Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

kennedyIn recent times, we have seen an upsurge in a rejection of the status quo and the success of populism, overwhelming the accepted norms of political discourse. The litany of events is very obvious … Erdowan in Turkey becoming progressively more authoritarian, the election of Syriza in Greece to oppose the EU-imposed austerity, the British public voting (albeit narrowly) for “Brexit”, the near-defeat of the Liberal-National coalition Government in Australia, the ascent of a virtual fascist to the Presidential run off in Austria, the likely ascent of the far-right National Front in France to a run-off in the coming French elections and the inability of a left-centre candidate to even make the frame, the rejection of Prime Minister Renzi’s attempt to rationalise decision-making in Italy leading to his resignation, the likely future success of the ultra-right in Holland, and above all, the election of businessman and reality TV star Donald Trump to the most powerful position in the Western world, President of the United States.

In reality, this trend can be traced back even further, to the velvet revolutions in Eastern Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union (although this was also a more complex situation than mere discontent with the failures of the incumbent power structures). It could also be argued that the ultimate example is the steady move towards a command-capitalist model in China, with attendant liberalisation – creeping, at times reversed, but inexorable in its trend – of the media, of criticism of Party officials, and of the material expectations of a growing middle class. Indeed, in unleashing the forces of capitalism on Chinese society, Deng Xiao Ping can be said to have headed off a more dramatic and cataclysmic change in China.

When people are asked why they are participating in these quiet (or not so quiet) electoral revolutions they invariably answer with comments like “I am just sick of all of them”, “I am tired of the status quo, we need someone to shake things up”, “Politicians have failed us”, “We need someone to fix things up.”

The danger, of course, is that the people wreak major changes based on their discontent, without necessarily taking the time to consider whether those changes are what they really want. Fed a diet of rubbish and lies by both the media and their political leaders they simply cannot work out what is true or not, and therefore fall back on their gut instinct. And their gut instinct is that they are being badly led – which they are.

This is emphatically not to say the people are stupid – not at all. It is simply to note that in their desire to punish the under-performing elite they place rational decision-making of what might come next as secondary to their desire to give the establishment a damn good kicking. They argue, if questioned on precisely this point, that “it couldn’t be any worse”.

Winston ChurchillThe fact that it could, definitively, be much worse, is ignored because of the same anger that created the switch to populist idols in the first place.

Churchill’s warning that “democracy is the worst form of Government, it’s just better than all the others” is forgotten as the public elevate people who do not essentially subscribe to democratic ideals to run their democracies, with as yet untested outcomes.

In Russia, for example, the putative glasnost and perestroika of the Gorbacev era has now been thoroughly replaced by the quasi-fascist rule of Putin and his cronies, with uncertain outcomes that could be argued to threaten peace in Europe, at least. The Brexit vote at a minimum calls into question the “Union” part of the European Union, which is now on the nose throughout most of the EU, and the great dream of a peaceful, co-operative Europe that transcends mere trade freedom seems to lie in tatters. We might also note Churchill’s prescient remark that “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.” People used to understand the limits of Government to “fix things”. No longer, it appears.

How did it come to this?

It is important to see this collapse of the ruling consensus as more than any desire to attend to this particular problem, or that, because the matters creating the angst vary from theatre to theatre.

Unquestionably, above all, the refugee flood around the world (and not just from the Middle East, at all) has created great tensions – great fear of “the others” – because it has happened at a time when the world seems to be collapsing into an ongoing conflict between the West and extremist Arabist/Muslim sects. But when massive population shifts occurred immediately after the Second World War there was considerably less social angst about an inflow of refugees, although by no means was there none, as any of the Italians, Greeks, Albanians and others who were shipped en masse to Australia (and America, and Canada) can attest. But it produced no mass revolution against the status quo. As recently as the late 1970s, huge inflows of refugees from the communist takeover of Vietnam produced barely a ripple of protest. So something different is happening here.

Unquestionably, economic uncertainty is playing its part.
The lost of traditional jobs has devastated some areas,
and not been replaced withtightrope anything else. That politicians seem unable or unwilling to recognise and successfully the problem is a staggering failure. During the 1930s, a huge “whole of Government” effort in some countries prevented the compact between the governing and the governed from breaking down altogether. The “New Deal” in America being the best and most successful example. But the mass unemployment caused by the breakdown of capital in that decade led inexorably to World War 2 and all that meant. That Western politicians can look at societies with 50% youth unemployment, can gaze on as we witness the wholesale collapse of traditional industries, can make mealy-mouthed contributions when someone brings up the obviously inadequate funds to support the aged and the ill, and yet imagine that such a cataclysm could not occur again? This is the ultimate desertion of responsibility.

It seems to us that the world is experiencing a “perfect storm” of fear – endlessly beaten up by politicians and the media – at precisely the same time as politicians are struggling, and usually failing, to come to terms with the stresses and strains created in economies by “instant” international banking (which can change the dominant rules of a market in seconds), globalisation (which has led to the wholesale demise of “old” industries in the established economies), a series of scandals that imply that our political leaders are little more than a series of ever-hungry pigs with their snouts so deep in the trough that their eyes can’t see anything over the top, and, and this is critical, a failure of leadership.

On the one hand we have the populists, with their broad brush stroke slogans, their breathlessly simple solutions, and their fellow travellers that constantly beat the drum praising the perspicacity of their chosen flag bearer. Only he (or she, in the case of Marie le Pen) have the strength and vision to ram through “the change we need”. And like parched wanderers in the desert, the people turn inevitably to the promise of relief. Tongues hanging out for any water, no matter how brackish.

But this is just a mirage of “we can fix it”. It’s a big lie. A big con. So big, indeed, that people swallow it, because surely no-one could be so ruthless, so uncaring of the effect they are having, so roguish in their pursuit of power, as to promise relief with no real idea of how to deliver it. But they can. As Stalin so chillingly said, “one man’s death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic”. The same hideous calculation is made by the populists when they promise change they cannot deliver, and solutions that are paper thin in their analysis.

But what has the response of the liberal democracies, the “ruling elite”, been to this challenge? It has been to bury themselves in perpetual over-intellectual obfuscation, to sneer at the populists as if they do not represent a threat, to blithely fiddle as their Rome burns. It has been to bleat “but we are doing our best”, when Blind Freddie can see that their best is woefully lacking. It is to lock themselves in their ivory towers – towers made of parliamentary walls, and TV studios, and offices – and to make little or no real attempt to explain to the people why they are doing what they are doing, and that is assuming they are doing anything much, at all.

How has this situation been allowed to persist?

The reasons are many and various, but in our view they come down to this:

THE FIVE GREAT FAILURES

The failure of vision

Politicians are no longer driven by a desire to create better societies – to serve their people – but by careerism. There is no doubt that no one succeeds in climbing the slippery pole without a strong streak of self-regard, but until the relatively recent past politics was still full of people whose primary, over-riding motivation was the betterment of their electorate, and more widely, humankind. There were more “enthusiastic amateurs”, drawn from all walks of life, chock full of useful experiences. To be sure, they never turned their noses up at the perks of office, nor the thrill of handling the levers of power. But at the core was a desire to conserve what was good, and to develop what was promising, and – based on evidence – to eschew what was failing. It is highly questionable whether that still applies to most politicians today – certainly those of reach the top of the heap – and the people smell the rot with absolute accuracy.

The failure of honesty

It is now a dispiritingly long time since any politician, anywhere in the West, dared to say “Actually, we’re not really sure what to do”. And yet, in huge swathes of decision making, it is perfectly clear that our leaders do not know what to do. The pace of change, and the relentless news cycle, is leading them to pretend they know what they’re doing when they really don’t. In vast areas of public policy – balancing the structural changes in economies, achieving unanimity on climate change, reducing the proxy conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere, preventing a new Cold – or Hot – war, it is plain they are thrashing about, confused and dispirited. And yet, turn a camera and a microphone on and they act like Mastermind contestants with all the answers.

This has two linked effects. Firstly, it destroys trust, when it becomes clear that the assurances and calming words are so much hogwash. Second, it removes responsibility from the public to be part of the solution to intractable problems, leaving them reliant on blowing up the entire system when they are – inevitably – disappointed, as they had no part in devising the solution, and no ownership of the outcome.

The failure of communication

Politicians seem to no longer be able to phrase their goals in simple language, without succumbing to the temptation to reduce everything to focus group-led slogans.

It would be hard to think of a single major Western politician – with the possible exception of Angela Merkel, although her days may well be numbered – who still has the required “common touch”, although Justin Trudeau in Canada is undoubtedly a standout exception – and he, it should be noted, is of the left, and is an intellectual, thus giving the lie to the assertion that all this change is merely a revolt against “left intellectualism”.

A politician like Churchill, for example, could be autocratic, even waywardly so, but he never forgot the absolute need to take the people with him. Perhaps in war-time this need is more obvious. But in the recent past – much as we disagreed with some of her policies – a politician who widely admired Churchill – Margaret Thatcher – also had the ability to communicate broad themes in a popular way, while making changes that many argue were long overdue in Britain despite being sometimes achingly difficult.

Where are the democratic politicians who offer us soaring rhetoric, yet rooted in common sense, to enliven and inform civic debate? Certainly Obama offered the soaring rhetoric, but outside of campaign mode he so often failed to return to those heights, and was too often hidebound by a toxic combination of an obstructive Congress, a swingeing economic crisis, and his own innate conservatism.

The cupboard is depressingly bare.

The failure of thought

The West, in particular, but by no means exclusively, is failing itself. The essence of democracy is free, vibrant and deep debate, the development of philosophy, the parsing of solutions. One of the inevitable results of the dumbing down of Universities – through the diversion of their funds increasingly to commercial “applied science” rather than humanities such as literature, politics, and philosophy – even theology – has starved our system of thinkers. The problems we face are massively complicated, yet those who used to work diligently behind the scenes in thousands of “thinking hives” are increasingly no longer there, and no longer contributing. Political parties are increasingly less full of thinkers and increasingly full of yar boo sucks partisans. Where political thought across the political divide was once welcome and respected, now it is virtually unheard of. While politicians of different ilk may well be friendly “behind the scenes”, for them to acknowledge the thoughts of an opponent as having value, of being worthy of consideration, is apparently political death. Little wonder the public don’t trust them, faced with such ludicrous and childishness obstinacy.

The failure of media

Our media organisations have become helplessly addicted to the brief, and the sensational.

Whilst this was always true of the tabloid media, it is now true of all media.

The people they employ are largely intellectual pygmies, and in television in particular they are in the job because they look good and can follow a producer’s brief.

Across all types of media, they don’t scare the horses, because they rarely ask any hard questions. Hard questions require that the journalist has knowledge and the politician can address that knowledge intelligently, taking whatever time is required. Neither is true, and anyway there is no time.

There are exceptions, to be sure, but they are very few and far between, and becoming more so. The success of the series “Newsroom” showed the public’s deep desire for a form of journalism that is principled, erudite and independent. But of how many journalists today can those three qualities be said? And increasingly, anyway, mainstream media is being over-taken by social media, where the provenance of any story is impossible to divine, and where the impact is so transient that clear nonsense is forgotten almost as soon as it has trended, but not before it has added to the dominant zeitgeist, whatever that may be. If we are in the era of “post truth politics” – a terrifying concept in itself for admirers of democracy – then the most brutal criticism of all must be levied at the media – all of the media – that simultaneously tolerates and encourages the situation.

So what’s to be done?

It may indeed be way too late to close the stable door after watching an entire herd of horses bolting in all directions. Or to mix our metaphors, we may all be just a bunch of well-boiled frogs who should have acted to redress the decline a long time ago.

Yes, we will be accused of being pessimistic because it appears “our side” of politics is currently losing, and we will also be accused of succumbing to conspiracy theories.

In fact, we confidently expect we will be today’s Cassandra, doomed to wail on the battlements while all around mock us.

But in our view, the first step in redressing this danger – the danger of the collapse of modern liberal democracy – is to acknowledge the problem and seek to persuade others to address it. Others, we note, regardless of their native political bent. This is a task for all of us, whatever our political persuasion.

As we do not have the influence to turn the ship around on our own, we simply point to the mounting evidence, and suggest the general shape of a solution.

It will take a mighty effort to reverse the trends outlined here. But as Horace said 2000 years ago, “A journey, once begin, is half over.” To begin this journey, we have to agree that there is a problem, yes?

 not afraid

 

DO NOT WEEP FOR THE DEAD

Do not weep for the dead,
They do but sleep. See?

See. They float on a river of dreams,
gently rocked by ripples and currents.
Warmed by sun, cooled by zephyrs.
Do not even weep for their lost futures.
For their future is peace. And
when they awake, it will surely be to you.

Weep now for the sisters, leafing sadly through albums.
Touching a face, here and there.

Weep for the mothers, who hold their empty bellies.
Rocking with horror, a life unraveled.

Weep for the fathers, lips bitten through in inchoate rage.

Weep for the brothers, with no one left to tease.

Weep for the grandparents, dreams of second carings shattered.

Weep for the friends, struck suddenly dumb.

Weep for family celebrations with one chair always empty.

Weep for all who are
mesmerised by pictures,
strangled by sirens,
crying in bathrooms,
staring into emptiness,
fearful for the children,
losing perception,
uncomprehending,
casting this way and that,
uncertain,
picking flowers
in case it mattters.

Do not weep for the dead.
They would not wish it.
Think on them, because
you know it is true.

Weep now for the living.
The left behind.
Bind their wounds.
Listen in silence.

And weep for the world.
Wash it clean. And cleaner, still.
Make that their memorial.
And let it stand forever.

Change is the only constant - Heraclitus.

Change is the only constant – Heraclitus.
Photo: Lincoln Harrison photographs star trails taken over 15 hours in Bendigo, Australia at scenic Lake Eppalock.

 

As we age, the brain plays curious tricks on us. Time, for one thing, seems to speed up, although it does not, of course. It is merely that our own understanding of the mutability of life becomes more acute. Our awareness of change, and the relentless pace of change, intensifies as we age.

When we are young, we have a seemingly endless amount of time stretching ahead of us. But as we enter middle age, and then old age, it is clear that our time is inevitably limited. And apart from the ever more rapid recurrence of landmark annual events (Wimbledon, a particular horse race, Proms concerts, 4th of July: we always know it is early May by the arrival of the FA Cup Final, for example) what seems to mark the clicking of the shears most often and most obviously is the endless round of the seasons, rolling on regardless of what we seek to make of our small and insignificant lives, and amply demonstrated in the world around us.

Our gardens. The landscape. Change is constant. Inevitable, inexorable.

Last night, we had a fierce wind squall. Just one. It lasted no more than a minute, and was, in its way, rather alarming. The suddenness, the roaring noise, the feeling of an invisible and irresistible force battering at the plate glass doors which bowed and complained.

What was most dramatic, though, was the effect of the wind on the magnificent ornamental cherry tree just outside our front door. For a few weeks now it has been literally groaning with the most exquisite light pink and white blossom, as it does every year, lending us joy and a sense of wonder every time we walk by it or look out.

In the last few days, a few of those blossoms have been fluttering to the ground, their work done. The tree has been a mine for our local bees, who have been harvesting it for all they’re worth before disappearing back to wherever their hive is, but they have been fewer in recent days, and now the slightest gust of wind brings petals down on our heads. It is a little like a shower made of flowers.

Suddenly, the leaves  break through.

Suddenly, the leaves break through.

When the squall hit in all its demanding force, the tree bent almost double, so we feared it might break. And in what seemed an instant, it released a waterfall of colour to the ground. After the wind Gods had passed on, it seemed suddenly somewhat denuded. Uncloaked. And in that instant, it seemed that soft and gentle Spring had come, and gone, and all that was left now was the aching, baking heat of summer. The ground looked like a hailstorm had passed, but the hail was flowers. It seemed terribly sad, and permanent, and like something was lost.

Goodbye until next year

Goodbye until next year

But that is only one way to view the event. Another way, entirely, is to celebrate the new look of the tree. Now one can perceive that it is newly dressed in bright green leaves that shimmer and shine in the morning sun, with their own pleasing beauty. Some blossoms still adhere to the tree, but now they drop pretty much constantly, eddying in the breezes.

But where each delicate flower falls now lives the possibility of a cherry, red and pretty and hopeful, like a young girl’s first experiment with lipstick.

And without the coming heat of summer, driving in on us now as it is with blind and careless certainty, no fruit would duly ripen on the tree. The gorgeous bird life that we are blessed with in all seasons would have nothing to squabble about as they flit from branch to branch just a yard or two from where we sip our cooling drinks, just as without the blossoms the bees would have nothing to do.

As far as nature is concerned, we are mere bystanders. Nature understands the cycle of change, the endless mutability, the replacing of one joy with another. And that’s the thing about change. Change is a way of remembering what was there before change occurred by sharpening our awareness of our life, making us more thoughtful, more “mindful”, in modern jargon. Change brings things into stark focus, as only loss can. But loss can be a beginning, not just an end.

Change is what we make it. We can either be confronted by it, or embrace it as unknowable, unavoidable, and inevitable. Seeking what comes after with the same enthusiasm with which we celebrated what went before. More than 2000 years ago, Socrates said “The secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new.”

My mother, who was much taken with what she called her “little sayings”, often remarked, when change happened, that “It’s an ill-wind that blows no-one any good.”

The green leaves and the tiny cherries agree. Everything to its time, and then round we go again.

This very important article in Vox, based on Russian research, reveals an apparently staggering level of support for ISIS in Europe, and in France in particular, where one in six people report supporting the extreme terrorist Sunni group that has been slaughtering Christians, Shias, Sunnis who don’t agree with them, and anyone else who gets in their way.

And the level of support rises as respondents get younger.

 

Very, very worrying.

Very, very worrying.

 

We somewhat doubt the veracity of the research and wonder if people are confabulating “ISIS”, “Gaza” and “Hamas” in their minds. In any event, it’s a sad and sorry finding even if it’s only partly accurate, and the radicalisation of Islamic youth is one of the most distressing and tragically predictable outcomes of the growth of so-called “identity politics”, which is now playing out throughout the West, and increasingly in a new black-white divide in America, as well.

But despite this survey it would be wrong to see this phenomenon as something unique to young followers of Islam. Indeed, as one of the sources quoted in the article remarked:

The rise of identity politics has helped create a more fragmented, tribal society, and made sectarian hatred more acceptable generally. At the same time, the emergence of “anti-politics,” the growing contempt for mainstream politics and politicians noticeable throughout Europe, has laid the groundwork for a melding of radicalism and bigotry. Many perceive a world out of control and driven by malign forces; conspiracy theories, once confined to the fringes of politics, have become mainstream.

It is so. This isn’t a religious thing. It’s all about contemptuous disenchantment and disempowerment.

That said, the fact that we actually find most interesting in the graph above is the much LOWER figure – virtually negligible, in fact, in polling terms – in Germany.

In our analysis, this can be explained by three simple factors.

Whilst there is racial tension within Germany – particularly where the Turkish immigrant population is concerned, it is less of a problem than elsewhere.

Even with the persistent (if small) growth in Neo-Nazi skinhead violence, the vast majority of Germans utterly reject the balkanisation of politics based on race. Given their recent history, and the efforts the State makes to prevent racial abuse or anything that smacks of it, this is laudable and not at all surprising.

Another differentiator, of course, is that much of the Islamo-fascism currently being exhibited in the world is explicitly anti-Israeli and by extention anti-Jewish, and expressing sentiments that could possibly be interpreted or misinterpreted as anti-Jewish in Germany is still well-nigh impossible, again for very obvious reasons.

The third reason, and this is very significant, is that the German economy is significantly wealthier and more successful than the British, or the French. There is plenty of education and work to be had, and both are the perfect balm for the vast majority of young people, of all racial backgrounds, who might otherwise be led into more extreme conclusions about society.

Recent riots in France were painted as "Islamic" by commentators, in fact, as the placard being carried by one demonstrator, it was more accurately an explosion of frustrated youth violence, like previous riots in the UK and elsewhere.

Recent riots in France were painted as “Islamic” by commentators, but in fact, as the placard being carried by one demonstrator says, it was more accurately an explosion of frustrated youth violence, like previous riots in the UK and elsewhere.

Unemployment – especially youth unemployment – is the perfectly fertilised and endlessly productive seed bed for extremism of all kinds, whether you look at 1789 France or France last year, 1917 Russia, 1933 Germany, 1970s Northern Ireland, the “Arab Spring” of 2011, or America, France and Britain today.

And where that unemployment falls most onerously on any particular racial or religious groupings, particularly a grouping that considers itself as a minority, then you have a recipe for immediate and predictable disaster.

But even when that miserable judgement is made, it is the generalised “anti politics” trend that concerns us most – even more than any passing fad for Islamic extremism that threatens us today.

The simple fact is that when people perceive their leaders as corrupt, when people perceive them as petty, when people perceive them as habitual liars, (with plenty of evidence), when people perceive them as lacking in required levels of intelligence or leadership skills, then they do not blame the individuals as much as they blame the system. And variously, they turn (and they can turn very quickly) to revolutionary creeds – Marxism, Fascism, religious extremism: whatever is around and easily grasped as a panacea, really.

Anti-democrats don't start out carrying a sign saying "crush democracy". They know it frightens the horses. And they can be alluring - Stalin was quite a hunk as a youngster.

Anti-democrats don’t start out carrying a sign saying “crush democracy”. They know it frightens the horses. And they can be superficially attractive – Josef Stalin was quite a hunk as a youngster, for example.

This is precisely why we have frequently labelled America a ‘pre-Fascist” state* – not because we believe there are organised groups of people seeking to subvert the American constitution and replace it with some Hitler-style figure – there are such groups, but they are still largely fringe dwellers, and there are also big money groups that wield far too much malign financial power over the political system, such as the Koch brothers, but their influence is still basically visible and trackable – rather, it is because the fracturing of America into potentially warring tribes is so very palpably obvious when viewed from a distance, matched (equally obviously) by an increasingly careless disregard for civil rights and privacy from the authorities.

A frightening realisation that often comes later in life is that democracy, in all its expressions, contains within it the seeds of its own destruction. The very thing that makes democracy so worth preserving – freedom of opinion and the resulting freedom of speech – is the very weapon that can tear it down.

History teaches us, again and again, that there is a tipping point when a majority of people despair of the system and when they do they are prepared to consider a replacement – any replacement. Or it can be a highly motivated minority, with good organisational skills.

Shorn of the wonderful, soaring rhetoric of its core principles by the behaviour of its key players – our political leaders, and the media – democracy simply seems increasingly and hopelessly out of touch and irrelevant. All it needs is a half-credible populist to repeat the people’s complaints alluringly, and the complaints are worldwide, and they are devastatingly simple and enticing:

“I don’t trust them”, “They’re all just in it for themselves”, “They don’t know what to do”, “They’re just taking the piss out of the rest of us, and we’re paying”, “They don’t care about us.” “What can I do? They won’t listen to me.”

At one and the same time, powerful cabals in business and the military foolishly consider they can take advantage of such unrest to position themselves to take over as “a strong voice”, to run things (skimming off the top, of course) while the hubbub of dissent dies down, until – inevitably – they realise they have seized a tiger by the tail, and they can’t control it. “Temporary” restrictions on freedom become permanent, and apply to these fellow travellers as much as they do to the rest of us. They imagine themselves isolated from the crackdown by their money, except – as they invariably discover – they are not.

Anti-politics. It is louder in the West than we can remember at any time since we started paying attention in the 1960s.

“They don’t care about little people.” “Just a bunch of snouts in a trough.” “They’re all stupid.”  “There’s no real difference between them, anyway. It’s all a game.” “I just don’t trust ’em. Any of ’em.”

Indeed, as we write these phrases, it is all we can do to stop from nodding in agreement. They are so seductive.

A son of the aristocracy, Churchill never lost his early passion for democracy that was often found in those days in the ranks of the independently wealthy.

A son of the aristocracy, Churchill never lost his early passion for democracy that was often found in those days in the ranks of the independently wealthy.

Except if we are seduced by them, we will hate what comes after. As Winston Churchill supposedly famously remarked:

“Democracy is the worst form of government, it’s just better than all the others.”

Actually, and somewhat ironically, the most famous defender of modern democracy might not have actually generated those words, although in his lifetime he did say a lot about democracy, especially when its survival was threatened with the horrors of German and Austro-Hungarian Nazism, Italian and Spanish Fascism (amongst others), and Soviet-style “marxism”.

Churchill did say something like this in the House of Commons on  11 Novem­ber 1947) but it appears he was quot­ing an unknown pre­de­ces­sor. From Churchill by Him­self, page 574:

Many forms of Gov­ern­ment have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pre­tends that democ­racy is per­fect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democ­racy is the worst form of Gov­ern­ment except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

So, although these are Churchill’s words, it is an amusing historical footnote that he clearly did not orig­i­nate the famous remark about democracy. We wonder who did. Anyhow, here are some orig­i­nal things that the great man did say about democracy over 70 years in public life:

If I had to sum up the imme­di­ate future of demo­c­ra­tic pol­i­tics in a sin­gle word I should say “insurance.” That is the future — insurance against dan­gers from abroad, insur­ance against dangers scarcely less grave and much more near and con­stant which threaten us here at home in our own island.
Free Trade Hall, Man­ches­ter, 23 May 1909

At the bot­tom of all the trib­utes paid to democ­racy is the lit­tle man, walk­ing into the lit­tle booth, with a lit­tle pen­cil, mak­ing a lit­tle cross on a lit­tle bit of paper—no amount of rhetoric or volu­mi­nous dis­cus­sion can pos­si­bly dimin­ish the over­whelm­ing impor­tance of that point.
House of Com­mons, 31 Octo­ber 1944

How is that word “democ­racy” to be inter­preted? My idea of it is that the plain, hum­ble, com­mon man, just the ordi­nary man who keeps a wife and fam­ily, who goes off to fight for his coun­try when it is in trou­ble, goes to the poll at the appro­pri­ate time, and puts his cross on the bal­lot paper show­ing the can­di­date he wishes to be elected to Parliament—that he is the foun­da­tion of democ­racy. And it is also essen­tial to this foun­da­tion that this man or woman should do this with­out fear, and with­out any form of intim­i­da­tion or vic­tim­iza­tion. He marks his bal­lot paper in strict secrecy, and then elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives and together decide what gov­ern­ment, or even in times of stress, what form of gov­ern­ment they wish to have in their coun­try. If that is democ­racy, I salute it. I espouse it. I would work for it.”
House of Com­mons, 8 Decem­ber 1944

Stirring stuff. And how unlike any modern politicians that come to mind, except, perhaps, the trio of dead American heroes, JFK, RFK, and MLK. Little wonder that they seized the imagination so thoroughly, and are still revered to this day, even though their feet of clay have been comprehensively documented. They talked about the principles of Government, not just the outcomes.

Democracy is more than a system, it is a concept.

Democracy is more than a system, it is a concept that breeds a system.

In today’s world, once again – and urgently, in our view – we need to make the argument for democracy itself. Not for nothing do the appalling leadership of extremist Islam, epitomised at its most horrible by ISIS, reject the very concept of democracy at the very same time as so-many of their co-religionists seek to acquire and embrace it. ISIS and others of their ilk know they are engaged in a death struggle for their narrow view of the universe against the very principles that democracy uniquely espouses: the principle of protection under the law whoever you are, whatever your creed, sex or colour, true justice that is separated from the government and which can hold the government itself to account, freedom to express oneself fearlessly, genuinely participatory government, the rights of women and minorities to be treated as equals, and much, much more.

For our own internal stability, and in defence of those who dream of democratic freedom everywhere, we need to make our passion for democracy loud and clear, recapturing why we believe it to be superior to the alternatives.

Even if we don’t care about personal freedom, let us carol from the rooftops that it has been shown to be more economically successful – and more sustainably – than any other system.

Even Communist China, containing fully one-third of the world’s
population, enjoying its hugely successful democracy in chinaexperiment in State-directed capitalism, is increasingly recognising that it cannot endlessly stifle the opinions and behaviour of the governed.

They have recognised that they can release a gale of innovation and improvement by asking the opinion of their own people (a truly alien view for the whole of Chinese history thus far) and thus they are taking faltering steps to introduce more freedom into their system without triggering a cataclysm of change.

As just one measurement, the level of openly critical comment in China today is measured in vast multiples compared to even ten years ago, as is the nationwide passion to tackle corruption, which has been endemic in China since time immemorial.

How ironic that the People’s Republic of China – until recently a vile and periodically vicious autocracy – is cautiously embracing a belief set that we seem essentially content to see wither on the vine. Certainly when measured by the public behaviour of our elite.

If nothing else, our leaders and opinion formers should be arguing for the success of liberal democracy as an economic vehicle – not, please note, arguing in favour of unfettered capitalism – as the proven way forward for humankind.

The evidence is that democracy spreads wealth better than any other system, to the widest possible number of people, even while it grapples with the excesses of the runaway freight train of capitalism. Democracy actually restrains the worst features of capital’s behaviour – environmental vandalism, for example. (And if you want to see the results of capitalism that is not fettered by democracy, both in terms of economic failure, cronyism, violence, and environmental vandalism, just have a look at Russia today.)

But more than mere words, more than argument, we need to make democracy work for the governed.

As a beginning, we need to act with utter ruthlessness when evidence of corruption or rorting the system is uncovered.

Sad Statue of LibertyWe need to be deeply suspicious of centralising power, and passionate and enthusiastic about devolving power to the lowest practical level concomitant with effective decision-making.

(For this reason, we are tentatively in favour of Scotland voting for its independence next month, despite acknowledging that it might not appear to be a sound decision economically, at least in the short term. Not that we think it will.)

We must watch our security services and police like hawks, ensuring that the work they do is effective, but that their understanding of the proper limits on their powers is thorough and genuine.

We must defend and encourage media diversity, because a plehtora of opinions expressed openly is the best possible way to generate the ideas we need to successfully navigate our new century and beyond. Anything that compresses media ownership into fewer and fewer hands, blithely covered up with promises of editorial independence that everyone knows are false – is actively dangerous. NewsCorp, and those like unto it, are bad for the health of democracy. “State-owned” news outlets – unless protected by the most rigorous legislation – are a contradiction in terms, wherever they are.

We must encourage bi-partisanship, not because we want our democracy reduced merely to fudge and lazy compromise, but because the public needs to see – to witness – people of good faith working together on their behalf or the social compact with the governed will collapse.

It follows that the role of Opposition is to oppose what it truly believes to be wrong, rather than simply “everything”, and that Government should habitually respect and consider the opinions of those who disagree with it. The impasse between Obama and the Congress in recent years was an economic annoyance, to be sure. But it was a political catastrophe.

Where disagreement is genuine, then the debate should be conducted with civility. Even when one considers another person foolish in the extreme, misguided, or lacking perception, the skill is to make that point in such a manner that they will at least consider you may be wiser or in possesion of a better idea, and also so you may carry public opinion with you. And so that the public can see your good intentions, and not just your muscular antagonism.

We “dumb down” our debates at great cost and at our peril.

If something is “dumb”, the people know they can do without it. When politicans dumb down their discourse, when they are relentlessly trite or scathingly negative, encouraged, aided and abetted by a media that has an increasingly – vanishingly – small attention span, they are not playing some clever stratagem.

In risking a backlash against democracy itself, they are lining themselves up to be thrown in a prison, or worse, by the tidal wave that replaces what they blindly thought was inexorable and irreplaceable. They are beating ploughshares into pikes, and putting them into the hands of those who – when they aren’t even offered complex, thoughtful or educated opinion to consider – can see no reason why they shouldn’t adopt simpler ideas expressed in slogans.

working mensAs democracy swept across Europe in the mid-late 19th century and into the 20th century, it was buttressed by wise souls who ensured that every village, every town, had facilities for the dis-semination of ideas and knowledge, for the edification of the working poor, (such as with the Working Men’s Institutes of Britain), so that they would become participatory members of a new compact.

The privileged who led these conscious efforts to uprate the skills and learnings of the poor were driven by belief, not by an empirical calculation that they were providing a safety valve for the expectations of the people. They believed that a government of all cannot exist if the all is disenfranchised through ignorance or lack of opportunity. So they set about creating the knowledge that would let people fully participate.

Yet today the efforts of those great communicators have been hijacked. Today they are largely directed into providing an endless diet of sport, or reality TV, or mind-numbing time-consuming soap opera and unedifying “popular” drama. Modern media resembles nothing more than an electronically-delivered diet of “bread and circuses” – a tactic for mind control, remember, employed by the Roman dictatorship very successfully for 400 years. “Don’t worry about how we are governing, or who for – here’s a load of bread and a free ticket to watch the gladiators. Come back tomorrow for more of the same.”

And today, devoid of any understanding of why democracy matters, the governed have essentially lost interest, and satiate themselves instead on a diet of moronic “entertainment”.

Ask yourself: where are the civics classes in our schools and universities? Where are our unions, who taught people not just how but why they should defend their rights? Where are the rhetoricians, stirring our minds with ideas and concepts? (Answer, making a “Ted Talk” to their fellow intellectual and financial elite.) Why have our political parties shrunk to be miniscule mockeries of their former selves, with memberships so ludicrously small as to make them nothing more than stripped-down bureaucracies, homes for duelling apparatchicks?

Un-engaged and uncomprehending, the people are ripe to be captured by that simplest and most terrifying of ideas.

“It’s all their fault. Let’s go get ’em.”

Who “they” are varies from theatre to theatre, of course. Alarmist? Look at that graph at the top of the page again.

Democracy is not the natural form of government for humanity. Violence is. Democracy has been hard won with the stout arms and often the lives of millions, for over 2,000 years.

Democracy will not persist if it is dysfunctional. Democracy will not persist if it is not protected. Democracy will not persist if we lose the argument.

Think about it. Discuss.

 

*For history buffs, there is a famous quotation, “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.”

  • Many variants of this exist, but the earliest known incident of such a comment appears to be a partial quote from James Waterman Wise, Jr., reported in a 1936 issue of The Christian Century that in a recent address here before the liberal John Reed club said that Hearst and Coughlin were the two chief exponents of fascism in America. If fascism comes, he added, it will not be identified with any “shirt” movement, nor with an “insignia,” but it will probably be wrapped up in the American flag and heralded as a plea for liberty and preservation of the constitution.
  • Another early quote is that of Halford E. Luccock, in Keeping Life Out of Confusion (1938): When and if fascism comes to America it will not be labeled “made in Germany”; it will not be marked with a swastika; it will not even be called fascism; it will be called, of course, “Americanism.”
  • Harrison Evans Salisbury in 1971 remarked: “Sinclair Lewis aptly predicted in It Can’t Happen Here that if fascism came to America it would come wrapped in the flag and whistling ‘The Star Spangled Banner.'”

fear-of-death

We have come to the realisation, Dear Reader, that fear is a bloody miserable thing, and that we suffer from it.

When the treadmill of life slows down long enough for us to actually stop and think – read: reflect, brood, ponder, worry – it is easy for fear to creep in, especially if one is on one’s own, or the blood sugar is a tad low, or it’s just been a shitty day.

In the case of your indefatigable correspondent, the fears are often about the process of growing older, and death. And then, nigh-on simultaneously, the death of loved ones. And then the disastrous state of the world, and how it’s all going to pot.

But it is the first one that can utterly paralyse us. After all: death is the one unavoidable conclusion of all lives. It’s going to happen. And with it, bang goes the achievements, the fun, the striving, the connection with everyone, the adored family. Doesn’t it? Life. What was that all about, huh? Why bother, just to die and leave it all behind?

As we get older, our faculties also decline. This isn’t a pretend fear, it’s a real fear. No amount of positive thinking or even age-appropriate exercise will totally prevent it.

Joints get less flexible. (Puhlease don’t tell us about 80 year old gymnasts on YouTube – most of us don’t keep fit enough in the early years to make that happen – I am being realistic here – and by the time we realise the body is beginning to creak it’s too late to stop all the creaking. Some ageing can be overcome, but not all. Just tell my left shoulder that you’re thinking positively about it and listen to the laughter.)

The brain unquestionably slows, too. Which is a real bugger, if one has used one’s brain to make a living since, like, forever.  And it’s very noticeable. Undeniable. It becomes harder to bring words to mind instantly. Sentence construction is more laborious, too. And when one rushes in panic to the experts worrying about early-onset Alzheimers, they reassure you with the most annoying advice imaginable: “Don’t worry, you’re just getting older, it happens to everyone.”

Well, poo to that. And this isn’t even to touch on the myriad anxieties that afflict people about their social interactions, phobias, and 1001 other things.

There is even a specific phobia for those who fear death, called thanataphobia. We don’t think we would quite describe ourselves as phobic on the issue, merely mildly obsessed. OK, make that “aware” and “thoughtful”.

So what to do about fear, and specifically fear of death?

We are sure religious faith helps with the whole death thing, at least to a degree. We remember hearing someone say once, “We are mortal beings living immortal lives” and being charmed by its simplicity. Nice thought. If it’s true. Life becomes much more bearable – death becomes much more bearable – if it is just a prelude to a sort of eternal holiday-camp shared with those we love, or perhaps a chance to come back and do better next time. But doubt is at the core of all faith – that’s why they call it faith – and on days that the awareness of death and loss bears down on us, it often seems that the nagging demon of doubt does, too.

Cancer support groups often talk about working towards a “good death”, rather than hoping against hope (and logic) to try and endlessly prolong life. A good death is one where one is resigned to the inevitability of our dying, where we have made our peace with those around us and been able to spend quality time with them, and where our affairs are as much in order as possible. Where death does not dull our mind with terror, and we can maintain dignity, calm, and acceptance of our fate.

We are reminded of a dear friend, Senator Sid Spindler, taken from us a couple of years ago with liver cancer, who was discussing an article in the local paper with his wife when quite clearly only a few days from death. An indefatigable campaigner, he murmured “Perhaps I should write a letter?” Those around him rolled their eyes in disbelief and amused admiration. But was he postponing the inevitable – clinging to one last vestige of relevance – or merely accepting his imminent death but refusing to be cowed by it? Or a bit of both? Only Sid could tell us, and he isn’t here any more.

In olden times, someone would have cheerily, at this point, said something like “Make the most out of every day!” as a response to the fact that one day the days will simply run out. Indeed, there are web pages dedicated to telling you exactly how many productive hours one has left in one’s life when one has removed sleep, showering, going to the loo, travelling, etc., to encourage everybody to “make the most” of life. Fair enough. Personally, we have stopped looking at them. It looks like we’ve got enough time left to make one more decent pot of bolognese sauce before we cark it.

We also ponder the fact that until relatively recently in human existence, within the last poofteenth of human time in reality, we would almost certainly already have been dead, and many people in today’s world still have a life expectancy below the amount we have already lived. And in the moments when we remind ourselves of this, we manage to be grateful and worried simultaneously.

Worried WoodyNot for nothing is our favourite celebrity quotation from Woody Allen, a man so obsessed with these matters that he wrote two theatre plays, one called God and the other Death. The quote runs thusly: “I don’t want to become immortal through my work. I want to become immortal through not dying.” Hear hear.

The Wellthisiswhatithink collective is by no means alone in this angst-ridden introspection, of course.

Existential death anxiety is the basic knowledge and awareness that natural life must end and it has fascinated writers and philosophers since humankind climbed down from the trees.

It is said that existential death anxiety directly correlates to language; that is, “language has created the basis for this type of death anxiety through communicative and behavioural changes.” Or in other words, over millenia we notice that we die, learn how to describe it, and then talk about it.

There is also “an awareness of the distinction between self and others, a full sense of personal identity, and the ability to anticipate the future, which includes the certainty of death. Humans defend against this type of death anxiety through denial, which is effected through a wide range of mental mechanisms and physical actions many of which also go unrecognised. While limited use of denial tends to be adaptive, its use is usually excessive and proves to be costly emotionally.”

Or to put it more simply, it’s better to face up to it.

As Wikipedia would have it, “Awareness of human mortality arose through some 150,000 years ago. In that extremely short span of evolutionary time, humans have fashioned but a single basic mechanism with which they deal with the existential death anxieties this awareness has evoked—denial in its many forms.

Fear of - and discussion of - dying goes back to Neanderthal times. Not that it gets any easier.

Fear of – and discussion of – dying goes back to Neanderthal times. Not that it gets any easier.

Thus denial is basic to such diverse actions as breaking rules and violating frames and boundaries, manic celebrations, violence directed against others, attempts to gain extraordinary wealth and/or power — and more. These pursuits often are activated by a death-related trauma and while they may lead to constructive actions, more often than not, they lead to actions that are, in the short and long run, damaging to self and others.”

Or as we call them in Wales, “wakes”.

This is before we even tackle the concept of Existentialism proper, (as opposed to Existential anxiety), and it’s various concerns that life is inherently meaningless anyway, not to mention Absurd. That’s a topic for another day. Or days. Or lifetimes.

Anyway, this latest in a series of ramblings on this topic is coming to no great or profound conclusion, Dear Reader. We merely report that at this point in time we have decided to focus on a couple of related issues.

Firstly, we have decided to stop worrying about the fact that one cannot control death, because in reality one can only control a few outcomes in one’s life, and death surely isn’t one of them. Believing we are in charge of everything is a uniquely human conceit, and it is clearly not true.

In the Wellthisiswhatithink household we call this the “A Plane Fell On My House” syndrome, recognising that random acts can and do disrupt our neatly ordered existence.

Accepting this as a fact is a vital step towards dealing with events that catch us unawares.

kindnessSecondly, we are trying to make more of an impact on our world by being more concerned about other people than ourselves, by being kinder, by being slower to anger or frustration, by trying to see things from the other person’s perspective, by celebrating the good we see around us and building up those responsible for it.

It was Aesop (he of Fables fame) who once said “No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted”. There’s a big mouthful, right there. And yet more proof, if proof were needed, that things don’t change much as the centuries roll by.

Deep in the last Millenium we saw “making an impact on the world” as ending up as Prime Minister of somewhere (or at least a senior panjandrum of some description), becoming the world’s greatest writer of film scripts, the most creative businessman in town, the “next big thing” in poetry, and a bunch of other grandiloquent outcomes. It would be fair to say we have now changed our focus, and in doing so, we have become more content, and by many measurements, more successful.

We may yet do something “famous”. Or we may not.

We’re taking it all a day at a time. And that helps, too.

Tara MohrMeanwhile, Tara Sophia Mohr is a San Francisco-based women’s leadership personality. We found these comments on her website, and thank her for her thinking. There is some big “applied commonsense” here.

1. Create a character.

Create a character that symbolises the voice of fear within you. Maybe she’s a frail recluse or an eight-year-old bully or a fire-breathing dragon. Maybe it’s the lion from “The Wizard of Oz” or the Wicked Witch or the Wizard himself. Pick a character that illustrates how the voice of fear feels in you, and name your character. When you hear the voice of fear, greet it: “Oh,Cruella, I see you’ve come to visit. Hello.”

Why does this work? Creating a character helps you separate the real you from the part of you that’s afraid. Your fears come from that instinctual part of the brain that seeks to avoid risk at any cost–not from your core self, your inner wisdom, or your dreams. Naming the voice of fear, visualising it as a character and observing it helps you get back in charge.

2. Follow the fear through to the end game.

Fear holds us hostage, making threats that if you do X, a disastrous outcome will occur.

The remedy is to imagine how you’d handle that outcome, and evaluate just how bad it would really be.

This involves asking “so what?” again and again. If, for example, you’re afraid that your request for a raise will be turned down, ask yourself, “So if I was turned down, so what? Then what?”

You’ll probably hear yourself thinking something like, “Well, I’d be disappointed, and I’d think about whether that means I need to change jobs. I guess it wouldn’t be the end of the world.” You’ve just taken a great deal of power away from your fear.

Or, you might find this outcome still feels super scary, and your answer to the question is “I’d feel horribly embarrassed around my boss every time I saw her!” Then ask the question again: “So I’d feel embarrassed and awkward, then what?” Keep following the fear through to the endgame. You’ll find your resiliency and sense of perspective as you keep asking, “So what?”

(We heartily concur with this advice in a whole host of areas of business and life generally. “So what?” is an incredible powerful tool.)

3. Ask, “Is it true?”

Whatever the little voice of fear is saying, it’s probably not true.

The fearful part of us is irrational and over-protective.

It might be saying you areTrue or false likely to fall flat on your face if you take a risk, or that no one will like your ideas. It might be saying that moving to a new city could ruin your children, or choosing the wrong job could wreck havoc on your life.

When you hear fear-based thoughts, ask yourself, “Is what this voice is saying true?” or, in Byron Katie’s approach, “Can I be absolutely sure that this thought is true?”

The answer to these questions — especially the latter one — is most often “no.”

4. Connect to love.

Here’s the very cool thing about our human consciousness.

We can’t be in a state of fear and one of love at the same time. They can’t co-exist. Each one blots out the other. When we are really connected to that mysterious energy that is love, we connect to a softness, a safety, a comfort, a healing. Fear vanishes.

So when you are stuck in fear, re-connect to love. Listening to a favourite song, doing something you love, focusing on a picture of a loved one, or connecting with nature are all good ways to do this.

Many people find that a short meditation on their own breathing or reaching out to a higher power in prayer reconnects them to love. Giving — time, money, a gift or a heartfelt compliment — to another person also connects us to love.

Use whatever process works for you. You’ll know you’ve re-connected to love when you feel that sense of harmony and comfort and softness returning.

If you aren’t sure what helps you easily and swiftly reconnect to love, start experimenting. All of us need a set of strategies for connecting to love when we get fearful, anxious, resentful or off-balance.

5. Let fear be your travelling companion.

Much of the time we can soften or even entirely lift our fears using the tools above, but sometimes, fear persists.

Then it’s time for this tool: let fear be your travelling companion. Let it be there, but not in control. Let it be there, but don’t take direction from it or stop moving forward because of it.

This is a skill. It’s a skill to learn to act in the face of fear, to allow it to be present but not to interfere.

You know when you are driving on the highway, and right next to you, one lane over, there’s some guy hanging out the window, keeping pace along side of you? He’s not in your way but he’s in your field of vision?

Think of fear that way: as the guy in the lane next to you. You are in the driver’s seat, in your own lane, moving forward. He’s next to you, not blocking you but just there, somewhat irritating, palpably present. The ride would feel more enjoyable and free if he wasn’t there, but you are getting to your destination just fine anyway.

Learn to walk with fear this way — as if it’s your uninvited traveling companion — intrusive, but not in the way.

(This last one is one we are personally working on. It is impossible to banish all fear. And we shouldn’t want to, anyway. After all, fear serves a purpose, too. It stops us wandering blithely into the middle of a pride of lions while we’re picking daisies. The trick is not to let fear – or, indeed, any thought – dominate one’s life to the exclusion of others.

And sometimes, to accept that we actually can’t control or change everything. Much of the “self help” advice coming out of the USA (in particular) likes to pretend that we can do anything, be anything, achieve anything, overcome anything, just with an act of will. That is simply nonsensical, and dangerous, because not being able to overcome something that is insurmountable is a sure way to become depressed.

If someone dies, for example, no amount of willing them back will change the fact of their death. How we DEAL with our distress and fear about the future will determine how successful our life is thereafter. That’s why “Feel the fear and do it anyway” is sometimes – sometimes – very good advice.

After all, what’s the worst that could happen? So what?)

Wot he said.

Wot he said.

We thoroughly enjoyed the recent TV mini series on the life of John Adams, second President of the United States, Dear Reader, not least because of the joy of watching the marvellous Paul Giamatti give it his all playing the title role.

In fact, we tend to enjoy anything which looks at the soaring ideals behind any major change in society that affected the course of history – the revolution against Charles I is another era where we voraciously consume both drama and documentaries.

We were pondering the life and thoughts of Mr Adams today who floated briefly across the environs of our internet world wide webby consciousness thingy, and were minded to look up some of his more brilliant aphorisms. And lo and behold, some of them as as valuable today as a few hundred years back.

On “Innocent before proven guilty”

“It is more important that innocence be protected than it is that guilt be punished, for guilt and crimes are so frequent in this world that they cannot all be punished. But if innocence itself is brought to the bar and condemned, perhaps to die, then the citizen will say, ‘whether I do good or whether I do evil is immaterial, for innocence itself is no protection,’ and if such an idea as that were to take hold in the mind of the citizen that would be the end of security whatsoever.”

A very good point, well made, right there.

On “Facts”

“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

We need to remind more than a few of today’s politicians of that comment. And while we’re about it, this one, too:

“Liberty cannot be preserved without general knowledge among the people.”

John AdamsWhen one witnesses the lengths so-called democratic Government today goes to keep information away from the Governed, (you and me), this strikes us as a huge issue.

Do we, indeed, enjoy the liberties that for many decades now we have believed we do, or has the pendulum swung back the other way in so many gradual movements that we haven’t noticed the change?

Given the challenges faced by “liberal democracy” in the world, I must admit I found the next quotation rather chilling for a number of reasons.

On “Democracy”

“Democracy … while it lasts is more bloody than either aristocracy or monarchy. Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There is never a democracy that did not commit suicide.”

Hmm. Is democracy inherently more bloody than authoritarian rule? There are many humanists and respected philosophers who have wondered so, despite their instinctive affection for democracy.

We have oft heard it said, for example, that “Left-wing Governments start more wars”, and our reading of history supports that notion to a degree. People of a progressive mindset tend to believe more passionately that things can be “fixed”, if necessary by the use of force, whereas the conservative mindset tends to preserve the status quo more deliberately.

Why would anyone prefer a powerful central government to democracy? Well, if one stifles dissent, one also stifles the painful struggles that invariably accompany dissent. But if one accepted that uncomfortable notion for a moment, then how would one ensure that any dictatorship is “benign”? And in any event, does not the very nature of a dictatorship mean that it cannot be benign, because it’s essential throttling of dissent is an act of violence against free expression?

Interesting stuff.

Decision making in a centralised system is also faster and more dramatic than in a democracy. Then20071025_JohnAdams again, that is something of a mixed blessing, is it not? Slower, more cautious decision-making processes can often lead to better decisions as well as worse ones. Not for nothing has the world been advised to Festina Lente since Roman times.

He destested anti-intellectualism.

On “Knowledge”.

“Let us tenderly and kindly cherish, therefore, the means of knowledge. Let us dare to read, think, speak, and write.” And also:

“I read my eyes out and can’t read half enough … the more one reads the more one sees we have to read.”

And then again, ever the lover of liberty, he also saw the danger of over-cherishing the knowledge of the elite.

On “Power”

“Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak.”

Quite so. We can list a dozen or so major world leaders off the top of our heads who exhibit that failing in spades. As communications is our lifelong obsession, when we were actively involved in politics (many, many moons ago) we never tired of counselling our colleagues thusly: “Never under-estimate the understanding or wisdom of the common folk: they may not speak in our sophisticated political language, that doesn’t mean they don’t know the answers to what ails them.”

Indeed, as a brilliant and inspirational (albeit somewhat irascible) wordsmith himself, he railed against politicians that used smart language to obscure or mislead.

On “Language”

“Abuse of words has been the great instrument of sophistry and chicanery, of party, faction, and division of society.”

But it was two of his longer and more thoughtful mental meanderings that really caught our eye. The first was on the very nature of American society, which Adams understood as a “work in progress”, a great on-going experiment. He said:

“While our country remains untainted with the principles and manners which are now producing desolation in so many parts of the world; while she continues sincere, and incapable of insidious and impious policy, we shall have the strongest reason to rejoice our local destination.

But should the people of America once become capable of that deep simulation towards one another, and towards foreign nations, which assumes the language of justice and moderation, while it is practising iniquity and extravagance, and displays in the most captivating manner the charming pictures of candour, frankness, and sincerity, while it is rioting in rapine and insolence, this country will be the most miserable habitation in the world.”

Thoughts On Government Applicable To The Present State Of The American Colonies.: Philadelphia, Printed By John Dunlap, M,Dcc,Lxxxvi

It has always been our belief that America is both the worst of times and the best of times. For example, it is easy to forget that (despite turning up late, twice, as my sainted Mother always pointed out) the country made huge sacrifices in the cause of freedom in both World Wars. Yet did any country ever engage in a more brutal series of quasi-colonial adventures that have (usually entirely predictably) resulted in the impoverishment, injury and death of millions? It is easy to forget that America is hugely generous in terms of foreign aid just as it can simultaneously appear to be an economic tyrant, raping and pillaging its way across the globe. Internally, it is a country engaged in a permanent and roiling debate about the nature of society itself, and it’s civic discourse can reach depths (heights?) that are breathtaking in their profundity, and yet it’s everyday political discourse can be as mind-numbingly idiotic and ill-informed as an unsupervised kindergarten full of chimpanzees. It produces more “high art” than any other society on earth, and more dross, as well.

It seems Adams clearly saw both the opportunity and the risks.

The last, which is absolutely fascinating, refers to the relationship between America and Muslims.

If only ...

If only …

The relevance to today is obvious. In submitting and signing the Treaty of Tripoli more than three hundred years ago, Adams wrote:

“As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion, as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen [Muslims], and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan [Mohammedan] nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”

Thoughts On Government Applicable To The Present State Of The American Colonies.: Philadelphia, Printed By John Dunlap, M,Dcc,Lxxxvi

If only he’d been as right on that one, too.

Wandering the world wide interweb thingy this morning, with our eyes drawn by the massive opening weekend success of the second Hunger Games movie, we were also taken with the ongoing popularity of the film 12 years a slave.

A contemporary portrait of Solomon Northup

A contemporary portrait of Solomon Northup

It is the incredible true story of Solomon Northup who was a free African-American in New York who was kidnapped and held as a slave in the South before winning his freedom. No doubt the popularity of the film in the United States has been boosted by its appeal to the African-American audience, but it is also surely a universally appealing tale of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity and bigotry, and we look forward eagerly to seeing it.

His astonishing history is related here.

Popular culture tackles the problem of the overweening State.

Popular youth culture tackles the problem of the overweening State.

Indeed, both movies are testaments to the power of the individual versus the state, and clearly tap into some deep need we have to believe that we can overcome awesome odds even when faced with the conspiracies of those in power, even if the politics of the Hunger Games series is a tad more subtle than Northup’s story, capable of being adopted by both sides of the political spectrum as a crie de couer for their side.

It may also be, however, that both movies simply leverage some deep need we have as humans to overcome the worst sides of our nature.

One of the more curious features of slavery in the United States was that of manumission, whereby an owner would free a slave, typically as a reward for long service, an act which was often used by proponents of slavery to go to the essentially benevolent nature of the system, or, at least, that it was not as bad as it was painted.

Exploring the phenomenon of manumission, one was then led, click by click, to read the fascinating historical snippet that in Ancient Rome, under the rule of Caesar Augustus, a law had to be passed to reduce the number of slaves freed by owners. Who knew? Indeed, over time, and counter-intuitively, slaves gained increased legal protection, including the right to file complaints against their masters. Attitudes changed in part because of the influence among the educated elite of the Stoics, whose egalitarian views of humanity extended to slaves. It has been said that one of the more important Roman Stoics, Epictetus, spent his youth as a slave.

The lex Fufia (also ‘Furia, Fusia’) Caninia (2 BC) was one of the laws that national assemblies had to pass, after they were requested to do so by Augustus. This law, along with the lex Aelia Sentia, placed limitations on manumissions. In numerical terms the laws meant that a master who had three slaves could free only two; one who had between four to ten could free only half of them; one with eleven to thirty could free only a third, and so on. Manumissions above these limits were not valid.

The limitations were established at the end of the Republic and the beginning of the Empire, at a time when the number of manumissions was so large that they were perceived as a challenge to a social system that was founded on slavery, especially when Romans harked back to the chaos of the slaves’ rebellion led by Spartacus known as the Third Servile War.

That so many Romans were so keen to free their slaves that a law had to be passed to limit their doing so surely changes our popular view of their society, and also poses some fascinating questions about human nature.

A frieze of freed Roman slaves: such Freedmen could achieve high status within Roman society, but were not considered of the same social status are free-born Romans.

A frieze of freed Roman slaves: such Freedmen could achieve high status within Roman society, but were not considered of the same social status are free-born Romans.

Certainly, a large number of slaves in Rome worked in close proximity to their owners, as house slaves, whose duties included cleaning, bathing, sexual services, and cooking. Over a period of time, it is perhaps understandable that mutual respect grew up between the parties to this social arrangement.

It is surely not some kind of 20-20 hindsight aided by rose-tinted spectacles to wonder if, in a society founded on concepts of liberty, many Romans might have been acutely aware that the rapid development of their Empire based of foreign subjugation and domestic slavery was a contradiction of their most profoundly held beliefs which simply made them feel uncomfortable, and especially so when they developed human relationships with their slaves.

One little known historical anomaly is that the role of master and slave was sometimes reversed, as at the celebrations of Saturnalia, where it was the tradition for the slaves of a household to sit down to the type of feast normally enjoyed by their owners, and actually to be served by their owners at table, during which time they could speak freely and critically of their owners. Clearly, the relationship between slaves and slave owners in Rome was far more complex than it is commonly portrayed. But with Saturnalia, everyone knew that the levelling of the social hierarchy was temporary and had limits; no social norms were ultimately threatened, because the holiday would end. Another slaves’ holiday (servorum dies festus) was held August 13 in honor of Servius Tullius, the legendary sixth King of Rome, who was the child of a slave woman. Like the Saturnalia, the holiday involved a role reversal: the matron of the household washed the heads of her slaves, as well as her own. But temporary or no, it is hard to imagine these celebrations occurring commonly if the basic setting for slave-owner relations was one of mutual distaste and loathing. Another curiosity is revealed by examining other Roman laws: if a master wished to marry his female slave and produce legitimate children with her, then he could free her before the age of 30, the minimum age for freedom set by Augustan law. Clearly, as such marriages were so common as to require legislation, such a woman could not have been regarded with such stigma that she could not be socially enfranchised by marriage to an owner.

The stories led us to consider how the abolition of the slave trade, and the eventual eradication of slavery in the United States, was actually led by members of the ruling class who were morally confronted – affronted – by the essentially amoral nature of the societies they ruled over.

It is easy to forget, in a world where daily cruelty and inhumanity seems to be a rule, that humane instincts and behaviour also have their day.

Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy informed each other, thrown together by history. When King was shot, Kennedy's respectful oration has been credited with preventing America's cities descending into social turmoil.

Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy informed each other, thrown together by history. When King was shot, Kennedy’s respectful oration has been credited with preventing America’s cities descending into social turmoil.

It is surely churlish to note, for example, and especially in proximity to the hagiographical anniversary of his death, that John F Kennedy was not especially personally committed to civil rights, and his administration had to be constantly encouraged to take up the fight. Yet there is a process whereby those that rule become aware of the depth of the wrong they inflict on others, and we should also, as we examine JFK’s legacy with clear eyes, celebrate the growth in consciousness, for example, of Lyndon Johnson and subsequently Bobby Kennedy, which was surely in direct relation to their increasing exposure to the legitimate demands of leaders of the African-American community. Jack Kennedy was a product of the ivory tower created by his father. After his death, both Johnson and RFK swung to the left on social justice issues, partly because of their life experience, and partly because of pressure from a growing and widespread liberalism in the community. Justice “seeped into” the ruling class, little by little.

It is a shame, perhaps, that we need our noses repeatedly rubbed into the ordure of injustice before we take up arms against it. But despite this uncomfortable recognition, we can also surely celebrate that one perceives a deep, abiding desire for justice at the heart of humanity that eventually wins out, again and again.

It seems to us that when we examine the entire sweep of history, human nature is ultimately attuned to reject the unjust, the domineering, the brutal, and to embrace the hopeful, the reasonable, and the inclusive.

One sees it in the predictable and certain implosion of autocratic dictatorships throughout the ages.

People power in action. Hundreds of Buddhist monks lead a protest in Myanmar/Burma in 2007.

People power in action. Hundreds of Buddhist monks lead a protest in Myanmar/Burma in 2007.

Recently it has been evidenced in the peaceful “people’s revolutions” in the Eastern European block and Russia and in countries like the Philippines, in the progressive move away from military dictatorship in a country like Burma, and in the stumbling progress towards true, robust democracy in countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, South Korea, Taiwan, and even, haltingly, China. Even, perhaps, in the unlikely election – and then re-election – of an African-American President in the USA. The outworkings of the “Arab Spring” are unquestionably a mixed bag, but here again, there is the unmistakable urge towards freedom – individual, communal, social, economic – that will simply not be quieted despite the odds against it, and those who have taken advantage of the chaos in the Middle East to erect newly-authoritarian replacements for what had gone before should look out for their heads. The genie of freedom, once having stretched its wings, rarely stays in the bottle for long.

It is as if we instinctively understand that a balance needs to be struck between free expression and freedom of choice and the needs of the State, and that when the balance is tilted too far towards a crushing of the human spirit we will, sooner or later, rebel.

Whereas becoming too granular and examining too many examples that appear to shove the argument one way or another would probably unhelpful, the simple fact is that by any rational analysis (of wealth, of disputation and wars, of the growth of representative democracy, of trade) our world is actually growing, inch by inch, less authoritarian and more open, such as with, for example, the general removal of fascist dictatorships in South America, (and the onward march of their economies), the reduction in internecine strife in Africa, the refusal of societies in Europe to descend into civil collapse despite the effects of the worst economic conditions in decades, and so on, and so on.

Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden - one jailed for 35 years, one forced to flee to a foreign country or risk a similar fate. Heroes or villains?

Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden – one jailed for 35 years, one forced to flee to a foreign country or risk a similar fate. Heroes or villains?

Needless to say, however, the forces of convention, of conformity, of suffocating adherence to authority, are ever-present and tireless. The assumption that power corrupts is nowhere more obviously demonstrated than in the enthusiasm with which one-time liberals are content to crush freedom of expression when it serves their agenda. There can be little doubt that the Obama Administration has been sucked into the vortex of dissembling, suppression and intolerance, just as, for example, the Blair government in the UK were, as the current Abbott Government in Australia is now, and as Putin rolls back the green shoots of Russian democracy. It is for this reason, surely, that we should applaud the whistle-blowing of people like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowdon, and the militant advocacy of groups like Wikileaks, Anonymous, Greenpeace, Sea Shepherd, Pussy Riot, Femen and others, no matter how “inconvenient” they are to the smooth running of the State.

At the outer reaches of protest, they carry a torch for humanity. They puncture complacency. They tell us things that no one else was going to: things we need to know.

And if we are to be fair, we should also applaud the grassroots activism of the likes of the Tea Party in the USA, because in criticising the growing incompetence and waste of the bloated and complacent American Government they raise issues that should be a concern to everyone, not just the right. A dollar that is invested in mindless administrationism – a dollar eaten up by self-sustaining bureaucracy that has long since stopped caring about outcomes – is a dollar that isn’t spent on an aged pension, a sick child, a much-needed improvement to road safety, a diversion program for addicts, or social housing. In demanding that we hold to account the voracious appetite of Government for our tax dollars the Tea Party and their equivalents around the world serve a useful purpose regardless of what one thinks of their wilder assertions or tactics.

Knowledge is the oxygen of freedom: anything that feeds knowledge to the masses will inevitably result in greater freedom, and deliver stronger constraints on the excesses of those that govern us.

We have an absolute requirement for knowledge of those things we still need to rebel against.

propaganda

Which is why, if there is any one thing we should be more wary of than anything else, it is surely the trend of “embedding” of our media with government, the increasingly cosy relationships (which go much further than battlefield reporting), where it becomes more and more difficult to discern news from propaganda, and in the reduction in media diversity as newspapers fold one after another and television channels sub-contract their news gathering from a small number of sources. The growth in Internet-based news and comment of which this blog is a tiny part will compensate to a degree, but as major media organisations gobble up successful purveyors of alternative news and opinion, the creeping hand of conformity moves ever onward and threatens our access to knowledge.

This battle will never end, and in a media saturated world we need to be aware that an appearance of more media does not necessarily mean better media. However, we cannot but view the free availability of an uncomfortable, uncompromising and above all external news source such as Al Jazeera in America, Australia and elsewhere as a very positive development.

reality-tv

We need to rail against homogenised, dumbed down, and supine reporting, too. We once saw a statistic that over 80% of the news covered by newspapers was reprinted directly from press releases.

That was 20 years ago.

Do we really think the situation has improved as media management has become increasingly sophisticated? We suspect not.

And we need to guard against the endless trivialisation of mass media.

Not for nothing did the Roman elite maintain power through “bread and circuses”.

In short, humanity needs people who “subvert the dominant paradigm”, whether or not the paradigm is one with which we agree.

And thank goodness, those people always seem to appear when we need them most.

Whether it’s an uppity slave refusing to accept his kidnapping 170 years ago, a flame-haired Hunger Games contestant from some dystopian future, or, indeed, this collection of philosophers who wrote to the Guardian a couple of days ago, highlighting the ongoing travesty of the imprisonment of Pussy Riot members, we should praise those who subvert the dominant paradigm, and join them.

Wot they said.

For singing a “punk prayer” against Vladimir Putin in the cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, Nadia Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina, of the collective Pussy Riot, were sentenced in August 2012 to two years’ detention in a “prison colony” for “vandalism motivated by religious hate”. After having denounced the inhuman prison conditions and begun a hunger strike, Tolokonnikova, 24, mother of a five-year-old girl, was transferred 4,000 kilometres from Mordovia to the Krasnoyarsk region in Siberia (Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot’s prison letters to Slavoj Žižek, 16 November).

According the Russian human rights commissioner Vladimir Loukine, “serving her sentence in this region would contribute to her re-socialisation”.

Now there is language we had not heard in Russia since the Soviet era and its hunt for all deviants.

The courage of Tolokonnikova and other protestors in Russia leaves us breathless with admiration.

The courage of Tolokonnikova and other protestors in Russia leaves us breathless with admiration.

In fact, the singer of Pussy Riot has become a symbol of those repressed by the regime: gays hounded in the name of the now legalised struggle against homosexual “propaganda”, immigrant workers exploited and brutalised on the construction sites of Sochi and elsewhere, penalisation of anti-religious speech, significant ecological damage caused by construction projects undertaken without consulting local residents, the opposition muzzled, NGOs persecuted.

In the face of these increasingly numerous human rights violations, Europe has remained shockingly silent.

In a letter addressed from her prison cell to the philosopher Slavoj Žižek, Nadia Tolokonnikova criticises the complacency of western governments towards Vladimir Putin’s repressive and freedom-destroying policies. In particular, she writes in Philosophie magazine (November 2013): “The boycott of the Olympic Games at Sochi, in 2014, would be perceived as an ethical gesture.” As called for by Philosophie magazine, we, European intellectuals, call on our governments and all of Europe to break with their attitude of culpable tolerance and put pressure on the government of Vladimir Putin to immediately release Nadia Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina.

Russia is a constitutional republic and permanent member of the UN security council. It has signed the European convention for the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms. With the Olympic Games approaching this February, it is time to give them a reminder.

Elisabeth Badinter, Pascal Bruckner, Alain Finkielkraut, Marcel Gauchet, André Glucksmann, Agnès Heller, Axel Honneth, Claude Lanzmann, Edgar Morin, Antonio Negri, Hartmut Rosa, Fernando Savater, Richard Sennett, Bernard Stiegler, Gianni Vattimo, Slavoj Žižek

In case you hadn’t noticed – and Dear Reader, if you had not, then exactly where have you been? – the Guinness Book of Records just officially announced that Asia-Pop artist Psy has just officially become the most watched video ever on video-sharing site YouTube. Ever. Phew.

I really like the song. The original (very funny) video can be seen here:

And a live performance here:

But the really fascinating story is that the first video has now been watched – get this – 879,634,089 times. 

And the live performance is already over 150 million views, too.

As one of the posters put it on the YouTube of the first video, “let’s aim for a billion hits on New Year’s Eve”. A billion views? Of one pop song? A BILLION? Really?

Now as at June 30 this year, this was the breakdown of internet users in the world.

Two billion and four hundred and five million and some users worldwide. Getting on for half of them are dancing with their legs like John Wayne and waving an imaginary lasoo in the air ...

Two billion and four hundred and five million and some users worldwide. Getting on for half of them are dancing with their legs bowed like John Wayne and waving an imaginary lassoo in the air … Er, well, why not?

That means, essentially, that about half of the world’s Internet users have viewed the video on YouTube, let alone seen it on TV, on other websites, heard it on the radio, danced to it in a club … now that’s a hit, eh? I even have a vague memory of myself waving my arm around one night at Fusion nightclub at Crown, but honestly I was a bit over-trained by that stage so I might have just been waving my arms around aimlessly anyway. Pop music and I have an interesting relationship after I’ve had a few beverages. Think Rowan Atkinson on speed.

And now look at that big red wedge. That’s Asia. 44.8% of world Internet usage.

So can anyone still think that the 21st century is not going to be the Asian century? They are taking Western culture, merging it with their own, creating something vibrant and new, and then selling it brilliantly, both to their fellow Asians, and to the West.

Somehow, you know, I really don’t think my passable schoolboy French, which I have always been so proud of, is going to be much of an achievement – or of much use – in my declining years. Quel dommage.

At least, thanks to the abundance of brilliant Asian restaurants of all types in Melbourne, I can now say “thank you” in about a dozen nearby languages.  Cám ơn. Xie xie. M goi. Arigato. Komapsumnida. Terima kasih. Khawp khun. Khawp jai. Istuti. Shukriya. The effort is always greeted with a polite smile and sometimes genuine pleasure. The fact that the people serving us all speak my language – often near-perfectly – is never lost on me.

Somehow though, I think that the way things are headed, “please” may very well end up being more useful word to know … it is hard to imagine that the West can ever now catch up with the sheer exuberance and hard work, not to mention massive human resources, of Asia.

The Australian government just announced yet another push to get us “Asia ready”. But it’s too little, too late, I fear. We are a massive country with a tiny population, and already decades behind Asia itself in genuinely understanding the potential of the area. We have inadequate knowledge of their languages, their customs, their culture, and their needs. Faced with a considerable degree of disinterest from the West until recently, they have simply decided to “do it for themselves”.

Apart from the resources under our land and sea I strongly suspect we are already largely irrelevant to the coming century. I don’t think Asia will take us over. I simply suspect we will become largely irrelevant. A social, cultural and business backwater. Europe is broke, and confused. America appears mired in debt, out of energy, and incapable of pulling together as a nation any more. In short: I am beginning to suspect that the West, as a whole, is really rather yesterday’s news.

Which is a shame, because Western culture is, we often forget, thousands of years old, (as we are constantly reminded Asian culture is), and it is a fascinating amalgam of influences stretching back to pre-history.

Whilst it is popular to denigrate Western culture (and it has been a curate’s egg, for sure) it has also been responsible for some of the most important advances in human history – specifically, the evolution from feudalism, anti-authoritarianism, rationalism, science, humanism, the rule of law, democracy, and that’s just to name just a few.

It will be a sad day indeed if those things gradually come to mean less and less to the world’s population.

So let us hope that Asia takes up some of those principles as enthusiastically as they have made short shirts, tight trousers, and syncopated pop music their own. We can only hope, as it is no longer our place to demand.

G K Chesterton

Neither "progressive" nor "conservative" ... Chesterton was a thinker.

As we contemplate the future of Western society … well, I am, even if you aren’t … then it is worth pondering, I think, what GK Chesterton once wrote in a piece which has become known as “Chesterton’s Fallacy”.

Read one way, it is the most cogent argument for conservatism I have ever come across – and I am not wildly in favour of conservatism, as anyone can tell you. Nevertheless, whether we are debating the way we deal with society’s rioting miscreants, how to refocus our businesses’ activity, what do do about the global financial system, or how to respond to matters as diverse as global climate change or the apparently inexorable rise of Asian economies, we would do well to dwell on these comments. As I get older, I find myself, for example, instinctively lending additional weight to the arguments of those who have “been there, done that”, rather than the arguments of those who argue merely from first principles, with the delightful arrogance of youth,  unwashed and ungrimed by the messy waters of practical experience. (I never thought I would write such a sentence, and I stand ready to be shot down in flames for premature fogeyism, but there it is.)

So to my eyes, this is not an argument for resisting change, but it is an argument for not throwing the baby out with the bathwater, until we have checked the baby for signs of life. Anyway, what do you think?

“In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox.

There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road.

The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense.

The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable.

It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious.

There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.”

Time magazine, in a review of a biography of Chesterton, observed of his writing style: “Whenever possible Chesterton made his points with popular sayings, proverbs, allegories — first carefully turning them inside out.” For example, Chesterton wrote “Thieves respect property. They merely wish the property to become their property that they may more perfectly respect it.”

Chesterton, as a political thinker, cast aspersions on both progressive and conservative styles of thought, saying, “The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.” Writer and philosopher George Bernard Shaw, Chesterton’s “friendly enemy”, said of him, “He was a man of colossal genius”.

How we need such thinkers today. Food for thought, huh? Comments welcome.


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