Society


A course I’m doing next year involves a politics module. This, a friend suggested, suited me as I “love politics”. And, well, I saw her point: I have, after all, devoted more time than might be considered sane to its concepts and processes. But the more I think about it, the more I realise that I actually hate politics. Hate its numb formalities and wearying corruption. Hate its crushing limits and delusion excesses. Hate the way that it degrades practitioners and observers alike. Hate it from the cynicism of Parliament to the callousness of international powermongers. I think I’d be a much happier, more interesting person if I’d never read the papers, let alone discovered blogs.

But what creeps me out is that the people we’re ruled by are people who like politics. They’re the kind of people who studied PPE. They’re the kind of people who’d have joined the Oxford Union. And to like politics – the practice of it – I can’t see how one could have grasped the magnitude of suffering that it averts or abets; its record of inadequacy with regards the former and its sensitivity to achieving the latter. Frankly, I want my politicians grim and anxious; with a healthy disgust for the systems they’re complicit in.

Cultural discourse is, perhaps, more crude and vapid than it was but that’s no reason to bemoan the “diminished role played by public intellectuals in modern politics“. When have such exalted figures ever blessed societies? Intellectuals can do grand things within their fields of knowledge but they’re rarely gifted with a general cogency. The Guardian‘s writer mentions Bertrand Russell, of whom I’m a fan, but though he could write with grace and wisdom on a host of subjects, when it came to politics he’d screw up like the silliest of us. He advocated war against the Soviet Empire; fostered odd, utopian ideas of global government and once proffered a view of race that would startle Prince Philip. He was, nonetheless, more sage than his equally public peers: Shaw, the Stalinist; Ellis, the eugenicist; H.G. Wells, one of the century’s greatest frustrated tyrants. I’ve no wish to dig these thinkers up and give a – public – slapping: they were still geniuses and I’m a dull-minded fool. Their presumptions, carelessness and bouts of unhinged passion were quite human – all too human – but suggest they weren’t ideal for “think[ing] out alternative courses on major questions publicly and clearly“. Who is? What characteristics make one suited for the job? Some are far wiser than most and on a greater range of topics – RIP, Tony Judt – but I don’t feel there’s a class of minds – philosopher kings, shall we say? – who deserve elevation to the poop deck of society. Besides, look at the people that our culture might exalt. Dawkins? Bernard-Henri Levy? Thomas Friedman?

A circle of close friends and strong family ties can boost a person’s health more than exercise, losing weight or quitting cigarettes and alcohol, psychologists say.

Sociable people seem to reap extra rewards from their relationships by feeling less stressed, taking better care of themselves and having less risky lifestyles than those who are more isolated, they claim.

The striking impact of social connections on wellbeing has led researchers to call on GPs and health officials to take loneliness as seriously as other health risks, such as alcoholism and smoking.

Could loneliness be a modern phenomenon? Years ago societies would have been more interdependent. Families and neighbours had to unite to sustain themselves: farming; building; caring for the young and the old. Marrying and raising kids wasn’t just a lifestyle choice, it was an insurance programme. Now we have the luxury of going it alone. Shelter, goods and services can be acquired through one’s own efforts, rather than as part of a communal feat. This is a rare privilege but also, it appears, a curse.

By the way, how can GPs “cure” loneliness? Invite their patients round for a nice cuppa or a film?

Over at Butterflies and Wheels I’ve been defending John Gray’s belief that while our society has advanced in many ways, our consciousnesses, our moral precepts have remained, in large part, stagnant. I’ve used torture as an example before, but what of our taste for exploitation? Michael Howell and Peter Ford write, in The True History of the Elephant Man, that…

London, in particular, had been noted for its insatiable appetite for monsters every since at least the days of Elizabeth I. As Henry Morley stated in his Memoirs of Bartholomew Fair, it was not merely the common throng which sought out a formidable diet of signs and wonders and supported popular fashions in the grotesque. Everyone in society, up to the level of its crowned heads, “shared in the tastes…for men who could dance without legs, dwarfs, giants, hermaphrodites, or scaly boys. He goes on to comment, writing his book in the late 1850s:

“The taste still lingers among uncultivated people in the highest and lowest ranks of the life, but in the reign of William and Mary, or Queen Anne, it was almost universal. Bartholomew Fair, with all the prodigies exhibited therein, was not as it now would be, an annual display of things hardly seen out of a fair, but was, as far as monsters went, only a yearly concentration in one sport of the entertainments that at other times were scattered over town and country.”

A “yearly concentration“? What amateurs! Why, our cultivated society has turned prurience into an art form. We gape at the “crazy” doings of psychologically damaged young women; leer at the suffering of fragile pensioners; beckon the needy under the spotlights and cackle as they wilt. We mock them if they put on weight; jeer if they burn it off; thrust our noses up their skirts and feign surprise when they collapse. We feast on the spectacle of children’s misery; wallow in a woman’s death. We’ve built up globe-spanning, 24-hour, live streaming freak shows; so vivid, so prying and so grandiose that the showmen of old could only gawp. And, hey! That’s progress!

A problem with multiculturalism is that nobody’s sure of, well – what it is. Supporters often see it, I think, as a handy descriptor for cultural diversity. Opponents use it as a stick to beat the problems of the same. Kenan Malik appears to see it as the fetishisation of ethnic communities: “demand[ing] recognition for…particular identit[ies]” and ignoring the structural roots of poverty, racism and so on.

He scores a number of palpable hits, quoted for your delectation…

Multicultural policies have come to be seen as a means of empowering minority communities and giving them a voice. In reality such policies have empowered not individuals but “community leaders” who owe their position and influence largely to their relationship with the state. Multicultural policies tend to treat minority communities as homogenous wholes, ignoring class, religious, gender and other differences, and leaving many within those communities feeling misrepresented and, indeed, disenfranchised.

As well as ignoring conflicts within minority communities, multicultural policies have often created conflicts between them. In allocating political power and financial resources according to ethnicity, such policies have forced people to identify themselves in terms of those ethnicities, and those ethnicities alone, inevitably setting off one group against another.

Such policies do, indeed, increase division. They aren’t responsible for division, however…

Part of the difficulty with this debate is that both sides confuse the lived experience of diversity, on the one hand, with multiculturalism as a political process, on the other.

Diversity” is a clumsy phrase. Differing palates, and musical, artistic or literary traditions have the potential to combine, as Malik writes, in broadening cultural opportunity. Various moral strictures and social values, though, can be so different, and so firmly held, that when bumped together they fall divided. That, for many, is the “lived experience of diversity” – alienating, and confused – and it’s intrinsic to a policy of mass immigration. Don’t misunderstand me: gaps can be bridged; division isn’t necessarily insuperable. Pinning all the blame on the wobbly figure of “multiculturalism“, however, risks beating a strawman to death.

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