Ideas that add up #231

Henry Kissinger rings him in 1972 and says: Robert, I need your help. And calls him out to Palm Springs where they stand on the 18th tee of the golf course, and he says: we’re standing here because everything is bugged. He says, I’m about to be thrown out of the administration because this jew-boy’s getting a little uppity, and asks Robert Evans for advice as to how to help him. And Robert Evans thinks about all sorts of different things and comes up with simply the idea that you live by the press, you die by the press. Called Time Magazine, got him on the cover, and as a consequence of that Kissinger survived. But the phrase Kissinger says to Evans is: You know, politics is just really second-rate showbusiness.

Simon McBurney, on BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week, March 6th, 2017

Think of cult-of-the-personality types mythologizing themselves on film — Mussolini on horseback, Mao in the river, Putin bare-chested in the backwoods. Think of the rest of them too — Obama larking around with Bear Grylls for TV, Theresa May’s fashion shoot in Vogue, and all prominent politicos everywhere endlessly applying foundation for the studio lights. Think also of that creepy clown in the White House, the carnival con-man, and remember how, when he was still a candidate, Frankie Boyle said he looked like someone playing the president in a porn.

Second-rate showbiz indeed. Well said, Henry.

But real world consequences. We haven’t forgotten how B-52 bombers, fulfilling Kissinger’s grandiose designs, wrecked millions of Cambodian lives. While today’s potus, who sensibly dodged the draft during the Vietnam War (medical deferment: bad feet) but desperately craves the respect of military men, has now got a taste for posing in the War Room and launching missiles. Lights, camera, action!

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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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