Two Tribes: Harry and Michelle (paperback publication day post)

Although told from 250 years in the future, the main part of this book deals with a Cambridge-educated North London architect (Harry), and his relationship with a hairdresser from a small town in Norfolk who left school at 16 (Michelle).

When I described this to my friend Ian, his immediate reaction was ‘well, that would never happen’. You’d need to read the book to judge whether he was necessarily right, but it’s interesting, I think, that such a relationship seems so unlikely. I’m sure he wouldn’t have reacted in that way, if for example, I’d said the book was about a relationship between Harry and another architect who had, say, an Indian Hindu background. Nothing particularly unlikely about that. Which suggests to me that the cultural gap between different ‘cultures’ is actually smaller than the cultural gap between different classes.

Over much of my lifetime there was a kind of alliance between Harry’s class (which is also my own) -the liberal professional class- and the working class, both of which tended to vote Labour (just as both tended to vote Democrat in the US). In recent years, and notably in the Brexit vote, that alliance has fallen apart. Isn’t that what we really mean by the rise of ‘populism’? And that was the background against which I wanted to foreground Michelle and Harry’s relationship.

Two Tribes on Hive.

Two Tribes on Amazon

Two Tribes in paperback

Two Tribes is out in paperback this week, so here’s a short post to celebrate. (More info about the book here.)

This is a book with a simple moral, which (adapting Solzhenistyn) could be summed up as ‘The line between good and evil does not pass between those who like the European Union and those who don’t.’

Or: ‘It’s a mistake to assume you’re one of the good guys, just because you and your friends think you are. Pretty much everyone thinks their lot are the good guys.’

Or: ‘Just because someone doesn’t agree with you about politics, doesn’t make them a monster.’

Although mainly set in the aftermath of Brexit, it isn’t really about Brexit. It’s about social class, and specifically about the complicated relationship between the liberal middle classes and the working classes in Britain, and the way that relationship is changing.

I’m very proud of it.

Here’s another moral. ‘When there is more than one elite, each elite condemns the elitism of the others, but denies its own.’

Two Tribes on Hive.

Two Tribes on Amazon

‘Flags’

Richard Dawkins observed that every religious person is an atheist with respect to every belief system except their own. One could quibble with that, one could point out that, if we are to agree that this is so, his own particular conception of ‘atheism’ would need to be added to the list. But the point I want to make just now is that the same is true in politics.

Religious belief is not for most people a matter of free choice, but is closely tied to geography and to heritage. Go to rural Morocco, and you won’t find many Protestants but you will find plenty of people who sincerely believe in Islam. Go to the American Midwest and the reverse is true. Even when people consciously move away from the religion of their ancestors, they tend to do so as a group.

Support for different political ideas is also not randomly distributed across the country. There are Labour areas, Tory areas, and Liberal and nationalist areas, and there are also Leave and Remain areas. Below is the referendum result map for the East of England where I live. (Pretty solidly Leave except for the small Remain island of Norwich and the larger Remain island stretching south from Cambridge.)

EU referendum results from the East of England. Blue is Leave, orange is Remain. Sourced from Wikiwand here.

I see politics as consisting of two levels. In its essentials it is the process by which different classes and groups in society jockey for position, with each class or group seeking to defend what its has and, if possible, improve what it has. However most human beings like to see themselves as good, and so every group likes to have a reason why its demands are not in fact self-interested but in the interests of everyone (and usually there is at least an element of truth in the claim). As I think of it to myself, each group flies a flag.

And, just as we see through every religion but our own, so we tend to assume that the flags flown by rival groups are either the product of delusion, or a cover for self-interest, but take our own flags at face value, and find it difficult to accept that we too might be deluded, or that we too might have chosen a particular flag because it justifies our own self-interest. Many Remain voters, for instance, argue ‘we must be right because we are clever and well-educated’, without recognising that clever and well-educated people have their own particular interests as a class.

The main protagonist of Two Tribes is a man, Harry, who, in the latter half of 2016 notices that his own group’s flag is, after all, just one of several flags. He doesn’t reject it, but he becomes suspicious of the claims his friends make for it. He meets a woman, Michelle, who, so to speak, lives under the enemy flag. Both of them are intrigued by this because in other respects they like each other very much.

The story is told by another woman, Zoe, who lives two and half centuries away in the future. The flags of 2016 are not quite as remote to her as, say, Yorkists and Lancastrians are to us, because they still have counterparts in her world. But she knows things that we don’t know about the way that the culture wars of the twenty-first century played out, and she looks back at the period in a way that isn’t really aligned with either the Remainer or the Leaver camp.

More on Two Tribes here.

It’s not my job to exaggerate the ugliness of rival tribes

I am a slow learner. It was something of a revelation when I found out that the stories about the knights of the Round Table I enjoyed as a child were actually written for real knights, and that these real knights were not necessarily very nice people at all. (One of the sources of the Grail story, for instance, The High Book of the Grail, is dedicated to a knight who was a leading figure in two notorious bloodbaths: the Fourth Crusade against Constantinople, and the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars in the south of France.) It struck me then that most fiction is actually written to flatter its readers by making them, or people like them, the heroes of the story.

When it comes to Brexit it would have been an easy matter for me, as a ‘remain’ voter who writes science fiction, to do something of that kind. I could, for instance, have written a future dystopia, in which a ghastly caricature of the ‘leave’ camp is in charge, and noble, liberal, internationalist types are fighting a brave war of resistance. I’m pretty sure a lot of people would have welcomed it.

But I don’t think it’s my job to exaggerate the ugliness of rival tribes, or big up the heroism of my own. If you want a simple ‘goodies versus baddies’ view of events, you can find it on social media, where whole armies of people are busy, night and day, proving how utterly and irredeemably bad those others are, and how very good they are. I’m sure this serves some useful psychological purpose, but it really isn’t my thing.

I don’t deny that there are bad people out there. And some of the nastiest and most mean-spirited aspects of British culture were certainly evident on the ‘leave’ side. But an exclusive focus on the shortcomings of others does tend to blind us to our own, and what I noticed in aftermath of the 2016 referendum was that, on the ‘remain’ side too, some pretty ugly things were crawling out of the shadows. Specifically I noticed the spread of a phenomenon which I’ve been observing for some time: middle class folk who, while describing themselves as on ‘the left’, somehow still feel free to express a sneering contempt for people less educated than themselves.

I say ‘ugly’, I say ‘nasty’, but the truth is that human beings are human, whatever tribe they belong to, and my objective, as in my other books –America City is probably the closest- was to write a story that looked at this particular time, not through the lens of ‘them and us’ but simply as human beings responding in different ways to their particular circumstances, as humans beings do.

Two Tribes cover image

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 that’s 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: no 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 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. No group can expect to have things exactly the way it wants. 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.

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”

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.

The rivers swarm with fish

Sometimes a piece of writing that presumably wasn’t intended to be poetic at all has a poetry all of its own. The following is the section on flaura and fauna from the Wikipedia entry for the Russian island of Sakhalin. (Why was I looking at the entry for Sakhalin? Because, like Judith Schalansky, I love to go to islands in my imagination that I know I will never really visit. They too have a special poetry.)

The whole of the island is covered with dense forests, mostly coniferous. The Yezo (or Yeddo) spruce (Picea jezoensis), the Sakhalin fir (Abies sachalinensis) and the Dahurian larch (Larix gmelinii) are the chief trees; on the upper parts of the mountains are the Siberian dwarf pine (Pinus pumila) and the Kurile bamboo (Sasa kurilensis). Birches, both Siberian silver birch (Betula platyphylla) and Erman’s birch (B. ermanii), poplar, elm, bird cherry (Prunus padus), Japanese yew (Taxus cuspidata), and several willows are mixed with the conifers; while farther south the maple, rowan and oak, as also the Japanese Panax ricinifolium, the Amur cork tree (Phellodendron amurense), the Spindle (Euonymus macropterus) and the vine (Vitis thunbergii) make their appearance. The underwoods abound in berry-bearing plants (e.g. cloudberry, cranberry, crowberry, red whortleberry), red-berried elder (Sambucus racemosa), wild raspberry, and Spiraea.

Bears, foxes, otters, and sables are numerous, as are reindeer in the north, and musk deer, hares, squirrels, rats, and mice everywhere. The bird population is mostly the common east Siberian, but there are some endemic or near-endemic breeding species, notably the endangered Nordmann’s greenshank (Tringa guttifer) and the Sakhalin leaf warbler (Phylloscopus borealoides). The rivers swarm with fish, especially species of salmon (Oncorhynchus). Numerous whales visit the sea coast, including the critically endangered Western Pacific gray whale, for which the coast of Sakhalin is the only known feeding ground. Other endangered whale species known to occur in this area are the North Pacific right whale, the bowhead whale, and the beluga whale.

Beautiful!

Population

I saw this post some months ago and saved it because it jarred and I wanted to write about it.  It’s a review by Abigail Nussbaum of the movie Avengers: Infinity war, and I came across it on Twitter because someone posted it as an instance of a really good review.  I daresay it is a good review at that.  I’ve never seen the movie so I can’t comment. What troubled me was the following paragraph:

It should go without saying that Thanos’s overpopulation bugbear and his proposed solution for it are hideous claptrap.  Reducing a population by half, whether through violence as Thanos used to do, or by making people simply disappear as he wants to do with the Infinity Stones, would result in immediate economic and industrial collapse, and therefore mass starvation and most likely war.  It should go without saying, but because Hollywood continues to linger in the grip of Malthusianism decades after the rest of the world saw it for the racist nonsense that it is…

As I say, I haven’t seen the movie and don’t know who Thanos is, but if he’s proposing genocide that is clearly VERY VERY BAD INDEED.  No dispute there!  But, unless I’ve completely misunderstood her, what the reviewer seems to saying (and she’s not the only one I’ve heard say it) is that the very idea that overpopulation is a problem is ‘hideous claptrap’ .

Really? 

I’m 63.  I’m living on a planet whose population is over seven and a half billion, which is getting on for three times what it was when I was born.  It’s a planet in the middle of one of the great mass extinction events of its history, a planet where the biomass of human domestic animals is now greater than that of all other animals of similar size, a planet where human activity has destabilised the climate itself and is threatening to acidify the ocean to a point that marine animals with shells may not be able to survive.  And I personally am so far from seeing the idea of overpopulation as claptrap that I find it hard to imagine being inside a head that thinks it is.

It seems I’m with Hollywood on this one.

It’s true that population is not on its own a reliable indicator of the human impact on the rest of the planet, because the impact of any one human being is dependent on his or her behaviour.  If we eat meat and diary products, for instance, we have a much greater impact than if we are vegan, because meat and milk production are, in nutritional terms, far less efficient uses of land than growing edible plants.  In the same way, if we drive a car and use aeroplanes, we will have a much greater impact than if we only walk or use a bicycle.  And if we have a centrally heated house with a TV, a fridge and a washing machine, our impact will be much greater than if we live in a hut and don’t use electric power at all (although it must be said that, even if we rely entirely on firewood for heat and light, that can still have a considerable impact.)  

The odd idea that being concerned about population is ‘racist’ originates, I imagine, from a time when people in wealthy countries expressed concern about the rapidly growing populations in developing countries without acknowledging that their own extravagant patterns of consumption were at least as much of a problem.  I get that. But still, it is pretty poor logic to take from that the idea that concern about overpopulation is racist per se

The fact is that all human behaviour impacts on the environment and the impact of any given human behaviour has to be multiplied by the number of people on the planet who behave in that way.   A billion people driving cars X number of miles per year generates a billion times the amount of carbon dioxide as one person driving a car X miles per year.  A billion people clearing forest to grow crops to eat will need a billion times as much forest as one person.  So, yes, population is only part of the story, but it is an indispensable part nevertheless.  Say the human race were collectively to change its behaviour in such a way as to reduce the impact of every person on the planet by 50%.  The population only has to double for the benefit of that change to be lost. And since, however much the human population increases, the surface area of the planet remains unchanged, it must be the case that, for any given pattern of human behaviour, however frugal, there must be a physical limit to how many people the planet is able to support.

Which takes me to the second charge made (in this particular film review but also elsewhere) against the idea that overpopulation is a problem.  Not only is it racist, but it is Malthusian. 

The implied argument goes something like this:  We know that Malthus was concerned about human population, right?  We know that his predictions were wrong.  We also know that some of what he said was pretty obnoxious.  QED being concerned about overpopulation is ‘Malthusian’ and therefore both wrong and obnoxious.  Right?

No, of course not!  We are not living in the age of scholasticism, and arguments do not stand or fall on the authority of whatever famous name happens to have become associated with them.  Calling someone a ‘Malthusian’ for being concerned about overpopulation, like calling them racist, is not an argument at all, it’s a way of shutting down the discussion. It’s an exercise in denial.