Ideas that add up #230

You couldn’t get worse food, or food more detached from nature, if you tried. If you have an apple, you’re connected to an apple tree. If you have a dish of set custard and half a glace cherry you’re not connected to anything. 

Mor, the narrator in Among Others by Jo Walton

Mor is fifteen and adjusting to life in a dreary, pretentious English boarding school, having grown up and run wild in the coal valleys of South Wales. SF and fantasy novels are her thing. She knows magic and sees fairies – which happen to be gnarly, feral entities, utterly unlike Tinkerbell. Also, they speak Welsh.  

The magic that she works, when she has to, creates situations which, with hindsight, were going to happen in any case. With her twin, she casts flowers into a stagnant pool to kill off the noxious phurnacite plant that had killed off vegetation for miles around. Nothing happens. The plant doesn’t crumble and a forest doesn’t sprout. Then, the next morning the news: the plant will close, thousands of jobs lost. A decision made weeks earlier in London – but it wouldn’t have been had the girls not dropped their flowers that night. Like infinitely proliferating universes, with magic to isolate whichever one serves the present purpose.

With a sceptical mind it’s easy to assert that there was no magic. But someone knows different.

So when a small person of my acquaintance triumphantly told me, one morning last month, that she knew there was no tooth fairy because she was awake and heard the whole palaver – heard me shuffle downstairs in the dark, heard the clinking of money in the bowl as I fumbled for a pound coin, then lay still with her eyes closed as I rooted around under her pillow for ages trying to find that elusive chip of ivory – what I should have said was that if it was me who did all that, then I must have been unwittingly doing the fairy’s work for her. (Instead of just shrugging and trying to deny everything.)  

Magic, in Jo Walton’s book, permeates the world. An apple has magic, because it connects you to an apple tree and so to the whole tree of life – the biggest magic in the universe. And things we share our lives with, especially things we handle, however lifeless they may seem, become imbued with magic of their own. 

At home I walked through a haze of belongings that knew, at least vaguely, who they belonged to. Grampar’s chair resented anyone else sitting on it as much as he did himself. Gramma’s shirts and jumpers adjusted themselves to hide her missing breast. My mother’s shoes positively vibrated with consciousness. Our toys looked out for us. There was a potato knife in the kitchen that Gramma couldn’t use. It was an ordinary enough brown-handled thing, but she’d cut herself with it once, and ever after it wanted more of her blood. If I rummaged through the kitchen drawer, I could feel it brooding. After she died, that faded. Then there were the coffee spoons, rarely used, tiny, a wedding present. They were made of silver, and they knew themselves superior to everything else and special.

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Ideas that add up #229

Perhaps the most profound account of personhood in this century is that given by Martin Buber (1923), in the small book originally translated into English as I and Thou (Buber, 1937). Here he makes a contrast between two ways of being in the world, two ways of forming a relationship. The first he terms I-it, and the second I-thou. Relating to another in the I-it mode implies coolness, information-getting, objectivity, instrumentality. Here we engage without there being any commitment; we can maintain a distance, make ourselves safe. Relating in the I-thou mode, however, requires involvement: a risking of ourselves, a moving out and a moving towards. ‘The primary word I-thou can only be spoken with the whole being. The primary word I-it can never be spoken with the whole being’. 

Tom Kitwood, ‘The concept of personhood and its relevance for a new culture of dementia care’ in Care Giving in Dementia; Research and Applications, Vol. 2, Ed. Miesen and Jones

“Thou…”. The loveliest word in the language? A gift of being two people share the moment one addresses the other.

Kitwood writes, in the context of institutional caregiving, of the notion of “personhood” and how easily it comes to be neglected and suppressed. How people’s experience of the world and their essential social beingness, are overriden in a system which objectifies, in the I-it manner. A system, and a society-wide approach, which disregards unique individuality while fetishizing individualism. 

In Buber, via Kitwood, to be a person is to be addressed as Thou. 

Here he points to one of the most rich and mysterious of all human experiences. When we are addressed as Thou – when all instrumentality and manipulation are removed – we experience a profound expansiveness and liberation. Here – perhaps here alone – we can grow beyond attitudes, habits, scripts, poisonous expectations – all that others have imposed on us in their zeal for utility.

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Ideas that add up #228

He said: “If you want my advice, go with what’s closest to home. Faith is ethereal, the practice of faith is cultural. If you become a Zoroastrian or a follower of Cao Dai, a marvellous Vietnamese Christianity that believes Muhammad, Moses, Louis Pasteur, Shakespeare, Lenin and Victor Hugo are all saints, then you’re going to have to learn a lot of stuff . . . and get over a whole lot of other stuff before you get to the good stuff and it’ll have very little to do with your soul.

“Weren’t you baptised into the Church of Scotland? I’d stick with Protestantism. Actually, I think it rather suits you . . .

God has all the best cakes‘ by AA Gill in The Sunday Times, 18/12/16

Solid practical advice that Gill received from an Irish Jesuit friend, who had failed to dissuade him from taking up religion. 

I’ve never understood how fully paid-up subscribers to materialist values and the spirit of evidence-based enquiry, can buy into one or other of the world’s myriad theist systems. Each with its own, manifestly man-made narrative. Each imposing its own, obviously man-made rules.

But Gill, or his Jesuit pal, gives a clue. If you’ve got that urge for communal faith, then let your culture put in the legwork and take the package closest to home – institutional inanities and all. Because the package isn’t the point. 

A blanket of snow surrounds St Mary's Church, Snettisham.

St Mary’s church in Snettisham. Photo courtesy of iwitness24.
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Ideas that add up #227

It’s so damn American. The settler class of white Europeans living away from the big mean city get conned by a loudmouth bullshittin’ big city con man who has never made an honest buck in his life. He plays into their fears; of brown skinned foreigners, angry black people still pissed about their ancestors being enslaved, uppity women who misuse the rights they got, and big city banks and financiers who just want to take their money and their land.  Promising to keep the scared people safe, the film-flam man goes back to his rich friends, laughing to himself about how he loves the uneducated.

Ron Jacobs, Counterpunch, November 9th, 2016

Among many attempts to make sense of something that defies being made sense of, this one comes close. There he is, the carnival con-man, spiel-ing his way from county fair to county fair, fleecing the gullible and never sticking around long enough to pay the price. 

The plausible rascal – though transparently implausible to you and me – finds a receptive audience for his message. An audience primed by a lifetime of conditioning to esteem greed and arrogance and consequence-free consumption. An audience ready to be told how right they are to feel like victims instead of perpetrators. Ready to be told by an authority sanctified by television, by gold escalators, by ownership of a casino franchise… that it is okay to resent the others, to hate them even, and to band together and celebrate that feeling of collective grievance, and to hear his reassuring 24-carat voice say: “that’s okay”.  

It’s understandable, I suppose. Us being what we are, prone to fears and hopes, open to manipulation, mostly blind to the scam – and our complicity in it – of civilization. But the pathetic mistake, for anyone who voted Trump, was taking on trust the claim that he would actually improve their economic lot and, er, “Make America Great Again”.

The problem now, for the carnival con-man, is that everyone knows where to find him. 

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Ideas that add up #226

There is one, and only one solution, and we have almost no time to try it. We must turn all our resources to repairing the natural world, and train all our young people to help. They want to; we need to give them this last chance to create forests, soils, clean waters, clean energies, secure communities, stable regions, and to know how to do it from hands-on experience.

Bill Mollison, Travels in Dreams: An Autobiography (1996)

This quote has been pinging around in memory of Bill Mollison, co-originator of the permaculture method, who passed away this week. A clear-eyed expression of the perspective that if we get only one thing right, in the time that’s left, it must be this: put the natural world first.

My inner rational-optimist likes this kind of message, likes it when scientistic faith in “problems” and “solutions” (It’s not too late. How hard could this be to fix? How hard could it be if we were serious, if we were actually, truly, deadly serious?) prevails for a while over dreamtime despair. But then I recall again who we are. What we’ve done. What we’re still doing. And what we’d be asking of ourselves, all 7-plus billion of ourselves, if we took Mollison’s advice to heart. And then I note that the autobiography containing the quote has been around for twenty years. (…and we have almost no time to try it.)

Don’t go there. Not this morning, this bright blue morning on the Welsh side of the Bristol Channel. The first rainshower has passed, wet sunshine glistens on the leaves. There’s a pot of coffee ready in the kitchen. The day beckons…

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Ideas that add up #225

Don’t be so gloomy. After all it’s not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long Holly.

Orson Welles as Harry Lime in The Third Man

This passage is often quoted with an ironic chuckle: proof that an eruption of passion and creativity, in a tormented culture, trumps centuries of peaceful tedium. 

Lime is a racketeer in the ruins of post-war Vienna. A charismatic, insouciant American prospering in the venal heart of the old continent. His childhood buddy, Holly Martins, arrives in town and accidentally discovers that Lime has been dealing in lethally diluted penicillin. He tracks Lime down and they meet on a giant Ferris wheel overlooking the city.


Martins can’t persuade Lime to abandon his amoral enterprise, and Lime can’t tempt Martins into making a quick buck with him. As he saunters from the Ferris wheel cabin, at the end of the ride, Lime/Welles issues his riff on European civilization. The Devil gets the best lines, as someone said about Paradise Lost. Hell is where the real fun is. Anywhere but Switzerland.

By this point in the story we already know the consequences of Harry Lime’s profiteering, and we later learn that the victims include children left brain-damaged by the drugs he trafficks. From his monologue on the Ferris wheel it’s clear that he doesn’t care:

Victims? Don’t be melodramatic. Look down there. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money…

Lime’s reasoning, with its market rationale, mirrors the attitudes of the powers-that-be. Those creatures inching around at ground level among bombed-out buildings, were always expendable in the eyes of the men who prosecuted the war. Accordingly, Lime absolves himself of personal responsibility.

Nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don’t. Why should we? They talk about the people and the proletariat, I talk about the suckers and the mugs – it’s the same thing.

He’s delusional, of course, and the attempt to vindicate himself by association with Michelangelo and da Vinci underlines that. But Harry Lime, surviving like a rat amid the rubble of Vienna, also expresses an ugly truth. Whether those dots down there are civilians or soldiers, whether they’re wedding guests dismembered by a smart bomb or schoolchildren converted to shadows on the wall by the heat of a thermonuclear blast, whether they are oil-streaked seafowl twitching on the shingle, or orang-utan families fleeing as their forest is burned for palm plantation – their suffering is somehow an acceptable price for the glories of our civilized world.

That can’t be right though, can it? It cannot be an acceptable price. Lime is just the glib face of a self-serving system in which we’re all implicated. And we mostly turn a blind eye. But we should be clear about this: the excesses of that system, and of individuals who cash in on that system, are not excused by the Renaissance or whatever. 

The Swiss, incidentally, state for the record that despite all those centuries of democracy and peace they didn’t even produce the cuckoo clock. It comes instead from the Black Forest in Germany.

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Ideas that add up #224

Due to drought and disruption by national boundaries of the traditional cycle of movement, the Ik live in such a food- and water-scarce environment that there is absolutely no advantage to reciprocity and social sharing. The Ik, in consequence, display almost nothing of what could be called societal organization. They are so highly fragmented that most activities, especially subsistence, are pursued individually. Each Ik will spend days or weeks on his or her own, searching for food and water. Sharing is virtually nonexistent. Two siblings or other kin can live side-by-side, one dying of starvation and the other well nourished, without the latter giving the slightest assistance to the other. The family as a social unit has become dysfunctional. Even conjugal pairs don’t form a cooperative unit except for a few specific purposes. Their motivation for marriage or cohabitation is that one person can’t build a house alone. The members of a conjugal pair forage alone, and do not share food. Indeed, their foraging is so independent that if both members happen to be at their residence together it is by accident. 

Each conjugal compound is stockaded against the others. Several compounds together form a village, but this is a largely meaningless occurrence. Villages have no political functions or organization, not even a central meeting place.

Children are minimally cared for by their mothers until age three, and then are put out to fend for themselves. This separation is absolute. By age three they are expected to find their own food and shelter, and those that survive do provide for themselves. Children band into age-sets for protection, since adults will steal a child’s food whenever possible. No food sharing occurs within an age-set. Groups of children will forage in agricultural fields, which scares off birds and baboons. This is often given as the reason for having children.

The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph A. Tainter 

A people of Northern Uganda, written about in the 1970s by anthropologist Colin Turnbull (The Mountain People). Wikipedia reveals that Turnbull’s methods and conclusions were later called into question: his study of the Ik was limited to a period of famine brought on by a two-year drought, and he over-relied on informants from a rival grouping.

Nevertheless, there is enough that’s credible in Tainter’s retelling of Turnbull’s findings to chill you to the marrow. Tainter’s point is that the Ik hadn’t always lived that way. Clan surnames and village cohabitation indicated a former level of social organization that had collapsed – whether lost or abandoned. 

It’s a familiar trope. Strip away the veneer of civilization and what remains is the Hobbesian war-of-all-against-all. The dystopian destiny of The Road. There’s a Lord of the Flies in all of us, by this way of thinking. It’s simply who we are. Thank goodness we have the modern world to keep a cap on all that.  

But maybe we’re not doing ourselves justice. The boys in Lord of the Flies are exemplary little mid-Twentieth-Century Brits, crudely replicating the hierarchies and violence of empire in which they’ve been schooled. The Road is peopled by survivors of a nuclear winter who also happen to be remnants of an arrogant, rapacious civilization overrun with soulless weapons and machines. And the Ik who Turnbull encountered were in the midst of a holocaust, with no-one to nurse them back to health. In each case, victims-turned-malefactors, equipped for a hazardous new environment with the wrong skills and values – skills and values developed for their formerly complex, sick society. 

The Kalahari Bushmen who in the 1950s were still living in what Elizabeth Marshall Thomas called “the Old Way”, clung to an apparently precarious existence on arid terrain among lethal predators. But they were not sick and there was no war of all against all. Theirs was an interdependent way of life, honed over hundreds of generations and tailored to the available environmental niche. A way of life which, if Marshall Thomas is right, long pre-dated humankind’s sideways step, via settlements and farming, into civilization. 

The Bushmen devoted much energy to establishing and maintaining harmonious relations, both locally and across a dispersed web of kith and kin. The necessities of life were shared, and there was a constant traffic of long-distance visits, facilitating the spread of news and the circulation of little gifts, handmade hairclips and the like. Qualities or advantages in an individual which might manifest as arrogance, or trigger envy, were downplayed. Discord was discouraged, with the whole community on hand to pacify and reassure disputants. Violence was rare. There were no stockades and no Lord of the Flies-style brutality. Children were not cast out to fend for themselves.  

 The Ju/wasi [Bushmen] were unfailingly good to their children. An infant would be nursed on demand and stay close to its mother, safe in the pouch of her cape, warm in cold weather, shaded in hot weather, complete with a wad of soft grass for a diaper. Ju/wa children very rarely cried, probably because they had little to cry about. No child was ever yelled at or slapped or physically punished, and few were even scolded. Most never heard a discouraging word until they were approaching adolescence, and even then the reprimand, if it really was a reprimand, was delivered in a soft voice. At least the tone was soft, even if the words weren’t always. 

We are sometimes told that children who are treated so kindly become spoiled, but this is because those who hold that opinion have no idea how successful such measures can be. Free from frustration or anxiety, sunny and cooperative, and usually without close siblings as competitors, the Ju/wa children were every parent’s dream. No culture can ever have raised better, more intelligent, more likable, more confident children.

The Old Way: A story of the first people by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

Those confident, likeable, intelligent children grew into accomplished, collaborative, self-assure adults. But it’s gone now, the Old Way. The Bushmen were evicted from their ancestral lands to make way for pastoralists, farming settlements, and safari-style game reserves. They were thrust into the cash economy on its bottom rung, exposed to the ravages of extreme poverty just as they were struggling to accommodate complete cultural dislocation. Yet the Old Way, the memory of it, was their culture’s parting gift. An ancient code for living relatively peaceably, relatively in balance with nature, without the prop of modernity.

That capacity for harmonious living in challenging circumstances must be deeply rooted in all of us, beneath those more recent codes and values we rely on to function in this bewitching, troubled world. Amid relentless pressure to compete and consume, the rest be damned, we do still find ways to support and encourage one another, and nurture our habitat to boot. Perhaps the fate of the Ik, in their time of crisis, doesn’t have to be the only future that awaits. 

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