Dum Spiro, spero

December 23, 2016

Attempts to see a performance of the Seven Acts of Mercy at the RSC were thwarted last night by the need to take my son to A&E after a cut sustained earlier in the day refused to stop bleeding. The play is based on Caravaggio’s masterpiece and astute readers will have realised I was looking to that performance to inform my final post. That reflection will have to wait for the January rebooking. This morning suitably bandaged and with The Tempest secluded for the evening we did a back stage tour of the RSC. Something I strongly recommend to anyone in Stratford with a couple of hours free. As a part of that tour we came to a cupboard lapelled human hair something that took be back to the 17th April 2013 when I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau for the first time. Anyone who has been there (and everyone should go) will remember the huge glass display case with the hair cut from the heads of over 140,00 items and contaminated by hydrogen cyanide. For that reason I chose a picture from Sandomierz Cathedral in Poland depicting the blood libel, they myth that Jews kidnapped and murdered the children of Christians to use in religious rituals. The picture still hangs there which raises its own questions. Neither I can I help but note the irony of my posting on this on day in which the monstrosity that is now the President elect of the United States choose to use twitter to undermine decades of work on the peace settlement between Israel and Palestine. Hopes there were already hanging by a thread, but even that thread has been cut by the bombastic populism that appears to be the new norm and hopes that responsibility would ameliorate the tantrums have also been dashed.

Now I started this series by arguing that we may never have been in a fact based society, instead we move through dominant tropes which allow people to reduce the cognitive load of assessing the evidence for themselves. For a long period we accepted the authority if the Church, then we deified science and the experts, now we are back to populism, following those who hate people we can demonise as a way of avoiding responsibility for the world we have allowed to emerge and which we seem set to destroy. If I had to isolate two important reasons why we have got into this mess then they would be:

  1. The failure of the left and centre in politics to engage with the day to day realities of those who they purport to represent and the assumption that commitment is to the ideology of the politicians when in practice it is to immediate need.  
  2. The naive and extreme forms of social constructivism and post modernism that have denigrated any idea of objective truth and who fail to understand that somethings are coherent, while others are incoherent, coupled with crude scientism which denigrates anything outside of its own belief system.

So one pragmatic, one intellectual and I’ll happily expand on either if required. But going forward the issue is how are tropes formed and how can we influence them for the better. Especially in the echo champers of populism and scapegoating that are all too characteristic of the build up to fascism. I chose the title for this post deliberately, in is from Cicero and is commonly translated as As long as i breathe, I hope; very apposite in the current situation. So there are some ways forward and I offer the following list as a way of getting started:

  1. There are basic hygiene levels of social provision that mark out any civilised society.   Free at the point of entry health care, universal meritocratic education and some basic safety net to avoid extreme poverty being three of them.  None of these are difficult, we simply choose to ration them with money.  Even then the public price per head of medical care in US exceeds that of any European country despite excluding a large part of the population.   There used to be an orthodoxy on the left and right alike, excluding libertarian and fascist extremes, that did not challenge these as a goal.  We seem to have lost that common belief and I suggest its restoration is more important than the various blame games that are going on at the moment.  A common cause independent of political allegiance?
  2. The political process is too divorced from people’s capacity to process information or relate to those who represent them.  In the US this is compounded by a need for money to get elected that is reminiscent of the political novels of Trollope in which only the wealthy can seek to be a part of the legislature.  To my mind this has been made worse by the desire to have everyone elect everyone, not to mention the stupidity of referenda.  Participation in European elections involves voting for a level of abstraction which is just too far away from anyone’s lives unless they make a study of politics.  It means that the cognitive load issue is too readily exploited by simplistic populism and the so called popular press.  A delegate structure in which you vote for someone local who you trust who then elects the next level and so on is potentially more engaging that our current approaches.  It was implied but is no longer implemented in the electoral college in the US.
  3. The role of citizen sensor networks in which people engage with, and are engaged by like experiences, in which those who represent have direct contact with the street narratives of those they represent in a real time basis is something we are working on and we will announce a major international programme shortly.  We need a statistically valid approach to engagement in local solutions as well as national and regional initiatives that works with the unintended consequences of interactions on a complex system rather than trying to pretend that engineering based approaches can avoid said consequences.   We also need to find ways in which connect across the boundaries of time and space in a manner no longer possible within the echo-chamber and algorithm based perversion of much that the internet has become.  Expect more on this in the new year, but it is about creating empathetic connections with people and the physical world that allow for new meaning to emerge without the stereotyping and demonisation that is characteristic of populism.
  4. We need to be aware that tyranny is as much a danger of the well intended as those with evil disposition.  To illustrate this let be quote the revolutionary turned despot Maximilien Robespierre who said: The secret of freedom lies in educating people, whereas the secret of tyranny is in keeping them ignorant.  To some extend this returns to my first point, or one aspect of it, namely the need for education.  I’m increasingly of the opinion that said education needs to mix people rather than allowing separation based on the neo-liberal idolisation of ‘choice’.  When I went to school we had people from all stratum of society in the same class, that is happening less and less and it means that the process of separation between power the the powerless is constantly reinforced.   It may be time to either abandon the idea of choice or tax it out of existence.  Social mixing is different from social engineering and the increasing number of gated estates has its metaphorical equivalent in schools and hospitals the world over.

All of this is an exploration, but we need new ways of thinking and acting that allow us to have some base level expectations of human behaviour. The tyranny of the focus on the individual at the cost of the clan, the assumption that the means of exchange (money) is more important that the things exchanged and the increasing desire for simplistic labels and solutions has to be overcome. If not then the blood libels that currently inform politics will cause levels of failure from which we may not recover given the fragility of the eco-system of our planet. We don’t really have room for manoeuvre anymore, but there is, as Cicero says, always hope.

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