component was inevitable.

Burial rituals were the social answers to these problems. They expressed the fact that people mattered to one another, that everybody wondered what happened after death, and that some generally held, communal explanation was required. Ritual was also vital. From these basic ideas came many others: the idea of an after-life or a spirit realm, which was required for the dead spirits to live in; the idea that ethereal spirits resided inside earthly bodies as a separable entity; the idea that spirits had knowledge not attainable by people, and that they could influence earthly life. All these ideas grew, over time, into religious concepts.

It was not possible for early humanity to know the truth of consciousness and existence. So important were their selves the idea of never letting go came into being; they would not die. Given such incomplete understanding of their selves and of the external world, it was impossible for early humanity to conceive the idea of life ceasing after death. They could not let their selves go. Spirit, they decided, was immortal.

It did not occur to them that spirit was a lie. What mattered was that spirit narratives helped them survive sane.

Religion Week, 1: Spirituality

I am an atheist and a humanist, and I always have been.

What is spirituality? It is a belief system composed of stories designed to explain the nature of the world in which human beings find themselves. In my opinion, it arose around a hundred thousand years ago give or take a few tens of thousands of years. I think it only applies to homo sapiens. Although Neanderthals were far more sophisticated than archaeology has so far given them credit for (although read Rebecca Wragg Sykes’ fantastic book Kindred), I don’t think they had the mental architecture necessary for the symbolic manipulation needed to believe in spiritual ideas. Neanderthals, to my mind, were pretty literal, albeit that such literalism was of a fantastically high order.

Early human beings needed spirituality because, like us, they lived by metaphors strung into stories. It is this quality of metaphorical thinking that in my opinion (and the opinion of many others – see Steven Mithen’s trail-blazing work) is lacking in Neanderthals. Homo neanderthalensis understood what a bird was and what a man was, but were unable to imagine a combination of the two, unlike artists at Lascaux.

Our stories – personal and cultural – must have a beginning and an end. How was the world created? Where do children come from? What happens at the end of the world? What happens to me when I die? Sane life was impossible for human beings without having such fundamental questions answered. No meaning = incoherence. Insanity beckons from that position. The early human response was to imagine answers which brought meaning to their lives: coherence regardless of factual accuracy.

From these tiny, cumulative beginnings entire spiritual realms were imagined. They bore no relation to reality, but that did not matter. What mattered was that they were coherent in the minds of the people comprising the tribe or culture, that they explained what they experienced to their own satisfaction, that they answered certain fundamental questions common to all human societies, and that they brought meaning to life via narrative.

Our word spirit comes from the root spiro, meaning breath. This is how ancient people imagined the supposed incorporeal part of a human being. From such imaginings entire traditions were built. Any imagined spirit needed an incorporeal realm to go to, or preferably a few, as “explored” by shamans. The human imagination was fertile and prolific…

Spirituality was an essential answer which had fundamental importance to early people trying to make sense of the world, but it was the wrong answer. That didn’t matter so much in times when people didn’t have the power that we have today. Perhaps it didn’t matter at all. Today however, able to damage the planet in any of dozens of ways, having the wrong answer does matter.

We need the right answer now.

Politics Week, 5: Participation

Amongst many advocates of participatory democracy was Erich Fromm, who fifty years ago pointed out that the main reason people don’t bother voting is that they sense an abyss between their only political act – voting – and the result of that act. He was living in America at the time, but since they, like us, have an unjust, undemocratic First Past The Post voting system, his comment applied not just to his adopted home nation but to ours.

A participatory democracy is one where people vote in small, human-scale settings (somewhat like local voting) where there is a direct, causal link between their act and the consequences of it. British general elections are not at all like this. We have in Britain an approximation of democracy, in which a self-selecting elite based in public schools groom themselves, fascinated by their reflections, for what they see as their birthright, whilst being elected by a minority of the people of the nation – those living in marginal constituencies. That’s not democracy, that’s “democracy.”

In Britain, there is only a pretence of meritocracy. Same old same Eton old. It literally is a network composed of old boys.

I never vote in general elections when living in a safe seat constituency because that would make me part of the problem. Instead, I do my best to highlight the issues and possible solutions, like PR. Those who say that means I don’t have a right to complain don’t grasp that voting once every few years is designed to be an exclusive, single act. It is designed to say to me: voting is the one and only political thing you need to do, now shut up and let us get on with ruling. Indeed, it’s a damned inconvenience to politicians when people start thinking for themselves, finding like-minded friends, organising themselves, then acting. That’s exactly what they don’t want. That’s why they keep saying they are our servants. But they’re not. It’s a lie; and when you tell a lie often enough it becomes the truth. They are Orwell’s pigs.

Like all great humane ideas, democracy was long ago perverted by narcissism. When the idea was devised, we were as a species very far from being mature enough to use it as was intended; likewise for the concept of parliaments. We’re still not mature enough. We’re only just taking our first steps out of adolescence, after all, as the planet burns around our ears. The central core of democracy is great – representation, just and decent society, stability. The reality is different. For as long as human beings don’t notice how their own selfishness is the filter through which they experience the world, politicians will use democracy as a screen for their own self-interest. Most will rationalise that as doing what is right for the nation and so on. What is most frightening about recent trends though is how even that rationalisation isn’t being bothered with, as politicians, seeing the state of the nation after fifteen years of social media, dispense with the act of concealing their own bigotry, selfishness and incompetence. They’ve grasped that they don’t need to make that effort any more. People have stopped caring. People have stopped making an effort. People look at their phones, not at them. Politicians have begun to realise that, in fact, it’s sometimes better to embrace egotism, since lots of people seem to like it. The nation is clothed in white curly wool, just as politicians always wanted.

Baa, baa!

Opinion!

Politics Week, 4: Social Media

50/50. Isn’t it strange how often we’ve seen that split in the last decade or so? And it has affected politics a lot: the Brexit vote, various foreign elections too numerous to mention, any number of national polls on topics of the moment, and so forth…

Social media is the unspoken novelty in British politics. By unspoken, I mean its influence is still difficult to detect. It is occult, though most people can see it’s there… somewhere… yet they’re not sure. They know there is something not quite right, but they’re too addicted to their phones to find out what that might be. Some have seen the documentaries, but many more haven’t. Some have read the nervous headlines declaiming social media addiction, but many more haven’t. Some have been told at school that too much online activity is dangerous, but the Californian companies who dominate the internet care nothing about that. Theirs is an attention economy based on data. They want to steal your mind – and they’re making a very good job of it, just like the ad men did a couple of generations earlier with their inhumane psychological techniques. When it comes to power and exploitation, mind theft is a central technique.

Social media makes this easy. In part this is because social media takes away the overwhelming majority of non-verbal communication. You can tell when a politician is lying because their lips move. You can’t do that with written words online – unless you go 100% cynical. And who wants to do that? Who has the time or the energy or the inclination? Especially when your independence flew out of the window with your mind.

The polarisation of British politics, like that of the whole world, is due in the main to social media and its characteristic mode of reaction: immediate, gut instinct, no time taken for thought or reflection, an anonymised environment, and a complete lack of consequences to actions owing in the main to its lack of regulation, but also to that possibility of anonymity. It’s the new Wild West for the same reason the old Wild West appeared: made by boys, run by boys, occupied by boys. (For some boys, the y can be replaced by a t.)

I think social media is largely responsible for the change in politics and the political environment and debate which has occurred over the last decade or so. Polarisation to a precise 50/50 split is the new norm. In a process called cybermigration by the eminent writer Mary Aiken, behaviour deemed normal on the internet migrates to the real world. This is what has happened to politics. Everybody creeps to one of two extremes, which then exist in stasis at opposite ends of the opinion scale. This online behaviour then transfers to the real world, infecting political debate, with the effects that we have seen in Britain particularly since 2016. For me, the Brexit vote was the first indication that some new disease was affecting the British: the hysteria of the debate, the irrationalities, the obvious lies, deception and fraud. Then the 50/50 result.

But we should not be surprised. People’s online behaviour cybermigrated. This may be our black-and-white future.

Politics Week, 3: System

The British way of doing politics in a “two party system” with a First Past The Post voting system is what keeps the masses in abeyance. We are told that our individual political act (our “duty,” making that a moral imperative in order to compel us) is voting once every few years. Politicians don’t want us to think that any other act might be political – recycling, for instance. They want politics kept away from people. We elect our representatives, who then do their thing for a while, having been given a mandate as they put it. That’s not representation, that’s exclusion.

(Note for today: yesterday’s new session of Parliament described junking the five year term act, a 2021 change specifically designed for one winning party to keep power for as long as possible regardless of the state of the nation.)

In fact, we don’t have a two party system, we have a one party system. A general election is two sides of boys slugging it out for the right to wield power through a vast hierarchy. Politics, like monarchy, is about the exercise of the thing and the thing itself. It’s about imposition of will – as with monarchy. It’s about a sole leader who triumphs over all; just like monarchy. Unlike the Greens, no major British political party would dare have joint male and female leaders. That’s not how tradition works. In Britain we give the Opposition a capital O in order to conceal how meaningless it is, not just how toothless. Meanwhile, we don’t even dignify the third party or any others with such an appellation. Politics in Britain is swaddled in glory.

We would have a two party system if there was Proportional Representation voting, since that would not only be a fair system right across the nation (no “safe” seats and no “marginal” seats) it would bring about coalitions, in which both sides got to act. Coalitions, I hear you ask? Aren’t they all about compromise and suchlike? Yes. Compromise. The accommodation of two or more sides in a just manner in the national interest. Politics, in other words.

In a safe seat, any vote not for the winning candidate is worthless. It literally cannot act. Only in marginal seats is there a direct correlation between the act of voting and the possible outcome. That system disenfranchises about two thirds of British voters. Not that they care.

Of course, the main obstacle to reform is the British national conservative character. We love our monarch. We can’t understand a party with two leaders. We focus on the apex. We think about tradition. We do what we’re told. As they say in Japan, the nail which stands out is hammered down.

And this is a predominantly male view. Spitting Image put Thatcher in a suit and had her smoking a cigar because she was effectively a man, playing their game according to their rules. Politics will continue to be a man’s world for as long as the male view is the only view – and that includes women masquerading as men.

The British system is broken. But that is the case because it has remained located somewhere in the eighteenth century in a country moving forward at a rate of one year per year. When I look at Parliament, it’s hard to reconcile with today’s date. All I see is the dead hand of history, founded in dark stones and the hides of dead animals dyed mouldy green. All I see is 1821: Tories still in power and somebody with lots of money sitting on a throne, cushioned by the admiring oohs and aahs of the hierarchy-loving masses.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. There can be no true revolution until British innate conservatism has been exposed, left to wither, then discarded.

Politics Week, 2: Labour

“Sir” Keir Starmer – that tells you everything you need to know. He actually accepted an “honour” from the system he is supposed to be Opposed to…

Labour appeared in the political landscape as a consequence of industrialisation in the nineteenth century. They were the Opposition party of the working person: of manufacturing, of labouring. But that part of our economic system has gone now, to leave the service economy, which in the main consists of capitalists using stored money for the purpose of making more money via the interest rate mechanism. (For more on why this mechanism is so destructive, read Margrit Kennedy’s book Interest Free Money.) There is now no natural, organised constituency of manufacturing workers for the Labour Party to base themselves upon, and although the unions still exist, their reputation and potency was forever reduced by Thatcher.

Labour has no point, no meaning, except as the Opposition in a system that fakes a binary split for the sake of the glory of ruling the nation. It is why the British are so afraid of coalitions. “Holding the government to account” doesn’t cut it with me, since unless there happens to be a small Tory majority, there’s no account to hold. Tories with any kind of workable majority can do what they want. That’s working for half the nation.

As I wrote yesterday, New Labour shouldn’t count as Labour. New Labour was just Tory-lite created for the purpose of acquiring power. The ruthlessly ambitious Blair cared for little else. Clause 4 turned collective politics into individualist politics: the triumph of selfishness.

As for Jeremy Corbyn, the reaction to him and his humane, insightful character illustrates the depth of the innate conservatism of this country. Jeremy Corbyn! Jeremy Corbyn. The name terrified the selfish masses. He stood for collective caring, for mass decency. “There is no such thing as society,” as Thatcher almost said, and in Britain what we have is millions of isolated individuals, made so by the Western outlook, by capitalist economics, and by our insistence on tradition, which looks ever backwards. Jeremy Corbyn like Michael Foot was way ahead of his time, although, ironically, Michael Foot was simultaneously way behind his time.

The days of Labour are over – at least, in England, and most likely in Scotland too. They are dead now. In Wales they will perhaps cling on to power for a few more years, but I suspect even that foothold will in due course be lost. They will be replaced by more Tories.

I see no alternative now in an unjust system where the Tories can change constituency boundaries as they see fit, can keep the undemocratic First Past The Post voting system, and can rely on a right wing press which sees anybody from the left as somehow un-British, to a brand new second party. It should have a base somewhere to the left of centre, but with a huge amount of green and orange in it. Labour can’t oppose any more. For those who remember the SDP… well, the environment has changed a bit since then, hasn’t it? Two monoliths in Westminster is the template of the distant past. We need diversification now. We need diversity. We need something new.

And if there’s ever a New New Labour, watch out. That’ll be Tories in sheeps’ clothing.

Politics Week, 1: Tories

I sometimes think British liberals and lefties don’t realise how innately conservative this country is. It’s so easy to perceive a political system of two roughly equal halves, one Tory, one Labour. But since WW2 the Tories have been in power for well over a decade more than Labour, and if you don’t count New Labour, which I don’t, it’s a much more unequal balance: four decades against one and a half. At the moment, we face a situation where, regardless of Tory sleaze, incompetence and general unpleasantness, Johnson and his blue cohort are laying waste to formerly red constituencies. Why is this?

Britain is an unusual country. The Tories are the political wing of big business – that much is certain. We are a nation of shopkeepers, apparently, with big business in our blood. We had an Empire. The Empire fragmented. We had a monarchy. For some reason, we kept the monarchy. We have a second chamber of “lords” that actually includes bishops. Quite extraordinary for 2021.

These are the foundations of the British natural conservatism. We look backwards. Our social systems are based on hierarchies of privilege, exclusion, land ownership and stasis. Our national character is one of deference, the denial of reality (mostly through emotional suppression), a presumption of social immobility, and a high level of group narcissism. We are a selfish, uncaring, authoritarian, patriarchal country where nobody is supposed to raise themselves above the unspoken norm. We are afraid of change. That we have an “unwritten constitution” says everything you need to know about this backward, benighted country. Politics is all done on who politicians know and what’s been done before. That the national rules are unwritten is a fact directly leading to the reliance on tradition, which then becomes a normalised part of the political landscape, which gives the political establishment its innate conservative character.

There was no revolution in Britain in the nineteenth century because of this innate conservatism. The British are in general too frightened and repressed to be revolutionaries.

The most important job in the world is parenting. But in Britain, we don’t like children. We’re really not terribly good with children. And thus centuries of neglect and abuse are perpetuated, not least through our revolting “public schools,” which still, in 2021, are the breeding grounds for so many snotty-nosed boy politicians. Some people characterised Johnson of Eton as rather like Trump, but Johnson is only a mini-Trump, benign where Trump was malignant, incompetent and petulant where Trump was genuinely dangerous. Johnson simply doesn’t have the mental reach to be dangerous.

Imagine a woman PM with as many former partners and children as Johnson. Then imagine how far in the future you’d need to be for that to become a reality. It is a thought experiment exposing Britain’s juvenile culture of boys. Lads, lads, and more lads. Britain loves ’em.

The Tories are notoriously ruthless amongst themselves when it comes to the party staying in power. In part, that’s because they see themselves as the natural political party of Britain – they believe they have a right to rule. They see Labour as somehow other, as un-British, untraditional. Tories see conservatism as a normal British quality, and I think that’s why people like Jeremy Corbyn and Michael Foot were so vilified by the press. Somehow, those two were deemed un-British: alien, foreign, unknowable, unwanted. The Tories and the Tory press fear what they don’t understand – humanity.

And it’s not just a case of class dynamics, though that, in this wretched country, has a lot to do with it. It’s a case of Tories believing themselves to be Britain, to represent the national character in a way no other organisation can. With their roots in capitalist, exploitative economics, they see themselves as the source of Britishness as well as its expression. Their natural antipathy to Europe is a result of their jingoistic admiration for themselves and the nation they believe they are equivalent to.

No wonder they hark back to olden times: “this great nation of ours” and so on and so on. That’s when a man could exploit without the unions getting in the way.

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Delighted to be the first Book Of The Week at the Steampunk Community Bookshop on Facebook with the Factory Girl trilogy.