Archive for the 'current affairs' Category

Amin Maalouf: Adrift

January 21, 2021

         It’s not often I read a book and end up thinking, everyone really needs to read this! But this is one of those rarities, the reflections of a wise and thoughtful Lebanese writer and novelist on the current state of the world, and why it’s in such a dreadful mess. He professes to be haunted by the image of our species heading ineluctably for shipwreck. And, a rarity, the book has been translated from French into English.

There are plenty of pundits who offer relatively superficial and partisan analyses of the world’s woes: Maalouf isn’t one of those. He begins modestly reflecting on his origins and family background, at some length: they are Lebanese, with historical connections with Egypt, and so his exploration is firmly anchored in how the problems of the Middle East, and of Islamic nations, are at the heart of so much that has gone wrong, a microcosm of the world’s greater problems.

It is false to think that the homogeneity of nations is a good thing: Spain became weaker after expelling Muslims and Jews after 1492, France became weaker after the expulsion of the Huguenots in 1685. Often the benefits of minority groups to a nation are only perceived when they have gone. I obviously thought of Brexit here!

The failure and collapse of communism as an ideal has helped move the world into its current disastrous state. Communism didn’t just appeal to the working class but also to minorities as a way of transcending divisions; briefly, Jews Christians and Muslims worked alongside each other in communist movements worldwide. A liberating space, an inspirational space has disappeared. And Maalouf weeps no tears for Stalin, Mao or any of the other tyrants: the failure of dirigiste state ‘socialism’ tarnished anything and everything vaguely resembling it, allowing conservative forces to invalidate social democracy and the welfare state too.

The Six Day War of 1967 had a devastating effect on the Arab world from which it has never recovered, and allowed political Islam to come to the fore. Equally, victory in that war has been a trap for Israel. Maalouf then notes the calamitous effects of the oil price rises of the 1970s, which were a direct response by Arab nations to the debacle of the 1973 war, in which the USA had supported Israel.

In his more general analysis, Maalouf sees 1979 as a turning point: the year conservatism declared itself revolutionary, with the election of Thatcher in the UK, followed by that of Reagan in the US the following year: the only option for the left was to try and hang onto what it had painfully won over the decades. At that time, Khomeiny also came to power in Iran, Deng Xiao Ping took the reins in China and changed its political and economic direction, and the Catholic Church elected John Paul II as Pope. And the USA let the genie of radical Islam out of the bottle by deliberately drawing the Soviet Union into the quagmire of Afghanistan… Maalouf points out that until then, the Muslim world had been gradually moving in a progressive and tolerant direction, towards modernity and laicisation; the West wrecked all this. Conservatism has moved openly hand-in-hand with the perfidious forces of nationalism and racism.

And as the purpose of the Reagan/Thatcher revolution was a massive attack on state power, the work of states as unifying forces was seriously harmed; suspicion of big government has fed into our inability to tackle issues such as the climate emergency in our own time. Maalouf knows that the state can, and must have a role in creating and fostering social cohesion. Instead, widening social divides have been accepted, and public authorities are now mistrusted by many. It’s hard to do justice to the depth of his reflection, which is that of a lifetime, and his knowledge of history, and the interactions between nations.

Maalouf articulates, far better than I’ve ever been able to, a good number of the thoughts and ideas I’ve worked out about the state of the planet over the years. He has written the most profound, reasoned and intelligent analysis and commentary on our times that I’ve ever read; he does not proffer any simplistic solutions beyond helping understand where we have gone adrift, and sadly, he admits to a great pessimism about our future…

Rutger Bregman: Utopia for Realists

December 23, 2020

     Here was a really interesting and thought-provoking book that I also found really annoying. The author’s flippant tone and peppering of a would-be serious text with lots of throwaway facts, combined with the current habit or necessity for chopping everything up into short gobbets to fit with our reduced attention-spans, did not get me off to a good start.

He presents a series of perspectives on our world, all of which call for serious consideration. Things are so much better now than they were in the past (he says), but is the current situation the best we can do? Bregman finds today dystopian, and I have to agree; he’s shaping up his main argument, which is our lack of vision, and again, I find myself in agreement.

Universal Basic Income is quite thoroughly explored and documented, and would surely have been a considerable help during the current pandemic, had it already been in place. But more money for everyone will drive more growth and more consumption, with all the negative consequences. Similarly his deconstruction of the myth of GDP as a measure of progress is much-needed but again he reveals himself over-enamoured of the great technological leaps forward of recent years as if they are value and effect-free.

He does acknowledge that economic growth has resulted in more stuff, rather than more leisure time, but again the ecological destructiveness of this key point is glossed over, as is the major significance of the effect of women being drawn into the workforce over the past half-century. While I am fully in favour of the right of anyone and everyone to work and develop a career, the way in which the system has silently ensured that it now takes two working adults to keep a family going – yes I am aware of sweeping generalisation here, but the main idea is true – and we have mostly silently accepted this in exchange for extra shiny-shiny, the implications of this major transformation for the future of the planet merit some reflection, surely?

I liked it when he got on to the fact that the best-paid jobs don’t actually create anything of value, but merely shunt money around (whilst skimming off a sizeable percentage and trousering it, not that Bregman mentions this too loudly). Automation has created a surplus of labour at the bottom of the social pile, driving wages down: again, we have seen the effect of this all too clearly during the pandemic.

Bregman’s most astonishing assertion is that world poverty would be ended by the complete opening of all borders to people and migration. I am not in a position to challenge his data, which I’m sure is valid: again, the cost is more stuff, more consumption, more pollution…

My main gripes were the simplistic approach, in the pop-science and pop-philosophy mode currently fashionable, and Bregman’s almost total lack of recognition of the environmental and climate implications for any of his basically growth-based, ‘capitalism-taming’ approach. At the same time, I am forced to recognise my own intellectual snobbery here: all these ideas do need much wider dissemination and consideration. But the hectic pace of the book allows no real time for sober reflection.

I found Bregman’s analysis of issues very interesting. Many, if not most people would accept it and would probably welcome the changes he moots. But – and here is the crux – most people don’t have the time or the inclination to read such a book, modify their thinking and still less, act on it. So we are again in the position we often find ourselves in at the end of a utopian novel: the place is wonderful, I’d like to be there, live there, but how the hell do I actually get there? The transition is the issue to crack: how do you overcome the resistance of the powerful and murderous vested interests who would oppose change? In Ursula Le Guin’s marvellous novel The Dispossessed, the Annaresti have to leave their planet (conveniently there is a habitable moon close by) in order to build their alternative society…

On service, duty and selfishness

December 5, 2020

Somehow the words ‘duty’ and ‘service’ have an old-fashioned ring to them; they do not seem to sit with our world. And yet, they are words I often find myself reflecting on.

Service conjures up something enforced – against our will – like military service, or ill-paid drudgery, like domestic service. And yet, I think the concept is a much wider one, and we ought to be able to see that many of the professions essential in our world are a form of service to the wider community or the nation, even though they are paid, salaried rather than undertaken for nothing or for love. To work in medicine serves the greater good of society, as does working in education: how are citizens of the future to be raised and kept in good health? To work in what seem much more menial jobs perhaps – street-cleaning, waste disposal – is also service to society, though it is less well-paid and perhaps also less sought-after work. The police and the military also serve society, although I may well have quarrels with the kind of tasks they perform at times.

To me, service is about doing necessary work, as opposed to other forms of work which do not have the same vital or necessary function in society. Shops where we can purchase the necessities of life are useful, but do not serve in the same sense: they are almost all out to make a profit for someone. Banks may be useful in certain ways, but are a bane in many others. And I’m afraid I utterly fail to see the point of investment bankers, stockbrokers, hedge-fund managers and their ilk…

I also feel there is a growing culture of disparagement of those whose work serves society in the ways I’ve outlined above. They are generally not as well-paid as workers in other comparable sectors of the economy, and they are easy whipping-boys whenever mistakes are made or inadequacies identified. In the past, lower wages and salaries were compensated by reasonable pension arrangements, hard-won rights fought for by trades unions over the years: these are now envied by others and consequently being dismantled piecemeal. The politics of envy is cheaper and easier than deciding to provide decent conditions for everyone; the idea that workers might band together in solidarity to strive for better wages and conditions has been made to seem quaint and old-fashioned…

Duty is an even more difficult idea to engage with in our world, where we are increasingly taught to view ourselves as isolated individuals with rights and entitlements, which we often demand vociferously, but with no corresponding expectations of us in return: we don’t seem to think we also have duties towards our fellow-citizens. I can’t help feeling there is something wrong here. A society surely involves mutual obligations and duties: we give, and receive in return, according to our need, and this idea fosters the thought that in some ways we should care about our fellow human beings. Once everything is reduced to cost and value, profit and self-interest, we are on a slippery slope, as well as much more easily exploited and taken advantage of.

I’m old enough to date a sea-change in our society triggered by Margaret Thatcher’s government, telling people that there was no such thing as society, and elevating the idea of the private individual as the most important, entitled ruthlessly to ignore or push out of the way anyone who impeded one’s rush to money and profit. She entrenched the notion that paying taxes that were used to further public good is a bad thing: we should be able to keep ‘our’ money. Look where that has got us and our public services over the past decades.

Selfishness is an interesting word, often frowned on, especially by churches, as a moral failing. It’s more complicated than that: selfishness in terms of looking after and caring for oneself so that one has something to live for, and to offer others, is not a bad thing; selfishness as “me, me, me, I’m all that matters and I’m not bothered about what that means for you”, destroys the bonds which should knit us together.

I hope that the pendulum will eventually swing back again, and look forward to that day…

Here is the news…or not

November 23, 2020

Elsewhere you’ll find posts about my love of newspapers and my newspaper collection; recently while having a tidy-up and clear-out, I found myself looking through my collection again, and various different impressions struck me:

How much more serious and sober newspapers were in the days when they were monochrome! The message was clear: this is news, not entertainment. Almost – therefore, you can trust what you read here. I found a crumbling front page from the Daily News (founded by Charles Dickens, no less) in 1912, where the main headline speculated about what was going on at the South Pole. Had Amundsen got there? Had Scott got there? Scott’s imminent return was awaited…unless he had chosen to spend another season on the ice, continuing his research… There, you also get the sense of immediacy from the time way back when, as well as an even more poignant sense of the tragedy.

Back in those days, some newspapers did not carry news on the front page… The Times resisted up until 1968, I think. Some newspapers eschewed photographs – Le Monde did this I think well into the 1980s. There were far fewer pages: wartime restrictions and paper rationing meant that they often ran to only 4 broadsheet pages. They still managed to fit in pretty nearly everything you’d expect in a newspaper today, using space much more economically. I also looked back through some newspapers from the communist countries: again, few pages, few pictures, and most strikingly, no advertising. I found this very refreshing: the message was, here is the news, rather than, we are trying to sell you something. And yes, I know their idea of news was somewhat different from ours.

The changes creep in gradually, from the late 1970s and early 1980s onwards: more pages, more sections, as daily papers discovered the need to emulate the weekend ones. Designers took over, using white space and eventually colour to create a superficially more attractive product, with more pictures, and more ‘features’, ‘lifestyle’ content; news now occupied an ever smaller proportion of the pages. And articles, both news and commentary, became shorter, perhaps reflecting what television was doing to our attention-span?

Ironically, these developments came along at the time when newspapers themselves were becoming far less ‘relevant’ to more and more people, because the news was on the TV and the radio; these developments may have been intended to arrest the decline of print, but it is now evident that they have singularly failed, when you consider, for instance, a newspaper like the Daily Express that once enjoyed the largest circulation in the land, now a pitiable shadow of its former self, currently selling fewer copies per day than The Guardian or The Times did in their heyday…

It was inevitable, once the internet arrived; the vast infrastructure that distributed tonnes of print around the land overnight was no longer needed; a far more up-to-date news service is now available at the breakfast table than ever dropped through the letter-box. And yet, I am convinced, in many ways we are the poorer for the changes that have taken place over the past half-century. I think we are less clear about what news is, we are less clear about the distinction between news and opinion, and we are less well-informed that we used to be, in spite of, or perhaps because of those changes.

On integrity and the rule of law

November 22, 2020

There is a concept called the ‘rechtsstaat’* in German, which basically means a country where everything is done according to the law, and the law cannot be side-stepped by anyone, or ignored, or twisted to a particular person’s advantage; this kind of country is contrasted with regimes like those of Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia where, although there may have been laws on paper, they did not guarantee the citizen any protection or justice in practice…

I now find myself somewhat alarmed by the way that the country I live in, which regards itself – arrogantly – as some kind of paragon of contemporary democracy, seems to be moving slowly in that direction. Whilst the ordinary British citizen – or is that still subject? – generally enjoys the protection of the law, more and more we see people at the top, our rulers, government ministers and advisors, MPs behaving as if it is acceptable for them to do what they please because they are above the law and its provisions. And they increasingly get away with this behaviour, whether it is actual law-breaking, or the kind of behaviour that used mean immediate resignation from public office because it went against all notion of honour, integrity and decency, though not actually illegal.

The most obvious example is that of Cummings, the prime minister’s ‘advisor’ and supposed anarchist, who ignored COVID travel restrictions, refused to apologise for this, was not dismissed; this behaviour has since been seriously instrumental in fostering the attitudes of those who would treat any public health regulation with contempt because it does not suit them. And we now have a Home Secretary – one of the highest public officials in the land – guilty of bullying, not resigning, not being dismissed but being defended by her colleagues…

We now have so many different and ever-changing sets of COVID regulations and restrictions that the well-intentioned and law-abiding citizen cannot always be clear what is legal and not. This encourages even the law-abiding citizen to make their own decisions based on what they think is reasonable and sensible, without reference to legality or non-legality, and while most of these decisions may be sensible and well-intentioned, they may not always have the desired result; they are also rather alarming in that they reflect a change in attitude to the law, coming from a sense that the average citizen now feels they are on their own…

On their own? Why? There is a slippery slope here, as people move towards thinking that the government isn’t caring for them, doesn’t have their interests at heart, isn’t protecting them, because it can’t, or because it doesn’t know how to, or because it’s more interested in allowing – for example – private companies to make enormous profits from the pandemic than let local authorities and health bodies use their carefully developed expertise to protect people.

Now we start to move closer to attitudes prevalent in the USA, where protecting yourself is your own affair, where many, strangely, regard government as a bad thing, and the government as the enemy. As the state relieves itself of duties towards all citizens, it becomes potentially a more repressive apparatus, a private security company writ large, almost, whose principal purpose is to protect the wealth and interests of those people who own it, or imagine that they do… at which point, where is democracy, where are rights, where is the ‘rechtsstaat’?

* for clarity, wikipedia’s definition = A Rechtsstaat is a “constitutional state” in which the exercise of governmental power is constrained by the law.

Social media = social division?

November 21, 2020

I’ve been on facebook for a decade or so; I use it to keep in touch with distant friends, former colleagues and former students, and to share this blog with some of you… I find it increasingly frustrating to use, and the algorithms that seem to only allow me to see posts from a small proportion of friends are incomprehensible. I’d love an alternative. I have a Twitter account that I don’t use, and an Instagram account that I use occasionally, usually when on holiday. It also drives me nuts when it fills up with adverts and suggestions of whom I might follow… I keep all these accounts as locked down as possible, to block advertising and tracking.

So, I find social media useful. I am also increasingly horrified by its power and its insidious effect on us all, because it’s a commercial product which has the primary purpose of making vast amounts of money for apparently unscrupulous people.

I have the impression that for many – younger – people it’s their gateway to, or source of, news and “commentary” on the news. So everything is smitten into tiny gobbets that will fit on a phone screen, lacking depth, detail and subtlety when it’s not actually incorrect, or deliberately false. This is not good in a society that would like to be thought of as democratic. And then there is the deliberate use of social media to propagandise, to influence and shape opinion, often by very unscrupulous, hidden and anonymous forces: algorithms hunt out the vulnerable and susceptible and set to work. Social media is divisive.

Social media has the power to be very divisive, and to polarise us, into fiercely opposed groups. Again, it’s the brevity and lack of subtlety when it’s so easy to make a throwaway, dismissive, simplistic or aggressive comment on an article or a post, and anonymously too. It can be the equivalent of a brick through a window, something which many people would not do, but a quick snarky comment on social media… no real harm in that, surely?

Social media also seems to separate us from others, in the sense that it isolates us in our own particular bubble of like-minded readers and thinkers, and gives us an inflated sense of our own importance. We are friends with people like us, and tend to make similar comments and have similar reactions to events; opposing viewpoints do not often impinge on our own little echo-chamber.

When I was teaching – former students may recall this – I took great delight in allowing wide-ranging discussion of a wealth of subjects, and often used to play devil’s advocate in order to widen the discussion and introduce different viewpoints. Social media cannot do things like that.

Where is the real danger in all of this? It’s the creation of divisions where there were none before, or the amplification and simplification of divisions and conflicting viewpoints, the fostering of anger rather than discussion, dialogue, argument – all of which are healthy! And look for the motives. I started by pointing at the money, and the moguls of social media are phenomenally rich, far richer than any one individual has the need or the right to be. But look also at the power dynamic: keep people divided into their own particular little interest groups and they won’t see what they have in common, which may well be that the system conspires to keep them separate so that they won’t challenge the existing order and rebel against it, thereby threatening those in power and their money. The Romans knew how to do this two millennia ago “divide et impera” – divide and rule – and it still works today…

What can be done? Clearly so many of us enjoy social media, and would be loth to give it up. We need a different model, perhaps, a non-commercial one. I’d pay a modest monthly sum for a neutral, non-profit oriented facebook or instagram equivalent, one which didn’t allow manipulation or advertising and didn’t try to replace our news media. Or maybe someone out there has a better idea?

Le Monde Diplomatique

November 14, 2020

Disclaimer: I have no connection with the journal other than being a subscriber, and this is not an advertisement for it.

     I’ve mentioned I read Le Monde Diplomatique at various times in this blog. I’ve been a subscriber to the French edition for over twenty years. Originally, I realised that, mid-career and a busy parent, my French was getting rustier and in danger of fading away, and that the least I could do to keep it fresh was to read a magazine regularly. Success here led to my reading quite a bit of fiction in French, as you can again see from the blog.

Why LMD, as it’s called for short? The name is rather off-putting, suggesting corridors of power, great seriousness, and perhaps something far above the realm of ordinary mortals like me. What’s in a name? It’s been published for over sixty years, and was originally, as the name suggests, and offshoot of the French evening paper of that name. It’s now rather more independent and seems to exist in a similar kind of trust arrangement to the one that ensures the independence and financial viability of The Guardian newspaper over here, but on a much more modest scale. It publishes or licences editions in many languages, English included, obviously.

After reading a sample copy, I realised what it offered: depth of analysis, detail and the kind of reflection on issues and places that was disappearing fast from British newspapers, which were more and more devoted to shorter op-ed pieces that could not do justice to the complexity of so much of what was happening in the world. A journal not driven by the demands of a 24/7 news cycle, but appearing monthly, can both stand back from events, and develop a broader perspective, and avoid froth and frivolousness, too. There are rarely photos in LMD articles, which are usually a minimum of a full (Berliner-size) page, and are illustrated with cartoons and artwork. This has a helpful sobering and distancing effect.

The journal/magazine has a committed leftwing stance politically, and strives to include all the world: too much of our journalism is west/ first world-centred. As it’s a French publication, there’s a fair proportion of material about France and French politics, some of which I find a bit tiresome/dull/irrelevant to my world picture. There is usually a themed series of articles in each issue, taking a particular topic from different perspectives, often compassing several pages.

I keep reading it – at the modest cost of round about a pound a week – because I learn so much from it, and feel I have a deeper knowledge and understanding of the world I live in. You could argue that I don’t need this, as I’m hardly an important decision-maker, but I feel a sense of responsibility here: I live on the planet so I should be interested in and informed about what’s happening on it…

On democracy…

November 5, 2020

Warning: politics ahead.

It has been an interesting time for democracy lately…

Let’s get the old saw out of the way: it’s the least worst form of government, or the worst, bar all the others, allegedly. If you live in a democracy and you don’t like the government, in theory you can vote it out. On the other hand, “if voting made any difference, they’d have abolished it ages ago” – you would appear to be being offered a choice on election day, but does it make any real change possible? If you live in an autocracy or a dictatorship, things are rather different, as the good citizens of Belarus are currently discovering, and as the Egyptians found out to their cost a few years back.

It’s easy to see that in a democracy we enjoy more freedoms. We look back at some of the things that happened in the former Soviet Union, or what China has done in Tibet and is apparently doing to the Uighur minority in Xinjiang with shock and/or horror. Although the issue of freedom from versus freedom to is a thorny one, as Margaret Atwood and other writers have pointed out.

The Cold War, which some of my older readers will remember, allowed the West – which claims it ‘won’ said war – to sit on its high horse in defence of freedom and democracy, and because it wrote the narrative here, most of us believed it. But, as was evident at the time and still is, the West was no shining example to anywhere in the world, with the US war in Vietnam and south-east Asia, or its coup in Chile, to name just a couple of examples. Big, powerful nations use force to make other countries do what they want, whether they call themselves a democracy or not.

We may have the chance to vote in elections in a democracy, but how democratic is the electoral system in the UK? Or in the US, as recently demonstrated. The system can be, and is, rigged in many different ways. Both the US president and the UK prime minister have demonstrated a very cavalier approach to law and international treaties and agreements. Apparently we need ‘strong government’, which is guaranteed by the ‘first past the post’ system, which obtains in the UK and the US in different ways. But China has ‘strong government’, as also has Putin’s Russia.

I’ve always been amused by the fact that a very economically and politically successful nation in many ways, the Federal Republic of Germany, has a Basic Law and an electoral system that was largely designed by the victorious Western Allies after the Second World War, a system deemed good enough for the German people but not for British or US citizens. What makes for a stronger democracy? It may well be that a system which encourages co-operation between parties through the need to form coalition governments is stronger and more effective, as well as giving voters a greater feeling of being able to make a real choice and a real difference at the ballot box.

Disillusionment with the slanging match politics of Tory versus Labour, or Republican versus Democrat, leaves many people feeling utterly fed up with the system and plays into the hands of the so-called populists, whom many feel are on the slippery slope to fascism… And I am struck that this issue appears more of a problem in Anglo-Saxon (ie English-speaking) countries. What happens in the US can so easily infect us over here because we speak similar languages; other European nations are safer from the pollution, at least for a few years.

Another issue which is overlooked, I feel, is short-termism: democratically-elected governments rarely look beyond their four or five-year term, as their primary endeavour is to please electors and then be re-elected. So don’t rock any boats too much, especially towards the end of your mandate. And yet, it’s patent that most of the grievous problems facing our world at the moment need long-term vision and long-term plans to address them: pollution, climate change, limiting growth, poverty…

In an autocracy, there are no voters who need to be pleased or to be courted; a government can look ahead and make plans as far in the future as it likes. And it can make things happen very quickly, by directing people. I have no torch to carry for the Chinese government, but when it decided that the air pollution issue in Beijing was out of control, it took urgent and drastic action and made a real difference very rapidly. Then, it has recently decreed new measures to address pollution by 2050, which, unless the PRC disappears in the interim, it can make happen. And it has, after its initial cock-ups and concealment, wrestled far more effectively with the COVID-19 pandemic than any of the Western democracies. Just saying… How do you make long-term changes in a democracy?

Another problem for democracy is that it’s a very effective mask for capitalism to hide behind: we all get involved in choices, discussion, debate and elections, while behind the scenes the same old cabal of the rich and powerful pull all the strings and continue filling their pockets with money… you only have to read about the obscenity of the annual meetings of plutocrats at Davos every year. Money decides everything, and control of the mass media in the West is crucial. The overall narrative is as much under control in London and Washington as it is in Beijing or Moscow. Our media in the UK is largely owned by rich foreigners and tax-exiles, a situation unparalleled anywhere else. In the US, Facebook increasingly monopolises what passes for discussion and debate, and its clear preference for Trump, who will allow its tentacles to spread unrestricted, is pretty evident if one cares to look.

When I look at all of that, I feel the picture is pretty grim, really, and I don’t see how we get out of the mess. It may be too late to impose any meaningful controls or restrictions on social media. Monopolies in press, radio and TV could be broken up by a sufficiently determined government. Political parties in the US and the UK could set out with determination to address and rectify the current broken electoral system, but I’m not holding my breath. I’m a paid-up supporter of the Electoral Reform Society. In the end, to expect capitalism to have any real sense of social responsibility about what it’s doing to the planet is just a ridiculous contradiction in terms. And the UN is hardly in a position to start being a world government that the Chinese, Russian and American behemoths will obey.

A final question: just what, exactly, is the difference between what Trump is currently trying to do in the USA and what Lukashenka attempted recently in Belarus?

What is wrong with the country?

August 21, 2020

Warning: politics ahead!

I’ve always kept up with the news, ever since I was a child. COVID-19 has taught me some particular lessons, though, as I have read about how other countries have approached looking after their populations, and keeping them as safe as possible from the pandemic. Some have been pretty successful so far, others less so. And our own country has been pretty awful, surpassed only by the USA and Brazil, perhaps, in its brazen insouciance and incompetence.

The countries that have done pretty well have also made mistakes, needed to backtrack, tweak their responses and actions, tighten up again. Their politicians have acknowledged this, and apologised and done the necessary. I have read quite closely about the different measures they took, why, and how quickly they took them, and how they presented to their people the need to behave in certain ways, for the benefit of everyone. Why have we been so different?

Everything about the UK, it seems to me, has been set up for centuries to perpetuate a small elite and its great privileges: the rest of us are basically peons who don’t really count. We are expendable, of use in the further accumulation of wealth and maintenance of privilege for the few. Even if you accept the idea of a monarchy (which I don’t) ours is ridiculously large, with dozens of hangers-on, and phenomenally wealthy, and our aristocracy owns vast tracts of the country. Our education system – schools and universities – have been set up to keep the elite at the top, via astonishing financial privileges and legal protection for private schools, and their two chosen universities, to which a few more have been added over the years to protect the interests of the almost elite, which assists in the perpetuation and reproduction of the elite. This happens in a way not seen in other countries, to the best of my knowledge…

This embedded class-system was challenged briefly in the seventeenth century; we gave up on the Commonwealth experiment and re-imported the monarchy, and again for a couple of weeks in 1926. Other countries have been rather more effective in eliminating class privilege, even without going to the lengths of the Jacobins or Bolsheviks. My family name officially classes me a member of the Polish nobility; there is a coat of arms; we could have taken part in the election of the king (!) and yet our background is in the peasantry: it’s name, not wealth that counted. I can derive nothing from all this, fortunately, for the nobility was abolished – just like that! – in 1919.

Our ruling classes have an arrogance which resembles that of the elite in the USA. Theirs comes from their military and economic might, and ours comes from our inflated sense of ourselves, because what the US is now, the UK once was, and we resent the fact that that has changed. We had a huge empire. We claim to be a paragon of democracy. We are, in fact, a small island off the coast of a very large landmass, and we have recently decided to sever many of our most useful political and economic ties with that landmass, in an attempt to ‘go it alone’ (whatever that means). We attempt to hang, pitifully, on the coattails of the US and imagine we still count. And the ruling classes have managed to persuade enough of the rest of us to believe this.

Nothing can begin to improve our nation, it seems to me, until (1) we have a twenty-first century voting system rather than an eighteenth century one; (2) until we abolish the foolishness that is the house of lords, and replace it with a properly-elected second chamber; (3) until we abolish the aristocracy once and for all, as most other countries did ages ago; (4) until we abolish private education. Then, if we can understand that it’s in our best interests to work closely and effectively with our nearest neighbours, we may begin to build a better country, which serves the interests of all its inhabitants and has the welfare of all at the core of its values.

Still not reading books…

August 19, 2020

Despite all be best intentions and renewed efforts, I’m still not succeeding in reading very many books during the pandemic and all the extra time I have at home at my disposal, as this blog shows. I’ve accumulated a few new books with the best of intentions, but…

Recently I’ve been distracted by the way I use the internet. In a very old-fashioned way, I’m very fond of RSS feeds, which I discovered many years ago, but which now seem to be dying the death. Interesting websites allowed a feed to be set up, usually in an e-mail client (which was very convenient) so that one could be notified of new articles; these would remain in a list – just like emails – for me to look at whenever suited, but they contained links to the actual articles, so if the feed title looked interesting enough, I’d read the article, otherwise I’d just delete the header.

It’s only people like me that use desktop email clients; tablet and phone email apps don’t have built-in RSS aggregators, and purpose-made ones annoyingly insist on trying to ‘curate’ (god, I hate that word!) a list of articles they think I’ll be interested in, ie fill up with crap.

Anyway, I’d built up a stack of feeds over several years and only visited them desultorily, but over the last week or so I’ve been carefully making my way through everything I’d saved and reading everything that grabbed my attention: a lot of very interesting stuff, raging through a wide range of topics. The stuff I save is mainly literary, with some religion and politics thrown in. Arts & Letters Daily sends me three chosen links a day and rarely do I delete them all without reading one. Strong Language started up a couple of years ago and is a blog dedicated to swearing in all its forms and languages, and I find it fascinating. Then there’s Strange Maps, which, as the name suggests, offers all sorts of interesting cartographical perspectives on our world. And of course, Project Gutenberg is forever throwing new delights as ebooks into the public domain, and the marvellous volunteers at Librivox are regularly recording them for our delight.

Attempting to read the articles after some time has not been without its frustrations: some of them have just vanished, some of them are now behind paywalls, some of them dislike my adblockers, and I often have to clear the cookie cache in order to visit the same site more than a couple of times in a day. I’m still surprised that no-one seems to have found a way to make micropayments work for access to the occasional article on a site; I’m quite willing to pay a small sum for this.

I’m aware this has all been a displacement activity, but a very useful one in that it’s tidied up the laptop, the email, given me some more space back, and the few articles I may want to return to at some future date are saved as pdfs. I am planning to get my hands on some real, paper books in the near future…

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