Memeing of Life

Distraction

With all the politics we’re now constantly bombarded with, a week is “a long time” for all of us. Even my diary, after Monday and Tuesday, says W T F!

You’ll be pleased to know that no funny bones were broken in the making of that joke.

Also, whilst coming up with it, I learned twelve things that go well with nachos, watched Remain campaigner Femi Oluwole castigate Crowbar and Swineson for not working together to defeat Boorish, and laughed at two hilarious cats trying to fight with a mirror, all on a scroll through my “socials”. I also flicked through my very own Book of Sand, my infinitely updating To-Do list; determining to do everything on it immediately after writing this.

Which, of course, I won’t.

At this rate, writing this article will take many hours, whilst reading it should take you (hang on let me look up what average reading speed is – Wikipedia says 200 to 250 words per minute. Oh, but apparently college students read at 300 wpm – I wonder how many readers are college students? Maybe I should look up the demographics for this newspaper? But, hang on, no one under the age of 30 reads newspapers so waste of time. I really don’t want to waste time, wasting time is wasting life, I wonder who said that? I could look that up – No. Focus. That’s 1000 words divided by 200wpm) about five minutes.

Which, of course, it won’t.

They’re calling to you right now!

Because, after the first minute – coming up soon – your phone / computer / TV / wandering thoughts, will start to call to you. An urge for something different, an impulse for novelty, will demand attention.  An uneasy FOMO will gnaw at you. So even if a notification hasn’t dinged on your phone, you will find that an urge to look over to it – or elsewhere or check the time – is starting to build. Your eyes may keep scanning left to right but these ink marks will begin to unshackle themselves from their meaning as thoughts about other things steal in… OMG look at that kitten!

This isn’t a moan about those favourite targets for the aging Opinionist: our ever-shortening attention spans or the addictive vacuousness of social media and digital content. It’s about the 9th deadly sin (the 8th being the flippant use of Deadly Sins to lend gravitas to innocuous foibles) which is so insidious it even poleaxed their author, Evagrius Ponticus, persuading him to look the other way when he was making his list (three minutes Googling “Seven Deadly Sins” then five trying to work out if I could claim any of the seven holy virtues). It’s probably the most widespread vice of the 21st century, the roadblock in our neurological freeway, the problem Mindfulness desperately tries to answer, what was I talking about again? Oh yes: Distraction.

Hungry Tamagotchi

Distraction isn’t just the product of our phones outsmarting us and, like ersatz Tamagotchis, crying for attention, constantly needing to be fed at the nipples of our charging cables. Distraction is everywhere from the snacks we choose to our water cooler colleagues from the Amazon delivery bell to the box-set cliff hangers.

Modern life has inadvertently reawakened a prehistoric instinct: the constant alert. When sabre-toothed tigers roamed, at the dawn of Homo-sapien, we were as much prey as hunters, we needed our wits about us, something could happen at any moment. They were, no doubt, stressful times. But as we evolved, took more control of our environment, the stress of continual vigilance abated.

Now though, the sheer plethora of ways we can distract ourselves has reignited our prey mind. “What don’t I know?” we ask at every dead moment. “What could I be finding out, or experiencing?” Five minutes to wait at the school gates? What’s trending on Twitter? Nine minutes on the tube between Earls Court and Green Park? Catch up on Game of Thrones. Walking the dog? Listen to a podcast. But then they’re habit forming. Got a tax form to fill in? Who liked my Insta? Bit of crucial work to finish? What’s for dinner? The siren call of distraction doesn’t subside when we’re on a mission. We may feel we control the information coming to us, but its unremitting availability raises our vulnerability to distraction; and commensurate levels of stress.

The greatest stimulus of stress is the illusion of choice. Believing we have choices means we have to make decisions, and if we choose one thing we will necessarily miss out on another. And what if we get the decision wrong? No wonder so many of us are finding the choice of apparently infinite distractions, along with the everyday ones we still have to face, simply overwhelming; and so many succumb to aimlessly flicking between distractions and losing purpose altogether.

A few years before Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution, a friend who was a member of an anti-Soviet agitation group in Prague described a dissident she helped escape to the UK. “We went to a supermarket to get her the basics,” she told me, “and, when she saw the rows of different toothpaste, she just started crying.” At the time I took it at face value; as the relief of finally having freedom of choice. But now I’m beginning to suspect that the stress of having to choose everything, even the paste to clean your teeth, may have been what actually triggered the outpouring.

According to The Oresteia, the mortal Tantalos, as punishment for shockingly bad table manners when he was invite to dine with the gods, was sent to the same part of Hades as Sisyphus. His sentence was to eternally stand in cool water under the boughs of a juicy fruit tree. Perpetually hungry, whenever he reached for a fruit, the boughs would move just out of reach and whenever he bowed to drink, the water around him would recede and he was doomed to never be satisfied. Tantalos gave us the word ‘tantalise’ and his predicament defines our distractions. They are there to tempt us but they would undermine their purpose if they actually satiated us. A true distraction is like a Chinese take-away, it feels like it’s filling us up but there’s something ultimately empty about it. It’s just one more level of Candy-Crush. When we choose a distraction above a purpose we’re reaching out to the ephemeral to briefly let us escape the crushing tedium, procedures, labours, industry and struggle, of real life; longing for the promise of immediate fulfilment, even while we know it can never be reached.

The superpower of the 21st century then, the essential term on our employment references, the must-have call out on our CVs, will not be ‘grit’ or ‘determination’ or ‘passion’ but one core characteristic: ‘indistractable’. The fault line of success will not be between the networked and the proletariat, or the intellectuals and the masses, but the focussed and the distractible. The ones who finish what they start, the ones who make promises and fulfil them, the ones who get through drudgery without their minds wandering will be kings. The rest of us will just flick between the cool content they create and wonder when we’ll actually start our own lives.

‘Memeing of Life’ article. Tick.

What’s next on my To-Do list? OMG those kittens are adorable!

Masslighting

“The world’s gone mad,” is an all too familiar cry, and meme, from social media to the 49 Clapham Borisbus. The divisiveness of our politics and public rhetoric and the fact we can never be sure what’s happening with Brexit, our Government, or even the weather, makes everything seem bonkers. But if the rest of the world seems mad, and you’re remotely cognisant, you have ask the question: Is it them? Or is it me? Because any definition of madness must compare with what’s considered “normal”. And if normal society is constantly outraged and at war with itself, it’s the calm and conciliatory who are the fruitcakes.

Harriet Jordan, Bedlam patient with ‘acute mania’.

Madness is a slippery word in an age that recognises that we’re all on a mental health spectrum but last month in the BMJ Case Reports, a patient was described experiencing acute psychosis triggered by the “UK’s 2016 European Union referendum.” And though the right-wing press immediately branded him a pathetic snowflake, he is far from alone. The New Scientist reported, “The case is an extreme example, but there are signs of the wider mental health impact of the referendum result. Nearly two-thirds of people in the UK think anxiety over Brexit is bad for people’s health, polling has found. One study last year found that, after the referendum, self-reported wellbeing of a sample of people in the UK was lower than in samples from other countries.”

The future for everybody in the country has never felt less sure. We’re less able to rely on pragmatism winning through, than at any time since the war. It’s like we’re all collectively holding our breath and it’s got to that point when we feel our heads might explode.

Is it something in the water? Mob psychosis? Or could it be a mass delusion like the 17th century Dutch tulip mania; when people got so caught up in speculating on the value of tulips, way beyond logic, they crashed their entire economy? In 2015 few of us cared one way or the other about EU sovereignty or the customs union. Within three years it has become a hill many of us seem willing to die on.

If you want to know where this is coming from consider the word: “Disruption.”

Vlad to see you: Vladislav Surkov & Vladimir Putin

It’s a revolutionary technique which first proved itself in television. In the 90s, a slew of low cost “reality” programmes, disrupted the orthodoxy of classical studio shows. The real lives of the sad, mediocre and untalented were absolute ratings magnets. Unscripted uncertainty about what real people might do next kept audiences glued and changed TV completely. This uncertainty disruption was adapted into politics by Putin’s closest advisor Vladislav Surkov as described by Peter Pomerantsev in the London Review of Books. “In contemporary Russia … the stage is constantly changing: the country is a dictatorship in the morning, a democracy at lunch, an oligarchy by suppertime, while, backstage, oil companies are expropriated, journalists killed, billions siphoned away. Surkov is at the centre of the show, sponsoring nationalist skinheads one moment, backing human rights groups the next. It’s a strategy of power based on keeping any opposition there may be constantly confused, a ceaseless shape-shifting that is unstoppable because it’s indefinable.”

Dominic Cummings

Whether Surkov also explicitly backed Trump and Brexit we may never know but the word “Disrupt” is tattooed on the heart of Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s closest advisor. We’re all glued to his show now. There was no real need to prorogue Parliament, except to rack up uncertainty. And it’s incredible how many got caught up in this 21st century doubletalk newspeak. To defend democracy we must strip it away. The representatives of the people are the enemies of the people. To fight for Parliamentary Sovereignty you must curtail Parliamentary Sovereignty. This is deliciously disruptive, pure Orwellian theatre. It’s mad. Or maybe we’re all mad. Or… what if we’re just being driven to think we are?

“Gaslighting” has had a resurgence of meaning, a term now used for domestic abuse which is psychological rather than physical. It derives from Gaslight a 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton, and the 1944 film of the same name. Ingrid Bergman plays a young woman who, with her new husband, moves back into the house where her aunt was murdered. However, he has secrets to protect and begins to play tricks on her to convince her she is going mad. Moving things around the house, claiming that she is taking them without knowing it. Or turning the gas-lighting down and saying she is imagining things.

Their servants gossip. “What’s the matter with the mistress, she don’t look ill to me. Is she?” asks the maid. “I don’t know,” says the cook. “Not as I can see. But the master keeps telling her she is.”

“I’m frightened of the house,” Bergman cries to her husband. “I hear noises and footsteps. I imagine things, that there are people over the house. I’m frightened of myself too.”

Believing the world is crazy is pretty stressful but imagining it’s you who is going mad is terrifying. Trying to hold on to sanity whilst believing someone is actually trying to drive you crazy is next level nuttiness. So this may sound top notch insanity but what if we are all being convinced we’re crazy. What if we’re being masslit?

Even if all Cummings is doing is sitting in an attic in Downing Street playing Minecraft, the idea of the Master of Disruption’s presence is enough to make all our parliamentarians suspicious. Everybody wonders if each move Johnson makes is part of a master plan and question whether their response is “playing into his hands.” The idea is probably more disturbing than the truth but then, as Woody Allen said, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.”

The cabinet, Parliament, we lumpen proletariat, we are all being masslit. And the extent of our craziness is that we’re half aware of this happening, that we’re being played, and we see shadows and we’re frightened.

As the victims of masslighting we struggle to know what is true and what we imagine.

Think about the theory that Johnson is negating bad news coverage by seeding Google search results using similar phrases and key terms. So when he described himself as a “model of restraint”, after the accusations of his funnelling public funds to a former model called Jennifer Arcuri, he was making negative search results for “Boris Johnson model” drop down the Google hit list.

“His speech in front of the police was meant to distract from reports that the police were called to the flat he shared with girlfriend Carrie Symonds following an alleged domestic dispute,” says Wired, “while the kipper incident was meant to downplay connections with UKIP (whose supporters are called kippers). The claim about painting buses, finally, was supposedly intended to reframe search results about the contentious claim that the UK sends £350 million to Europe branded on the side of the Brexit campaign bus.”

Is it true? Are we paranoid? Are billionaires really shorting the pound? In an age of mass information and fake news our filters are woefully inadequate. They have created circuses for us to gawp at and as long as we have to keep guessing, distracted, confused, our leaders and their machines will stay in power. Or am I just mad?

Cash from Chaos

Psst. Wanna make some money? Sweet dough? Moolah? Now’s the time. Don’t tell no one else, yer know, keep it on the downlow ‘cos this is just for us, the elite like. I’ll give yer the name of a horse that’s guaranteed to lose. Bet against her and you’ll make a fortune. She can barely pound the track anymore and she falls more often than a Boing 737. Her name’s Sterling and she’s running, if yer can call it that, in the 11 o’clock Brexit Sweepstakes 31st October. She’s guaranteed to dive like Gareth Bale.

Don’t like betting? Wanna invest? Yer’ve probably missed the boat, or let’s call it the Cross Channel Ferry, to buy them Euros because they’re bloomin’ expensive now but I can hit yer up with some drug suppliers, legit British medical ones, they’re a hot investment right now. Wait until the sick and dying are whining for their meds after the No-Deal Event Horizon, squeeze them, they’re in pain anyway, then when a few have croaked, sell yer stock. Easy money.

And mate, when yer’ve made your dosh, when you’re living it large, you wanna pay tax on it? Nah, course yer don’t. Tax is for losers; yer money literally given to life’s losers. Yer lolly needs to go on holiday if you know what I mean. I got all the offshore accounts you could need. Those johnnies over the channel can launch their “Anti-Tax Avoidance Directive” next year but we’ll be well aaht by then, no regulations, no one knowing where yer money’s going, no questions asked. We’re not gonna be the next Singapore chum, we’re gonna be the next SingaRICH!

When Leave politicians talk about Brexit Opportunities they’re not wrong. As long as you’ve got capital, which most of us don’t, and the empathy of a psychopath, ditto, you, and your opportunities are golden.

It may sound a bit conspiracy nutty to link the chaos in British Politics to elite wealth creation but it is, increasingly, the only way to make sense of the bonkers situation we’re now in. Yes, “first-past the post” democracy is eminently exploitable by autocrats and wannabe demagogues. An unwritten constitution relies on shared beliefs and when they erode we can no longer rely on it to protect us. Party systems set up to elect leaders that our representative MPs have little confidence in is another recipe for disaster along with unchecked media xenophobia. It all adds up. Possibly, it is just the perfect storm that our creaking 17th Century system in a 21st Century mass communication globalised world, was always headed for. But, as Deep Throat told Bernstein and Woodward, “Follow the money.”

In a stable, liberal, “End of History” economy, it’s only the billionaires who get to consistently drip feed their fortunes. Profits on shorting currencies or buying or selling stocks are measured in hundredths of a penny as prices rise and fall in microscopic differentials. So you need many many pennies to make any appreciable difference. Profit is slow. For crotch scratching, testosterone pumped, city dealer types, these tiny advantages were so frustrating, Spread Betting surged in the 2000s. This wasn’t buying or selling actual stocks but betting on those tiny changes in direction that stocks may take. Opportunities for major profits and huge risks were thin on the ground before the 2008 crash and even thinner after that as regulations threatened the financial services. They needed a saviour and in 2016 it came.

Nathan Rothschild

Social media has dubbed it ‘disaster capitalism’. Creating chaos in order to profit on market reactions to it. The more divisive a political climate the more profit there is to make. The disaster capitalism industry has form. War profiteering has a long and undistinguished history. The shield makers of the Trojan wars didn’t go hungry. Famously Nathan Rothschild got early news of Wellington’s victory at Waterloo. He immediately sold his British stocks triggering the market to follow suit as all other traders believed he must have inside knowledge of the result and the French must have won. It drove the prices of the entire market down, and just hours before news of the victory came through, Rothschild bought the depressed stock which soared with the news making him a million pounds which, in 1815, was quite the haul, and just as surely drove Antisemitism up a notch or two. “The time to buy,” he apparently said, “is when blood is running in the streets.”

Lenin believed that it was only in conditions of catastrophic upheaval that humanity progresses fastest. Which is not so different from free-market disaster capitalists who seem to believe that economic advances are best won through the destruction of societies.

In Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, she argues that the societal collapses that have accompanied so many free-market economic policies aren’t the result of stupidity or mismanagement but are integral to the “free-market project”, which needs disasters and chaos to advance. Although Klein hints that these disasters may be manufactured by corporations using shady influence in government, she also concedes that “disaster” may just be part of the normal functioning of capitalism. “An economic system that requires constant growth,” she writes, “while bucking almost all serious attempts at environmental regulation, generates a steady stream of disasters all on its own, whether military, ecological or financial. The appetite for easy, short-term profits offered by purely speculative investment has turned the stock, currency and real estate markets into crisis-creation machines, as the Asian financial crisis, the Mexican peso crisis and the dotcom collapse all demonstrate.”

So is Brexit just a messy accident that has been in the offing for some time or a cynical ploy to enrich the ballsy British risk takers and re-invigorate the market?

The Observer journalist Carole Cadwalladr, currently being sued by Brexit backing investor Aaron Banks over claims that he had a “covert relationship” with and had been offered money by the Russian Government, has followed the money. She has, time and again, exposed the links between the Leave Campaign’s (and Trump’s) investment in Cambridge Analytica, dodgy data gathering and targeted social media ad campaigns. “Fake News” cry Leave supporters. We have our own minds, ads don’t make a difference. If that were true you’d think the advertising industry would be worth something less than the $1.2 trillion it is today.

Directly addressing “the Gods of Silicon Valley: Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, Larry Page, Sergey Brin and Jack Dorsey” in a TED Talk they sponsored, Cadwalladr berated them for enabling this chaos. “I didn’t think it was possible to have free and fair elections ever again,” she wrote. “That liberal democracy was broken. And they had broken it.”

If you still think that our political chaos is just an accidental opportunity it is worth having a look at the play book on disaster capitalism written in 1987. Blood in the Streets, Investment Profits in a World gone Mad delineated how to invest as the world descends into division and violence. “A roadmap to understanding the relationships between politics, the mechanics of markets, and the way people respond to crisis.”

“The coming years will be a bad time to be ill advised,” warned the writers presciently, “A time fraught with snares for anyone who is unprepared. We could be on the verge of financial upheaval when blood will, indeed, ‘run in the streets.’ Many people will suffer staggering losses. Others, who take the right investment steps, at the right time, will earn handsome profits.”

Though they argued that knowledge of political machinations and opportunism was the way to profit on misery, they didn’t go as far as suggesting influencing policy to start the “blood” running. What makes one pause to think though is that Blood On The Streets was co-written by one William Rees-Mogg.

Before going into Government, his son Jacob started the investment firm Somerset Capital Management. According to the Daily Mirror, their “publicly-available accounts show its operating profit rose from £14.7m in the year to March 2015, to £18.3m in 2016, £27.8m in 2017 and £34.1m in 2018.”

Now yer can draw your own conclusions chum but the boy’s doing well. Chip off the old block yer might say. And yer got opportunities coming my old matey. Now’s the time to get your dosh out and splash the cash. Take a punt. The stakes were never higher and the old nag’s gonna fall before the final furlong. Get in there.

Virtue Signalling

In my twenties I lived on a boat. For 18 hours a day it floated on the river at Hammersmith, a stone’s throw from the bridge. The rest of the time, when the tide was out, it rested on the shore, on mud and some old car tyres I’d drilled holes into and sunk beneath; so the boat remained level when beached.

Rutland at Night

On summer evenings, with the other flotsam from the moorings, we would gather at The Rutland pub to drink flat beer, enjoy the night air and slap midges. It was just after last orders when I noticed a small shadow silently drop from the bridge into the black water. Had I been looking a fraction in any other direction I would have missed it and that evening would have passed in the same way they always did. It was too far to hear a splash, but a few seconds later a dark mass surfaced; just an absence where the light coruscated across the waves.

The tide was near the turn; still coming in but slowing before heading back out to sea again. As the river sweeps around the bend the currents radiate, driving detritus towards the Hammersmith side and our moorings. In a few minutes, the shape would be near our boats.

Hammersmith Dusk

Three of us sprinted down to the jetty but the form was too far out. Soon it would pass and be gone. But now we could see it more clearly. A body, floating face down. Without thinking I dropped my trousers and lowered myself into the ink-cold river.

At times, even that far up, the river’s currents can be deadly. Maybe in the back of my mind I’d clocked that, as long as high tide hadn’t actually hit, chances of an undertow were slim. But if I did, it was unconscious. As it was I would only have a few seconds before we would both be swept on, carried back out midstream and up to Chiswick Eyot. It was ten strokes at the most before I could grab his shirt in my fist. I was fairly sure he was dead. I didn’t try to flip him over, just dragged him back to the pier and, together, we managed to haul his sodden dead weight up on the jetty.

We heaved him on to his side and whacked his back a few times. He spewed out a torrent of water which ran through the wooden slats to rejoin the river. He started breathing, shallow alcoholic puffs. Unconscious but definitely alive. We draped a blanket and someone rang for an ambulance. Twenty minutes after being pulled from the river, I was sitting next to him like he was my catch of the day. He opened his eyes and a fist lashed out at me catching me solidly in the arm. “Bastard,” he spat. “I want to be dead.” And he wailed.

There’s gratitude! So I rolled him off the pier and watched him sink. No. Just kidding. By the time the ambulance arrived he was in full rant and they had to sedate and restrain him on his stretcher before trying to navigate him up the jetty.

I suppose I was hoping to feel good but I felt wretched. An impulsive act was just a thoughtless one. Not only had I failed to consider my own safety before launching into the river and had probably contracted Weil’s disease (I didn’t), but I also failed to appreciate how virtually impossible it is to fall off a bridge by accident. I was lead to the water but nothing made me think. What sort of terrible point did this man get to in his life to climb over a handrail and cast himself into oblivion? He could have spent weeks building up the courage to end his life and, when he pushed himself off, he committed himself to something so terrifying it is almost impossible to imagine. And there was me, without a thought in the world, buggering it all up.

Sometimes I comfort myself thinking, if he had really wanted to kill himself, why pick a spot on a warm night near an area full of people enjoying the riverside? Might there not have been some forlorn hope for this outcome?

But how did my simple attempt to do something virtuous end up so complicated? Could it be that my unconscious desire to show off, and demonstrate how good I was, overrode any consideration for my drowning man? Was I, in fact, just “virtue signalling”?

Postergirl for the Virtue Signalling accusers

The phrase has become a go-to mantra for right leaning commentators to deflate actions associated with liberal and left wing ideologies. It’s used copiously on social media to say that, far from being virtuous, veganism, feminism, anti-racism, and any number of socially responsible creeds, are just empty gestures only made to demonstrate how moral the individual vegan, feminist or anti-racist would like other people to believe they are. Virtue signallers are not virtuous but self-serving, glory hungry, hypocrites. The trouble is, for the phrase to mean anything, it also suggests that actually eating less meat, supporting equal rights or stopping discrimination is indeed virtuous.

Which then begs the question, if they know these acts are virtuous why aren’t these critics trying to do them too? I suspect that this goes back to the “altruism dilemma” a game which, with a certain amount of dope, keeps any number of student parties going in to the small hours. Player One asks “Is there such a thing as a completely selfless act?” Player Two suggests something nice. Player One then explains why it’s actually self-serving. Player two tries something else, and so on, until Player Two becomes totally disillusioned.

Good deeds have the kick back of making you feel good. Help an old chap across the road and you’re seeking the appreciation, the moral reward and perhaps even paying forward in to a world that you desire when you are old and infirm. Etc. Because self-interest can be argued for every act, some – and they tend to be right leaning – maintain that man is necessarily self-serving and, as soon as we realise this, we can stop farting around trying to be kind and get on with our real mission in life, getting rich enjoying ourselves and not giving a monkey’s fart about anybody else. Man is born of original sin… get over it.

Crushed idealist?

“Virtue signalling” says so much more about the phrase’s user than its target. It signals a crushed idealist, someone defeated in their attempts to be virtuous and so trying to recover dignity by pointing out its impossibility and criticising others for “pretending” to try. It signals someone bitterly woke enough to understand that man is alone in life, and will live and die feeling dirty. 

The Romans had 24 major virtues including Comitas – “humour”, Virtus – “manliness” and even Laetitia – “Joy, Gladness.” Christians quickly whittled that down to seven pious counterpoints to the deadly sins: chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness and humility. By the time the Oxford English Dictionary defined Virtue its impossibility was inherent: “Behaviour showing high moral standards.” (my italics).

Cardinal Virtues

If virtue is just about “showing” rather than being, if it’s impossible, are we idiots to keep trying? Look at it this way. Evolution is a species’ genetic struggle to constantly improve. But our genes would be redundant if we reached the goal of ideal creature. Like working in the British car industry the evolve towards redundancy. Impossible goals define a direction not a destination. As Browning put it in Andrea del Sarto, “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, / Or what’s a heaven for?” If Virtue is an unachievable target, do you just give up trying to hit it? Do you just criticise anybody still naïve enough to keep trying? Does that compensate for your own sense of failure? Lasting happiness is equally fanciful but no one seems to argue against trying to go for it.

So. Did I only jump into the water because I wanted to show off? Sucker people into believing I was virtuous? Some impossible higher moral being? Am I still signalling right now with this story? Maybe. I only know that at the time I reacted thoughtlessly, an impulse, an instinct. Perhaps it was the result of parents, school, books and films conditioning what is morally correct. Perhaps it was an injection of adrenaline kicking in my fight or flight impulse.

As it turned out, in life, opportunities to signal an aspiration to be virtuous, a belief in altruism, don’t come along that often. When they do. Jump in.

Work – and why you have to hate it.

Capitalism isn’t working…

… it’s getting other people to do it for you.

As global economic inequality grows, there’s a feeling Capitalism is facing an end of days. But what might replace it is less a battle of ideas than a desert of anxiety. Viable alternatives are thinner on the ground than the supermodels tent at Glastonbury.

The 18th Century “Socialism” solution has not had a great run and, you’ve got to wonder whether post-Capitalism is even possible? Could Capitalism be organic? Is it inevitable for any species that develops language and is intent on conserving energy?

Imagine you’re early man, you shake a tree and an apple falls. But shaking trees takes energy and soon becomes tedious. However, if you just guard your tree instead, you can allow others to access the tree – to shake it for you – if they agree to share the bounty. But then, guarding the tree can also be tedious and dangerous so why not get more fellow hominidae to guard the tree for you and also share in the fallout? All you’ve done is tell a story of ownership and now you’re gorging on apple pie whilst everyone else is doing all the guarding and shaking; your superior apple-rich genetic Capitalist legacy is set.

In a classic economic model, Capitalism relies on balancing a seesaw. On one side is labour: work, the value awarded to time and effort. On the other side is the “means of production”: property, materials, capital, cash, money, moolah, the way to acquire life’s essentials and eventually a naval fluff hoover. If the value of work goes up, capital depletes, if the value of work becomes less, profits rise.

The idea is that, through life, you try to tiptoe across the seesaw. As you acquire capital, through work, you do less work to acquire capital. Capitalist success, therefore, is measured by profit or, just how far you can get from ever having to do a day’s work.

Auschwitz

It’s a paradox of the human condition: man works in order to afford not to work. Just as, in the sickest place to impart irony, it was wrought in iron on the gates of Nazi concentration camps: “Arbeit Macht Frei.” Work will set you free.

It’s a lie we still tell ourselves. The odds of getting across the seesaw are not much better than the lottery but the opportunity to do so underlines the western “American dream”. The truth is closer to Merle Travis’s swing classic Sixteen Tons.

Some people say a man is made out of mud.

A poor man’s made outta muscle and blood;

Muscle and blood and skin and bones,

A mind that’s a-weak and a back that’s strong.

You load sixteen tons, what do you get?

Another day older and deeper in debt.

Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go,

I owe my soul to the company store.

Briefly, in the 1990’s, Tony Blair’s New Labour believed there could be a third way to approach work and promoted the ideas of a psychologist whose very name is hard work, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He thought all we had to do was find work so absorbing we’d enter a “flow state”, aka being “in the zone”; that feeling when you’re so absorbed in a process you don’t notice how much time has passed. Finally work could be happiness. Unfortunately, it turns out that slaughtering cattle, working in retail, wiping incontinent patients, indeed the vast majority of jobs actually require mental presence.

Wafting body odour

In reality, for Capitalism to thrive work needs to be miserable. We must hate work enough to do enough of it in order to stop having to work so hard. If you’re enjoying your work then you’re doing Capitalism wrong. Work necessarily needs to be hateful, tedious, stressful and generally soul destroying. It’s almost as if people with BO have been purposefully dispatched to make your tube commute awful, your manager is trained to be an odious twat and people above you are hired especially for being idiots. If not to escape it, how else might you be inspired to graft?

But what if we just earned sufficiently to eat, feed, house and school our families adequately, do the things we enjoy doing and live lives in which we deplete the planet as little as possible before we leave it?  This an anathema to the Capitalist goal where profit is success and profit beyond any possible need is holy. Achieving a Life/Work balance limits productivity and production is the measure of all things.

Western economies measure success in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) which has almost nothing to do with how much fun it is to live there. Brexiters cannot believe the EU will not do a better deal with “the world’s 5th largest economy”, but maybe there are more important things they’re trying to protect.

UK – 5th largest economy… but what the Brexiters don’t say is we’re quite a way behind Germany and only just bigger than France.

Last month Britain’s furthest ex-colony made a bold bid for post-Capitalism. With their latest budget New Zealand decided to stop looking to GDP as their progress indicator, but “well-being” instead. They prioritised mental health provision and other markers of population happiness.

Google office

It’s like New Zealand is trying a national Google, “workers’ fun first”, approach. Meanwhile Google itself is taking a different approach to bring on post-Capitalism: mass unemployment. When they’re not sliding between floors and catching naps in sleep pods or playing office pool, the hipster G-males (G-men make up almost 70% of Google’s staff) are coding the Artificial Intelligence Revolution (AIR). If Capitalists profit more by driving the cost of production down, like the Industrial Revolution before it, AIR aims to tip the labour/capital seesaw irretrievably towards the capital owners: replacing skilled manual and white-collar decision-making work. At some point the only work for humans will be, like the Amazon warehouse runners, obeying and servicing the machines.

But because, for centuries, Capitalist work has been necessarily awful, AI Revolutionaries believe they’re on the side of the angels; ridding the world of boring and repetitive work whilst driving down the cost of production which, in a fairer world, would make products and the cost of life cheaper.

They dream of a post-Capitalist world in which both work and the cost of life is minimal whilst leisure, and the opportunities it affords, are maximised.

The dream isn’t new. In The Soul of a Man Under Socialism, (1891) Oscar Wilde reflected on the radical new ideas being put forward by Marx, Engels and Kropotkin. In an ideal Post-Capitalist world, “With the abolition of private property,” he wrote, “then, we shall have true, beautiful, healthy Individualism. Nobody will waste his life in accumulating things, and the symbols of things. One will live. To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.”

Wilde radical

Wilde saw we are trapped by our stuff and the shedding of it was prophetic. In our growing digital world, ownership is becoming virtual. The GDP shopping basket can no longer rely solely on physical things being produced. The apps we buy, the games we play, the boxless box-sets we watch, the music we listen to, the maps we explore, the photos we take, the spreadsheets we fill, the e-books we read, even the money we exchange are all ethereal electronic signals. Experience tells us that, if you drive the means of production into fewer and fewer hands, they’re rarely willing to share the wealth without a fight. Wilde knew the answer, channelling his inner Milton and justifying it as only he could. “Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue.  It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.”

Shpilkes

You know you’re in a real Jewish restaurant when the waiter comes to the table and asks, “Is anything alright?”

The tendency to kvetch (complain) about everything is a standard character flaw for Jewish jokes to riff on. But, what exactly is a “Jewish joke”?

For me, there’s at least three very different kinds: the jokes Jews tell each other, the jokes Jews tell non-Jews in an effort to be disarming, and jokes non-Jews tell to gauge if a listener shares their prejudices. The victims of all the gags are Jewish stereotypes so they’re often difficult to tell apart and yet there’s a world of difference.

There’s a joke Woody Allen tells in Stand Up Comic: 1964–1968, “I’m very proud of my gold pocket watch. My grandfather, on his deathbed, sold me this watch.”

But try telling that same joke in the third person and it takes on an ominous antisemitic tone. The image of the money-pinching Jew, who can’t take it with him and yet can’t stop his avarice, plays right into antisemitic notions. So just being able to tell certain jokes inoffensively becomes a badge of brotherhood.

Even if, as Freud pointed out, “sometimes a cigar is just a penis,” a Jewish joke is almost never, just a joke.

There’s an old one about a couple of Hassidim walking down a dark alley when they see two thugs coming the other way. One whispers to the other, “Quick run. There’s two of them and we’re all alone.”

Cultural self-deprecation is used as a sort of charm to ward off hatred. Disarming bullies by victimizing yourself before they do is an age-old survival tactic and infuses much Jewish humour. It’s like trying to reduce the level of threat you represent so the hatred might pass you by. Punching yourself in the face before anyone else does.

The minefield of subtleties and cultural anxiety that gets lost in the catch-all term “Jewish Joke” applies equally well to the term “Jewish”.

Jews as puppet masters

If “Jewish” just meant a set of beliefs, a joke about a Jew would be no more racist than a joke about the Pope. But the trouble is the term also signifies a race, an ethnicity and, for some, a conspiracy of wealth and power, or a political ideology about Palestine, or even drinkers of the blood of Christian babies.

The Labour party, a movement that prides itself on its inclusivity, has seen member after member being called out for antisemitism and is still struggling to understand why. How could an anti-racist party keep on being accused of racism? The Right, a more traditional home for antisemitism, is having a field day as left-leaning England’s lazy confounding of Israeli-Palestine atrocities and an entire race conspiring to back it, bubbles out with humiliating regularity. Corbyn himself tries to differentiate between “Jewish people” (presumably the nice guys in funny hats) and “Zionists” (Palestinian murdering scum) but then doesn’t understand why nobody is fooled. He doesn’t seem to understand how transparent his Semitic semantics are.

He seems unable to comprehend how acutely attuned Jews are at listening for the slightest whiff of antisemitism. It stems from a collective anxiety that informs so many things from the jokes told to the neighbourhoods picked to the side of the street walked.

Why? Because that’s how it starts; the Jew as other, as different, as non-white, it’s that first subtle step towards open hostilities. Allow that to go unchecked and the next steps seem inevitable. Few Jews live totally free of the fear that it could all kick off again at any moment.

Gringotts Bank. Courtesy of Warner Brothers

 

1930s Museum of Horrors

“Is this picture offensive?” asked the Jewish Chronicle featuring a publicity shot for the new Gringotts attraction at Warner Studios’ The Making Of Harry Potter experience.

It “positively shrieked with antisemitic tropes; the long-nosed goblin, his natty suit, clawed fingers caressing a pile of gold coins. When I positioned a Gringotts shot alongside a series of cartoons from Nazi Germany’s Der Stürmer, it did not seem out of place.” wrote Marianne Levy.

She’s right. The picture is also somewhat reminiscent of the mural Freedom for Humanity in the East End which Corbyn couldn’t understand the need to remove. It depicted hook-nosed fat Jewish bankers playing monopoly on the backs of starving black people. Sitting beneath an illuminati eyed pyramid the symbol of global economic conspiracy.

Freedom for Humanity – not obvious to Jeremy Corbyn who, in mitigation said: “I sincerely regret that I did not look more closely at the image I was commenting on, the contents of which are deeply disturbing and anti-Semitic.”

Is this just being touchy? Is it being oversensitive?

Personally I was relieved to see someone else had noticed. I gave up reading Harry Potter to my kids after the first book because: Roald Dahl had done the grotesque Dursleys so much better in Augustus Gloop or James’s (Giant Peach) aunts Spiker and Sponge; Jill Murphy had been more original in her Worst Witch boarding school of witchcraft; and at least Enid Blyton, when she adopted the traditional fairy-tale ersatz Jews, the goblins, as the hook-nosed money chasers of Noddy’s Toy Town, was writing in an era that was so awash with racist stereotypes she can’t be entirely blamed for her lack of “wokeness”.

Before

 

After

 

Gobbo

Even so it surprised me that 21st century reboots of Noddy excised Golly from his garage as if he was bringing the Toy Town house values down, but were happy to keep perpetuating the criminal antics of Gobbo and Sly. I tell myself that it was Rowling’s derivative storytelling, lazy stereotypes and humour bypass that made me put her book aside but part of me knows that it was her short, sinister, big nosed, money hoarding Griphook the goblin that was just too much for me.

Is Rowling an antisemite? Is Corbyn? Probably not, almost certainly not consciously. And yet by repeating the tropes and letting them slip through, they are just feeding the long established unconscious biases rather than challenge them.

Sensitivity to antisemitism is a life-skill nurtured from birth so it will probably never be something that non-Jewish politicians can truly empathise with. Even the most assimilated of Jews get their moments of paranoia, that history could repeat itself. You don’t, I guess, go through a couple of millennia of wandering and persecution without evolving a sixth sense for trouble. The Yiddish word for it is shpilkes (needles), “a state of impatience, agitation, anxiety, or any combination thereof.” The character of the neurotic, paranoid, Jew is well-trodden in comedy, and so is the feeling that as long as there are Jews there will always be antisemitism… like the old joke:

Moishe and Solly are passing a Catholic church and see a sign that reads “Convert to Catholicism, £50 Cash.” Moishe turns to his friend Solly and says, “Hey, I’m going to try it.” He enters the church and returns a few minutes later.

“So, did you convert? What was it like?” Solly asks.

“It was nothing,” says Moishe. “I walked in, a priest sprinkled holy water on me, and said ‘you’re a Catholic.’”

“Wow,” says Solly, “and did you get the £50?”

Moishe looks at Solly, “is that all you people think about?”

 

 

Past Imperfect, Future Tense

“I’ve got to do it.”

“Okay. But you hate the outdoors, your sense of balance could be sponsored by Special Brew, you think the people who do do it are tossers and you’re petrified of water.” I said, encouragingly.

“I know, but I’ve got to take a punt…,” Tom said, “out… just once.”

Cushy Punt

Even though just thinking about it was making him palpitate, and was inducing a sweaty fit of heavy breathing, Tom (name changed to protect the libellous) insisted, on pushing the boat out… with a long pole. We were at uni, it was the summer term of our last year, and the river was filled with a bunch of Pimms fuelled punts (partial homophone intended).

It would be unfair to call Tom bookish; there was no “ish” about his total bookness. In fact he’d been locked in the library several times because he was so engrossed at closing time, and so much a part of the place, the staff missed him. And Tom feared water in the same way a collection of paper and cardboard might.

So what would drive a man, who took a cagoule and rape alarm with him to pop to the shop for milk, to take his life in his hands propelling a flat-bottomed boat?

I’ll tell you what. Metameleiaphobia. The fear of regret. Or, as Tom explained it, “I don’t want to look back at my days here and regret not having had the full experience.” Even if that experience induced unforgettable terror.

Metameleiaphobia. It’s amazing that that word doesn’t already exist because it’s definitely a thing, and a life meme. It doesn’t just drive the mid-life crisis, it misinforms some really appalling decision making people seek pointless other opinions purely so they won’t have to shoulder all the blame should things go wrong. Looking forward to looking back.

It’s not FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), even if that might embrace it, because it’s explicitly fearing a future in which you will look back and admonish yourself.

It’s totally irrational and an intrinsic component of aging. Marianne Faithfull invoked it perfectly in her cautionary Ballad of Lucy Jordan: “At the age of thirty-seven she realised she’d never ride through Paris in a sports car with the warm wind in her hair.” Watch out, she sang, or you’ll end up like Lucy; who climbs up on her roof and, depending on how you read it, either is carted off to an insane asylum or is led to the after-life where she finally gets to smell le croissant in her Alfa Spider before it’s over-turned and burned by the gilet-jaune.

We will all experience moments in our lives where we have to make life-changing decisions. But for many of us, somewhere in the mental pros and cons, there will be a picture of our own, older, brooding selves, unsatisfied and unable to change the past because of the decision we’re making now.

It’s oddly powerful. In a WWI recruitment poster a child sits on her father’s knee and, basically, tells him he’s a sissy. “Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?” The father gulps. At first this seems rather niche; appealing to that group of young men who have such an impressive imagination they fear a possibly embarrassing question coming up sometime in the future in a family they may or may not help produce. But it worked. It is a defining image of persuasive advertising and sent thousands of men to face death and shellshock rather than an imaginary red-faced, somewhat insensitive, kid who may never exist, demanding answers to an awkward question.

As a rhetorical conceit it seems bizarre: a call for action not based on the here and now but by how you may feel about it, at some time in the future.

There’s a current twitter meme that exploits the same technique from the other side.

It’s pretty clever. It, at once, draws parallels of historical significance to today’s events, makes it personal, and flatters those who stood/stand up to the establishment even if it meant/means great personal risk.

Just a few weeks ago, Michael Heseltine invoked metameleiaphobia to reassure the million Remainers who marched to oppose Brexit. “We are on the right side of history,” he intoned. “Walk tall. Keep the faith. Go back to your villages, your towns and your cities. Tell them you were here… Fighting for our tomorrow.” Considering history is mostly the deeds of the dead, is being on its “right side” somewhere actually good to be?

Still, going down in history is clearly the impulse for many of our Brexit agitators. In 1992 Francis Fukuyama wrote The End of History arguing that, following the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, humanity was reaching “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”. This was seized by the burgeoning “New Labour” as a prophetic confirmation of their political ambitions.

Oh how we can laugh now, that things were so settled that someone could even suggest it. It’s almost as if a generation of legacy hungry politicians took it as a challenge to jump start history and all the ideological conflicts that take us right back to square one. The future wasn’t quite what anybody expected. It never is.

“We plan, God laughs,” says the Yiddish proverb. Any imagined future is a chimera. The anxiety of imagining yourself in a future looking back and regretting the now is a fallacy because, if nothing else, you will be unimaginably different; a being that your present self cannot even fathom. Your brain will only become more decayed, a million experiences will drown out the moments you may regret and maybe your future self will just learn to trust and put up with the instincts of your past.

Tom did go to the boathouse in a blazer and straw hat, he brought a girl he fancied, a hamper and a few bottles of ready mixed Pimms. He rented the punt and got within two feet of the water before bottling it, resorting to a boozy picnic in a meadow that ended with a snog and some grassy entanglement. And now? Does he regret not having had that full experience? “You know what,” he tells me, “if I had done it, I think I’d just be looking back now and wondering: why the hell did I put myself through that? I hated every minute.”

A version of this article first appeared in print in

Can’t you take a joke? Jeez.

Cool

When I was still young enough to be unable to tell the difference between pretension and cool, Tom Stoppard came to give a talk at my university. His slightly RP/Czech fusion drawl made me think of his comparative linguistic knowledge so in the Q&A, my hand went up. Eventually he pointed at me. “Is there anything you think the English language lacks?” I asked. The baggy eyes gave me a once over. “A typeface for the ironic,” he answered.

“Cool,” I thought.

Of course this was the early 90s, the internet still sounded like a dolphin clearing its throat and social media was a bunch of Bulletin Board System nerds leaving earnest messages about packet protocols and chess moves. The idea that, through this system, speech would be superseded by instant text as the dominant form of communication in the developed world was unthinkable. And although Stoppard was, no doubt, using “ironic” as a polite way of saying “sarcastic”, lacking a typeface for sarcasm seemed a minor problem, writing was always in a long enough form for context to suggest intent.

Indeed, one of the strengths of spoken English is that any statement can be made to mean exactly the opposite through intonation and facial cues. We also have traditional sarc-signals like any sentence that begins with “Nothing would please me more than to…”

The potential ambiguity of sarcasm is also a classic facesaver. When you’ve just said something stupid, cover it with, “it was just a joke… Of course I don’t want a threesome with your sister.” Or better still make it all their fault: “Can’t you take a joke? Jeez.”

C19th Facepalm Emoji (Rodin)

But, the faceless, incessant, short form of social media has meant we’ve had to find new ways of communicating all the things we used to do with body language. The emoji was born to cover a multitude of these but we still have nothing to denote sarcasm. Following a piece of sarcasm with a facepalm or winky emoji is as tone-deaf as air quotation marks with your fingers to indicate you’re saying the opposite of what you mean; all subtlety is lost.

Possibly the sarcasm emoji hasn’t emerged yet because neither in East Asia nor America, the origins of most emojis, is it a particularly popular or understood form of wit. “Sarcasm”, from the Greek σαρκάζειν (sarkázein) “to tear flesh, bite the lip in rage, sneer,” is a particularly vicious and decadent form of irony, less suited to those more optimistic cultures. Indeed, for a while, Americans would employ the word “Not” after a sarcastic comment just to make sure it was understood.

The long running sitcom Frasier made hay with American sarcasm naivety for years with almost every episode featuring a Crane brother saying something sarcastic, another character saying something like “Really?” and the comeback being a frustrated, angry or prim, “of course not.” But as Twitter is mostly a call and response platform: statement leads to troll, troll, troll etc. And even if, as Oscar Wilde said, “Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit” – it’s the highest form of trolling.

Take this brilliant troll of an anti-vaccination crusader from Twitter user ‘Brandon’:

In social media where brevity, banter and wit is point scoring, sarcasm is the lifeblood. For every popular disseminator of wisdom there is a mock account parodying them. But, with no “typeface for the ironic” so many people fail to tell the difference between the sarcasm and the original that there will almost always be a response somewhere in any thread where someone helpfully points out “parody account”. The only exception to this is @realDonaldTrump whose tweets are so consistently nonsense, several accounts like @niceDonaIdTrump simply tweet what a proper responsible diplomatic President should tweet – and it’s very funny.

The dictionary has a strangely unsatisfying definition of irony: “the expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect.” Much more clearly to my mind is: irony is a truth found in the least expected place.

So some jokes work ironically: “Apparently 50% of marriages end in divorce. But, the other 50% end in death – so you might get lucky.” Whilst others: “A male blue whale produces 40 tonnes of sperm but only 10% makes it into the female. And you were wondering why the sea tastes salty.” They’re just jokes. Can’t you take a joke?!

The truth coming out unexpectedly was never more spectacularly evident than when, in the face of anti-Semitism accusations, Jeremy Corbyn was shown kindly offering to teach English Jews, or “Zionists” as he called them, the use of English irony. They “clearly have two problems,” he said. “One is they don’t want to study history, and secondly, having lived in this country for a very long time, probably all their lives, they don’t understand English irony either … So I think they needed two lessons, which we can perhaps help them with.”

Which in itself was a masterclass in unintentional ironies. The most obvious is that irony is probably one of the most well known aspects of Jewish humour; the mocking of whatever has just been said by repeating it as a question. “And I need lessons?” Secondly, the idea that someone famous for having never knowingly cracked a joke could teach irony, even if it were teachable, has both verbal and poetic irony. And lastly, Corbyn’s vision of English Jews as being somehow still foreign, showed a truth about the way he thinks in a place he least expected it to and, for all that, was completely ironically appropriate.

Luciana Berger MP

The launch of The Independent Group, (named in honour of the newspaper that has done the most to support them?) with antisemitism target Luciana Berger leaving Corbyn’s labour to be its helmswoman, was clearly just a matter of time.

So do we need a typeface for the ironic? I think the signalling of “incoming” sarcasm or irony would somehow defeat the “unexpected” aspect of it. We can’t have a typeface for the ironic because where would be the pleasure of having to stop and think for a moment? Wait. What? Did he just really say that? The little disconnect, the meta-moment before we realise the truth is being amplified by the implied joke of it all.

For years I thought Stoppard was right. But then I thought he was cool too.

 

 

 

A version of this article first appeared in print in

This is Me(me)

No one wants to look like their passport photo. The tube-station photobooth is actually designed to make you look as terrible as possible so you’ll waste your money at least three or four times before you realise that every photo is going to be heinous; there’s never going to be a shot that wouldn’t be improved by the use of a bullet. The document that represents you clearly demands a photo that displays your inner psychopath.

Of course your documents aren’t your actual identity, but as we head into our Brexit “Freedom Of Removement” you and I will need to be producing them far more often. As we set to isolate and differentiate ourselves from the continent and those who would immigrate here, identifying ourselves will become more integral to our lives. Never having to show “your papers” was once a proof of the superiority of British society. Now it’ll be: “You say you’re British… prove it!” As if the bad teeth, sallow skin, beer belly, aggressive demeanour and die-hard stubbornness to never admit a mistake wasn’t proof enough anymore.

Unaccustomed to having to identify myself, like many I’m struggling to work out who, or even what, I am. It’s no wonder that Britain’s favourite Christmas present this year was a DNA testing kit from the likes of Ancestry.com. We’ve seen the way the world is going and we’ve got questions: Where are we from? Where can we call home? Who are OUR people? Who’s that nutter in my passport photo?

So called “Identity Politics” and the populist backlash that is taking the West by storm, is forcing us all to take sides, imposing a collectivism we would never have imagined even five years ago. In the back of my mind I was always a European, despite being born in the UK, but now I have to stand up and fight for it as fiercely as any Leaver believes they’re standing up for being “British” or “English” or “A Kentish Man” or “Man of Kent” or some poor sod with a semi in Gillingham. I’ve had to nail my colours to a mast I never wanted to, I’ve had to climb into bed with people that no one would do so willingly – Tony Blair, George Osborne, Peter Mandelson and the plumber with the bog-brush hairdo Charlie Mullins – in order to lie back and think of Europe.

Bedfellow?

And however dirty I feel, spare a thought for the poor Leavers. Not just because of how hideous their bedfellows are, but for all the contortions that they must now go through to justify the fallacies of their leaders’ retrospective groupthink. They’re forced to rewrite their past and say that they knew we were being lied to; they knew that there was never going to be £350 million for the NHS; they knew that there would be job losses; they knew that the car industry, the vacuum manufacturers, the banks and the other economic backbones would actually relocate. They knew all that and voted for it anyway because, as Nigel Farage, when faced with the facts of a tanking economy said, that is the “price for freedom”; as if it is better to starve as a sovereign Brit than break croissants with the Europeans. You may go hungry but it will be a democratic, free, British hunger. By far the best sort of hunger there is.

Our sense of identity is one of the world’s most powerful memes. In ancient times a rich mythology grew around the idea that simply telling someone your name meant giving them power over you. Unbaptised children were at risk of fairy kidnap leaving changelings in their place; Rumpelstiltskin was disempowered by his name being discovered; in Jewish tradition, after a series of infant deaths the next born is unnamed, believing that the Angel of Death cannot call a child who has no name; in Puccini’s opera, Princess Turandot must learn the name of her unwanted suitor to execute him, if she doesn’t, she must marry him; even Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit, speaks in riddles to Smaug, the dragon, to keep him from learning his name. Now we give our name away at Starbucks for the privilege of buying overpriced coffee and sell it to Google for the price of a Kardashian butt shot.

Your name please?

Odysseus kept his name secret from Polyphemus in order to survive, only when the giant learnt it could he call on his father, the sea god Poseidon, to wreak vengeance upon him. In this age of internet giants, like Odysseus, we try to keep our identities secret, making fake spam-magnet email addresses or sock puppets, but the gods of Google, Amazon and YouTube, they know who we really are, what we really want, and they’ve got the cookies to prove it.

The history of Western civilisation has been a constant cycle between individualism and collectivism. In the Renaissance the individual was celebrated, artists, pioneers, adventurers, explorers. But then the Enlightenment’s discovery of scientific principles looked at unifying ideas, categorisation, one scientist’s results recreated exactly by another; to science humans, like animals, are all alike. This is the time the French and American Revolutions were fought as groups collected, identifying with their causes. Romanticism, a reaction to the Enlightenment, promoted the individual again. The artist and poet’s unique experience was elevated as a foil to the reach of science. As the Industrial Revolution spawned factories and mills, people proved more useful as groups. Organising principles like socialism and capitalism were born. By WWII fascism loomed as the ultimate subordination of individual free will to the faceless collective represented by one individual dictator. Wars are fought as collectives, and the mentality of “a ministry for everything” lasted until the 1960s when the hippy revolution started prioritising individual experience again. The Vietnam War failed to inspire an entire generation to fight together. By the 1970s individualism reached a zenith in punk when any conformity was social death. But now, with the internet, the things that we thought made us individual have allowed us to collect as groups again. So if you are an opinionated middle aged, middle class, white bloke with an interest in sleight of hand, good mystery fiction and liberal politics? There’s a Reddit group just for us stretching round the globe. The cycle of individualism is falling away again and we are being subsumed into collectives once more.

My 80s teenhood was devoted to trying to start my own unique style trends fusing charity shop tat, but now I watch my own children happily conforming to brands, following an urge to meld in with everyone else on SnapChat, Instagram and Twitter. The collective is coming but we must beware. It is in the collectivist periods of history when all the world’s bloodiest conflicts are fought and, as Bertrand Russell said, “War does not determine who is right – only who is left.”

 

 

 

A version of this article first appeared in print in

Post Truth

“I can handle big news and little news. And if there’s no news, I’ll go out and bite a dog.” This is how Charles Tatum, played by Kirk Douglas in Billy Wilder’s noir classic Ace In The Hole (1951), pitched for a job at the Albuquerque Sun.

Manufacturing the news has always been a part of the job. Newspapers were founded, like the stock market, in the coffee houses of 17th Century London where false news stories were often published to shift the value of stocks. Pamphleteers, like Daniel Defoe, were adept at blurring fact with fiction. The exploits of Robinson Crusoe were, for years, passed off as true. Fake news pays. In ancient Greece, corn merchants spread rumours of disastrous storms and shipwrecks to raise the price of grain. False rumours were considered so powerful that, in Athens in 413BC, a barber was tortured for spreading unrest after repeating news he had heard from an escaped soldier of a disastrous military defeat in Sicily. Even though the story was true they gave him, as Roger McGough called it, “a short back and insides.”

It wasn’t until 1914 that a journalists’ creed appeared which included “clear thinking and clear statement, accuracy and fairness are fundamental to good journalism.”

Even so, when I started work as a journalist in the 1980s, one of our standard playbook persuasive tactics to get people to talk was: “if you don’t, I’ll just have to make it up.” The line was credible because journalists weren’t and the threat was so effective I never did.

That’s not to say, on slow news days, small stories weren’t ‘embellished’. With their policy of never confirming or denying stories, the royals were always a good target for a little fiction; which is probably why the Daily Mail is currently baiting the Duchess of Sussex to see how far they can go in painting her a bossy Hollywood diva from hell… before she bites. On a slow day at one national newspaper, I once wrote about a football match between two youth clubs in Hyde Park which Prince Charles had passed by. By the time the story got to the copy desk, the Prince of Wales had stopped, shown off some fearsome keepy-uppy and even scored a goal. The Palace said nothing and as Tatum puts it, “It’s a good story today. Tomorrow, they’ll wrap a fish in it.” … but then you’re going to have to start all over again and find something else to “report on.

The temptation to disregard facts is driven by the media’s endless demand for content; a relentless pressure that used to be reserved for journalists. Now, with the monetizing of click-bait, a vast number of vloggers, bloggers and twitter-feed cloggers, experience that same pressure.

Just look at the volume of news in comparison to “comment” in any modern newspaper, (including this one), or news-site or news programme like Radio 4’s Today, and it’s clear that fact, accuracy, and empirical evidence consistently loses out to outrage, opinion, belief, fluff or uninformed celebrity views. And this decline has been going on for decades; while the armchair rage rousing internet content providers are only accelerating it.

Facts, reality and truth have become dangerously plastic. Brexiteers and Trump not only dismiss expert opinion but facts too. When challenged with telling an outright lie, White House spokesperson Kelly Anne Conway coined the phrase “Alternative Facts.” Breitbart News editor Joel Pollak argued this was a harmless and accurate term in a legal setting, “where each side of a dispute will lay out its own version of the facts for the court to decide.” Justifying one “Alternative Fact” with another.

But Pollak unwittingly pointed to an age old fundamental problem in the Anglo-American pathway to truth… our systems are adversarial. Instead of facts or the balance of probability we allow the concept of multiple truths until we decide which is the most compelling. Which means that in most Court disputes one side has to lie. And if that’s true, why aren’t the majority of court verdicts accompanied by perjury charges? Could our tolerance of multiple truths, be leading us to lose our grip on reality?

For centuries, we have believed that we are the children of the Enlightenment and that we use empirical truth as the basis of our values. Capitalism is built on the agreement of value. But the great Capitalist manifestos were all written when money was still commodity backed (like the gold standard). Money represented something unwaveringly material. With the loss of Empire after WWI, Britain could no longer claim new gold reserves ripped from its colonies, and for a small island with finite precious resources, money had to become notional, virtual, a matter of conviction. Today money in exchange for goods or labour, is just an idea, an agreement, numbers in computers, a belief, and so it’s vulnerable to intangibles, human frailties, opinions and feelings such as hope, despair, confidence, and trust.

Value is an act of faith. It is as real, rational, or empirically substantial as gods, demons, fairy tales, vampires and the origin of a denied fart. It is a mass delusion based on the stories we tell. Banksy adds an impossible story about a shredder on standby for a decade in the frame of a work of art and doubles its value. I trust my expensive Duchy organic milk is really produced by cows listening to Mozart and not weeping from their udders because their calves have been placed in the next pen so they can hear and smell them but will never be allowed to feed them. In every shape and form, stories and provenance create value, and fiction is an integral part of stories.

What is so amazing is that it is so hard for us to see that. Non-western cultures have watched in awe at the grandstanding of our culture backed by a fiction as ridiculous, unprovable and unsubstantial as any faith.

In Homo Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari argues that our willingness to believe in fictions has been the secret of success for our species. “We are the only mammals that can cooperate with numerous strangers because only we can invent fictional stories, spread them around, and convince millions of others to believe in them.”

Good stories have grains of truth but the balance of truth and fiction in our stories has passed the tipping point. In 2008, when the subprime mortgage story – that overpriced housing can be supported by selling poor people into continuous debt – was exposed as pure fiction, the banking world collapsed. The consequences of that lapse in confidence has sent us spinning ever since. Distrust of “The Man” has informed the Brexit and Trump “base”. “Truth be buggered”, they say, “nothing was ever true.”

Democracy, the cornerstone of enlightened politics, is proving unfit for a culture willing to believe stories while no longer needing to trust the source. The democracy that May is currently defending from a second referendum is as much a sham as a Russian voting booth or “fun size” Mars bars.

In HyperNormalisation (available on iPlayer), filmmaker Adam Curtis argues that Russia has for years, purposefully created entertaining chaos to keep its populace thrilled and scared and confused and at odds with each other: and so unable to work together in a democratic way as consensus is always frustrated. Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s chief political technologist, calls it non-linear warfare. He would finance different extremist factions, even anti-Putin groups, and then reveal that he had backed them. Nobody knew what was real or not. In a broken post-perestroika Russia there was only one thing you could be absolutely sure of, Vladimir Putin.

Surkov harnessed the anxiety of falling down the rabbit hole to keep Putin in power for years. Through the internet this policy of undermining reality has been leaking into the West; most obviously with Trump and Brexit, both now provably supported by Russian disinformation tactics.

If the first casualty of war is the truth, we have to realise we’ve been in a non-linear war now for some time. And even if there are no bombs dropping, and even though we cannot be sure who our enemies are or what is really happening, with the Brexit implosion it seems harder and harder to deny we are at war, that we’re losing, and that’s the truth.

 

 

 

A version of this article first appeared in