My final Christmas

new_year_03It is with a tinge of sadness that I have realised that this is the last time I will celebrate Christmas. The decision came to me while I sat in church having taken my father-in-law to the Christmas Eve service. We sat in a nearly empty church while a handful of elderly people tried to celebrate a central tenet of their faith. It was at odds with everything outside. Inside they spoke about love and charity while outside we had watched people rushing, as I had been, to buy last minute presents and prepare for a few days of festive, feasting and excess. As I watched this I realised I don’t want to participate in this any longer.

When I was a young man with children I enjoyed Christmas. I enjoyed the rituals and the traditions and enjoyed spending money so that I might see the pleasure on my childrens’ faces when they opened their presents. But over recent years I have found myself increasing estranged from the event. Little of the event now relates to the original Christian traditions; cards rarely mention it, songs likewise and there is little spoken about what it actually being celebrated. If anything at all is being celebrated.

Cast adrift from its roots in faith, Christmas now rides the waves of a sea of ennui and dyspepsia as we all try to maximise our pleasure by eating, drinking and buying. Like many others, I now live a reasonably comfortable life and any gifts I give or receive tend to be small luxuries as, thankfully, none of my friends or family live under hardship. Winter festivals, including those that predated Christmas,  were important in times of scarcity while we awaited spring. They were a chance to lighten our spirits, to kindle hope that the future will be positive and to allow ourselves a bit of comfort in a bleak period. In a post-scarcity world there is little need for this. The things we buy are are no longer important bridges to help us through to better times but simple luxuries, often completely useless items, we hope will temporarily heighten our pleasure. I am too old to believe in Santa Claus and  I am jumping off this treadmill of gift-giving.

I tried  purchasing charity gifts for all as a way to circumvent these problems but realised I had made an error. In doing so I had not enabled the gift receiver to give to charity. They had no choice and thus took no part in the decision to donate. I had not really given to charity either, as I had used money I was gifting to someone else for this. So, in essence, I had given nothing of my own to charity, someone else had not chosen to give to my charity freely, and I had advertised the fact that I had donated. These acts of virtue signalling allow everyone to lose a little of their dignity and I doubt engender much future charitable giving. In hindsight it seems a lose-lose scenario. (I will continue to give presents to my grandchildren at this time of year but simply because I love them and enjoy seeing their happiness.)

I hope my stopping celebrating Christmas will help me find something I fear I am loosing. I will still want and need a way to express the ideas of faith, hope and charity through the winter months. But this will be much easier if I don’t have to  participate in Christmas. I have faith that humanity is good. This faith may at times be tested by the actions of a miserable abnormal few, but there are more times when humanity impresses me with its benevolence. Because of this faith, I have hope that we will continue to make the world a better place for all who live in it and I personally hope that I will play my part in doing this.This leaves charity, the most important  aspect. I need to be more charitable and will use this time of the year to remind myself of this. I may be comfortable but some of my fellows are not, I need to do more to assist them. I can use the year’s bacchannalia as a paradoxical reminder to work harder in charitable actions.

via Daily Prompt: Festive

 

 

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“The Corporation” by Joel Bakan

wp-1482403875580.jpgThis is a difficult book to review. Not because it is poorly written, far from it, it is well written and easy to read. But rather because it is a book of three parts. The first part, where he analyses the source of the problem is well written and researched. The middle and last part are unfortunately much poorer.

In the opening third of the book Joel Bakan describes the genesis of corporations. How the development of ‘limited liability’ and the amalgamation of capital permitted large scale projects, often withe the public good in mind. Though many of the early changes were recognised, at the time,  as dangerous (as they were seen as potentially interfering with the freedom of the market) with the risks of promoting rent-seeking behaviour  diluting the power of shareholders. He noted Adam Smith’s concerns that “negligence and profusion” would result from the development of corporations and recorded other concerns at the time that limited liability would “enable persons to embark in trade with a limited chance of loss, but with an unlimited chance of gain” encouraging “a system of vicious and improvident speculation“.

The regulatory changes that were necessary for the development of corporate capitalism are well described and referenced. The risks were also well recognised and described. The fact that most of these risks have come to fruition is clearly demonstrated. So far so good. The book is a useful text with valuable information and insights. Then the book changes and deteriorates.

The middle portion takes the theme of the corporation having ‘personhood’. This portion concerns the negative social and environmental impacts of corporate activity and the corporation acting as a “externalizing machine” as it transfers the costs and negative impact of its activities onto others. While the examples given are valuable and well researched it quickly changes to viewing coroporations as “psychopathic personalities”. At this point we drop into psychobabble  which does not lead us much further forward. We are in a circular loop that ‘bad things are done by bad people’ and, in as much as corporations can be thought of as persons,  then ‘corporations doing bad things mean they are bad people’ or “psychopaths“.

The final portion, which looks at possible solutions, is the most lacking. While he recognised how corporations have used regulations to ensure close links to government, to benefit from rents from government agencies, and to protect their capital from free competition he simple proposes more, but different, regulations to control the situation. He does not seem to be aware of alternative strategies which may  promote commerce and free markets. He hopes bigger, more powerful, nation states (taking more areas under public control) will counter the worst excesses of crony capitalism.  Though he himself noted “Without the state, the corporation is nothing. Literally nothing” he did not take the logical steps in questioning how to weaken and reduce the state’s role in all of this.

I suppose we could excuse some of the latter limitations as the book was written in 2004 before the global crash which saw nation states rushing to prop up their banks and financial institutions with public money. Large financial organisations, once again, made sure that states sheltered them from the free market. Banks being deemed “too big to fail” were bailed out by taxpayers proving George Bernard Shaw right when he described the situation as ‘socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor’

The Testament Of Mary.

I can say, with some confidence, that had this book not been chosen by my Book Group I would have been very unlikely to have read it. However, I was glad it was chosen as I felt that there was a gap in my reading, in that I had not tried the work of Colm Toibin before.

imagesHe is clearly a writer of considerable skill. His output has been prodigious, in prose and in poetry, and generally highly regarded. Indeed, he was listed as on the the top 300 British intellectuals by The Observer newspaper.

While the novel did give me a glimpse of this ability it was overwhelmed by the negative feelings the book invokes. I read that Colm Toibin writes in quite austere conditions seated on a hard, uncomfortable chair. I can believe this as the discomfort and misery seems to have been channelled into this story. This is the story of Mary as an angry misanthrope. Discard any ideas you may have had of the saintly Mary, and ideas of Mary as the epitome of motherhood. This is Mary as a very earthly mother, a mother replete with faults and angry and exasperated by her son.

This mother doubts her son’s miracles, despises his followers (all ‘misfits, fools and stammerers’, men unable to look a woman in the eye) and hostile to those who she feels are glorifying his history. She has turned her back on him. In the past; by denying his divinity, in the present; by literally turning her back as she flees the hill and his crucifixion, and in the future; by attempting to confound the writers of the gospels. In the final pages she turns her back not only on the man but also becomes an apostate switching to  a new life and faith with Artemis.

This book clearly intended to be controversial and iconoclastic. However, it is brief and without substance; there is no revelation in its attack, nothing new is uncovered, no alternative vision is offered. The only thing made clear is that the writer has problems with his Catholic heritage.

This is iconoclastic in the same way that drawing spectacles or black teeth on a picture of the Madonna would damage the icon. Iconoclastic but also a waste of time, to borrow a phrase “It is not worth it”.

The public is a ferocious beast; one must either chain it or flee from it.

The public is a ferocious beast; one must either chain it or flee from it.

There are many unanswerable questions; “Which came first, the chicken or the egg ?”, or “Do we get the media we deserve or does the media the change public opinion ?”.  While it almost certainly true that no-one will publish  things for which there no existing appetite, it is also true that the media can create appetites which were not there before.

We have been aware, for a long time, of the effects of the media on public opinion and attitudes. Sometimes the changes that the media encourages are benevolent and beneficial. For example the displays of tolerance, and the portrayal of bigots in a bad light,  on television, in films and in other media outlets  has made our society less racist and has led less of us to become bigots. The portrayal of women in active, successful and independent roles has helped counter the aeons of inequality in the opportunities for women and society’s attitudes towards them. In the world of cinema, for example,  the 1961 film Victim helped to start to change our attitudes towards homosexuality and lead us to a less prejudiced and censorious way of thinking.

So we all know that the media can change our attitudes and politics. Every businessman and advertiser knows this when they pay for their bit of media space. Every state know it when it either bans media it disagrees with or when it promotes it own.  The totalitarian states under Hitler, or subsequently under the communists, were  the most active in controlling the media as, they knew, through it they controlled the people.

Perhaps as a consequence of our recognition of the damage that totalitarian states could do through media manipulation we are now more cautious and alert to negative or damaging media interventions. We know that it creates unrealistic views of society in order to manipulate our behaviour. We know that it tries to make us wish to buy things we had not intended to purchase, to want things we didn’t feel we desired, and to need things we were unaware we required.

There has been much written on the harmful effect that advertising,  the fashion industry, celebrity culture and others have on young women through their promotion of unrealistic physical ideals of beauty and the physical form. Similarly there are real concerns about the effects of pornography, and its distorted portrayals of sexual life, on the development of young men.

These are not, however, the things that make me want to flee from modern society. These are obvious and easy to spot and to ignore, or counter. The problem I have is with the unintended consequences of the media’s agenda. The unfortunate result of their inept, but frequent, virtue signalling.

In the world of television dramas, soap operas, theatre, advertising, newspapers and periodicals it is held to be important to promote the diversity agenda. It is a valuable positional good for many people as it is a easy and cheap method to express your good nature and moral credentials. If you want to whiten the brand image of your company, blackened by some scandal of cheap child labour, or chemical dumping, or somesuch, then put out an advert supporting gay marriage. Has your company been found out avoiding paying its tax, but you still want the public to buy your coffee ? Then a high profile support of cultural diversity is what you need. It is just a modern version of the old trick of greenwashing.

The unintended consequence of all of this is a misrepresentation of our society. We are presented with a picture of our society in which a larger group are gay than the 3% who self report as such in surveys, more are of BAME origin than the 13% in the last census, for example. Loving couples in adverts are much more likely to be of mixed races rather than the more prosaic, and more common, same race relationship. In dramas the head of the police team, or the successful politician is likely to be a woman, unfortunately not representing the world as it is, but rather as it is wished to be.

But what is wrong with this ? Surely it will no no more than promote further beneficial change ? I fear that it won’t. It is as much about what is missing as it is about what is said.

What is missing is the white, heterosexual male. If he is in the drama he will be the villain. Indeed, it spoils British crime  drama just now as, no matter how statistically unlikely, you can always guess who the killer will be in the first episode – it is the middle-class male in a suit (You might have guess the black guy, the gang member with the drug problem is a candidate, but no it is the 55 year old solicitor driving the Volvo).  Any traditional character, anyone portrayed as having religious sentiments, will prove to be the moral leper.

Outside the dramas, in the media world of culture and politics the white-male  is the “problem”. A problem that is doubly compounded if the white class male has the misfortune to be working class. White working class males, those who didn’t go to university, seem to the focus for the blame for most things that go wrong in the world. Recently he has been held responsible for Brexit and Trump on either side of the Atlantic.

So what is the outcome of this ? When the world is presented in a way that is quite different to how you know it to be.  When you are not shown as present, as having any part, in the world as it is wanted to be. When you are described as the problem rather than as part of the solution. What do you do ? I think you start to see this aspect of society as alien to you. You start to feel that their lives are far removed from yours. You start to think they must be in some removed group which has interests antithetical to yours. The idea of a “metropolitan elite“, which acts against your interests, seems to be a credible way to make sense of the of the cultural war that you find yourself.

The unintended consequence of these benevolent, but inaccurate, portrayals and this wishful thinking is to push people into reactionary positions and to make them hostile to they very changes you tried to foster. The consequence is that you create the very problem that you thought you already had. We have as people become more tolerate and welcoming over the years. As we become more familiar with our fellows we can only presume that this tendency will continue and improve. Any recent upsurge in bigotry and intolerance is likely to be due to the media’s cack-handed attempts at social engineering.

Voltaire (quoted in the title) was wrong, left alone, people tend to seek out others, they tend to cooperate and form relationships. Our instincts are social, they need to be as we are a social animal. The dangers arise when we are masses goaded or tempted into action. The horrors of our history are the results of the state encouraging us to to think en masse. The killing fields of Cambodia or the ovens of Auschwitz are examples of states altering how peoples think of their friends and neighbours, these nightmares need the individuals’ thoughts to be overridden to be possible. The dangers may be just as great when the results are unintended. Many in the UK and USA should be reconsidering whether their strategies to promote change are having the effects that they wished.

What is a fascist nowadays ?

 

This is an excellent article, with links to the original piece by Orwell, and well worth a read.

George Orwell Tries to Identify Who Is Really a “Fascist” and Define the Meaning of This “Much-Abused Word” (1944) — Open Culture

 

 

Image via Wikimedia Commons Two neologisms, “Post-truth” and “Alt-right,” have entered political discourse in this year of turmoil and upheaval, words so notorious they were chosen as the winner and runner-up, respectively, for Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year. These “Orwellian euphemisms,” argues Noah Berlatsky “conceal old evils” and “whitewash fascism,” recalling “in form and content… Orwell’s old…

via George Orwell Tries to Identify Who Is Really a “Fascist” and Define the Meaning of This “Much-Abused Word” (1944) — Open Culture