Belief

If you subscribe to a belief, certain thoughts become unthinkable. So, for instance, if you subscribe to a belief in socialism, and you are presented with the various historical examples of socialism failing to deliver, you have to conclude that it just wasn’t done right, or was done in the wrong circumstances, and needs to be tried again, because the conclusion that socialism doesn’t work isn’t available to you. (Feel free to substitute laissez faire capitalism in that example: it is equally applicable). In the same way, if you believe that a loving and omnipotent god created the world, you have somehow to find ways of explaining the existence of (for example) agonising and degrading diseases that are consistent with such a god, because the much simpler explanations available to an atheist aren’t on your list of options.

Belief results in a certain inflexibility, in other words.

But belief is nevertheless essential to life. For one thing, we have to make decisions all the time in situations where there isn’t enough exact information to be certain of what the outcomes will be (this is true of almost all political decisions and all but trivial personal ones), or where the judgement to be made involves values (again true of most political and personal decisions). Without beliefs we’d have nothing to guide us.

The inflexibility of belief, while sometimes a problem, is also the key to its usefulness. It allows us to set or harden things that would otherwise be fluid. In order to be able to think about ourselves as coherent human individuals, and not just a bundle of impulses, we have to ‘keep faith’ with decisions already made. Marriage, for instance, involves keeping faith with the idea that you love someone and belong with them, even through times when you don’t actually feel love and aren’t enjoying being together. In other words you have to believe that what you felt in the past was real, even when it doesn’t seem so now, and you have to believe that you will feel it again. And the same applies to other kinds of commitments: an example in my case would be the writing of a book, which would never get done if I didn’t force myself to keep plugging on through long periods when I felt almost certain that the whole project was worthless, and that I nothing left to say.

Faith, in this sense, is a kind of belief that allows us to tie together the past, the present and the future, even though all we can ever actually directly know is the present. I think of it as a kind of human chain, such as might be used to rescue people from a shipwreck, except that this chain is made up, not of different individuals, but of different iterations of the same individual. For someone prone to self-doubt and mood swings, such as myself, holding hands with your past and future selves can be pretty challenging. (My wife would vouch that I can easily move in a single day between cheerful optimism to existential despair, and sometimes find it hard to give any credence to my former self of only a few hours ago.)

I hate to admit it, but I suppose what I’m talking about now is the kind of belief being referred to in a thousand cringy Hollywood movies when one character tells another ‘you’ve got to believe in yourself’ or ‘if only you believe in yourself anything is possible’. Clearly the latter is a lazy cliche: amount of self-belief will make me (say) a premier league footballer. But it is true that you do need to believe in your ‘self’ in order to be able to achieve anything substantial, because unless you believe in a coherent self that is continuous over time, it is impossible to commit yourself to the work involved.

Your ‘self’ is, in fact, just a particular example of a whole class of entities that are necessary in order to function in society, but which owe their existence to belief. A nation is such an entity. Benedict Anderson famously described a nation as an ‘imagined community’. This is not the same thing as an imaginary community, because an imagined community really does exist. It’s just that it only functions because it is imagined. And imagination in this sense is closely related to belief. Believing in oneself and believing in a nation both entail being able to imagine a connection with a bunch of people you can’t actually see and can’t directly know: in one case these people are your future selves, in the other, compatriots you’ve never met.

Recent divisions in the UK are characterised by some as a rift between the blind belief of the ignorant and the rational evidence-based thinking of the educated (I’ve seen this thought expressed earlier today on social media). But actually both sides are sustained by beliefs in imagined communities. It’s just unfortunate that they aren’t the same ones. ‘I am a European first and foremost’ is resonant for some, ‘I am English [or British, or Scottish, etc] first and foremost’ is resonant for others. Some, I know, even combine both. For many only one of these statements is real and the other is simply a fabrication. But these are all statements of belief, elements of the stories that we choose to live by, not facts that can be objectively verified.

Politics

Politics isn’t really about personalities. They’re just the puppet show. And politics isn’t really about ideas either, or not in the way some people seem to think. It’s about alliances. It’s about putting together coalitions of different classes or interest groups. Each group has its own ideas, its own story it tells itself, and the trick is to find some overarching idea or story which connects with enough of these different stories to allow a variety of groups to buy into it.

Historically in Britain, the Labour Party managed to be the titular party of the industrial working class but also the party of an important section of the professional middle classes, the delicado class as I have called them*. (The Democratic Party in America managed a similar alliance in the twentieth century, though it has presided over many different groupings in its two hundred year history). This is not to say that the delicados and the industrial working class see the world in the same way -they obviously don’t- or that they have the same priorities or the same values, but they had enough common interests and common enemies to make it possible to construct a story that both could buy into. It was a story, I suppose, about using the state to make society fairer, and to reduce the power of inherited privilege, which had an appeal to both these groups, though for different reasons.

I would say the last flowering of this alliance in the case of the Labour Party was the Blair era. Blair was able to draw in a substantial number of new middle class voters who had previously voted Tory, while still retaining the traditional industrial working class vote. (My feeling is that he didn’t actually earn the latter, but was able to benefit from historical loyalties, which had yet to fade.)

I think recent electoral politics in Britain have shown that this old alliance no longer holds. In Scotland, Labour has been displaced as the dominant party by the SNP (I don’t know enough about Scotland to understand the alliance which this represents, but clearly it has drawn support from both of Labour’s traditional constituencies). In England, the Brexit vote and the recent election show that Labour can no longer take for granted the support of the voters it was originally set up to represent. The Conservatives have managed to find a story -and like the SNP’s, it is a story about nationhood and independence- which suits many of these voters better. A new alliance is forming between the non-delicado section of the middle class, and the old working class.

If we see politics as just being about ideas, and we are convinced that our idea is simply ‘right’ (as opposed to simply being the story our particular grouping prefers), we don’t respond effectively to the loss of an ally, because we conclude that our former ally is mistaken, or misled, or no longer worthy of us. And so we keep plugging away at the same idea, waiting for others to see the error of their ways, when the fact is that our story simply doesn’t appeal to enough people. We need a new idea.

It seems to me that the political ‘right’ (I actually hate the lazy simplification that divides politics into ‘the Left’ and ‘the Right’ but I’ll use it here for brevity), understands this at the moment better than the political ‘left’. You need to find out what different sections of the population want, not just in a practical sense (jobs, public services etc), important though that is, but in the sense of symbols and stories, and you have to deliver enough of what people want to make them feel like joining, or remaining part of, your alliance.

*See America City.

Behaving Badly to Prove you’re Good

The people of A, finding themselves easily able to dominate the people of B due to A’s considerably more advanced technology, realise that they could if they wanted enslave B people, bring them back to A, and make them work for nothing, thereby making life considerably more comfortable for A people.

However, A people do have some sense that treating other humans as possessions is wrong. (Indeed they have an uneasy feeling that treating other people as objects is the very definition of wrong.) This makes things very awkward, because the idea of enslaving B people, and getting all that unpleasant work done for nothing, really is very appealing, yet it is important to most As to think of themselves as good people who do the right thing.

Luckily, they find a way round the problem. They decide that actually it’s fine to enslave B people because B people aren’t fully human and therefore the usual rules don’t apply.

Some A people get so carried away by this thought that they declare that the enslavement of B people is actually in B people’s own interest, because in that way the Bs will be able to learn from the As what it means to really be human. Others decide that B people are so manifestly inferior that they should be treated with exceptional harshness and severity in order to contain their inherent wickedness. Their own cruelty is thus made thoroughly moral by their awareness of the cruelty they are thereby keeping in check.

However, for reasons irrelevant to the present story, a time nevertheless comes when the government of A decides to abolish slavery, and to grant citizenship to all the former slaves. In legal terms, B people are now the equal of A people. Indeed, legally speaking, they are A people. (By now, after all, few ‘B people’ have ever set eyes on B.)

But many A people refuse to accept that B people really are their equals. After all, if they were to admit that B people are as human as themselves, that would mean admitting that their behaviour towards Bs up to now has been appallingly bad. Therefore they persist in their belief that B people are inferior, and continue to treat them harshly, so as to demonstrate that there was nothing wrong with their former behaviour, that they have nothing to be ashamed of, and that they can therefore continue to think of themselves as good.

And since they continue to treat B people harshly, this means that, even a generation after the emancipation of the B people, many A people still cannot allow themselves to think of Bs as their equals, because that would mean admitting, not only that the former enslavement of B people was wrong (which actually wouldn’t be so hard to do, given that the current generation weren’t implicated in it), but that their behaviour since has also been wrong.

And so, for many generations, many A people persist in treating B people harshly and cruelly in order to prove themselves that they really are good people.

Good guys and bad guys

I was very pleased to be asked to take part in a conference at University College Dublin earlier this month called Alternative Realities: New Challenges for American Literature in the Era of Trump, and then to take part in a panel discussion at the Museum of Literature in Dublin with the other keynote speakers, Aleksandar Hemon and Karen Bender, and the conference organiser Dolores Resano. I had a great time.

The following is (more or less) the text of my keynote speech.

Continue reading “Good guys and bad guys”

Two Tribes

Two Tribes cover image

Due out in summer 2020. Most of the story takes place in the latter half of 2016 and the beginning of 2017, and is about a brief love affair between a man and a woman who come from opposite sides of the Brexit divide and from very different backgrounds. But the story is told by a future historian in the harsher and bleaker England of 2276.

Wind Power

In the third quarter of 2019, for the first time ever, more electricity generated in the UK came from renewable sources than from fossil fuels. 20% of the total came from wind power. We ought to be celebrating this milestone.

Of course this is not enough, and of course electricity generation is only one of the sources of human-generated CO2 in the atmosphere. There is also transport to address, and deforestation, and meat production, and fossil fuel use for heating… And if there is to be any possibility in the long run of establishing some kind of equilibrium again, the human population of the Earth needs to stabilise.

But the growth of renewable power is something to celebrate all the same. Windpower was a hippy pipedream when I was young, but now it’s a giant industry that generates one fifth of the electricity we use in Britain. People say nothing is being done about global warming, but this isn’t true, and is not helpful because it just invites cynicism and resignation. Some of the right things are being done, and on a pretty large scale too. They just need to be scaled up even more.

No longer a hippy pipedream! Wind turbine blades passing through Edenfield . Photo by Paul Anderson.

Telling the story of us and nature

I was very pleased to be asked to take part in the ‘writer’s rebel’ event last night as part of the Extinction Rebellion protest going on in London. The request was that I do a short reading of my own choice, as one of a number of writers doing the same. Having agonised all week about what to read, I ended up sitting down and writing the following a few hours before the event:

Continue reading “Telling the story of us and nature”

Greenland

President Trump’s proposal to buy Greenland has been greeted with ridicule and cited as evidence of his mental instability and inability to govern. I’m not so sure. The very existence of America demonstrates that countries grow by acquiring territory from others, whether by conquest, manipulation or purchase. Alaska, at the time another very sparsely populated Arctic territory, was obtained by purchase, and Trump is not the first American president to propose buying Greenland as well: Truman suggested it in 1946.

Greenland was a strategic asset even then because of its position in the western Atlantic. And now it’s far more valuable. As the Arctic melts, new seaways are opening up to the North of Canada, for which Greenland would be a gateway; Greenland’s mineral wealth is becoming more accessible; and Greenland itself is a very substantial piece of real estate -at 2 million square kilometres it’s three times the size of Texas – with a tiny population (less than 60,000), and a small and distant mother country (Denmark). Farming is already possible in a small area of the country, and global warming will make more and more of its territory available for development and human settlement. As I tried to show in America City, as many parts of the world become uninhabitable due to global warming, Arctic territory is going to become a very valuable asset indeed.

The history of oil demonstrates that when big powers need something that’s in another country, they find ways of taking it. (So does the history of rubber, or spices, or gold…) I’m sure Trump has blurted something out that is being seriously discussed behind the scenes. And perhaps it’s not even a case of blurting it out, but rather of deliberately softening the ground. The more often a thing is spoken about, the more possible it seems.

Greenland would be laughably easy for America to acquire. I very much doubt if Trump will be the last President to talk of taking it, and my bet would be that Greenland will indeed be annexed to America at some point in the coming century.

Meanwhile the Amazon is burning. The politics of climate change are truly upon us. A time will soon come when obsessing about whether or not Britain should be part of a European bloc will look like the displacement activity it really is.