25 April, 2017

"Bread & Circuses"

The sub heading to my blog has been, since I set it up several years ago: “Personal perspectives on people, places, politics, passions and preoccupations of a seventy something”.  Anyone, however, who has been unwise enough to read my ramblings will know that it has been politics that have, by far, taken up the lion’s share of my mad cap scribblings. When I retired over ten years ago, having for many years promised myself that I would spend my retirement writing  “grumpy old man” letters to The Guardian or The Times,  the setting up of a blog was just another vehicle to further my long held ambition to fly the flag for social democracy and at the same time comment upon and hold to some account, the  politics and politicians of the Tory or right wing persuasion. I never expected, believed or even desired that my various ramblings would change the course of the life of the nation or bring about the revolution – nor have they. But I did hope that in writing them and, however badly, arguing my case I might clarify my thoughts and maybe those of others – for good or ill. I was also firmly of the view that in the world of the late 20th century and now the early decades of the 21st century where globalisation, rampant capitalism,  the consumer society and, latterly, austerity was, and is, taking an increasing stranglehold on the hearts and minds of politicians, and wider society, it was important for those of more social democratic beliefs to press our case, to keep the flag flying, and to try to repudiate Margaret Thatcher, George Osborne and now Theresa May’s mantra that “there is no alternative”.

But no more. Sadly, in recent months I have increasingly concluded that enough is enough. The political battle appears, at least to me, lost. Populism and extremism have become the mainstream substitute for reasoned ethical debate and action. The rise of  Donald Trump and of the far right in countries like France and the Netherlands,  Brexit, UKIP, and the increasingly right wing Tory party with, at its head a number of politicians who one would not wish to share the air of the planet with let alone a lift, plus a Prime Minister who, despite reminding us at every opportunity of her Christian background and heritage, seems incapable of acting in any vaguely ethical or Christian way, all suggest to me that my social democratic vision or values are now a lost cause. I am not by nature a quitter – indeed, without being boastful I know that many who know me see my staying power and ability to pursue something to the end as being a defining characteristic. But such is my despondency at what, especially in the UK, politics and society has morphed into in recent years, that I do not have it within me, nor do I have the desire, to beat the drum any longer. I well remember the last assembly if each school year when I was a teenager and at secondary school. We always sang the same hymn year after year, Heavenly Father may thy blessing rest upon Thy children now...."   I can still remember its words well. Verse two reminded the assembly of the importance of knowing when to speak and when to say nothing, ending with the line: "When to speak and when be silent, When to do and when forbear". Well, I have reached that point, it is the time to be silent and forebear!

From where I sit the political narrative is increasingly driven and scripted by big business, nationalism, populism and the right wing media; extremism, in various guises, has gained the ascendancy but this has been brought about by a number of factors – not just evil politicians and rapacious business men. Western societies – and especially our English political and social scene - have got the politics and politicians and leaders they and we deserve; the electorate has allowed them to come to power and influence. Almost two millennia ago Juvenal, the Roman poet and satirist, on watching the decline of the once great Roman Empire commented ”The people that once bestowed commands, consulships, legions, and all else, now concerns itself no more, and longs eagerly for just two things - bread and circuses”. So, too, it is in our society – we care only for “bread and circuses”; gone are the great visions and the high ideals. The populace has forgotten why they called for and increasingly demanded some measure of social democracy a hundred years ago when abject poverty, insecurity, ill health and illiteracy were the norm for most. They have forgotten the wars which for centuries had ravaged the world and Europe in particular. They have forgotten that the years of social democracy through the late 1940s, 50s, 60s and 70s delivered standards of living, opportunity and social justice quite unimaginable to those born before these years. Instead, in the society of today, working and dreaming for a better tomorrow is passé; the “I’m alright Jack” mentality infests the hearts and minds of the many. “Having a laugh” appears to be the raison d’etre of the majority. Visit any social media site and you will positively wade through banal “quotes” promoted as pearls of wisdom and their common message is “Enjoy yourself – you’re worth it.” Gone are any thoughts of endeavour or thinking on higher things; Juvenal’s other damning comment on decaying Rome has a huge resonance today in contemporary England: “All wish to possess knowledge, but few are willing to pay the price”. We have become a land obsessed and delighted by the mediocre and the shallow, preferring the celebrity culture to the intellectual or learning culture and this not only infects our minds but determines our actions and our politics. In short, in England – as in the USA and increasingly other western societies - ignorance has become a shame free condition and its repercussions can be seen everywhere:

·         The inability or maybe unwillingness of left wing parties and politicians to articulate alternative agendas and policies to those espoused by parties of the right is now almost complete. In the UK especially, the inability of the Labour Party, its politicians and its members, to not only inhabit the real world and to learn from past experience but, more importantly, to offer its followers and the electorate something to which to aspire is unutterably depressing.  Many suggest that Labour was in a similar position in the mid 80’s when the Party of Michael Foot was at an all time low. The position is not the same. Whilst it is true that Foot’s Party was soundly beaten and in the political wilderness they had coherent policies argued by one of England’s great politicians and debaters of the age – Michael Foot. The Party’s manifesto was not what the electors wanted and this was shown in the polls, but it was a policy, clear and unequivocal. Today, however, the Labour Party is just a mess -  a rag bag outfit of third rate chancers lead by Jeremy Corbyn -  a man who might have the best of motives but is, on a daily basis, shown to be totally inadequate, and worse doesn’t realise it. The problems faced by the left are visible in all countries but nowhere has a party of the  left shown itself to be so inept and lacking in vision and competence that Corbyn’s Labour. I need only to think of Ed Balls following the general Election defeat of 2015 to verify my beliefs. Here was a man, shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, tipped as a possible leader of the Party and maybe one day Prime Minister. He lost his parliamentary seat in the election and by some kind of warped reasoning decided to make a name for himself by becoming a “national treasure” on the banal and hugely popular  mass entertainment programme Strictly Come Dancing. His reason, when asked, was that it was "something he had always  wanted to do" and that it would help him “re-connect” with ordinary people. Can there be a sadder verdict on a senior politician and potential leader or indeed on the values and interests of England’s 21st century electorate. Juvenal would have recognised this – he saw it daily as mighty Rome declined.

·        The greatly worrying, but well documented trend in western societies - but especially so in the UK & USA - where ignorance is increasingly a shame free condition which in turn results in reasoned debate and thoughtful solutions being in increasingly short supply. In a world where issues about political, social, economic and every other policy are, by their very nature, increasingly complex the electorate is too often unable to grasp the issues, unwilling to research them, and keen to take the easy quick fix solutions offered by the unscrupulous popular media and its spokesmen.

·         From this there is, too, a wider malaise. In a world where the “race to the bottom” TV and wider media schedules and offerings are seen by the majority as good and worthy we have, as Ed Balls’ actions confirmed,  largely lost the ability to discriminate and judge what is of worth. The pluralist society  that we all now inhabit has moved on from simply being a society where diversity is recognised to a society where anything goes; Strictly Come Dancing  considered as worthy as The Royal Ballet  or the latest gratuitously violent Hollywood offering the equal of Hamlet;  as an Oxford  don caustically commented, and in doing so incurred the wrath of the popular press in 1993, “[in the contemporary world] lavatorial graffiti are not to be distinguished in any qualitative way from the drawings of Rembrandt”.

·         In this world of Homer Simpsons the fool is king and the king might vote with his wallet or his heart but never his head.  Against this backdrop a largely ignorant electorate is easily influenced.   Populists paint the world black and white and turn fears into political capital. Mantras like “Take back control” or “Brexit means Brexit” are slogans that we hear everywhere – simple, easy to repeat, easy to not think about – all that the unthinking and increasingly intellectually challenged electorate is able or desires to take on board. We have an American President (and many of our own politicians, too) who pass on their thoughts and what laughingly pass for policies in 140 character Tweets – they know that these are the most that the contemporary mass electorate can or wish to intellectually grapple with. So, we have the paradoxical situation that in a world becoming more complex the answers offered by politicians are becoming simpler, less nuanced, less detailed, black and white; banal and trivial catch phrases for an increasingly banal, trivial and uncritical, unthinking, unquestioning electorate.

·       This inability to discriminate or think carefully, has, now almost daily consequences. No longer do we ask questions about whether or not an action is right or just or fair – but simply does it work, how much does it cost. Increasingly in the UK and the USA our politics, politicians, business leaders and the wider society have become arch pragmatists – justifying their policies and actions on its results not its rightness, worth or justness. Over a hundred years ago American philosopher William James commented: “Pragmatism asks its usual question. ‘Grant an idea or belief to be true,’ it says, ‘what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone's actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth's cash-value in experiential terms?”  Quite – the growth in pragmatism as an underpinning to politics and society has  reduced all to cash value rather than its intrinsic worthiness or decency.

I could go on but will not – I have written it all before; enough is enough. In my eyes the battle for the social democratic hearts and minds of the electorate is long lost. I will maintain my blog - but without the “politics” element: “Personal perspectives on people, places, passions and preoccupations of a seventy something” will now be its subject matterThe UK, but more specifically England is what it is; it is time for me to move on. Einstein once reminded the world that “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”  That is how I feel and I do not wish to continue to bang my head against the wall somehow hoping for a pain free result.

Last week two things caught my eye which I have thought much on in recent days. Firstly, I read an article at the top of which was the headline: “Nobody likes us and we don’t care”. For those who do not live in the UK and may be unfamiliar with this rather unpleasant message it originated many years ago (and is still in weekly use) at the south London football club Millwall. The club has long had a reputation for disreputable fans and its often uncompromising brand of football. The club’s stadium – known as “The Den” and its team are known as “The Lions” – can be a daunting and threatening place for visiting teams and their fans. Similarly, when Millwall fans travel away to fixtures there is always the potential for threatening behaviour. The fans, however, take a pride in this; they are the Lions, their home is the Den, “Enter here with fear”  is their message. And, as their chant implies, “We don’t care that we are disliked or perceived as unpleasant people – in fact we are proud of it; nobody likes us and we don’t care!”  The article went on to draw an analogy between the chant and the Millwall fans’ perception of themselves and the UK’s record over many years in relation to Europe in general and the EU in particular. It was correct. For as long as I can remember we Brits have disparaged foreigners and have found every opportunity to promote ourselves as something superior to the poor, well meaning but deficient rabble across the Channel, who have not had the good fortune to be born English – or, worse still, been foolish enough to born further afield in Africa, Asia or elsewhere. We have been willing participants when it came down to disparaging those of a different race, colour or creed and once we became unwilling members of the EU have pleaded consistently for some kind of special treatment. The ignominy of being “ruled” from Brussels, Berlin or Paris was too much; “We don’t deserve this” has been the cry, “to be treated  so unfairly by these jumped up foreigners”. Like the Millwall fans we proudly, but confrontationally, say to our neighbours, who we perceive as opponents rather than colleagues, "We are Brits, lion hearted, fearless when roused - don't mess with us or it will be the worse for you."  As with the football fans it seems quite right and natural to us to hold this position for rooted deep in our national psyche is the notion that anyone who is not English is the opposition and therefore is a threat, not to be trusted, to be overcome. And in being so we have made ourselves thoroughly unpleasant. As the Brexit campaign showed, and still shows in 2017, we Brits worry not who we upset or treat badly, for we are, in our own minds, superior, the only nation fit to “rule the waves”. Just as the Millwall supporters chant, so we in England, too, revel in the notion that “Nobody likes us and we don’t care” .

The second item that came my way was more personal and, for me, more concerning – an email (or rather emails) from a friend of many years who is married to an Austrian and lives, as she has done, for twenty or more years in Austria. Stephanie is a Brit and also an Austrian and her emails, asking various pertinent and searching questions, have winged their way through cyberspace since Brexit. With Theresa May’s opportunistic calling of a General Election with its declared intention of quashing all opposition to her and her policies  Stephanie’s questions have, in their different ways, asked the same things: “Why is the British government behaving as it is?”  Why have the British voted for Brexit when the EU gives you so much? Why is Mrs May so intent upon a hard Brexit? My Austrian friends have a lot of good will towards Britain but they don’t understand the country’s actions, can you explain them”.  As I read and tried to respond to Stephanie’s questions I was, for once, lost for words. I could repeat the sort of comments that I have written here or in my blogs, but I genuinely could not answer her with anything meaningful as to why, as a nation, we are behaving in such a way. The only thing that came to my mind as I pondered this is the newspaper article that I had read a few days before; we are doing it because we have, as a nation, lost the capacity to act thoughtfully, responsibly, decently, or fairly. Like the Millwall supporter – we are doing it because we can and we don’t care what anyone thinks. We see only ourselves and, both individually and collectively, feel free to display our child like egocentricity as regards Europe at will. We have, as I have suggested, lost the capacity to think about things such as worthiness, virtue, decency ideas, ethics, or ideals. If  we did still retain these capacities then we would not be behaving as we are. At its root the English national psyche is now governed by the principle “What’s in it for us?” – all is reduced to that great rationale of the pragmatist. Gone are the great visions and high ideals and sadly, those who should guide us and lead us – the politicians, the pundits and opinion formers, those with power - have lost the ability to articulate a different narrative about what it means to be a worthy English citizen or nation in the twenty first century. We have lost the ability or desire to think of issues of the greater good, the innate goodness of humanity and the consequent moral imperative to work for the mutual good of mankind. The Labour Party, once a beacon for social democracy and, even when  not in power the conscience of the nation, is seemingly  now incapable of even thinking about these things in any meaningful way. Instead, they navel gaze and come up with bizarre electioneering tricks like offering extra Bank Holidays because they know that in the “me, me, me” world of 2017 this is where the hearts and tiny minds of the electorate lies not in thinking about coherent policies or considerations of the rightness or justness of an action. As the Labour Party offers in its election manifesto extra Bank Holidays to capture the imagination of a society bent upon having a good time Emmanuel Macron, front runner in the French Presidential race, talks of giving all French 18 year olds €500 cultural passports so that they might enjoy and develop their understanding of French and wider culture and of cultural pursuits. The cynic might argue that this means nothing and these passports might be “spent” upon trivial pop music and the like. That may well be true – but try telling the English electorate that they will get cultural passports and  Joe Public will look at you askance. The very idea would be ridiculed in the popular press and dismissed by much of the electorate as 'upper class posh tosh'. The author of any such idea would be branded "out of touch" such is our aversion to terms like culture, learning, high ideals, great vision, the common human decencies, worthiness and the rest.

At the top of this blog I mentioned the hymn that I remember singing at the end of each school year as the oldest children left to go out into the big wide world and in which they were reminded of how they should conduct themselves. I am not overly religious and the words now, in the brash, cynical and coarse society that is the UK, seem out of place and irrelevant; quaint ideas from a bygone age. But  now, in my eighth decade, I am firmly of the view that as a society people today need forcibly reminding of these common decencies and of what constitutes good and honourable action towards our fellow humans:

Heavenly Father, may your blessing
Rest upon your children now,
When in praise your name we hallow,
When in prayer to you we bow;
In the wondrous story reading
Of the Lord of truth and grace,
May we see your love reflected
In the light of his dear face.

May we learn from this great story
All the arts of friendliness;
Truthful speech and honest action,
Courage, patience, steadfastness;
How to master self and temper,
How to make our conduct fair;
When to speak and when be silent,
When to do and when forbear.

May your Spirit wise and holy
With his gifts our spirits bless,
Make us loving, joyous, peaceful,
Rich in goodness, gentleness,
Strong in self-control, and faithful,
Kind in thought and deed; for he
Teaches, ‘What you do for others
You are doing unto me.’

I fear, however, that in the society of Trump and Brexit, of globalisation and rampant capitalism, of the Daily Mail  and social media the words and sentiments of the hymn would be quite alien to today's citizens. Sadly, I would also argue that, in a nutshell, that is why we, a once great society, are behaving as we are: we have lost many or most of the common decencies and aspects of humanity  such as goodness, gentleness, self control, truth, grace, kindness, steadfastness and the other qualities  listed in the hymn. We are unable and unwilling to pay the price to learn and apply these or to take the trouble to think great thoughts,  or to have high ideals. Instead we now want the easy options, the 140 character Tweet policy, the quick simple answer because in 2017 England all that we are interested and can take in is the easy answer, the easy life, easy food, easy entertainment, lowest common denominator thinking, untroubled by Johnny Foreigner and his ideas, his talk of culture, justice or fairness, of human rights or mutual cooperation. We have become the  junk society, eating junk food, satisfied with junk entertainment, reading junk tabloids, believing that junk is the new chic or high culture. We are, in  the Brexit/Theresa May  world of 2017, a "bargain basement country" where cheapness is the watchword of our economic, intellectual, social and moral life; we have become  the scavengers of Europe and the wider world, nothing is too low for us to sink to, gone are any principles because we no longer understand that concept. Everything, if it has a justification, is judged by its result not by its intrinsic worth; we are the land of "never mind the quality feel the width". We are the land where millions avidly read Facebook posts and Tweets believing them to be insightful commentaries upon the nature of  culture and of mankind itself; we are, indeed, the land of “bread and circuses” and so what if “Nobody likes us.....well, we don’t care”.

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