Category Archives: Culture

First World Problems and waiting for Hitler

Spoilers for a recent Radio 4 drama follow.

Radio 4’s drama First World Problems, part of their ‘Dangerous Visions’ season, was a useful insight into what one might call mainstream eschatology. It envisions a future civil war in the United Kingdom, at some point in the mid-2020s following a financial crash. Scotland secedes and civil order breaks down. Republicans kick off – again – in Northern Ireland. Over the intervening months full-scale war breaks out: the drama follows the Fletcher family as they are pushed unceremoniously from their home in Manchester to Wales to Bristol to Birmingham while dealing with familial strife along the way. It’s a pretty smart piece of drama, if laden down with rather shrieky dialogue, an excruciating reference to Game of Thrones, and more than a few visits from Basil Exposition. The problems of dealing with a disabled child and an elderly grandmother are handled sensitively and without cliché, in probably the strongest character-driven parts of the drama.

The trouble is, though, that it is demonstrates a persistent habit among the creative classes in dealing with dystopia. David Runciman once referred to this tendency as “waiting for Hitler”: an excessive fondness for 20th-century models of dystopia, and a lack of imagination in how society and democracy might – will, eventually – collapse. First World Problems suffers a bit from the very thing that makes it compelling, namely the involvement of journalists from the Yugoslav wars in the writing process. The largest military power is called Greater England, without any explication of an irredentist ideology driving it (for example, it makes no effort to retake the secessionist Scotland except for the nuclear weapons at Faslane). Manchester, de facto capital of the Free English Territories, is laid under siege. Wales engages in severe ethnic cleansing of English residents (episode 4, which follows the family as they are forced to march out of Wales on foot, is the most grimly visceral and best-written episode of the series). By the time a nurse talks about an “incident” of mass war rape somewhere in the North, it begins to feel a little bit forced – not because these things don’t happen, but because the programme gave the impression of working from a Yugoslav checklist.

A more serious gap in the programme’s imagination is its failure to push the ethnic conflict as far as it could be taken. The British Civil War is a tremendously white ethnic conflict. The Serb-Bosnian model is used for the traditional South vs the traditional North, which simply is not a comparable situation. It is noticeable how much more chilling the ethnic cleansing of Wales is, partly because of the very well-handled linguistic barrier. The programme assumes that vague internal divisions resolve themselves into ethnic warfare, which pushes the model to breaking point and misunderstands the history of the Balkans.

By Episode 5, England’s substantial ethnic minorities finally get a look in, with the reappearance of the Croatian cleaner from Episode 1 and safe haven finally found – temporarily – in a substantial part of Birmingham seized by Islamic militias. Yet this idea is not handled very well: the notion that ‘Greater England’, an implicitly fascist military junta, is headquartered from London (White British population of around 45% at the last census), imagines that our civil war is taking place in the 1950s rather than the 2020s. A deep engagement with the consequences of a UK civil war might be unbroadcastable for reasons of sheer complexity, given the enormous diversity of British cities compared to their surroundings. An Islamic militia seizing large parts of Birmingham is one thing, but how would the Greater English ‘London’ cope with (for example) the secession of Tower Hamlets? What happens to the gangs in Northern cities, largely organised along ethnic lines and relatively well-armed?

It’s only a radio drama. And it’s well done. But a really ‘Dangerous Vision’ of a UK civil war would be as confusing and as all-over-the-place as the Balkan conflicts which inspired this one. As the UK becomes more diverse and ethnic relations become more complex, fiction serves an important role in elaborating the challenges society faces in simply staying together. To write out an eighth or so of the population in pursuit of a white North vs white South dynamic isn’t the science fiction we need. We cannot keep waiting for Hitler, because whatever comes in his place will completely blindside us if we do.

P.S. My favourite dystopia of recent years is Jack Womack’s tremendous 1994 novel Random Acts of Senseless Violence, which handles ethnic tension in cities (New York, in this one) very well.

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The median and the message

How does the man on the Clapham omnibus stay in shape? NHS Choices has an idea.

It’s fairly reasonable for NHS England to worry about lazy weekends. The British population is very inactive, worrying given the extraordinary physical benefits of regular exercise. The limited effect of the UK’s public health campaigns urging us to take more exercise despite years of messaging is also undeniable.

The above tweet does helpfully illustrate a pervasive style that characterises most British public health messaging. You could fruitfully compare it to the five-a-day campaign, guidelines setting out the number of alcohol units men and women should respectively drink, even the laughable ‘Go for Gold‘ effort to reduce the potential carcinogenic effect of overdone toast. The easiest way to describe it is as rational: clearly linking a defined behaviour with a defined problem, and offering a solution with a different activity.

What I mean by this is best illustrated with a simple thought experiment. Consider the sort of person whose weekend is largely sedentary: football on the TV, alcohol in the pub or at home, fried food, transport largely by car. Then, ask: is this person likely to be willing to undertake a ‘sofa workout’ at all? To ask the question is to answer it.

To expand: NHS Choices appears ignorant of selection problems. The traits which lead to couch potato syndrome are precisely opposite to the traits which would induce someone to undertake exercise on the sofa towards a defined health benefit. The problem is not the activity being recommended, the problem is that the people most in need of exercise are also the least likely to be responsive to the prescription they get. The same is true of five-a-day campaigns. If you like, the sort of person who is likely to carefully mediate what they eat, count portions, plan meals and so on is probably quite conscientious and has a little above average intelligence; she probably has a university degree, or would have if she came of age after the expansion of higher education in the 1990s. In other words, the only people on whom the messaging works are the people who will be fine anyway. The marginal benefit is almost nil.

This strikes me as a particularly serious problem in nations like the UK, where virtually all policy of import in both the private and public sectors is designed by university graduates – who, by definition, are selected for above-average conscientiousness and above-average IQ. The trouble is that, by definition, half of the population have below-average IQ and below-average conscientiousness.  It might be natural to assume that this messaging will work if everyone around you talks casually about getting their five-a-day or their half-hour of exercise; when it comes into contact with the average person, it will likely be less effective. As a result, we see the same problems again and again: public advice made for homo economicus, who calmly, rationally and dispassionately analyses his habits to eliminate the bad and promote the good. It should not need to be explained that most people simply do not (and cannot) think in this way. Public health, without coercion, at scale, remains an unsolved problem.

To even begin to address this, it is not enough to “speak broadsheet to graduates“, but we have fewer and fewer interpreters as the intellectual selection processes for powerful institutions become stronger and more rigid. Our politics is increasingly designed for a particular grade of intelligence and for a particular set of habits of mind, so it becomes hard to see where the imagination necessary to cross the rationality gap might come from – and how the gap can even be pointed out to those too bright to see it.

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Some book recommendations, 2017 edition

I haven’t been very hot on my reading this year – or perhaps I’ve been rather too hot (given the Unfortunate Incident in February that destroyed about half of my books, inter alia). However, from what I have read I can give you in no particular order a few recommendations and tell you one book to avoid.

Scooting around London on the Tube in the wake of the Inauspicious Thing in February, I managed to read all of Anthony King and Ivor Crewe‘s monumentally good The Blunders of Our Governments. I was introduced to this book by a friend who evangelised about it for some weeks; I borrowed a copy from another friend whom I was staying with (to replace the copy destroyed in the fire) and ate it in two days flat. London is very dull without ID, money and a door key. The book is a pretty harrowing read. It’s not something you should read if you want to be optimistic about the governance of the United Kingdom; at the same time I think it’s pretty much required reading if you’re in any way interested in how we run our society. The structure of the book is a little bit idiosyncratic and it’s a bit too long, but it benefits from its highly readable style and its encyclopaedic approach: cataloguing every single catastrophe in British policy-making in a roughly 20-year period since the poll tax and explaining why they happened doesn’t sound like a gripping read, but trust me on this.

I finally got around to reading Jane Austen‘s classic Pride and Prejudice in April, a novel I hadn’t expected to like at all. I expected a dull but worthy read, but in fact found myself cackling with laughter on public transport and close to tears at the climax. The thing Austen does particularly well is the sense of suspense, the time being built and built and built – you really notice just how long it takes for these relationships to be brought to completion, and how urgent it is for young women of this era to marry and marry early. The social commentary is all the more effective because it’s subtle, and more is said in the absences and conscious avoidances than in the fabulously witty dialogue. Again, if you haven’t read it, you’ll finish it much faster than you expected to and be a lot wiser for having given it a go. Elizabeth Bennet is also one of the most winsome protagonists I’ve ever read and I could spend days in her company. She’s great.

Speaking of wisdom, I couldn’t write a post like this without mentioning Adam Tooze‘s knock-out work The Deluge: The Great War and the Remaking of Global Order 1916-1931. It is not an easy read. Tooze is a talented writer, but the content – a dense economic history of the world with a particular eye on Europe, America and the Far East in the aftermath of the First World War – is not easy to distil into a volume as slim and portable as this. Why does it work? First, its detail is intimidating but never alienating: Tooze does not shy away from complexity but he is a skilful teacher who believes the reader is as intelligent as (but less educated than) he is, and he is a patient guide to a period which seems surprisingly alien for all its sharp cultural memory. Second, and this may be subjective and very personal, but Tooze resists the trend to write in anticipation of the future. Lesser writers would signpost everything with references to the horrors of 1939-45, but here they are only briefly and rarely alluded to. Hitler and Tojo are effectively bit parts, a genuine shock when most relatively popular history likes to treat the First as mere prologue for the Second. His theory is really grounded by this tight focus and studious refusal to hit narrative clichés. It’s gold and cheap as chips, so read it.

The fourth and final book I’d like to touch on is one which I’d counsel you to avoid: the winner of the 2016 Man Booker Prize, The Sellout by Paul Beatty. A dark satire of a black man responding to American police brutality and white-flight by instigating slavery and segregation (it makes sense in context), it was highly praised when it came out. I found it intensely frustrating. It seemed to have been written largely for shock value, and lets its joyous wallowing in all the sordid details of its narrative get somewhat in the way of its message to the point of confusion and self-indulgence. Beatty’s gift for description (particularly the sequence with the orange tree towards the end, which is beautifully realised – the reader can almost smell the sweet juice soaking into the pages) is not really well-used here. It’s a righteously angry book, but anger is quite boring unless disciplined (The Handmaid’s Tale and Animal Farm spring to mind). It bears comparison with another gallows-humour Booker winner, Aravind Adiga’s excellent The White Tiger from 2006. Adiga’s novel is a blistering condemnation of the new Indian economy and the path the country took since independence in 1947 but written with brio and panache and a wicked sense of humour; Beatty’s is tiresome and wears out its welcome rapidly, and is strikingly unfunny for a book laden with blurb quotes about the quality of its comedy. Not really worth your time. It’s no stinker, but it is quite annoying.

Happy New Year to everyone. Next year might see a better-resourced list and I’m always looking for recommendations.

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