Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker: Last Tango The Video

What if Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker were characters from a scandalous 1970s movie? What sorts of things might they say to each other as they exchange knowing glances? This parody answers that question… Later, we discuss Theresa May’s approach to Brexit, and whether there’s a scientific explanation for why Brexit seems to have caused the political process to break down.

Having advertised the video in a “coming attractions” post, I’m glad to have completed it. Maybe not everyone shares my “out” sense of humour or will take the film references, but once I got the idea and made some preliminary sketches, I had to see it through.

What was most interesting was working on the graphics, spending a lot of time in Dynamic Auto Painter and Photoshop to come up with things that worked. The main image visible for most of the video is a composite of several versions done in DAP, then combined on layers in Photoshop, painting with white or black paint on the layer masks to bring out the best features of each. This is a good way to use tools like Dynamic Auto Painter. Keep experimenting until you have a few different versions that you like, then work on combining them into a composition that reflects careful aesthetic judgement, and is not merely a pushbutton exercise.

The final (abstract) image in the video is based on customising the “Sunflowers” preset in DAP, then adding more texture in Photoshop, running the Texturizer filter with different channels loaded, and combining the results using layers and modes.

When trying to create a more 3D paint texture in Photoshop, you usually want to inspect the different channels and choose the one which shows the most variation and contrast. In this case, even though the underlying image was RGB, I ended up converting it to CYMK and saving the yellow channel as a texturizing source.

Sidebar: Theresa May, Brexit, and Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem

I heard an interesting discussion on LBC regarding whether Theresa May could have handled Brexit differently, or whether she was compelled by political circumstances to follow the course that she did:

This is the episode of James O’Brien’s call-in show where the now famous “Dino The Doctor” made an appearance (toward the end), and was subsequently written up in the Grimsby Telegraph. There are other good callers from diverse backgrounds who help round out the discussion. O’Brien’s riffing is in top form. (Do the Brexit Okey Cokey!)

In theory, in a universe in which we each have absolute free will, Theresa May could have done things quite differently. But most of us tend to be bound by our past choices and the institutions to which we’ve hitched our fate. In practice, we are more like the man caught in a net who has only limited freedom of movement, which he might use to try and free himself.

One can find many things to admire about Theresa May; yet, she did not have the degree of insight or strength of character that would allow her to break free from her assigned role as deliverer of Brexit. Indeed, that was a role she volunteered to play for the Tory party. She may genuinely believe that Brexit was the product of a praiseworthy democratic process, and therefore must be delivered “for the people.” But to what extent does this view reflect institutional blinders, and the blinders that come from personal ambition? Once she saw herself as the hero-bureaucrat who would deliver Brexit, how could she bear to face the truth that Brexit is bad policy, and that lies and corruption played a considerable role in winning the vote for Leave?

I’ve also been pondering the myth that the day after the referendum, the 48% who voted Remain were supposed to roll over and play dead. Brexit is not the kind of issue that can be settled by a one-time referendum. The UK has been involved in a relationship with the EU for over forty years. Many individuals and businesses are deeply invested personally, emotionally, financially, even spiritually in that relationship. They care. It was never reasonable to think they would meekly consent to having that relationship ripped away from them. Contrary to claims by Nigel Farage, that’s not how democracy is supposed to work. The rights of a significant minority need to be respected. Difficult issues require nuanced solutions in order build consensus, and Brexit was anything but nuanced. Changes which are fundamentally destructive of an existing long-standing relationship should be difficult to enact, and should require a confirmatory vote.

Granted that the initial referendum was a terrible idea; still, I find myself wondering in hindsight if it would have been fairer had it been subject to the following conditions:

– Three fifths majority in the popular vote
– Majority of nations must vote Leave

I do think that would have been fairer, and obviously would have been a win for Remain. Where we are now, with Leave winning by a slender 4% majority in the popular vote, and two out of the four nations voting Remain, it’s a hopeless muddle that will take years to resolve, and a great many people who are barely surviving today may go under in the interim.

Now, is there any scientific reason why Brexit might cause the system to break down? The answer is yes. A parliamentary system of government is a type of formal system, and Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem tells us that every formal system is incomplete. A corollary to Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem is that it’s always possible to introduce a formula into any formal system which will cause it to break down.

I learned about this stuff by reading Douglas Hofstadter’s excellent book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid back in the day. He manages to be entertaining and funny while dealing with some profound concepts. He constructed a wonderful dialogue to illustrate exactly the point I’m making about formal systems and how you can feed them a proposition that will cause them to break down. Read it here. He uses the metaphor of a record player, i.e. phonograph (you know, like vinyl… what your grandparents still have.)

His dialogues often feature Achilles, the Tortoise, and the Crab. Here, a smooth-talking salesman has persuaded the gullible Crab to purchase a phonograph alleged to be Perfect — able to reproduce any sounds whatsoever. However, the shrewd Tortoise quickly dashes the Crab’s unrealistic expectations by bringing over a record entitled “I Cannot Be Played on Record Player I.” Sure enough, when the Crab attempts to play the record, the sounds produced create vibrations which cause the phonograph to self-destruct into a gajillion pieces!

Now, a democratic government is not a formal system in the precise way that Principia Mathematica is a formal system. Still, many people believe their system of government is Perfect and can withstand any shock, when the truth is that it’s possible to seriously foul up the system by feeding it garbage like the Brexit referendum or Donald Trump.

While no formal system is perfect, democratic political systems can be beefed up so that they’re more resistant to certain types of attacks. Democracy is more likely to flourish where you have:

– A well-educated public that doesn’t easily fall for racist propaganda or other appeals to base sentiment.

– Strictly enforced campaign finance laws which prevent dark or foreign money from influencing elections, and nullify the results if violations are uncovered.

– A free press which takes its responsibilities seriously and actively “truth-squads” claims by politicians, not permitting blatant lies to gain equal footing with established facts (a problem sometimes known as “false balance”).

Arguably, the way the Brexit referendum caused the system to break down is that it attempted to take a complex, multi-dimensional and highly technical issue about which people also feel passionately, and reduce it to a one-time binary choice — based, furthermore, on often misleading information. There is an element of falsity to doing this which is similar to introducing wrong figures into an equation, or attempting to divide by zero. Hence the breakdown.

It’s not easy to put Humpty Dumpty back together again after a rupture of this magnitude. Somewhat paradoxically or non-intuitively, a second referendum may actually help. The thinking is that a second referendum held three years later would be based on more accurate information, a more realistic assessment of what leaving the EU would actually mean, and a recognition that it would be a process which would take years to complete, and would involve “reinventing the wheel” in many areas of daily life where the UK already enjoys good solutions based on EU membership.

Then too, Brexit has been called “a solution in search of a problem.” One of the problems invented by politicians selling Brexit door-to-door was the notion that the UK had somehow lost its sovereignty and needed to get it back by leaving the EU. Such claims may have lost their lustre in the face of increasing factory closures and job losses due to Brexit.

Immigration was portrayed as nothing but a bother (or even a danger); but now that restaurants are closing because they can’t find sufficient wait staff, and the NHS is challenged to fulfill its social care mission due to lack of nurses, some Leavers are realising that European immigrants were performing vital functions in jobs that native-born Britons don’t want and won’t take.

Admittedly, there’s still the “fact vs. feeling” hurdle to get over. As I discuss elsewhere, the real world data flowing in mostly favours Remain, while Leave sentiment is still being aggressively stoked by Nigel Farage et al. If that’s not a breakdown, I don’t know what is.

Another concern about a second referendum is that Leavers will trot out the same bag of dirty tricks which (let’s face it!) worked so well for them during the first referendum. Would we see a Breaking Point II poster, and would another MP be assassinated by a crazed right-winger? Or has the general public become less gullible, less excitable in the intervening years, and would campaign finance violations be monitored more closely second time ’round?

I remain optimistic that truth will gradually out, and real world data will eventually overtake the type of faux patriotism (read jingoism) which Farage is peddling. If Brexit cannot be stopped today, then delay, delay, delay! Perhaps it can be stopped tomorrow through democratic means. Democracy includes a rich palette of tools, and it’s absolutely wrong when Leavers claim that a one-time referendum is the only tool in the kit that’s relevant to deciding the issue of Brexit. The UK’s relationship with the EU is something living, vibrant, and essential in the lives of millions of people. It will take more than a one-time binary referendum to kill it off. When MPs take a firm stand by voting against Brexit, that’s just as much a part of the democratic process as was the original referendum. They are not being undemocratic (nor are they “traitors”) for trying to protect against a bad policy that would actually harm their constituents. Indeed, under a parliamentary system it is their obligation to do so. If anyone can be accurately described as traitorous, it’s those who give in to the tide of populism and support Brexit in spite of privately admitting that it’s bad policy.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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European Parliament Elections – Free For All

A free ramble touching on elections, patriotism, true love, media cowardice, and referencing such diverse characters as Patrick McGoohan, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, James O’Brien, Nigel Farage, and Theresa May. Also reprising quotes on the problem of false balance.

“Free For All” was the title of an episode of The Prisoner which first aired in 1967. The title is sardonic because residents of The Village were not free. Elections weren’t free either, but they did descend into a free-for-all:

I always think of this Prisoner episode around election time, especially as politics grows more and more surreal, and what is odd or intolerable is “normalized” (to use a word which was absent from political discourse in 1967).

The Prisoner is (in part) about people living in a totalitarian technocracy; and what especially irks the main character (played by Patrick McGoohan) is that they have normalized the intolerable conditions under which they live. They enjoy electioneering as a community activity in spite of knowing it’s a complete sham; but perhaps “enjoy” is not quite the right word. They take perverse pleasure in playing out a role assigned to them with exaggerated gusto. So, these cheering crowds have a sinister quality, like those cheering for Mussolini in Fellini’s Amarcord.

It would be tempting to claim that I see the same sinister quality at Trump rallies or Brexit Party rallies, but in truth that is not the case. Those real world political rallies tend to be boring and insipid, because they’re attended primarily by people who don’t see very deeply into the nature of reality, or the character and motivations of the politicians they’re supporting. Most attendees are not downright evil or sinister, just frightfully dim, and prone to the character flaws which lack of insight can give rise to.

A theme which has emerged in some of my posts is: What is a genuine emotion? Since politicians and other salespeople are constantly pushing our emotional hot buttons in order to manipulate us, how can we be more discriminating in our responses to their stimuli, to propaganda? Can we learn to distinguish between emotions which are cheap and easy to produce (even through lying) and emotions which come from the core of our being and seem to radiate truth, or connect us with something truly eternal and greater than ourselves?

Patriotism is one of those emotions it’s difficult to question. Maybe people who attend Trump or Brexit Party rallies are genuinely patriotic. Or maybe like love (or what sometimes passes for love), patriotism can exist at a multitude of levels — some shallow, some more profound.

On her 1968 double album Any Day Now, Joan Baez sang nothing but Bob Dylan songs, including two which show how love can be viewed both cynically and idealistically. These are “Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word” and “Love Minus Zero/No Limit”:

Seems like only yesterday
I left my mind behind
Down in the Gypsy Cafe
With a friend of a friend of mine
Who sat his baby heavy on her knee
Yet spoke of life most free from slavery
With eyes that showed no trace of misery
The phrase in connection first with she occurred
That love is just a four-letter word

Outside a rattling storefront window
Cats meowed till the break of day
Me, I kept my mouth shut to you
I had no words to say
My experience was limited and underfed
You were talking while I hid
To the one who was the father of your kid
You probably didn’t think I did, but I heard
You say that love is just a four-letter word

I said goodbye unnoticed
Pushed forth into my own games
Drifting in and out of lifetimes
Unmentionable by name
Searching for my double, looking for
Complete evaporation to the core
Though I tried and failed at finding any door
I must have thought that there was nothing more absurd
Than that love is just a four-letter word

Though I never knew just what you meant
When you were speaking to your man
I can only think in terms of me
And now I understand
After waking enough times to think I see
The Holy Kiss that’s supposed to last eternity
Blow up in smoke, its destiny
Falls on strangers, travels free
Yes, I know now, traps are only set by me
And I do not really need to be assured
That love is just a four-letter word

Strange it is to be beside you
Many years, the tables turned
You’d probably not believe me
If I told you all I’ve learned
And it is very, very weird indeed
To hear words like forever, fleets of
Ships run through my mind, I cannot cheat
It’s like looking in a teacher’s face complete
I can say nothing to you but repeat what I heard
That love is just a four-letter word

My love, she speaks like silence
Without ideals or violence
She doesn’t have to say she’s faithful
Yet she’s true like ice, like fire

People carry roses
And make promises by the hour
My love she laughs like the flowers
Valentines can’t buy her

In the dime stores and bus stations
People talk of situations
Read books, repeat quotations
Draw conclusions on the wall

Some speak of the future
My love, she speaks softly
She knows there’s no success like failure
And that failure’s no success at all

The cloak and dagger dangles
Madams light the candles
In ceremonies of the horsemen
Even the pawn must hold a grudge

Statues made of matchsticks
Crumble into one another
My love winks, she does not bother
She knows too much to argue or to judge

The bridge at midnight trembles
The country doctor rambles
Bankers’ nieces seek perfection
Expecting all the gifts that wise men bring

The wind howls like a hammer
The night wind blows cold and rainy
My love, she’s like some raven
At my window with a broken wing

Love falls on strangers, travels free, and love (or what passes for love) sometimes results in loveless marriages and unwanted, unloved children; but love can also be true and constant, like ice, like fire.

Truth and constancy are wanting in our politicians, and in advertisers who flog us their products; and we have normalized the phenomenon of being lied to. These are, if not causes, at least symptoms of what ails us in modern life.

This allows me to segue into a recent interview with James O’Brien — a British journalist, radio talk show host, and author:

One of O’Brien’s points is that the media are not being honest or scrupulous in their treatment of our would-be leaders — not practicing good journalism. Their simplistic formula for a news segment is to get two people who hold opposing views to slug it out for a few minutes (or a few paragraphs). Lacking any reference point or North Star pointing towards truth, the outcome is decided more or less on force of personality, or who can most effectively appeal to base sentiments. A bounder like Nigel Farage rises to power because practically no one in the UK media is truth-squading him.

These problems are not new, nor is this analysis. A number of media outlets have, at one time or another, called attention to the problem of false balance and pledged to try and rectify or overcome it; yet we are still where we are. The BBC (which is, after all, a governmental institution) continues to believe — or act as if they believed — that pointing out when a politician is lying outright or contradicting his/her own prior statements would somehow be a “biased” thing to do. That culture in which truth and lies are treated as if coequal needs to change.

In a 2016 post, “Better Reporting on Religious and Ethnic Minorities,” I discussed the problem of false balance, and compiled some potent quotes which I reprise here. Rem Rieder writes:

No matter what the news media’s many critics believe, most journalists endeavor to be fair, to give both sides rather than choose sides. In that effort, there’s a tendency to print what someone says, print what the other side says and call it a day.

The trouble is, there isn’t always equal merit on both sides. So, in instances where one side is largely fact-based, and the other is spouting obvious nonsense, treating both sides equally isn’t balanced. It’s misleading.

Often journalists are reluctant to state the conclusions that stem from their reporting, out of the concern that they will appear partisan or biased. But just laying out both positions without going further in an effort to establish the truth can create [false balance]. And that doesn’t do much good for the readers and the viewers.

Journalism isn’t stenography. It’s not treating everything the same when it’s not the same. It’s about giving citizens information about public affairs that is as accurate as possible.

— Rem Rieder, “The danger of false balance in journalism,” USA Today

Katrina vanden Heuvel writes:

False equivalence in the media — giving equal weight to unsupported or even discredited claims for the sake of appearing impartial — is not unusual. … There are many sides to almost every story, but that doesn’t mean they are automatically equal. Unfortunately, too much of the media has become increasingly fixated on finding “balance,” even if it means presenting fiction on par with fact.

Ultimately, forcing balance where there is none is not journalistically ethical. It’s not part of the proud and essential tradition of truth telling and evaluation, either. At best, it’s lazy. At worst, it’s an abdication of the media’s responsibility.

— Katrina vanden Heuvel, “The distorting reality of ‘false balance’ in the media,” The Washington Post

According to The Economist:

Balance is easy and cheap. In political journalism, a vitriolic quote from each side and a punchy headline is all that is needed to feed the news machine. Who cares if substance and analysis are thrown to the wind? Journalism is a commodity. There is always a need for more “inventory” on which to place ads. Journalism, real journalism — the pursuit of truth — also creates inventory, but not as much, and it is difficult, costly and time-consuming. Far easier to bolt together a few pieces of trivial comment from political pundits and move on.

— “The balance trap,” The Economist

Maragaret Sullivan, [former] Public Editor at The New York Times, writes:

Hardly anything sends Times readers for their boxing gloves as quickly as does the practice of “he said/she said” reporting. (Here’s an extreme and made-up example just for the sake of illustration: “Some sources believe that the earth is flat; others insist that it is round.”) … In general, The Times tries to avoid letting two sides of a debate get equal time when one of them represents an established truth[.]

— Margaret Sullivan, “Another Outbreak of ‘False Balance’?” The New York Times

Ms. Sullivan also writes:

Simply put, false balance is the journalistic practice of giving equal weight to both sides of a story, regardless of an established truth on one side. And many people are fed up with it. They don’t want to hear lies or half-truths given credence on one side, and shot down on the other. They want some real answers.

“Recently, there’s been pressure to be more aggressive on fact-checking and truth-squading,” said Richard Stevenson, The Times’s political editor. “It’s one of the most positive trends in journalism that I can remember.”

You’re entitled to your own opinion but not to your own facts, goes the line from [late Senator] Daniel Patrick Moynihan[.] … The trick, of course, is to determine those facts, to identify the established truth.

The associate managing editor for standards, Philip B. Corbett, puts it this way: “I think editors and reporters are more willing now than in the past to drill down into claims and assertions, in politics and other areas, and really try to help readers sort out conflicting claims.”

Journalists need to make every effort to get beyond the spin and help readers know what to believe, to help them make their way through complicated and contentious subjects. The more news organizations can state established truths and stand by them, the better off the readership — and the democracy — will be.

— Margaret Sullivan, “He Said, She Said, and the Truth,” The New York Times

In endorsing a policy adopted by National Public Radio, James Fallows writes:

With these words, NPR commits itself as an organization to avoid the worst excesses of “he said, she said” journalism. It says to itself that a report characterized by false balance is a false report. It introduces a new and potentially powerful concept of fairness: being “fair to the truth,” which as we know is not always evenly distributed among the sides in a public dispute.

— James Fallows, “NPR Tackles ‘False Equivalence,’” The Atlantic

False balance can occur when journalists don’t distinguish between reliable and unreliable sources, or between scholarly research and popular prejudice. They fail to locate the “established truth.”

Not that truth-squading is a universal panacea. Some people simply prefer lies. As the Fleetwood Mac song goes, “Tell me lies, tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies.” (Or as is the case with some political or anti-religious propaganda: “Tell me ugly, hateful lies that just happen to coincide with my biased world view.”)

How do you fight feelings with facts? Some people claim it isn’t possible. But as I discuss elsewhere:

Offering a positive vision is helpful. Facts are also helpful to people who are halfway reasonable. A few people do change their minds in response to higher quality information flowing in… Insight is needed, but insight cannot be bought as cheaply as propaganda. Insight can come from many sources, including meditation, spiritual readings, and self-reflection.

Insight can also come from better education in civics. Civics courses need to be updated so that people emerge from the educational system better-armed to deal with propaganda, including propaganda which may target them via social media.

Insight and education are tools that can be used to lessen religious hatred. A high school and college textbook like Mary Pat Fisher’s excellent Living Religions  can help people gain insight into the world’s religions. Where there is insight and understanding, it is difficult for intolerance to take root. The feeling vs. fact dichotomy is not insoluble. Where people are exposed to an environment which stresses tolerance, this can have a mediating effect. Understanding which encompasses both head and heart may ensue.

Returning to the subject of James O’Brien: He can be a bit dark and cynical because he sees through much of what is false in British politics. Maybe his insights would find more converts if he could sprinkle in a few dashes of hope. For, yes there is hope — if not in politics, at least in music, art, and poetry, and (of course) spirituality. There are realms untouched and untrammelled by the lies of politicians or advertisers — realms of peace, bliss, and beauty.

As for the problems of this world… Another issue with the media is that they accept things at face value when they ought to be questioning what they’re being handed. A thing is often not what it says on the tin!

Theresa May says she has a brand spanking new deal for Parliament to approve regarding Brexit. So the mimeo-mad press writes headlines like “THERESA MAY’S NEW DEAL” or “THERESA MAY OFFERS 2ND REFERENDUM.” What nonsense! Has Theresa May gone back to Brussels and negotiated a new deal with the EU? No! It’s the same old deal for the umpteenth time, tarted up a bit to tempt those on the cusp. Does she now support a second referendum? No! She’s offering to vote on having a vote, but only after the House of Commons approves her deal. Then she’ll whip her party to vote as a bloc against a second referendum. It’s all smoke and mirrors; Labour is right to have no part of it. Any promises she makes on her way out the door can easily be reneged on by the next administration.

“You don’t like my anchovy-and-marmalade sandwich? Here, I’ll wrap it in some seaweed and put some lipstick on it. Now it’s a new sandwich! Isn’t it appealing?” “Oh yes, Auntie May,” reply the press. “Please give us more so we can write headlines about it!”

In spite of these discouraging signs, and the potential for Nigel Farage to win big in today’s European Parliament elections, I do remain hopeful. Truth does win out in the end, but it can take a very long time. One should not lose hope! It is better to be in the minority that sees clearly and speaks rightly than to condition oneself to enjoy anchovy-and-marmalade sandwiches and regard them as manna from Heaven!

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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Good Energy at the Change UK Presser on April 23

Discussing the breakdown of the two main UK political parties, and what recent local elections may tell us about Brexit. Also asking the trenchant question “How do you fight feelings with facts?”

I’m not saying I believe in politics to the nth degree. Often times, politics is where hope goes to die. It’s a rough business. So I continue to be amazed at the degree of hope (or hopefulness) expressed by the new Change UK party (affectionately known as the Tigs or Tiggers). I can only say that the sun continues to shine on them.

When someone starts a new venture, I’m a firm believer in looking to the consciousness with which that venture begins — the consciousness of the people involved. The consciousness of Change UK is very good. There’s a spirit of dynamism, cheerful cooperation, even joy. This differs greatly from the two major parties, who seem locked in extreme positions on many important issues, and who often find it difficult to get beyond politics as usual.

Both the Conservatives and Labour support Brexit (or at least their leadership does). What’s that about? Politics as usual. The truth that Brexit is bad policy and will hurt the UK and its people is a politically inconvenient truth, so it is ignored (or perhaps not even seen) by leadership of the two main parties.

When political parties ossify, they act to a considerable extent like blinders. Members can’t see or won’t see the truth which is right in front of them. It is sometimes necessary to break away and start a new party in order to embrace a new or modern vision of the world as it really is — not as it once was, or as various hardened political and economic theories would have it be. Of course, none of this is to suggest that there aren’t good people in the Conservative and Labour parties. Certainly there are, but they’re often constrained by the political machine.

At its best, Change UK is a group of former Labour and Conservative MPs who have now taken off the party blinders and walked out into the sunlight, metaphorically holding hands. There’s joy and freedom in that. That sense of joy and freedom is palpable in the way they present themselves.

There were many excellent speeches delivered by the women and men of Change UK on April 23. I happen to have been struck by a couple of comments from Chuka Umunna and Mike Gapes which I found forward-looking and reflective of a true and accurate picture of the world as it is:

If you (like us) love your country, and you believe the UK is a kind-hearted place, generous in spirit, and should be open to new ideas — people of different backgrounds, creeds, colours, and religions; if you are proud of our history, but also determined to embrace the future, and transform the UK into a place where all our citizens get to enjoy the benefits of modern Britain; if you believe absolutely key to achieving these things is working at an international level through the EU and other international partners, keeping our seat at the top table, then sign up as a supporter and campaign for us in these European elections. We must change our politics. We have to change the trajectory we’re on. If you want to bring an end to this Brexit nightmare, vote for us because we are the party of change. Thank you very much, everybody. – Chuka Umunna

One of the tragedies in British political history is that we have never discussed the reason why the European Community (and then the European Union) was established. We’ve never really put across the importance of bringing together France and Germany, and preventing war on the continent, and the fact that the European Union has been one of the greatest peace projects. And when the European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, in other European countries that was regarded as a badge of pride. In this country, we had cyncial sneers from the mainstream media, or even no recognition of the importance of that. And our [older] generation has to remember that these debates today are not about us. They are about future young people in our continent, and insuring that we maintain that peace, as well as the economic prosperity, the good environmental standards, the international cooperation, and the vision that the European Union provides to the rest of the world of a successful, peaceful cooperation between twenty-eight countries. – Mike Gapes

Listening to their comments, my reaction was Yes! They get it! They’re seeing the world as it really is today, and looking rightly toward the future.

Now, politics breeds cynicism as proliferously as rabbits breed more rabbits. The cloud of cynicism which envelops UK politics does indeed extend to journalists, who may well be sceptical that a small band of dissenters can be of much use.

I find it helpful to distinguish between political power on the one hand, and being right on the other hand. The two do not always go together. Often, those with political power have gotten it by foul means, including telling blatant lies to the people, or making compromises with the devil. Those with a clear vision of what is right and true often do not have much political power, but this doesn’t mean they are without influence.

This is a place where the political world meets the spiritual world. We desperately need visionaries, people who see the world as it is — not in the mundane sense of the price of halibut or the efficacy of rhubarb subsidies, but in the more profound sense of what brings us together as human beings, and how we can make the world a better place, not just locally but globally.

Of course, most politics is local and tends to be governed by self-interest. (‘And what will you give me?/ Say the sad bells of Rhymney.’) But in order to make the world a better place, we need to rise above petty self-interest and momentary advantage or gain, and embrace a vision for the future which we must first endeavor to see.

Politics is only one facet of that vision for the future, but politics plays an important role in how we move forward (or fail to do so). Politicians whose vision for the future is dynamic, enlightened, and consonant with that greater vision which proceeds from spiritual insight are really the gold standard among politicians, whether or not they hold much power. By being right and speaking rightly, they can move things in a good direction, even when acting from the margins. Plus, there is great personal salvation in speaking up for what you believe, even if no one listens!

Members of the UK’s two main political parties often have to “go along to get along.” This becomes distasteful to some people who hunger after truth. So, it becomes a personal decision whether one cares more for the old school tie and a safe home in politics (recalling the Peter Hamill song), or whether one cares more for truth unvarnished by political expediency. As the two main parties become increasingly shrill and wedded to inflexible ideologies, it stands to reason they will chalk up more defections from people who care more for truth. Perhaps there’s some indication of this in Friday’s local election results, where Tories and Labour lost ground to Lib Dems, Greens, and Independents. The numbers are impressive and are being interpreted by some as an anti-Brexit vote — if so, good news!

The BBC’s ‘England Scoreboard’ showing who lost and won in local council elections, May, 2019

There’s a very odd disconnect between those actual results — in which staunch Remain parties chalked up the greatest victories — and the claims of both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, who are trying to spin this as a “just get on with Brexit” vote. If you want Brexit to happen, you certainly don’t vote for Lib Dems or Greens. (Change UK were not standing in these elections. Their first major test will come in the European elections three weeks hence.)

I want to discuss one other item from the Change UK presser. A trenchant point was made by audience member Simon Knighton, who chairs a not-for-profit health and social care facility. He said:

I believe that you cannot challenge emotion with fact. So, one of the mistakes I think that we’ve made consistently in the United States and in the referendum here was that we tried to challenge the emotion of the right with facts and experts, and everybody saying this, this, and this, and we wheel out the next expert. I think what we need to do — Chuka said it — there are two visions of Europe: We need to accentuate the positive vision of Britain as a free partnership, modern demcocracy in a global world in which our young people are equipped to move from job to job to job. And those become the defining policies of our future.

Knighton’s point is similar to George Lakoff on not responding to negative framing, but rather creating your own positive frame. This is helpful, but not a universal panacea. As LBC broadcaster James O’Brien has pointed out, much of the Leave campaign amounted to telling working class folk that European immigrants are out to nick your biscuit, and the only way to stop them is to vote Leave. It’s not clear that talk of Britain as a free partnership, modern democracy in a global world, etc. would entirely dispel the fear of biscuit-nicking, which is more immediate and less abstract. Still, offering a positive vision is helpful. Facts are also helpful to people who are halfway reasonable. A few people do change their minds in response to higher quality information about Brexit as that flows in, dispelling fantasies of sunny uplands and a massive windfall for the NHS.

Knighton’s comment that “you cannot challenge emotion with fact” really got me thinking — not just about politics, but about my own activities favouring religious tolerance. There’s often a tacit assumption among intellectuals that simply explaining the facts should dispel hatred, intolerance, religious bigotry, or even belief in the much-storied Brexit Unicorn. In an article mostly about US politics, I wrote:

In his testimony before a British House of Commons committee, whistleblower Chris Wylie explained that the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica (of which he is former research director) doesn’t have to turn a profit like a normal company because it’s subsidized by New York billionaire Robert Mercer. It can therefore act as a covert means of funneling huge contributions to political causes handpicked by Mercer, regardless of supposed limits set by law. This is a concrete example of dark money being used to rig elections, employing hi-tech means as well as the latest psychological theories about how to manipulate voters by getting inside their heads and playing to their fears, using personal data scraped from Facebook.

This is the brave new world in which we presently live, where thinking people are held hostage to a populist majority which reacts slavishly to psychological stimuli supplied by political operatives obsessed with kingmaking. It is an ugly world, and just as we have a duty to leave our children a clean environment, we also have a duty to apply an emissions test to our politicians, rejecting and removing those who cast an odiferous pall over our nation, or pollute the seas of discourse with the toxic sludge of “alternative facts.”

At what point does political science become the science of psychologically manipulating the masses using lies, propaganda, fear, hatred, high technology, and stolen data? When people have been subjected to extensive psychological manipulation, including a large quantity of false and hateful depictions (such as graphics which Cambridge Analytica takes credit for, showing Hillary Clinton in handcuffs), how genuine are the resulting emotions?

These are difficult questions since at the populist level, people are taught to treat their emotions as sacrosanct. If the motto of the intellectual was once “I think, therefore I am” the motto of the Facebook consumer may be “I feel it, therefore it must be true.” Yet, emotions can be manipulated. How can we judge their genuineness?

Democracy works best in an environment of openness and honesty. Too much money (especially dark money) is one universal surd in the political mathematic. The use of covert psychological manipulation employing hi-tech means is another significant threat. It remains to be seen whether democracy can survive the dual onslaught of billionaires funding covert psyops to shoe in their handpicked candidates.

An enduring question for our time: How do you fight feelings with facts? How do you get people to look more deeply into their responses to political advertisements or other forms of propaganda which try to bypass reason and appeal to their least noble selves, their fears and prejudices?

Insight is needed, but insight cannot be bought as cheaply as propaganda. Insight can come from many sources, including meditation, spiritual readings, and self-reflection.

Insight can also come from better education in civics. Civics courses need to be updated so that people emerge from the educational system better-armed to deal with propaganda, including propaganda which may target them via social media. It seems plain that technology has moved faster than our ability to understand and assimilate it. While progress in technology is good, it also leads to new problems which must be soberly addressed.

The freedom of the Internet includes the freedom to spread propaganda in ways hitherto undreamt of. Propaganda has always been a danger to democracy because it leads people to vote not for the best-qualified candidates or those who appeal to our noblest selves, but rather for candidates who put forth false but tempting arguments, or who appeal to our base emotions and least noble instincts. At its worst, the Internet is propaganda on steroids, injected with greater precision using so-called “psychographic profiling” or other discreditable techniques which seek to identify extremists and rally them to a dubious cause:

One of the problems with politics as a dirty business is the potential for dirt to be done with plausible deniability. The Internet amplifies this problem. If you see a Facebook ad suggesting that the UK will be overrun by criminal aliens unless you vote Leave, is that ad being paid for by an authorised UK group, American billionaire Robert Mercer, or elements of the Russian government? Who really knows these days? It pays to be sceptical. Democracy can best flourish when there is open, respectful dialogue with voters, not when voters are subjected to psyops targeting their subconscious fears.

I don’t claim that Leave used nothing but illegal tactics. Much of what was done was simply politics as we know it. Quoting Leave campaigner and money man Arron Banks (who is under investigation by the National Crime Agency), “It was ruthlessly executed in a businesslike way, and we stayed on message.” But in a crooked game of poker, a hypothetical cheater doesn’t need to produce all aces all night long, in every hand. He can afford to pick his spots. In a referendum that was decided 52 to 48, how many percentage points are attributable to lies, cheating, illegal or immoral tactics? One percent? Two percent? Five percent?

I don’t pretend to have all the answers, and neither do Change UK. But they do seem to have above average insight, are asking many of the right questions about Britain’s future, and do dialogue respectfully with voters. They’re off to a rollicking good start. May the sun continue to shine on them!

Note: I have not elaborated on the relationship between political propaganda and religious intolerance, but propaganda vilifying some purported “other” is certainly a connecting link. At the present time, much political propaganda targets immigrants as the “other” to be feared and hated. Anti-religious propaganda similarly targets particular religions, leading to the horrific acts of violence we have seen targeting mosques, synagogues, and churches.

Insight and education are tools that can be used to lessen religious hatred. A high school and college textbook like Mary Pat Fisher’s excellent Living Religions can help people gain insight into the world’s religions. Where there is insight and understanding, it is difficult for intolerance to take root. The feeling vs. fact dichotomy is not insoluble. Where people are exposed to an environment which stresses tolerance, this can have a mediating effect. Understanding which encompasses both head and heart may ensue. Persons sought can be found. Help is available. Clarity is pleasurable. 🙂


Sidebar: The Independent Group and Mrs Pritchard

In February 2019, a group of Labour MPs defected from the party and formed their own centrist Independent Group (now Change UK), soon to be joined by a few Tory MPs. This has spawned vigorous debate about the role of independent parties, whether they can survive and thrive, what role money plays in UK politics, and how refugees from right and left-wing parties can coexist together. Many of these questions have already been addressed in the 2006 miniseries The Amazing Mrs Pritchard, written by Sally Wainwright. This clip consists of edited highlights from Episode 1, framing the issues for purposes of political discussion. Its relevance to Change UK is enhanced by the sense that both the fictional Purple Alliance and Change UK share a strong feminist component.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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