Astrology and ridicule

The Guardian recently published an article by Dr Rebekah Higgitt in which she questioned whether the routine dismissal of astrology as “rubbish” by popularising scientists such as Professor Brian Cox was really either helpful or even truly scientific. The article seems to have caused quite a stir. The comments thread is full of irate sceptics accusing Dr Higgitt of giving some kind of comfort to the purveyors of arrant nonsense from a past age. But that rather misses the point of her piece, in which she repeatedly makes it clear that she has no more truck with the claims of astrology than any sceptic, no matter how fervent. Her points are different: that those who would declare the beliefs of others “rubbish” should at least be careful to know what those beliefs are as expressed by the most serious  adherents in question; should take the trouble to understand some of the history of those ideas; and should accept that the mere assertion that this, that, or the other is “rubbish” is hardly a fine example of the scientific method.

Judging by the roasting Dr Higgitt received despite her unequivocal rejection of the substance of astrological belief, I had better make it clear that I too have no axe to grind. I think astrology is not so much rubbish as utterly useless. And that is my yardstick in these matters. Regular readers will know that I have frequently argued here that the spheres of science and religion are entirely separate, or at least they should be. The question is not so much about whether or not astrology and its followers should be treated with respect, but whether or not they add any value.

Astrology is not a religion. It is not a faith. Faiths have value not to the extent that they try and compete with science as alternative ways of understanding how the universe works, but to the extent that they satisfy the existential need that most of us have (and I would argue we all have, albeit not always explicit or consciously articulated) to understand why we are here, how we should live given that we are here, and what our personal futures may hold. The latter is not about trying to find out what things might happen to us, what events we may be a part of, but rather what our ultimate destiny might be. And deciding that this last may be nothing more than being once more a random part of the carbon cycle is a perfectly legitimate, if inevitably slightly depressing, conclusion to come to. When faiths expand their area of concern to providing unevidenced alternatives to scientific discovery, then they become proper objects of ridicule and incomprehension. Intelligent design is a classic example. In my judgement the design might be intelligent, but the believers are not.

Astrology has no existential value to add. It does not describe a moral framework. It has no eschatology, nor any symbolic narrative of origins that might enable someone to establish meaning in their life. It is simply an alternative version of causation to that offered by science, but unfortunately without any of the data to support it. In that narrow sense it is indeed rubbish: it doesn’t do what it says on the tin, and doesn’t say on the tin anything that could be useful.

Sceptics will of course say that I’m simply trying to offer special pleading on behalf of my religious nonsense, whilst bashing astrology which is no more nonsensical than my faith. However, just as is argued by Dr Higgitt, it’s no argument merely to say, “It’s rubbish!” I’ve set out a clear distinction between astrology and faith, and my detractors should at least do me the favour of wrestling with the issues. And when astrologers argue for the same favour, I think they have a point, notwithstanding my own position that they are indeed very mistaken. Oh, and useless too. In a very respectful sense, obviously.

Big society: tiny content

I was at a conference this week, in which John Humphrys of Radio 4′s Today programme and Mastermind fame chaired a Question Time style discussion on, inter alia, the state of public expenditure and the Big Society, that much-vaunted vanity-project of the Prime Minister’s. The panel was distinguished: Michael Portillo, Lord Ashdown, along with economists Frances Cairncross and Dennis Turner.

At one point in the discussion, John Humphrys asked the assembled 600 delegates from local authorities up and down the country to put up their hands if they had the faintest idea what Big Society meant. No-one did. Actually, I should have put up my hand, and had I not been suffering from stage-fright I probably would have done. Because I know exactly what the Big Society idea means. It’s a romantic, wistful nostalgia for a golden age that probably never existed at all, a time when working-class people could leave their front doors unlocked in the secure knowledge that their property would be safe. It was also a time when working class people probably had nothing worth nicking, but let that pass. If one wanted to uncover the epistemology of the Big Society, one would I suspect need to study all the scripts of Dads’ Army, deconstruct the Hovis adverts, and listen to Vera Lynn’s sentimental evocation of the bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover. Michael Portillo got closest to enunciating just this perspective during the Question Time discussion. He bemoaned the break down in a sense of community; he talked with a mixture of sentiment and irritation about the way in which modern society looks to the state to answer every social difficulty, and contrasted this with the self-reliance that he believed was necessary to social cohesion, and which had been lost via the ministrations of an over-bearing and patronising public sector. The familiar equation of Big Society and small state.

By now, I’d overcome my stage fright, helped in no small part by a mounting frustration with this kind of vacuous talk. So in my question to the panel, I contrasted the easy talk at a vague philosophical level about small states, and the macro-economics of deficits and growth, with the real-scale dilemmas facing those of us in the public sector now being asked to implement the outcomes of such big ideas in small communities. I work for a housing provider. We have a proud record of dealing with anti-social behaviour, whether expressed in neighbour nuisance or in domestic violence. That record has been achieved because we’ve thrown a great deal of money at the problem. We have uniformed wardens patrolling our estates, we have staff dedicated to building up community through involving residents, especially young ones, in things more creative than smashing windows or daubing graffiti. We have used the Future Jobs Fund to try and help some of our many unemployed residents back into work, or more often, into work for the first time. But none of this is the core business of a housing provider. Our core business is collecting rents, dealing with arrears, repairing properties, investing in new ones and the improvement of old ones. Now that we are faced with making enormous cuts it will be all the added extras – those wardens, those youth employment programmes, those arbitration sessions between warring residents – that will go. We cannot stop collecting rent. We cannot stop dealing with repairs.

So how, Mr Portillo, and the other distinguished panellists, will the Big Society step in and pick up what our small state no longer thinks is necessary? How will volunteers, the charitable sector, squeezed as it is by cuts in grant funding, ride like the cavalry to the rescue? You may be surprised to learn that no answers were forthcoming. Well, not quite no answers. Frances Cairncross suggested that perhaps, instead of trying to debate with a tenant who had, for example, terrorised their neighbours with an out-of-control dog, it would be simpler and cheaper just to go out with a shotgun and shoot the offending animal, no questions asked. I suspect that Ms Cairncross was not being entirely serious. But she also produced the only practical example I’ve ever heard of how the Big Society might operate on a large, northern council estate. The other panellists had only platitudes to offer. So there you have it. The Big Society means shooting dogs, or waffling on about how the state has stifled self-reliance. Neither seems entirely helpful.

Shock, horror! Football is a teeny bit sexist

Mr Andy Gray and Mr Richard Keys have revealed themselves as holding some rather Neanderthal views on the place of women on the touchline. Despite the furore surrounding their intended-to-be-off-air chat, I rather doubt that anyone is genuinely surprised. Did we all expect their private conversation to be bemoaning the appalling length of time it’s taken the footballing authorities to get around to including women in the list of approved assistant referees? With, perhaps, some erudite analysis of why it is that whenever women are involved in anything, the key issues to be considered are their age and their sex-appeal.

Evidently, the fact that there is no surprise in what happened does not mean that it isn’t to be deplored, but whatever it is, is isn’t news in any sense that retains the idea of new. But I wonder about the resulting tidal wave of disapprobation that has swept through everything from Twitter to the Today programme. On the same day that we all exercised our moral outrage on sexist football presenters, we all got hot under the collar as well about Melanie Phillips’ latest vitriolic and fatuous piece in the Daily Mail, which managed with what can only be described as extraordinary creativity to link homosexuality with arithmetic, history, zoology, Christianity and McCarthyism. Such brilliance deserves an award, surely, if only that for greatest amount of prejudicial cock in a single article.

There’s something almost Pavlovian about the ease with which liberal sensitivities can be provoked into these familiar paroxysms of disgust. It used to be “appalled of Surbiton” remonstrating about the use of the word “bloody” in a BBC sitcom. And how we all laughed at their predictable and blinkered outrage. Now it’s “sickened of Islington” fulminating against the PC crime of the moment. Soon, it will no longer be necessary for the actual meal of something-or-other-ism to be produced: the merest click of the door handle will have us all salivating. But we’ll be licking our lips not to write in the green ink of yesteryear – we prefer to use our spittle for the tweet of vituperation, the Facebook page of on-line activism.

What, if anything, is so bad about that? Nothing. Honestly. Well, nothing that is if you don’t mind that whilst we are getting our PC kicks crucifying some hapless and, to be sure, usually brainless, columnist or broadcaster, picking over the minutiae of every stupid word and thoughtless aside, there are more important and more significant things that we might be expending our energy on. Most of us have a somewhat limited capacity for doing something about the things in society we abhor, but a limitless capacity for talking about them. Sometimes I think that we on the liberal left are simply being manipulated by the Pavlovs of our day. Melanie Phillips and her ilk are throwing us the bones on which we feast with canine enthusiasm, whilst the world carries on regardless.

Passing the dinner table test

So, apparently, the dinner tables of England are ringing to the sounds of casual Islamophobia. Baroness Warsi says so, and who am I to demur? I’ve never been invited to her dinner table and, if I were, I suspect I’d have some other things on my mind and on my lips. Like her government’s economic policy, for a start. Although it would seem that I’d be committing another faux pas since – along with religion – politics and money are also verboten. In truth, Baroness Warsi is telling us more about her privileged social milieu than she is about either manners or public attitudes to Muslims. A sad fact it may be, but the quantum of dinner tables is already in fast decline; most of those that exist rarely support formal dinner parties; and of those that do, I doubt many would be subjected to ruminations about Islam.

But aside from the Baroness’s rather quaint metaphor for what indicates that an idea or perspective has become mainstream, respectable, and a safe topic for polite society, is there any truth in her substantive complaint? Before trying to answer that question, a quick digression to complain about the modern tendency to attribute prejudicial views to a quasi-psychological condition by the neat device of adding “-ophobia” to whatever it is that has irked us. It won’t be long, I suspect, before someone accuses me of “toryophobia”, which I suppose is at least not quite as shady an attribution as “labourophilia” might be, with its connotations of an excessive attraction to a lady’s downstairs lip department. I don’t like these “-ophobia” constructions both because they are generally etymologically suspect (if homophobia means anything, it surely only means a morbid fear of any things which are the same – to make the point its coiners wanted to make it would need to be “homosexualophobia”, an expression whose very unwieldiness indicates it is probably not a useful word) but also, and more importantly, because they make assumptions about motivation that are not sustainable. It is just a sophisticated version of “scaredy-cat”. By suggesting that people are fearful of that which they don’t like, rather than simply hostile or ignorant about it, an attempt is made to by-pass the issues, and short-circuit them with a kind of macho challenge. You wouldn’t believe that crap if you weren’t a wuss who is scared by gays, Muslims, spiders, or whatever the matter at hand happens to be. The issue is much more likely to be irrational hatred than irrational fear. And because the perpetrators know that they are not in fact frightened, they can evade the challenge that the “-ophobia” name-callers would see themselves as throwing down.

Enough of the word: is there a reality that Islamophobia is trying to capture? There is certainly prejudice against Asians, as against all visible ethnic minorities in Britain. I’m less convinced that this anti-Asian sentiment is particularly religiously discriminating. It’s nothing to be proud of, but I suspect that the average person holding prejudiced views about Asians probably knows very little about Islam, Sikhism, Hinduism, Buddhism, or any other religion from the sub-continent. Their issues are to do with a misapprehension about the economic impact of immigration, along with a casual racism that is as blind to religion as it is to history. There is, to be sure, a widespread revulsion against some of the uglier aspects of the beliefs and activities of some Muslims. It’s hard not to be critical of the stoning of women, or the ecstatic celebration of the murder of a politician, or the indiscriminate murder of fellow citizens. It’s also hard not to be critical of some Christians who murder abortion clinicians, or who want to burn books, or who want to demonise homosexuals. I doubt that expressing those views would get me labelled as a Christophobic though.

You don’t have to be an atheist to deplore the behaviour of many followers of many faiths, both historically and now. I am highly critical of many of my fellow Christians, and I reserve the right to be critical of Muslims too. I am not Islamophobic: I have rational reasons for my critiques, which are not addressed to all Muslims everywhere. I am not afraid. At least not of Islam as a religion. If lived in Pakistan at the moment, I’d be very afraid indeed, but that would hardly be an irrational fear. To the extent that there is an irrational hatred of Muslims in Britain, it is about racism, and not about religion. To the extent that there is fear about some aspects of Islam as it is practised by some of its adherents, it is not irrational. What would be irrational, obviously, would be to believe that dinner tables have much, if indeed anything, to do with it.

The crisis of public confidence in science and scientists

Today Radio 4 reported that some scientists are complaining that public confidence in them is too low. As an example, they cited the admittedly alarming fact that 50% of Americans, and 33% of Britons, believe that the issue of global warming is being exaggerated. And this, despite the overwhelming evidence that global warming is not only real, but now cannot be prevented from exceeding the 2 degrees centigrade that the science suggests is the maximum that can occur without very serious, and probably irreversible, consequences.

The impression that was given strongly in the report was that the complaining scientists see the problem as being not in science or scientists, but in public gullibility, or ignorance, or political and commercial distortion. I do not doubt for one moment that all of those woeful things do indeed exist, and are leading to unhelpful and positively dangerous denials of scientific fact. The average person is hugely vulnerable to the charge of gullibility. Homoeopathy, astrology, superstition, responding to unsolicited emails promising unlikely riches and even more unlikely generosity on the part of the emailer; all these, and many, many more besides, are enough to make anyone despair about the ability of passengers on Clapham omnibuses to discriminate between sense and nonsense. Asking those same passengers to interpret even the most basic statistics is unlikely to restore one’s confidence. And of course, people everywhere are open to the distortions generated by their personal financial interests and their pre-existing political persuasions.

However, I think that if scientists are content to see these difficulties as entirely of others’ making, and themselves as heroically standing up for dispassionate intellectual purity, then they delude themselves, and have fallen victim to their own self-perceptions. It is indeed sad that public opinion seems so immune to scientific illumination, but I fear that much of the blame for this must fall upon the scientists themselves. They have not only supped with the devils of commerce and politics, they’ve positively feasted with them. It seems that almost any commercial interest can field a respected scientist or two to produce objective science that just happens to support their position. Unfortunately, their commercial opponents seem to be able to do exactly the same, along with equally objective science that proves precisely the opposite. A little investigative journalism then exposes a web of payments for research that jeopardises the whole concept of scientific disinterest. And this is not only the case for commercial interests. The pro- and anti-fox-hunting lobbies seemed to have no difficulty in producing scientific evidence to prove conclusively that foxes were simultaneously grateful for fox-hunting’s assistance in the elimination of weakened or diseased individuals, whilst also experiencing untold and unnecessary stress and pain. Today, medical scientist A tells us that without statins we’re all doomed; tomorrow medical scientist B tells us that most of  the people who take it don’t need it, it does them no good, and probably significant harm. Almost as an aside, we learn that the leading statin is the most profitable drug ever. Is it any wonder that the public grows weary and suspicious?

Scientists might with some justice complain that this is less their fault than it is that of the media, which distorts their conclusions, overly simplifies their results, and plays fast and loose with their statistics, banking on that public ignorance that I wrote about a moment ago. But that will not do. Scientists need to be less sloppy themselves as well. For example, on the same Radio 4 programme this morning we learnt about some scientists whose “study, published in the journal Animal Behaviour, reveals that the nematode has developed this tactic to warn birds to keep away from its host and therefore avoid being eaten.” It reveals what? A nematode worm with the intelligence to plan a campaign of such sophistication that it can decide to use its skill and judgement to change the colour of its host with the express purpose of not being eaten by robins? And scientists then wring their hands in despair when crazy people in America and elsewhere say they believe not in evolution, but in intelligent design. At least those purveyors of arrant crap have the decency to attribute the intelligent design to a transcendent Being, which sounds a lot less daft than attributing it to a nematode worm. Nematode worms do not “change” the colour of their host larvae with any purpose in mind whatsoever. A random genetic change (or changes) led to the production of this colour change, which then had the happy, but entirely unintended, consequence of robins exercising their pickiness by avoiding eating them. Thus were colour-changing nematodes given a competitive advantage that they had no part in planning. This is not a “tactic”. You think I’m making a mountain out of a molehill? I beg to differ. If you want (rightly in my opinion) to castigate and ridicule creationists, using the exact same conceptual language isn’t a clever or convincing way of doing it.

No. Scientists are right to be alarmed at how misguided most of their fellow citizens are in their inability to understand and appreciate scientific knowledge. If they want to be part of the solution, and not add to the problem, then they need to distance themselves from commercial and political interests, and to stop lapsing into lazy teleology.

Don’t blame me – I’m just doing my job

There’s some internet law or other which apparently predicts that any on-line exchange will, after a certain period, end up with one of the parties bringing Hitler or the Nazis into the conversation. Well, I’ve decided to pre-empt the proper working out of that law by starting with the Nazi reference right from the top. Many of you who follow this blog, or my Twitter persona, will know that over recent days I’ve been struggling to find ways of implementing savage cuts in my organisation, which are the direct result of the government’s policy on public expenditure. Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not about to try and argue that somehow this government’s attitude to the public sector is analogous to the Nazis’ policy of racial extermination. That wouldn’t be simple hyperbole: it would be both fatuous and an insult to the memories of those affected by the Holocaust and to their descendants and families. It’s not in the policies that I see even the remotest connection. But one element of the Nazi period in war-time Germany does seem to have a most unsettling echo for me this week. Time and again, when asked to explain their seemingly incomprehensible compliance with their government’s pernicious demands, ordinary Germans, no less than high ranking officials, responded by saying that they were merely doing their jobs.

I am not being asked to send people to their deaths. I am not ordering that families should be rounded up and transported to concentration camps. I very much hope that if I were, I’d have the courage and moral fibre to refuse, no matter the personal consequences. Until any of us has been tested to such extremes in practice, and God prevent us from being so tested, we would do well not to castigate those who were tested and who manifestly failed. However, I am doing things that I fundamentally disagree with. I am visiting upon my colleagues emotional and financial trauma that I do not believe should be visited on them. I am making choices about who to cast into possible penury, and who to save from that possibility. I am using my ingenuity, and my skill, to find ways of making real the government’s policies.

What should I do? Where does my moral duty lie? I am doing my job. I am trying to make sense of nonsense. I am trying to protect those for whom we are charged to provide a service, and to make better rather than worse decisions. But I have a choice. I can do these things, or I can refuse to do them and leave my job. I cannot pretend that I have no choice, because it is abundantly clear that I do have a choice. So far, I am choosing to continue.

But when I search my conscience, when I try to justify my choice, I find myself saying things indistinguishable from the excuses given by the concentration camp guards, the petty clerks in the offices organising the transportations, all those hapless little people in Nazi Germany who did terrible things to their fellow citizens. “If I don’t do them, then they will simply find someone else who will.” “I have a wife, and a son, I have to think of what’s best for them.” “I need a job, I can’t live on fresh air.”

As I have already written, sacking people is not the same as condemning them to death. Of course it isn’t. But morally, perhaps what I am doing, and the excuses I make to permit myself to do it, are not so very different. The things I am doing are wrong, but I have decided that my personal well-being is more important than my moral judgement. I have convinced myself that it would be wrong to impose my personal moral flagellation on my wife, to make her suffer for my moral purity. Arguments don’t come much more seductive than that. Suddenly morality demands that I continue, that to stand up for what I believe to be right would be a self-indulgence. How very convenient.

Perhaps this really is only a matter of degree. That if the moral stakes were raised, I’d do the right thing. I’d like to think so. But I’m haunted by a verse in St Luke: “He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much.”

But please don’t blame me – after all, I’m just doing my job.

Grant Shapps displays his mastery of misdirection

Today, Manchester City Council announced that it is to reduce its staff by 2,000 people, or 17% of its workforce. It clings, with I imagine more hope than expectation, to the notion that these redundancies can be voluntary, or based on early retirement, rather than compulsory. In truth, that will be impossible. The decision is a direct consequence of government policy. The council had arrived at a planned and measured policy for reducing its workforce; it had brought its trades unions with it; it was obliging its staff to work more efficiently and more flexibly. But these plans assumed a reduction in this year of £60M, a figure which has now been escalated to £110M by the explicit decision of the Coalition. It is no longer possible to manage such a reduction in a sensible way, either in terms of its consequences for staff, or for the citizens of Manchester (many of whom are in both categories, of course.)

Manchester is no lunatic red administration. It has disposed of the vast majority of its housing stock to independent housing associations. It has worked closely with commerce to regenerate its economy. It won, and brilliantly delivered, the Commonwealth Games in 2002. It does not see itself as a monolithic provider of Soviet-style drabness to its hapless citizens. Rather, it believes in a vibrant partnership with the private sector, as an enabler of its people, not as an oppressive and patronising stifler of them. It has a very highly paid, but in the eyes of many a charismatic and successful, Chief Executive. And it is he who, in a disgraceful and charmless personal attack, Grant Shapps has today chosen to castigate.

Mr Shapps, whose grasp of basic arithmetic is clearly extremely shaky, has suggested that in some way it is Sir Howard Bernstein’s salary which has left Manchester in its financial predicament. That salary is, apparently, £100,000 greater than the Prime Minister’s. So what? I am not aware that Sir Howard inherited a massive fortune from his father, and so he probably has an somewhat greater need for his salary than does Mr Cameron, for whom it is a nice little addition to his pocket-money. But of course this new unit for measuring salaries – multiples of a Prime Ministerial wedge – is only ever applied to the public sector. Not, it seems, to bankers, as a purely random comparison.

The likes of the Chief Executive of Manchester City Council earn a lot of money by the standards of their workers, but that comparison is as nothing to that between a bank CEO’s remuneration and the pitiful sums paid to the tellers at a local branch. Rather more to the point, the chief officers of local authorities have not presided over the gross incompetence that has resulted in billions of pounds of public money being required to bail out the banks, whose top people will once more be paid stratospheric bonuses that make Sir Howard Bernstein look like he’s paid no more than a street cleaner. The government has given up trying to do anything about that, I note.

But, Grant Shapps is saying, please don’t look at any of that. Don’t look at what’s happening to Manchester’s workforce, or to its citizens. Rather, concentrate on my prestidigitation over here: look at Sir Howard’s bulging pay packet. The crowd gasps as the lady is sawn in two. Bravo, Mr Shapps!

But suggesting that a few hundred thousand pounds paid to a successful civic chief executive makes any material difference to that council’s efficiency is as ridiculous as suggesting that its firefighters abandon their tenders and start trying to put out the fires in burning buildings by pissing on them. In fact, piss only makes one appearance in this context, and Mr Shapps is taking it.

Giving – but for whose benefit?

This post is in response to Writing Workshop Prompts in association with ActionAid: Giving

Last Sunday, as I attended Mass at the church in the French village where we were married, there was, as there has lately always been, a silent middle-aged man standing at the door as the worshippers shuffled past into the building. In his hand he held a small receptacle, no more than a couple of inches across. He had no sign, and said nothing, but merely gazed at the people as they went in. There was nothing in the man’s collecting cup. I too, with a pang of guilt, walked past him without giving. I knew that the few euros  in my pocket were reserved for the collection that would shortly take place during the service. I would rather harden my heart at the door than face the embarrassment of refusing the alms plate that would be held out to me by one of the nuns from the convent.

Giving. It’s such a complex thing, so many contrary currents. I feel I need to tell you, since all you know thus far is this stony lack of generosity, that I make regular donations to 4 or 5 charities every month from my salary, that I’m part of the payroll-giving scheme at work. Why? I don’t know you. You don’t know me. What does your opinion of me, of my willingness to give, matter that I should feel so driven to self-justification?

The scene switches. Now I’m at a London tube station. In the entrance is a young man, almost hidden in his grubby sleeping bag. A dog lies at his feet. There’s a notice on the opposite side of the ticket hall. “Do not give to beggars in this station.” It goes on to assure me that to do so would merely encourage people to come to the station and inconvenience passengers, and that what I might give will in any case only be used to buy alcohol or drugs. The message is clear. Giving to beggars on the street does more harm than good.

For all I know, that might be true. And yet I feel torn by this advice. I don’t want to do more harm than good. I want to do the right thing. And I’m sure that the regular, almost bureaucratic, generosity of my standing orders and payroll, tax-efficient, giving is the more rational, more effective method of doing that right thing. Charities welcome the regular receipt of gifts that they can rely on, and use to manage their cash-flow and the planning of their good works. And yet.

And yet there is an immediacy, a real human connection, in these direct transactions between the needy person there in front of us and our consciences. A connection that is lost when giving is so automated, so mechanised, so, in a sense, sanitised. But, on the other hand, if we give in direct response to visible need, or what we perceive to be need, and ignore the rational, objective, facts of what’s effective, are we in fact giving not in response to that need, but in response to our own needs: the need to feel that we’re good people, the need, as I had earlier in this post, to make myself look good to those who might observe me, even if only through reading this blog?

I don’t know. But I do know this much. I know that none of what I give month by month, to rainforest peoples, to my local church, to Oxfam, to this, that, and the other, could have assuaged my guilt as I walked passed that man outside the church, as I took the advice of the posters on the tube station, and ignored that real, visible need, there, in front of my very eyes.

An unexpected link between Arizona and Royal Mail privatisation: the use and abuse of metaphor

It may seem a strange, or even a tasteless, thing to find a link between the tragedy of the Arizona shooting and the comparatively prosaic issue of the preparations now underway for selling off the Royal Mail to private companies. The link is not, obviously enough, to be found in the literal contents of these two utterly disparate events, separated as much by geographical and political distance as by the gap between tragedy and bureaucracy. Yet for all that, there is strange thread of connection. For central to both is the emphasis that is being laid on metaphors and symbols, and I think it may be instructive to delve a little deeper into how these conceptual ideas are being used to frame, explain, and to distract attention from, the realities they represent.

On this side of the pond, in the run up to legislation enabling the sell-off, much angst has been endured by those for whom the principal issue seems to be that of whether those who will own the Royal Mail in the future will keep, or dispense with, the image of the monarch on their stamps. To the relief of the angst-ridden the original constraint, which was merely that Buckingham Palace would be able to veto any royal image on future stamps of which they did not approve, has been substantially beefed up, and prospective purchasers will now be legally bound to retain the monarch’s image on stamps. This post is not about the debate between monarchists and republicans, and I make no contribution to that debate, nor imply approbation or otherwise, when I note merely that the constitutional purpose of the monarchy is to provide some kind of way of defining national unity over and above the divisions of politics or of commerce. Whilst the Royal Mail remained a public body, owned by us all, and whose purpose was less about making ends meet but more about guaranteeing to all citizens their equal access to a national means of communicating with one another, then the symbolism of calling it the Royal Mail, and reinforcing that with the unifying image of the monarch, made perfect sense. This was no service created for the enrichment of its providers, but for the benefit of the people. Her Majesty’s mail, not the government’s, still less the proprietors’.

But now we have a hollow and ridiculous victory for the symbol, for the metaphor, even as its meaning is destroyed and emptied of content. Whether you agree with the privatisation or not, once the service has been privatised, it cannot with any meaning be called the Royal Mail, nor does it make any sense for the service’s stamps to bear the royal image. We cling to the form, and discard the content. When that happens, symbols and metaphors become not only demeaned, but positively dangerous, for they focus on the wrong thing. We are comforted, but the comfort is delusory because it is no longer real.

What has this to do with the appalling shooting of congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, and the wanton killing of six others, including a nine year-old child? It is this. Immediately the shooting became common knowledge, the political left and right in America and around the world became locked into claim and counter-claim about the political significance of the event, and the focus for this unhappy struggle was another symbol, another metaphor. Sarah Palin’s Facebook page had for some time boasted a graphic of the states in which members of Congress who had supported President Obama’s health care reforms were represented as targets in a rifle sight, the cross-hairs of which implied that gunning them down was the best way of punishing them. It is obvious to me that even in the crazy political world of right-wing, tea-party America, this was a metaphor, and not a literal suggestion. But it shows with terrifying poignancy the power of symbols and of metaphors, and how we mess with them at our peril. Protest as she has done, Sarah Palin cannot evade the simple fact that to her, and to her political philosophy, the image of gunning down opposition comes as naturally as despatching an Alaskan moose.

And here we have the extraordinary, complementary, symmetrically opposite dangers of the metaphors of royal heads on British stamps and rifle sights in American politics. In Britain, the metaphor has been emptied of content, rendered meaningless and misplaced: in America the metaphor has moved with appalling inevitability into the literal world, been made powerful, and confirmed in its wickedness. Never use such symbols lightly. Whether in their corruption, or in their reinforcement, they are not to be bandied about as if they were merely, only, figures of speech. They are much, much more powerful than that.

Transmuting fat into thin air: the alchemical delusion of our age

One of the less appealing attributes of modernity is our tendency to look with disdain on our forebears because they didn’t have the scientific world-view that we sophisticates now enjoy. Alchemy, and the doomed search for a method of turning base metals to gold, is frequently trotted out as a pretext for just such condescending self-congratulation. Not enough merely to note that we have found out some things that our predecessors had not: our sense of superiority also requires that we rubbish their pathetic credulity, their seeming willingness to believe any old tripe. Surely the search for the philosopher’s stone was self-evidently fatuous, and yet enormous amounts of money and energy were expended in its fruitless pursuit.

Well, actually, our ancestors had one very big excuse that we do not – they actually were ignorant of the mechanics of chemical transformation. But for our equivalent of alchemy – the equally fruitless search for some magical way of stopping ourselves from getting grossly fat, and of doing something about it when we have already become so – we have no such excuse. There is nothing whatsoever that we do not already know, that we have not already known for well over half a century, about how and why we are getting fatter and fatter, nor about what we need to do to stop continuing down the obesegenic road, nor indeed about what we need to do if we’re already too fat and want to get thinner. Nothing. Oh, to be sure we don’t know all the ins and outs of the duck’s arse that is the exact relationship between our personal genetic make-up and how easily we put on weight, or with how much difficulty we might then shed it. There is always more to know. But apart from the minuscule number of people who have a genuine pathology of weight-gain, we have no need of further knowledge. For all the rest of us we know what to do, and what to stop doing. Doubtless if we all used that knowledge, there would still be some fatter, and some thinner, people. The human species is rich in genetic variation, and our energy metabolism is a part of it. But that is not a “public health disaster”. If I, as a middle-aged man of average height, weigh 75 kilos I’ll be pissed off with an equivalent comrade who behaves exactly as I do but who weighs a more ripped 68 kilos, but then I’m also pissed off that I’ve never resembled Robert Redford in the facial beauty department. Actually, by living a reasonably disciplined life, I no longer weigh 75 kilos, and I endeavour with good success to keep as close to 70 kilos as I can. But if I were less vain, then 75 kilos is unlikely to have me high on anyone’s obesity-related health scare index.

And yet, as the New year comes around once more, we are bombarded again with the alchemy of weight loss. Join this support group. Eat this wonder food. Follow this vacuous celebrity’s DVD. Buy this processed meal substitute. Pop this “natural” pill derived from the roots of an unheard-of miracle plant from the pitiful remnant of some tropical rainforest. As in every New Year preceding this, thousands of men and women – mostly women – will part with their hard-earned cash, lining the pockets of the alchemists de nos jours. None of them will succeed, any more than past believers in hocus-pocus succeeded in turning lead into gold.

But we do know what to do. We all know that we eat too much of the wrong crap, and we sit around the place doing bugger all. We use lifts we don’t need. We have remote controls to spare us the ordeal of getting off the sofa to change the channels of our flat-screen TVs as they peddle more weight-loss alchemy. I can guarantee, absolutely guarantee, that if you do the following things, you will never get obese. Unless you really do have a pathological condition, or are disabled in some significant way that prevents you from undertaking any form of aerobic exercise, then follow this advice. It will work. You can pay me if you like, since you may feel that nothing’s for nothing, but you don’t need to. I am not an alchemist.

  • Buy an exercise machine, such as a cross-trainer or treadmill.
  • If it doesn’t have a heart-rate monitor, buy one that uses a chest strap rather than relying on finger pulse measurement.
  • Put the machine in your bedroom.
  • As soon as you get up, before breakfast, get on that machine and use it to raise your heart-rate to 75% of your aerobic capacity (for most middle-aged people about 130bpm).
  • Keep going, without stopping, for 30 to 40 minutes.
  • Don’t go on a diet, but never (well, hardly ever) buy anything that is a cake, a biscuit, a confectionery item, a ready meal, a pie, or suchlike.
  • In Michael Pollan’s pithy phrase, “eat food, not too much, mostly plants”.

I know this will work, because we all know what to do. Mostly we don’t want to admit it. Mostly we want to hide from it. Mostly we want a philosopher’s stone that will shield us from doing what we know we need to do. There is no such thing. Get over it. And whilst, like me, you may have watched “Britain’s fattest man” on Channel 4 last night, you will also know that Paul Mason has no physiological problem. He is mentally ill. His tragic case has nothing to teach you.