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Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

Guidance

This blog almost certainly contains something that someone somewhere will manage to find offensive or at least annoying. To those people I respectfully suggest you lie down in a quiet, dark place for a short while, and think about how you might try to chill out a bit.

Meh indifference

Way back in the 2000s (remember them, eh, kids?!), the smart response to so much content online was meh, like, whatever. It seemed to be a badge of honour, an attitude, that you were, like, so not interested in all this trivial nonsense. You could rise above it. Who needed LOLcatz anyway?

Now Bento, ‘the keyboard cat’ dies and it makes the national news.

The amount of memes and content and reposting and churnalism has overwhelmed us. We’re increasingly incapable of setting our Slow Thinking System 2 to work, rationally processing and analysing the world. Ever-shorter attention spans are driving TL:DR, while ‘intelligent’ algorithms drive us deeper into social and political echo chambers where we only see stuff we already like.

Confirmation bias becomes embedded, debate mutates into violent shouting matches, and the idea of constructive compromise is an outdated weakness.

Anger Inside Out

From meh to outrage

The apathetic shoulder-shrug has long gone, now everything is outrage and offence, hyperbole and superlatives. With no sense of irony, it’s almost impossible to overstate the speed at which the internet can go apesh*t over anything and everything.

In case you’ve not experienced this, allow me to outline the (all too predictable) process.

  • Newspapers splash headlines about ‘fury’ or ‘storm’ as though the nation is up in arms, when in fact they’re simply reposting a few angry tweets or comments from random individuals
  • These headlines spark reactions in others (even if the headline bears little resemblance to the substance in the article). Remember, people aren’t reading the article, just assuming the headline is true
  • Outrage spreads like a wildfire, no one checks the actual facts and ‘an internet storm’ is born. 140 (or even 280) characters is never enough to convey the real nuances or shades of grey
  • The speed with which it spreads seems to validate the outrage through a herd mentality: if so many people are in on this, it must be something…
  • Scepticism or restraint is seized upon as condoning the outrageous behaviour. As President George W Bush made clear more than a decade ago, there is no permissible middle ground

Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists

  • And before anyone can draw breath, today’s trending topic of outrage is tomorrow’s ‘seen it, don’t care’. The relentlessness of 24/7 online news, and its ethos that no story is too small or extreme to merit a manipulative headline from which they can sell ad space, means that something else will come along, probably in time for the evening rush hour, or tomorrow’s breakfast news, or lunchtime.

Perhaps the first time I remember this was in 2001, before Social Media even existed, when the hilarious Chris Morris satire “Brass Eye” lampooned sensationalist news stories, often at the expense of MPs and celebrities. Its ‘paedogeddon’ episode about internet paedophiles created a storm among many of the Great and the Good, claiming it to be offensive and calling for it to be banned without having even seen it.

More recently there was Steve Martin’s tweet about Carrie Fisher in the aftermath of her death in December 2016. His attempt to pay tribute to his friend was swamped by moral fury and he removed it within 72 hours.

steve martin carrie fisher tweet december 2016

In the US, Starbucks’ has produced seasonal red cups to replace its usual white & green to celebrate the festive season. They’ve done this for years, such that their release has become a signpost for the season of good will. Until 2015, when the plain red ‘design’ was decried as an ‘attack’ on Christmas, part of the systemic societal ‘persecution’ of Christians and Christianity in the US.

Starbucks Seasonal Red Cups Christmas Festive

I can see a cheapskate cost-reduction that’s pretty offensive, but an attack on Christianity?!

The entertaining and insightful writer Jon Ronson has written extensively about our current culture of offence and shaming. This review of his book “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” is terrific, and gets to the heart of things when it discusses

…a scuttling crowd of people who want nothing more in life than to be offended. Offence, for this lot, is not a straightforward emotional response, instinctive and heartfelt. It’s a choice, something they actively seek.

When did we move from offence being a spontaneous and unconscious response to a strategy for life?

 

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There might not be too many sportsmen who can unite Piers Morgan, Brian Lara, Gary Lineker and Jeremy Corbyn, but it appears Cyrille Regis can. His tragically early death on Sunday, aged just 59, has led to tributes from all around the globe.

Cyrille Regis Goal Celebration West Bronwich Albion

Big Cyrille was one of my childhood heroes. In an era when most children I knew liked Liverpool (because they won everything), I was a contrarian, a West Brom fan. I loved Cyrille Regis and Laurie Cunningham, Bryan Robson and Derek Statham, Brendan Batson and John Wile and Ally Brown. West Brom played great football, had a great kit and scored blinding goals, and Cyrille was their centre-forward.

At the time, I didn’t really understand about the racism and abuse he and other black players suffered, I just loved the way he played. He was young (barely 20 years old when he joined West Brom), and he seemed to love playing football and scoring goals. Why wouldn’t he be a kid’s idol?

What a player, what a man.

It says something about his calibre as a person that he could play for West Brom, and their arch-rivals in the Midlands – Wolves, Aston Villa and Coventry – and have each club regard him as a superstar, and each club rise to salute him if he ever returned to play against them. Journalist Pat Murphy knows more about sport in the Midlands than most; I commend his tweets and comments unreservedly.

Regis trained as an electrician while playing non-league football as a teenager in the 1970s, but only a few years later he became only the third non-white player to be capped for England (out of more than 950 players at that time). He’s been described as an ‘icon’ in countless tributes today. This NME cover is from the week after Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister. The article isn’t about him, but about the general state of football, and they chose Regis, still just 21, in full flight to represent the sport.

That’s an icon.

Cyrille Regis NME cover

How many musicians get on Match of the Day?

Two years ago this week the world was mourning David Bowie and Alan Rickman but I am more sad tonight, because I loved Cyrille Regis, perhaps at a time when not that many people did. I re-enacted his goals with my Subbuteo teams. I created new ones, but they were always absolute belters. And I am sad tonight because we’ve lost one of the Good Guys.

RIP Cyrille.

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Theresa May is the British Prime Minister. She was appointed 6 months ago after becoming leader of the Conservative Party by the votes of just 199 MPs. Barely 6 weeks before that she had unsuccessfully campaigned for her country to Remain in the European Union. In October 2016 she spoke at the Conservative Party Conference and proclaimed

…if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.

I could launch into dictionary definitions and how her blinkered ‘vision’ is inadequate for the complexity and interdependence of the world in 1917, let alone 2017…

…but instead, here are three reasons why I believe in my heart and soul that she is wrong and why, despite all the Brexit sound and ‘America First’ fury raging against me, I’m proud to think of myself as a citizen of the world and a citizen of my country. Indeed, I can only think of myself in that way.

Eurocamp

For virtually all of my childhood that I can remember, I enjoyed family holidays in France, Germany and Italy, usually staying in Eurocamp tents on sites from Brittany to Tuscany, from The Dordogne to the Black Forest. I learned how to ask for baguettes and croissants, understand different road-signs, convert kilometres to miles. I discovered the joy of Orangina in funny-shaped bottles. Europe wasn’t something to be feared or resented, it was full of people quite a lot like us, with fabulous countryside and terrific summer weather. I’ve tried to pass on these attitudes to my children.

orangina

Put the Zep on…that snowpile is dead.

Between school and university, I went to the US for 6 months on an English-Speaking Union exchange to a High School in Princeton, and this boy from the Cotswolds discovered the world…

I found I could escape my (self-imposed) teenage persona of clever but never ‘cool’, often painfully awkward. On the very first morning, I was invited to skip class by other guys in the Senior Year, and we went out to get ice cream (it was January and about 5 degrees below zero), before one of them drove his car around the icy carpark, spinning and wheeling in all directions, ultimately ploughing into a snowbank. This seemed a long way from Gloucestershire.

I played baritone sax in a jazz band, played alto sax in a student rock band, started to write a screenplay, skied in Colorado. I travelled alone from New York to Seattle and San Francisco and back again. I was refused re-entry to the US at Niagara Falls. I gambled in casinos in Reno. I thought I was Don Johnson on top of the World Trade Centre…

world trade center

I grew up and grew out of myself in America. I couldn’t understand it in this way at the time, but travelling and living in another place made me appreciate my home all the more, while respecting and loving the differences.

Erasmus

At the end of my 2nd year at university, I signed up for an ERASMUS exchange to study in France, without consulting anyone, let alone my parents. A real snap decision, it was also a brilliant and far-reaching decision, as I got to go skiing in the French Alps A LOT, enjoyed a long weekend on the Mediterranean coast, and a week travelling into Italy to Genoa and Florence. I met and studied with multi-lingual French, Italian, Dutch, German students.

Most far-reaching of all, it was in Chambéry that I studied marketing & market research for the first time, and discovered more human, real-world ways to apply my thinking beyond the abstract, macro-economic aspects of my degree course.

Even more so, if I’d not studied in France I wouldn’t have been at university in Exeter for a 4th year, and almost certainly wouldn’t have met Rachel.

Erasmus

Erasmus. A scholar and citizen of the world.

I once gave a pecha kucha presentation about key moments in my life. Two of those focused on the experiences I had in Princeton and my decision to study in Chambéry: they have been that fundamental to my life since, the way I see myself and the way I see the world. I Reckon it’s simplistic to say the least, and actually insulting to suggest that people who think beyond their own country misunderstand the concept of citizenship.

So I encourage, implore you, dear readers, to think broadly about how we depend on each other, how we are stronger for being part of things that transcend nation-states. Be citizens of the world. The world needs us.

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Right now, in the afterglow of 2016, there are a few things I know to be true.

2016 was not the Worst Year Ever

  • To be sure, the ‘important’ celebrity deaths seem on a different level, especially as they now include stars who came to world attention in the broadcast media age. It’s very sad that Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds (her Mother) died within hours. But please, it’s only a tragedy for their friends and family. It makes me sad for them, and a bit sad for me as I’ve loved their films, but it’s not life-changing or tragic or unbearable. Really, it’s not.
  • Brexit and Donald Trump have rattled my cage and dented my rose-tinted liberal view of the world, but they’re not massively unsurprising. With a smidgen of hindsight, it’s quite easy to see them as a natural progression of where we’ve been going in recent years, perhaps somewhat extreme, certainly upsetting for me, but actually almost inevitable.
  • Similarly, while stories and images from Syria have been uniformly depressing and the scale of destruction seems more catastrophic, how different are they from Chechnya, South Sudan, Iraq, Rwanda, Somalia, Kosovo and other conflicts of the last 25 years. The so-called ‘refugee crisis’ is  similarly the natural extension of what’s been building for a long time.

I’m done with thinking of The New Year as Something Transformative…

Just because the year changes on the calendar doesn’t mean I can swivel on a sixpence and turn things around. There are things I can control and things I can’t, things that actually affect me and stuff that simply bothers me. I’m trying to stop caring too much about celebrity deaths, or what Donald Trump has proclaimed about Vladimir Putin, or what kind of Brexit we apparently want today.

But I can’t shrug off or simply change my attitude about a whole shitpile of things that affect me directly and are at least partly beyond my control. I can’t pretend to even consider the sort of upbeat “let’s make 2017 AWESOME” posts that are just about everywhere. Because while I am privileged and lucky to be British, white, born to affluent parents (etc), and we had many fine experiences last year, I can’t hide that, overall, 2016 was bloody hard. And the things that made it hard aren’t going away anytime soon.

  • My Dad still has inoperable cancer and has been increasingly breathless, which unsurprisingly is taking its toll on Mum, so they need our support more than ever, emotionally and physically.
  • Christmas 2016 was the last that Rachel and I will celebrate in either of our childhood homes.
  • We’re still helping Hannah through a protracted process to get her the support she needs to make sense of herself, feel less anxious at school, and to give her a shot at achieving her undoubted potential in an education system that seems to be going back generations in its approach to testing and exams.

Believe in Better

I do believe that it will be all right in the end, but I can’t see the end right now. So please, try not to encourage me to make 2017 amazing or exciting. Please don’t tell me to ‘consume less/create more, frown less/smile more’.

If I’m lucky, stay focused and can stick to my intentions, I’m hopeful I can be enriched in 2017 by

  • moving house (while staying local)
  • helping my parents downsize into a smaller home
  • spending more time writing this than getting annoyed on Twitter
  • continuing my cycling evolution; ride more often (commuting), further (100 mile rides), in new places (Wales, Yorkshire, France?), and more with our children
  • (re)watching Mad Men
  • helping our children to thrive, laugh and be everything they can be
  • the love and support of Rachel, Hannah & Eleanor, as well as my family and friends

Wish me luck…

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Our new normal?

It’s said that if you put a frog
into boiling water
it will try to jump out,
but it will most likely die
almost instantly.

But if you put a frog
into warm water
and gently, gently heat the water
towards boiling point
the frog might not realise the danger
until it’s too late
and it’s unable to escape,
and it will die, slowly, in terrible pain.

 

How did we get here?

Politicians’ principles are defined by media barons
Game of Thrones and House of Cards look under-written
Xenophobia is legitimised
Compassion and empathy are unpatriotic
Feeling content is seen as smug self-satisfaction
or worse,
as weakness, as a lack of ambition.

The 1% are portrayed as middle-class
We need to reach out to the rich more than ever
The poor are to blame, for the shortage of nurses, for the state of our roads
and even for their own ill-health, under-achievement and poverty,
We’re all in it together.

Unelected elites are the scourge of our nation
(claim billionaire non-domiciled newspaper editors)
We’re told that we’ve had enough of experts
(but I Reckon that’s bollocks)
Foreigners take our jobs, but UK unemployment is at a 10-year low,
so exactly whose jobs are they taking?

Empowered and informed by 24-hour news
feels more overwhelmed and misled
Facts are irrelevant if you can repeat a lie without consequences
in the post-truth world.
Don’t even think about apologising.

Everything is my responsibility but I’ve control over nothing
Parents care for their parents
Kids care for their parents
Children’s services are cut and withdrawn
Self-harm becomes just another response to a bad day

Teaching more and testing less was a promise never met
Because one size fits all
we teach to the test,
Good results mean the grades are too generous
Bad results mean our children are failures
They’re falling behind in the competitive international race

Is this our New Normal?
When did the water get so hot?

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I married my wife in a Catholic Church 17 years ago, where we both promised to raise our children as Catholics, and I’m sticking with that promise. I try to live by a lot of the teaching and messages in the Christian texts, even if I don’t accept the literal story or messenger. Last Sunday I attended Mass for the first time in a while, and listened to a reading from the Letter of St James (2: 14-18)…

How does it help, my brothers, when someone who has never done a single good act claims to have faith? Will that faith bring salvation? If one of the brothers or one of the sisters is in need of clothes and has not enough food to live on, and one of you says to them, “I wish you well; keep yourself warm and eat plenty,” without giving them these bare necessities of life, then what good is that? In the same way, faith, if good deeds do not go with it, is quite dead.

Paris is worth a mass…

My thoughts immediately turned to politicians who claim that God inspires their every action. This isn’t a new phenomenon. Hundreds of years ago the Protestant Duke of Bourbon, on becoming King Henri IV of France, found that it would significantly strengthen his position if he were a Catholic: so he converted to secure the support of Spain and the Catholic League.

Especially (but not exclusively) in the US, being a God-faring Christian seems a hygiene factor to be an electable politician. The TV screens are full of mostly rich white men invoking God and Jesus at every opportunity. But their so-called Christian attitude seems largely unrelated to what I remember from the preaching of Jesus Christ: no compassion for women, even those who have been raped, who might want or need an abortion, no “Good Samaritan” attitudes to people living in poverty, ample protection and rewards for the rich at the expense of the vulnerable.

Setting the agenda

This week, the UK press has truly shown itself (as if any further proof were needed) to be ‘holier than thou’ bullies rather than enquirers after the truth. Jeremy Corbyn was elected by a massive majority to be leader of the UK Labour Party, surprising almost everyone with the scale of his democratic triumph, yet it seems that almost noone in the press (even the left-leaning Guardian) likes him, which has led to some shameful ad hominem attacks that don’t even get close to being worthy of the name ‘journalism’.

He’s faced criticism for wearing a jacket that didn’t match his trousers. He was pilloried for appointing a Shadow Cabinet in which no women held the so-called ‘Top 4’ posts, ignoring the fact that more than half of his total team are women. Currently just 1/3 of David Cameron’s Cabinet are women, and the last two Labour Prime Ministers (Tony Blair and Gordon Brown) ended their tenures in Downing Street with barely 1/4 women among their Ministers of State.

Surely it’s not about the bike…

Nothing seems too trivial or too tenuous to slip in a jibe, even if you’re the (sic) respectable broadsheet The Times of London. Mr Corbyn likes to ride a bicycle to get around his Inner London constituency. But because he’s left-of-centre, it’s now apparently acceptable to refer to his “Chairman Mao-style bicycle”… but look! David Cameron rides one that’s quite similar.

Chairman Mao Bicycle Jeremy Corbyn David Cameron

If that’s the Chairman Mao, is Dave riding the Pinochet?

Sing Up!

But that was Tuesday… Wednesday’s front pages were dominated by the scandal, the national shame that at a service to honour the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, Mr Corbyn did not sing the National Anthem. I’m prepared to concede that this is a PR mistake and lack of foresight, and even an error of judgement. But is it really more important than the facts that in the last 48 hours the UK Parliament has debated and passed two bills which both seem to target the hard-working people the Tory Party so vocally championed during this year’s General Election?

Don’t blame me…

The latest Trade Union Bill will require unions to give at least 2 weeks’ notice of an intended strike, allow employers to use agency staff to replace striking workers and require picketing strikers to give their name, address and email address to police. The tone of Government presentation of this bill would have an outsider believe that the country is held to ransom by Trade Unions. In fact, the days lost each year to strike action over the last 5 years has averaged around 650,000. This might seem a lot, until you understand  that it is 95% lower than when the country really was held to ransom during the 1970s and early 1980s.

During this same period there’s reams of evidence demonstrating how the top 1% or 10% receive a far higher proportion of incomes. The banks who caused the credit crunch have been bailed out to the tune of billions and austerity measures have frozen pay for public sector workers and ushered in an increasingly new normal of zero-hours contracts. I Reckon we are still being held to ransom, but it sure ain’t the unions that are the problem now.

Work to live…

Just a few months ago The Conservative Manifesto trumpeted that

We offer a good life for those willing to try — because we are the party of working people. The next five years are about turning  the good news in our economy into a good life for you and your family.

Except the new tax credits bill that was debated and passed yesterday will cut supplementary benefits for low income or part-time earners, by as much as £1,000 per year, and could affect 3 million of these precious hard-working families.

When is a refugee more than just a scrounging immigrant? When he sells papers…

Jeremy Corbyn’s suits have made the plight of the Syrian, Libyan and Sudanese refugees suddenly “so last week”. Then the media and politicians were brow-beaten or guilt-tripped by grass-roots groups into taking any kind of action. From scathing indifference or outright hostility, they suddenly discovered a streak of compassionate, all encapsulated in one horrific picture of a dead toddler washed up on a beach. Now they’re wondering why Corbyn wears brown and not a nice midnight blue.

The UK Government and press are alike in behaving like St James’ examples of a man with loudly-proclaimed faith, but no good deeds. They preach about making “right” choices to the people who do not have such luxuries of choice. They judge poorly those who don’t fit their simplistic paradigm, By doing so, I Reckon they demean us all.

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So, that’s two elections in a row that I’ve been left disappointed. Except this time it was much more surprising. The opinion polls were unanimous; it was neck-and-neck between the Labour & Conservative parties. Until it wasn’t. Or maybe the Labour voters just turned out in areas where they didn’t change the outcomes. Or maybe their campaign was flawed from the start with a leader who isn’t even the most statesmanlike in his own family.

Anyway, it was pretty depressing for a bleeding-heart liberal like me this morning. A Tory Government (technically a coalition) took over in 2010 promising we’re all in it together, but in reality passed swathes of swingeing cuts that hit the disabled, the single parents, the young and the poor disproportionately. Meanwhile the rich seemed protected under the guise of incentives while those receiving benefits were stigmatised. If you weren’t hard-working,  you were a shirker or a skiver.

Yet after 5 years they increased their share of the vote, command an overall majority in Parliament, and despite receiving only 37% of a 66% turnout, can most likely act as they please in setting legislation for the next 5 years.

But, as a colleague suggested to me this morning, “we live in a First World country… we’re not starving, we’re not under military law…” So I’ve been trying to keep things in perspective, and look forward with optimism. And I recall this piece I read yesterday by Simon Ricketts, which I Reckon is beautifully written. I can’t speak for anyone else’s voting intentions, or what shapes their thinking. But this is what shaped mine, yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Here’s the thing I’ve never quite got. When I vote, I don’t vote for me.

I don’t vote for what tax cut, what pension benefit, what fuel price freeze, what VAT adjustment will benefit me.

I never have.

When parties promise me things, I can’t help thinking they are pointing at the wrong person.

I’m not rich – in accepted UK terms. But I’m not poor.

I’d love a bit more money. I’d love to be able to pay my rent without first checking that I can. It would be great to be able to pay for a restaurant bill without freezing momentarily when my card goes in the machine,

But generally, I can eat. I can survive, I can feed and clothe my cat. (Shut up).

Thousands and thousands can’t.

I never vote for me. I only ever vote for those who don’t.

I vote for those who never watch Newsnight, who have never heard of the IFS, interest rates, annuity funds, oil prices, deficits, retail price indicators.

I vote for people who need help. People who are much too busy feeding their kids to worry about what colour tie that man is wearing, what clever line that person has rebuffed, what apparent howler that person has been caught on video saying.

It seems simple to me. Vote for the people less fortunate than you. In every situation.

Vote for the people who aren’t looking up. Vote for those who are looking down.

The alternative seems so absurd: “Vote for the person who will enrich me in tiny ways for a little bit, and make sure the other person gets less.”

When my time is up, I can’t imagine happily thinking “I wish I’d grabbed a little bit more for myself.”

But I would be happy to think: “I tried to do something. For people who have less.”

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