The search for truth in politics…

…life and art, with nods to Monty Python, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Kurt Vonnegut, and Hannah Arendt. Also, what can the Vietnam War teach us about Brexit? Are there general symptoms of a bad government policy which we should be on the lookout for? Plus, Cambridge Analytica videos.

Lies Mar UK Election Results

With apologies to Boris boosters, there remains some question in my mind as to whether Johnson really has a ‘mandate from the people’ to do anything he pleases (as many in the media are claiming). To the extent that the election was marred by lies, he may lack an ethical mandate; and even some Tory voters would question his entitlement to autocratic carte blanche.

Consider this in the Independent: “Almost every Tory ad dishonest, compared with none of Labour’s, research finds.” And note well this comment by ‘Dianelos’:

It has become quite evident that democracy has stopped being an effective means, as exemplified by how people in countries such as the US and the UK (not to mention Greece) have voted against their interest and have given power to completely inadequate and indeed grossly immoral leaders. The reasons for that phenomenon are complex and the discussion of how to improve the democratic process is both difficult and urgent. But some corrective steps can be taken quickly: One obvious and significant reason for democracy’s affliction is that lying has become a legitimate tool of politics because voters often recompense those politicians who lie. Things have deteriorated so much that some have come to admire as especially successful those politicians who become popular thanks to lies that people like to hear. One solution to this problem is to criminalize lying. Since it’s not always clear whether politicians lie because they wish to con people or because they are just misinformed themselves, I’d say the appropriate punishment rendered by a court of law would be to strip the offenders of their right to be candidates for political office.

And since it’s not just politicians but also media organizations which systematically misinform the people the punishment in that case should be a heavy fine. Media organizations are private companies looking to make a profit, and unfortunately to misinform people is often an effective way to make money. This distortion of capitalism can be corrected by legal means.

In both cases justice should be rendered very quickly – within a matter of days. So a new kind of court would be needed. But it is doable.

There are some good ideas here — and some difficulties. Politicians often include microscopic scraps of truth along with a passel of exaggerations and mischaracterisations. Those scraps of truth are meant (in theory) to shield them from being branded outright liars. They may spin the truth in a variety of ways, including emphasising irrelevant details over crucial ones. I’m reminded of the classic Monty Python cheese shop sketch, in which a customer enters the shop only to gradually discover that no matter what kind of cheese he asks for, the owner claims it’s out of stock. After awhile:

Customer: It’s not much of a cheese shop really, is it?
Owner: Finest in the district, sir!
Customer: And what leads you to that conclusion?
Owner: Well, it’s so clean!
Customer: It’s certainly uncontaminated by cheese.

One can picture a scenario where the UK economy has tanked post-Brexit, but Boris Johnson continues to claim that it’s humming along on all four cylinders due to a ‘fantastic’ free trade deal with Swaziland: “They’ll be sending us goat meat, and we’ll be sending them videos of Downton Abbey.”

That’s as may be (said the man in the crunchy frog sketch), but deals with Swaziland, Sierra Leone, Lichtenstein, Grand Fenwick, and other smallish countries are unlikely to offset losses from lapsed trade deals with major partners. Beautiful plumage, the Norwegian Blue. Yes, but it’s dead. (See also this regarding the ‘blue-lipped bojo.’)

If lying is criminalised, how much truth is needed to act as a fig leaf? Separating out the convoluted claims of politicians isn’t always easy. Said claims aren’t always reducible to the binaries of true and false, but rather invite us to ponder “How many Pinocchios does this claim deserve?” (Boris Johnson collects Pinocchios the way some people collect swizzle sticks.)

Truth is a concept which deeply engages ethicists, civil libertarians, historians, and spiritual seekers. “What is truth?” asked Pontius Pilate of Jesus in that famed confrontation. Historians know that truth is determined by the victors. In times of excessive populism truth is determined by the mob, drowning out more reflective views from the margins, including spiritual insights which might serve as cautionary tales. (Under Boris Johnson, will 10 Downing Street become a place “where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal”?

It might be relatively easy to criminalise the telling of massive, Trump-sized porkies, but questions requiring nicety of judgment would still remain elusive. Judges are, after all, lawyers installed through a political process; and juries consist of lay people who may themselves fall victim to popular prejudices. Can a judge and jury determine the existence or non-existence of God, or ferret out the differences between Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism? Waxing Pythonish again: “Tonight, instead of discussing the existence or non-existence of God, they have decided to fight for it… To be determined by two falls, two submissions, or a knockout. All right boys, let’s get to it. Your master of ceremonies for this evening – Mr Arthur Waring.”

There’s clearly a need for greater truth in our collective societies, but we do run up against the postmodern dilemma of having no ultimate authority, no final referee. People must be free to discuss different ideas, different theoretical constructs and life experiences without fear of prosecution. In these debased times, we may well ask whether any but a small minority even care for truth. See “The Truman Show and Finding Reliable Spiritual Sources.”

Does truth itself partake of a multidimensional quality or ‘fusion of horizons’ in which seeming opposites might be reconciled? Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics calls for skills like listening, dialogue, partnership and empathy — skills which are conspicuous by their absence in today’s political climate, where truth is determined by which colour rosette you’re wearing.

For more on Gadamer, see Art and Hermeneutics Part 1 and Part 2, where I try to provide a fun introduction to some challenging concepts, while learning myself. A footnote is that it’s easier to reconcile opposing truths in art than it is in politics. What was it F. Scott Fitzgerald said? “An artist is someone who can hold two opposing viewpoints and still remain fully functional.” As I wrote previously:

Music is far more instructive than, say, a polarized political debate for understanding [Gadamer’s] fusion of horizons. In the typical political debate to which we are subjected, two politicians with fixed points of view slug it out, neither hearing the other or learning from the other, and neither being changed by the other’s point of view. But music by its very nature requires cooperative skills. Rather than treating the other as the enemy, a sensitive musician fuses with the other and counters in a manner which presents the other in the best light.

Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics has a distinctly modern feel to it because it implies the abandonment of the fixed point of view clutched fiercely (and leading to strife or warfare). In its place, we are offered (as a people) the opportunity to engage in listening, dialogue and empathy, and to experience a fusion of horizons which allows us to understand what we had perhaps previously regarded with consternation, suspicion or hostility.

Gadamer’s approach is well-suited to the global village. It is recognized as anti-dogmatic in nature and humble in its awareness that the other’s viewpoint may be equally valid. It carves out a helpful middle ground between absolutism and relativism, holding out hope that through dialogue we might gain essential insights that would allow us to live together, respecting diversity without obliterating difference.

Kurt Vonnegut was no great beacon of truth, but in his novel The Sirens of Titan he did reframe the search for some unified field theory in this fetching manner:

Almost any brief explanation of chrono-synclastic infundibula is certain to be offensive to specialists in the field. Be that as it may, the best brief explanation is probably that of Dr. Cyril Hall, which appears in the fourteenth edition of A Child’s Cyclopedia of Wonders and Things to Do. The article is here reproduced in full, with gracious permission from the publishers:

Chrono-Synclastic Infundibula — Just imagine that your Daddy is the smartest man who ever lived on Earth, and he knows everything there is to find out, and he is exactly right about everything, and he can prove he is right about everything. Now imagine another little child on some nice world a million light years away, and that little child’s Daddy is the smartest man who ever lived on that nice world so far away. And he is just as smart and just as right as your Daddy is. Both Daddies are smart, and both Daddies are right.

Only if they ever met each other they would get into a terrible argument, because they wouldn’t agree on anything. Now, you can say that your Daddy is right and the other little child’s Daddy is wrong, but the Universe is an awfully big place. There is room enough for an awful lot of people to be right about things and still not agree.

The reason both Daddies can be right and still get into terrible fights is because there are so many different ways of being right. There are places in the Universe, though, where each Daddy could finally catch on to what the other Daddy was talking about. These places are where all the different kinds of truths fit together as nicely as the parts in your Daddy’s solar watch. We call these places chrono-synclastic infundibula.

It might be Gadamer for preschoolers, but how can we apply this wisdom in a practical way? Simply transport Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn to a chrono-synclastic infundibulum, and there they will agree!

Hannah Arendt’s “Lying in Politics”

I recently stumbled on this 2016 article by Maria Popova rich in quotes from Hannah Arendt’s 1971 essay “Lying in Politics.” The original essay includes detailed discussion of the Vietnam War and the (then newly released) Pentagon Papers, but Popova has extracted quotes which are more universal and relevant to recent political crises. Those ‘teaser’ quotes inspired me to read the original.

It’s easy to see why there’s been a resurgence of interest in Arendt. Those who are gobsmacked by the rise of Trump and the general decline of truth will even look so far afield as simulation theory, which posits that some advanced race in the future has created our world as a computer simulation; and in order to liven things up a bit or stress-test our system, they’ve installed Donald Trump in the White House. I consider simulation theory nonsense suitable for enriching lawns, but it is a barometer of how perplexing the present situation has become, and how desperate people are for explanations. Arendt is one of the few political theorists in the past half-century to deal specifically with the connection between lying in politics, populism, and totalitarianism. So like Jonathan Winters in that old Twilight Zone episode “A Game of Pool,” she’s now on call 24 hours a day. 😉

Decades before Trump’s counselor Kellyanne Conway coined the term “alternative facts,” Arendt had already written incisively about the problem of “defactualization” in politics and government:

The first explanation that comes to mind to answer the question “How could they?” is likely to point to the interconnectedness of deception and self-deception. In the contest between public statements [about the Vietnam War], always over-optimistic, and the truthful reports of the intelligence community, persistently bleak and ominous, the public statements were likely to win simply because they were public. The great advantage of publicly established and accepted propositions over whatever an individual may secretly know or believe to be the truth is neatly illustrated by a medieval anecdote, according to which a sentry, on duty to watch and warn the townspeople of the approach of the enemy, jokingly sounded a false alarm, and was the last to rush to the walls to defend the town against his imagined enemies. From this, one may conclude that the more successful a liar is, the more people he has convinced, the more likely it is that he will end by believing his own lies.

In the Pentagon Papers, we deal with people who did their utmost to win the minds of the people, that is, to manipulate them, but since they labored in a free country where all kinds of information were available, they never really succeeded. Because of their relatively high station and their position in government, they were better shielded—in spite of their privileged knowledge of “top secrets”—against this public information, which also more or less told the factual truth, than those whom they tried to convince and of whom they were likely to think in terms of mere audiences, “silent majorities,” who were supposed to watch the scenarists’ productions. The fact that the Pentagon Papers revealed hardly any spectacular news testifies to the liars’ failure to create the convinced audience which they then could join themselves.

Still, the presence of what [Daniel] Ellsberg has called the process of “internal self-deception” is beyond doubt, but it is as though the normal process of self-deceiving were reversed; it was not as though deception ended with self-deception. The deceivers started with self-deception. Probably because of their high station and their astounding self-assurance, they were so convinced of overwhelming success, not on the battlefield but on the grounds of public relations, and so certain of the soundness of their psychological premises about the unlimited possibilities in manipulating people, that they anticipated general belief and victory in the battle for people’s minds. And since they lived anyhow in a defactualized world, they did not find it difficult to pay no more attention to the fact that their audience refused to be convinced than to other facts.

The internal world of government, with its bureaucracy on one hand, its social life on the other, made self-deception relatively easy. It seems that no ivory tower of the scholars has ever better prepared the mind for wholly ignoring the facts of life than the various think tanks did for the problem-solvers and the reputation of the White House for the President’s advisers. It was in this atmosphere, where defeat was less feared than admitting defeat, that the misleading statements about the disasters of the Têt offensive and the Cambodian invasion were concocted. But what is even more important is that the truth about such decisive matters could be successfully covered up only in these internal circles by worries about how to avoid becoming “the first American President to lose a war” and by the always present preoccupations with the next election.

So far as problem solving, in contrast to public relations managing, is concerned, self-deception, even “internal self-deception,” is no satisfactory answer to the question “How could they?” Self-deception still pre-supposes a distinction between truth and falsehood, between fact and fantasy, which disappears in an entirely defactualized mind. In the realm of politics, where secrecy and deliberate deception have always played a significant role, self-deception is the danger par excellence; the self-deceived deceiver loses all contact, not only with his audience but with the real world which will catch up with him, as he can remove only his mind from it and not his body.

– Hannah Arendt from “Lying in Politics” (footnotes omitted)

Arendt’s prose can be dense, but her ideas provide significant food for thought. She endeavours to answer the question “How could they?”, which is an enduring moral and practical one. When facts no longer matter, theories can run wild, and theorists may be well-insulated by the political bureaucracy and culture, so that they don’t see the bodies on the ground — whether the bodies of napalmed Vietnamese villagers, or the (more recent) “children in cages” which are a result of the Trump administration’s family separation policy. (Think also Windrush scandal.)

In a defactualized environment, it is not only the targets of deception who suffer. The deceivers themselves ultimately become casualties, because they lose contact with reality. The narcissist spins a version of reality in which he is always at the centre of the universe, always the star, and always right. In the case of Trump, he cannot tolerate the notion that it rained on the day of his inauguration, or that Obama had a bigger crowd. So the event must be defactualized to conform to his unreal expectations.

However, life is (among other things) our way of training for death, disease and suffering. Having lost contact with reality, the narcissist eventually encounters great suffering. His ego has become brittle; therefore, when death, disease and suffering overtake him, he is shattered.

Spiritual philosophy can help us gain insights into the human condition, as well as the Divine Nature. It can help us lead our lives consciously, with humility, understanding our limitations and weaknesses, and striving to overcome them. We have to accept reality before we can transform it.

Death is a part of life, not in a morbid sense, but in the sense that it is the completion of a cycle. The narcissist is not conscious of his own mortality, or refuses to accept it because the notion would rain on his parade. Therefore, how can he accept life, or make sound decisions in life-or-death matters? He is obsessed to an unnatural degree with preserving an illusion, therefore he is untrustworthy.

Arendt’s analysis of the Vietnam War in “Lying in Politics” includes many insights which help to explain Brexit. In fact, we can use it to derive a general profile of a potentially bad government policy, based on a list of common symptoms:

Symptoms of a Potentially Bad Government Policy

– defactualization (in which facts about the policy no longer matter, being ‘trumped’ by rhetoric)

– shifting rationales for the policy, while the policy itself remains the same

– reports penned by civil servants showing actual effects of the policy, but marked CLASSIFIED, SECRET, or SENSITIVE

– such reports, when leaked to the public, denied as to their accuracy by senior politicians

– the policy persisting even after any initial justification for it has been thoroughly debunked

– an overarching concern with public perceptions about the policy, rather than actual results (image over substance)

– the supposed benefits of the policy are largely theoretical, while the problems associated with pursuing the policy are real world problems

– the policy takes on the air of an end in itself, rather than a means to an end

– early indicators that the policy may be ineffectual, detrimental, or even morally unconscionable are ignored

– because such early indicators are discouraging, the policy ultimately becomes a matter of faith, or a shibboleth of party loyalty or patriotic sentiment

– media reports calling attention to drawbacks of the policy are branded ‘unpatriotic’ or ‘fake news’

While this is anecdotal, I’m reminded once again of the ITV report about British fruit rotting on the vines because EU seasonal workers are no longer willing to brave the ‘hostile environment’ consciously created by successive Tory governments, culminating in Brexit:

To my knowledge, none of the people sporting ‘Believe in Britain’ or ‘Get Brexit Done’ stickers have been willing to go and pick that fruit. This is one early indicator that the ideals of Brexit are out of alignment with the reality on the ground. In the real world, the UK made a decision 45 years ago to become more closely interdependent with other European nations. Such increased interdependence was and is the direction in which the world is moving; and while not unproblemmatical, this movement is largely for the best. Early indicators suggest that retrograde motion a la Brexit may be ineffectual, detrimental, or even morally unconscionable in its impact on the poor, and those in need of social care.

Further Thoughts, and Cambridge Analytica Videos

Each individual has to care for truth. This comes down (in part) to education, ethics, and insight. Unfortunately, the more you cut education funding, and the more you propagate a purely materialistic view of the universe, the less people will care about lying politicians, as long as they’re entertaining on telly and appeal to the lowest common denominator of human emotions. That is why, in one of my earliest posts about Boris Johnson, I noted that as with Donald Trump, his rise to power represents a triumph of entertainment value over character value.

Each individual has free will. Those who have proved untrustworthy in the past may yet redeem themselves and develop trustworthiness. But that’s an iffy proposition, given the leopard/spots conundrum. Those who choose to trust Boris Johnson today may want to consider his very recent betrayal of the DUP.

The problem of lying politicians cannot be considered in isolation from questions about the use of modern technology as a weapon for disseminating propaganda, about how elections are funded, and about transparency. We are nearing the point (or have perhaps already passed it) where those who can afford to buy the best tech can gain unfair advantage having little to do with the quality of their ideas, character, or truthfulness. Manipulation of the masses has become part science, part dark art — and such systematised manipulation poses a very real threat to democracy. Taken together, these four videos concerning Cambridge Analytica underscore the problem:

There’s a kind of story arc to the sequence. The first video includes footage from November 2015, with Cambridge Analytica’s Brittany Kaiser seated next to Arron Banks, explaining how her company would be helping Leave-dot-EU. The last video is a 2019 interview with Kaiser, who has since written a tell-all book highly critical of Cambridge Analytica. She continues to maintain that CA did help Leave-dot-EU win the Brexit referendum. In between are various clips of CEO Alexander Nix denying that CA helped win the Brexit referendum, and elsewhere bragging that it did. As the old Clairol ad goes: Only his hairdresser knows for sure…

The story arc also spans a period encompassing both Cambridge Analytica’s existence and its demise. As France 24 interviewer Jessica Le Masurier notes at time 10:17 in the final video: “Cambridge Analytica is defunct, yet there are many other new or pre-existing companies doing exactly the same thing.”

Of many possible takeaways, one is the palpable perception that voters aren’t being ‘persuaded’ in the traditional (and acceptable) sense. Rather (and especially in the third video concerning Trinidad elections), voters are being subjected to psyops of which they are wholly unaware, by cynical manipulators who seek to actively exploit them. Those Trinidadians persuaded by Cambridge Analytica not to vote at all were seemingly manipulated into doing something which would harm their own (obvious) self-interest in having political representation. This is a form of fraud, but not necessarily one that’s on the statute books.

The implication is that hi-tech con men with big money bankrollers have found ways to undermine the democratic process — putting their thumb on the scale to the tune of a few percentage points, thus changing the outcome. Those touting their ability to win votes through psychological manipulation may exaggerate, but there seems little doubt that their machinations do have some effect. That effect is difficult to quantify, not only because they operate in the shadows, but because the nature of the con is such that if it is done well, voters won’t even be conscious of how they were conned (as in the 1973 crime drama The Sting).

In 2014, prior to the ascendancy of Brexit as a populist movement, it does not appear that there was any great demand on the part of the voting public to leave the EU. The concept had to be mass-marketed and invested with emotional energy, so that by the end of 2019 many voters would end up feeling passionately that “We must get Brexit done!” (Why? Rationale for the policy has continued to shift. Outside the UK, Brexit is widely considered a “solution in search of a problem.”)

There are also deep metaphysical questions related to the issue of lying. What is the nature of Reality? Put into a succinct Einsteinian equation, R = WL + I. That is, Reality equals White Light plus Illusion. If there were zero illusion, then there would just be white light — no creation at all. But when there is too much illusion, then life becomes painful and incomprehensible, as it is for people who suffer from severe mental illness.

So we cannot force or extract absolute truthfulness from anyone, but still there needs to be some shared standard below which we should not fall as individuals, or as a society. That is at least the concept underlying laws against perjury, libel, and securities fraud. Not all forms of persuasion are ethical or legal. Yet, as noted in the Independent article:

Some 88 per cent of the most widely circulated Tory ads during the first four days of December included inaccurate claims, according to disinformation tracking organisation First Draft.

The ads included false claims about the NHS and income tax, as well as the Labour Party and its plans, it said.

Many of those ads – such as the misleadingly edited video of the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer – would be banned if they were commercial advertising, noted the non-partisan Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising (CRPA) in a new report. [Editor’s note: Their acronym comes with a warning for dyslexics.]

Now, it must be said that lies are already omnipresent in commercial ads for products and services — for example, in the form of puffery and speeded-up (or illegible) disclaimers. My friends at Mystery Science Theater 3000 once created a satire on toy commercials which included the disclaimers “Some parts may not exist” and “Some parts may be made of chicken”!

If politicians cannot be held to even the low standards of commercial advertising, then surely something is amiss! Politicians are also lawmakers, and if they’re benefiting from lies and graft, then how can you force them to pass strict laws against lying and graft? Here in the US, we have some (not very effective) laws against telemarketing, but the politicians conveniently exempt themselves from such laws, so in election season you may be bombarded with calls from bots programmed to play you pre-recorded campaign ads. Likewise, there are laws against libel, but there are also loopholes which (under some circumstances) exempt MPs, Congresspeople, and the owners of social media sites (even if they profit from the libel).

When is graft not graft? When it becomes widespread in the form of cronyism or regulatory capture. One pernicious form of regulatory capture occurs when a regulatory agency is stuffed with personnel from the industry it’s supposed to be regulating, or with personnel who largely oppose regulation of the type which is the agency’s core mission. For example: stuffing an agency which was set up to combat global warming with climate change deniers, or lobbyists from the oil, gas, and auto industries, who then proceed to lower emissions standards. See “EPA staff say the Trump administration is changing their mission…” or my own “Scott Pruitt Jokes,” which purports to reveal the (former) EPA chief’s day planner.

The relevance is that the Tories, including Boris Johnson himself, have been accused of being in thrall to an elite dining club consisting of rich donors from the hedge fund industry, fossil fuel industry, as well as a Russian contingent. See, for example, the Open Democracy article “Who’s behind the ‘dark money’ bankrolling our politics?” As with many such articles, there is no claim of outright illegality, but the appearance of cronyism, and the implication that the Tories’ primary mission is to please their mega donors by moving the UK in the direction of a low tax, low regulation, low services ‘Singapore-on-Thames.’

Big money from elite mega donors is arguably what fuels the Tory steamroller with its big media buys. Yet, Boris Johnson is a populist figure who’s good at selling elitist policies like Brexit to working class voters. So, the trust issues surrounding Johnson are not just about his pliable relationship with the truth, but the concern that he may be a wolf in sheep’s clothing, pitching pleasant-sounding One Nation platitudes while advancing a long-term agenda which is harmful to workers and the environment. Time will tell.

A great many people have placed their ‘confidence’ in Johnson and ‘supplied’ him with votes. It remains to be seen whether he will repay them in the same manner he has repaid the DUP. After Johnson’s blindingly obvious betrayal of Nigel Dodds, Dodds was handed the proverbial ‘one-way ticket to Palookaville’ by voters in Northern Ireland. Politics remains a cutthroat business.

No one knows for certain how Johnson will govern, but one thing to watch out for is a continued cognitive dissonance between Tory statistics claiming that life is getting better and better every day (in every way), and the evidence of one’s own eyes. If the epidemic in food bank usage and rough sleeping continues to worsen, the book of NHS horror stories continues to thicken, and life after Brexit seems filled with privation, then mayhaps trust in Johnson will prove to have been misplaced. After years of Tory austerity, turning on the money spigots for a short period post-election should not be allowed to confuse the issue.

I should really punctuate this post with a freshly made Bojo parody pic, but haven’t got one ready. So how about this: Here’s Bojo holding up a blank cue card. Make your own meme!

Or you can always fall back on this cornucopia of Boris Johnson Funnies. Collect them all!

From about a year ago (meant purely in fun):

I will close with one more Cambridge Analytica exposé for good measure

Michael Howard

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

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Boris Johnson: Too Clever By Half

Latest Brexit news. Johnson’s “three letters” strategy for weaseling out of the Benn Act and Letwin Amendment is sure to infuriate Remainers. But how will the Scottish court react, and will Johnson’s two-faced (or many-faced) behaviour gain him political advantage?

No question about it: At the populist level where Johnson currently hangs, this latest brush with unlawful behaviour is seen as a hearty f-ck you to Hilary Benn, Oliver Letwin, the Scottish Court of Session, and Remainers in general. But will the tactic succeed or backfire?

My guess is that Johnson will lose in the Scottish court, and then in the Supreme Court, but may score political brownie points by showing himself to be recklessly obsessed with leaving the EU, thus giving Nigel Farage a run for his money.

Money is indeed what worries me at this juncture. The Tories have always been the party of big money, and I wouldn’t put it past them to find a couple of billion with which to essentially bribe some DUP and Labour MPs to vote for Johnsons’s deal. It might be dirty money, but by the time an investigation uncovers this, Brexit may be done and dusted. (I’m speaking hypothetically here. I possess no evidence of actual wrongdoing.)

The three letters strategy undoubtedly seems clever to Johnson and his cronies, but looks rather bonkers to people outside the UK, as if the Brits have finally and completely lost their minds.

The subtext of Johnson’s letter to EU leaders is: “Just ignore Parliament, just ignore the law they passed. Pretend they’re some crazy aunt locked up in the basement of Westminster. We in the Big Boys Club can manage our own affairs without them.”

This pivots to the underlying legal questions: Is Parliament truly sovereign? If they pass a law requiring Johnson to ask for an extension, does that law make asking for an extension the official policy of the UK? And if so, is Johnson required to carry out that policy with integrity, without attempting to undermine or lobby against it? If he intentionally refrains from signing the letter, and also sends (or causes to be sent) additional letters which discourage the EU from granting the extension, does this frustrate the will of Parliament, and frustrate the intention of the law? Will the courts empower some third party to send a more “official” letter that actually includes a signature?

Just as with his unlawful prorogation of Parliament, Johnson is once again acting like a monarch. But he’s continuing to follow the same populist playbook: People vs. Parliament, with Johnson cast as ardent defender of the Will of the People for Brexit. This is rather sick-making for those who see through all the lies and propaganda.

Sadly, the opposition parties find it difficult to agree on a unified strategy, as this rather bonkers news report vividly illustrates (starting at around 13:20):

It underscores my theory that Brexit is like a monkey wrench thrown into the Parliamentary system, causing it to break down (at least temporarily). What’s happening is not stagnation or paralysis, but rather an extended tug-of-war, or a flushing operation needed to restore normalcy. Remain is the normal, sensible state of the UK in relation to the EU, and the best possible deal that can be gotten. People should not give in to Brexit, which remains (as it has always been) an eccentric project of English Conservatives. Stay strong, and keep flushing the system with the Drano of truth! Don’t give in to Tory sandbagging.

The opposition may be driven over the edge by Johnson’s latest antics, which are not just unlawful but insulting, seeking as they do to relegate Parliament to the position of a potted plant. Paraphrasing an old saw: “Don’t get mad, cooperate!” It’s not impossible that opposition parties may finally agree on a vote of no confidence followed by a caretaker PM (John Bercow???). If Johnson is out as Prime Minister, it seems likely the EU would grant an extension to allow the dust to settle. Still, I admit the Tory steamroller is powerful.

The quote that “Character is destiny” is attributed to Greek philosopher Heraclitus. Political number-crunchers believe the Tories need to woo Labour votes to get Brexit over the line. But the supercilious qualities exhibited by Johnson, Rees-Mogg, et al. tend to frustrate any such efforts.

At the end of Saturday’s main festivities in the House of Commons, the Tories left the Speaker and the Opposition without a flaming flamingo of a clue as to what would be happening on Monday. Rees-Mogg, the Leader of the House, was purposely tight-lipped, and unexpectedly did a runner when fellow MPs tried to pry loose crumbs of information.

MPs were equally stymied as to how Johnson planned to both obey the law (as he promised in a filing with the Scottish court), and yet not send a letter requesting an extension to the EU. Tracking Brexit has given me a warm spot in my heart for the Scottish Nationalists, who often come up with off-the-wall jokes about the Tories. Pete Wishart (always good for a guffaw) piped that Johnson could announce his plans on Strictly Come Dancing. One can easily picture a conga line snaking around the studio, consisting of all the people Johnson has b.s.’d over the years.

If you know the plot to The Producers, you know that Max Bialystock got in trouble by promising too much to too many different people. Likewise, Boris Johnson’s trust issues seem to be reaching a zenith with his sellout of the DUP (by putting a customs border in the Irish Sea), and by the incompatible assurances he’s reportedly giving to both the ERG and Labour.

The gentle Sir Keir Starmer metaphorically drew blood with his trenchant analysis of the weaknesses and hypocrisy inherent in the Johnson deal:

Starmer asked why it’s necessary to weaken provisions guaranteeing workers’ rights and environmental protection — unless, of course, you want to deregulate in these areas. Again, it’s rather sick-making when Johnson et al. claim the purpose of weakening these provisions is so that the UK can exceed EU standards. Definite Orwellian territory. As Starmer elucidates so clearly, there’s no law against exceeding EU standards. You only weaken these provisions if you plan to lower standards over time.

Well, so ends another crazy day in Westminster. And you thought things were surreal when every newscast was accompanied by Glockenspiel Man!

Possibly not in the G-Man’s repertoire:

Michael Howard

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


“Boris Johnson’s Saturday drama turns to farce – and it was all his own fault”

“Labour could back Brexit bill if second referendum attached, says Starmer”

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Brexit: Further Discussion of Leavers’ Motives

Is the EU crackdown on tax havens another reason for Brexit? We also discuss the Tories’ love of statistics and economic theories, which can sometimes obscure the faces of real people and how they’re affected (Windrush). What about Guy Verhofstadt’s claim that some Brexiters want to turn the UK into a “Singapore at the North Sea”?

In a previous post, I suggested that we might expand on Zanny Minton Beddoes’ analysis of Brexit as a coalition between “red trousers” and “blue collars.” I posited the existence of a third and distinguishable group who funded Brexit, which I dubbed the “rich uncles.” Under that rubric, I listed financial speculators, anti-regulation corporate actors, and Russians or third parties representing Russian interests.

A correspondent has identified another group of “rich uncles” who might fund Leave: those whose wealth is greatly enhanced through the use of tax havens, and who are keenly aware that the EU is trying to crack down on tax avoidance schemes. See these links (as supplied to me):

“European commission to crack down on offshore tax avoidance”

“The more we learn about Brexit, the more crooked it looks”

“EU blacklist names 17 tax havens and puts Caymans and Jersey on notice”

“The Brexiters who put their money offshore”

“Revealed: Isle of Man firm at centre of claims against Arron Banks”

“Arron Banks and Brexit’s offshore secrets”

“UK and territories are ‘greatest enabler’ of tax avoidance, study says”

Of course, the nature of international finance means that much is purposely kept opaque. It’s hard for even seasoned investigators from a single nation to penetrate the complex web of offshore entities woven by those whose speciality is minimising tax bills for their clients. If you’re staring at a financial black box which stretches (hypothetically and figuratively) from the Isle of Man to U.S. Guam, how do you know whether what’s inside is legal or illegal? Where did the money trail begin or end?

This makes it hard to draw direct arrows, and leads to stories which show connections between parties without being able to state categorically that any of them broke the law. Such international finagling to hide assets and minimise taxes certainly looks fishy, is not easily policed, and seems to rarely result in jail time for those caught crossing the (barely visible) line between what you can get away with, and what’s illegal. Those doing the finagling often seem to be one step ahead of the regulators.

Where the world of international finance intersects with the world of Brexit, there are huge clouds of smoke, but so far no one has been able to locate an actionable fire. All those black box entities and subsidiaries of subsidiaries tend to mask the flames.

Brexit is obviously a project of English Conservatives, who have historically been the party of big money; so showing the connection between big money and Brexit is helpful but not earth-shattering — unless investigators can nail down specific violations, and those violations are not swept under the rug.

It can be difficult to prove who owns exactly what, or to be certain which Leavers are motivated by what factors, given that Leave has become a mass movement or mania. Perhaps no one theory explains Brexit — or at least no one theory explains all the different subgroups who’ve piled on.

There seems little doubt that the uber-wealthy with tons of offshore money can be passionately pro Brexit, and not averse to playing the role of “rich uncle.” This includes the owners of some tabloids. In a sense, this fills in a missing puzzle piece: Most EU regulations don’t impact negatively on the daily lives of most UK citizens. In fact, quite the opposite: EU regulations tend to guarantee workers’ rights, safe food and medicine, etc. Why then have numerous fake news stories been circulated about the EU, with themes typically suggesting that the EU is going to ban something Britons like, e.g. pounds and ounces?

There’s a whole website devoted to debunking such Euromyths, which often appear in tabloids like the Sun. (And yes, the EU did alphabetize them. The C’s alone contain Euromyths about everything from condoms to cucumbers. Fishing boats must carry cucumbers, and condoms must be straight. Or maybe I have that wrong, and it’s the fishermen who must be straight…)

Perhaps one explanation for recent Euromyths touted to the public is that the EU is actually poised to crack down on offshore tax avoidance schemes, an issue which only affects the uber-rich. So the public must be given fake reasons to hate the EU.

Who are the con men, and who are the conned? If Brexit in some respects resembles a huge Ponzi scheme or multi-level marketing scam, there may be some people situated at the mid-level who are true believers, and whose sales pitch is sincere (if misguided). There are also those “good government” types for whom process is more important than outcome. They argue that regardless of how the Leave vote was won, a majority did vote for Leave, so government is duty-bound to implement it. (Flawed logic, in my opinion.)

Brexit is sometimes described as an outward manifestation of a decades-long Tory psychodrama. Some Tories exhibit an inbred sense that they are born to rule and born to empire. There’s an element of paternalism in that, an often unspoken assumption that what the English decide will (of course!) be best for Scotland and the other nations; and if the system is gamed to favour the English aristocracy, the poor will benefit from the runnel. (A variation on trickle-down economics.)

One should therefore not assume that the Tories hate the poor or wish them ill, or that every Tory move is a conscious plot to harm the less fortunate. Many Tories live in their own bubble world (as do members of many political, social, and religious groupings.) The Tories are able — through a combination of willful blindness, paternalism, superciliousness, and over-reliance on questionable statistics — to believe that all their policies are beneficial — even where a more objective analysis would tend to reveal manifold harms.

Perhaps, rather than there being a single conspiracy theory which explains Brexit, there is a confluence of interests at the top of the pyramid, coupled with the power and influence to persuade those lower down that Brexit is something beneficial. It must be remembered that some Labour MPs have their own reasons for supporting Brexit, such as political expediency or ideological disagreement with the EU.

I want to be clear that I consider some Tories to be very decent folk who would personally extend kindness to anyone in need, and who favour policies which they honestly believe to be of benefit — not just to the upper class, but to the nation as a whole. Even some Tories who voted for austerity measures did so because, based on their education and upbringing, they were absolutely convinced that debt reduction was the only viable choice following the Great Recession.

But as for Brexit, that policy remains redolent with the stench of lies. Maybe those who consciously craft the lies are more guilty than those who merely go along with them; but if we all had a more sincere longing for truth, and were more scrupulous in rejecting lies (and in permanently expelling politicians caught lying), then we might be able to fashion a Brexit-free zone.

Each individual has a role to play in creating a society which is fundamentally honest. At the same time, improvements in education might help the general public identify the techniques of populism, and understand how social media can be used to unfairly manipulate opinion. A better-informed and educated public is less likely to be deceived by politicians who use populist techniques to put over elitist policies like Brexit.

Lies, damned lies, and statistics

The Tories are fanatics for statistics. According to them, everything is going swimmingly well, and life is getting better and better each day! On the other hand, one hears that food banks are overflowing with customers, homelessness is epidemic, and some schools close on Fridays because they can’t afford to stay open five days a week. A United Nations report (presumably apolitical) states that poverty in the UK is “systemic” and “tragic.” According to Prof Philip Ashton — the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty — quoted in this BBC article: “The bottom line is that much of the glue that has held British society together since the Second World War has been deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos.”

I would argue that said replacement also creates a need to relocate blame for the harsh conditions thus created. Don’t blame vulture capitalists for the financial meltdown of 2008, nor blame the Tories for subsequent austerity measures. If you’re living in poverty, blame immigrants and the EU, and threaten to riot if Parliament thwarts the “will of the people” by failing to pass the government’s Brexit deal. (Obviously, I’m being sarcastic.)

However well-meaning some Tories may be, their love of statistics and economic theories may blind them to the real world consequences of policies which look good on paper — or which at least make them look good to their conservative base. The Windrush scandal was caused in part by excessive zeal to make good on Conservative Party promises to decrease net immigration figures. The people affected by the policies had real faces and real stories, which Amelia Gentleman brings to light in her book The Windrush Betrayal: Exposing the Hostile Environment:

Yet, these people didn’t seem to “register” with government bureaucrats intent on tamping down the figures.

I don’t want to wax alarmist, but still: When we hear government ministers talk about “short-term displacements” caused by Brexit, we need to ask, “How many people will die because of Brexit?” It’s a valid question, even if not a polite or subtle one. It concerns those people just barely getting by today who may go under if conditions worsen even slightly.

Returning to the possible motives of Leavers: It’s widely implied in UK media that changes to the backstop are the only aspect of Boris Johnson’s proposed Brexit deal which fails to meet with EU approval. But if you suss out EU spokespeople, it’s clear they’re also objecting to a “downgrade” of the political declaration which scraps language guaranteeing workers’ rights and environmental protections. See “Beyond the backstop: how Johnson wants to change Brexit deal” in the Guardian.

These changes scrapping certain protections lend credence to the theory that Johnson has thrown in his lot with those who favour a low tax, low regulation Singaporean model for post-Brexit Britain. Witness this exchange in EU Parliament, where Brexit co-ordinator Guy Verhofstadt accuses the (perennially loud-mouthed) Brexit Party of wanting to turn the UK into “a Singapore at the North Sea”:

The video is edited by the Sun to bring out conflictual elements and perhaps glorify the Brexit Party; but it does suggest that some European leaders think they know what the end game for Brexit really is.

As always, you can pick your theory of choice. And by the way, the video does show that factionalism and incivility are not confined to the House of Commons. Madam President, I would accuse Mr Farage, that worthless piece of belly-button lint, of closing the Barnier door after the horse has already gone to the Verhofstadt… 😉

Michael Howard

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

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Brexit, Strange Loops, Star Trek and the New Johnson Plan

Understanding where we are with Brexit, by examining where we’ve been. We also ask the question: How do you plant a flag somewhere between Wigan and Wonderland? What sort of creature is half unicorn, half lipstick-besmirched pig?

Boris Johnson’s new Brexit plan has been dubbed “two borders for four years.” Pardon me, but wasn’t that the basic setup for Rising Damp?

Of the many possible scenarios describing where Brexit is headed, in this post I’m concerned with one particular scenario which sports these features:

– The UK doesn’t leave the EU on October 31st.
– Boris Johnson or another government official is forced by the Benn Act to request an extension.
– The EU grants an extension of a couple of months.
– A general election ensues in the UK.
– The election returns either a hung Parliament, or a very slender, unconvincing Tory majority.

Some would call this the “back where we started” scenario, since it’s more or less where we stood after Theresa May called a snap election in 2017. But it’s also an example of a strange loop. The main feature of strange loops is that after traveling a considerable distance and expending a lot of energy, you find yourself (inexplicably) back where you started. I first read about strange loops in Doug Hofstadter’s book Gödel, Escher, Bach. One of several examples he cites is a Bach piece which modulates into different keys, seemingly getting farther and farther away from the starting point, but (surprisingly) arriving back at the “home” key by the final bar (though an octave higher). Such is the endlessly-rising canon from Bach’s Musical Offering.

One type of strange loop often explored in sci-fi and fantasy is the time loop, of which a popular example is “Cause and Effect,” an episode of the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation. (The film Groundhog Day is another example.) You can read more about the TNG episode here. (I leave it to Whovians to enumerate all the relevant Doctor Who episodes.)

When characters are caught in a time loop, they keep re-experiencing the same set of actions or circumstances (sometimes with minor variations). They may gradually become aware that they’re caught in a time loop, and evolve a strategy for breaking out of it. This might consist of tying a string around one’s finger (metaphorically speaking), so that when one heads back into the next iteration of the loop, one has some inkling of what to do or not to do — what to change in order to not keep getting the same result. As this applies to Brexit, we need to understand what mistakes Theresa May made in nearly identical circumstances, and resolve not to make them again.

After the snap election of 2017, Theresa May lost her majority in Parliament, and had to enter into a so-called “confidence and supply agreement” with the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland in order to have even a slender working majority. Under those circumstances, passing legislation (especially if it’s controversial) requires working across the house to reach a compromise. So, a Conservative prime minister would need to compromise with Labour on an issue like Brexit.

However, Theresa May insisted on acting as if she had carte blanche to push through her preferred Brexit deal, regardless of what opposition parties thought about it. She kept bringing the same deal back again and again, trying to force Parliament to vote for it by threatening that it was either her deal or no deal. This brute force strategy went over like the proverbial lead balloon. It exasperated and infuriated Parliament; but May didn’t begin to change it until the end of her tenure, by which time it was too late.

What May had mostly done was to throw scraps of meat to her right flank, i.e., to the European Research Group (ERG), the most ardent Brexiters. Those scraps of meat failed to satisfy them, and they ended up eating her instead, then installing Boris Johnson, whom they regarded as more Brexity. (Meet the new boss, worse than the old boss…)

Under our specified scenario, Johnson may find himself in much the same pickle as Mrs. May, with little room to negotiate. Still, Johnson (or whoever is PM) should not repeat the mistakes of the previous loop, by trying to force through a hard Brexit that Labour, the Lib Dems, and the Scottish Nationalists can’t sign onto. Rather, the next PM should negotiate in good faith across the house in order to arrive at a deal which can both gain a majority in Parliament, and also satisfy the core concerns of the EU regarding the Irish backstop.

This would probably result in a softer Brexit than the ERG would like; but what’s lost in ERG votes would ideally be made up with more votes garnered from opposition parties. Compromise may or may not be possible (or even desirable), but that’s probably what genuine compromise would look like. That’s a way out of the dreaded time loop.

A soft Brexit is still inferior to the deal which the UK currently enjoys with the EU, but a soft Brexit would at least be less damaging than a hard Brexit or no-deal Brexit. How remarkable that a policy originally sold as bringing sunlit uplands and windfalls for the NHS should, in the cold light of morning, be revealed as a policy requiring us to minimize the damage. If I hear one more person say, “We made it through the Blitz, we can make it through this,” I’ll seriously freak!

A footnote on compromise: It requires trust, but Johnson is considered untrustworthy, especially after he tried to prorogue Parliament for five weeks and pretend that was normal. (The Supreme Court decided it wasn’t.) At the time, I had this recurring image of a young and foolish lad taking a cricket bat to a hive of bees: “Take that, you dratted bees!” — not thinking what would happen if the bees survived. And indeed, when Parliament returned on September 25, their marathon session was filled with rancour.

Some female Labour MPs were basically telling Johnson: Don’t call the Benn Act the Surrender Act, because we get death threats quoting that language, and one of our number (Jo Cox) was murdered by a right-wing extremist. To which Johnson replied “Humbug!” and continued to repeat “Surrender Act” about 12 times, allegedly because it tested well with his base. Perhaps both sides were responsible for the breakdown in civility, but on this occasion I can’t help feeling that the Tories were the worse provocateurs.

Latest Brexit Gripes

Just now I heard a fellow from the Brexit Party, Julian Malins Q.C., describing a no-deal Brexit as a “clean break.” It is anything but. After 45 years of intense cooperation between the UK and EU, there are many, many helpful structures which connect the two, covering multiple areas: everything from food, medicine, finance, education, travel, security arrangements, and shared commitments to continuing peace in Europe. It may help you to picture these structures as a great expanse of skyscrapers filled with offices where people have spent decades learning to cooperate on all the issues which together comprise the minutiae of daily life. Their successes greatly outnumber their failures.

A no-deal Brexit means that most of those structures are demolished overnight, leaving only rubble. It is not a “clean break.” Rather, on November 1 you’re faced with the daunting task of cleaning up that rubble, and starting to build new structures to replace the ones you destroyed with a no-deal Brexit. You are now outside the EU, so the terms you can negotiate are less favourable than before. Plus, you’re likely, at the very outset, to face the same issues you failed to resolve during prior negotiations, as this BBC article astutely points out.

Another of my gripes is the claim: “Parliament can only say what they’re against, but not what they’re for.” Here, it helps to put aside the Leave/Remain dichotomy for a moment, and concentrate solely on getting the best deal possible from the EU. The Brexit which was advertised in 2016 has proved undeliverable. After years of research and discussion, it’s become apparent that the Brexit which is deliverable is not much liked by either Leavers or Remainers. Its benefits fall far short of what was promised, and far short of what the UK currently enjoys through EU membership. At the same time, the problems created by Brexit are manifold. Some may even be insuperable.

Parliament has been voting fairly consistently for the best deal the UK can get from the EU, which on careful inspection turns out to be the deal the UK already has. It helps to get over this polarization around Remain and Leave. Remain is a label for one kind of deal with the EU, while Leave is a label for a different kind of deal. Those who compare them carefully and objectively tend to find that Remain is the better deal.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the general public is majority Leave, while Parliament is majority Remain. It pains me to say this, but one possible explanation for the divergence is that Brexit is a specialist subject which requires thoughtful analysis by persons with some background in the relevant fields, or a general ability (as well as the time and interest) to educate themselves. Based on my informal survey (through media ingestion) of man-or-woman-in-the-street opinions about Brexit, the general public largely lacks these qualifications, while many people in Parliament possess them.

The problem is complicated by the ways in which propaganda and money were used to turn public opinion against the EU. Parliamentarians, being politicians themselves, tend to be more aware of how propaganda and money can distort reality; they can (potentially) see through the conjuring tricks, and plot a course which is more sane and rational. That’s one of the benefits of representative democracy over direct democracy.

If the general public were to develop a mad posh for putting arsenic in their tea, one hopes that Parliament would be proactive in passing legislation which makes arsenic difficult to obtain, in order to reduce the number of deaths. Populists might call that Parliament thwarting the will of the people. I would call it Parliament acting responsibly to protect the interests of the people — Parliament doing its constitutional duty while receiving precious little thanks.

What we find in the present period is that populist strongmen want to bypass (or prorogue) democratic institutions set up as safeguards — safeguards intended to prevent mad poshes from leading the country into ruin. Like the madness for tulip bulbs in the early seventeenth century, or Internet stocks in the late twentieth, Brexit is such a mad posh. There are a few people — very shrewd and wealthy — who may benefit from it (e.g. financial speculators, disaster capitalists, Russian oligarchs), but for most people it is likely to lead to a reduced standard of living, particularly in the short term. And while the quote from Keynes that “in the long run, we are all dead” is often taken out of context, it does have its broader application to the ethics of Brexit. Short-term displacements will hit the poor hardest, especially women in their role as caregivers. Baroness Bull waxes eloquent on this point:

Perhaps the biggest threat to women is dependent on what happens to our economy if — and after — we leave the EU. Any negative impacts of an orderly Brexit, or, in the worst case, of leaving without a deal, will hit women — specifically, the most vulnerable women in our society — hardest. Reductions in public spending have a higher impact on women, as the primary users of public services. Cuts in public sector employment or pay disproportionately affect women because of their greater concentration in this sector. Strains on social care increase pressures on women because they are more likely to care for elderly or disabled family members.

Baroness Bull of Aldwych

In what I may be so bold as to call the “consciousness” of Brexit, there is a certain hard-heartedness or lack of empathy. Perhaps this is why those women who speak up for the poor and downtrodden, and oppose Brexit because they know it will most harm those least able to cope with scarcity, are targeted for abuse and accused of being traitors. For in the consciousness of Brexit, there is also some misplaced relic of World War II thinking, as if the EU were an enemy which must be vanquished, and those who favour Remain are somehow collaborators. So, in addition to many logical reasons for opposing Brexit, one can oppose it because one recognizes that it does not proceed from a good consciousness, but rather from a distorted picture of reality which seems to bring out people’s hatred and misogyny.

The dove has torn her wing, so no more songs of love…

Expanding on Zanny Minton Beddoes’ Analysis of Brexit

Another person who’s influenced my thinking on Brexit is Zanny Minton Beddoes, who edits The Economist. She’s smart, poised, and a terrific explainer of things Brexit and UK politics, as here:

She suggests that the reason the Brexit referendum succeeded is because it was a coalition between “red trousers” and “blue collars.” The “blue collars” are obviously blue-collar workers. The “red trousers” are the wing of the Conservative Party which have historically been Eurosceptics and have (for decades) clamoured and harrumphed for the UK to leave the EU. It may be argued that prior to 2016, they were largely dismissed as nutters.

Similarly, before 2016 few “average” Britons thought much about the EU. Leaving it was not high on their list of priorities, and doing so certainly had no aura of a universal panacea about it. They did not believe the EU had robbed them of their sovereignty or depressed their wages until they were heavily propagandized to believe so. Realistically, the financial crisis of 2008 followed by years of austerity were major factors leading to deplorable conditions for the poor. As the joke about Tory austerity goes, “There are too many libraries in Wolverhampton. We must shut them down!”

What I want to focus on is exactly how did this “coalition” between red trousers and blue collars develop? Was it spontaneous combustion, or something more akin to arson? Did either the red trousers or blue collars possess both the means and willingness to pour millions of pounds into the Leave campaign? If not, where did those millions come from? Is there a third group which we might call “rich uncles” who are largely distinguishable from both red trousers and blue collars, and who funded Leave for their own self-interested reasons?

I don’t claim to have all the answers, but based on my reading it’s possible that some such “rich uncles” included:

– Financial speculators who thought that Brexit presented an opportunity to make a killing by (for example) shorting the pound.
– Corporate actors who believed that long-term, getting the UK out of the EU could lead to a rollback of workers’ rights and environmental protection regs, which would boost corporate profits.
– Russians, or third parties representing Russian interests, who believed that both the UK and EU would be weaker after Brexit, and that Russia would be a net beneficiary.

If this list is accurate, then some of the rich uncles’ support for Leave would necessarily have been covert.

The “just get it done” Meme

If you’ve ever seen nature footage of a cheetah taking down an impala, you know that once the cheetah sinks its teeth in, it hangs on until its prey is all tuckered out and no longer has the will to fight. The Tory strategy with Brexit strikes me as similar. Long live the bulldog breed!

In the modern political era, it’s common to take a poll, find out what the public are thinking, then simply feed that back to them during an election campaign. Johnson et al. have obviously found that the average voter is thinking:

– Brexit: Just get it done
– More police on the streets
– More money for the NHS, and for education

So that’s what the Tories are promising. However, “just get it done” is a fairly nonsensical slogan regarding Brexit. At the populist level, it’s as if Brexit were a TV series which has gone on for too many years, so people are sick of it and want to see it cancelled. But Brexit more properly admits of karmic explanation: While Brexit is truly a mess, it’s a mess which was painstakingly constructed over a number of years. There is no push-button solution. The sad truth is that the mess must be painstakingly cleaned up, dismantled. Regardless of which scenario eventually prevails, fixing Brexit will take time. Again referencing the Beeb: “For anyone who has had enough of Brexit, the uncomfortable fact is that — whatever the outcome — many years of technical talks and political drama lie ahead.”

Brexit was marketed as a push-button solution to underlying problems which were not, in the main, caused by EU membership. Now “just get it done” is the new push-button solution to the slew of problems spawned by Brexit. This inane solution is being marketed by the same old “peesome threesome” — Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, and Dominic Cummings — that brought us Brexit in the first place. And if Brexit is not handled with great diplomacy, there will be no more “awesome foursome.” The Scots may be the first to leave.

When it comes to just getting it done, how about harvesting those fantastic British crops? Sadly, the raspberries are rotting on the vine, because not many seasonal workers from the EU are willing to come and pick them anymore. This ITV report explains:

To Compromise or Not?

There are certain types of compromise which strike us as inherently reasonable. To take a hypothetical example: Education advocates say the schools need an infusion of one hundred million pounds. Government ministers say there is no money available. Eventually, a compromise is reached at fifty million pounds.

Brexit is a more difficult issue on which to compromise. One reason is that it was marketed under false pretenses. Brexit reality differs so markedly from Brexit fantasy that it feels odd to try and interpolate between the two, to find centre ground. How do you plant a flag somewhere between Wigan and Wonderland? What sort of creature is half unicorn, half lipstick-besmirched pig?

I respect people who want to vote for a compromise deal, but I tend to be more of a Remain purist. My feeling is: Get the policy right, and over time the politics can be fixed. The mad posh for Brexit cannot last forever; but once you’re out of the EU, you’re out of the EU. It’s not like a magazine subscription which you can simply renew when the mood strikes you. The fruit which has rotted can never be reclaimed, and this may apply to the next generation of young people, who may find their options for education and enlightenment severely curtailed by Brexit.

Michael Howard

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

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Boris Johnson’s Tom Bombadil Problem

Beginning with a few Boris Johnson jokes, and morphing into a discussion of his candidacy for PM.

I sometimes wonder if I shouldn’t leave political humour to the pros. But a rich target like Boris invites pros and amateurs alike to have a go, and from both sides of the pond:

One incident which caught my eye was Johnson’s penning of a limerick deriding the President of Turkey. Johnson wrote:

There was a young fellow from Ankara,
Who was a terrific wankerer.
Till he sowed his wild oats, with the help of a goat,
But he didn’t even stop to thankera.

President Erdogan’s reply was less well-publicised, perhaps because originally in Turkish. My Turkish is a little rusty (verging on the non-existent), but with the help of a Turkish-English dictionary I was able to cobble together this modest translation:

There once was a Mayor of London,
Who wanked till it gave him a bunion;
He would venture a fling with any young thing,
Be it animal, mineral or onion.

(The accompanying graphic is best left to the reader’s imagination.)

In his present phase as a Brexiter, Johnson famously suggests that since every attempt throughout history to unite Europe has eventually ended in failure, we might as well blow up the current effort. He’s like Ace, the cheerful dynamiter with can-do spirit played by Sophie Aldred in the waning days of Doctor Who Classic. Johnson’s enthusiasm for Brexit is very much the dynamiter’s enthusiasm for blowing up something that’s well nigh irreplaceable. “Oh well, nothing lasts forever,” he muses with schoolboy abandon while lighting the fuse. By his logic, there’s no point in eradicating polio and smallpox, because cancer will get us in the end. And all crockery eventually breaks, so we might as well use it in a game of whiff-whaff.

If we had Mr Wells’s time machine, we might fast forward to an epoch in which the EU no longer exists, true. But today, in spite of its limitations and flaws the EU remains a magnificent Nobel Prize-winning peace project. That peace which it has helped to preserve for over 70 years is its crowning achievement. As long as it remains viable we should do everything possible to preserve it rather than detonate it. To preserve it also means to try and change it for the better from within.

Like other Brexiters, Mr Johnson advances the straw man argument that just because the UK leaves the EU today doesn’t mean war will break out in Europe tomorrow. Of course not. But the creation of the EU was a product of enlightened post World War II thinking in which leaders clearly saw that cooperation in economic matters would lead to greater interdependence between the nations of Europe, and away from the type of hyper-nationalism which leads to warfare. Likewise, over the long arc of history a weaker EU from which the UK is notably absent is an EU with less power to de-escalate conflicts between historical rivals like France and Germany.

Johnson has been described as a man who believes in nothing — a chameleon or weather-vane taking on whatever appearance or direction will benefit his political career. Why then do we like him? Because there’s some merit to the school of thought which says that life is one big absurdist joke. It’s easy to picture Johnson as a character in a Pirandello or Ionesco play, charging rhinoceros-like at an innocent schoolboy for a lark, or penning limericks about the President of Turkey. We need characters like that — just not in high office.

As the colourful Mayor of London Johnson did alright — allegedly with the help of a staff which formed and implemented policy. True, he did order a fleet of buses which doubled as steam baths. In the lower echelons of government, he’s gotten good at blundering his way through, but he’s no tightrope walker or diplomat. As Foreign Secretary he was a disaster whose most serious gaff was making inaccurate remarks about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a dual citizen of Iran and the UK who was arrested while visiting family in Iran in April 2016. Johnson’s remarks were treated as a publicity coup by the Iranian government, who used them as a further excuse to unjustly imprison her. This highlights the criticism that Johnson is often unprepared, acts irresponsibly, shoots from the hip, and covers up his unpreparedness with bluster.

Then too, Johnson’s checkered history as a journalist is not sufficiently understood within the UK. He spent years on the Brussels circuit figuratively throwing rotten tomatoes at EU officials, writing articles for domestic consumption which arguably helped groom the British public to hate the EU and falsely blame it for all that goes agley in Britain, culminating in the current Brexit insanity (which Johnson helped urge on). If getting out of this Brexit mess will require diplomacy, tightrope-walking, and a reservoir of good will, Johnson is absolutely the wrong man for the job.

This brings me to what I call Johnson’s “Tom Bombadil problem.” Tolkien fans will surely know a pivotal chapter in The Fellowship of the Ring called “The Council of Elrond.” There, folk of many different races and species hold council in order to determine what to do with the Great Ring of Power which would spell doom were it to fall into the hands of Sauron — an evil specter or dictator. One of many options explored is to give the ring to Tom Bombadil, an outlandish, bombastic, likeable, but nutty character who epitomizes Amber Rudd’s famous shade-throwing line about Boris Johnson: “He’s the life and soul of the party, but he’s not the man you want driving you home at the end of the evening.”

Incidentally, in the Harvard Lampoon parody Bored of the Rings, Tom Bombadil becomes Tim Benzedrine (a consummate druggie), and his hippyish girlfriend becomes Hashberry, of whom he sings:

O slender as a speeding freak! Spaced-out groovy tripper!
O mush-brained maid whose mind decays with every pill I slip her!
O mind-blown fair farina-head, friend of birds and beetles!
O skinny wraith whose fingernails are hypodermic needles!
O tangled locks and painted bod! Pupils big as eggs!
O flower-maid who never bathes or even shaves her legs!
O softened mind that wanders wherever moon above leads!
O how I dig thee, Hashberry, from nose to sleazy lovebeads!

Anyway, attendees at the Council of Elrond decide against giving the Ring to Tom Bombadil for safekeeping, on the grounds that “he would not understand the need. And if he were given the Ring, he would soon forget it, or most likely throw it away. Such things have no hold on his mind. He would be a most unsafe guardian; and that alone is answer enough.”

Johnson’s ascension to PM may ignite a “Chameleonic War” in the Tory party — a war whose battle lines are already drawn between the old guard of Little Englanders, and more liberal One Nation conservatives. Johnson could end up being a figurehead who runs interference with his public buffoonery, while behind the scenes one faction or another pushes through its favoured policies. But if so, which faction? In his current incarnation of non-beliefs, Johnson is a Brexiter, but occasionally gives out grunts suggesting One Nationism. Some Remainers cling to hopes of a so-called “Nixon in China” scenario in which Johnson, being an arch Brexiter, can turn on a dime and support a second referendum. He is nothing if not unpredictable; still, the latter seems unlikely. Moreover, as PM he may find himself in the same pickle as Mrs May: saddled with a hung parliament, unable to move left or right without fracturing the fragile coalition keeping him in power.

Johnson is a genuinely likeable character — or would be, if only he weren’t in politics, and only he weren’t so ambitious. Deep down, he does believe that life is a joke, and that one might therefore ape any belief for the moment, like a comic actor playing a role. He often appears to be doing a slightly personalized Churchill impression while laughing on the inside. There’s a rumour that in order to ingratiate himself with Tories, he had jowl enlargement surgery. (Okay, so I made that one up!)

He may believe life is a joke, but he will go to Eton, he will scramble to the top of the pile of codswallop, he will fiercely pursue his hunger for the golden chalice (or Ring of Power). That ruthlessness adds a chilling knife-edge to his buffoonery.

Parallels with Donald Trump

Simplistic comparisons between Boris Johnson and Donald Trump abound (the mad hair thing being all but irresistible). Each of them may be better at playing Master of Ceremonies on telly than they are at actually governing. Both of them seem unconcerned about details at crucial moments, and more inclined to improvise — often contradicting their own prior statements, as well as experts in the relevant fields. Both are known to lie outright when it suits them; both enjoy the benefits of Teflon with their respective bases; and both are so-called “Marmite figures” — either loved or hated. Both men are examples of charisma as a substitute for leadership, and entertainment value as a substitute for character value; and both seem to suffer from entitlement-itis: a core conviction that they can grab who or what they want simply because they are who they are.

There may be deeper structural similarities in that each is not just a populist, but a particular kind of populist. Both men are elitists who use the techniques of populism to try and put elitist policies over on working class folk who would actually be harmed by such policies.

If and when Boris Johnson takes over the government, it will be crucial to watch what they do, as opposed to what they say. This is always true, but especially so when you have a populist figure trying to sell elitist policies like Brexit.

With his great jowly enthusiasm, Johnson tries to persuade us that the best way to avoid no-deal is to plan for it, and the best way to come closer to Europe is to leave the EU. If politics ever fails him, he has a bright future flogging pyjamas to dead cats.

Michael Howard

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

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Donald Trump vs. Ferris Fremont

Comparing Donald Trump with the fictional president of an authoritarian state conjured up by SF writer Philip K. Dick. Listen to a short audiobook clip and see what resonates with you.

Radio Free Albemuth is a novel by P.K. Dick written in 1976, published posthumously in 1985. It’s not a final draft, and so has an improvisatory air that’s sometimes enjoyable, sometimes not.

Despite its flaws, there’s a lot to like; but I’m not reviewing the book here, or dealing with the totality of its plot and vision of America in the mid-70s, nor with Dick’s unique brand of gnosticism. My narrow purpose today is to compare a Philip K. Dick character — Ferris F. Fremont — with a Republican Party character — Donald J. Trump.

To lay the groundwork, I should nevertheless give a few minimal plot details. Radio Free Albemuth takes place in an alternate history where America has become an authoritarian state under the bootheel of president Ferris F. Fremont — sometimes described as a composite of Joseph R. McCarthy and Richard M. Nixon.

This is a dark period for America, but help has come in the form of VALIS — who in P.K. Dick’s iconography might be God, or might be an AI entity from a distant star. (But that doesn’t concern us here).

Groups supporting Fremont include FAP, or “Friends of the American People,” a right-wing populist group which spies and informs on citizens. Members of this group are called FAPers.

The rest is fairly self-explanatory, and the fun lies in tallying up the ways in which Trump resembles Fremont (and the ways he doesn’t).

Dick’s alternate history is dark, dystopian, paranoid, and conspiratorial. I’m not for a moment suggesting we live in that world, or that Donald Trump = Ferris Fremont. But as with books like Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World, asking tough questions about how our present day world compares with those fictional worlds is a great jumping off point for discussions among English and PolySci majors, or anybody else who gives a fig. 😉

So what’s the verdict? How close is Donald Trump to Ferris Fremont? And in what ways does our present world resemble the fictional world of Radio Free Albemuth?

For people who don’t actually listen to the excerpt, I should mention that P.K. Dick has an interesting answer to a perennial question:

Why should such disparate groups as the Soviet Union and the US intelligence community back the same man? I am no political theoretician, but Nicholas one time said, “They both like figureheads who are corrupt. So they can govern from behind. The Soviets and the fuzz, they’re all for shadow governments. They always will be, because basically each of them is the man with the gun. The pistol to the head.”

No one had put a pistol to Ferris Fremont’s head. He was the pistol itself, pointed at our head. Pointed at the people who had elected him. Behind him stood all the cops in the world, the left-wing cops in Russia, the right-wing cops in the United States. Cops are cops. There are only divisions of rank, into greater and lesser. The top cop is probably never seen.

Again, I’m not endorsing this ultra-paranoid (and somewhat simplistic) view, but it does suggest that authoritarianism is authoritarianism, whether left-wing or right-wing.

From another SF writer, Robert Heinlein, I learned the important distinction between bad and worse. The political situation in the US is bad at the moment, but things are far worse elsewhere. We are not yet living in a dictatorship. Still, it remains to be seen whether American democracy can survive the onslaught of billionaires funding covert psyops to shoe in their handpicked candidates, as with Cambridge Analytica.

Note 1: In case this isn’t obvious, much of the novel is written from a pacifist perspective. P.K. Dick is not advocating violence, but does reference the violence used by Ferris Fremont to ascend to power.

Note 2: Regular readers would know that I frequently write about peace studies and the need to create a more peaceful world. To discuss Dick’s dark, dystopian vision is obviously not to endorse it.

Note 3: The excerpt is read by Tom Weiner. I’ve searched for working commercial links to the full audiobook produced by Blackstone Audio, but it appears to be out-of-stock, possibly discontinued.

Michael Howard

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


That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis
Auspicious Good Fortune (free audiobook!)
Blackstone Audio

Quote of the Day

“The Constitution? We can dismember it for you wholesale…”

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Understanding Media: The Smear Campaign

I recently produced a 9-minute documentary on Understanding Media: The Smear Campaign. It draws on an eclectic mix of cultural icons — everything from The Manchurian Candidate to I Love Lucy to Family Guy:

I was happy with the way it turned out, because I think it manages to do two things clearly:

1. Show how entertainment and news have become the same thing now;
2. Illustrate the mechanics and ethics of media smear campaigns.

I ask questions like “Why should we care whether news stories are true or false?” I stress the connection between media literacy and good decision-making. The principles are universal.

The points made in the documentary can be used as building blocks to explore characteristics of modern media, including the Internet. The next obvious question is “Why is it a problem if news and entertainment become indistinguishable?” The simple answer is that news is ideally supposed to give us factual information which we need, while mass entertainment is more like bread and circuses — something to please the popular taste by pandering to the lowest common denominator of appetites and prejudices.

Sometimes what is truthful is not palatable, but we need to hear it anyway. Otherwise we may continue to do wrong, thinking we are doing right. When news is tailored to please the popular taste, this can lead to a feedback loop in which people and events are portrayed not as they are, but as people want to view them, according to ingrained stereotypes. Likewise, there may be special interests who want to foist their world view on the general public in order to gain economic or political advantage.

Society has increasingly come to resemble a motley collection of interest groups in conflict, each of whom presents a different tableau of reality coloured by self-interest. Where self-interest reigns supreme, there is no such thing as an immaculate perception! Reality is socially constructed, and facts become more fluid than solid.

The very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common: they don’t alter their views to fit the facts; they alter the facts to fit their views. Which can be uncomfortable if you happen to be one of the facts that needs altering.

— Doctor Who as played by Tom Baker, “The Face of Evil,” January 1977.

One fact is that despite the best social planning by seeming experts, some people experience feelings of alienation in the mainstream, so they go forth in search of spiritual alternatives. While some people are targeted for smear campaigns due to a simple factor like their ethnicity, others may be targeted because they’ve successfully created livable spiritual alternatives.

If we are deep-thinking people, we may despair of finding objective truth in the mainstream media. What we tend to find are different flavours of information tailored to appeal to different target populations who are wedded to particular beliefs which they want to see confirmed. Reality itself becomes an object of falsification, and this problem is neither liberal nor conservative, but universal.

There is a dual nature to populism. America is an intensely populist nation, and this populism can be very good in that it tries to make life pleasant and happy for the average person. British writer C.S. Lewis voiced skepticism about any plan to close down all the pubs and force the “lower classes” to listen to classical music. But there’s an opposite extreme which is also troublesome: the notion that only popular things are right and true and protected by human rights. Make an idea or group look unpopular, and no one will care what is done to its advocates. Excessive populism can therefore pose a danger to political, religious, and artistic freedom. It can lead to lazy thinking in which no one bothers to lift a finger to stop grave injustices, as long as the injustices are being done to some depersonalized Other who is rarely seen in mainstream media and not portrayed sympathetically.

In a populist society, rights, freedoms, and the enforcement of laws intended to protect people come to depend on popularity. If you can make a group appear unpopular, you can do a great many things to them before anyone will sound a note of protest. That’s why accurate definitions, descriptions, and information are not merely of abstract interest to scholars. These things affect how people are treated (or mistreated) every day in society. Where hate material is successfully injected into the public discourse, this spurs acts of hatred and harassment, and also encourages local law enforcement to ignore pleas for help from victims, despite top-level policies intended to foster respect and tolerance. Continue reading

The Truman Show and Finding Reliable Spiritual Sources


Have you ever felt a spiritual longing, but felt like you didn’t know how to proceed and everyone you asked seemed to be misdirecting you? This post tackles the problem of how to locate reliable spiritual sources, and how to get beyond sources which are unreliable. Peter Weir’s film The Truman Show is used as a metaphor, and art critic Rosalind Krauss helps us delve into the postmodern dilemma in which we seem to be confronted by a wall of illusory images. To find reliable spiritual sources may entail questioning the nature of reality itself! Not everything which is popular is true, and some types of information can be discounted because they’re the product of excessive populism, vested interests, or incompetent operators.

Sometimes propagandists use “altruistic fear” to justify harsh social control measures, beating people back and discouraging them from asking deep questions about what is right and true. Examples are drawn from the George W. Bush administration, the persecution of Socrates, and the anti-cult movement.

I also contrast the idol worship practised by the ancient Greeks with the new doctrine of the soul advocated by Socrates. What Socrates and some modern spiritual movements have in common is an emphasis on self-cultivation and self-discovery.

If you’re a spiritual seeker trying to make sense of all the different flavours of information coming at you, maybe you would find some insight here, or at least a map that helps you sort things out. I close with some quotes from sociologist Dr. Bryan R. Wilson on the unreliability of apostate accounts.

I originally titled this post “Developing a Spiritual Nose For News,” which made sense to me but did not compute for some readers. I’ve reposted this under a new title, but kept the original graphic.

Extra! Extra! People’s Daily reports: Dalai Lama not really Tibetan. Is actually housewife from Minnesota!

No, the Chinese government’s official organ didn’t really print that, but it’s the sort of thing we’ve come to expect from them.

In writing about “Self-Interest, Self-Giving, Low Ethics, and High Ethics,” I closed by saying that self-interest colours the information we receive every day, and some of it is junk info with no truth value. But then, not everyone is looking for truth value!

It’s helpful to picture a music outlet which caters to many different kinds of people. Most people are looking for dance music which is very loud and physical; but a few may seek out some little corner of the shop where they still have Gregorian chant or Ravi Shankar fighting the cobwebs. Loud dance music may sound like noise pollution to some people, while to others Gregorian chant and Ravi Shankar are boring and impenetrable.

The whole of civilization is like this. It contains innumerable elements, each of which is valued by some people according to their nature, culture, and level of development, but is considered of little value by others.

When we extend this metaphor to information, it becomes slightly problematic. True, different segments of the population may be consumers of different flavours of information, but are not some things simply true in an ultimate sense, and others simply false? (The Dalai Lama is not a housewife from Minnesota!)

It’s often possible to isolate certain facts and laws about the universe which are true no matter what people think about them or whose interests they serve. But many of the ideas in common currency are more fluid, and resemble the different types of music found in our imaginary shop.

What does this mean for spiritual seekers? Let me tell you a story… My father sired me late in life, so when I was in my twenties he was in his seventies. As a young man, I began speaking to him about my spiritual experiences and aspirations. He was extremely cynical and dismissive. I’ll never forget his exact words to me: “No one has ever seen God!” It was a poignant moment. I looked into his eyes and into his heart, and I knew that in all his seventy-odd years he had never seen God. What’s more, the idea that someone else had perhaps seen God angered him and offended his pride. He instinctively felt that if there was a God, he surely he would have discovered this fact. Never mind that he had never really looked.

My experience mirrors that of many people whose spiritual search begins close to home, by asking parents, friends, and teachers what they think, or by reading popular periodicals. The problem is that in a society which is largely pleasure-loving and secular rationalist, what’s kept in stock is mostly popular music and popular opinions. Most people don’t know much about spirituality and aren’t that interested. This is a fact which has to be reckoned with. We need a personal strategy for dealing with it.

Spiritual seekers have needs and goals which aren’t always well-served by mainstream media.

Are you a spiritual seeker? Then you can rely on populist media for the weather report, but you cannot rely on them for what we call “spiritual report.” In this they are unreliable. It’s simply not their area of expertise; plus, their emphasis on commercialism and populism acts as a heavy-handed filter of information concerning spiritual groups. Many people in the mainstream media are good and well-meaning, but spiritual topics elude them. They lack the time and interest to make sense of the spiritual landscape, so they tend to present a stereotyped view.

Then again, even people that you love and trust, and who love you, may not be good sources of spiritual information. This can be heartbreaking, but it’s true. You may ask parents, friends, and teachers at your school, but you may find that they only repeat what they have heard and do not offer any true insight. Looking in their eyes, you don’t see the light of genuine wisdom or experience. They are not seeking, so of course they have not found. Just as you might navigate your way through our imaginary music store to find something rare and precious which others have overlooked, you need to cultivate spiritual resources in order to unearth spiritual treasures.

Some of the misdirection is an innocent outgrowth of the variety of human experience. If you ask the well-meaning music clerk to recommend something, he may point you to a popular dance tune, not knowing you’re the type who likes Gregorian chant and Ravi Shankar. You’re in the minority, so perhaps he doesn’t even stock your kind of music. Here a commercial element enters in. The music industry can make more money selling one hit recording to a million people than it can selling a thousand different recordings to a thousand different people. (Less overhead.) In an industrial economy, there’s a tendency for everything to become commodified, standardized, dumbed down. Sales value replaces artistic value or truth value. Yet, sales value is only a measure of popularity, not a measure of truth.

This is an important concept which dovetails with our earlier discussions of Socrates, who cared for truth more than he cared for popularity. He tried to offer new light to Athenian society by preaching the doctrine of the soul. Professor John Burnet, in his lecture on “The Socratic Doctrine of the Soul” calls our attention to this statement:

I will not cease from philosophy and from exhorting you, and declaring the truth to every one of you I meet, saying in the words I am accustomed to use: ‘My good friend, . . . are you not ashamed of caring for money and how to get as much of it as you can, and for honour and reputation, and not caring or taking thought for wisdom and truth and for your soul, and how to make it as good as possible?’

— Socrates

If you will forgive this tangent: I am not a conspiracy theorist and have no idea who killed President Kennedy. But one thing seems clear: he represented hope — hope for a more peaceful world in which people could settle their differences without resorting to open warfare; hope also that the poor and downtrodden might be lifted up, that there might be greater sharing of resources. But there was a confluence of political, economic, and military interests opposed to such progressive changes; and those interests certainly got their way when he was assassinated. Had he lived, many sad chapters in American history might have been averted.

We cannot always know (or spend our whole lives investigating) why some information we receive is inaccurate, or what interests are served by extinguishing the new light that some political and spiritual leaders bring — light on the human condition and how we can improve it. The important thing is to develop a “spiritual nose for news.” If we are seekers of truth, then our spiritual intuition can gradually guide us toward the truths we need to hear, the truths that will help us in our spiritual quest.

The Truman Show as metaphor

Locating reliable spiritual sources may entail getting past sources which are unreliable. It’s a little like The Truman Show, Peter Weir’s fascinating, entertaining, and highly metaphorical film starring Jim Carrey:

When you start asking deep questions about the nature of reality and try to go beyond the limitations that most people tacitly accept, the men in HazMat suits may appear, warning you of grave danger ahead: fire, flood, raccoons with big, scary teeth…

You have to persevere in your spiritual quest in order to penetrate the mysteries of the universe — make it past the screaming banshees and make it home to God. According to media critic Ken Sanes:

The fake landscape Truman lives in is our own media landscape in which news, politics, advertising and public affairs are increasingly made up of theatrical illusions.

— Ken Sanes, “The Meaning of The Truman Show”

Art critic Rosalind E. Krauss describes the postmodern dilemma in similar terms:

She says:

What we’re really dealing with in the period in which we live is an extraordinary conformity that despite the seeming pluralism, the seeming diversity, in fact we are seeing many, many different reflections of the same underlying reality. And it is that underlying reality which seems to me to be at the root of what’s happening in the art of our time. It’s as though the world has become a kind of huge billboard or an opaque wall of images that separates us as individuals from a Nature that might exist behind that wall, but which we cannot penetrate to.

Somehow, reality has been swallowed up by a television tube. So this sort of nightmare possibility accounts for absolutely everything that’s going on now. Certain artists have dedicated their work to the problem of how to break through this wall — how to put a kind of little crowbar underneath it, and try to get some sort of leverage on it, try to make a kind of space between the imitation of the real and the real, or try to comment on the ways in which we are trapped in this (what you could call) Plato’s Cave, in which what we are looking at is a world of shadows, a world of simulations, rather than a world of real things.

— Rosalind E. Krauss, Art of the Western World: In Our Own Time

The “HazMat” sequence (45:28-51:19) ends with Truman’s wife saying: “Let me get you some help, Truman. You’re not well.” His alienation and longing to escape from the mundane and pre-programmed are treated as pathological symptoms.

I love the earlier scene where he walks into a travel agent’s office, and instead of the usual posters of beautiful people relaxing on sunlit Mediterranean beaches, he’s greeted by posters warning of terrorists, disease, and air disasters:

Cosmic traveller Jim Carrey is determined to go on his journey.

Cosmic traveller Truman is determined to go on his journey.

This reminds me of the alarmist tactics used by the anti-cult movement, which portrays spiritual teachers as fiends and charlatans so that people will ignore them and be afraid to heed their spiritual counsel. Such marketing campaigns play on so-called “altruistic fear” — fear which appeals to values like keeping your family safe from harm, but is used to drum up support for harsh social control measures.

Only yesterday I saw a 2006 interview with George W. Bush in which he kept repeating that people are coming to kill your family, and that’s why we have to use these enhanced interrogation techniques:

This video has been getting a lot of play because the Senate Intelligence Committee just released its report on the use of torture by the C.I.A., including so-called “rectal hydration” of prisoners — just one of many lovely euphemisms gaining common currency in A.D. 2014. (See this New York Times article .)

The persecution of Socrates was likewise justified using altruistic fear. Athenian society essentially said: “We are a good and moral people who sacrifice to the gods and have fine political leaders. But by preaching the doctrine of the soul, Socrates is bringing unwelcome change and causing our young people to question existing values. Some of them are not sacrificing to the gods as our tradition demands, and we fear the gods may be offended. We therefore accuse Socrates of impiety and of corrupting our youth.” He was thus tried, and forced to drink hemlock.

But of course, Socrates was a very pious man who always entreated fellow Athenians to devote themselves to truth and wisdom. The effect of his preaching was to reveal hypocrisy in the practice of idol worship, which at its worst could descend into a system of corrupt patronage. According to Thomas R. Martin in An Overview of Classical Greek History from Mycenae to Alexander, the Greek gods were viewed as having no love for human beings. “Rather, gods supported humans who paid them honor and avoided offending them. Gods whom humans offended sent calamities in response, such as famines, earthquakes, epidemic diseases, or defeat in war.”

Self-examination leads to self-empowerment

It’s easy to see how an ossified system of idol worship could lead to a moral disconnect in which little self-examination was expected of the average Athenian as long as he or she “paid the rent” by killing a cockerel now and then. By contrast, the teachings of Socrates implied that self-examination leads to self-empowerment — perhaps even to greater constancy than evinced by the fickle Greek gods. Moreover, the Socratic emphasis on self-cultivation necessarily implies de-emphasis on temple priests as intervenors.

There are parallels with the modern dilemma in that many of the new (or transplanted) religious movements which have arisen in Western nations would tend to agree with Socrates that insight gained through self-cultivation is an essential element of spiritual practice. Outer ritual without inner understanding is of limited benefit.

The full spectrum of beliefs and practices of the new religions is quite broad, and many scholars would rightly hesitate to generalize; but at least among those spiritual groups strongly influenced by Hinduism, Buddhism, and Yoga, there is a tendency to reject both scientism and fundamentalism as totalist doctrines, and to emphasize the need for self-discovery. Swami Vivekananda, who along with Sri Ramakrishna is credited with founding modern Neo-Vedanta philosophy, famously said: “See Christ, then you will be a Christian. All else is talk; the less talking the better.” Within that same tradition, the parable is told of a donkey carrying a sack of sugar on its back. The sugar is sweet, but the donkey cannot taste it. For him it is just a heavy load.

Developing a “spiritual nose for news” often entails gauging the qualifications of the speaker. If someone is giving a car review, do they even know how to drive? I’ve worked in product support, and my old boss used to joke about people who thought the computer’s CD tray was a drink-holder (because it slid open and had a round slot). Of the many fallacies to beware of, this is the fallacy of the incompetent operator — the person who posts on a review site that “Linux is no good because as soon as I installed it on my computer, all the food in my refrigerator went bad.”

HeadHit_FinalGif_v3b_320x240Or imagine a product review of sugar written by the donkey in the parable: “I carried sugar on my back for 20 years, and believe me it does NOT taste sweet!” (Alright, but pardon me if I defer to the opinion of someone who put the sugar on their tongue.) So many people who rail against spirituality on the Internet are what Bridget Jones would charitably call “f-ckwits.” Unfortunately, one of the ways that media bias operates is by interviewing the least competent operators — those who flunked out of whatever spiritual school they formerly attended. Why not interview a successful student rather than a failed one? Or is the purpose to rig the outcome?

Leaving aside incompetent operators, I see two other types of untrustworthy sources that one has to get beyond. The first type is untrustworthy because it has been compromised by vested interests of a political, economic, or personally selfish nature. One example is the propaganda put out by the Chinese government criticising the Dalai Lama of Tibet in order to justify the continued annexation of that formerly independent nation. See these People’s Daily articles, which are pure bunkum:

“Carrying forward Buddhism or fueling evil cults?”
Last visited Dec-04-2014

“A Doomed Failure – Beijing Review article on the Dalai Lama”:
Last visited Dec-04-2014

The second type is untrustworthy because it has been compromised by excessive populism, that is, by pandering to popular appetites and prejudices. In this latter type, there may also be an underlying economic motive, but it is not so clear-cut. For example, in a society which has become highly materialistic, there may be a confluence of interests which want to preserve the notion that the main purposes of life are production, consumption, and procreation. Such interests typically act to drown out the alternative view that the main purposes of life are self-knowledge and self-giving. This effort need not be coordinated; materialists tend to instinctively reject spiritual doctrines, and to vilify people who question whether all this thing-craziness is really making people happy.

An apostate account saying “I used to be self-giving but that was all rubbish — now I’m materialistic” will be hoisted to the skies, billboarded, and given maximum bandwidth on the information superhighway. But remember: Just because it’s popular doesn’t make it true.

Apostate accounts are often highly problematic due to selfish motives and the many pressures brought to bear upon apostates to portray their former faith group negatively, ratifying existing discriminatory stereotypes and social scripts. In this regard, it may be helpful to close with a few quotes from the late Dr. Bryan R. Wilson:

The first duty of those who wish to present a fair picture of a religious fellowship is to seek the views of those who are faithfully committed to it and to undertake a first-hand study of their lifestyle.

*  *  *

The disaffected and the apostate are in particular informants whose evidence has to be used with circumspection. The apostate is generally in need of self-justification. He seeks to reconstruct his own past, to excuse his former affiliations, and to blame those who were formerly his closest associates. Not uncommonly the apostate learns to rehearse an “atrocity story” to explain how, by manipulation, trickery, coercion, or deceit, he was induced to join or to remain within an organization that he now forswears and condemns.

*  *  *

Neither the objective sociological researcher nor the court of law can readily regard a defector as a credible or reliable source of evidence. He must always be seen as one whose personal history predisposes him to bias against both his previous religious commitment and his former associates. If he is anxious to testify against his former allegiances and affiliations, the suspicion must arise that he acts from a personal motivation to vindicate himself and to re-gain his self-esteem, by showing himself to have been a victim who has subsequently become a redeemed crusader.

— Dr. Bryan R. Wilson


You would observe that I haven’t given this post a clickbait title like “Top 10 Reliable Spiritual Sources,” nor have I made a list of specific sources. The focus has been on how to proceed, how to get beyond sources which are unreliable, how to close your ears to all that’s nonsensical and illusory. If you’re a spiritual seeker, then look for authentic spiritual voices which radiate wisdom and inspire you to continue on your spiritual journey. These voices are hard to hear, because (metaphorically speaking) society’s loudspeakers are blasting secular and materialist messages twenty-four hours a day. To hear spiritual messages, seek out the sacred space.

I hope to continue this series by asking: Is greed good? Is self-giving an ego disorder? Is meditation dangerous? Whose opinions should we trust? This will be explored within the broader framework of finding reliable spiritual sources, a.k.a. “developing a spiritual nose for news.”