Sundown at Shakerley

By mid afternoon the low December sun is dropping towards the horizon behind winter-bare trees at Shakerley Mere, near Holmes Chapel, Cheshire.

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Winning

It’s in the nature of polarity that neither side can ‘win’. There is always a balance to be achieved in the creative interplay of opposites.

So what are we to make of the attitude of ‘winning’ and ‘losing’ in this context? Everywhere, it seems, we see groups fighting for their ideal and resisting ever compromising on what they see as ‘right’.

In the UK, the Brexiteers will never compromise on anything short of hard Brexit. The Remainers think a big mistake has been made, which must be reversed. The US thought it ‘won’ the cold war and sought to impose its will on the rest of the world.

Of course, you can win in sport, and you can apparently win in life. In 2000, the neoconservatives ‘won’ the direction of US policy for decades, by fair means or foul.

But you cannot cheat the polarity for ever. The chickens come home to roost if the balance gets too far out of kilter. Make inequality too great, and you get unrest, then revolution. Ignore the scientific evidence on climate and the climate comes back to bite you.

Populism thrives on simple ideas about ‘winning’. We desperately need to reach a more sophisticated level of discourse. Winning is illusory, and usually involves overriding or ignoring the necessary counterbalance.

Featured image. When England won. The queen presents 1966 World Cup to England captain Bobby Robson, via Wikimedia Commons

Too Much Reality?

“Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”

― T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets

Bush and Cheney: How They Ruined America and the World

I’ve had this book by Professor David Ray Griffin for some time, but hesitated to put it on top of the reading list. Having taken an interest in world affairs over the years, I sort of knew what it says. It’s still quite disturbing to see it all laid out in one place.

The neoconservative ideology, of which Dick Cheney was a major leader, had been around since the Reagan years, culminating in the articulation of the Project for the New American Century, aimed at maintaining American ‘full spectrum’ domination of world affairs. It seems that those ‘hanging chads’ in Florida in November 2000, and the resulting ‘stolen’ presidential election that brought George W Bush and Cheney to power allowed these ideas to have full effect. This had a profound impact on future decades, leading to the multiple crises we see today. Consider the contents of part I of this tome.

  • The failure to prevent 9/11
  • The nonsensical ‘war on terror’ and the Afghanistan war
  • The increase in military spending and policy of pre-emptive war and regime change (carried forward from the Reagan years)
  • The corruptly-justified Iraq war and incompetent dissolution of the Iraqi army that led to the formation of ISIS
  • The extreme Islamaphobia
  • The global chaos caused by America’s ‘war for the greater middle east’ – American supported insurrections in Libya, Syria, Yemen. (The policies were basically carried forward by Obama/Clinton/Kerry). The uncritical support of Israel’s unjust stasis. All this of course leading to Europe’s current refugee crisis.
  • The flouting of US and international law in drone killings and targeted assassinations, even of US citizens. A counter-productive policy that continues to this day.
  • Changing the US constitution that limited the ability of the Executive to make war, many violations of the first, fourth and fifth amendments, including warrantless searches, use of torture, capturing huge amounts of data as revealed by Edward Snowden.
  • Confrontation with Russia by moving Nato and weapons nearer to the Russian border, with the probable aim of regime change in Russia. Regime change in Ukraine that appears to have involved dirty tricks, as has the subsequent confrontation with Russia. Griffin suggests that similar confrontation with China led to the construction of the disputed islands in the China Sea. All this greatly increases the risk of nuclear holocaust.
  • Finally, the persistent denial and refusal to act on climate change and global warming has already closed the window on when the major problems could be averted. Continued refusal to act pushes us ever nearer climate breakdown (‘ecological holocaust’).

This first part of the book is profoundly depressing, and recalled the many occasions when I have personally recoiled at the grossness and lack of intelligence in the US’s policies.

You could just see this all as a grand conspiracy theory, but it seems that the cap fits. US exceptionalism and the thinking of Empire really is perhaps the greatest danger to today’s world.

But we do need to sometimes face the reality of the world as it is, in order to move towards a better world tomorrow. It should be clear to most thinking people that the US has been for two decades travelling up a long blind and self-defeating alley. Donald Trump just makes it all a bit more unpredictable.

Do they really want to be the Emperors of a dead world?

I thought this second Eliot quote might be appropriate, but I’m not so sure about the good intentions.

“Most of the evil in this world is done by people with good intentions.”

― T.S. Eliot

Maybe I’ll get to read part 2 of the book, on 9/11, when I’ve recovered.

Featured image of Bush and Cheney at 2003 State of the Union, from Wikimedia Commons

Justice and Generosity, Hierarchy and Equality

This fascinating post by Chris Lansdown explains why we form social hierarchies, despite their evident limitations. And why ‘ideal’ forms of organisation usually fail in the end.

Chris Lansdown

I recently said, on Twitter:

If you wish to understand how society always organizes itself:

Equals can get along if they have nothing to do with each other or both are generous to each other.

Superior/sub-ordinate can get along if both will be merely just to each other.

There was some interest in this so I’ll explain what I mean and why it is the case.

There are and have been many forms of social organization—democracy, republics monarchies, dictatorships, bureaucracies, clubs, churches, friends, families, neighbors, villages, cities, etc.—but they all share some basic traits because they are organizations of human beings and human nature imposes restrictions upon how human beings can be organized.

In a fallen world, one of the biggest problems which needs to be handled in human relationships is how to handle when two people’s wills diverge. There are only three possible outcomes: both get their way, one…

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Lapwings 2

These lapwings were on Neumann’s Flash at Anderton Country Park. Periodically they would fly up with that mesmeric leisurely flap of their large wings, flashing alternately dark and white as they circled around the lake, only to descend onto the water at almost the same point.

The distance was a bit of a challenge for the Panasonic TZ80 travel zoom I had in my pocket, but the longish zoom made a fair go of it (handheld).

lapwings 2Suitable resizing and cropping gave the featured image at the top, like an impressionistic painting. The characteristic lapwing crest is apparent.

Lapwings are also known as peewits (onomatopaeic), or green plovers. You can see the green clearly in the photograph. Apparently, outside the UK this is called the Northern Lapwing.

Interview with René Descartes

I recently came across this interview, dated 2001/1649.

Interviewer: Bonjour, Monsieur Descartes. Can I call you René?

Descartes: Allô, allô. Mais of course!

Interviewer: I have come back from the twenty first century to ask you a few questions. People there are very interested in your ideas, but you have been getting some bad press lately. Are you happy to take part?

Descartes: I think so.

Read More »

What was the problem?

I’ve never really understood the case for Brexit. What was wrong with over 40 years of peace and prosperity? Of course there were issues to be addressed, there always are. In a recent issue of The Times, Max Hastings neatly summarised the situation we, the UK, find ourselves in with Brexit.

Three years ago any thoughtful citizen could identify the principal problems facing Britain: productivity; Londonification; the flagging education system; a society financially skewed in favour of the old and against the young; Islamist extremism; funding of the NHS and welfare; stagnation of real earnings; job losses to technology.

None had anything to do with the European Union yet a faction of fanatics not only believed, but was successful in convincing millions of voters, that if we could only escape the thraldom of Brussels, a Heineken transformation would overtake the country, miraculously refreshing everything else.

I don’t agree with all of his list of problems, but leave that aside. Why did Britain stop worrying about the most important issues facing the country (many self-inflicted by Conservative austerity) and instead focus all its energies on the single issue of Brexit, as indeed it continues to do today?

The catalyst issue was immigration, which Brexit will probably in the end not significantly address because of sheer economic necessity. But how did the ideas become so prominent in the public domain, such that the Brexit vote was lost by the Cameron government against all expectations?

Essentially, the problems of the status quo were projected on to questions of nationhood and Europe because the political establishment and the media had not, since the New Labour years, seriously engaged with the European project. It appeared from the start that David Cameron insisted on being a right wing outsider in Europe, rather than a mainstream player, pandering to the right wing of his own party. When he needed European help with the immigration issue, the help was not there, because the bridges had not been built.

It did not help that a significant portion of the mainstream media were very anti Europe, reflecting the self-interested views of their rich owners, reinforced by the amplification of reactionary viewpoints in the ghettos of social media.

The final nail was the referendum, called to see off UKIP, in which it succeeded, but with the result no one expected.

But wasn’t the real problem more in London than in Brussels?

Mute Swans

Mute swans are common in the UK, possibly related to the fact that the Monarch retains the right to ownership of all unmarked swans in open water.

Mostly you see them in small family groups, but in some places such as Windsor there are large colonies. This group that we saw on Southport’s Marine Lake were clearly acting as a coherent grouping, speeding along together, like lads who’ve heard there’s free beer – presumably to meet up with others we’d spotted further along the water.

The single cygnet suggests that this is not a family grouping as such.

The case for a second poll grows by the day.

This post by Bruce Nixon repeats an article published by Peter Kellner in the New European 24 November. It is worth reading, as it articulates well an important facet of the debate about a possible second Brexit poll.

Perhaps the most important point Kellner makes is that on the age of voters.

We know that young voters are overwhelmingly opposed to Brexit, while older voters voted two-to-one to leave the EU.

He goes on to quantify:

Around 600,000 Britons die each year; a further 700,000 reach voting age. Taking account of polling data about older voters, and recent surveys of the views of new voters, and allowing for the fact that older electors are more likely to vote than younger electors, we find that…

demography alone is shrinking the Leave majority by almost 500,000 a year, or 1,350 a day. As the overall Leave majority in the referendum was 1,269,501, the effect is to cause the Leave majority to disappear on January 19, ten weeks before the scheduled Brexit day.

So, at the point of leaving, the majority for Brexit has disappeared. Now it’s a weird form of democracy that does not at least pause at this prospect, and check ‘Is this what you really want?’. Particularly when the deal on offer is manifestly worse economically than the status quo.



‘Everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile’

I just discovered Tim Jackson’s excellent website and blog, particularly this item with the above title. (Thank you, daughter.) Tim seems like the sort of economics thinker that we need so much, questioning the conventional wisdom that is not working, and pointing the way forward.

In the post he reminds us of Robert Kennedy and particularly his thoughts on the usefulness of GDP as a measure for the health of an economy.

The GDP ‘measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country… It measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.’

Robert F Kennedy, Kansas 18 March 1968

You can hear the Kennedy speech in greater length on the video included in the above blog item.

Tim goes on to identify a number of modern initiatives that give hope that the professionals in this area are really eventually going to move on from the obsession with GDP, which is stopping us from addressing many of today’s problems (I will not bore you by listing them all again). When will the politicians and media follow suit, one wonders? The obsession with GDP and ‘growth’ is still evidently pervasive in UK ‘mainstream’ discourse.

Of course, this is just one example of the modern business and political approach of managing by metrics, which gives the illusion of control, without actually addressing the real issues that need to be managed. Metrics can be useful, so long as you are aware of their limitations, and so long as they do not become the dominant factor in what you are managing.

As Tim reminds us, Robert Kennedy was assassinated a few months after his Kansas speech, while mounting his run for the US presidency. I well remember the devastating effect that event had on young people in the UK, including myself. Robert Kennedy seemed a beacon of hope in difficult times. How different history might have been…

Picture shows Robert Kennedy addressing a crowd in 1963, by Leffler, Warren K., via Wikimedia Commons

Sundown at Martin Mere

One of the delights of visiting WWT Martin Mere, Lancashire, in November is to see the feeding of the thousands of birds – ducks, waders, geese, whooper swans, with flocks of lapwings wheeling overhead, sometimes a starling murmuration, more geese and swans circling and descending gracefully onto the water,…

This is soon followed by the gradual descent of the sun to the horizon behind the mere, as the birds begin to settle for the night.

At such times all seems well with the world.

Black Tailed Godwit

A number of smaller birds were taking their chances in the mêlée of larger ducks, geese and swans at feeding time at WWT Martin Mere. I concentrated my camera onto these small waders, which turned out to be black tailed godwits. As waders go, they are reasonably large, much bigger than the delightful ruffs that were also scampering around.

Interesting features in these photographs are:

  • the comparatively huge feet of the pink footed goose in the first picture,
  • the seemingly transparent leg in the second picture and
  • the seemingly sinister coot in the background of the last one.

Sea Buckthorn

I was intrigued to know what was this colourful plant amid the marram grass on the sand dunes at Southport.

A bit of research shows that it is sea buckthorn. It is the plentiful berries that are so colourful, lit up by the low November sun. Like the marram grass itself, sea buckthorn has an extensive root system that is able to cope with the extreme environment of the sand dunes (which also helps to stabilise the dunes).

The featured image shows the berries, leaves and thorns closer up.

Southport pier

I tried a number of shots to get a good photograph of Southport pier. By far the best was this wide angle one taking in lots of sea and sand, reducing the pier itself to seeming insignificance.

The few breaks in the cloud, which is lit by low late afternoon sun, give colour in what might otherwise be almost a monotone picture.

You can see Blackpool tower on the horizon to the left of the pier.

Stubble field farmhouse

Today, after an unseasonably warm month, typical November weather has finally arrived – cold, wind, and rain. Yesterday afternoon, in marked contrast, we had balmy sunshine, giving wonderful light for photographs in the late afternoon.

I love the effect on this otherwise rather undistinguished Lancashire farmhouse, set on the edge of a stubble field.

Travellers in the Third Reich

The Rise of Fascism Through the Eyes of Everyday People

As one of a generation haunted by discovering the then-recent calamity of WW2, now disturbed by the rise in populism across the world, I found this a timely book by Julia Boyd.

It tells the story of the Third Reich through the eyes of people who visited or lived in Germany through the days of Adolf Hitler’s ascent to power, its consolidation, the increasing drumbeats towards war, and the war itself.

What is remarkable is how many people gave the Nazi regime the benefit of the doubt, despite the clear signs, such as the centralisation of all power, rescinding of civil liberties and press freedom, the early concentration camps, the persecution of Jews, the burning of books (all in 1933) through to Kristallnacht (1938) and the subsequent descent into war.

Of course, the desire to avoid another war was a major part of this, and there is the interesting story of Neville Chamberlain’s vain attempt to make peace in Munich in 1938, and Hitler’s dismissive attitude to the whole affair.

The book presents an interesting story, perhaps a bit long-winded at times. It certainly opened my eyes to some things, such as the fact that Germany welcomed English and American tourists throughout the 1930s, and many found the country very efficient and friendly, except where they came face to face with the persecution of Jews and supposed non-aryans.

The stories from the 1920s and early 1930s show that, after making a fair recovery from WW1, Germany was not in a good place after the shock of the great depression. The arduous reparation terms imposed by the Allies at the end of WW1 were a major cause of German suffering and dissatisfaction. It seems that these were major factors in the rise to power of Hitler.

The evident parallel today is the rise of populism following the 2008 financial crash, and the subsequent failure to make due reckoning with its causes. The missing factor today is there is no sense of national persecution similar to that caused in Germany by the WW1 armistice terms.  

In the case of Donald Trump and the US, it is maybe too early to say how far the parallels go – but he clearly came to the presidency by exploiting white male dissatisfaction with the status quo that had come about – economic, racial and misogynistic. On the positive side, the US constitution appears to be much more robust in resisting over-centralization of power than was Germany in the 1930s.


In the groove

Human societies get so stuck in a collective mental groove, like a railroad track, that they cannot see a way out of the predicaments caused by being in that groove. Take ‘jobs’. As automation gradually replaces many of the jobs that make society work today, we worry about where the future jobs are going to come from. For instance, what are all those lorry/taxi/delivery drivers going to do to earn a living when transport is automated? How are we going to generate enough taxes to adequately provision the public sphere and feed those who don’t have jobs?

The only answer is to get out of the groove.

  • Why do we need a 5-day-week job, why not 4 or 3 days?
  • Why does everybody have to have a ‘job’?
  • Why not a basic income for everyone that provides for minimal subsistence?
  • Why do countries across the world need to compete economically, and thus drive down standards of living for everyone, can they not co-operate?
  • Why is money created to the benefit of banks, not of people or of governance?
  • Why can’t we have a more equal distribution of wealth?

The answers lie in the human imagination. History suggests that crisis precedes the inevitable change. It doesn’t have to be that way. There are enough intelligent people on the planet, but many vested interests that do not want things to change…

The same is of course true about other issues, such as climate breakdown and its consequent travails. The forward scouts (scientists) have long told us the bridge is down on the track ahead, and the train will go over into the ravine if we stay on this track. We just need the imagination to change track.

Featured image by Mississippi Department of Archives and History – via Wikimedia Commons


Alcohol and gambling

We were sent to Methodist chapel every Sunday in 1950s Lincoln – morning service and afternoon Sunday School. This gave a good grounding in bible stories and hymn singing, and table tennis at the social club. Two messages became memorably ingrained into us – the evils of alcohol and gambling.

In the later teenage years, we tried beer at the local pubs. It turned out to be a good social lubricant, especially for a quiet lad like me, and we soon learned not to drink too much – the effects were most unpleasant. At university I discovered wine and that was that.

Gambling was a different matter. My dad did the football pools every week, so I got to looking at the weekly sheet that he had to fill in. At the back I noticed the ‘fixed odds’ where you could bet on the outcome of particular matches. This seemed more attractive to me than the general lottery entered by my dad. I used to notionally fill it in and then check on the results – I usually ‘lost’. But I became aware of the inner ‘pull’ of fixed odds betting, so never tried it out for real. So I can understand the attraction of the fixed odds betting terminals that have been the subject of recent controversy in the UK, where the maximum stake in a betting shop is being reduced from £100 to £2. Good thing too.

Gambling is highly regulated in the UK yet, since the relaxation of attitudes in the 1960s, plays a significant part in the economy. My own attitude to gambling has changed little since the 1950s, apart from the odd raffle ticket. Maybe that’s one up to my teachers at Chapel, or down to a wartime-induced attitude of frugality.

At times I’ve come across people who became addicted to alcohol or gambling – for them, yes these things really are evil. And Alcoholics/Gambling Anonymous provide a necessary salvation.

Featured image from 1857 report by James Haughton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Squirrel silhouette

It’s a busy time of year for grey squirrels, gathering and hoarding ready for winter. We spotted this one high in the bare branches, perfectly silhouetted against the midday November sky near Marston, Cheshire. With strong backlighting and a maximum zoom shot, there’s no detail in its features. The result is a pleasing, almost monochrome composition.

The Business Plan for Peace – Building a World without War

For many years Scilla Elworthy has been putting forward her ideas for a plan for peace. Here Bruce Nixon’s excellent post reviews her recent book. It’s about time the media took more notice of the need to invest in peace, rather than in war.

Bruce Nixon

Scilla

As I begin to write, it is Armistice Day when we honour the dead on both sides of the conflict. The best way to honour all those who lost their lives in the Great War and subsequent wars would be to commit to end war for good. In her book Scilla Elworthy shows us how this can be done. Her key message is: War is past its sell-by date.

 

This is a marvellous book both visionary and, as the title implies, hard-headed and pragmatic. It’s based on years of practical experience of peace-making and the prevention of violent conflict.

Key Themes

 

At the heart of this book is the belief that humans have the capacity to evolve and become more humane. There is a growing change of consciousness centred in Europe and much of North America. Thus peace and a future without mass violence is possible. Journalists on…

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