It’s been a week since the UK General Election. I’m not going to blame Corbyn, the People’s Vote, the electoral system or the LibDems for what happened. Instead of seeing this as their loss or folly, I have been struck down by the realisation of the Brexit movement’s victory. I must acknowledge it. The falsehoods and misinformation are immaterial. They out-campaigned us and out-manoeuvred us.

As I try to untangle this, I take little solace in the knowledge that my side may have lost the vote, but we still have won the argument. That kind of thinking helped me through the aftermath of the referendum, but it’s not working now. I say this in all sincerity. I’m not looking to be right. I’m too busy wallowing in my own defeat for that.

Defeat is a monstrous burden to bear. Maybe it’s because the three and a half years of my life engaged in Brexit conversations, delivering leaflets, attending rallies and marches and above all else, wishing it away. I turn once again to Buddhism, the Zen variety this time. In this tradition, and I paraphrase Thomas Merton, when a person feels kicked, crushed and defeated , a spiritual path is the best place to be. I meditate and breath.

But that’s only part of it, since the GE, I live in a world that feels alien to me and this is not an exaggeration. I recall the Reagan/Thatcher years, where I strongly disagreed with the policies of both and had to live with them as a US resident and then a British one. But I could understand then, and especially now, why people voted for them. Both politicians benefitted from the economic boom at the time while the left on both sides of the Atlantic experienced a paucity of leadership. I feel on safe ground saying that if Reagan or Thatcher had behaved in the ways of Trump and Johnson – the bare-faced lies, the racist and sexist remarks, the stirring up of hatred – they would not have been re-elected. This is where it hurts, I’m having to acknowledge that I live in a new world order, where cult-like charlatans rule the most powerful countries on our planet. Historians will be quick to point out that this is not a new world. This is an old world that was around before my lifetime, the interwar years in Germany comes to mind.

So I take inspiration from Michael Tippett, who composed A Child of Our Time in response to the disunity in Europe just before WWII. ‘The world turns on its dark side — it is winter,’ the chorus sings. But we know that after winter the flowers will start to bloom again.m tippett

Apophenia and Zombie Statistics

It’s polling day in the UK. If you’ve come to this blog seeking my election predictions, think again dear reader. My political crystal ball shattered into a million pieces in 2016 – first the Brexit Referendum, then Trump.

This election day is certainly the most important in my lifetime as a British citizen up against losing my rights as an EU citizen and as a citizen of a world that is facing a climate emergency. With all of this, what am I thinking about today – the spurious nature of truths.

There’s apophenia. That’s the tendency to mistakenly see connections between unrelated things. The term was first used back in the 50s to describe types of mental disorders like schizophrenia. Examples include gamblers who think they see meaning patterns in numbers or people who see images of the Virgin Mary in their cappuccino froth.

Zombie statistics are numbers that are bogus but are repeated so often they are assumed to be true. There are loads of these out there. My personal favourite is that only 10% of Americans hold passports. Interesting, given that some 20% of Americans were not born in the US – how did they get there? The actual figure, according to the US State Department, is that 42% of Americans have passports. (Okay, I know, it’s 66% for Canadians and 76% for Brits). Zombie statistics are believable because they feed into popular myths or make for good headlines.

In both apophenia and zombie statistics, the mind plays tricks with people, even otherwise intelligent people. As this election campaign comes to an ignominious end – it’s been plagued by concocted ‘news’ stories against rivals and blatant, easily disprovable  lies from a sitting Prime Minister – I can’t help but to think about the way our minds play with us and how we convince ourselves and create our own truths.


Not Writing About Brexit

You’ve probably noticed that I haven’t been writing about Brexit of late. My last Brexit tagged blog was in early May, and you have to go back to March to find Brexit in the title. Unlike a lot of people in the UK, I can’t with hand on heart say that I’m tired of Brexit. The topic is complex and multi-layered. It can be looked at from the standpoints of trade and economics, climate change and the environment, human rights, shared research or cultural exchange. Brexit can be seen as a phenomenon of voter and media manipulation or as the catalyst to end party politics as we’ve know it in Britain. That is, for someone like me who enjoys reading and problem-solving through deconstruction, Brexit has been the gift that keeps on giving.

Writing about it has become another matter altogether. As soon as I get an idea for another Brexit blog, I read about it in a newspaper or magazine or hear that a book has come out with the same thesis. Among my favourite Brexit writers – I think this is a start of a genre – are Andrew Rawnsley, Nick Cohen and Will Hutton from The Observer, Polly Toynbee from The Guardian, Stephanie Baker from Bloomberg News and Steve Richards of The Independent and The New European.

Only a few days ago, I stumbled across the perfect quote for what I was going to write about in this blog – another failed attempt. Roger Cohen of the New York Times wrote: ‘The fantasy voted for in 2016 is not the reality of 2019… Democracies are exercises in constant reassessment. The core reason nobody has been able to deliver Brexit is that it makes no sense.’

It’s hard to improve on that.

All I can offer are a few reports gathered from my academic life. I’ve been hearing directly from researchers based at UK universities (many of them not British themselves) who have been excluded from funding applications because Brexit makes them ‘too risky.’ In another case, an academic organisation has changed its plans to have a British university host an international conference over worries that EU27 citizens might need visas to enter the UK. Underlying these examples, as with all changes to our lives brought on by Brexit is a sense of anxiety – sometimes it’s about the unknown, and at other times it’s about losing the good things that we do know have come from our EU membership.

As I struggle to find words to describe this anxiety – a vapid and overused word – I appear to be not writing about Brexit again.

ledby donkeys

‘Man up’ – Johnson’s Sexist Parlance Continues

This time it’s a phrasal verb that demonstrates Prime Minister Johnson’s fluency in sexist language. While Johnson didn’t invent the phrase to man up, he has borrowed it from the underbelly of popular culture. According to the Google dictionary, it means to ‘be brave or tough enough to deal with an unpleasant situation.’ Yet, the definition is more than that. To man up is one of those expressions that carries its etymology with it – that is, its full meaning is to be brave and tough like a man. Many phrases and words in English (and other languages) linguistically operate in this metaphorical way. We have to break the ice and cherry picking, to name a couple. Unlike these examples, to man up gets its meaning from gender stereotyping, from a world where men are brave and tough and women are the antithesis. It’s a fantasy world that has disregarded women’s work and women’s voices for centuries.

Whenever I see what I think is sexist language or behaviour, I check myself by running the reversal test – I first heard of this back in the early 90s from American feminist Gloria Steinem. It goes like this – replace ‘woman’ with ‘man’ or ‘man’ with ‘woman’ and see what you get. I’ve never heard of ‘woman up.’ Pulling yourself together and acting like a woman is not in our public discourse. Further, whereas the underlying sense of ‘to act like a man’ means to be brave, ‘to act like a woman’ is nearly always used as a slur, saying that someone is emotional or bitchy.

It could be argued that Johnson is merely reflecting in his language the sexism that festers in our society. Maybe Johnson is copying a phrase that has a modern ring about it. But this PM has already leapt farther than that. He recently called Jeremy Corbyn a ‘big girl’s blouse’ when the Labour leader argued against a snap election.  Similarly sophomoric, Johnson referred to former PM David Cameron as a ‘girly swot.’ I find these examples of degradation by feminisation even more disturbing than using man up. These boys’-school-sounding phrases are not found in dictionaries. Both expressions are unique to the Johnson idiolect, no mimicry of popular culture or trying to sound cool involved.

What does that say about the man-child living at 10 Downing Street?

Suzy Kassem

While Johnson has not turned his sexism into misogynistic legislation in the way Tr**p has (e.g. removing funding for women’s health in developing countries), I don’t think we should take the PM’s language lightly. To quote poet Suzy Kassem, ‘Never underestimate the power of a single word, and never recklessly throw around words. One wrong word, or misinterpreted word, can change the meaning of an entire sentence – and even start a war. And one right word, or one kind word, can grant you the heavens and open doors.’


Some Advice for Environmental Activists

The psychoanalyst, writer and activist Susie Orbach, writing in This is Not a Drill, the Extinction Rebellion handbook, makes this cogent point: ‘The feminist movement taught us that speaking with one another allows truths to enter in and be held together.’ This is crucial when we are living in a time where evidenced reports are brazenly referred to as fake news, while lies and distortions are foisted on the public as undisputed facts.

Orbach notes the need ‘to create spaces in which we can share how difficult this hurt is and how to deal with our despair and rage.’ This might sound touchy-feely at first, but for those of us who live in Brexit-inflicted Britain, it rings too true. The Leave campaign created a public space for those hit by economic despair at a time when income inequality is writ large. The fact that these domestic problems had little to do with the European Union didn’t matter. The space for feelings of despair and rage had been created. The problem, of course, with this Brexit example, is that truths were not allowed to enter in.

Even though the environmental movement has science on its side, the selection and interpretation of the science can also be manipulated. Just listen to Pat Michaels, a climate scientist with legitimate credentials, who claims, often on Fox News, that human contribution to global warming is minor and that our planet is just going through a natural cycle.

I’m also bothered by the arguments that try to turn the climate crisis on its head. The growing interest in the Arctic by governments such as China, Russia and the US sees the melting ice as opening up sea passages and making undiscovered mineral and fuel resources accessible. I find this annoyingly paradoxical coming from the Trump administration that denies the existence of global warming.

Orbach’s advice to environmental activists is well-meaning, but doesn’t take into account all of these complexities. But she concludes her piece by encouraging us to ‘accept our own feelings of grief and fear and…to provoke conversations that touch the hearts of others.’ I think this is already taking place and can help to explain why the environmental crisis that has been talked about in some circles for decades is now part of our public discourse.

I’ll add to this my own advice to keep these conversations going and to translate them into actions. ExtinctionRebellion1

Throwaway Thoughts on Politics and Religion

They say you should never talk politics or religion in polite company. As blogs are the antithesis of polite company, I can share a passage that struck me from Alan Johnson’s memoir In My Life:

‘Mine is a privileged generation. Not only have we prospered from the postwar rise in living standards, the creation of the NHS, significant advances in science and technology, the virtual eradication of diseases such as polio and diphtheria and the absence of world wars, we have also witnessed a transformation in public attitudes away from the casual barbarity of previous decades towards ethnic minorities, the disabled, the mentally ill, homosexuals and single mothers. Ironically, as the country has become less Christian in its adherence to religion, it has become more Christian in its way of life.’

This sound observation is one that we can see in other countries in recent decades, where the inverse has happened and more religious governments have stripped away peoples’ freedoms and equalities. I’m thinking about countries like Iran, which I remember being more liberal and women having more rights before the revolution and the religious state that followed.

Yet, the correlation between the dwindling numbers engaged in formal religions and the increase in liberalism isn’t as straightforward as this or as Alan Johnson would like us to believe. The advances in science and technology, which Johnson mentions,  and the accessibility of education, which he doesn’t,  are more likely contributors to marginalising religion while at the same time replacing intolerance and discrimination with acceptance and equality. When Nelson Mandela said, ‘Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world,’ he was talking about making the world fairer and less impoverished.

Where Johnson writes of a ‘more Christian in its way of life,’ he is referring more generally to society and the laws that protect ethnic minorities, the disabled etc. I accept this generalisation, but at the same time I despair at all of the present-day laws that work to the detriment of women. (Dear Reader, please read Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, if you haven’t already.)

To be fair to Alan Johnson, what I have quoted was probably not intended to be dissected like this. A passage of deep thought in an otherwise light romp through the former politician’s childhood, these lines give the book more weight and texture. Perhaps too, I don’t want to be too hard on any writer who names each volume of his memoir after a Beatles song.

Malala’s version of the Mandela quote.

Atlas Shrugged and I Sighed

An advantage of writing a blog over a book review is that I don’t have to finish the book to write about it. Such is the case with Ayn Rand’s classic Atlas Shrugged. This philosophical/sci-fi/thriller/romantic fiction, written in 1957, is over 1000 pages. I got as far as approximately 300 pages (I was reading a Kindle edition) when I decided to press the home button and find another book.

With all the talk these days about Libertarianism, the name of Ayn Rand often comes up. The Russian-American philosopher developed the theory of Objectivism, which has influence the brand of right Libertarianism having some currency in the US. Rather than go on a philosophical tangent, I offer this image from the Objectivists’ website:

objectivism summarised

The other popular book by her is The Fountainhead, said to be a favourite of MP Sajid Javid (now Chancellor of the Exchequer), former US Representative Paul Ryan and – I know it’s hard to imagine him reading – Donald Tr**p.  All well-embedded in right-wing capitalism. I thought it best to stay away from that one given the current political climate – just another thing to get me angry.

In brief, Atlas Shugged is about the expansion of American industry, involving railways, metal mining, and steel production, to name a few. This is going on within plots straight out of romance fiction and thrillers, with a bit of a mysterious element to it. The science fiction label for this novel comes from the sense that this is in the not too distant future (for a 1950s readership). The enemy in this story is the government and its regulations on businesses.

I didn’t find the book particularly engaging at first. The prose is rather dry and the dialogue artificial at times, in the vein of 1930s film noir. But there was something a bit quirky about it that kept me going. The phrase ‘Who is John Galt?’ would pop up anytime a character was exhausted from talking about the state of the world. It clearly placed the novel in another time when idiomatic language has changed. I’ve discovered from reading proper book reviews by people who finished the book, I’d like to think, that John Galt becomes a main character two-thirds into the novel. Speaking of characters, I also liked that the main female character is a brilliant engineer and business woman named Dagny.

But even she wasn’t enough. My enthusiasm waned further when it became too obvious that this is one of these works of fiction which tries to espouse a certain philosophy. It explores reasoning and capitalism at the expense of good fiction writing. Too often characters engaged in speech-making and philosophising in otherwise casual conversational settings. It’s the old ‘show and don’t tell’ adage of writing. By contrast, some of the best philosophical works I have read have also been great works of fiction – Camus’ The Stranger, Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist and Clarke’s Childhood’s End come to mind.

Perhaps this is just a third of a book review, but as a full blog its intention – or warning – is to inform writers on one way to lose their reader.

At the End of the Campaign Trail

It’s taken me a few days to clear up the physical and emotional remnants of this political campaign. I’ve worked on campaigns before – both in the US and UK. But none like this. It was the first time where I’ve been one of the candidates.  Why now? I think I explained part of this in a previous blog, the one where I compare British national politics and government to that of Italy. It’s time to tackle some world and national problems locally. I hate clichés, but it’s true ‘think globally, act locally.’

I told myself at the start that I was going to abide by three rules. Rule One – I wouldn’t let the campaign stress me out. I think I managed to achieve that. That’s not to say there weren’t times, especially in the final days, that I didn’t feel exhausted. Tiredness is one thing; stress is something else. What helped was the fact that I had other work to do – my academic slog – and I continued with my normal meditation and exercise routines. That brings me to Rule Two – I wouldn’t let my health suffer during the campaign. Many of you might cringe when reading this, but for the most part, I continued to eat heathy foods over these past six weeks, nibbling on fresh fruit and wholefood snack bars while my fellow candidates devoured biscuits and cakes (a Liberal Democrat staple). I only twice relinquished with a sliver of banana bread at an envelope-stuffing party and an oatmeal raisin biscuit at a team meeting. Rule Three – so that I wouldn’t be devastated if I lost, I focused on the campaign itself as the experience. It wasn’t going to be about winning or losing. This was about being a candidate and expanding knowledge of local issues in the event that I won. I managed to follow these rules with the support of my David and by keeping a campaign journal and a presence on Facebook as a candidate. David delivered leaflets, helped with canvassing, delivered leaflets, addressed over a thousand envelopes and delivered leaflets. Since my Facebook page speaks for itself, I’ll share with you one of the highlights from my journal:

Hello Neighbour – Knocking on people’s doors or ringing their doorbells is the easy part. The difficulty begins when they answer. I’ve seen friendly local residents in their bathrobes, pyjamas and curlers, and one woman who was only wearing a long t-shirt (when she stretched her arm, I could see Texas). A few people have spared me the domestic awkwardness by not coming to the door, opting instead to hang their heads out of a window. There should be a word for such conversations – fenesations?

I so do not like profile shots of me, but doesn’t Mr Allen look great?

There are those who say ‘not interested’ and slam the door before I could utter ‘hello.’ Where I do get a more welcoming response, as soon as the topic of elections comes up, I hear people grumble about Brexit and the mess that it has caused – and rightly that certain politicians are to blame. If I detect a fellow pro-European, we exchange facts and stats and commiserate together. If it’s a suspected Brexiter, I quickly deflect back to local issues. When I ask what we (the party) could do if elected, the answers soon become predictable – improve parking, reduce petty crime, plug up the potholes, create more cycle paths, increase services for our growing town (I resist calling Ely a ‘city’ when the only skyscraper is the cathedral).

With that the real work starts. Yeah, I did win. And so did many other Liberal Democrats, and that means change is possible. A new chapter in life begins.


Leadership – Part 2

In Leadership – Part 1, I addressed what makes a good leader with, admittedly, a lack of strong real-life examples. But I did offer plenty of examples of people who have been poor leaders, drawing from the political party leaders in the UK at the time of the last general election. It pleases me to finally find an example of good leadership in our present day. I know I’m not the first to say this. All over the world, people have been marvelling at Jacinda Ardern. In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attack on a mosque in Christchurch, the New Zealand Prime Minister condemned the racist attack for what it was, acted quickly to change gun laws and showed empathy and compassion towards the victims’ families and the Muslim community as a whole.

Above all else, for me at least, she has dealt with these attacks using imagination (another criterion for a good leader) by not following the script written by other presidents and prime ministers in similar situations. She has made it a point to not utter the name of the perpetrator, thereby not giving him his celebrity, not helping to create another hero for the alt-right. Going off script, she has also used the Arabic language, albeit in small ways, at talks about the attack and at funeral services. I know from my own experiences with speaking foreign languages, even a small bit can be taken to heart and warmly received.

I’ve also been struck this past weekend by another example of good leadership, one that I haven’t seen mentioned in the press. Attending the latest march against Brexit – or in support of another referendum, depending on how you look at it – I started to think about how we managed to get here. The ‘here’ isn’t the political mess that is currently dominating British life, already making it culturally and economically poorer (sorry, I digress). The ‘here’ was the physical place, walking down the cordoned-off streets of London, along St James, Whitehall, Trafalgar, winding up at the buildings of Parliament. This ‘here’ was non-violent, at times joyful and funny. Considering the behaviours of the opposition – the hate speech and death threats, the stabbing of an MP during the referendum campaign – matching like with like would have been easy and for many justifiable. But thanks to the leadership of organisations, such as European Movement, Best for Britain and Open Britain, and a handful of politicians, some of whom have broken ranks within their own parties, over a million people in London marched peacefully.March London 23-03-19 b

I say all of this with some reservation. Acting peacefully might give us the moral high ground. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen from the referendum result and the goings on between Downing Street and Parliament, that doesn’t preclude gaining the support of voters or altering the behaviours of politicians. There might not be a Leadership – Part 3, but keep your eyes peeled for Morality – Part 1.


Magical Realism, Women Writers and Brexit

I was not not not going to write about Brexit this week. I started out a few days ago writing on Jesmyn Ward’s moving novel Sing Unburied Sing. This was going to be about women writers of magical realism in honour of International Women’s Day – okay, a few days late as that was 8 March, but I was in Italy, where everything runs late.

Ward’s novel is set in post-Hurricane-Katrina Mississippi and is about a culture trapped in poverty that spirals into drug abuse, violence, imprisonment and broken families brought together by older generations raising their grandchildren. This grim narrative is lifted by tender moments between the children and between the grandfather and his grandson and by the writing itself. Often poetic in its descriptions, the story abounds with metaphors that run throughout its telling. I was also carried along in what was otherwise bleak by imaginative scenes that would place this work in the category of magical realism. At least for me. I haven’t seen this novel treated as magical realism in any review.

What is magical realism then? In literature (it’s also found in other art forms) it refers to fiction that is set in the real world, but has some magical or fable-like elements to it. It differs from Sci-Fi and Fantasy by being in a highly plausible world and one that the reader recognises, such as modern-day America. The magical elements in such fiction are understood by the characters to be real – that is not in dreams or hallucinations. Some well-known examples are the novels and short stories of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Franz Kafka and Salmon Rushdie’s’ Midnight’s Children.

Any online list on authors of magical realism tends to be a rather Y-chromosome affair. The exceptions are the odd book written by women writers, such as Allende’s House of the Spirits and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. There are plenty of women writers missing from these lists, including Ursula K Le Guin, who tends to be seen only for Fantasy, and Louise Erdrich, who gets lumped into Native American Literature.

Maybe these are just categories of interest to publishers and literary scholars, and ultimately they have nothing to do with enjoying such books. I accept that view. Yet, I wonder if magical realism has become a less-used category of writing because of the way modern readers are viewing the world around them. This is where Brexit reared its head. We live in an age of alternative truths and facticide, where magical thinking has become normalised.

Perhaps there is a danger in writing about magical realism while Parliament was once again voting against the government’s proposed Brexit deal. It appears as if a recurring dream, full of fanciful ideas and characters openly contradicting themselves with speeches of the sort found in Kafka’s The Castle. But we all know that these scenes are not from dreams or hallucinations.Brexit - next steps