Donald Trump’s solo press conference and the media ‘opposition party’

trump_press_conferenceIt is easy to mock Donald Trump’s first solo press conference as president of the United States; I’ve even tried to do so myself. There were some undeniably cringeworthy moments (above all, his attitude towards the Jewish reporter who asked about anti-Semitism, and his response to the question on the Congressional Black Caucus); Trump offered his usual mix of exaggerations and evasions (and one outright falsehood in the forms of his claims about the size of his electoral college victory); and the president’s relentlessly belligerent attitude towards the press, with his repeated claims about their ‘dishonesty’ and ‘fake news’, was petulant and largely detached from reality. Unsurprisingly, most commentary, whether from journalists or satirists, has concluded that it was an ‘unhinged’ and embarrassing shambles. And yet—and I ask this question as someone who unequivocally regards Trump as an appalling individual who will almost certainly be a terrible president—are the commentators right? The more I reflect on the conference (and I have watched all of its 77 minutes), the more I think they are not. Indeed, in several respects it was a carefully constructed event that will probably prove to be hugely successful for Trump.

Early on in the conference the president explained that he was ‘here again, to take my message straight to the people’. This was Trump back in campaign mode, bypassing the media and presenting himself unfiltered to the public. As he noted, he had won the election despite the hostility of most of the press; his success could be attributed, at least in part, to his direct communication with the public. That he felt the need to return to this form of communication is likely to have been his recognition that the first four weeks of his administration have been widely perceived as chaotic (and not the ‘fine-tuned machine’ that had made ‘incredible progress’) and that it was time to short-circuit the media coverage with an alternative narrative. If so, then he surely fulfilled his aims with both the tone and content of the conference.

Apart from a few tetchy moments towards the end of the conference, Trump looked relaxed and in control throughout. He generally managed to soften his attacks on the media by making them look like good-natured banter; he even shared a few jokes with the assembled journalists. Above all, he achieved the perfect balance of looking like an underdog under attack by a room full of opponents, while also conveying toughness and strength in the face of the attack. That he was not being especially attacked is beside the point: Trump made it look as if he was being attacked. As he himself commented, he could not be said to have been ‘ranting and raving’; and he really did appear to be ‘having a good time doing it’.

When it comes to content, it is becoming increasingly clear that Trump has a genius for being rambling and barely coherent while simultaneously telling his intended audience exactly what it wants to hear. Consider what he covered in the first half hour of the conference (before he took reporters’ questions): he briefly announced some new appointments; he summarized how successful his first four weeks had been; he mentioned a high approval rating, a surging stock market and increased optimism in the business world; he gave an extensive list of jobs that were returning to America; he announced a huge increase in military spending, and his desire to achieve peace through strength; he reminded his audience that Isis is ‘a cancer’ that he would deal with, in addition to sorting out North Korea and Iran; he mentioned the many foreign leaders he had had ‘productive’ talks with; he emphasized his policy of strengthened borders and enhanced law enforcement; he referred to his orders to cut regulation, to repeal and replace the ‘disaster’ of Obamacare, to introduce tax reform, to pursue fair trade deals, to encourage investment in jobs and American industry (for example, his initiative to use American steel for the construction of the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines); and he scattered numerous other references to policies and initiatives thoughout the speech (for example, his intention to tackle the drugs problem and his development of a council with Canada to promote women’s business leaders) as well as praise for the people he had appointed. Running through this part-meandering, part-scattergun account of his administration’s policies and achievements were his attacks on Democrats, the courts and the media for attempting to obstruct him, and his view that he had ‘inherited a mess’ from the previous administration.

What would the audience Trump intended to reach—the American public to whom he was speaking directly—take away from this rambling speech? It is likely many of them would have heard the following: the President is a dynamic man who is honouring his campaign promises (unlike many conventional politicians, but like the Donald Trump who presented himself in The Art of the Deal as the dynamic, energetic businessman who successfully achieves his goals); that he is focused on jobs, security and the defence of the American people; and that he is battling the attempts of traditional politicians and the media to frustrate him in these purposes. While it is possible to laugh at many of his claims and statements (‘drugs are becoming cheaper than candy bars’; parts of Chicago are ‘worse than almost any of the places in the Middle East’ that are talked about; nuclear war is bad), his intended audience hears only confirmation of their concerns (drugs are a serious problem; crime in inner cities has got out of control; dealing with Russia reduces the risk of nuclear war).

While watching this I thought of the notorious remarks made by Steve Bannon, the president’s chief strategist, in the first week of Trump’s presidency:

The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while. I want you to quote this. The media here is the opposition party. They don’t understand this country. They still do not understand why Donald Trump is the president of the United States.

Trump’s press conference helps illuminate what Bannon was driving at. The president was speaking about jobs, security and defence; he was appealing to popular fears and concerns, and promising to fix them in ways that traditional politicians had consistently failed to do. In one telling moment he said: ‘I can’t believe I’m saying I’m a politician, but I guess that’s what I am now.’ In other words: the America the media do not understand is the America whose primary concerns are jobs and security; and the media do not understand that Trump was elected because he is not a traditional politician. Trump’s slightly folksy and simple manner, his blunt and plain speaking, even his mistakes and exaggerations: all of this makes him look like the sort of non-politician that millions of Americans consciously wanted to occupy the White House.

After Trump’s speech the media had an extended opportunity to ask questions—and they would likely have confirmed to the president’s intended audience Bannon’s claim that the media are ‘the opposition party’. More than half the questions were about the continuing suspicions of the Trump administration’s connections with Russia, and the related resignation of Michael Flynn as National Security Advisor. These are vital questions because this is an issue of immense political, constitutional and security importance; if some of the links to Russia are proved, it is likely to prove a bigger scandal than Watergate (and will almost certainly lead to Trump’s downfall). But Trump’s calculation—and I suspect he is correct—is that, just as Lynyrd Skynyrd weren’t bothered by Watergate in ‘Sweet Home Alabama’, most of the American public do not care much the Russian rumours. Rather, his intended audience are far more bothered about employment, illegal immigration, crime and threats to America than they are about an issue that does not resonate beyond the political, intelligence and media circles of Washington, New York and Los Angeles.

So the spectacle that unfolded from the conference—just as Trump probably hoped it would, and which was probably why he was enjoying it so much—was of a president focused on issues that matter to most of the public, and a media ignoring those issues to fixate on things that matter little to the wider public. This was the media doing its job properly—and yet also confirming Bannon’s ‘opposition party’ label. This was why the president repeatedly insisted that the Russia stories were ‘fake news’, by which he meant not so much that they were untrue but that they were a deliberate attempt by the media to distract from the real story of his administration’s achievements with non-stories about things that may have been said in a phone conversation between Flynn and a Russian ambassador. And many Trump supporters will concur with their president that the media are dishonest, by reasoning that the media prefer to print rumours about Russian influence on the election than to write about job creation, drug problems and inner city crime. Whether they are right to reason in this way is not the point; the point is that millions of people (and not just in America) are more concerned about the immediate issues that appear to threaten them than they are about the comparatively remote issues of concern to political and media circles.

Most of the media, as well as those of us who are anti-Trump, will regard the press conference as confirmation of Trump’s unsuitability to be president and the shambolic nature of his administration. It is unlikely he won any converts among the media or his opponents. But Trump was not speaking to the media or to those who did not vote for him. He was speaking to those who had voted for him, and he was doing something that he has focused on for the first few weeks of his presidency: firming up his base. The press conference was almost certainly highly successful to that end: his supporters will have regarded his conference as vindication of their support, because Trump told them everything they wanted to hear. It’s a smart strategy, because for now Trump has time on his side to win converts; what he can’t afford to do is lose his base. Given that there is no realistic prospect of Trump winning over the mainstream media, sceptics and opponents any time soon, it would not be a surprise if these solo press conferences become a regular event.

Whether this strategy will work in the long run is open to question; Trump will need his policies to work, and there is surely only so much controversy and scandal any administration can withstand. But Trump has succeeded for nearly two years now with his unconventional approach of bypassing the mainstream media and communicating directly with the public, so he and Bannon probably reason that there is no need to change a winning formula. There is clearly a deliberate policy of dividing the media and political establishment from the public, and it’s a policy that poses more challenges to the media than it does to Trump: it is not obvious in the current climate how the mainstream media and political class can reach out to Trump’s support base.

In one of his final answers, Trump said:

Hey, just so you understand, we had a totally divided country for eight years and long before that. In all fairness to President Obama, long before President Obama we have had a very divided—I didn’t come along and divide this country. This country was seriously divided before I got here… This isn’t Donald Trump that divided a nation. We went eight years with President Obama and we went many years before President Obama. We lived in a divided nation. And I am going to try—I will do everything within my power to fix that.

It’s a powerful point—which is why he keeps reiterating it—and goes to the heart of Trump’s narrative. The United States is clearly deeply divided, but it would be absurd to think that these divisions have opened up only in the past few months. As Trump says, the divisions are deep and long standing; they are a reality that has nothing to do with his being elected president. Of course, he claims to represent that side of the divide which has hitherto been unrepresented by politicians and the media. It matters little whether Trump’s analysis is right, nor whether he really does represent those people who elected him. What matters is that his press conference, like almost everything he has been doing since his inauguration, played perfectly to his supporters.

 

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Democracy and the ‘will of the people’

daily_mail_will_of_the_peopleOne of the more disturbing features of the debates surrounding Brexit is the routine way in which many Brexiteers invoke a notion of democracy based on the ‘will of the people’. According to this view, those who are trying to ‘frustrate’ Brexit are being anti-democratic, because they are going against the supposed popular will (this popular will amounting to 17 million people out of a UK population of 65 million; or, a 52% vote for Leave on a 74% turnout). Unfortunately, this increasingly common argument (it is encountered frequently in the Brexit-supporting tabloid press) is itself dangerously close to being anti-democratic, since it rests on a fundamental misunderstanding of what democracy is.

Democracy is government by popular consent. It is a form of government in which political authority flows from the people (rather than, say, from God, as in medieval political systems). Consent is a key term: where there is consent, a government is legitimate; where there is not consent, a government is illegitimate and can legitimately be replaced. A democracy ensures consent through such things as regular free and fair elections, the opportunity to remove and replace bad governments and to amend or overturn bad policies, a free press and a large public sphere in which politics can be discussed and debated by everyone. All these things are carefully defended in a democracy. Where they are denied—for example, if the press is not free, or there is no opportunity to overturn bad policies—the political system becomes increasingly undemocratic.

The definition of ‘the people’ has always been fluid, but at the heart of democracy is the idea that the ‘people’ should be defined as widely as possible. A society in which only the aristocracy has a say in politics is not democratic; nor is one in which, for example, women or Jews are denied a vote. Since ancient Athenian democracy restricted voting to adult males, excluding all women, slaves and non-Athenians, it would not qualify as a democracy in the modern sense.

Democracy has nothing to do with the so-called ‘will of the people’. Not only is this concept impossible to define with any precision (making it largely nonsensical), but it has routinely been invoked by anti-democratic totalitarian regimes (e.g. the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany) to justify their politics. It implies that anyone who disagrees with the supposed ‘will’ can no longer be considered one of the ‘people’; such an individual comes to be regarded as a traitor to the people. Historically, one of the consequences of this notion of the ‘will of the people’ has been the denial of rights to supposed ‘un-persons’ and the use of concentration camps, ‘re-education’, imprisonment and execution.

In any large, complex society there are numerous different interests and values which defeat all attempts to identify a single ‘will of the people’. Democracy involves recognizing these different interests and values through a form of government that, despite the differences running through society, is agreed to by everyone. Democracy is not, therefore, about simple majority rule; it is about governing in a way that commands the consent of everyone. A democracy which, for example, ignores the interests and values of minority groups or beliefs risks no longer being a democracy and becoming instead a tyranny.

For those interested in political thought: look to John Locke and John Stuart Mill, not to Rousseau.

Theresa May’s Brexit speech

theresa_may_brexit_speechTheresa May deserves some credit for the way she has handled Brexit thus far. The reality was that the most incompetent Prime Minister in recent British history tossed a grenade. Somebody had to catch it, and while the hopeless Andrea Leadsom would have provided great entertainment value by quickly letting the grenade explode, it was probably for the best that May and her much-touted safe pair of hands took charge. Evidently nobody had planned for Brexit, so it was always going to be a matter of muddling through the political chaos bequeathed by Cameron. And May has provided a textbook study of how to muddle through: in public play for time, don’t say too much, and don’t commit to anything, while behind doors scramble as rapidly as possible to assemble some sort of coherent plan. She has been much criticized for not having a plan or strategy for Brexit, but criticism should really be directed at her dismal predecessor. Anyway, what would we rather she had done—sit down with Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox over a few evenings, scribbling down a plan on post-its, and then announce that to the world? We may live in an age of instant news, information, clarity and decisions, but in relation to an issue as complex and important as Brexit there are many reasons why old-fashioned virtues such as patience, careful deliberation, information gathering and stalling for time are the best approach.

At some point, of course, May was going to have to issue more clarity, and so she now has with her major Brexit speech. The importance of this speech lies more in its political significance than in its detail. Much of the latter could have been guessed at; the only difference now is that we no longer need to play a guessing game. May’s focus on restricting immigration and freedom of movement has long been known (she was a notoriously illiberal Home Secretary); and the reality that ending freedom of movement means leaving the Single Market has been confirmed. Hard Brexit was always the most likely approach (most EU members have been correctly predicting that for months); May has now closed the door on the faint hopes of Remainers that a Norwegian model might have been the goal.

Although a Remainer myself, I appreciate two things about that. The first is the logic to it: while I would prefer a Norwegian model (aka soft Brexit) over hard Brexit, the Brexiters are right in regarding it as a compromise that would involve continued membership of the EU in everything but name and political clout. It would be a solution that would satisfy few, and would raise the question: if we’re paying for all the benefits of the EU, why not simply be full members with the ability to be part of the decision-making, instead of having access to the Single Market but no say in how it is run? For Remainers, the Norwegian model is hardly ideal, but it would have been a compromise hard to oppose; furthermore, it offered the hope that the model’s contradictions would result in it becoming a convenient stepping stone to a full EU return. That somewhat desperate hope, along with any prospects of a difficult and uncomfortable compromise outcome, is now off the table.

The second thing I appreciate about May’s speech is the clarity. All of us—Brexiters and Remainers alike—have a much better sense of the political terrain ahead. And the fact is, despite the Prime Minister’s rhetoric about Britons coming together over the Brexit negotiations, what she has done is mark out the dividing line for the forthcoming political war. She has confirmed that the referendum result was a winner-take-all outcome: nothing in her speech offered the slightest concession to the 48% who voted Remain (nor to the unknown number of Leave voters who believed that membership of the Single Market would continue after Brexit). As a case study for discussion by future students of democracy, the referendum will provide fascinating material: What is the best democratic response when a fraction over half the country want one thing, and a fraction under half the country want another? In the UK (unlike in most functioning democracies) you give the former everything that they want and the latter nothing, with no attempt at any sort of compromise. Having suggested in her new year message that she would be representing in Brexit negotiations the interests not only of the 52% but also of the 48%, it turns out that she’ll be doing no such thing. So it is that we remain divided—but the divisions are at least clear and confirmed now.

For Remainers the fight ahead is obvious. The object will be to attempt to resist and obstruct the goals of the Brexiters as much as possible. Had membership of the Single Market been on the table, then Remainers would have something worth supporting within the negotiations themselves. As it is, Britain’s objectives have little to recommend themselves to Remainers. A soft Brexit might have been worth supporting; a hard Brexit is not. So Remainers can focus on resisting Brexit tout court. And they can focus on getting organized and prepared for the forthcoming fight, now with a better knowledge of what they will be fighting.

Many Brexiters will regard what I have just written as treason; others will not comprehend why Remainers want to carry on with the fight. Here are some reasons:

(1) Brexit remains in all probability a national suicide. The Brexit position is still largely delusional. It is one thing to make an optimistic set-piece speech, quite another to sit around a table with other negotiators trying to make that optimism real. The speech was intended to be tough, portraying Britain as negotiating from a position of strength. In reality Britain’s position is desperately weak, at the mercy of the EU27 (any one of whom can veto whatever deal may be reached, and many of whom will already be figuring out ways of luring British businesses to the continent). The breezy Brexiter confidence about rapidly agreeing a whole series of favourable trade deals that will establish the UK as a major global player is the stuff of fantasy. May speaks about ‘global Britain’; yet the only platform that would truly give Britain significance on the global stage is that provided by the EU. The Brexit road ahead is going to be extremely hard going for the UK, will almost certainly result in a much diminished country and may well end in national disaster.

(2) The obsession of May and the Brexiters with immigration and the restriction of freedom of movement is nonsensical and corrosive. Freedom of movement has a sound economic basis, and it is a social and ethical good. The Brexit vision of borders—restricting, it should be remembered, movement both in and out of Britain—is worth opposing, not least because it panders to nationalists and racists.

(3) Early in her speech May spoke about protecting workers’ rights; yet she ended the speech with a threat that should Britain not get the deal it wants then it will choose to become, in effect, a low-regulation, bargain-basement tax haven. This threat was directed at the EU, but it should be seen as an equally great threat to British citizens. Given that May is so ready to make this threat, one ought to be suspicious about the broader government vision. The plan seems to be to leave the EU, then to cherry pick full access to as many areas of the Single Market as possible, with the prospect of ‘competitive’ tax rates as a secondary option if the EU does not hand over the cherries. May is here keen to display her hard edges to the EU—but they are hard edges which will wreak havoc on millions of Britons. More than that, it is precisely the sort of thing many Brexiters (Michael Gove, for example) want: for them, Brexit offers the possibility of pursuing a utopian neoliberal experiment. The admirable European social model, based on such things as workers’ rights and regulations to protect the environment, will be abandoned. For Remainers who value the European social model, and who are rightly dismayed at the casual way Brexiters are prepared to use workers’ rights (as well as the rights of EU citizens resident in the UK) as bargaining chips, there is no choice but to oppose the Brexiters.

(4) Brexit is not a foregone conclusion. The politics are not currently promising for Remainers, but things can change quickly over the months and years to come. (In the past eighteen months Jeremy Corbyn has become leader of the Labour party, David Cameron has resigned, the British have voted to leave the EU, and the Americans have voted for Trump: anyone at the beginning of 2015 predicting even one of those things would have been scorned.) There will be parliamentary votes and elections, there will be opposition from Scotland (and possibly Northern Ireland too), there is likely to be legal action to determine whether Article 50 is reversible (informed legal opinion suggests that it probably is), there will be economic developments, there will be political developments impossible to predict right now, and there are scenarios in which a reversal of Brexit may become a serious possibility. Brexit remains a long game.

(5) A point I have made several times previously bears repeating: just as Brexiters have for years exercised their democratic right to campaign against EU membership while the UK was a member, so Remainers will now exercise their democratic right to campaign for EU membership as the UK ceases to be a member.

(6) For all the predictable and meretricious rhetoric about the British being a great people, and how 65 million of us will come together to make Brexit work, May’s speech changes nothing; at most it offers slightly more coherence to the Brexit position (i.e. no more uncertainty about whether it will be hard or soft Brexit), and consequently it clarifies the anti-Brexit politics that lie ahead for Remainers.

Thinking, overthinking, unthinking

640px-david_-_the_death_of_socrates
Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Socrates (1787); the philosopher thinking at the point of death

In an opinion piece in The Guardian, Mark Rice-Oxley has made a succinct diagnosis of many of our problems: ‘Thinking is what gave humans ascendancy. But overthinking is threatening to bring us down.’ His argument is thoughtful and interesting. Overthinking, in Rice-Oxley’s view, is one of the roots of individual unhappiness and the wider social malaise that has led to Brexit and Trump. This overthinking takes the form of agonizing over past and future (whereas other animals, so far as we can tell, think only in the present, humans are unique in their ability to extend thought backwards and forwards in time) and ‘destructive’ introspective thinking that ‘is in thrall to the rigid, judgmental thoughts we think about ourselves’ and leads to ‘impossible expectations… [and] disappointment’. Our constant self-evaluation, and the self-laceration and disappointment that follows, ‘embeds personal misery’ in a soil of excessive rumination, distorted and exaggerated ideas, and the sense that our lives do not match up to those of others. Hence it is that in ‘the richest, healthiest, most prosperous era we have ever known’, so many people take the short step from unwarranted personal disappointment to blame and protest.

Rice-Oxley proposes that ‘we need a completely new relationship with our thoughts’. This would involve taking the world and ourselves as they are, not as we think they are, and the development of habits that favour observation over thinking; ‘it should be compulsory in secondary schools’, he writes, to learn the ‘psychological flexibility’ that helps us to ‘cultivate our observing selves, rather than our thinking selves’. In conclusion, Rice-Oxley urges us to let go of judging and worrying about ourselves and others, to limit our thinking to areas over which we have control, and to accept and celebrate things as they are. The influence of meditational ideas, in particular the practice of being present in the moment, are clear in this argument. As a whole, Rice-Oxley’s argument is reminiscent of quietism: quietist thinkers have argued that philosophy and reasoning have tended to sow confusion and disturbance, and that mental tranquillity can be achieved by learning to accept the universe we inhabit and who we are rather than to question them.

There are undeniable virtues in this argument. Learning to accept the things we cannot control, to cultivate a less judgmental and hypercritical evaluation of ourselves, to embrace experience rather than agonize about it: these are healthy practices that almost certainly improve mental well-being. By definition, like over-anything, overthinking is problematic: an excess of anything—put the word ‘over’ before eating, stimulation and working, for example—invariably results in negative outcomes. The pertinent question, however, is not whether overthinking is bad, since I can accept that overthinking, unlike thinking, is rarely helpful. The important questions (and perhaps I am overthinking it) are whether Rice-Oxley is right in his understanding of the distinction between thinking and overthinking, and whether his proposed solution to the individual and collective problems of our time is the correct one. The answer to both those questions is, in my view, that he is wrong. If there is a problem in our time, it is not that we overthink things; it is that we think badly, or we don’t think at all.

Consider, for example, Rice-Oxley’s view that we are ‘prisoners of the sinewy web of cogitation that tells us we are strong, clever, important, unassertive, patriotic, hopeless, old, fat, hard done by, forgotten’. But in so far as people obsess about these things, and become miserably trapped in narrow, impossible and harmful labels, is this really the result of overthinking? More likely it is that we engage with these categories, labels, standards and expectations in unthinking ways. We let social media or the judgments of others or the opinions of crowds or the mantra of ‘commonsense’ do our thinking for us; our response is too often uncritical and bereft of serious thinking. It is not that we should stop thinking about ourselves, or about our identities and our position relative to other people and the world, but rather that we should learn to think about these things more skilfully and perceptively. The worries, agonies and unhealthy self-criticism that beset so many people stem not from overthinking, but from not thinking enough and from not being equipped to think well. Rice-Oxley likens all the thoughts we encounter to being pulled under by ‘a busy stream’: repeatedly submerged, we should learn how to pull ourselves out so that we can ‘sit undisturbed’ and simply notice the stream. There are certainly times when it is good to do this; but life is a multitude of rushing streams, and we would be better off learning to become strong swimmers, able to survive and thrive in the streams, than to yearn only to sit on the bank observing the stream flow by.

Rice-Oxley provides several concrete examples of the tendency for overthinking to lead to an unhealthy temptation to compare oneself with others, and then onto personal unhappiness; one is ‘the employee who feels insecure because she thinks the boss blanked her on the stairwell’. Rice-Oxley’s argument seems to be this: the employee is giving too much thought to an incident that does not warrant it; she should instead accept the incident, not worry about it (and hence no longer feel insecure) and move on. This is based on the important (and correct) point that the way we think things are is generally not the way things actually are. In this case, although the employee ‘thinks’ the boss blanked her, it is just as likely (in the absence of any other evidence) that the boss was distracted, or absent-minded, or caught up in his own (over)thinking to notice her. The best advice to the employee in line with Rice-Oxley’s argument is therefore: don’t overthink it, simply observe the incident, and the feelings it prompted, then let it flow by.

But this sounds both idealistically simple and impossibly unrealistic. A relevant philosophical point here concerns the distinction between the way things are and the way we think things are. While reality certainly exists outside our thoughts, our only access to that reality is via our thoughts. At the heart of the human condition is the fact that we are bounded (or ‘trapped’ to put it more negatively) by our thoughts. We can never grasp reality as it is; the best we can hope for is to grasp reality as we think it is. Rice-Oxley seems to suggest that if we stopped thinking we might come to see reality as it is—an argument that seems to me both mystical and mysterious. Without thought, how would the employee ever get close to the reality of the blanking incident? If she successfully manages not to think about it, she will be none the wiser about the true nature of the incident.

Of course, that may be the point: the incident does not deserve either thought or the feeling of insecurity that supposedly follows from thought, so there is little to be gained from attempting to understand its reality. It presumably follows that whenever we are apparently blanked by somebody—be it boss, friend, family member, colleague, or a shop assistant—we should not give the matter any thought. But is that either practical or desirable? While the individual who manages to treat all such incidents with serenity and unconcern may be admirable, these things are important and deserve our attention. A great deal hinges on our interpersonal relationships, and they require more than unthinking acceptance of the way they appear to be; they demand careful thought and work. We may not be able to control how others think of us, but we can influence it: for example, we can address problems, smooth over tensions, and seek clarity about relationships. But in order to do this we need not only to observe but to think about what we observe.

In so far as Rice-Oxley’s insecure employee has a thought-related problem, it is not that she is overthinking the incident but that she is not thinking about it with sufficient acumen. She is guilty of faulty thinking: she is leaping to unjustified assumptions and catastrophizing the incident on the basis of little evidence. Of course, her insecurity may derive from a wider context; for example, her boss may have been critical of her work, and she may have heard convincing rumours that her company was planning to downsize. But let’s assume in the absence of that context that there is no reason beyond the incident itself why she should feel insecure. Her best approach is to consider the incident thoughtfully, critically and rationally. She might examine why it made her feel insecure; she might question whether the incident was all that it seemed; she might challenge her initial assumptions about it; she might, after a careful assessment of the incident, her perception of it, and her feelings about it, decide on an appropriate response—which may be to recognize it as inconsequential and not a reason to feel insecure, and hence to accept it and move on. It will take more than an observing self to get to this position; it will take a well-cultivated thinking self.

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The relationship between thought, emotion and behaviour according to Cognitive behavioural therapy

While learning to cultivate a more observational and accepting approach to life through practices such as meditation and mindfulness makes a valuable contribution to mental health, a more solid foundation is offered by the principles underlying Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). A therapeutic approach with proven success at treating problems such as anxiety, stress and depression, CBT not only focuses on resolving faulty thought processes (for example, by learning to identify and challenge all-or-nothing thinking, catastrophizing thoughts, unfounded assumptions, unwarranted self-criticism, and so on) but also offers a better model for understanding human nature than that implied by Rice-Oxley’s article. The latter treats the relationship between thoughts, feelings and behaviour as unidirectional: for example, someone who thinks other people are better off than him will feel miserable, and this unhappiness will lead him to express his disappointment (perhaps by voting for Brexit or Trump). It is this model which underpins Rice-Oxley’s main argument: if we cut down on thinking we will feel less miserable (and hence not do stupid things like vote for Brexit or Trump). CBT’s model is also based on thoughts, feelings and behaviour, but understands the relationship between them as constituting a loop in which each element both influences and is influenced by the other two. According to CBT, therefore, the trick is not to replace thinking with acceptance but to recognize how our thoughts impact on our feelings and behaviour and and vice versa. In this feedback loop, well-being is achieved not by attempting to reduce one of the elements but by cultivating healthy practices in all three. Learning to calm one’s feelings, to alter bad behavioural habits, and to correct faulty thinking work together as a mutually beneficial package.

Nevertheless, Rice-Oxley is right to identify overthinking as a problem. But overthinking only superficially involves an excessive quantity of thinking; the real cause of overthinking is poor quality of thought. The solution to the problem is not, therefore, to counter overthinking with observation but to counter it with better quality thinking. Indeed, the most insidious problem today is more likely to be the poor quality of much thought, which extends to unthinking. The individual made miserable by her Instagram feed, the person demoralized by the success of others, or the hypochondriac forever convinced that he is dying (all examples from Rice-Oxley’s article) are arguably not guilty of overthinking but of not thinking enough—and certainly of not thinking with sufficient quality. It is precisely the failure to cultivate the thinking self that lies at the root of these problems; to argue that the cultivation of the observational self is the answer is to miss the point. Mindfulness will provide one useful form of self-protection, but the person who has not developed the thinking skills necessary for insightful self-understanding and rational and critical engagement with others will lack the mental resources to weather the type of buffeting we all receive from social media, the actions and judgments of others, the expectations of marketing and media, and the daily disappointments of the news.

Finally, perhaps the most disquieting conclusion of Rice-Oxley’s article is the suggestion that we should aim at a passive acceptance of ourselves and the world. The argument that people should celebrate what they have and stop being disappointed at what they don’t have is always easier to make from the vantage point of having more things than the next person. In a world of gross inequality—an inequality that is staggering even within apparently prosperous countries such as the UK and the US, and an inequality that is as much to do with unequal life chances and opportunities as it is to do with economic disparities—a habit of observing and accepting these inequalities rather than thinking about their inherent unfairness (and doubtless feeling justifiably unhappy and angry as a result) serves only the interests of those who benefit from inequality. Disappointment and unhappiness are vital driving forces for both personal and social change. If we all learned to ‘simply take as we find’ and to ‘accept that some things will not always go as we wish’, then there would be no resistance to social and political wrongs—and, moreover, there wouldn’t be the impulse to make personal improvements. The moment we embrace only those things we can control and influence, and give up thinking about everything else, is the moment we abandon our wider connection to society and the world. A life spent observing the stream of thoughts rather than immersing oneself in them is a life of disengaged quietitude.

It is not mindful observation and acceptance that should be compulsory in schools; it is psychology and philosophy. In ancient Athens Socrates devoted his life to going beyond observation and acceptance into thought. His cultivation of the thinking self was inspirational to his many followers, but deeply troubling to the state. So he was put on trial for corrupting youth; he was accused of encouraging them to embrace thinking (or overthinking in the eyes of the authorities) that led to impiety. After he was convicted and sentenced to death, he is supposed to have uttered his most famous dictum: ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’ But Socrates would not have wanted his followers simply to observe and accept this dictum. He would have wanted them to think about his trial and execution, and to ask: Should one prefer the refusal of Socrates to abandon thinking, or the insistence of the Athenian state that he and his followers should learn to observe and accept? It’s a question that deserves a lot of thought.

#Brexit, the populist surge and the crisis of complexity

This is an excellent, broad and intelligent analysis not only of the crisis brought about by Brexit but also of the wider global crisis and challenges facing us.

Paul Arbair

BrexitThe British vote in favour of an exit from the EU has thrown the UK’s political system into chaos and shocked Europe and the world. The long-term consequences of this vote are still unclear, but some fear it could trigger the undoing of the UK and accelerate the disintegration of the EU. Many see this outcome as a new victory for populist movements, which are on the rise across much of the Western world. Something more fundamental, however, might be at play.

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Resist Brexit!

anti-brexit-rallyBrexit can and should be resisted, and it can and should be stopped. Those of us who voted Remain in the EU referendum and who regard Brexit as potentially (for it hasn’t actually happened yet) the most disastrous event in modern British history have every reason to keep fighting and grounds for cautious optimism about success. As Martin Kettle has written in The Guardian, this is a long game: the complex process of leaving the EU has not even begun, and assuming that Article 50 is triggered in March next year it will likely be two years, possibly longer, before any formal agreement to leave has been reached. For the Remainers, there is time to mount a determined fightback; for the Brexiters, who have so far revealed themselves to be lacking any sort of coherent plan, who are divided among those who want variations of ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ Brexit, who are increasingly having to explain why they no longer stand by many of the claims and promises made during the referendum campaign, and who are facing growing evidence of the economic, cultural and social disarray that Brexit will cause, the problems will only accumulate.

Many Brexiters have argued that Remainers (or Remoaners as they are fond of dubbing us) should shut up since the ‘will’ of the British public is for Brexit; some, notably the Daily Mail and Daily Express, have gone so far as to accuse those opposing Brexit of being unpatriotic subverters of democracy, in effect suggesting that we are traitors. As I noted shortly after the referendum result, 17 million people voted for Brexit out of a population of 65 million; that amounts to 26% of the population as a whole, and about 38% of the electorate—hardly numbers that reflect a clear and emphatic ‘will of the people’. Even the headline (and most important) figure of 52% does not amount to such a general ‘will’; it simply reveals that a narrow majority of those who could be bothered to vote on 23 June favoured leaving the EU in one form or another. Unless the 48% who voted Remain (and the 74% of the population who, for one reason or another, have not expressed any desire to leave the EU) are no longer to be considered as part of the ‘British public’, any claims that the Brexiters speak on behalf of the ‘will of the people’ should be rejected as arrogant and unjustified. Put simply, they speak for the 17 million who voted for Brexit, no more, no less.

The 17 million do, of course, represent a majority of the vote. But the UK is a democracy, and as such the right of the 48% to continue opposing Brexit, through argument and debate, through democratic and legal means, should be respected. A democracy does not work on the basis that all those who lose a vote are immediately expected to abandon their position and adopt the position of the winning side—if it did, then it would cease to be a democracy and become instead a tyranny of the majority. It may be that the Remainers will not ultimately succeed in resisting Brexit, but that in no way means they do not have the right to resist it democratically. Those Brexiters who think that right should be denied the Remainers are adopting a dangerously anti-democratic stance (in keeping with their ‘enemies of the people’ attack on the judges who ruled that parliament must be consulted about triggering Article 50). Fundamental to democracy is inclusive debate, in which the views of all sides are heard; anyone, whether Brexiter or Remainer, who supports democracy should welcome an ongoing and vigorous debate about Brexit, the right of all sides to make their strongest cases, and the right of the 48%—just as much as that of the 52%—to be represented in those debates.

Equally to be rejected is the Brexiters claim that Remainers are ‘unpatriotic’. Those of us who continue to argue for Remain do so on the basis that Brexit will be enormously damaging to the UK. Remainers are determined that Britain avoids this damage; we believe that for Britain to flourish and prosper, it needs to be an open, inclusive, tolerant country within a Europe founded on cooperation and integration. There is nothing ‘unpatriotic’ about campaigning for the best interests of the UK; the implication that Remainers are anti-British is a nonsense. And there is something perverse about a ‘patriotism’ that is willing to risk the sort of long-term damage to the UK that Brexit is likely to cause.

Brexiters are fond of dismissing Remainers as metropolitan elites—part of their argument that we do not speak for ‘the people’. The tendency (on both sides) to portray the referendum result in terms of simple divisions—young versus old, graduates versus non-graduates, cities versus the rest of the country, and so on—should also be rejected. A significant proportion of people in London, Manchester and Birmingham (and the many other areas that were majority Remain) voted for Brexit; and a significant proportion of people in majority-Brexit areas voted for Remain. The notion that Remainers are an elite is laughable to most of us: any elite which includes someone like me—economically poor, insecure in employment and housing, highly critical of neoliberalism—is a strange one indeed. As for the supposed ‘representatives of the people’ such as Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Liam Fox, Douglas Carswell, Rupert Murdoch and the Daily Mail: if standing in a gilded elevator with the multi-millionaire president-elect of the United States (and angling to become UK ambassador to the US, not to mention numerous attempts to become part of Westminster), if public school education and privilege and hedge-fund financing and corporate global media, are considered the marks of the non-elite, then we have entered unusual times. Many of the most prominent Brexiters—Michael Gove, John Redwood, Iain Duncan Smith, Christopher Grayling, and the like—have energetically promoted policies of austerity that have hit hardest the very non-elites that they now claim to represent. The underlying truth, obscured by so much of the rhetoric, is that neither Brexit nor Remain stand for elites or non-elites; they are opposed positions in relation to EU membership, positions which attract the support of both elites and non-elites.

A compelling case can be made, therefore, to reject the demands of those Brexiters for Remainers to be silenced and for debate to cease. Such Brexiters are adopting anti-democratic rhetoric and simplifications intended deliberately to distort discussion. Right now, what is needed above all is a properly democratic debate. Article 50 will be triggered, and a process to leave the EU will start; that needs to be scrutinized and argued about, and the views of the 48% need to be part of that debate. Even if the UK ultimately leaves the EU, the terms of Brexit require careful debate. All we know at present is that 17 million people voted to leave the EU; we do not know what sort of exit they wanted, and there is no evidence that 52% of voters favoured a ‘hard’ Brexit. Almost certainly large numbers of the 17 million did not vote for ‘hard’ Brexit, which may end up being the only form of Brexit left on the table—and is the form of Brexit that many of the most vocal Brexiters are pushing for. At the very least, Remainers will play a vital role in ensuring that any ‘hard’ Brexit is decisively defeated.

Brexit may happen; but it is not inevitable. The Liberal Democrat victory in the Richmond by-election was the result of opposition to Brexit. Cross-party initiatives are being forged to fight Brexit (and, in particular, ‘hard’ Brexit). The calls for a future referendum on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations are being made with increasing persuasion. Brexit is not a done deal; right now, as illustrated by the shambolic early stages of the process, it is ludicrous to talk about Brexit as a reality when those who want it are so clueless about what form it will take and what it will entail. Two years (or more) is an extremely long time in politics, particularly when the economic fall-out from the referendum result is likely to become more acute. As Martin Kettle suggests, time is on the Remainers side (and certainly time favours the Remainers more than it does the Brexiters), and it is a matter of continuously chipping away every day at the increasingly weak Brexit position, resisting outright ‘hard’ Brexit, making the compelling case through debate and democracy for Remain, and turning the 48% into 50+%. Those of us who support Remain should be making the case, clearly, confidently, positively and passionately—and repeatedly. We should be up for the fight ahead. As long as we are, we have good chances of success.

Are we really living in a post-truth world?

Former London Mayor Boris Johnson speaks at the launch of the Vote Leave bus campaign, in favour of Britain leaving the European Union, in Truro
The Vote Leave campaign bus: evidence of a ‘post-truth’ world?

There was no great surprise in the announcement by Oxford Dictionaries that ‘post-truth’ is their 2016 word of the year. Usage of the word has increased 2,000% this year compared to last. Daily it is said that our age is one of ‘post-truth politics’. The vote for Brexit—or, more specifically, the campaign that led to that vote—and the US presidential campaign are cited as confirmation of our ‘post-truth culture’. ‘Post-truth’ has itself become a truth among many commentators and their followers; the term is bandied around in a spirit of assumed general acceptance of its validity and value.

Yet I am instinctively sceptical. ‘Post-truth’ looks a little too much like a trendy buzzword that ultimately turns out to be saying much less than it thinks it is. The coinage itself has that grating appearance of faux meaning for a generation desperate to think both its experience of the world and the way that experience is understood are novel and original. Not all terms beginning with ‘post-’ are vacuous, but many are—and many seem to stem from the laziness or inability to think deeply about an issue, to examine it within a broad historical and cultural context, leading to the easier approach of unquestioningly assuming that our world is unprecedented.

The dictionary definition of ‘post-truth’ is that the word is an adjective ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. My objection is not to this definition—it is quite neat to have a word, and a concept, that describes such a cultural state—but rather what is not contained in the definition: the implication, in the coinage itself and in the way that it is used, that ‘post-truth’ describes a new phenomenon.

I do not question that the politics of both Brexit and Trump were dominated by lies, distortion and exaggeration, by a casual dismissal of objective facts (or at least any that were inconvenient to a particular ideological viewpoint), and by appeals to emotion and personal belief. Nor do I doubt the wilful dishonesty of much media, the existence of ‘fake news’, and the power of both to shape public opinion. What I do question is whether any of this is new. The suggestion seems to be that we have moved from an age of truth, in which public opinion was shaped by objective facts, to an age of post-truth, in which public opinion regards objective facts as irrelevant. Neat and catchy as such an analysis is, I see little evidence of its truth—the irony here is that the description of our age as post-truth in contrast to an earlier age of truth may itself lack objective perspective.

Politics has never been about an unqualified commitment to objective facts. Politics is bound up with ideas (which become ideologies), with theories about, for example, the best ways of organizing economic and social resources. Politicians and political thinkers take strong positions on issues that defy straightforward objective analysis. Freedom and equality, for example, are rooted in ethics far more than they are in objective facts; whether a society should be more or less equal is invariably an ethical question rather than one that can be answered by reference to objective facts. Ideologies are about values, and values are rarely objective. (I am not saying that objective assessment of data does not contribute to these types of question, and that objective truths cannot support particular values; I suggest only that objectivity is usually less important than ethical considerations in answering them.)

Every age has its ideologies, and usually more than one. Consider the dominant ideology in much of early modern Europe: the divine right theory of monarchy (according to which a monarch, as God’s representative on earth, had absolute power). This theory was not built on anything that we would understand as an objective assessment of facts; it was built, rather, on various common beliefs about hierarchy, order and power, and the values that went with those beliefs. A similar point could be made about the many ideologies in our modern world. They are shaped by certain notions of how the world should be, and by various objectively unprovable beliefs and values (for example, that freedom is more important than security, or that a nation is more important than an individual). The advancement of an ideological belief, while it may be in part based on objective facts, is never entirely concerned with objectivity.

Furthermore, since antiquity politics has been closely bound up with the art of rhetoric. The classical authors of rhetorical handbooks (Aristotle, Cicero and Quintilian, for example) were interested in the range of tools at a speaker’s disposal for persuading an audience. These tools could include reference to objective facts, but the focus of much rhetorical theory was on the way language could be structured and delivered in ways that worked on an audience’s emotions as well as reason. Persuasion—which is the essence of opinion formation—has always emphasized the importance of playing to emotions.

Rhetoric and the appeal to emotions appears to have been present in all political cultures throughout history. Whether it was the speeches and aesthetics of Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Soviet Union, the use of fear as part of political rhetoric during the Cold War era (and the projection of figures such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan as strong leaders in the face of communist threats), or the hysteria surrounding the supposed Catholic threat in seventeenth-century England, appeals to emotions and personal beliefs invariably play a key role in shaping public opinion. For centuries, after all, an attachment to monarchy, hierarchy and the Church was largely an emotional attachment, not one grounded in any objective assessment.

Slogans, pamphlets and satires have been around for centuries, and they frequently appeal on an emotional rather than an objective level. And there are many instances of ‘fake news’ throughout history: spurious accounts of ritual murders by Jews, false reports of massacres by Catholics, invented conspiracy theories, fabricated myths and legends. In late seventeenth-century England, for example, the political crisis known as the ‘Popish Plot’ was based on an entirely fabricated account of a Catholic conspiracy to assassinate Charles II and place the king’s Catholic brother on the throne. Nor is there anything new about a cavalier dismissal of objectivity and truth by the media. Newspapers have been doing this since their beginnings; even within living memory, the idea that the press (and tabloids in particular) have been wholeheartedly committed to objective ‘truth’ seems laughable.

The argument that, in respect to objective truth, the politics of the early twenty-first century differs fundamentally from previous ages seems, therefore, to lack much substance. Clearly the way we communicate today is different; but while digital and social media represent a significant technological shift, it does not follow that the nature of politics has also undergone a revolution. Populism and demagoguery were not born in the digital age; appeals to emotion and personal beliefs did not suddenly arise with social media. Equally, objective facts have not gone away; they are still prominent in debates, and they remain part of the arsenal of almost all politicians (even Farage and Trump).

Perhaps the significant modern shift concerns objectivity itself, in particular the value attached to it. But this shift is not recent; rather, it began happening in the seventeenth century. As Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s Objectivity (New York: Zone Books, 2007) demonstrates, the notion and concept of objectivity arose alongside the empirical sciences. The process by which objectivity became established as part of the modern mental world was a long and complex one; but its legacy is that objectivity as a value and a concept has become ever more deeply embedded in modern culture.

What does seem to be new is the idea contained in the ‘post-truth’ concept that we are only now fully aware of it, as if truth and objectivity were silently taken for granted in previous ages. But they were not. In early modern England, many despaired of the methods of the pamphleteers and satirists, and bemoaned the way truth was lost among the emotion and outright lies of many populist appeals. Our laments about the supposed disappearance of objectivity and truth in politics are really no more than an echo of complaints that have been made for centuries; long before the word ‘post-truth’ was coined, George Orwell devoted considerable attention to the threats posed to ‘truth’ by the totalitarian ideologies of his time.

For those who believe that the term ‘post-truth’ applies to a new form of political culture emerging in the early twenty-first century, one that is qualitatively different from any previous political culture, the challenge is to prove and to articulate this idea fully. I am open to the possibility that there may be something in a notion of a distinctively new post-truth age, one that embodies a political culture fundamentally different from anything previously seen. It may be that digital technology is leading to a decisive rejection of either the existence or the relevancy of objective facts; it may be that politics is becoming so intensely ideological that any semblance of objectivity is eradicated. But I am yet to be persuaded of either of these suggestions, just as I am (for now at least) sceptical that our supposedly post-truth politics is substantially different in its relationship to truth and emotions than were the political cultures of the past.