hearth cricket wisdom

So I’ve finally organised a project that has been simmering in the background for some time. This spring I am launching a pilot series of workshops which explore ideas which deserve some space to grow.

All my life I have loved playing with ideas, whether browsing the library and bookshop shelves searching for hidden treasures, or sharing conversations that transcend small talk, or writing blog posts that dig into places that interest me….

I know I’m not alone in this. Sharing ideas is the hallmark of humanity, it is our pride and our joy, and the fuel that feeds our souls. Perhaps the most courageous and astonishing thing a person can do is to venture into a new idea.

If you’re in Edinburgh and fancy coming along for one or more of these Saturday mornings, please add your name to the list and bring your thinking cap with you.

who owns wellbeing?

Two different mental health events fell across my radar this week. They both arrived by email, in their different ways. The first landed in my inbox at work: a slick mass mailing with graphics and corporate logos and link buttons, leading to an even slicker website dedicated solely to promoting a full-panel plenary of high-ranking, primarily white male, mental health policy professionals and public officials. The second was a personal message from someone who had read my piece in the LSE Surviving Work blog series, inviting me to attend a small conference on wellbeing in which “the central concern is a question of whether the wellbeing policies of large organisations actually come to undermine the very people that they are designed to support.”

Mental health is a political issue: it boils down simply to power, that is, who holds the power to define what constitutes “normal” and “sane” and indeed what is meant by “wellbeing”. The Icarus Project has written an incredibly insightful (or should that be inciteful?) publication entitled Madness and Oppression, examining the critical factor of power in the context of mental health.

When I was growing up, mental wellbeing didn’t figure in any public discussion. The fact that there are now conferences of all types to consider our wellbeing is a welcome development of the new century. It is also a sign of how distressed we have become as a society. Pick up any paper these days and you’ll find headlines about the multiple crises facing our mental healthcare services as the need rises while the resources dwindle. I’m not convinced that the professional and political classes can solve this predicament; it is going to take a quiet and creative revolution on many levels to dismantle the powers which enforce a standard of normality upon the person.

I can’t help but think of Krishnamurti’s observation: “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” I know which conference I’d be going to.

on wordpower

“A word after a word after a word is power.” Margaret Atwood

My favourite bookshop in the world – WordPower – is moving into the next stage of its life. Its lovely founders have given 22+ years of intense loving slog into raising this baby, which has grown into not just a shop but also a hub of progressive thinking. As well as individual author events, they have also hosted the Book Fringe every August, International Women’s Day dinners and the annual five-day-long Edinburgh Independent Radical Book Fair – a massive undertaking just by itself!

Now they are planning to move on to pastures new, and WordPower’s future is on the table. A fundraising campaign has been launched with the idea being to transition the business into a social enterprise and to develop its role as a community resource. Needless to say I am wholeheartedly supporting this and want to see it succeed.

WordPower and its fine selection of books have seen me through my own journeys of discovery, up dark mountains of unknowing and back down into light valleys of understanding. WordPower gave me Derrick Jensen and Joe Bageant when I needed to rage; Tom Hodgkinson when I needed to rest; David Edwards and Erich Fromm when I needed to believe; Carol Gilligan and Inga Muscio and Laurie Penny when I needed to be believed; Jane Bowles when I needed to laugh; Joanna Macy and Rebecca Solnit and Margaret Wheatley when I needed to hope; oh and there’s just so many other good friends there on those bountiful shelves in that purple painted place.

If you love books and you love the joy of reading and writing and sharing ideas, please consider pledging something toward the WordPower crowdfunding effort.


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on a hopeful note

When I was a child, one of my very favourite picture books was The Wump World by Bill Peet. We didn’t own a copy at home but the public library did, and I borrowed it repeatedly. The Wump World tells the story of a small planet covered in rolling meadows, twinkling streams and large leafy bumbershoot trees. The only residents of this world are the wumps, a gentle and innocent species of herbivore mammals who live together in a large flock.

The story tells of how one day this peaceful, unassuming planet is invaded by the Pollutians from the planet Pollutus. They arrive in a horde of roaring metal spaceships that vomit black smog into the air. The frightened wumps run away and hide themselves in an underground cavern, while the Pollutians settle into the task of building a vast, heaving civilisation full of skyscrapers and motorways and factories and shopping centres, with cars and trucks zooming around and crowds of stressed-out Pollutians buzzing and bumbling their way through the streets.

It doesn’t last forever, of course; it becomes so awful that even the Pollutians can’t take it anymore. They pack themselves back into their spaceships and go off in search of another planet, leaving behind their devastation.

Any child reading this story will identify with the wumps, sharing in their fear and their misery as they hide underground. Any adult will concede sadly that we are the Pollutians, and will recognise with disquiet the assumptions and behaviour of that race, with their willingness to exploit and pave over the natural world. And child or adult, any human reading the story – humans, with story running through our very blood and our bones – any human will understand in heart and in conscience the sad truth of the Wump World: civilisation as we play it now is a failing game.

But it’s just a story, you might say. What can we do about it anyway, you might say. Stop reading picture books and grow up, you might say: grow up and join the real world. Get a job, pay your bills, live for the weekend. Watch tv, go to the shops, plan your vacation. Calm down, take your pills, join the club.

Well that’s what you may have said, even a week ago. Are you still so sure about the solidity and inevitability of the ‘real’ world? Are you still convinced that ‘they’ will take good care of ‘us,’ that ‘they’ will ensure that ‘we’ don’t go too far? When will it sink in, that there is only us, there is only we – and we are them, and they are us. Pollutians, planets, bumbershoot trees and wumps – this is we, this is us. Social activist Charles Eisenstein refers to this truth as ‘the Story of Interbeing,’ which he explores in his aptly-titled book The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible.

The story of the Wump World ends on a hopeful note: the beleaguered wumps venture out of the caves and eventually find a small, undamaged corner of grass and trees where they can survive.

In time the murky skies would clear up and the rains would wash the scum from the rivers and lakes. The tall buildings would come tumbling down and the freeways would crumble away. And in time the green growth would wind its way up through the rubble. But the Wump World would never be quite the same.

no class

Time to take Joe Bageant down from the shelf and consider his more-relevant-than-ever reflections on the American hologram.

He wasn’t kidding when he wrote that “the four cornerstones of the American political psyche are (1) emotion substituted for thought, (2) fear, (3) ignorance, and (4) propaganda.” Those ingredients have now put a beligerent, misogynist ass into the country’s highest office and a conservative majority into both houses of Congress.

Bageant told it like it is: what we are witnessing is a class war.

“Class,” however, is defined not in terms of income or degrees but in terms of power…. Leaving aside all numbers, “working class” might best be defined like this: You do not have power over your work. You do not control when you work, how much you get paid, how fast you work, or whether you will be cut loose from your job at the first shiver on Wall Street.

Why on earth anyone thinks that Donald Trump heralds a corrective to this, I don’t know. Well yes I do: see above numbers 1 through 4. Trump is a class hero precisely because he has no class.

Bageant goes on to observe that

The New Conservatism arose in the same way left-wing movements do, by approximately the same process, and for the same reasons: widespread but unacknowledged dissatisfaction, in this case with the erosion of “traditional” life and values in America as working people perceive them. Otherwise known as change…. There is no good reason why for the past thirty years the uncertainty and dissatisfaction of people… was automatically snubbed as unenlightened by so many on the left. If the left had identified and dealt with this dissatisfaction early on, if they had counteracted the fallacies the Republicans used to explain that dissatisfaction, if they had listened instead of stereotyping blue-coller angst as “Archie Bunkerism” (itself a stereotype of a stereotype delivered unto their minds by television) and maybe offered some gutsy, comprehensible, and practical solutions, we might have witnessed something better than the Republican syndicate’s lying and looting…. Real movements take advantage of the protest-potential to be found among dissatisfied and disappointed people – people disenfranchised by bureaucracy, technocracy, and “experts.” Rightists tapped into that dissatisfaction by lamenting the loss of community and values and attributing it to the “cultural left’s” feminism and antiracism, the gay movement, and so on. The Republican message, baloney though it is, was accessible [while] the Democrats didn’t have any message at all.

Joe Bageant passed away in 2011 and so missed the culmination of New Conservatism, playing out as it is into this endgame called President Trump. The working class people have now got what they want: an ignorant, mediocre, self-obsessed white man dragging us all down with him. Trump is the President of

Plain Americans, isolated by the rest of the world by the certainty that it’s better to be American than anything else, even if we can’t really prove why. Even if we are one house payment away from homelessness, even if our kids can’t read and our asses are getting so big they have their own zip codes, it’s comforting to know we are at least in the best place on earth.

The best place on earth, soon to be great again. Or so he says.

Excepts from Deer Hunting with Jesus by Joe Bageant, Random House, 2007.

on tv

There is a passage in the book Things That Can & Cannot Be Said in which Arundhati Roy describes to John Cusack an experience she had in the forests of central India

where the poorest people in the world have stopped some of the richest mining corporations in their tracks. The great irony is that people who live in remote areas, who are illiterate and don’t own TVs, are in some ways more free because they are beyond the reach of indoctrination by the modern mass media. There’s a virtual civil war going on there and few know about it. Anyway, before I went into the forest, I was told by the superintendent of police, “Out there, ma’am… my boys shoot to kill.” … Anyway, then the cop says to me, “See, ma’am, frankly speaking this problem can’t be solved by us police or military. The problem with these tribals is they don’t understand greed. Unless they become greedy there’s no hope for us. I have told my boss, remove the force and instead put a TV in every home. Everything will be automatically sorted out.”

This put me in mind of Jerry Mander’s classic polemic against mass media, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. Written in 1978 by an ex-advertising man turned political and social activist, the book articulates the problems of mass broadcasting:

  1. The Mediation of Experience – in which the viewer succombs to a passive role as observer rather than participant;
  2. the Colonisation of Experience – in which the sources of broadcasting content are centralised and controlled by a minority who can afford it and who shape the content according to their own interests;
  3. the Effects of Television on the Human Being – the physical and mental impact of television viewing; and
  4. the Inherent Biases of Television – by which the spectrum of experiencial information is limited and filtered by television viewing.

Coincidentally, my edition of the book is a 1998 reprint by The Other India Press. In its forward, the publishers explain:

The book was originally published in 1978 in the USA at a time when television had begun taking control of the American mind in a big way. Now that a similar situation is overtaking us here twenty years later, we have decided that an Indian reprint of this book would be well appreciated by all those sane humans who are getting increasingly disturbed over the impact of television on their lives and habits of their families particularly the kids.

The relentless onward crush of modernisation across the globe – including the role television plays as a tool of conformity – has been documented in films such as Helena Norburg-Hodge’s Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh (based on her 1991 book of the same name) as well as her more recent The Economics of Happiness (2011). Filmmaker Thomas Balmes has also explored this theme in his 2014 documentary Happiness, observing the experience of Bhutan, which in 1999 became the last country in the world to introduce television. So has more television created more happiness? What do you think?

Television has been tightening its grip over humanity now for over half a century; it is difficult to imagine life without it. Even those of us who try to avoid it cannot escape its touch. How many (countless!) times have I been asked “did you see….?” It barely registers when I reply with no, I don’t own a television, so I didn’t see. The conversation inevitably rolls over this impediment and carries on without me.

Even my idealistic resistance flags. Working fulltime now, my daughter away at university, I arrive home at the end of the day with a brain like mince. What could be easier than sitting back and surfing YouTube, with its reruns of sitcoms and clips from American late night talk shows? The evening is washed away in a blur of mind-numbed disconnection. And that my friends is precisely the point of it. Television provides us with the illusion of connection, of tapping into a shared culture that is greater than our small selves, while all the time we are surrendering our autonomy and allowing our communities to fragment into isolated rooms lit by the glow of a screen.

Don’t worry: I’m fully aware of the irony of arguing against screens here on my WordPress blog. I offer you once more the question I asked you earlier, the question I now ask you in all sincerity to pause and consider: what do you think? Because what we think is the only solution that we have in the face of global broadcasting. Stepping back from what we are told to think, and reclaiming the power to think for ourselves – how beautifully simple is the way out of this mess.

What I think is that it’s time for me to step back from the mindnumbing allure of YouTube, step away from my queasy fascination with US election coverage and my nostalgic binge-viewing of old BBC series; time to refresh my commitment to choose other ways of being.

I’ve been reading Charles Eisenstein’s book The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible, in which he describes an emerging paradigm that he calls ‘the Story of Interbeing.’ He writes:

So many people squelch the expression of their gifts by thinking that they must do something big with them. One’s own actions are not enough – one must write a book that reaches millions. How quickly this turns into competition over whose ideas get heard. How it invalidates the small, beautiful strivings of the bulk of humanity; invalidates, paradoxically, the very things that we must start doing en masse to sustain a livable planet…. Choice is only small through the eyes of separation. From the perspective of interbeing, your choice is no more or no less important than any of the president’s…. I am not actually suggesting that we do these small acts because they will in some mysterious way change the world (although they will). I am suggesting, rather, that we orient more toward where our choices come from rather than where they are going.

Perhaps as this Story of Interbeing emerges, the power of television over the collective imagination will wither and fade. Perhaps we will rediscover how connected we already are, without the artificial, distracting illusion of mass broadcasting. Perhaps we will somehow – through our small, individual acts of resistance – manage to sort things out.


on the body politic

Here in Edinburgh we have a museum dedicated to centuries-old body parts suspended in jars of liquid. It’s called the Surgeons Hall Museum, and is run by the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, an esteemed professional organisation that has been around since the sixteenth century – back when they were all ‘barber surgeons.’ You can pay money to go look at diseased lungs and lesioned brains and so on, as well as antique surgical implements like the wrenches used to pull out teeth and the knives used to dissemble cadavers. That sort of thing.

I mention this because it does much to explain the current US presidential election. The whole world is watching in sick fascination as a cherished democratic institution is cut open like a dead bird with a blunt kitchen knife found rusting on the playground tarmac. We’re fascinated with the grotesque, and that in itself explains the rise of Donald Trump. Admit it: he’s mesmerising, in the same way that a car crash is mesmerising to rubberneckers driving past. He’s brilliant news copy, that’s for sure.

I prefer Hillary Clinton, of course, and I hope she wins the election. This list of her achievements demonstrates a lifetime of public service and she is hands down the more mature and reliable individual, to be holding a position of such power. Having said that, however, I must confess that I’ve come to terms with the possibility of a President Trump.

In the big picture, our human civilisation is in crisis. It cannot and will not continue forever in its current form. The big beast of global capitalism is beginning to struggle with terminal illness: a complex cancer of greed and violence and soulless exploitation has been growing within it over centuries of western expansion. Like any terminal illness, it will advance in a measured decline, punctuated by spasms of crippling emergency.

President Hillary Clinton will shore up the status quo, like a shot of morphine. President Donald Trump will wreak havoc, like a failed intervention. Either way, the end will come. Like a dying patient, at some point we will take stock of our life’s choices, reach for our loved ones, and turn inward to await the inevitable.

In 1943, in the midst of the chaos and destruction occuring all across Europe, Simone Weil wrote an essay entitled On the Abolition of All Political Parties. In it she argues that “Democracy, majority rule, are not good in themselves. They are merely means toward goodness, and their effectiveness is uncertain.”

For Weil, morality lies not in a position one takes, but rather in a personal commitment to truth and justice. The mechanisms of party politics demand that the individual compromises one’s inner compass to fit the needs of the group and to achieve the group’s aims, “in order to play an effective part in public affairs.” She goes on to say, “A man who has not taken the decision to remain exclusively faithful to the inner light establishes mendacity at the very centre of his soul. For this, his punishment is inner darkness.”

The battle between Crooked Hillary and Bully Trump may resemble a gunfight at the O.K. Corral, but that is part of the spectacle that is deliberately arranged by the political establishment and the corporate media. Decades of partisan maneuvering and calculation, by both entrenched two-sides-of-the-same-coin parties, has brought us to this point. Democrat or Republican, it doesn’t really matter: neither party wishes for anything but its own security and growth, its own firm place at the banquet of power. Weil goes on:

Political parties are organisations that are publicly and officially designed for the purpose of killing in all souls the sense of truth and of justice. Collective pressure is exerted upon a wide public by the means of propaganda. The avowed purpose of propoganda is not to impart light, but to persuade. Hitler saw very clearly that the aim of propoganda must always be to enslave minds. All political parties make propoganda….

Nearly everywhere – often even when dealing with purely technical problems – instead of thinking, one merely takes sides: for or against. Such a choice replaces the activity of the mind. This is an intellectual leprosy; it originated in the political world and then spread through the land, contaminating all forms of thinking.

This leprosy is killing us; it is doubtful whether it can be cured without first starting with the abolition of all political parties.

Indeed. Someday we will be looking at our modern world like we look at the ancient one – in museums. We will look at our political institutions through the glass of a jar, floating in formaldehyde. Perhaps by then we will have learned to live exclusively faithful to the inner light, and will have created a different kind of society. Perhaps there is a cure out there, waiting to be found.