Robert Peston’s WTF?

WTF?WTF? by Robert Peston
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Robert Peston for Prime Minister!

His North London Jewish background is so familiar to me from my own history and native place. He’s my kind of political commentator, too, and in this book (bracketed by a letter to his much-loved late father) he addresses the problem of why the world has gone ‘bonkers’. How come the world’s most successful, wealthy democracies are throwing themselves into the arms of mad populist leaders, and voting for such lunacies as Brexit and Trump?

Peston’s analysis and prescriptions sound totally like common sense; yet in the midst of all this madness which so often leaves me feeling really depressed, he somehow snatches hope, and a degree of optimism, from the jaws of despair.

The key fact is that behind the madness of those 2016 votes, lies the deep dissatisfaction of all those in our societies who feel they have been left far behind in the growing prosperity they see around them. It’s this inequality of wealth, opportunity, prospects, and the fair sharing of the wealth of nations, that we need to address and radically change. It’s a call to the 48% to stop trying to stop Brexit (and if we can’t stop it, at least hoping it will be the unmitigated disaster we’ve all along said it would be), and to work as hard as we can to make it work the best it can. What’s needed is some kind of ‘Brexit mission’ to reunite the country, and mend what’s broken in our economy and politics.

As Peston says, he doesn’t have all the answers, and maybe some of the answers he has are also bonkers. But we at least need to be thinking, and especially talking, about the issues he raises here.

View all my reviews

In which I waver from my faith – in democracy

Hand on heart, I have a terrible confession to make. I have been one of those — and we are many, many — who have been secretly wondering if democracy is such a great idea after all. When we see Donald Trump in the White House, and the United Kingdom set on a collision course with the iceberg of a no-deal Brexit — all as a result of the democratic process — aren’t we bound to ask ourselves that question?

I’ve even come up with lots of bright ideas for how to remedy the situation, by reverting to some kind of a limited franchise. People like that foolish woman who greeted the announcement of the 2016 General Election with the cry, “Not another one!” She’d be on my little list. Anyone who didn’t want to vote would be on my list. Anyone who didn’t vote would. Anyone who reads the Daily Mail or the Murdoch press…

They’d all be disenfranchised, and because it was their own fault, there would be concomitant small curtailments of their civil rights. You see how it begins? I’m already ten steps to becoming a Fascist dictator!

So it’s great that Philip Collins has written When They Go Low, We Go High, published last year by 4th Estate, and surely not well enough known. It’s quickly rising up my list of Books That Everyone Must Read (especially if they want to be permitted to vote). (No!) Its subtitle is ‘Speeches that shape the world – and why we need them’. Philip Collins is a journalist, and was chief speechwriter for Tony Blair from 2004 to 2007. Though I’m trying hard not to hold that against him. But chiefly, he is passionate about democracy. This book is all about his conviction that liberal democracy is not only the best form of government, but the only one that really makes human flourishing possible. But he freely admits that democracy is in crisis, endangered on many fronts; though this is also nothing new. Perpetual crisis and danger seems, in fact, to be the permanent state of democracy.

The book quotes and analyses many of the most important speeches that have been made all down the ages, from the time of Pericles to Barack Obama, about the importance of government ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people’. The list includes Cicero, Lincoln, Kennedy, Churchill, Reagan, Elizabeth I, Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, Martin Luther King among others. Alongside the extensive extracts are Collins’s comments about how each speech works, what makes it great and important, and why it matters.

The five main sections of the book define five political virtues:

  • through politics the voice of the people is heard
  • politics commits us to persuasion rather than force
  • through politics the demand for recognition can be heard
  • equal consideration of all citizens in free societies is the means by which the material condition of the population is improved
  • when politics prevails, the worst of human instincts can be tamed.

Among the greatest dangers currently facing democracy is populism. On this, Collins writes (p.81)

Populism begins with recriminations about the governing elite and, to use Donald Trump’s extraordinary allegation, their ‘criminal enterprise’. It ends with recriminations about the constitution. All the while it claims to have special knowledge of the will of the people. It is a fraud from start to finish. Plato hated democracy because he thought it led to populist rulers. There is a risk, if we do not find the words to advertise the virtues of conventional politics, that Plato’s anguished prediction will be proved right. The task for the responsible democrat is therefore to describe what has gone awry and find words for a better future, like the wonderful writing in Jefferson’s 1801 Inaugural Address and the compressed poetic expression of Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg. The solution to disenchanted politics cannot be populism. It has to be better, more enchanted politics.

I realise, reading this, that I had fallen from grace, become a backslider with regard to my faith in Democracy. I repent and recommit, and hope to make amends. But that means that, just as the subtitle of this blog pleads for a re-enchanted Church, so my citizenship pleads for just that re-enchanted politics.

What I want to say

What I’ve prepared to say at the Eight O’Clock Holy Communion this coming Sunday (the Tenth Sunday after Trinity). As usual, preaching to myself before I preach to the congregation:

And when he was come near, he beheld the city, and wept over it, Saying, If thou hadst known, even thou, at least in this thy day, the things which belong unto thy peace! but now they are hid from thine eyes. (Luke 19.41-42)

It’s probably the year 30 AD. In Luke’s account, Jesus is approaching the holy city for what will be his last Passover. He has foreseen his death and knows that now it draws near. Yet it’s not himself, but Jerusalem, the City, the people, his fellow-Jews, that he weeps for. Why? Because they do not know the things that belong unto their peace.

All they knew was that they were oppressed, under the Roman occupation, part of an Empire they hated and despised, governed by Gentiles whom they regarded as unclean, outside of God’s covenant and therefore hated by God. They expected and longed for a Messiah who would be a king, a man of war, a conqueror to drive out the Romans, set them free, establish a glorious new godly kingdom.

And this would be disaster for them. It would lead to uprisings, rebellions, eventually to the Jewish War of 66-73 AD which would result in total defeat. Jerusalem would be destroyed and the Temple destroyed, never again to be rebuilt.

If only they had known the things that belonged to their peace! If only they had believed Jesus and embraced his teaching about the true kingdom, the kingdom of God and what it means. (See the Sermon on the Mount, and the Gospels passim.)

But when I consider the world today, I seem to hear exactly the same words: If thou hadst known, even thou, at least in this thy day, the things which belong unto thy peace! but now they are hid from thine eyes.

Jesus is still weeping over a world that turns away from blessing – the blessing that comes from seeking God and living by his will – and instead embraces the untruth and the lies that can only lead to disaster.

I think only of our own country. I don’t want to talk about Brexit: whatever views I have about it, some of you will agree with me, and probably just as many will disagree strongly. None of us really knows what will happen next year, to us or the EU, and the problem seems to be that all of us believe only the facts and forecasts we want to believe…

But I already hate what has happened to this country in the last few years: that we have become so divided, not only about this issue, but about so many others as well. Not just divided, but hatefully divided. Instead of being able to have a calm, sensible, rational debate about things, with people who hold different views – trying to listen to one another, to discover the facts and what is true and right, and then discern together the best course of action, all we have now is not debate at all. It’s become almost usual to curse, accuse, hate and vilify people who hold different views. Not only to suspect them of the worst possible motives, but to publicly accuse them of being traitors or worse. Social media has a lot to answer for in this respect, of course, because people feel able to say all kinds of things on the Internet that they would hardly dream of saying out loud in public, or to a person’s face. (Though sadly, saying it in the safety of the Internet makes them bold enough to do just that.) But it’s not just social media! The headlines of supposedly responsible newspapers, and the tone of their editorials, so often seem to want to stir up violent attitudes and reactions, suspicion, mistrust, hatred of ‘enemies’.

What happened to our country? Where did it go? What happened to British values of tolerance, openness, welcome, hospitality, freedom to hold different points of view, and express them without fear, without being accused of being somehow criminal or evil, without being threatened with violence or death?

These are horrible times to live in, perhaps even dangerous times. (And let me quickly say we are all infected, none of us is immune: don’t we all find ourselves beginning to hate people on the other side of these current issues?)

So what are we, as Christians, to do? Join in with the haters, those who want to make and to crush enemies? Run away and hide our heads in the sand, and pretend that all is well?

I believe that we have a different and special calling, which may be the only thing that holds out any hope of healing. Let us, at least, be people who know the things that belong unto our peace.

Because we are Christians, we are people of Resurrection. We believe in life from the dead; we believe in hope even when others think all hope has gone. We are people of reconciliation, because Jesus died on the cross to reconcile the whole world, all people, to God.

So we must

  • Believe: in all that Gospel we claim to believe.
  • Pray: for our country; but especially love and pray for our ‘enemies’, because that’s what Jesus told us to do.
  • Seek God’s kingdom above all us, because it alone, rather than any of the kingdoms of this world, is the kingdom in which our true citizenship is found.

Above all, not give in to what the World wants to do to us: namely, to make us afraid, make us hate, make us give up hope.

Let’s stand tall and say: No, I won’t give in to that. I will not become what you want me to be.

Prayer, in the words of Psalm 46:

GOD is our hope and strength : a very present  help in trouble.

2 Therefore will we not fear, though the earth be moved : and though the hills be carried into the midst of the sea;

3 Though the waters thereof rage and swell : and though the mountains shake at the tempest of the same.

7 The Lord of hosts is with us : the God of Jacob is our refuge.

10 Be still then, and know that I am God : I will be exalted among the heathen, and I will be exalted in the earth.

11 The Lord of hosts is with us : the God of Jacob is our refuge.

 

Lost Connections, by Johann Hari

When he was 18 years old, Johann Hari went to his GP seeking help. He explained that he felt an enormous emotional pain that seemed to be leaking out of him uncontrollably. His doctor told him a story: that his distress was caused by a chemical imbalance in his brain, specifically a low level of something called serotonin. By taking antidepressants, his serotonin level could be restored and his depression would go away. Johann left the doctor, collected his prescription, and took the first of thousands of little tablets. Almost at once he felt relief, his pain seemed to be lifted. But after a couple of months, it returned and soon he felt just as bad as he had before. He returned to the GP, who prescribed a stronger dose. Again he felt an immediate improvement, which lasted for a few months until once more he fell into a severe depression. This process was repeated several times, until Johann was on the strongest dose of SSRIs, which he continued to take for 13 years. The side effects were horrifying. He put on huge amounts of weight as a consequence of almost compulsive junk food eating. And worst of all, he was still depressed. The drugs were not working for him, and he was not alone: although exact figures are not available for the UK, it is estimated that 1 in 5 US citizens are on antidepressants.

It was at this stage that he began to ask why? Why are so many people depressed? Why are chemical treatments apparently so ineffective? What alternative remedies might there be?

His latest book, Lost Connections: Uncovering the real causes of depression and the unexpected solutions, describes the results of his questions. He spent years looking at research data and interviewing the scientists who had collected it. He travelled all over the world, visiting many of the researchers but also going to places where different, innovative ways of dealing with depression had been tried.

His concluded that depression is not in the head, but mostly caused by real factors in the world outside. The one thing most of those factors have in common is that modern society is sick, and it should come as no surprise that so many people respond to that sickness by falling ill themselves. Johann sums this up by describing it as a ‘loss of connection’, because of the way we are forced to live in the modern world. Among the nine causes of depression and anxiety that he has identified, he lists disconnection from meaningful work, from other people, from meaningful values, from childhood trauma, from status and respect, from the natural world, and from a hopeful and secure future.

If you’re like me, you will respond to a lot of this by thinking, Of course, I’ve always known that; but why then don’t we, or doesn’t society, do something about it? Part of the answer is that Big Pharma makes billions of dollars from the widespread use of antidepressants (also they pay for and conduct most of the research which ‘proves’ the effectiveness of chemical antidepressants); but another large part is that there are too many other political vested interests that resist the major reforms to society that would help solve the problem.

This is a brilliant book, informative, full of heart-warming stories that you just long to see turned into one of those ‘feel-good’ films about people battling against overwhelming odds, to turn around their own lives, and the life of their neighbourhood. There are lots of things we can do as individuals, to lift ourselves out of depression (or to improve our emotional health generally); but much more than that is needed. We need to be working for radical changes to society and the way we live. It doesn’t have to be like this. The changes we need are hard to imagine, difficult to begin, and yet many of them don’t require a lot of expense: they’re simple enough to do, they’re not rocket science.

We know this stuff! Why don’t we do it, and why don’t we protest and keep protesting to the people in power to make these things happen?

Who’d have thought I’d be agreeing with Elton John? But I do, when he says of this book, “If you have ever been down, or felt lost, this amazing book will change your life… Read it now.”

See and read much more about it on Johann Hari’s website.

Watching If… again after nearly 50 years

I watched Lindsay Anderson’s If… when it came out in 1968, in one of the cinemas in Oxford, with my undergraduate friends. I loved it. When you’re young, and your world is heady with Flower Power and the Summer of Love and the protest songs of Dylan and the student unrest of ‘68, which all promised such great new things – what’s not to love about a film like If…?

Our teenage heroes, raging with existential questions and hormones, are sixth-formers suffering under the tyranny of tradition and authority at their hidebound school. Its culture is represented by the spineless housemaster who gives permission to the senior prefects or ‘whips’, to carry out sadistic beatings, because, well, anything for a quiet life, while his sexually unsatisfied wife roams naked through the boys’ dormitories; the chaplain preaching violent militarism and leading the military parades; the wannabe trendy headmaster, mouthing platitudes about progress and privilege in the cause of service. Our heroes steal a motorbike and ride to a transport cafe where they meet The Girl. This leads to a scene of naked romping and love-making on the floor, (probably a fantasy?) to the accompaniment of the Sanctus from the Missa Luba. They finally strike a blow during an exercise of the Officer Training Corps, when they’ve found some live ammunition, and shoot the Chaplain. Because, as they agreed in one of their vodka-fuelled discussions, “one man can change the world with a bullet in the right place”.

Here the film becomes (probably?) a surreal fantasy, as the headmaster makes them apologise to the Chaplain, who appears lying in a drawer in his study. Our heroes are punished by being made to clear out a forgotten old storage space. Here they find a supply of weapons and ammunition that’s just been abandoned there, obviously. They climb to the school rooftops on Founder’s Day, set fire to the Chapel, and let loose a hail of bullets upon the fleeing school and guests. The Girl turns out to be a dead shot, killing the headmaster with a pistol bullet between the eyes.

If… has been described variously as the 12th, 16th, or 9th best British film of all time. Cinematically, that may be true; I couldn’t say. And it’s fun to watch, not least for old time’s sake. It feels like we’ve shared so much of our lives together.

But I’ve also got to say that watching If… again after nearly 50 years left me kind of lukewarm and disappointed. All of that rebellion and revolution and change that it dreams of, and seems to promise: what does it actually amount to? These lads are not oppressed and under-privileged. They are the privileged elite, enjoying education at one of the country’s leading private schools (fees £634 per annum, the headmaster proudly tells them). They’re not going to stand in line in the dole queue. They are the ones who, when traditional morality is thrown out of the window, will go on to be the Bullingdon Club, the bankers and financiers and CEOs and landlords and politicians, still at the top 50 years later, with an even bigger gap between them and us oiks below them.

So, pardon me if I’m not really cheering them on as they massacre their hated enemies down in the school quadrangle. Instead, I’m secretly hoping they’ll be shot down and the whole place be blown up. And that the nation will decide, in light of the massacre, that elite private schools, and films about them, are a blight on a free society that we have suffered way too long.

Perhaps that’s the message of the film after all? But if it is, it’s a message we surely haven’t understood, and 50 years on our society is even more divided and more unequal than it was back in 1968.

(If… is currently available on Netflix UK)