essays


I was lucky enough to attend two big rallies recently against the Trump administration and our government’s unquestioning toadying up to it. One in the bright sunshine of London, two weekends ago. The second a few nights ago in the damp Town Hall Square in Brighton.

There is something comforting in the face of such ugly media narratives that there are people out there who think along the same lines of you and who are fierce and fiery in their commitment to ideals you hold dear. The playful and often witty banners, the youth of the protesters, the peaceful conviction of the marchers: all this made me smile and breathe a little more easily.

Thousands of people turned up spontaneously in Brighton. So many, in fact, that the little speakers that amplified the various orators only barely reached the few rows in front. The vast majority of the crowd were way out of earshot, so occasionally chants would spread through the protestors and swamp the speakers in a pleasing tsunami of collective voice-raising.

“Say it loud, say it clear/ Refugees are WELCOME here”, was one of the most popular and most up-lifting. If I were a passing refugee or asylum-seeker, I would have felt very welcome that evening in Brighton.


And yet, as we chanted it for the fourth or fifth time, I started to get a rather uneasy feeling of the words losing their meaning and the hollow sensation of being stuck in a bubble of self-gratification. The singing and the lovely uplift of mass participation was exhilarating but it was also circular. I felt that we could keep on singing compulsively – almost as a panicky way of warding off the ugly reality of Trump, May, a crumbling Labour opposition, 20 more years of Tory rule, Brexit, decline, collapse.

Fatally, we were chanting to the converted. No one at that rally needed to be chastised into wishing well to refugees. We wanted to feel part of a tribe – which is very legitimate – but that tribalism is actually part of the problem.

Owen Jones, who was very active in the London protests, wrote an excoriating book back in 2012 called ‘Chavs’. And he identified in that word, all the increasingly validated contempt and disgust for so many working class people in Britain. Since the 1960s when the working class were still respected and took major roles in successive Labour administrations, there has been a slow vilification of working people into shiftless, stupid, tasteless “chavs”.

And like it or not a lot of the divisions of post-Brexit Britain is along class lines. As Pankaj Mishra points out in his book “The Age of Anger”, the divisions in India, in Britain, and in the USA are all divisions between wealthy sections of society (labelled ‘elites’) and the excluded majority of non-urban, small town, working people. The top-brass have prospered over the last four decades from the upward mobility of a global market, open borders, increased technological advances, low tax, high property yield and education. That exact prosperity, however, has come to the detriment of those outside of the moneyed capital, in areas of systematic unemployment and very low investment. And the ascent of people like Modi in India, Trump in the USA and the pro-Brexit Tories in the UK have all played on that sense of outraged exclusion felt by the non-elite majority.

The irony of course, is that Trump and May are all part of the monied elite and rather than draw attention to this (and the ultimate betrayal of the working class that they will speciously effect) they deliberately direct the ire and frustration of the non-elite onto an outsider – the immigrant and the Muslim.

This is what we should scrupulously protest – not the devaluation of millions of our fellow citizens, who are rightly indignant. We need to find a chant that all those folk who voted for Brexit or Trump can sing as well. They voted that way out of an exasperated need to be heard and validated. The response of so many left-leaning people (I include myself) after the collapse of our liberal narrative in 2016 was to lash out at these vandals who had broken our (according to Mishra, illusory) myth of progress. Yet the painful truth is that our progress came at the cost of millions of suffering humans around the world – in sweatshops, inhumane factories, slums, unemployment queues, swimming desperate in the Mediterranean. We owe them an apology not our contempt.

That is not to excuse the racism or the displacement of their anger onto the Outsider – racism is racism, but as Jo Cox said, there is more than unites us than divides us. And what unites us is the desire to be happy, support our families, protect our children and loved ones, stay sane, stay safe.

The Buddhist ideal of ‘bodhicitta’ or awakening heart is a challenge. Essentially it makes it an imperative to build a bridge of mutuality to those who we despise. Because we are the same but our contempt, our ‘rightness’, our moral superiority convinces us that we’re not. And it’s that conviction that ‘those’ people (whether that’s Muslims or Brexiteers, immigrants or Trump supporters) are to blame that perpetuates the ugly game.

Phap Dung, a Vietnamese-American and one of the senior students around Thich Nhat Hanh, gave a good interview to the matter on the Vox Website:

“Trump is not an alien who came from another planet. We produced Trump, so we are co-responsible. Our culture, our society, made him […] We’re shocked because we found out there’s a member of our family that we’ve been ignoring. It’s time to listen and really look at our family.”

Until we can find a chant that unifies, then we perhaps should recognise our chanting is just tribal self-soothing. What would have been much more radical and yet potentially healing would have been the chant: “Say it loud, say it clear / Brexiteers are welcome here.” The thought boggles my brain – but rings true.

The events of the last few months have brought me back to Twitter.

I suppose it’s a despair in the shocking state of a lot of newspaper journalism and – sadly – BBC news coverage that makes me want to find out things quicker and from more sources.

I am careful to curate my twitter feed and not have too much of a left-wing bubble. I follow some alt right feeds from America and some Brexit-loving feeds from the UK. (Just as I have taken to always casting an eye on the headlines of the Sun, the Express and the Daily Mail in the newsagents.)

I feel a sudden shudder and contraction when I read the deliberately monosyllabic put-downs of a Breitbart twitter post (usually something like “What a douche!” or “Nuff said” attached to a linked article) and my heart contracts. The evil genius of that site is to completely discredit even Nobel Prize Laureates with the sneering dismissal of a high school Jock calling a A-Grade student a nerd.

There’s been a lot written about the way in which a media that no longer deals in truth or facts is not really something you can meaningfully engage with or argue against. But I also am keenly aware of the part of me that was bullied at school for being gay, rears up with particularly potency in the face of this bullish, male-white-entitled talk. It’’s like I not only don’t trust the media but I have become afraid of it.


I am profoundly glad that I am gay and that I suffered bullying for it because it allows me some measure of empathy for the bullied every where. For decades (it seemed) the rights of the bullied were being respected and protected. Suddenly in the matter of weeks, that has all evaporated. And the 9-year-old me is highly present and highly alert. He makes reading news feel like an anxious flashback to the schoolyard.

The medium of Twitter (and Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat for that matter) do have a structural role in all this. They are not transparent media (as a brilliant interview with Anil Dash points out). When the Arab Spring was in full swing, Twitter was keen to claim credit. After Trump’s victory, suddenly it’s “We are a neutral platform”. The truth is that all of the social media platforms completely mediate how we get and respond to information. Suddenly we are dealing with a world where the President of the United States of America makes policy in bullying soundbites with no appeal to truth. That is a function of the tweet as much as the Trump.

While I feel a huge admiration for J.K. Rowling’s twitter efforts (how does she find time?) and her refusal to be at all abashed by these on-line bullies, I am struck by the fact that she has to react with the same tough, 140-character counter blast. The very nature of Twitter prevents anyone really going deep. We are dragged into arguing with slogans. Or worse, with bullying put-downs.

There’s a part of me that thinks I should stick my head above the parapet more and argue with people. To point the world to the fine analyses of the current world situation that I glean from the deep journalism of Adam Curtis, of the London Review of Books and the New Left Review. Or to adopt the brilliant strategy of Positive News and unsettle people by constructive, optimistic information.

Certainly when I do engage, my ambient fear of bullies recedes. But then I am grazed against a more fundamental concern and the perennial Zen koan of modern media: how can I keep informed about what is going on in every corner of the world and avoid feeling responsible for all of it? How can the intolerable burden of the Web be carried?

I can not be a politician, a sociologist, a historian, a scientist every time that I post or make a comment on the world. That way lies madness. Some people seem to strike the balance. Returning to J.K. Rowling, she points out that she can be a writer of wizard-stories AND speak freely to the current situation. But speaking up is one thing, but the responsibility to speak up truthfully and usefully is a big one. It’s an intolerable burden to wake up every morning with the sense that I personally have to be the Harry Potter to Steve Bannon’s Voldemort.

And yet… and yet the alternative seems heretical: to lay down my insistence on having an answer to ever aggressive tweet; to let go of the need to be perfectly informed and up-to-speed on all the complexities of geopolitics, neoliberal economics, Marxist theory; to admit that I can’t solve every problem. This alternative seems like dangerous capitulation.

“To sin by silence, when we should protest/ makes cowards out of men” (said Ella Wheeler-Wilcox) but perhaps it is the Internet’s unending stimuli to protest, the proliferating number of things we should speak out against, the expectation that everyone should be 100% informed is what makes most people not only turn silent, but also lay down in exhausted compliance.

Perhaps the overwhelm of social media is deliberately utilised by the bullies to smother our intellect and thus distracts us from action. (See Adam Curtis’ excellent Hypernormalisation to this point).

We need depth, but we need localised depth. We do what we can and we do it well and deeply. Stay anchored in the body, the space around us the neighbourhood.

“Go take refuge in nature, and find a cause where your heart doesn’t feel inactive and in despair. This is the medicine.”, says one of Thich Nhat Hahn’s senior monks. “We go out and we help. […] Right now people in our family are still there, and they might need us. Our friend might be someone who is being discriminated against. You can only be there to offer that kindness if you are stable. What people need is your non-fear, your stability, solidity, clarity.”

Without surrendering to the bullying numbness of ‘Nuff Said’ and “Loser”, I can anchor myself in depth but in my area of expertise. And release the compulsion to speak authoritatively on subjects that I can only have an amateur interest in. I am a psychotherapist and a Buddhist meditator and teacher. I present TV shows. I can speak well, I can write, I can think. I have a partner, family, neighbours. I have a locality that is reassuringly responsive.

We need depth to counter the insistent shallowness of Twitter and Breitbart but we need realistic depth and actionable depth. People need to go deep in what is closest to them professionally, socially, psychically. And they have to own that. But there needs to be some boundaries otherwise we end up being spread thin and succumb to the thinning out of insight, the vanishing of depth.

Brother Phap Dung continues: “Community practice is crucial at this time. It’s crucial not to be alone in front of the computer, reading media. That makes the world dark for you. Find flesh. There are still wonderful things happening.”

Just in case you don’t have 20 minutes to listen to Prof. Dougan’s talk here are the main points (and yes, Dougan is the Jean Monnet chair at the University and it is funded by the EU. Nonetheless I have not read a single thing on the Brexit side that has more substance or factual accuracy).

SOVEREIGNTY: The UK is a sovereign power and the ultimate power lies with Parliament. The EU is not even a sovereign entity – it has no power in our country unless parliament grants it.

US vs. THEM: People talk about “Brussels” as if it were an alien entity. We are one of the “Big Three” (the others are France and Germany) who have the deciding say in everything that the EU decides (with 73, 74 and 96 MEPs respectively). Most decisions are made by consensus. The Commission does not dictate. The Council (all countries’ representatives at a table) and the Parliament (directly elected by national populations) decide what will be most beneficial to all involved. We are one of the most power decision makers in Europe.

LAW: European Law does not supersede UK law. When the UK judges sometimes overrule British decisions in favour of the EU it is because the UK parliament has told them to do so. If we leave the EU then all our laws will have to be re-written in short measure. And, Prof, Dougan, argues Parliament will not have the time to do this – it will be left to unelected bodies.

TRADE: The the EU is the most sophisticated and powerful trading block in the world by a long way. Not just the lack of tariffs but much more importantly the lack of regulatory construction (where the UK can’t sell its computers to France because of different health, environmental, safety laws). To leave the Single Market would bring us back to square one. The “Norwegian option” means that we would have to abide by all EU laws but have no say in how they’re made – also we would still have to pay a huge fee to trade. If we wanted to limit free movement of people then we would have to leave completely. This would mean we would have to negotiate from scratch bi-lateral agreements with all countries of the world which would take up to 10 years. (Switzerland is still negotiating these treaties after voting not to be in the Single Market in the 1970s).

I don’t usually write about political things on here although as the years pass I find myself moving to a more radical and left-wing view of the world – (It’s a stubborn counter-move to that awful belief that we’re socialist in youth and conservative in old-age). The significance of the Brexit vote for British citizens and the sense of moral decay in the air, prompted me to post this.

The horrific murder of more than 50 LGBT revellers in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando and the equally shocking murder of the British politician Jo Cox moved have moved me like they moved millions – and they have made me vocal and angry about not only the two murderers but about the whole undercurrent of hatred and bigotry that cultivated their murderers’ mindset.

It is impossible and duplicitous, for example, for American establishment figures to wring their hands about what happened in Orlando while at the same time turning a blind eye to the fact that Ted Cruz, a leading candidate for the Republican nomination, was happy to shake hands with a right-wing pastor who advocates execution for gay people. Similarly, it is impossible to ignore the obvious connection between Cox’s murderer shouting “Britain First” and the paranoid and distorted rhetoric being used by UKIP posters and the loose-canon Brexiteers in the run up to UK’s referendum on leaving Europe.

The revolting drip-feed of negativity towards ‘migrants’ and Muslims in British newspapers like the Daily Mail, The Sun and the Daily Express is clearly complicit in this national drift towards an atavistic and small-minded fear mentallity. It is out of this tragic and terrible manure that the murderous acts spring. Not from some ‘evil’ unconnected to the press and the media.

Rather than bracketing the Orlando killer and Cox’s killer into the ‘insane’ or the ‘jihadi/extremist’ bracket we have to acknowledged that these men acted in a context of increasing bigotry and close-mindedness. The brutality of these men (and indeed of ISIS executing gay men and non-Muslims) is the very extreme end of a spectrum that begins with civilised people closing their minds and hearts to people who are different from them.

One of the heart-numbing aspects of the Brexit debates in the UK is the idea that there always have to be a ‘balance’. That if most people (for example 95% of scientists and economists) agree that leaving the EU would be disastrous for the country and our children’s future in the world, then we have to find someone in the 5% to “balance” the argument. Both are given equal airtime and the truth is distorted. If most people (100% of scientists) believe that evolution provides a robust explanation of life on Earth, then we don’t have to give a platform to the nonsense of Creationism as a ‘balance”.

The fact is that some things are just bad ideas. Putting your hand into a fire is a bad idea. We don’t need to balance that by having someone argue that it is a good one.

Toleration, kindness, openness, communication, trade, dialogue, open-mindedness, co-operation, compassion, curiosity are qualities that lead to positive life constellations. Bitterness, close-mindedness, greed, deafness, rigidity, isolationism and hatred lead to increased misery and conflict.

I don’t doubt that there are a huge number of Britons who sincerely believe that leaving the EU will be good for the country. But the overwhelming evidence shows that it will not. The EU (flawed as it may be) has brought environmental safeguards, labour laws and peace and prosperity that our grandparent’s generation only dreamed of in the post-war years. The access to culture, funding, research, trade, security and social fields is a huge boon for the generations to come. The Brexiteers who clamour for ‘less red tape’ are also the free marketeers who are keen to scrap maternity leave, sickness pay and labour protection. The energy and tax that young migrants bring into an economy far, far outweigh the cost to the infrastructure of a country and besides, as a union of 500 million people we have a duty to help the many millions displaced by a war in Syria that we are indirectly responsible for.

Staying in Europe makes it easier to police our borders and protect our welfare. (Do the Brexiteers imagine that France will continue to hold refugees at Calais once Britain leaves the EU border conventions?) Being part of the EU will allow our youngsters to study in universities that get European research grants and work abroad and be inspired about being part of a wider European family. And quite apart from the mere economic benefits, I feel that there is a much more resonant cultural and emotional connection.

I have always been delighted to feel part of Europe. To hang out in Berlin, drink Pernod in Paris, eat paella in Barcelona, explore the Carpathians, swim in the lakes of Mazuria. I have taken full advantage of studying for free in Berlin, working in Germany, paying tax in Germany and using German swimming pools and roads paid for by my taxes. I have criss-crossed boarders willy-nilly and learned languages and I am constantly learning from the counter-point that other nations brings to the experience of being English.

When I lived in Berlin in the 90s I came into a much clearer and prouder relationship with both my Britishness and my Englishness. But I also came to be full of admiration for the unique history that Berliners lived through and had a much more vivid sense of the Second World War there where the scars of the Cold War were still so visible. Being a European is just one concentric circle in my life. Within it there is being British and being English. Beyond it is being a Buddhist and being a human. Many circles makes for resonance.

What terrifies me is the growing constriction of circles that Brexit hints at: closed borders, closed economy, closed minds. It’s an isolationist creed that finds echoes in Donald Trump and i believe it’s the very opposite of the thing that has always made Britain great: our openness to the world, to science, to trade, to diplomacy and to others. Voting to remain a part of a greater whole can only empower us. Closing doors will leave us to stagnate and founder.

Just back from a quick weekend visit to Berlin, my old home town from 1992 to 1998.

It was grizzly, wet and cold weather and the city was looking as forlorn and unappealing as it possibly could. Lots of my friends were sick and ill and I wondered as I wandered across the bleak wasteland that is the ‘Regierungsviertel’ why on earth I had come back in the dead-end of winter.

But a few hours later I was drinking hot ginger tea in a Prenzlauerberg bar with a couple of friends and enjoying the sort of serious but animated conversation that Berlin still thrives on.

I was puzzling the fact that ‘my’ Berlin had been overwhelmed by an influx of English speaking ‘hobby-Berliners’, drawn there by the international glamour of the city and cheap(er) rents. The old, grumpy German-speaking Berlin (which I experienced as ghastly-hard but authentic) has been covered up by a much more friendly, tourist-inflected confection of coffee-bars, graffiti art museums and more coffee-bars. This makes the city a much easier place to hang-out but somehow seems to have comotosed the rude recalcitrance of Berlin into something much more compliant and consumerist.

Adrian, an artist, art fabricant and magician of wood, pointed out that thousands of very talented people are drawn there by the art scene but only a tiny fragment will make it. This is largely due to a shift in the art market towards the ephemeral and ‘fashionable’ (which is actually a society-wide shift towards the consumer mode.) Previously, artists and gallerists would have a long-term relationship which would pay off in a long career of varied work and stably-rising prices. Now the “market’ has become the driving mechanism and, as everywhere, the market is interested in the new and instantly saleable rather than long-term investments. This means that even among successful artists there can be a terribly short shelf life.

Adrian has built his robust career on honing his skill as a ‘maker’ and he spoke of an book by Hans-Ulrich Obrist about how in the long run only people with ‘skills’ will flourish. In a world of conceptual art, the ability to work with wood and marble and metal and often hard-to-access ‘stuff’ becomes a lasting anchor. Adrian has made a decision to stay put, to hone a skill, to work day-by-day to improve that skill and he knows that it’s a good bet. Concepts are too cheap. The speed and ephemerality of ideas make them particularly prone to consumer erosion.

This ties in with what I was saying in the last post about the tick-tock of anxiety. Placing your existential eggs in the basket of thought is a perilous decision. Because thinking is so fast and erratic, one is always anxious about breakage. There is much to be said about resting in the concrete, staying put and honing a skill.

Translating Adrian’s professional aperçu into my world, then it becomes about people rather than materials. The skills I have to hone are teaching and therapy and my workstuff is the human mind and its wellbeing. But his decision to hone and engage with stuff is inspiring in other ways.

For a long time I’ve suspected that daily engagement with the actual stuff of the world rather than our thoughts about it, leads to mental health. Our consciousness according to Alva Noë arises because we have brains in bodies that move in a world. The essential component of heightened consciousness is that the body is emplaced in a vibrant and ever-challenging and refreshing world. Not a stale simulacrum of thoughts. In short, too much thinking kills us.

I was staying with my very action-orientated friend Tamsin who juggles a magnificent family of children, a challenging journalistic career, a novel-writing strand and a panache with vegan chocolate and home-made cosmetics. That level of relentless doing makes me quail a little – but as she points out: the doing breeds energy. Just as thinking makes us anxious, there is a certain kind of doing that is not addictive workaholism but is a virtuous generator of connection. So although Tamsin is working non-stop, the daily interaction with children, colleagues, cocoa-butter feeds back into her consciousness and enlivens it.

I would hazard a guess that this kind of doing (like Adrian’s daily battle with steel and oak) is tempered or made wholesome by interpersonal context. This is what stops “healthy doing” becoming “anxious doing”. We need to stay rooted in the world and other people.

Reading Iris Murdoch’s letters she writes to her French lover, Raymond Queneau: “ I don’t care a hang this evening about anything theoretical. I care so much more about people, indeed I always do.” Elsewhere she says: “Being incarnate is a business”. Which strikes me a doubly wonderful. The flesh and bone of being human as a joyful activity.

This may seem to run counter to the thrust of meditation as ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’ – but this trip to Berlin, damp as it was, has pointed out that too much ‘being’ (especially when it actually involves endless thinking) can make you liable to paralysing anxiety and thence selfishness. The ‘business’ of the embodied brain moving in the world creates consciousness but not just an embodied one but a socialised one. I suspect that that “world context” contributes to a sense of inter-subjectivity that is crucial for well-being.

Perhaps it was just the gloomy weather and a fluey headache, but when I stepped into a coffee-shop to escape the rain on Saturday and was surrounded by a host of dozens of young ‘Berliners’ all staring at their glowing laptops, I felt the city had become depressingly unsocialised in the way that swathes of London and Manhattan have.

Adrian’s boyfriend was telling me about epiphytic plants which are not directly parasitic on the tree they dwell on but rather hop on the branches and commit ‘resource piracy’ – not eating the tree but taking up a lot of the airspace. One of the disturbing aspects of New Berlin is that it is becoming – like so many places – full of people who don’t directly drain the place they live in but don’t seem to connect to it either. Most of the international “Berliners”, for example, don’t speak German and have created enclaves where it’s not necessary. This self-soothing bubble existence can be terrible selfish. That’s not true of the trunk of German Berliners who have shown, for example, inspirational welcome to the Syrian refugees but more to the international epiphytic ferns that have come to nest in Berlin’s branches.

Making ends meet, planning your great start-up, securing your big art deal: these are the typical activity of your 20s these days and they are hedged around with anxiety. But how much more anxious are they in the epiphytic atmosphere that has no real roots in the otherness of the world and wants to create a ‘safe’ bubble of curated space. Planning without doing, being ‘awesome’ without actually being anything in the real world, sipping lattes instead of getting things done. It’s alarming to me – because (of course) it reminds me so much of me – but also because it is going to lead to an enormous sense of disappointment when the “Berlin” bubble pops and people have to make it in the real world of big roots, thick trunks and winter weather.

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