Book Review: Enemies of the People

Are you happy with the way our current crop of politicians and their influencers are running the world? Do you believe Brexit will make Britain Great, that Trump is good for the USA? If so then this book may not be for you, unless you wish to gain a better understanding. It offers, in bite sized chunks, key facts about those who helped create the situation in which we find ourselves today.

Enemies of the People, by Sam Jordison, is divided into fifty short chapters dedicated to those who have worked tirelessly to further their personal agendas at such potentially devastating cost. These include the usual subjects – Vladimir Putin, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, Nigel Farage, Ronald Reagan, Donald Trump – as well as the men and women who inspired their skewed ways of thinking. There are unexpected names – Pepe the Frog, Jesus Christ, Chris Martin, Mel Gibson, Simon Cowell, Your Granny. Although dealing with weighty subjects the content is not entirely sober and serious.

I was familiar with the majority of the names but not all of the information included. This is an important point to make. Although partisan in presentation the information has been verifiably sourced and makes for interesting reading, even for someone who tries to keep up with current affairs.

I learned that there is an inheritance of ideas, cherry picked and repolished but undoubtedly affecting decision making over decades. Country-wide catastrophe means little when personal power is at stake, when there are private fortunes to be made. Who says we learn nothing from history? These people have learned plenty from their predecessors and don’t care that their actions cause untold damage to those they purport to represent.

As well as politicians there are economists, religious leaders, writers, advisers and media figures. The common thread is the impact of their actions on the general population, and how most have got away with such behaviour. Methods of manipulating public thinking are among the most valued of skills. Wider suffering is shown to be of little interest to the perpetrators.

I bought this book for my seventeen year old son who is developing his own political views. The historical perspective, accessible language and concise structure will, I hope, offer him a wider perspective than he is picking up from popular web-sites, YouTube channels and the family influenced conversations of his peers. The book is witty without being bland, angry but on point. It does not attempt to offer answers but encourages readers to pay more attention, and not just to the dead cat on the table or Kim Kardashian West’s shoes.

Intended to provide a snapshot of our times rather than a roll call of evil the author states:

“I can’t pretend to be objective. In fact, I can’t pretend to be anything other than royally cheesed off. I’ve seen the world I love torn to shreds and I wish it hadn’t happened.”

If the enemies listed here can learn from history, so too can readers. This perfectly sized stocking filler offers as good a place as any to begin the conversation.

Enemies of the People is published by Harper Collins.

What is political activism?

This post is an assignment set by a history course I am currently working my way through with Futurelearn, Irish Lives in War and Revolution: Exploring Ireland’s History 1912-1923 — Trinity College Dublin

The question set is, “What amounts to ‘political activism’ in a period of war and revolution?” It should be answered in no more than 300 words.

Political activism can include fighting and protests but these are a means to an end. Wars are fought to try to force those who disagree to comply. War is an extreme form of bullying, undertaken by the many at the behest of the powerful.

In peacetime and in war protests are commonly used to raise awareness. They are a rallying call for the faithful, a recruiting ground for those who may not yet have been galvanised to publicly offer their support to a cause. Those who care about what others think of them will feel good being a part of a popular movement. The excitement of being seen to be at the forefront of potential change can be enticing.

Where political activism starts though is in the home amongst family and friends. This is where discussions occur and ideas are shared. Whether a person is regarded or disdained, their opinion has influence. A wish to be accepted by a group can be a powerful factor.

Political activists do not just include the impressive orators and dogged campaigners, although charismatic leaders are required. What is needed is large numbers of supporters who are willing to stand up and be counted, people with a view who will work to persuade others by whatever means they can.

War and revolution focus attention by creating suffering that all will want to end. As more minor differences are set aside in the quest for peace, activists prey on the masses emotions to ensure that their core beliefs are enshrined.

 

Influencing teenagers

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One of the challenges of parenting teenagers is knowing when to speak and when to back off. I have raised my three to ask questions and to think for themselves, to follow the path that they consider right even if others are insisting that they should be going another way. I have hammered home the message that there are many sides to any argument and that they should seek out why others hold an opinion before forming one themselves. I want my children to become adults capable of critical thinking.

Other adults in their lives have not always appreciated the rough edges resulting from this upbringing. Learning to debate cogently and persuasively is a tough skill to master, and some adults do not welcome having their opinions dissected by someone they consider to be lacking in knowledge and experience. To them I would say, learning has to start somewhere. If my children appear brusque then do not dismiss them as rude and irrelevant, teach them by responding to their points calmly and clearly.

We have had a number of fairly heated discussions around the dinner table recently; my elder two children have developed strong views, some of which I do not always agree with. In many ways this is gratifying as it demonstrates that they have learned well. In other ways though it worries me. Some of the views that they hold appear to be at odds with my own core beliefs. It has made me look at our family values, especially the conflicts between what I hold as important and my husband’s views. Obviously my children have been listening to both of us throughout their lives.

Politically I would put my husband to the right of me. He would counter that notions of right and left no longer apply. He is very much against state intervention. I would argue that this is an ideal; in practice the state should be investing in its future (educating young people) and taking adequate care of its most vulnerable (the poor and the sick). We both despise the current political elite and feel strong resentment at how they choose to spend the huge amounts of money forcefully removed from us in the form of complex taxes.

As no political party adequately represents either of us, elections are always times of soul searching as we decide which of the charlatans standing will receive our votes. We always vote.

Our children have soaked in our views alongside those they have picked up elsewhere. When I disagree with their stated opinions I try to discuss calmly, despite finding it hard at times to accept that I have raised young people who think this way. I recognise the irony of my discomfort, I have brought this situation on myself.

Politics is messy, views differ widely, and no individual has much power over what happens anyway. Perhaps I could have shaken off my concerns had it not been for two other incidents that happened in the same week as our most recent elections, which gave rise to these initial debates.

The first to grab my attention was the reported changes to the English Literature curriculum and the suggestion by exam boards that the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, had forced these through due to his personal preferences. I was livid at yet another damaging intervention by this odious little man. Whilst not quite standing up for him, my husband did not condemn his actions, claiming that studying any book for an exam will strip the enjoyment away anyway. He appeared to miss the point I was trying to make entirely. I am aware that I am not always good at stating my key point clearly and concisely.

Whilst I was still raging over yet another assault on teachers’ ability to educate, and the narrowing of students’ exposure to diverse literature, another news item demanded my attention. Elliot Rodger became the latest in a long line of American serial killers, and the documents he left behind suggested that he was driven by a hatred of beautiful women because they would not have sex with him. An on line society was mentioned that appears to promote a belief that men are entitled to sex. Perhaps I am hopelessly naive, but I had no idea that such extreme and damaging views could lawfully be promoted in a supposedly civilised country.

And then, with all of this swirling around in my head, I started to see the twitter hashtag #YesAllWomen appear on my feed.

I am all too aware that women live their daily lives with problems that a large number of men just don’t seem to get. I am just one of these women, and the Everyday Sexism project has been highlighting the issue for some time. This though is the nub of my problem today. I feel that I need to have another conversation with my children, yet feel ground down by the disparate opinions that we have already recently aired. How do I get my sons to see that this is a significant problem that they should be considering, and not just mum going off on yet another of her rants?

Nobody ever said that parenting was easy. Reading back over all that I have just written I realise that I am trying to cover some pretty hefty issues. They need to be covered, but it will take time. I guess I am just aware that so much is currently being discussed in the media making it a good time to be talking about it as a family. My kids can go read other’s opinions, critically examine the plethora of views, and then come back and discuss the conclusions they have reached.

Is it bad that I am worried about what my husband will contribute to the family discussion? I suspect this shows me up as being less open and accepting than I sometimes like to claim. I know that he often amuses himself by winding me up, by attempting to tie my arguments in knots with his ability to remember little details that can appear to erode my opinions. He is cleverer than I, but this does not necessarily make him right. It can be harder for me to accept that I will not always be right either.

 

 

Perfection Pending
I am linking this in with Perfection Pending‘s weekly parenting blog hop. I hope that all the witty, perceptive bloggers who share tales of their experiences raising young kids don’t mind me adding my perhaps overly serious ruminations on parenting teenagers. I sometimes read back over what I write and think I should lighten up a bit. Maybe one day I will learn how to do that. xx 

Attack the message, not the messenger

It is political party conference season here in England.

First up we had the Liberal Democrats, who did nothing to improve their crumbling credentials by headlining with their economic policy game changer (not): a plastic bag tax (Lib Dems back 5p charge for plastic bags). The party were mocked in the media and then dismissed. At a time when so many people are suffering economic hardship; with the cost of living steadily rising while wages stagnate; to open their annual conference with the announcement of a plastic bag tax suggests that they have no worthwhile policies to offer. If they later managed to announce any, then the headlines generated by this initial, punitive and ineffective measure drowned them out.

Second to the rostrum were UKIP. Their unfortunate buffoon (the one who hit the headlines over the summer for referring to ‘bongo bongo land’) made the headlines by calling the women in his audience sluts (UKIP’s Godfrey Bloom under fire over ‘demeaning’ joke). With that, UKIP shot themselves in the foot. It was unfortunate, and their leader was furious, but the media lapped it up. What disturbs me more though is that this has not merely been mocked and set aside. UKIP policies are gaining a lot of support; there is a real possibility that they may gain a huge increase in votes at next years European elections. The media is responding to this by trying to personally smear their leader, Nigel Farage. A couple of photographs have been released on social media recently showing him with a darkened upper lip, like a little moustache. I have no problem with reasoned criticism of policy or calling out buffoonery, but attempted character assassination with a cleverly taken or photo shopped picture suggests biased desperation.

Next to perform were the Labour Party, who managed their conference with fewer gaffes. It is unfortunate that their leader is now embroiled in a row with the odious Daily Mail newspaper over an article published about his father (Ed Miliband in row with Daily Mail over ‘smear’ on father). I refuse to read this paper with it’s hate and fear promoting propoganda. However, the timing of this row detracts from what was seen to be a reasonably successful conference for Ed Miliband. I may not be a Labour supporter but, once again, I object to going for the man (and his family) rather than what he stands for.

The Conservative Party conference is ongoing, but one little nugget that I have picked up on was their attempt to ban one activist from taking part in a panel discussion on the Rise of Food Banks (Off to Conservative Party conference, despite them trying to ban me from going). All of the political parties aim to use their conferences as a PR exercise; to outline policies that they believe will appeal to their core supporters and potential swing voters. It is the growing tendency to get personal when the political parties do not offer the media something significant enough to mock that makes me mention Jack Monroe. She has only recently started to come to the public’s attention, and, with that rise in profile, has come the hate. She tweeted yesterday that:

‘The abuse from strangers is endless: I’m ugly, fat, vile, ‘rank looking’ – it’s draining, exhausting. Don’t they have better things to do?’ (Lifted from the Twitter account of A Girl Called Jack (@MsJackMonroe)).

Of course, she is not the first person in the public eye to suffer cyber abuse. The classicist Mary Beard, amongst others, has been grossly insulted and threatened via Twitter (Television classicist Mary Beard sent bomb threat by ‘trolls’ just hours after apology by Twitter boss). It is a symptom of a wider malaise.

Politics has always been a dirty game to play with rumours, scandals and media outrage forcing those involved to back down or resign with depressing regularity. The public seem to expect their representatives to behave in a way that they themselves may not be capable of managing. It is when the slurs are invented, or contain opinion aimed at being personally hurtful, that I feel uncomfortable. However the saying goes, words can do damage. We may not be physically stoning those we disagree with, but by hounding them with hate filled dialogue we show how unwilling we are to listen to an alternative point of view; to even allow it to be voiced in case others support it.

UKIP is a case in point. There are many who vehemently oppose their ideologies, but at least they offer an alternative. If a voter disagrees with what they offer, they will not vote for that party. I would hope that it would be the policies and rhetoric that they are rejecting, not the leader with the photoshopped moustache.

The three main political parties in this country are depressingly similar in policy and outlook; I have posted my views on this before (Tolerance in adversity). Jack Monroe is not a politician and is new to the public arena. She is refreshing to listen to as she will still say what she thinks. UKIP representatives will also sometimes say what they think, and can be judged accordingly. Perhaps it is this honesty that I miss in political dialogue; it is very hard to know who to support when pronouncements willfully obfuscate.

Sometimes those in public life need to be called out over their views, but attacking their appearance is unnecessary. I may have little time for those who court publicity for themselves rather than a cause, but I still believe that all should be treated fairly and with a degree of courteous humanity.

English: Shows the 649 seats after the electio...

Book review: The Hare with Amber Eyes

It took me four days to read ‘The Hare with Amber Eyes’ by Edmund de Waal. When I am enjoying a good book and am eager to know what happens next it is not unusual for me to put the rest of my life on hold in order to read it straight through. A book can do that to me; swallow me up whole to the exclusion of all else. I get tetchy with my family expecting me to pause to produce food, drive them somewhere or simply go to bed. I immerse myself in an alternative world and do not wish to leave. Reaching the last page can result in me feeling both satisfied at finishing and bereft that I must move on.

‘The Hare with Amber Eyes’ was fabulous but could not be read in a sitting. When eating a good meal, no matter how delicious, innovative and satisfying the dish, there comes a point of fullness where we have to stop consumption or spoil the pleasure. This book was like that. I didn’t want to put it down but needed to pause to digest what I had already taken in. I did not wish to risk missing out on any point of detail woven into the rich and complex tapestry of the tale.

The book is a biography that covers a family history over nearly two centuries, but is so much more than that. The central theme is based around an unusually large collection of netsuke: small, intricate, Japanese carvings. Their purchase and subsequent history allows the author to delve into the lives, aspirations and impetus behind key family members choices and actions. It covers births, marriages and deaths but these are marks along the way, not key to the story. The emphasis is on understanding the society in which the characters moved, along with the times in which they lived. It is a fascinating, historical account, very personal but never over sentimentalised, of colourful individuals living through times that are already well known through dry study in school.

The family are wealthy Jews. They left Berdichev in Poland to make their fortune buying and selling grain in Odessa, Russia. From there they  move to Vienna where a bank is founded. This expands to Paris with brothers running the business from the capitals at the heart of Europe whilst building, maintaining and travelling between immense, family properties in France, Switzerland, Austria and Czechoslovakia.

Their wealth enabled them to become patrons of artists, musicians and writers as well as to amass impressive collections of sculpture, furniture, books and pictures of great artistic value. The tale includes meetings at salons and trips to the opera with many of the well known names of the time: Proust, Renoir, Monet and Manet to name but a few. And woven amongst all the tales of patronage, fashion and philanthropy is the anti semitism that bubbles in the background, spilling over from time to time in the media or largely unacknowledged social segregation, even or perhaps especially at the heart of the elite.

Since my recent trip to Berlin I have been trying to understand why the Jews have been persecuted for so many centuries. I have yet to work out a reason that provides a concrete explanation. One of the intriguing aspects of this book is the way the wealth of the bankers was seen as wicked. The parallels with the attempted demonisation of some of today’s global businessmen are obvious.

The children of the wealthy, European, Jewish families in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were raised to speak multiple languages interchangeably. They moved between family homes in many countries and could easily converse in French, German and English from a young age. These are the type of citizens that today’s EU seems to want to create, unconcerned about borders or nationality, except these people have been drawn together by a wealth that the powerful either fawn over or decry.

The book progressed, as I knew it must, to the boiling over of nationalism and jealousy to the severe detriment of those who had been blamed for so long for each country’s ills. The wars are declared, the family suffers hardship and loss. Although this is vividly covered it is neither dwelt on nor glorified. It happens, and then the tale continues on to the present day.

One of the strengths of the book is that it does not try to retell a story that has been told so many times before. It does not try to explain the aspects that are well known already, but rather mentions them in passing and marks how they affected the individual members of the family. Much as marriages are mentioned without dwelling on the detail of romantic courtships, so the Nazi occupation of Vienna is described without judgement. Facts are laid out, repercussions described; it is left to the reader to decide how they should react and feel.

This turbulent period of history; of loss and destruction; of assimilation, persecution and banishment; is told through the lives of a family who are far from ordinary but who, day to day, get on and do their thing as we all do. They have their ambitions and desires which they work towards. It is a very personal tale, told beautifully through art, without falling into excessive nostalgia. It is a tale of creation, damage and survival.

The message I have taken away from the book is one of a need for more acceptance. In the end I did not mourn the loss of the great wealth, but rather the lack of empathy from those who saw the Jews as evil because of their success. I still cannot understand why this happened, and not for the first time in the race’s history. Pulling down those who have does not build up those who have not.

‘The Hare with Amber Eyes’ is a powerful book, not least because it tells a true tale. It is written and reads as a story, providing fascinating background and understanding that the philistine in me lapped up. Ultimately though it leaves me feeling a despair for mankind. We did that, and although it may not be the Jews who next bear the brunt of the blame, we are moving towards doing it again. However much we learn, it seems that we do not learn enough from history.

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Local council elections

Yesterday evening, after a day of recovery from the previous night’s delightful celebration, I walked across our warm and sunny village to cast my vote in the local council elections. Our polling station seemed to be pleasingly busy and I will watch with interest as the results start to come in later today. I am rather hoping for a bit of an upset when the votes are counted; the political system in this country could do with a major shake up.

I rarely go out in our village in the evenings and was surprised by how quiet it seemed. There were a few children playing in the field and a small number of dog walkers taking their evening exercise, but the most notable change from my regular, daytime excursions was the number of cars on the road. Most of them appeared to contain local residents heading towards the centrally located polling station. It still perplexes me that so many drive from one end of our small village to the other, especially as it was such a lovely evening. All will happily fill their recycling containers, and the visual blight of solar panels on roofs has not escaped our picturesque location, but still they feel comfortable using their car for such a short journey. Many of them even choose to drive to the local gym which I find bizarre.

It seems to me that elections have become more frequent events in recent years, or maybe this is just time appearing to pass more quickly as I get older. When I was a child I used to enjoy the seemingly rare election days as the primary school that I attended was used as a polling station, meaning that I got the day off school. This also used to be the case in our village but, since the new village hall was completed at the turn of the century, the primary school opens as usual and it is the pre school and other local groups who must close for the day to allow the hall to be used by voters. Unlike the joy of a day off school, my youngest son was most put out when his badminton club was forced to cancel their planned session yesterday evening. Despite the lovely weather, he used the unexpected free time to play on his Wii. I was still feeling too weary to remonstrate with him over this choice.

Local council elections do not, understandably, induce the same level of excitement as national elections. As London was not involved in this round of voting there has not been the coverage that can be expected when the media capital is included. There has been much comment about the possibility of a fourth party gaining enough seats to oust the comfortable incumbents of our established, three party system. If this happens, it could make next years European elections and the following year’s general election much more interesting. I think that this is what I am hoping for. Too many people seem to have given up on the possibility of changing the way the country is being run. A little more interest and participation may be the only way to sort out this situation and orchestrate improvement in the lives of the many rather than the privileged few.

Despite my interest, I am not a political activist. I am not convinced enough of the merits of any particular candidate or party to be willing to fight for their corner. I am generally suspicious of anyone who chooses to put themselves forward for an elected role that provides an element of power over others, particularly those who wish to run for national government. I guess that there must be some honest politicians but they seem to be few and far between. The current crop seem more interested in pursuing their own pet projects for the benefit of friends and relations than in improving the lives of the constituents they are handsomely paid to represent.

Local elections are, of course, a very different power game. There still seems to be that element of corruption though. In my area there are particular land owners who seem to be able to get anything they want through the system while ordinary people are charged exorbitantly for every change they wish to make and are thwarted at every opportunity. The cosy relationships and fawning attitudes do not suggest a representative fighting for improvements in individuals lives but rather an attempt to improve numbers and statistics while being photographed beside those who will show due gratitude for favours.

I do not expect a sea change this time around but hope for enough of a disturbance in the comfortable, status quo to make more people believe in the possibility of change. The denizens of power will not wish to be ousted and will switch their allegiances if they think that this will allow them to keep their positions. Those who are entitled to vote may do so in greater numbers if they can see that doing so may actually make a difference.

For today though, I have slept well and woken to another lovely, sunny day. I plan to walk to the local gym for a light work out and a swim before spending some time this afternoon in the garden with my chickens. We have a bank holiday weekend to look forward to which I hope to spend relaxing with my little family. Sometimes it feels good to shut out the rest of the world and just be.

Nouormand: Êlections au mais d'Octobre 2008, Jèrri

Things that annoy me

For no reason that I can fathom, I went through a bit of a downer at the end of last week. Having come out the other side reasonably quickly I am doing what I can to ensure that I keep on top of my erratic moods. I have allowed myself time to read a book, watch a film and go on a long walk through the beautiful countryside on my doorstep. I also tackled a few of the house and garden chores that needed doing. I am still feeling a little unsteady but seem to be coping; I am feeling positive again.

Perhaps because of my unstable moods I have found myself being even more irritated than normal by various articles in the news. These are just a few of the random discussions that have annoyed me this week.

Cosmetic Surgery

According to The Independent newspaper, more women are opting to have cosmetic surgery for ‘bingo wings’. Also, the number of breast augmentation procedures performed has increased by 56% since 2007. Demand for facelift surgery or the more simple botox treatments has increased so much that such interventions are now considered normal in certain circles.

Now, I know that there can be some good reasons for cosmetic surgery. Burns victims; those born with serious and obvious disfigurements; those who suffer a disfigurement as part of treatment for a serious illness; these people can all claim my sympathy when they choose to go under the knife to change the way they look. What irritates me is the healthy women who simply wish to change in order to conform to a media promoted idea of beauty. To me, it shows how messed up our society is that individuals will put forward the whole quality of life argument as a reason to have plastic breasts or wrinkles stretched out. Do they really believe that such interventions will make them happy? Don’t they know that these expensive procedures do not last?

These are a few of my personal views: people are supposed to be different; beauty exists in many forms and involves much more than just looks; growing old is a privilege, not a curse; surgery should be for the ill or the injured.

Indulging in cosmetic surgery for reasons of vanity is not the same as putting on a bit of make up or buying a flattering outfit. It may help to make doctors rich (and I don’t blame them for that), but I would much rather see them using their admirably gained skills to treat the sick.

Elderly Drivers

As people age, their eyesight deteriorates, their responses slow down and their memories become more muddled. At a certain point in their lives it becomes unsafe for them to drive a car. Too often I read in the news that another elderly driver has driven the wrong way along a motorway or lost control of their car in a busy shopping area. That individual probably still thinks that they are a competent driver; they overestimate their abilities because they do not recognise the extent of their natural failings.

I would not advocate enforcing the removal of a driving licence at a certain age as abilities vary considerably. I do, however, think that there need to be stricter  tests on the competencies of those who wish to continue to drive into old age. Arguments are put forward that taking away an elderly person’s driving licence will condemn them to housebound loneliness. I would be more concerned about the safety of others. A car is a killing machine in the wrong hands.

What really annoys me though, is when the elderly complain about young drivers and how dangerous they are. Unless they live in an area that is well served by regular and reliable public transport, young people need to learn to drive in order to gain and hold down a job. They need to be allowed to learn and then to practice in order to improve their competency. Nobody is a great driver until they have gained experience in all conditions. Young people need to be granted the time and space to acquire these skills; they are the future drivers that we will all rely on.

I would like to see equality in dealing with driving offences. If dangerous driving is observed then the driver should be treated the same; age should not be an excuse. Some elderly people complain that young people have no respect for their elders. I believe that respect needs to be earned. I know many, polite, droll, erudite and lovely older people who deserve our esteem. I also hear from my children of older people who queue jump at the bus stop, push past the youngsters and then berate them for not showing deference. What do they expect when this is the example of behaviour that they offer?

The most aggressive drivers that I encounter are middle aged men hurrying to and from work; there are idiot drivers in all age ranges. I do not wish to condemn the young or the old, but merely to see the rules of the road applied fairly.

Politics

There has been a lot of comment this week on the potential for the UKIP to upset the political status quo in Britain. Although there are many flaws with the currant system of voting, we do still live in a democracy. It annoys me that some people are trying to drum up support for their party by dissing the emerging opposition rather than giving sound reasons to support their candidate. All should be free to vote as they choose, however extreme their views may appear. I will not condemn anyone for voting for a party that I personally could not support so long as they have thought through the reasons for their actions. I would prefer people to vote thoughtfully than out of habit or not at all.

When an individual makes clear their political allegiance it is reasonable to discuss their reasons and to disagree with their premises. A blanket condemnation without discussing why choices were made though is arrogant.

and breathe… 

As ever, these random thoughts run around inside my head as I peruse the news. Whatever my initial response, I will try to see the alternative point of view and not judge individual’s choices. Sometimes society seems so messed up that I despair, but then I go out and about; I meet the lovely individuals who make up that society; I remind myself that I shouldn’t believe everything that I read in the papers.

I will continue to try to be a good citizen myself. That is, perhaps, a change for the better that I can hope to achieve.

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A spring set into the wall by the road at the bottom of our garden. The inscription above reads:
‘Drink traveller drink and more than worldly wealth
Enjoy God’s greatest earthly blessing, health’

Tolerance in adversity

When I was at school the exams that we sat at sixteen were called ‘O’ Levels. I sat the usual mix of arts and science subjects and particularly enjoyed History, mainly because I could relate to the curriculum which covered key events in Europe in the early to mid twentieth century. It was the first time that I was told the historic reasons for the trouble in my home land, and it encouraged me to read much more widely on the subject.

Growing up in Belfast I was exposed to the rhetoric of the local politicians almost daily as they were interviewed on the television news bulletins following the bombings or shootings that were commonplace at the time. Protestants and Roman Catholics lived in different parts of the city and went to different schools so, although my family did not discuss the political situation a great deal, I absorbed the biased reactions from my peers and their families. Some had very strong views.

When, at fifteen, I started to study for the first time why the fighting was happening, I was perturbed to discover that I didn’t necessarily agree with the side I was supposed to be on. I wasn’t at all sure how to deal with this. From my very naive start point it looked as if both sides were fighting for a lost cause. I did not see how there could ever be a winner when the arguments had been brewing for so long, and so many atrocities had been perpetrated by both sides.

Whatever the cause, when fighting occurs with guns and explosives there is going to be injury and death. Parents are going to lose their beloved children; lives are going to be changed forever. I can see very few causes that can be worth this terrible cost. Armchair generals have long sent their troops into battle and counted the cost by number; lives lost versus territory won. Political protests can follow much the same approach; collateral damage is measured against progress made in achieving concessions by the activists who encourage the dissent from their supporters.

I left Belfast before the current, uneasy peace was achieved. On my occasional visits I notice a huge change for the better. It is not just the removal of the barbed wire, search barriers and army patrols in the streets; the young people seem to mix much more freely which can only help to encourage understanding and tolerance. There is still an undercurrent of violence that manifests itself around seemingly foolish things such as when to fly a flag from a public building or which streets to march down when publicly parading allegiances; each side will still loudly and bitterly blame the other for provoking or reacting inappropriately.

I am very uncomfortable with extremism. There is no easy solution to the situation in Ireland which has been centuries in the making. Neither is there an easy option to sort out the insidious political problems in this country which have developed over the last few decades. Deciding whether the rot started with Margaret Thatcher or with her predecessors and the arrogance of the unions at the time makes for interesting debate, but is now largely academic. Attaching historical blame does not help to improve our current situation.

When trying to enter into a political discussion there are some who will try to take ownership of policies that most will support at a basic level, even if they disagree with the best way to implement them. One does not need to be a socialist to wish to help the needy and vulnerable; capitalists are not the only people wishing to benefit personally from the work they do.

If a country is to support those in need then it requires resources which most often come from taxes. For taxes to be paid, businesses need to be allowed to flourish and provide employment. There was much debate last year about large, successful businesses that had managed to avoid paying tax in this country. This was not tax evasion (illegal) but avoidance. I do not know anyone who would willingly pay more tax than they had to. If a company is able to avoid tax then it may be that tax legislation needs to change. If the company is acting within the law then I can understand it wishing to minimise it’s tax liabilities. I would do the same.

Wishing to pay only legally required tax does not mean that I am against helping those in need. I may not always agree that some needs are vital enough to require support from the public purse, but I agree with feeding the hungry, housing the homeless and treating the sick. I would like to see a much simpler system of taxation and support, a lot less waste in state run organisations and a lot less interference in how I live my life, but none of this precludes me from wishing to offer state support to those who truly need it.

Sometimes my socialist friends seem to suggest that their ideals have a monopoly on compassion. They are no more willing to pay additional tax or offer their spare bedroom to a homeless stranger than I am. They wish to be paid for the work that they do and then to be free to spend their money for their own benefit. This does not make them bad people any more than my political allegiances make me a bad person. We can generalise and point out individuals with similar views who may not be admirable, but it is possible to do good from many stances.

The real difference between how my friends and I think becomes more apparent when considering wider issues such as how best to fix the mess that the country’s economy is currently in. Like the problems in Ireland, I do not believe there are straightforward answers, but life will be better for all if we can manage to move forward with a compromise solution that may not offer anyone exactly what they want but will keep the peace.

Of course I would like to see real change in support of my views, just as my socialist friends would like to see real change in support of their views. I think I could cope with either though if we could have honest politicians representing the people rather than their own interests, who were voted in on policies that they would then implement. The deception that pervades the higher echelons of power is much harder to accept than any honest ideal. It is unfortunate that the one thing that is obvious from studying history is that power corrupts.

Band-aides support

Giving due consideration to an alternative point of view

I am often perplexed as to why my supposedly intelligent friends seem unable to give due consideration to points of view that do not concur with their own. It is not that I expect them to change long held opinions on the strength of a simple exchange, but I do expect them to be able to appreciate why other views are held; to understand the basis of the alternative even if they disagree with the conclusions reached. When a large number of equally intelligent people espouse differing opinions I do not see how each side can be so unwilling to consider the possibility that they may be wrong. Such conceit seems at odds with their otherwise impressive intellectual capacity.

Attempting to engage in debate over an issue can be so frustrating if one side presents their opinions as proven facts and then refuses to consider anything further that is said. They will too often cite what they believe to be expert opinion and declare any similarly qualified experts holding differing views to be inept and their followers deluded. It is as if shouting loudly ‘I am right and you are wrong’ is enough. This is not debate, it is injunction.

When opposing sides in a debate present interesting arguments backed up by real life, practical examples; facts and figures from application; expert, academic opinion formed from historical information; then I am always eager to hear the response from the opposition. To have them turn around and disregard everything said as simply wrong, deluded or not nice with no further explanation is so disappointing. How are those of us watching the debate to be persuaded if no balanced discussion with reasoned exchanges is presented?

When I was younger I used to enjoy watching television programmes featuring courts of law where the prosecution and defence would present facts, argue their case and ask the jury to decide which side was correct. Often the main character would have some surprises to unveil at the optimum moment that would swing the case, but I loved the clever way in which both sides could almost persuade me that they were right (I am told that real courts of law are nothing like this!). To me this was the best way to win an argument; with clever persuasion and attention to factual detail.

I wonder if the art of debate has been lost or if I am simply looking to the wrong people to persuade me. I only know one politician personally but he is very good at arguing his case in a gentle and persuasive way. He could make a point of view that I would consider ridiculous appear reasonable without descending to personal put downs or insults (I admire his skill and am even more wary of politicians for knowing him!). Too many  people try to prove a point by attempting to assassinate the credibility of the dissenters. Making others appear wrong will not make their own views appear right to those who are capable of thought and true consideration of detail.

The fallout from recent events has polarised the opinions of many yet so much of the argument is emotive rather than reasoned. True discussion of cause and effect has been set aside by feelings of hate; debate is being stifled by those who wish to talk but are unwilling to listen. I have never performed well in debates, which is perhaps why I admire this skill in others. I do, however, enjoy listening to clever exchanges and will look out for that previously unconsidered fact that will swing a case. Good debaters will not employ personal insults or attack the character of their opponent; this tactic has been much overused in recent days.

School and university debating clubs offer valuable experience for those who wish to learn how to present an argument and back up their point of view in a reasoned and skilful way. A good debater can present any case and sway an audience; something worth remembering when forming one’s own opinion on a matter. These skills are not being employed by the many who are currently arguing for their political ideology. I am seeing only frustration and personal attacks when dissenters attempt to enter into a discussion between friends who are happily agreeing with one another. These incestuous exchanges only serve to bolster intolerance of dissent; a very unhealthy situation to allow to develop.

Practising a healthy tolerance and according respect to those we disagree with demonstrates an empathy that civilisations should strive for. We do not need to agree with a point of view, but persuasion is more powerful in the long run than force. Leaders require popular support and being righteously assured of one’s own integrity will not generate followers, especially when others present a case more appealing to more, ordinary people.

I sometimes wonder if the inability amongst the intelligent to properly consider an alternative opinion stems from choosing to mix too much with others of their ilk. They may consider that the rest of the population is too stupid to see things as they do but, in a democracy, that matters. If the movers and shakers wish to change things then they require support. Support will not be forthcoming if the best they can do is to shout ‘You are wrong!’.

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Good or evil and why?

How others see me

It is rare to be offered an unvarnished insight into how we are seen by others. Our perceptions of the world around us determine our individual realities; our views will be coloured not just by our life experiences but by those whose opinions we seek out and respect. How we ourselves are seen by these people will rarely be verbalised in any detail. We make assumptions based on snippets of conversation, comments and isolated actions. Others are forming their views in the same way.

Friends will rarely feel able to be too critical for fear of being hurtful. We are fond of our friends and accept those aspects of them that we consider to be faults. We are encouraged to accept those around us as they are and not to try to change them. It is likely that our closest friends will share many of our views anyway as we will generally choose to spend time with those who have similar concerns and interests to us. We are much more likely to offer encouragement and affirmation than criticism; differing opinions will be kept to ourselves or offered gently to avoid causing offence.

Those who are not our friends or who do not know us so well are more likely to be critical but, as they will be basing their opinions on scraps of information gleaned from a few, superficial comments or brief encounters, can more easily be excused or disregarded. It is too easy to misconstrue a few words or actions when context is not properly understood. Insight can still be gained from strangers and their perceptions can be interesting and informative, but most of us will look to those who know us a little better; who we care about and admire; for guidance.

Yesterday I was quite shocked to be told by a long standing and highly intelligent friend that he considered me to be a dupe of a political fallacy that was pernicious and extreme. He believed that I had been conned and did not ‘buy’ my claims to reasonableness. I will mull over the discussion we were having and his explanations for this view of me in due course but, almost more interesting, was my reaction to his bluntly stated opinion. His view of me is so at odds with my view of myself; it is a valuable lesson in complacency.

In just about every area of my life I strive to be reasonable. I try to be open to all sides of an argument and to look at a situation from varying points of view; to be balanced in my opinion and accepting that I cannot see all sides; to bear in mind that I cannot be in possession of all the facts and could, therefore, be incorrect in some of my assumptions. To be told that I am seen as a dupe was unexpected. I was, of course, aware that we follow different political ideologies; I guess I just did not expect the rather scathing, personal put downs.

Our exchange of views happened in the worst possible place for such an interesting discussion – on Facebook. Social networks do not lend themselves well to philosophical debate. However, in this instance I feel that I have probably been exposed to a more honest opinion than had we been face to face. I think that it would have been difficult for him to have been quite so blunt had we not been separated by the impersonal internet. His view may have come as a bit of a blow to my self esteem but it was, nonetheless interesting. I wonder how many other people see my supposedly carefully considered opinions as deluded.

If nothing else, this has been a useful lesson in social interaction. This friend and I are unlikely to ever agree on a political ideology, but I do not see this as a barrier to friendship. His apparently low opinion of me on the other hand could be, but only if I let it. I guess that is why we are so wary of letting others understand what we really think of them when these thoughts are negative. He suggested that I was being sensitive and I suspect that he is right although not for the reasons he articulated. My challenge now is to work through what was said, to learn from it and to move on.

I have been hurt by the comments made but only because I need to work out if I consider them to be true. I know that my friend did not mean to be mean; he is too lovely a person for that. My personal perceptions of myself have been called into question and that is not easy to deal with. I do not wish to be considered a fool when I put so much effort into expanding my knowledge and seeking to acquire understanding. That others may have such a low opinion of me is a hard lesson to learn.

opinion