Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Citizen of the World

When I was at school, I had a conversation with a schoolmate about passports. Out of nowhere, I said that I wouldn’t like to have one. My schoolmate looked at me in puzzlement, and commented that if I didn’t have a passport, I would belong nowhere. I replied that I’d rather be a citizen of the world.

Unknowingly, I’d hit on an ancient idea. It was the ancient Greeks who originated the idea of kosmopolites, that all of us are in some way citizens of a single, global community. This suggests that our duty of care should extend to every inhabitant of the world.

Recently this has come under sustained attack. Teresa May commented at the Tory party conference that if “you believe that you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.”  Her message was that that your circle of care should be limited to within national borders.

But this makes little sense. A national border is an arbitrary line, drawn for reasons of historical and territorial contingency. There seems to me no good reason to think that our duty of care ends there. There seem, on the other hand, plenty of good reasons to think that our own, personal welfare depends to a large extent upon the state of the world, and other people within it. Charles Darwin put it this way:

“As [humans] advance in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that [they] ought to extend [their] social instincts and sympathies to all members of the same nation, though personally unknown to [them]. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent [their] sympathies extending to [people] of all nations and races.”

And an artificial barrier is what May, Trump, Farage and all the rest seek to erect. But it is a flimsy one.

One of the best reasons to suppose flimsiness is interconnectedness. The fact that every event in the world is deeply affected by every other event means that the reverberations of crises and disasters are often felt far beyond their origin point. Interconnectedness also means that pulling up the drawbridge, and withdrawing into individual, fortress like nation-states is futile.

This can be seen in the case of the global financial crisis of 2008, where the selfishness and greed of a small number of people adversely affected the lives of millions.  It can also be seen in environmental crises, where the pollution of one nation affects the entire globe, because we all breathe the same air.

This is why the Dalai Lama has highlighted the importance of global ethics:

“In this age of globalization, the time has come for us to acknowledge that our lives are deeply interconnected and to recognize that our behaviour has a global dimension. When we do so, we will see that our own interests are best served by what is in the best interests of the wider human community.” (Beyond Religion, p. 85).

This means that some form of cosmopolitan thinking is inescapable.

There are several of reasons why a global ethic is resisted.  I think that some dislike the idea of global responsibility because they think it means that they will stop caring about the place where they are born.

This fear, while understandable, seems unfounded. Each of us is inevitably the product of a particular family, located in a specific cultural, social and historical context, and we will naturally have kinship with our own communities. This does not, as Darwin observed, contradict the idea of more global duties.

People also resist the idea of a global ethic because of the belief that there’s not enough to go around. This creates a sort of bunker mentality where individuals, families and nations fight each other, to the death if necessary, over dwindling resources. This was first rationalized by Thomas Malthus, who observed that population growth was bound to outstrip increases in food supplies.

This fear remains a major fuel for aggressive right wing populism. In a way, such populism is that fear in concrete form. There is no strong future vision, here, just an aggressive, territorial, survival-driven lashing out.

To an extent, this is understandable. If your life is poverty-stricken, lonely and there seems no way out, it's very easy to cast around for scapegoats, and to want to protect your own against outsiders.

But even in poverty it's possible to make moral choices. That is a central point of John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, where poor families, sick of the cruelties of the depression, and the uncaring rich, exhibit huge generosity:

"Yeah, but them folks can't bury him. Got to go to the county stone orchard.

Well, hell.

And hands went into pockets and little coins came out. In front of the tent a little heap of silver grew. And the family found it there.

Our people are good people; our people are kind people."

I would like to suggest that our own personal values often become self-fulfilling prophecies. If you believe in the dog eat dog story, then your life and politics will likely reflect this.

If, on the other hand, even in the face of material, economic and other challenges, enough of us decide to reject a selfish, parochial point of view and embrace a form of global ethics, then this may well result in a gradual transformation of the world.  It’s surely worth a try.

IMAGE: NASA.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Opposing Fascism

In the New Statesman this week, Yanis Varoufakis compared the President elect of the United States to the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. Others in the same magazine disagreed.

This mirrored several recent debates about whether the populist, far right movements sweeping the western world can be called fascist. Some say yes, others, like Paul Mason, say no.

Whatever the truth, it seems to me that understanding the fascist movements of the past can help us better understand current political developments.

The forces that gave us Brexit and Trump represent mass movements, and mass movements seek a transformation of the world. In The True Believer, Eric Hoffer pointed out that such movements share a number of characteristics that give them a family likeness. They are driven by the ‘frustrated’ or ‘disaffected.’ Whilst superficially democratic, mass movements tend to be populated by those who are intolerant of dissenters, eager to subsume their individuality into the mass, and willing to sacrifice the present, and sometimes their family and friends, for the promise of a better tomorrow.

Fascism represents a particularly unpleasant kind of mass movement, and has a number of characteristic features. In Introducing Fascism, Hood and Jancz note fourteen:

1. A political philosophy that is a mix of mysticism or the occult, radical ideas and conservative politics.
2. A strong state with a powerful executive.
3. A hatred of communism and socalism.
4. A mass party that is formed on paramilitary lines.
5. A love of (masculine) power and a cult of violence.
6. Highly authoritarian, with submission, conformity and discipline emphasised.
7. Fundamentally irrational, promoting emotional impulse over logical thought.
8. Nostalgia for a lost or legendary past.
9. Hatred of intellectuals (although this does not preclude support by some intellectuals).
10. Idealises the dignity of labour.
11. Love of masculinity, women in a subordinate role.
12. Subsidised by industrialists and landowners.
13. Mostly supported by middle class, especially the lower middle class.
14. Need for scapegoat enemies or ‘Others.’

It is not necessary for a movement to have every single one of these features to qualify as fascist. What matters is the general pattern of features.

Although the current movements of the authoritarian right lack the organizational structure and paramilitary aspects of fascism, it seems to me that they share enough ideological affinities for us to be worried.

That these sort of features cluster is not surprising. They possibly result from the ‘strict father’ model that George Lakoff has suggested forms the basis of (ultra) conservative politics.

Hood & Jansz also outline a number of persistent conditions that allow fascism to flourish, that seem very relevant to our current situation.

These include industrially advanced economies hit by a recessionary slump, a discredited left, dissatisfaction with an inefficient or corrupt legislature, the end of consensus politics, racism provoked by ‘job stealing’ immigrants or other scapegoats, a respectable right and nostalgia for a strong state.

It seems to me that every single one of these conditions exists today in the US, the UK and continental Europe. The financial crisis of 2008, and a series of catastrophic failures of governance, have left us vulnerable to far-right populism that at the very least constellates broadly with fascism.

There are some who seem to think that one might use fascist ideas in a reasonably benign way, and avoid the less pleasant features. But this sort of ‘fascism lite’ is unworkable and dangerous. I think that you probably cannot have a strong, authoritarian, hierarchical power-worshipping political regime that doesn't subjugate women, despise weakness and attempt to violently destroy its opposition.

The spokesperson for the Leader of the Front Nationale in France, responding to Trump’s victory, said recently that ‘[the liberal] world is collapsing. Ours is being built’ (New Statesman, 18—24th November, 2016, p. 3)

This may well be so. But a world built with the bricks of isolationist, racist nationalism or even worse, neo-fascism, is not a stable one. Not only would such a world significantly increase the odds of a Third World War, but it would also render useless attempts to offset civilization-wrecking climate change.

A human future dominated by the far right would be dark, brutal, destructive and probably short–lived. Those of us who want a sustainable, mature, long-lived global civilization cannot let these sort of forces triumph.

This opposition should primarily be through through education, and also efforts to prevent the radicalisation of young people. It could also involve the promotion of more positive alternatives, one of which I will discuss next time.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

How to Emotionally survive Political Catastrophe

An Open post to those who feel lost right now:

I'm writing this on the morning of the third nasty political shock in eighteen months. Boy, the 2010s have been very unpleasant, haven't they? The forces of reactionary nastiness have been on the ascendent, indulged by the media and too many other enablers.

The English-speaking world seems to be quite happily flirting with what could be broadly termed fascism. However the voting patterns are rationalised, a rather ugly, isolating, destabilising general pattern emerges. I am very much afraid that we're sailing, rather merrily, for what the Great Transition Initiative called Fortress World. This is a world where: "powerful [nationalist] forces are able to impose order in the form of an authoritarian system of global apartheid with elites in protected enclaves and an impoverished majority outside."

I think that we should ask whether that sort of a world really sounds appealing, don't you?

The problem for those of us who do not want this sort of a world is how to survive and continue to do good and constructive work in a situation where an awful lot of social and political forces seem to be leading directly to it.

The internet is a wonderful thing, but I have been unable to find anything useful about how to survive, psychologically, multiple political disasters. And yet, if you look at history, there are many records of those who have not only survived but eventually learned how to thrive in their wake.

My personal inspiring example is the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people, who had their country invaded and their culture destroyed. This lead to a diaspora of Tibetans around the world, including the Dalai Lama.

Instead of preaching hate and violence, the Dalai Lama embarked on a program of increasing compassion and cooperation in the world. So this is an example of someone who turned very adverse political circumstances into something positive. I encourage you to find your own.

On the days to come:

First, it goes without saying that extensive self-care and compassion is essential from now on. In addition, we need to work on increasing resilience and keeping ourselves in a proactive state so that this sort of disaster is not immobilising. Building community, and peer support,  is essential here.

A good first stop are the writings of Bruce Levine, who have been crucial for me in overcoming the paralysis that extreme demoralisation can bring. Many of you will be in shock now, and that's okay. Remember that the shock will wear off, and that you don't have to be immobilised permanently.

Second, try to take a longer perspective. In the 1930s, in a sadly comparable time of political turbulence and bad change, H.G. Wells wrote 'The Shape of Things to Come,' where he looked beyond the next World War to a time when a better society could be built. Although Wells, at the end of his life, despaired that a better life was possible, people were inspired by his example. In fact, many of the more positive ideas that he promoted were worked into global organisations like the United Nations, in the wake of the war.

This tells me two things (1) that even in very dark times, you can still plan for a better world, and (2) that the political landscape can change, radically, in a reasonably short period of time -- and not always for the worse. The issue is keeping more constructive ideas and values alive through the dark times, and to continue chipping away at your chosen issue no matter what.

Finally, I tend to agree with Alfred North Whitehead that evil is unstable.  Any regime, for example, that ignores climate change is due for some very nasty shocks further down the road. Any politician, however rich and powerful, who is foolish enough to ignore reality will sooner or later find themselves colliding with it.

So the mission is to keep the idea of a better world alive, until a more opportune time comes to put it into action. And sooner or later, that time will come.

Don't give up!

Friday, 4 November 2016

A Tribute to Paul Brazier

NOTE: The following is a brief tribute to my friend and former editor Paul Brazier, who died in October 2016.  After some thought, and discussion with friends, I've decided to put it on here.

When I was living in Brighton, back in the late 1990s, I found out, from the ad in the back of the magazine, that the publishers of Interzone met in one of the local pubs.

I was feeling rather desperate at the time. I’d been writing stories, and having them rejected, for years. Interzone, one of the best SF magazines I knew, had been one of my prime targets, but…. Well, many of you who write will know the score.

Paul was there, at the Mitre, along with David Pringle, and all the others. Paul and I hit it off, and he offered to look at my stories, for possible inclusion in an edition of Interzone that he was editing.

I sent him a couple of tales, including ‘City in the Dust,’ which had already been rejected by another magazine. I was fully expecting the usual brush-off.

Instead, Paul wrote back saying that he loved the story, which ended up being published in March 2001.

Over the next couple of years, I got to know both Paul and Juliet better, and visited them regularly at their house. Over that time, Paul helped with developing my writing and editing skills, and was always very generous with his time and attention.

He also got me in as a guest to the Arthur Clarke awards, and through him, I came to meet many amazing people, including some of my SF heroes.

None of us can become successful in our chosen field without help. The myth of the self-made person is just that – a myth. Paul was one of those people who excelled at being a facilitator, and was very talented at helping people. He certainly helped me. But he was also a good friend.

He was kind, fun, and always generous. One of my happiest memories of the Brighton years was going around to Paul and Juliet’s to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer and then have dinner. This was always stimulating, fun and at times, morale boosting.

Paul and I drifted apart a little after I moved from Brighton.

However, we did meet up again a few years ago, and once more, Paul was kind and generous with his time, although I was sorry to see that his health had deteriorated somewhat. I was to have visited him again this October, but sadly, fate, and everyday hassles intervened, and it was not to be.


Nonetheless, I would count my friendship with Paul as one of the most positive in my life. He will be greatly missed.