Why and what next?

Let me nail my colours to the mast. On balance, I am in favour of remaining in the EU, and in the USA I’d have voted for Hillary Clinton. I can see some problems with each of these positions, but I can see many many more problems with the option that has actually been chosen. In each case my pros and cons list strongly favoured the progressive choice, because of the potential negative consequences of the other option. But I was in the minority in both cases, and so were half of the electorate (maybe more in the case of Clinton). So rather than just be fed up about that, I want to understand it.

When it comes to Brexit I think it is wrong for the UK to leave the EU for a number of reasons. The unity of many nations ensures that we all maintain basic human rights and the fair rule of law. It prevents the rise of extremists and reduces the risk of international conflict. It was a large single market, and am important strategic alliance. I believe that calling the referendum was a foolish whim from a complacent leader who was too cowardly to face the consequences of his actions. It was supported by xenophobic self-serving politicians and by far-too-influential media moguls with a right wing agenda. I think it has been divisive and stoked xenophobia, as well as causing enormous economic fallout. However, I’m not saying that the EU doesn’t have excessive bureaucracy, or that it hasn’t been excessively harsh on southern European nations like Greece, Portugal and Italy, or that it doesn’t enshrine market capitalism in doctrine.

Likewise I think Donald Trump is a repugnant man whose attitudes to women and minorities are repulsive. He is a sex pest and a tax avoider. His business practices are dishonest, he is a blatant liar and his much touted business acumen is such that he would be three times as rich if he’d just stuck his inheritance into index funds. I find his racist rhetoric abhorrent, and I think he will foster international conflict and unhealthy alliances. So I could never vote for him, and would have voted strategically to avoid him reaching power. However, in choosing Clinton as the lesser of two evils I’m not saying that she doesn’t have vested interests, didn’t support arms sales to the middle east, isn’t associated with numerous scandals or wasn’t stupid to use a private server for her email. In fact I think Obama was right to sum her up in 2008 as someone who would “say anything and change nothing”. If she was running against a more palatable candidate who genuinely supported progressive ideals, I’d be advocating against her. I’m just saying that the idea that Trump could be president was even worse.

In both cases, it was a two horse race, and although I didn’t love either option I felt that one was clearly preferable to the other. That says something about modern politics – that we are voting for the least terrible option, rather than in favour of something we truly believe in. And I want to think a little more about why this is the case. I also want to think a little bit more here about why the results in both these votes went against the polls and against the incumbent business-as-usual candidate, and why the results have been so divisive and triggered such hateful behaviour from segments of the population.

So why did people vote for Brexit and for Trump? It seems that a number of factors contributed. Firstly there were demographic factors – these regressive options particularly appealed to white men and their wives, in areas that have been hit by economic recession. They tapped into a sense that the world is changing and they are being left behind. There was also a real desire for change, not just more of the same select few in the top one percent making all the decisions. The less people feel they have to lose, the more they are willing to gamble that any form of change will be an improvement. Trump carefully marketed himself as an outsider and a voice for change, but that is a carefully designed misrepresentation. It is also contradictory to his simultaneous positioning of himself as a tax-evader and shrewd businessman who is successful and super rich. In reality his businesses face a constant stream of lawsuits for not honouring contracts or dealing with people fairly and it is clear he is out for nobody’s interests but his own. He also has vested interests and hidden agendas all over the place, but this is something we now take as a given for politicians. So how can he connect with the man on the street more than other politicians? The answer seems to be by bucking convention, appealing to the desire for change and speaking in much more simple terms, as well as appealing to fear and self-preservation (some of which sadly overlapped with racism, sexism and homophobia).

Being wealthy and embedded in the establishment is something that also describes the majority of British politicians. Nigel Farage, for example, similarly markets himself as an everyman who always has a pint in his hand, but in reality is a privately educated millionaire ex-banker who claims every EU allowance possible for himself and his German wife, who he employs as his secretary. Cameron led a cabinet of millionaires, and May is herself a millionaire with a network of wealthy donors and has placed even richer men like Philip Hammond and Boris Johnson into her cabinet whilst claiming she will build a fairer Britain that “works for everyone”. They have no idea about the experiences of people who survive on minimum wages or benefits, but they have learnt to talk as if they care, whilst their actions clearly indicate the opposite. And so we have reached a position that everyone in politics is saying much the same things, and nobody appears to be sincere.

One of the big issues of the reaction to the American presidential election result, and to Brexit, is in how we think of ourselves and our fellow voters. It is all too easy to make sweeping brushstrokes about ignorant, selfish, racists. But I’m not convinced that there is as much difference between us as these dichotomous choices imply. Whilst there are some vocal and visible extremists who identify as Brexiteers or Trump supporters, the message clearly resonated with a lot of people in the middle ground who don’t identify with the racist or sexist undertones, but also don’t identify with the current power structure. I suspect a lot of people are fed up with the status quo, and feeling disenfranchised by the current political system. And maybe that has motivated a lot of people to vote for candidates who seem to be anti-establishment, straight-talking and authentic. This Jonathan Pie sketch, which is full of swearing and therefore NSFW, is worth watching.

I can’t say that a desire for change and for authenticity over spin is a bad thing. In fact having sincere politicians who mean what they say and are not motivated by self-interest or masking their true agenda is something that has been sorely lacking in the political arena over the last decade. Likewise a willingness to explore more radical change is something that I would want myself and a lot of more progressive people would support. But in the absence of such messages from the left and centre of the political spectrum, it has instead been harnessed by questionable individuals and causes. And voters have been sufficiently enticed by this message that they have been willing to disregard all of the bile it comes packaged with, a task made easier because it is addressed to groups outside of the main voting demographic. In response the progressive candidate is left to defend these minorities, and ends up looking like they care little for the main group. The regressive candidates and policies make more headlines, perhaps because of bias in the media and lies that have not been sufficiently challenged. Other parties and messages appear reactive, and end up fuelling that discussion rather than presenting their own position.

The more progressive candidates and causes need to work out how to tap into that feeling of disconnection with the establishment and the increasing desire for radical change. If they can do so with policies that will genuinely benefit those who are being left behind in the current austerity politics then they can avert the swing to the right. That will take the right mixture of passion and authenticity, a willingness to be plain spoken about who is to blame for problems, and a push for greater accountability for political claims.

So where now? First, I think we need to learn from our mistakes and not be complacent that progressive politics are now the default position. We need a return to politicians that mean what they say, and speak with authenticity and passion. We need people who get fired up about the issues and speak from the heart, rather than with spin and polish that hide vested interests.

Second, we need to explain that the same few people have all the power and are increasingly gathering the wealth away from everyone else, and to show the economic value of being kind to the more vulnerable sectors of the population. We need to demonstrate that the threat comes from above (the rich and powerful people who control the media and the corporate and private interests that have powerful lobbies that manipulate our political system) not below (immigrants, benefit claimants, people in minority groups). We need to name the organisations and individuals who are spreading hate and cheating the man on the street by avoiding paying their fair share of tax, and turn the rhetoric of blame to more appropriate targets.

Third, we need to show that the system is rigged to support the establishment, and needs to be overhauled. That may mean setting fair boundaries and catchments to prevent gerrymandering, preventing conflicts of interest and restricting lobbying, looking at the terms and roles for nominated unelected officials (eg striking out members of the house of Lords that are not actively involved in political debate) and/or changing the first-past-the-post system.

Fourth, we must hold people and organisations to account for their lies and false claims. We must give consequences for propaganda, misinformation and promises that are not fulfilled. We need to hold politicians to account for the claims that they make, and ensure that they cannot benefit from lies and deception.

Fifth, we must do much more work to engage those who are feeling disenfranchised, rather than excluding them because they have turned their resentment to the wrong place and are being selfish/xenophobic etc. We need to explain the issues, using short clear soundbites rather than long intellectual explanations whenever possible, so that these can be accessible to a wide audience and shared over social media. We need to be down to earth and not make assumptions about underlying knowledge or values. We need to understand that many people are feeling excluded and shamed for not sharing progressive values, and reach out to them starting with empathy for their current situation, their hopes and fears.

But finally, and most importantly, we need to continue to educate our children to be better than the generations that came before them. We can teach kids to care about each other, the environment and social issues and to not discriminate by gender, race, sexuality etc. We need to help them to become critical thinkers who can evaluate what people say and don’t just accept a lie as the truth. Then over time, the population will change, and progress will continue beyond what seems possible in the present.

I can see that right now it seems overwhelmingly sad and frustrating and many people don’t know what to do with those feelings. This negative focus and tendency to turn towards anger and fear is not surprising. We are sensitive to threat, and fear impedes our ability to use empathy and rational analysis. Our brains are programmed to look at immediate risk and the local picture. We are sensitive to potential threats and we easily catastrophise and generate worst case scenarios. We find it hard to conceptualise the bigger picture as this involves timescales outside our own lifetimes, and populations we have never met and can hardly imagine. But my real hope is in the inexorable march towards progress that is happening over the last century around the world. So whilst we seem to have taken a depressing step backwards it is good to remember that progress is often two steps forward one step back.

There has always been a pattern of economic booms and busts, political cycles including changes that seem awful, and international conflicts that kill hundreds of thousands and displace millions. When we focus on these negatives, it feels pessimistic and makes us worry it is all downhill from here. Like a panic attack, we see worst case scenarios and look for escape, rather than realising we can work through it. But over human history we have rebounded from all of these things before, and the same problems have been around before only bigger. For all his hateful rhetoric, Trump isn’t Hitler. Although he is set to enact policies that are homophobic and xenophobic, he has already backed away from some of his more extreme claims, and even in a worst case scenario he won’t kill millions of people. And like with May as Prime Minister here, things will continue much like normal for most people. I’m not dismissing the horrible impact of the rise in prejudice against various minority groups, or the risk of repealing some rights, but in the bigger picture they are temporary and against the overall direction of travel.

When we look at the wider view, the future seems much more optimistic. Science continues to make new discoveries that enhance our health, reduce energy consumption, deal with environmental issues and better understand our place in the universe. Technology and access to information and media are allowing people all round the world to access information and different perspectives. Life expectancy has increased remarkably (even in the face of increasing obesity bringing a rise in diabetes and heart disease, and austerity politics increasing mental health problems and suicides). Smoking is declining. Cancer treatment is more effective. Deaths from road traffic accidents are steadily falling. Even HIV is now treatable and prophylactic medication is available. Despite the constant headlines that make us feel otherwise, deaths from homicides have fallen over time in Europe and wavered and then fallen in the USA. Deaths from wars have massively decreased over time, and even the horrible events in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq are of a smaller scale than previous international conflicts. More and more nations have democracy, women’s rights, gay rights, access to justice and protection of human rights. I believe that the future for humanity is one of steady progress with temporary set-backs. And we should never forget that from enough distance we are just a pale blue dot.

Not seeing the wood for the trees: A blog on progress and setbacks

After 3 days of feeling overwhelmed with depression about the referendum result and rise of racism, to the point of being immobilised and pessimistic about the future, I went out for a walk in the sunshine this afternoon.
I looked at the trees that have grown for much longer than I’ve been alive, and will still be growing long after I am gone. I noticed the way that rivers travel through the landscape making imperceptible changes that can cut through stone over time. And I thought about how evolution means that current species of plants, birds, animals and insects can make better use of their environment than their predecessors.
It made me think how much progress there has been in the last century in terms of human society across the world. We’ve made massive steps forward in science. We’ve cured diseases and developed more effective treatments and means of prevention. World poverty has reduced, infant mortality has fallen, and life expectancy has increased. We’ve seen the world from space, and started to map the universe and the genome. We’ve become a more secular society. War and violence are reducing enormously over time. Our tolerance of prejudice has reduced massively. Human rights have been championed in more and more countries. Gay marriage is now enshrined in law in most western democratic nations. We are more aware of finite energy resources and more mindful of the environment. Through increasing internet connectivity, many more people have access to information than ever before.
I realised that by the time our kids are adults the world will be very different to how it is now. They have grown up in a different age, with more awareness of the environment, greater opportunities for travel, and much wider access to information than any generation before them. They are world citizens, born into an age of technology and opportunity. I hope they will build a kinder and more tolerant society because of that.
It is easy to focus on the depressing headlines in the news, and the latest murders or racist incidents – but they make the news because they aren’t everyday events that we turn a blind eye to. We might have just taken a massive step backwards in the UK, but progress marches onwards, and despite all the skirmishes and set-backs, good triumphs in the end.
I believe the UK is mostly full of decent people who care about each other. Sure, much of the British media is full of poisonous propaganda, that blames the vulnerable rather than letting us look upwards at the wealthy and powerful who are siphoning off our rights and resources for their personal gain. And yes, the ideological choice of austerity has increased the wealth gap and made many people feel they had little to lose. And yes, a lot of people feel disenfranchised and were so used to being ignored that they voted for change without knowing what the change would mean. But I think the proportion of people who are genuinely racist and hateful is smaller than it appears. And the rest of us want to find a peaceful, progressive way forward.
So we need to stop being overwhelmed, stop the collective messages reinforcing our learned helplessness, and put our heads together and push for the most positive outcome possible. We need to all engage in the political process. Let us stop mourning the loss of the country we had and work together for a better one.

Terrorism revisited

I feel very very sad about the referendum results, but not entirely surprised given the previous election results.

I think the campaign has been fought on dishonest ground that didn’t represent what we were voting for, and the referendum and the Brexit campaign were the culmination of a particular message being pushed by vested interests in the media and politics for many years. It is part of a bigger problem of politics becoming ever more a game of the super-rich, corporate lobbying and propaganda, and less about representing what the majority of the electorate actually want. I think it is a sign of big trouble with the democratic process when two thirds of the cabinet are millionaires, and that demographic represents only 1% of the population, whilst they are supposed to speak for the breadth of the UK.

I’m not convinced that concerns about immigration are the unspoken elephant in the room, so much as one of a number of targets that keep on and on getting vilified and scapegoated for all of society’s ills. To paraphrase the metaphor: An immigrant, a voter and a millionaire politician are sitting at the table with 10 cookies. The politician takes 9 to give to his chums and then tells the voter “watch out, the immigrant is going to steal your cookie”.

What is unspoken is the responses we need to challenge these poisonous messages and to remind us that there but for fortune we could be in the shoes of an economic migrant, an asylum seeker, a single mother, a person with disabilities, a parent of a child with special needs, someone who loved that child that died because we didn’t have proper health and social care services, someone without legal representation, unemployed, the victim of racism/sexism/homophobia, the generation that live through war, etc. We should want to protect human rights and public services, legal aid, benefits and victims of crime, and to prevent war because we are them and they are us.

But somehow the talk was all focused on the money, and the immigrants, and the pointless bureaucracy of the EU. Maybe I am naive or cynical, but I think that a group of people have been actively driving that narrative for a long time, I don’t believe it is an organic grass-roots concern that has spontaneously bubbled up. I think there are vested interests pushing us towards greater income disparity, blaming of the vulnerable, and encouraging prejudice, selfishness and nihilism. I don’t think people are stupid, I think people have been drip fed right-wing propaganda for many many years, that blames all ills on “immigrants” and “benefits scroungers” so that we don’t look too hard at austerity politics and see all the vested interests. If there was a credible alternative, they’d as easily target that rage against the bankers, the corporations dodging tax and using zero hours contracts, and those using tax havens to hide their cash – all of which I consider to be much more legitimate targets.

As this article in the BMJ eloquently explained, the less people feel they have to lose, the more willing they are to take a gamble on a potentially risky outcome. And the results of austerity politics mean that large swathes of people are suffering financially, and feel powerless, hopeless, disenfranchised and exploited. At the same time as the referendum we have seen an even more tragic set of events unfolding that I think have the same underlying cause.

With the Miami mass shooting and the murder of Jo Cox (and longer ago, the shootings in Paris), I think that we have seen the ugly underbelly of what happens when people feel desperate and voiceless, and are radicalised by hearing poisonous messages blaming particular people for their unhappiness or lack of success in life. Both were horrendous acts, targeting people who had done absolutely nothing wrong in order to convey some kind of political message. Both were incredibly distressing to hear about, let alone for those who were personally involved.

Jo Cox was my age to within a fortnight and had a similar family configuration, so it has really hit home that her husband and kids will never see her again, just because she spoke out for compassion and inclusiveness. She is someone I had never heard of before she was attacked, but the more I read about her the more I like and admire her. She was taking action for the good of others, and she was a great example of our democracy. I have donated to the fund in her memory, and the fact it topped a million pounds in just a few days, suggests that I am not alone in wanting to take some kind of positive action in the face of such awful news.

And with that in mind, and the clear indications that this was politically motivated terrorism with a far-right agenda, I wanted to say something about all the references to mental illness. Being mentally ill doesn’t mean you kill people and killing people doesn’t mean you’re mentally ill. Doing something awful that we can’t understand is not the same as being mentally ill. One in four people has a mental illness, a characteristic as widespread as blond hair. The vast majority of them will never hurt anyone, and are at no greater risk of doing something awful than anyone else (although they are disproportionately the victims of violence). It is abhorrent to stigmatise all those people because of the actions of one person, even if he may have had mental health issues. He didn’t kill Jo Cox because he had mental health problems. He killed her because he wanted to promote his repugnant fascist beliefs.

I posted on Facebook about the causes of terrorism earlier in the week when the discussion was about the Miami mass murder, and this is exactly the same. This was what I wrote:

Just a reminder, but mental illness is not a cause of terrorism. There is pretty good research that has disproved this popular myth. People do awful things. We can’t understand that and we want to feel like they are different from us, so we assume their mind is broken. In fact the research says that it is a combination of a strong need to belong, coupled with a sense of marginalisation and injustice, dehumanisation of enemies, group processes where beliefs get hyped up into extreme actions and strong religious beliefs. Intelligent men who underachieve are particularly at risk for this radicalisation. That is, ordinary people with no genetic or mental abnormalities get pulled down a particular path by their experiences and social networks.

From a paper by Silke after 9/11:

“It is very rare to find a terrorist who suffers from a clinically defined ‘personality disorder’ or who could in any other way be regarded as mentally ill or psychologically deviant (Silke, 1998). Ultimately, the overwhelming majority of terrorists (and this significantly even includes suicide bombers) are average, normal individuals who in other circumstances would be quite unremarkable. Their involvement in terrorism is not the result of psychoses, inner traits or aberrant personalities. Rather, in most cases it is an understandable response to a series of life events.

The causes of terrorism need to be focused on – not just the actors. Once you are forced to throw away the ‘terrorists are different’ model, then attention must be given to other areas. An important realisation here is that becoming involved in terrorism is a process. Nobody is born a terrorist. Neither does anyone wake up one morning and decide abruptly that on that day they are going to start planting bombs in public streets. Becoming a terrorist is in the first instance an issue of socialisation. Any given society will possess some minorities or disaffected groups who rightly or wrongly perceive that the world is treating them harshly. In some cases there are genuine and very substantial causes for grievance. Individuals who belong to or identify with such disaffected groups share in a sense of injustice and persecution. It is from such pools that individual terrorists emerge”.

Western politicians will easily condemn muslim extremists, but in America in particular they find it much harder to look at terrorism fueled by prejudice, in this case racism (but previously by homophobia and religion) – because, like the gun lobby, it has so much popular support. I don’t have any solutions for that, but we do need to name the problem, and the problem is the rise of right wing regressive ideas, fueled by prejudice and religion, blaming every vulnerable minority whilst turning a blind eye to the rich and powerful exploiting the rest of us.

I want my country back from all this hatred and fear-mongering. We need to stop blaming the vulnerable, and start looking at the political system that has created an increasingly divisive and selfish society.