Social Feudalism

720px-Flag_of_Powys.svgWhen I was young and started thinking about politics the idea of Social Feudalism appealed to me. The basic premise is to take the  Middle Age system of regional Princes and Kings, such as Gwynedd or Powys, who extracted taxes from those who lived in their domains to live lives of culture and refinement in return for the rule of law and protection from raiders. Such systems was sustained for millennia. My modern twist on the system was to interject democracy into the system, the ruling class were restrained from over exploiting the serfs or imposing rules the populace wouldn’t accept through a democratic system, which I dubbed at the time the ‘Council of the Elders’.

These ancient Kingdoms perhaps had a tendency to expand, and in doing so become more efficient and offered greater protection to more organised bands of raiders. This perhaps led to the idea of establishing supranational entities for beneficial cooperation to be even more efficient, to have a Kingdom of the Britons. What happened was that the English/ Anglo-Saxons established a King of England first, who over, arguably, the more exciting  bits of history (Battles, court intrigue, which religion should we have debates etc) expanded influence to eventually create the United Kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland (the UK), a modern nation state.

Historically the nation state is a fairly recent development in human history and is perhaps one whose time is passing. If the primary purpose is to protect populations from raiders, maintain the rule of law and share the advantages of scale, then it seems the nation state truly is in decline.

Modern raiders, or wars between nation states are now rare, so there is no need for nation states. Indeed the raiders now are the jihadist terrorists, who plot to destabilise nation states and use tactics that nation states struggle to counter but for no financial gain. Indeed the systems nation states established to counter terrorism reduce the freedoms of the subjects that nation states were able to protect.

Law is now global. We live in world of trade agreements and mega corporations who effectively set the rules or lack of them, rather than democratic or aristocratic bodies.

In the Uk the benefits of cooperation are no longer shared, living standards are in decline and the global rich, no longer attached to the land, just keep taking more of the pie.

The establishment, the modern day aristocracy, who have been kept in luxury by the nation state system is under threat: international trade agreements, jihadist terrorism and the end of the era of economic growth as the challenges of climate change and over-population prevent further economic growth, so they just seem to be asset stripping nations all the harder like there is no tomorrow.

Instead of the nation state investing in its poorer regions, such as Wales and ‘Yr Hen Gogledd’ (The Old North / Northern England), to deliver  growth and rise everyones living standards. In the UK, in recent decades we have seen the  UK establishment class asset strip the country for the gain of their group, rather than invest for the future. The nation state of the UK has lost it’s coherence, if it ever truly had it, where wealthier regions subsidise the development of poorer regions. Successful federal nation states, which maintain coherence and identity across the regions through regional governments, such as in Germany or the United States. I get the impression that those people much more comfortably identify as Germans or Americans, whilst we in Britian are more ‘I suppose I am British but…’. The UK has never really done this nation state building, being more obsessed with the development of Empire, power has always been centralised in central London and the regions plundered for their resources, coal, cheap labour and soldiers. Now the coal industry has died nations such as Wales have never received the investment it has needed to grow it’s economy to develop away from the old heavy industries. Wales has lacked the confidence to say, this really isn’t fair, the UK isn’t working for us, we’d be better off managing ourselves.

The answer seems to be more local accountability, to find solutions for local problems locally and not be subservient to protectors who no longer provide protection, rules that work or economic growth that is shared.

I have often encountered critiques of devolution, who argue reductively that eventually everyone is a king of their own tiny private kingdom. This position misses the whole point of bottom up democracy. Deciding where decisions should be made isn’t a case of always smaller, it’s finding the right size. The right size is where there is an optimum balance between the advantages of pooling resources for efficiency and retaining local accountability. An ‘area the size of Wales’ with our population of just over three million people may be the right size, because Wales’ leaders can’t get too removed from the people, it is possible if you want to to speak with members of the Welsh government and make your point and if they don’t listen to reasoned argument you should be able to vote them out of office, but our current electoral system doesn’t quite work. As long as you have democratic systems that allow power to be moved up and down, to and from regions then the best balance will be achieved and those decisions need to be made at a regional level. Statically leaving power at one level is not sustainable. It may be that recreating the Kingdoms of Dyfed and Monmouth is the right level for law making. Democracy should be about a fluidity of decisions that remains accountable to the smallest area. For example: My bit of Wales ( King Squimple I) – my region of Wales – Wales – Britain – Western Europe – Europe – The World government.

It has been a week where I’ve been catching up on Welsh history and reading about the grievous attacks on democracy in Spain. In a world of instability it’s very disturbing that the Spanish government is raising troops to attack democracy in Catalonia. If a region wants autonomy, it should demonstrate it clearly (by holding a monitored referendum or suchlike) and then regain autonomy. So I condemn the Spanish government for its actions to defend the nation state against democracy. The democratic right to self-determination is what allows humanity to be free of tyranny and bad kings /rulers.

Wales also needs independence or something that will deliver democracy, protection and rule of law. So, there are many parallels between Wales and Catalonia, also an ancient Kingdom and has it’s own language and culture. However there seems to be a big difference between Wales and Catalonia. The economic argument doesn’t seem to apply in their case.

Catalonia is one of the richest regions in Spain, whilst Wales is one of the poorest in the UK. So the nation-state redistribution of wealth to poorer regions, such as Andalusia  is how things should be, to gain the economic efficiency across what is now Spain. I don’t think the independence movement in Andalusia is very strong, perhaps because it is respected and invested in by the Spanish state. I wouldn’t be advocating independence for Wales if was benefitting from being in the UK and being respected as a nation for our language and culture. I don’t know all that much about the situation in Catalonia, these things are often complex and there will always be many reasons for the people there deciding independence is in their interests, look elsewhere for more information,  maybe they are just being greedy in seeking independence but even so, a heavy handed approach from a central government just sends shivers down my spine. Self determination and democracy are too important to give up upon. The Spanish government should be welcoming democracy and the chance to point out how Catalonia benefits from being in the Spanish family of nations if that is the case. Then again we no longer seem to have mechanisms for making the best solutions clear, we no longer live in the age of reason, but one of petty media barons.

Maybe, maybe, the time is coming for Social Feudalism, for the ancient Kingdoms to rise again, but this time with democracy and accountability to the people who live on their lands.

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A Sense of Achievement

Towards the end of the year, many people, like myself, reflect on the year that is drawing to it’s close. Often a question asked is what has been achieved?

Conducting this reflection myself I feel I have made substantial progress on the projects I set myself in three areas.

Firstly I had the aim to learn to speak Welsh properly. Whilst I am still a long way off fluency I have passed many milestones and have some competency of the language and feel it is a part of me now.

Secondly, I wanted to make progress in learning and practicing social skills, now that i had overcome anxiety, again i feel I have made substantial progress.

The third thing, was trying to understand why people support right-wing ideas. Whilst a somewhat vague aim, I think I have progressed here too.

I do feel a sense of achievement, a warm fuzzy glow from the realisation that I have exceeded my own expectations. Really, perhaps the main reason why as animals we do things is simply to enjoy these positive feelings.

Another thing people do at the end of the year, is travel home or spend time with their families and do different things, such as watch live TV, which I no longer normally do.

On the telly recently I watched a really interesting documentary about the Waorani tribe in Ecuador. This tribe live in the rainforests of Ecuador, living a basic existence by Western standards. One of the striking things was that the people generally seemed happier than people in Western countries. I wondered what it was that made life somehow better there. Indeed, I experienced this myself when I lived for 3 months in a camp in the forests of Madagascar, a time I was much happier than at home. I think the reason is a lot more than simply living more naturally in some wonderful forest.

It is perhaps to do with this sense of achievement. As humans we essentially do two types of thing. One type of thing is what we have to do to survive (secure food, water and shelter) and things we can do once the survival stuff is done. The non-essential things may involve home improvements, finding way of making our work easier and more efficient and other projects to feel good about being alive, to achieve this sense of achievement, sometimes this sense is heightened when what we have achieved has no effect on surviving, it is done for the pure thrill of doing it.

This men of this Woarani tribe have a ritual where they go out and catch Giant Anacondas. I can understand this, as I loved catching snakes, whilst I was in Madagascar. In the film, the men and indeed the presenter were clearly showing that they felt this sense of achievement. The question then is there a difference in the Woarani experience and Western society?

For the forest tribe, it is clear, where the lines between surviving, improving and fun are, even if many of the things they do combine these elements. It’s the same thing here in Wales, we do a similar mixture of activities, however the lines are not so clear. For example, we play computer games and gain a sense of achievement for finishing a level. Indeed games are designed to give you this sense of achievement. However, at Christmas, a family tradition is to play board games. Arguably this is more fun because it involves the social interactions with other people and in particular people you share long term relationships with.

I know from my experiences in Madagascar that a large part of my own sense of achievement sprang from living in a sealed community of a small number people, where almost all our social interactions were with each other. We were living and working together, suffering problems together, like a tropical monsoon and the river flooding and also sharing our successes. We were emotionally in the same place, most of the time. I imagine life for the Waorani is similar to this. The positivity of the shared success was bolstered because we believed that we were doing something useful. Even though some other people would argue that what we were doing wasn’t useful. The important thing is that we believed in it.

When we play a video game, or go shopping, we do enjoy some sense of achievement. However, this is often not a huge sense as we kind of know that we are not doing anything that benefits anyone else, or indeed ourselves very much. Incidentally, we perhaps enjoy Christmas shopping more as we are doing it for the people we are buying presents for. We don’t really have this big sense of having achieved anything really useful. I believe that doing something useful is a very important part of doing things in general.

I feel a sense of achievement in learning Welsh, not only as a personal accomplishment, but also because I can now contribute to the Welsh speaking community. Similarly with overcoming anxiety, I can now be more helpful to others. Also the same with understanding the right, I feel I can contribute to discussions more usefully when discussing politics. Simply having this sense of usefulness beyond a personal satisfaction is what makes  the sense of achievement feel so much bigger, so much wider.

I often write on this blog about how as a society in Britain, we are not doing well because there is a sense that all our achievements are artificial. It’s a modern curse really,there is rarely a clear link between what we do and a positive outcome. Perhaps too many of our achievements are not useful, not large, not important and this is part of the problem in our society.

The other big change that happened to me this year was taking on what people describe as my first “proper” job. It has been a really fascinating journey so far. I’ve made decisions in my role that have increased the income of the organisation that I work for. It is an organisation that I believe is doing useful things. So I should feel a big sense of achievement. However I only feel the smaller sense, like in a video game, where I receive satisfaction of getting tasks done quickly and finding more efficient ways of doing things. There is a sense that what i do isn’t real, isn’t palpable. I’m not doing my own projects, I’m doing someone elses and I am but a tiny cog in the organisation. I think this disconnect, where the good things resulting from your actions are felt distantly, elsewhere. This sense of an alienation from results affects most modern jobs, especially in offices. In contrast, when i have been doing science and solve a problem or get real results from an experiment i got the big proper sense of achievement. Whilst I am grateful to have a job and be earning a little money above basic need, I feel I should really be getting back to science as soon as I can, even if that means a smaller income.

I think we all want to have moments of feeling a real sense of achievement and it is often better to do those things within our community, with people we interrelate with and share a commonality.

So, this is what I don’t get about, the right and the whole Brexit thing. Across the spectrum of mainstream political thought, is the idea, that most of us relate to, is the idea that we should all contribute to our community, our society. In particular those with more resources should help those who are less able. Like how in the Woarani tribe, when the young men go out to hunt and the old stay in the village to look after the children, similarly we should all have roles in our communities. The right-wing idea that the market, or individual people and organisations should fulfill these roles, by creating wealth, that is then spent charitably, rather than the state is completely understandable, it is one way of getting to this good society that the Western world has struggled to achieve. However, the modern political right in the UK have abandoned the whole community idea, instead to serve a subset of society, or people like ‘us’, people who are conservatives. I just don’t get this and it makes me angry, it’s just so divisive and pits sections of our society against each other, when we should all be working for the good of our communities. I don’t understand why right wing people are not more angry with ‘their’ politicians for dividing society. How can you gain a sense of achievement from making things worse, it’s below the neutrality of a video game, it should be guilt. It is simply harder to gain a full sense of achievement when all you are doing is making a worsening situation just that little bit less bad.

I appreciate that we don’t live in local communities anymore, that we live in our various globally connected niches. However, local communities, where at least geography is shared is so important. It’s why I associate with the Welsh, simply as the people who live in Wales, rather than some weird racial/ religious identity. I think as humanity, we lose a sense of community at our peril. A sense of achievement is greater than hatred of another lot of people.

The Mattress Problem

Having written recently about long commuting, I am looking forward to finding a place to live in the city where I now work. This has propelled me once again into the British housing crisis. I’m resigned to paying over half my pre-tax income to pay someone else’s mortgage to have somewhere basic but reasonable to live in. so once again I have to deal with the mattress problem. The mattress problem is that most rented flats come ‘furnished’ and landlords are often very reluctant to remove their crappy furniture and their disgusting post reasonable use mattresses. The problem is compounded by the housing crisis, where flats are taken within 48 hours of being advertised, so there is no pressure on landlords to make flats reasonably habitable, this has become the tenants responsibility.

In my last rented place, the landlord insisted I stored his mattress in the room,  I then just bought a cheap 12 month life mattress to sleep on and disposed of it in landfill when I left. I even spent the first week or so sleeping on the floor, the mattress was that bad.

This begs the question of how did British housing get into this ridiculous situation? Basically housing has not responded to the changes in the economy. Traditionally we largely lived in the communities we grew up in and secured ‘jobs for life’ locally, so the housing system was built around the idea of homes where people would live long term, if not all their lives. However, the modern economy is built around maximising flexibility in the labour market, where people are expected to move around the world to find roles that suit our inevitable specialisations. Much of the work is by contract, for example I have a 12 month work contract and after that I may move somewhere completely different. We are now expected to move to find work, as globalisation has led to service hubs. Indeed in Powys, where I’m from, the local hospitals have gone and the current debate is over whether our small towns should have high schools. Some studies/ the council suggest that having a hub school is cheaper even with the costs of busing all the children back and forth around the county. Or maybe ultimately the idea isthe transport costs can be passed onto parents rather than the state. My point is that even if you are a doctor, a nurse or a schoolteacher, these days you have to be prepared to move to your specialised hub to work, which compounds the housing pressure at the hubs.

Anyway, I am essentially looking for somewhere temporary to live, which brings me to subject of furniture. Traditionally,  furniture (beds, tables, chairs) were expensive items that stayed with you for life and indeed furniture was often handed down within families; it was well made by craftsmen. Also equipment such as stoves, heating equipment, toilets, baths, fridges and washing facilities for clothes were part of the building or designed into it. So, in rented accommodation these things were often provided and often continue to be so in a very different world. Indeed in student accommodation, which I have a lot of experience of living in, it is convenient not having to lug big bulky furniture in and out of homes and transport across the country every six months.

The thing that has changed is that the cost of producing furniture has plummeted with mass production and furniture is no longer well made, and is no longer expected to last a life time or even a home move. Combined with this is the increase of people in transient temporary homes, leading to a glut of second hand furniture, people buy furniture to suit a home, it won’t fit nicely into the nooks and crannies of a new home so either gets sold cheaply or goes to land-fill dumps. As a society we are a society of consumers, we all have different lifestyles and preferences, so we now expect furniture to suit us, rather than adjust to fit the furniture.  We increasingly live in smaller spaces, so further require furniture that makes use of space efficiently, rather than having little used bulky furniture cluttering up the limited space.

Due to the housing crisis, mattresses represent arguably the thorniest issue in rented accommodation, they are big bulky items that are not easy to transport around the world. A good traditional Western mattress lasts about ten years and provides a comfortable bed to sleep on. However, lugging them around corners, up and down stairs, into vans, in and out of cold storage facilities really reduces their life expectancy. Also reducing their life expectancy is different people sleeping on them. The problem with a good mattress is that they are relatively expensive. A good new mattress is equivalent to a months rent, which for a 12 month let is a significant cost for the landlord and there is no guarantee the tenants will look after it up to a six year expectancy, so landlords provide cheap mattresses that last a year (about a weeks rent), then often they try and persuade tenants to use them beyond their natural life. So landlords do ask people to store unsuitable mattresses, because there is a reasonable chance the next tenant will be more tolerant of a bad mattress, even if the springs have popped out as in my case.

The upshot of this is that lots of cheap mattresses are produced which end up in skips and landfill every year. There is a huge environmental cost to this, as most of the materials are not recyclable and mattresses contain nasty chemicals from their manufacture (particularly the cheap ones). The solution is perhaps to leave tenants provide their own mattresses, yet it is taking a long time for most landlords to accept this solution. However as beds come in all shapes and sizes this often means tenants replacing their mattress every year. The housing ‘market’ hasn’t provided a solution to this problem.

Having browsed the internet for a solution, the answer seems to be futons, the traditional roll-up Japanese mattress, comfortable and easy transportable. I just need to find either an unfurnished flat or a landlord prepared to take away the bed to the tip or store. Why hasn’t this solution been widely accepted? It may be that British people don’t like sleeping on the floor. Traditional British beds are raised above the floor. As children we fear the monsters that live under the bed, and we kind of deal with this by accepting that the monsters won’t come out of their space, the area under the bed is after all only filled with monsters when the lights go out. If there is no space, where do the monsters go? uh oh! Part of the reason for raised beds is to not be troubled by rats at night, as a rat will rarely climb onto a bed with a large mammal sleeping on it. The rats are the monsters, but in most housing these days rat infestations are rare, rather than a part of life.

Of course, these problems also exist for home owners, it costs around £10,000 just to pay all the various costs of moving and then buy new furniture. It is simply not worth the effort of doing this, when transactions take months to complete, that more and more people are looking for 12 month lets in new cities and often letting out their home where they actually want to settle long term, and ahem, finding somewhere to store their furniture, or leave it for the tenants, including the mattresses.

It just seems that the humble mattress, we all need something to sleep on, represents so many of the problems of modern society and Britain has been so slow in developing a work around for the problems of mattresses. My experience of landlords is that they expect tenants to live in conditions they wouldn’t put up with themselves, which is morally wrong; landlords should provide accommodation they would be happy to live in themselves, they are receiving an income from their property after all, even if it is mainly just paying off a mortgage. The problem with this is that we all have different requirements, especially in bedding and furnishings, so such choices should be left to the tenant, who will know their own needs, whenever possible.

Black Sheep and Corbyn

I have written about how I believe that right wing people, conservatives, and left wing people, socialists, think differently. There is scientific evidence backing this theory both genetically and from psychological profiling. I have then argued that society in general should reflect that, economies should be more efficient if they cater for the diversity of people, so people can find their niches to survive and thrive. Yet, the political media  very rarely mention this and thus an impression is created that one ideology is simply better than the other, which I have long argued simply isn’t true. I mean if you accept this theory it becomes absurd to introduce competition or commercial strategies to public institutions like the health service, the railways or the BBC, or expect commercial organisations to fulfil social requirements. ‘Balance in everything’ should perhaps be a universal motto.

The media ignore this is the frenzy of Jeremy Corbyn, being retained as leader of the Labour party today. The left need a political leader  who is left wing. Corbyn became leader simply through being the right person at the right time. It is the weakness of the Labour party that no-one else with a broader appeal is currently available. so, the infighting and a leadership election was a complete waste of time, especially at a time, when an objective assessment of what to do about Brexit is required.

Of course social demographics plays a part, but it is perhaps worth re-considering traditional voting patterns. There used to be much more of families voting the same way and perhaps there is a genetic component to this. So many families will produce the odd person of the opposite persuasion. I grew up in a largely conservative family, however considering genetics, my grandfather, who passed away before I was born was a socialist, so I assumed I had inherited his ‘socialist genes’ rather than been an outlier. Such ‘black sheep’ often chastised for ‘rebelling’ against the family serve such an important role. The black sheep are in a position to argue for balance, to point out that the established way of doing things doesn’t work for everyone, only those who fit in with those traditions.

Broadly, socialists tend to be attracted to public service co-operative roles, whilst conservatives tend to be attracted to market trading competitive roles. I heard a right wing commentator talking about the importance of competition in schools. Yes, competition is important for children, the conservatives benefit from it and it teaches the socialists an understanding of the role of competition. so, it is equally important for children to do cooperative tasks because this benefits the socialist children and teaches the conservative children about the role of cooperation. The point is that neither is better than the other and it si wrong to have one without the other, it’s like the Yin-Yang symbol. Working in public service is as important as working at innovation and producing new products in competitive markets.

I heard on the radio today someone say that ‘Britain will never elect a true socialist’, which begs the question ‘why not?’Britain needs a socialist, a black sheep, to restore some balance to our economy. It is possible that the genetic pool of the British is predominantly right wing, after all the modern British, genetically are a mix of original settlers (which we know little about), Celts, Anglo-Saxons, Normans and Vikings. Added to that mix is the diversity of immigration predominantly from specific regions: Africa, the Caribbean Islands, the Indian sub-continent, Poland etc. Essentially a product of the British Empire period and European wars. This is interesting as the genetic mix still varies across Britain, the phenomena of large numbers moving vast distances is only a few generations old, and not long enough to have truly mixed the genes.

Contrast this to France, with a different history and a different Empire (so a distinctly different group of Africans), has tended to be more socialist than Britain. However it is a very interesting question whether the different gene pools do generate different mixes of left or right wing people, or do populations tend to balance out this diversity.

It’s a pertinent question as the party political landscape appears to no longer reflects the diversity of opinion and people. We no longer live in a world where politicians justify their policies in practical terms. Instead arguments centre around ideology, that one ideology is simply better. It’s like saying that blue eyed people are somehow better than brown eyed people, or that dark skinned people are better than light skinned people, it’s nonsense. Yet we live in a world where respect and tolerance of diversity appears to be in decline and there is a rise in tribalism again. Whichever pigeon hole you slot into, your historic identity, seems to have become more important, when there is perhaps little use in creating needless division. Diverse people have generally got on fine, even the black sheep in the family are usually accepted as full members of the family.

Just listen to the rhetoric of Donald Trump and other right wing leaders, look at the deeply saddening scenes in Syria, the Tory regime in Britain. There is a need for Corbyn, because people like Corbyn have been sidelined for too long. I don’t agree with everything Corbyn says, I don’t have to, I just accept the need for someone like him to drag us back to the centre ground, to create a level playing field, where whomever we are, whatever your social or indeed genetic background is, that there is the opportunity for you to find a role to contribute to the economy and society, whilst accepting that other people are different. a world where we can maximise value so we have the resources to deal with disasters and other problems.

I want my country back

This phrase has been heard numerous times over the course of the UK EU referendum. I have wondered what exactly it means to the people who utter it. Most accounts of this phenomena describe it as a  nostalgia for a society from the past, for simpler times and a desire for some of those elements to make a return. This is a sentiment to which anyone over over a certain age can relate to at some point.

For some it is a desire for a monocultural monoethnic conformist world where everyone thinks and behaves the same way. Quite why anyone would want that is beyond me, I grew up in such a world and hated it, I couldn’t wait to get away and explore the world. This view betrays a fear of the different, a fear of our fellow human beings. We are all different, so such a view just seems nasty.

However, often this nostalgia is for positive things. A friend and I of similar age were talking about growing up when we just went off exploring with our friends, climbing trees, building elaborate dam systems in local streams, making complex underground maze systems in barns full of straw bales, generally getting very muddy indeed. As long as we made it to someone’s house in time for tea or not home before it got dark, we were not reprimanded  (well only about getting muddy and we sensed our parents didn’t really mind, that the criticism was for forms sake). This is a world that can be longed for. a world where children are not stuck inside, lacking socialising with their peers, exploring themselves and the world around them. Longed for because it was a healthier childhood.

This EU referendum has highlighted this desire for better things from the past, such as affordable housing, education, secure employment or food. however it seems that instead of looking for the fundamental reasons why, much of British society is now worse, people are instead looking for someone else to blame, in this case immigrants (whoever they are, as we are all immigrants). There was a video on YouTube of a man being shouted at in Bristol to be told to ‘Go back where you came from?’, to which he replied ‘Do you mean Cardiff? [where he was from!]’. I don’t understand why anyone would blame people for things, or specifically people who are in some way different, for the problems. It is systems, governmental policy, not thinking things through, that are the problem.

A hatred of people, creates it’s own destructive downward spiral. Once you start blaming ‘other people’, you disconnect yourself from other people. This is highly dangerous and antagonistic. This is the force that creates terrorist groups such as ISIS, who hate everyone who is not a member of their group. So, people then hate ISIS, which leads to hatred of the people in ISIS, then fuzzy thinking and group-think take hold and suddenly it is all Muslims who are to blame, then all Arabs, then one day you have a referendum on membership of the EU where the debate becomes about immigration. Culminating in today, where a MP (member of the UK parliament) was shot by a gunman because he apparently disagreed with his locally elected MPs views.

For me, the country I want back is one of respect and tolerance. Where you behave as you see fit, without fear that some maniac isn’t going to shoot you, where children will return home at the end of the day.  A world where extremism, such as Nazi Germany was something we read about in history books.

This modern curse of extremism affects all of us, whoever we are, wherever in the world we might be. Last week another gunman killed around fifty people in a nightclub in Orlando, USA. Once we got over the shock that another fifty lives had been lost to this extremist disease, we realised that this was an attack on the LGBT community. I am not a member of the LGBT community and being a white, male heterosexual I haven’t encountered or really able to empathise with such discrimination. Anyway the attack was in a LGBT nightclub. LGBT nightclubs are safe spaces, places where members of the LGBT community can be themselves, with less fear. If you are not discriminated against you don’t know what it is like. I’m only really getting my head around this myself.

Last year I was in Germany. I was walking down the street and a guy shoulder charged into me and ran off. I turned to my friend (my host in Germany) to ask what had happened. He said “Well if you are going to walk around in a floral shirt, this sort of thing happens”. I was wearing a floral shirt and it was pointed out to me that almost all the German men wore striped shirts. It wasn’t for being Welsh, or foreign that I was charged at, but because my attacker assumed that I was LGBT. This incident didn’t affect me, I continued to enjoy my holiday. However if such things were a regular occurrence, an everyday thing, I would feel more and more excluded and perhaps seek out safe spaces where all the other non-stripey shirted people went.

So it seems that extremism enforces sub-cultures, which is the opposite of this nice simple world everybody really wants. So to get out of extremism perhaps requires strange things to happen.

And then there’s me. I have written about how I used to be an extremely anxious person. Someone who tried to exist in the shadows, not stand out, not say what I really thought. I tried to say and do what I thought people expected me to do, but I couldn’t, I failed at this, it is just easier to be myself. I was behaving as if I was being discriminated against, when I wasn’t at all, so I was really happy to realise that I am able to be myself, to do such things as cry when Wales loses to England at the football as I did today. However I have since learned how much of this awful discrimination there really is. It’s not just race, it’s gender, sexuality, age, nationality and many other things. There is this ‘expectation’ that we are supposed to be able to conform to, but no-one can say what this conformity actually is, or what it is for? Traditional values? like living in mudhuts, scraping a living off the land with no modern tools? Following one interpretation of a contradictory religious text, written thousands of years ago, when most people did live in mudhuts?

It’s quite simple, there is nothing wrong with respecting other people. Jesus taught that we should respect other people, why do so many ‘Christians’ act contrary to Jesus? Respect has to be learned. We do all get angry. Anger wells up for all sorts of reasons: when we hear people whistling when our national anthem is sung or when a gunman shoots a hard working woman with two young children. We all get angry.

Anger does not have to lead to hatred, we should all learn to control our anger. Like as children climbing a tree when the branch starts to break because of our weight, after getting to safety our first instinct was to blame the tree! We learn the folly of anger. When our football team loses, we don’t hate the winners, we learn to walk away knowing that our day will be some another day, when a gunman goes on a gun rampage in Florida, we do not blame the non-LGBT community, we feel sorrow for those with lost loved ones. When a politician is killed, though we do really get angry at politicians a lot of the time, we appreciate that they are a human being too and that the gunman is a flawed human being too, just like the rest of us.

So, lets stop blaming the tree. Lets go back to a world where we listen to each other with respect, where we exclude no-one, where our mothers would scold us if we ignored the new kid, where we don’t have problem with people being different as we are all different.

 

 

 

Curing Masculinism

You do occasional here about so called ‘masculinism’ these days as a ‘response’ to feminism, from people who don’t appear to understand feminism in the slightest. As a male myself, collectively men seem so far behind women in getting over trying to be something expected of us by our birth gender role. Both men and women are swamped by images of how what our gender should dress like, behave, enjoy etc. and if you don’t quite fit within this definition or at least play along with it, tough, you’re an outcast. Not only is this limiting and destructive, it is so boring and limiting. For example the idea that I grew up with that ‘Boys don’t cry’, beautifully parodied by my favourite band ‘The Cure’. It took me years before I regained the ability to cry when I was upset. How is it great and ‘manly’ to not feel sad about sad things because we are ‘tough’ that we are don’t want to be affected by anything or have to actually deal with it. So many men, never get over this restriction.

Children very quickly pick up these gender stereotypes and very quickly conform to them. There is evidence to suggest that this conformity is the child demonstrating that they have understood. Society does indeed seem to encourage the development of ‘masculine’ traits for boys and ‘feminine’ ones for girls. However in Western culture particularly we have started to question these gender roles. Really, back in ‘cavemen’ times [or should it be cavepeople? oh wait they didn’t actually live in caves (sic)] it helped society together than the generally larger stronger sex went out hunting. However in an increasingly urban world, there is no need to encourage hunting skills, so why does society have this tendency to stick with these traditions?

Then there is a form of sexism that some men have of expecting women to behave in a ‘feminine’ way, which I don’t get at all. The logic seems to be well I have chosen to conform to a definition of masculinity, so I expect everyone else to conform this way too, even the other gender.Or is it more than this, there is this idea to teach people to conform as the idea as doing this will make your life easier, you will fit in and not stand out. However, it seems that these days success is achieved by the people who do stand out, who do take a different direction.

Often other men ask me “But don’t you like women wearing pretty dresses?” because what I find attractive in women, doesn’t fit the algorithm for how it seems most mean assess or a woman’s attractiveness.

Well I do like women wearing pretty dresses, wearing make up and having done something with their hair, but, only if I have seen them wearing normal clothes first. I like to see the change, the difference. Because most of the time the most attractive thing to me a lady can wear is jeans and a woolly jumper.

As a biologist I have spent some time working in jungles. Working in a jungle is hot and damp and in order to protect the ecosystem we don’t wash clothes in ‘modern’ detergents and th eonly way of gettign them dry is for them to get very smoky drying by a fire. So our clothes are always stained, and holey (from brushing past spiky plants regularly). This did not prevent me from finding some of my female companions attractive. When the project was over and everyone returns to a city, there is often a final social get together in a restaurant before everyone goes home. There is an opportunity to wash properly, wear clean clothes and often the women put on make-up. For me these are special times, to be able to see women I’ve been working for for several weeks in a completely new light. They are not more attractive than they were before, it’s just nice to see them having done something with their appearance. However I gather from other men that they suddenly notice how attractive these women are, I don’t get this at all.

I visited Germany last year. In a sense it was wonderful as the women in Germany dress normally (dress down?) most of the time and usually only have a few dresses for dressing up once in a while. I did indeed think that this was a place I would like to live, a society where my preferences were less different. Having said that a guy shoulder charged me for wearing a floral shirt, anyway German men dress appallingly, stripes everywhere) However some people complain that such Northern European women are somehow ‘less feminine’. They are just as feminine as women anywhere else, what perhaps they mean is that such women do not conform to some traditional view of femininity as in other places.

There are some obvious avenues to explore to explain this. Firstly Northern Europe is densely populated and industrialised a long time ago, so there is a bigger gap to a world where hunting was possible, the culture has had time to develop in new post-industrial ways. Secondly there is language. I’m been learning Welsh recently. Welsh like many other Indo-European languages assigns nouns a gender, masculine and feminine. So the language itself encourages speakers to view things in a gendered way. It is interesting that each language assigns these slightly differently, but there is a broadish conformity with traditional ideas of gender. However, in the Germanic languages of English and I believe the Scandinavian languages, this focus on gender has been lost or is rapidly disappearing. For example we now use ‘they’ for a person of unknown gender, or when the gender is not important (even in Welsh nowadays), whereas in Spanish, such a ‘they’ is masculine, unless the group only consists of females (‘ninos’ (male or mixed group of children) and ‘ninas’ (female only group of children).

How gender is dealt with is hugely complicated. We still live in a world where there are gender expectations. If for whatever reason you don’t fit the traditional roles, you have to find a way to deal with the stereotyping. Personally I have got myself into difficulties with women  who have misinterpreted my attention as seeking a relationship with them. I don’t know whether it is always a mistake to let women know that you find them attractive and then quickly ascertain that they are not interested in exploring a relationship with myself or not. However I often find that some women continue to believe I am seeking a relationship when continuing a non-sexual relationship. It is difficult, because I now see how much negative attention women get from men that is pursuing a relationship. It’s kind of like I had to come to terms with being different and to not be concerned that I was being treated in a seemingly strange way.

I think my conclusion that a traditional model of what masculinity and femininity is not wrong, or something that needs to be cured or got over, however not thinking about it at all can have negative consequences. If you happen to fit in, that is a wonderful gift, yet it is still worth understanding how much of that is really you, how much you are happy to conform and find out where you are different. What I would suggest though is that we do all need to discover who we are for ourselves and not blindly adopt roles. Even if you are an outsider, to function socially you require an understanding of the way the majority behave; which is perhaps why children learn gender roles at a young age. Essentially what I am saying that understanding is good and that we need to understand ourselves better and also find what grounds us, what roots us to ourselves and our communities, to realise that everyone else may be on such a journey too.  We should not criticise others for their choices in how they ground themselves, but we should be wary when others try and pressure people to behave to conform.

 

 

It shouldn’t be allowed.

You know when you are getting old when the values of your generation are replaced by a different set of values. Over the past few years, student unions at British universities have been banning speakers from speaking. The reasoning for such bans seem to be not to give a platform to non-mainstream views and to protect students from hostile ideas.

I grew up with the highest value given to freedom of speech and protection of the environment. Perhaps the two greatest causes of the times I grew up in. Going back I remember the sheer disbelief that Nelson Mandela was incarcerated in apartheid South Africa, members of Sinn Fein were not allowed to speak on broadcast media, having to be dubbed in interviews. Their were endless debates about the rights of the  BNP (British Nationalist Party) to be heard. In can perhaps be said that my generation failed to succeed in it’s two big causes.

The basic idea is that freedom of speech trumps any other consideration. With this freedom there is then the freedom to respond to ideas that people don’t like. Debate is seen as vital to a healthy society, so without it society is unhealthy.

The other issue for my generation was privacy. What you did in your private life had no bearing in your public or working life. There was a sense that you didn’t have to say anything you didn’t want to. There was also a freedom of not to speak. I grew up in a world with grandparents who had vivid memories of the Second World War, fears of a totalitarian Nazi state and a general fear of a manipulative ‘Big Brother’ state as exemplified in George Orwell’s ‘1984’, which was made into a film in 1984!

Of course generational shifts occur. Each generation deals with what it perceives as the great failings of the previous generation. My generation threw off the shackles of appearing respectable and doing what you feel you should do, to have the freedom to be ourselves, pursue our own dreams. Really this was at a time when the establishment itself was becoming less and less respectable anyway, hence the lack of respect for respectability!

If there is any single cause of the shift from Generation X to The Millennial generation it is the internet. My generation grew up with computers evolving into ever more powerful machines, performing ever more amazingly useful functions, my generation love computers. The difference is that Millennials grew up with the internet already there, for Millennials the internet wasn’t a source for wondering what could we do in ten years time. Really computers haven’t developed all that much recently , all that has happened is that bandwidth has increased, enabling streaming video and functions available on portable devices, such as smartphones. How I remember the days of leaving the computer on overnight to download a series of pre-chosen music tracks for listening to the next day. This seems almost laughable now.

Putting these these things together, you have my generation in thrall to the internet, yet hugely paranoid about privacy. So much so that many people my age, spurned social media because of the fear that anyone could then trace our tastes, opinions, location, contacts, etc and use this information against us. So many people, myself included, just gave up on maintaining privacy to make use of new forums. Yet, my generation have this idea that snooping on peoples activities is bad and thus no ‘respectable’ person should use such information, like how you pretend not to hear and forget things you accidentally overhear. Except some unscrupulous people do, privacy is not respected, online presences are scrutinised by employers and security services. I don’t livwe in soviet russia, but I think I’m would be less surprised if at some point I am taken away at night and never heard from again.

Dealing with this creep in increased access to information, working both ways is something society has not really addressed in any meaningful way. Social media, such as Facebook, started off innocently enough. I was introduced to Facebook as a way of keeping in touch with a group of friends once we became geographically separated. Over time, as with most Facebook users, More and more ‘friends’ were added, now several hundred people from various aspects of my life. To the point where my Facebook is full of people with widely different outlooks on life, though the majority generally share my worldview. In many wasy this is bad, any prejudices I have are enforced, people and views outside my social circle are not encountered.

Prejudice is a terrible thing. Back when i was a very young man, I had prejudices, and held ill thought through beliefs. I’m  sure I still do have prejudices, but I strive not to have any. anyway, because I was comfortable to express my opinions, I was questioned and these things were discussed, I listened, reflected, discussed further with other people and eventually overcame some of my major prejudices. Arguably such prejudice removal processses are being less common for two main reasons:

Firstly, that we end up in social circles of similar people to ourselves, made up of people with similar world views, so any prejudice doesn’t seem like a problem.

Secondly, if we do venture to be open about our opinions, instead of being listened to and the ideas discussed, there seems to be a growing tendency for abuse, to be shouted down, to be ‘unfriended’. The problem with this is that if you are shouted at, seemingly unreasonably, you start ignoring what you hear and build a wall between yourself and your opinions with the wider world, it enforces the prejudice rather than dispels it.

An example of this second reason happened this week on Twitter. A man wrote “I confronted a Muslim woman yesterday in Croydon and asked her to explain Brussels. She said “Nothing to do with me”  a mealy mouthed reply”.

Okay, lets pretend not to know about what happened after this tweet and give the guy the benefit of the doubt: A man  didn’t understand the Brussels terrorist atrocity of last week. He has heard countless reports from the media about this being an attack by “Islamists”. He has put these two things together simply as ‘Muslims are to blame for acts of terrorism” So, he aired this view to a Muslim woman in his community. So what should have happened is that members of his community discussed the situation with him, he would listen and reflect and modify his beliefs to reality and possibly vice versa . It may be that this man didn’t know any Muslims personally to ask. However instead of this being an episode of freedom of speech working for mutual benefit, instead the situation created increased tension, the man was subjected to endless abuse and probably feels compelled to apologise, for expressing an opinion he knows is probably shared by millions around the world. My point is that by not expressing his opinion, by there not being the freedom to air it and for his concerns to be addressed thoughtfully and sympathetically, he is instead ridiculed and ‘banned’.

So, for a generation Xer, like myself, the world seems to be becoming a worse, more scary place, where instead of being honest, open and ready to listen, we seem to be entering a protectionist world, where we start to hide out  personal thoughts and opinions, this is very bad. where instead of working together to resolve problems and misunderstandings, we pigeon hole the rest of society and keep our opinions to carefully selecte similar people to ourselves.

One of my early prejudices was racism. In a pre-globalised world, where people didn’t travel the globe, it seemed perfectly acceptable to laugh about funny stories about the strange people who lived on the other side of the world. Of course, once people do travel and people learn more about other people and cultures, it is no longer acceptable to ‘point and laugh’ at the different people. Because those other people become part of our communities and ourselves part of theirs. Society adapts to changes in circumstances by speaking and listening. the issues are worked through.

A concern is that this happens less. People used to socialise with all of their local community, rather than a sub -set of it. Any community anywhere in the world is made up of different types of people, with different personalities and opinions. In a local community, if someone airs a controversial opinion that offends others, it is often said that the person who said the offending remark was a decent person, meant no offence and the community would then go to work discussing the issue with the offender, working it through with them. With no such local close-knot community this fails to happen, people prejudices are not addressed.

Of course, local, isolated communities have there own issues, their own prejudices, I know I grew up in one! But at least there is some diversity, rather than the narrow social circles we can easily inhabit through work or social media. Perhaps because there isn’t the wider social support to help people overcome prejudice, that people are physically and mentally attacked fro expressing views that there is a desire to protect, to keep people free from controversial ideas, rather than confront them head on. That if you were to confront the racist, sexist, homophobes in the pub, instead of community support, you would be left to be attacked yourself by that sub-set of society that supports that prejudice, or in cruder terms to be beaten up by their mates.

In local communities humanity has developed systems to regulate these local communities. As individuals or families it is possible to regulate what information is kept private and which shared, we decide who we tell certain things to. With the internet, there has not been this evolution of social systems. We use the internet for private communication between friends and family as well as publicly and we also use it to communicate professionally. sometimes it is not clear who we are broadcasting to. The problem with this is a free open discussion within a group is fine for developing understanding of an issue, it is another thing when things are seemed to be discussed more widely. The problem is that we haven;t developed clear ways of differentiating what is more private and what is public.

Another issue is access to information. The internet is a fantastic resource, it is possible to look up information or opinion on any matter within a few clicks. From this it should not be possible to claim ignorance. However, of course it still is, there is more data available than anyone can sift through. Whilst research is seemingly ever easier, the direction of things is actually more difficult. For example a search engine should speedily take a user to the information they seek, but they don’t, they pigeon hole users, and give results based on geographical location and previous browsing history, so seeking objective information becomes harder, we are still subjected to very bias data. We still haven’t really developed ways to use the internet effectively, we rely on  curated material and the bias of our own communities. so much as this occurred, so used are we too bias data that there is a tendency to no longer look for facts, to build up a full picture of an issue. Rational argument is coming to seem less important than who is saying something, someone’s background is more important than what they actually are saying.

There seems to be a worrying trend of protecting access to opposing opinions, with so much information available, as individuals we do yearn for simplicity, to be able to see the wood for the trees. Hence the wish for protection from the wilds of extremist views as we are increasingly exposed more to extremist views and less of the reasoned consensus views of the community, because there no longer is a community in the traditional sense to buffer and question extreme opinions.

 

 

 

TTIP and the Threat to Democracy

Currently discussions are taking place between the EU and the United States to ‘agree’ a trade treaty (TTIP), along side a similar treaty with Canada (CETA).  The issue is that such trade agreements are going too far and making the world a less reasonable and less democratic place. These treaties are not about opening up international trade, they aim to restrict it, though removing control over laws and regulations from the democratic control of people. Laws and regulations are the oil that keeps society running. They are vital to industrial and post-industrial economies.

A pre-industrial economy is largely based on self sufficient communities where almost all goods and services are produced locally by the community for the community. Excess production is then traded with other communities for luxuries. In such a society there is no real need for laws and regulations, the community polices itself, it is essentially an anarchy.

With industrialisation, comes specialisation, a community specialises its production, increasing efficiency and quantity of production, it then trades almost of of its production to fund buying in its other needs. With such a system , laws and regulations are needed as there is no longer a community based based system ensuring standards, rules are required to ensure trade is fair. A community is generally happy with this arrangement as the overall quality of life improves.

Furthermore, it becomes more efficient to standardise, the apply the same regulations and standards across wider economic areas, to include more and more communities. Often the best standards aren’t adopted, but there is nonetheless a net benefit to every participating community. The gain from adopting the standard is greater than the benefit of maintaining a local standard. Such a system works because it is consensual, a community voluntarily gives up some of its local decision making for a net benefit, it accepts and adapts to the new standards. Rules also ensure the environment is protected, that communities have such things as safe water to drink and access to facilities.

The problem with international trade agreements, such as GATT, TTIP and CETA is that communities have no say, no opt out in the standards set by such arrangements. There is no democratic control if  changes in rules or standards start to lead to the net detriment of a community. Essentially there is a trust that standards are acceptable to a community. However if an outside body, or the effect of a trade arrangement, changes the standards in a way unacceptable to a community, the community is left in a difficult position. Accept the changes to standards, but resort to local production to maintain the standards the community wants, effectively decreasing the production capacity of the community. Its a step backwards in the world economy. The standards, the regulations, the laws are no longer the oil that keeps society going, but something every individual has waste time and thus productivity finding ways to  work around the rules, in effect the standards become worse than having standards in the first place.

Then there is ISDS, a system of international courts where corporations can sue governments if it enacts rules that can be established as being detrimental to access to markets for international corporations. for a government to adapt regulations to suit a changing world, it may have to pay a fine to the corporation, so governments will tend not to change regulations. The result being that the regulations become meaningless.

Historically ISDS clauses were placed in international trade agreements to prevent governments exploiting a foreign companies investment by ceasing assets or changes the terms of an agreement. This justification does not apply to the EU, Canada or the US, which already have domestic court systems to prevent such arbitrary decisions. ISDS in TTIP or CETA can only work against democracy, or the will of people in communities.

For example, food regulations, to a large degree regulations exist to ensure that any food you buy is safe to eat, or has a label to tell you that the product is Kosher, Halal, GM-free, free-range, etc informing you that you can eat such a labelled product. So, if this trust in regulations is lost, people will no longer be happy to buy food (or indeed any product) from all over the world, but individually seek to find producers they can trust locally. Its just a massive retrograde step. It’s creating an anarchy on a global scale, without the benefit of policing by the community of the world.

What is especially worrying is that these problems are well known, especially the lack of democratic accountability, but the political establishment has done nothing to address these concerns. Democracy has to work from the bottom (the people who live in communities) upwards, with law making powers given to the centralised establishment rather than the other way around. rather than be imposed from a centralised establishment, a top-down approach is profoundly undemocratic, it’s essentially the feudal system the world had thought it had seen the last of. All the gains that society has made on the last two centuries will be lost unless these arrangements are halted and power returned to the people, democracy.

 

The Civilised Game

I have been back home in civilisation in Wales for a week or so. I am so pleased to be home and am a lot more happy and relaxed. I think the reason I was unhappy in Surrey, England as it lost the cilvilised game on almost every count, apart from access to cultural events in London.

So, what is the civilised game? It is a game I’ve often played with friends living in different regions of the UK and the rest of the world. The aim of the game is to establish which of two areas is more ‘civilised’ than the other. Points are scored for a region through the identification of aspects of the society that are more ‘civilised’, or represent things that are relatively better in one place compared to another. When playing the civilised game with friends, the shouting out of the phrase “uncivilised country” has become ensconced when a identifying a facet of lack of civilisation.

The game does become rather silly at times, only wierdos like me want good ice cream in the winter, but as a means of a comparative study of cultures, it is useful. It is also a means of measuring how far a society is from achieving it’s own cultural ideals. The game is also an interesting is  interplay between the two protagonists own cultural ideals and how and where they differ from the other ‘player’.

The basis of playing the civilised game is simply identifying things that you find annoying or positive about another culture. For example, I shall compare two English cities I have lived in, if you are from either city, please don’t take offense, I love both cities!

Bristol versus Manchester (B=Bristol is better, M= Manchester is better)

Access to decent bread B
Relative price and quality of beer M
Percentage of income spent on accommodation M
Liklihood of having a nice chat with a random stranger M
Availability of civilised nightlife B
Quality of food M
Ease of being vegetarian B
General prettiness of local ladies [ahem] =
Quality of local music scene M
Quality of local scenery M
Climate =

In this limited example, Manchester is more civilised than Bristol. Sorry Bristol, you do have rubbish chippies though!  It’s kind of like the game ‘Top Trumps’, each place will have a score for each criteria, civilised places will generally win. Uncivilized places will usually have some aspect of quality of life living there that will trump somewhere else. This is what i personally didn’t get about Surrey, it’s the top trump card you don’t want to have. It is subjective, some people love living in Surrey, this is probably largely determined by your upbringing and what the culture you grew up with values highly.

Obviously, Wales scores fairly highly on most of these example criteria. As i get older it seems that civilisation globally is in decline, even in Wales (the local bread shop sells rather poor bread for example). This seems to be a consequence of laissez-faire economics or globalisation. It is the powers of marketing seeking to homogenise the cultures of the world and increase demand for products that can easily be reproduced globally, rather than allowing established local solutions to continue and develop. it seems that the goal of utility, of seeking ways of making life easier for everyone takes a subsidiary role to the market. It is now the big producers powering demand, rather than the local consumer, the multi-national chain displacing the family run business, even when there is no economic efficiency gain from such a change.

Anyway, I’m at home and spared from playing the civilised game with myself.