Friday, 29 February 2008

An Embarrassment of Gap Year Blogs

The stories of Max Gogarty and Mark Boyle (aka "Saoirse") prompted the thought how lucky I am that blogs weren't around when I was a gap year teenager.

In case you've missed their misadventures, Max is the son of a British travel journalist and got a high profile gig blogging for the Guardian, whose editorial staff failed to notice that his first post was embarrasing and bound to be ripped to shreds by their sharp-minded and sharp-clawed readers. Here's a taste:

Hello. I'm Max Gogarty. I'm 19 and live on top of a hill in north London.

At the minute, I'm working in a restaurant with a bunch of lovely, funny people; writing a play; writing bits for Skins; spending any sort of money I earn on food and skinny jeans, and drinking my way to a financially blighted two-month trip to India and Thailand. Clichéd I know, but clichés are there for a reason.

I'm kinda shitting myself about travelling. Well not so much the travelling part. It's India that scares me. The heat, the roads, the snakes, Australian travellers. Don't get me wrong, I'm excited. But shitting myself. And I just know that when I step off that plane and into the maelstrom of Mumbai - well, actually, I don't know how I'll react...

You get the picture.

Saoirse is a bit older and set off with good intentions and considerable media coverage on a walk from Bristol to India, which he would complete without the use of money. As reported on the Today programme this morning, his "pilgrimage" ground to a halt at Calais, because he couldn't speak French. His Freeconomy project has its heart in the right place, but my sympathy wore thin when I got to bits like this:

All I can say is that the decision I make will be the one I believe will be of the best service to humanity in my very humble opinion.

I'm just glad blogs hadn't been invented when I was eighteen. I only got my first hotmail account two months after setting off on a chaotic gap year of busking and hitching around Europe. I made it from Norway to Turkey and back, with plenty of adventures along the way, and came back with no shortage of stories. (Like Saoirse, I benefited greatly from the kindness of strangers, which grew my faith in human nature.) I was, however, a terribly serious sort of teenager and had a long way to go to make sense of myself. Throughout my travels, I would tell people about the book I planned on writing. When I arrived at university, however, my beatnik affectations were subject to enough mockery to persuade me to shelve this project for a while.

Actually, my inspiration was less Kerouac, more the English literature of tramping. Laurie Lee's 'As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning' and George Orwell's 'Down and Out in Paris and London', both classics of the genre, benefit from being emotion recollected in tranquillity. For there is nothing like being in medias res to make one lose perspective. Had either author documented their ups and downs blow by blow, with media attention and comments at the bottom, I suspect - even with their undoubted talents - they would have been punished for it.

As for me, I don't regret the year I spent bumming around Europe, but I'm glad the intermittent and self-absorbed diaries I brought back remain deeply buried in my parents' loft. Not that any blog I wrote would have been likely to attract the attention Max and Saoirse have received - but at least I've saved all that material to make use of some day with a little more self-awareness and a whole lot of hindsight.

Thursday, 28 February 2008

openDemocracy article

Not much time for blogging at the moment, but I do have an article on openDemocracy. This was prompted by a British government proposal (reported in the Guardian) to make it compulsory for parents of school-age children to provide broadband access in the home.

The government's schools minister, Jim Knight, argues that this is no different to the expectation that families provide pupils with a school-uniform, pencil-case and gym-kit. Yet such comparisons serve only to highlight the unprecedented nature of the proposed requirement. When governments begin to oblige people to instal a communications technology in their own homes, this raises serious questions about the role of the state...

You can read the full article here.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Is Obama "Blair 2.0"?

Paul's comment on last week's Anarchists for Obama? post really got me thinking. I'd quoted a fairly lengthy chunk from one of Ran's posts about Obama, in which he imagines how the different presidential candidates might react to a major economic crisis. Paul responded:

For me it sums up the whole curious enigma of Obama: how everyone invests their hopes in him and sees what he wants to see. [Ran] actually has no idea what Obama would do in such a situation; neither do any of us. Neither, probably, does Obama. But he knows what he hopes for.

In this sense, Obamania reminds me of the attitude to Tony Blair circa 1996. Hard to credit it now but we invested extremely high hopes in him too. And look what happened.

Interesting that Clinton supporters keep complaining that Obama has 'no policies.' They don't understand that no-one cares; no-one wants 'policies'. They want hope after a period of darkness and Obama offers it because people have decided he is the right vessel for their expectations at this moment in time.

Viewed from this side of the Atlantic, there certainly seem to be parallels between the Obama phenomenon and what we saw in 1997. A charismatic, youthful leader captures the mood of a significant part of the public, promising a fresh start after an unpopular and discredited regime, while offering very little in terms of specifics. Blair famously managed to leave just about everyone who met him in the run up to the election convinced that he stood for their particular cause, while committing himself to almost nothing.

So, is Obama simply Blair 2.0?

I want to hold that (admittedly scary) thought, and go back to Ran's posts, because the passage I quoted before was slightly unfair. From a British perspective, right now, it's hard to imagine getting that excited about a politician - and when Ran admits that American politics is pretty 'cult-like', I'm guessing he recognises how that applies to him. But the following passage catches both the cult-like element and something more nuanced:

Barack Obama's candidacy is the kind of opportunity that only comes along once or twice a century. He has honesty, courage, intelligence, charisma, and great political instincts, but most important, he shows a willingness and ability to channel bottom-up energy, to challenge the people to act, and to serve as a focus for public passion, where the Clintons would go in the back room and flush it down the toilet. It doesn't matter where he is on the issues! That's gearhead thinking. When you look on the level of human spirit, Obama represents our only chance to renew America without passing through really horrific violence.

Admittedly, it's not much of a chance. Even if he manages to overcome the ruthlessness of the Clintons, and then not get assassinated, we can't just sit back and expect him to take care of us. That's the kind of thinking that ruined America in the first place, and Clinton supporters are trying to keep it going, answering Obama's "Yes we can" with "Yes she can." We're going to have to organize boycotts and strikes and local currencies and secession movements and illegal mutual aid networks and mass physical actions that are tactical and not merely symbolic. We'll have one, or four, or maybe eight years with Obama in office, and we should think of him not as a leader but as a weapon, a lever big enough to move the country. And the elite are going to have to stand down, to allow painful moderate changes instead of violent big ones. In the last hours before the French Revolution, the lawmakers relented and passed a bunch of huge reforms, but by the time anyone found out, it was too late -- they were already burning the chateaus.

Leaving aside the hyperbole, where here's where I think Ran is on the right track: the most important question we can ask about our politicians today and tomorrow is how far they are prepared to hold open the space for bottom-up alternatives. There are various complications to this:

  • The whole 'bottom-up' idea may be at risk of becoming diluted to the point where that language loses its meaning - not least through the hype around Web 2.0.
  • In policy-think, 'bottom-up alternatives' can easily translate as 'doing things on the cheap'. Governments, by default as much as by design, are likely to pervert bottom-up initiatives by seeing them as a way to outsource the cost while retaining control (in the name of "setting standards", etc).
  • Judging politicians by their willingness to hold open the space for genuine bottom-up alternatives may or may not map coherently onto our existing frames of reference ("left" and "right", "liberal", "conservative", etc). In particular - and this is a topic I want to return to in a future post - 'liberalism', in all its varying senses, may turn out to be less of a friend to the bottom-up approach than some of us expect.
  • It may or may not be possible to make meaningful judgements about how candidates will actually behave in office. (Paul gives the pessimistic take on this when he says that none of us - up to and possibly including the man himself - have any idea how Obama would behave in the scenario Ran imagines.)

Two thoughts on all of this, for now, before I go to bed!

There is every chance of Obama turning out to be Blair 2.0 - but there seems to be a difference in the hopes being invested in him. Ran may not be the most representative voice, but the significance of the "yes we can" slogan which he points to is larger. Part of Obama's appeal does seem to be connected to a bottom-up message, however deep or shallow that turns out to be. By contrast, whatever hopes were invested in Blair in 1997, people already knew that he was a control freak - we had watched him establish an iron grip over the Labour party over the previous three years. Inside and outside the party, the hope was that the ends would justify the means. Blair's message was "trust me", not "trust yourselves".

Secondly, a thought on the question of whether it is possible to make meaningful judgements about how a candidate will behave in office - particularly, whether they will hold open the space for bottom-up alternatives or allow them to be crushed (or crush them directly). It seems to me that we make judgements like this about people we meet in our daily lives - friends, colleagues, dates... - and most of us trust our own judgement to be more right than wrong. My guess is we can make similar judgements about candidates for office, but that this gets less reliable the greater the distance from our lives. In other words, Obama notwithstanding, I hold out more hope for the chances of electing candidates at a local level who we can trust to hold open that space - and less hope for the more remote layers of government, where politics is more bound up with the operations of the media.

Richard Sennett & the Art of Dating

Nick sent me this nice little article on 'The Art of Being Present', specifically with reference to dating! Rather improbably, it reminded me of a lunchtime seminar I went to the other week with Richard Sennett, Professor of Sociology at LSE and someone whose books have intrigued me for years.

His latest book, just out, is 'The Craftsman', and he spoke about both craft skills and craft as an attitude to relationships. One of his most striking points was that perfectionism is the sign of a bad craftsman. A good craftsman is capable of letting go - both in the sense of losing himself in his work, and in the sense of knowing when to stop, being able to recognise the point beyond which more time spent on a piece of work will be counterproductive.

Moving to the sphere of relationships, he talked about two different attitudes to parenting, advocated by two different eighteenth century figures. Rousseau presented an ideal model of how children should be brought up. Madame D'Epinay saw this as a dangerous step - and instead connected parenting to craft, emphasising the importance of not being a perfectionist. Only when the parent is willing to be 'good enough', rather than needing to be 'right', does the child have room for autonomy. Like a bad craftsman, a perfectionist parent doesn't know when to let go.

The same basic wisdom, without the historical footnotes, comes through in the article by Matt:

Even now, staying present is something I have to practice; It is an art form, and like many activities, it is something I do well at when I accept that I am not perfect at it.

He gives the example of catching himself thinking about what to say next, instead of listening to the person he's with - 'the antithesis of being present'.

To get back to being present in this context, I remind myself that sometimes I do not have perfect responses. I remind myself that it is fine that I am an occasional dork. It is a part of me, and I dig it. The person I'm interacting with can take it or leave it. Ironically, losing the need for a perfect response often yields great responses: By accepting my quirk - too much interest in attracting someone, or some result - I find myself no longer trying to impress. Trying is the antithesis of being present.

Though I'm no longer in the dating game, I find it very helpful to be reminded of this stuff - and of my own counterproductive tendencies. I also find it helpful to have those tendencies set in the kind of historical context Sennett offers. If we struggle to stay present, it's partly because modern society has privileged the doomed attempt at perfection over the attitude of the craftsman. (A lesson I first began to learn from Anthony.)

Thursday, 14 February 2008

The Low-tech Early Warning System

This is a fascinating example of how oral traditions carry practical knowledge about how to live safely in a particular place. Researchers studying the level of fatalities in tsunamis report that they are far higher in areas where the population is made up of recent migrants, compared to those with longstanding traditional communities:

It became apparent that oral traditions were going back 500 years ... The stories contained information about how to recognize when a tsunami was about to come, such as falling sea levels, and told how people should take action.

Read the whole article here - and the press release from UC Santa Cruz on which it's based.

(Hat tip to Tom.)

Anarchists for Obama?

A couple of weeks ago, Paul Kingsnorth posted his interior monologue about Barack Obama:

Wow, this is really quite exciting. I wonder if he could be the next JFK?

Hang on: JFK started the Vietnam war.

And then he got assassinated.

Say what you like though, the guy has charisma.

And he does have a nice smile. And he used to write poetry and smoke weed, so he can't be all bad.

I wonder what his policies are.

I really hate Hillary Clinton; vile little plastic goldfish. I hope she loses.

I really hate myself for being taken in by this admittedly impressive PR.

Imagine Obama in the White House though. Wouldn't that be something?

Why do people keep calling him 'black? He's mixed race, but no one calls him 'white'?

Humans have an apparently limitless need to believe in leaders who will liberate them from the drudgery of reality. Idiots.

It's quite exciting though.

Then this week Ran Prieur - someone I'd have assumed to be even more opted out of electoral politics than Paul - has made a series of fascinating posts about why he's campaigning for Obama. This really got my attention. (I'm posting a big chunk, because Ran hasn't given this post a permalink yet):

By January 2009, when the next president takes office, it will be obvious that we are in a Greater Depression. Tens of millions of Americans will be angry and desperate and uncomfortably awakened and confused. People will be losing their homes, their incomes, their ability to buy food and fuel and health care. And giant predators, from banks and corporations to foreign property owners to Blackwater, will be trying to exploit the crisis for selfish gain.

Now imagine that you are part of an organized movement that's technically against the law. Maybe a few hundred people have occupied an abandoned suburb and you are tearing down houses and making gardens. Or some farmers are refusing to leave land that the banks claim to own, and they've blockaded the roads with tractors and pulled out their hunting rifles. Or some truck drivers have gridlocked a major port to protest fuel prices. Or the people in one poor neighborhood have run out of food, and they march to the Whole Foods in a rich neighborhood and take what they need. Or half a million people march to protest the Iraq war, and because they don't have jobs or health insurance to lose, they don't go home, but occupy the center of a major city for days.

Now, what would President McCain do? He would send in the fucking military and smoke your ass, and if you weren't killed, you would be shipped to a "detention facility," and never heard from again.

What would President Clinton do? She would talk to all her big donors and neocon advisers, and do whatever they told her to do. And then she would talk to all her pollsters and spinners and focus groupers, and go on TV and say whatever bullshit they told her to say. We could do worse, but we could also do much better, because the elite will be too removed from reality to make good decisions, and her words would be so different from her actions that people would just get more cynical and angry.

What would President Obama do? I could be wrong, but I think he would go in person and listen to you, ask you what you needed and how he could help. Then he would go back to the big money people, and explain your position to them, and ask them what they needed. Then he would work out a compromise, and he would go on TV and explain the whole situation and how he resolved it and why. Nobody would be completely happy, but we would avoid a big disaster and gain in understanding.

The main thing we would understand is that we are powerful, that we can illegally threaten the status quo and win concessions. Tactical organized mass actions would break out all over. It would be anarchy! And I mean that in mostly a good way. One way or another, energy from below will take apart the system and build a new one, because that's the end of all empires. I really can't see the future clearly enough to be more specific. But with Clinton or especially McCain, it would be a much worse kind of anarchy.

Friday, 1 February 2008

Explaining Everything

You can spend months looking for a really simple way to explain something, and then one day the answer just pops into your head. It happened to us last week in the School of Everything office. We've been through dozens of versions of the About pages for the site, explaining it from different angles, and then Paul and Kris had an idea.

Here's the result:

There's lots of other exciting stuff happening for School of Everything - and there'll be more news over the weeks ahead. Meanwhile, if you (or anyone you know) has something they could teach, it's definitely time to create a profile on the site!

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