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A Call to Action

A few months ago, I wrote about a book called ‘Together: 10 Choices for a Better Now’ by the Turkish journalist Ece Temelkuran, which I want to revisit one last time this week to highlight some of the other thought-provoking ideas that featured in her writing.  If we want to encourage our young people to become more engaged with citizenship and to play a genuine role as facilitators of change, we need to keep trying to develop their ability to think more deeply about the world around them, to which Temelkuran’s ideas would undoubtedly contribute.

Older readers may be familiar with the Monty Python sketch where a man pays money to have an argument.  For the most part this just consists of a back and forth of contradictions, but at one point the man who wants to engage in debate makes the point that an argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition, later adding that it is an intellectual process, while contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of anything the other person says.  To which, of course, the reply is simply, ‘No, it isn’t.’

They say you should never argue with an idiot – either because they will drag you down to their level and beat you with their experience or because onlookers may struggle to work out which is which.  George Bernard Shaw said, ‘Never wrestle with a pig.  You both get dirty, but the pig enjoys it.’ 

A recent survey reported by the BBC found that six per cent of people claim that they believe everything they read on the internet, which feels decidedly worrying.  In such circumstances, we are struggling to create an environment where people can debate ideas without the so-called Godwin’s Law being applied – ‘As a discussion on the internet grows longer, the likelihood of a person being compared Hitler or another Nazi increases.’

This point is developed in ‘Together’, with the example of trying to persuade someone who believes the Earth is flat that it is in fact round – or spheroid or ovoid, or whatever shape it is.  How can we convince them?  We could show them a satellite photo of our planet, but they reply confidently, ‘Oh, that’s Photoshopped.’  So we tell them we went into space with several friends and saw with our own eyes that the Earth is round.  They smirk, ‘We know who you are.  You’re a conman, you’re one of those fake news guys.’  Now we’re really angry.  We spend all of our money to rent a spaceship and take the doubter to space, let them see for themselves that the Earth is indeed round.  But with the spotless self-assurance of the ignorant, they say, ‘Well, I believe otherwise.’

Temelkuran highlights how over the last few decades our politics has been infantilised to cast emotions as the leading actors of our lives and social interactions.  What you like or hate is the question, not what you think or what you know.  What you believe is the answer, never mind what the truth is.  She says that this is convenient for the owners of digital gardens because expressing emotion is a never-ending occupation.  As in the argument with the flat-earther, there is no end to a disagreement based on faith and feeling: everything must be restated and restated, and, when fact fails, even the logical resort to frustrated emotion, while the profit wheel continues to turn.

She explains that she is still the same at heart: ‘A Strong Critic of Capitalism’ – as people call her – and supportive of the theory that humanity should drop its obsession with economic growth, that the world can live with a less active metabolism.  Like any other sane person, she says, she opposes the extractivism that carves out the planet’s guts for raw material, and the rating of humans according to their economic merits. 

We are reminded that in the summer of 2020, people were beginning to worry about the economic aftermath of the pandemic more than the rising death toll.  The bored middle classes were finished with the bread-baking and tomato-applauding phase of lockdown, and most of us were busy protecting our small lives from what we thought was the greatest ever crisis of capitalism, even though it was not remotely comparable to the destructive banking crisis of 2008. 

Temelkuran goes on to explain that the more recent catastrophe was about unsustainable, grotesque inequality, which is impossible to fix with a government bailout.  The temporary virus-induced halt to the global economy was not the reason for the crisis, but the catalyst for the disaster.  Those who understood the economy, and knew the history of key economic indicators, were comparing the level of inequality to that experienced before the First World War.  Before anyone had thought about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the author presciently predicted that capitalism has a habit of overcoming its crises through international conflict.

The problem since the pandemic, she continues, is that the vast majority of people simply do not understand the ultra-complicated universe of the economy, leaving us with no way to describe the wall that we were about to hit, let alone plan to avoid it.  We had for the most part become so nonchalant in our ignorance about finance over the last few decades that, by the twenty-first century, we could hardly think of a solution better than recycling or buying organic to save the world from apocalyptic shambles.

‘Happiness is the knowledge of having enough’, the author quotes from Kurt Vonnegut, continuing that at the end of Europe’s strange Covid summer holiday, when we all began to realise the terrifying economic reality of our time indoors, she was reading Vonnegut’s definition of happiness and asking the question, ‘What is enough?’  As opposed to what many might assume, capitalism does not operate in a closed loop of manufactured desire and the constant satisfaction of that same desire. 

In fact, she argues, the system operates with the fear of satisfaction at its core.  Capitalism has encrypted within every individual a belief that: ‘The moment I am satisfied, my existence will be invalid.’  It is not the myth of happiness that drives us.  Instead, the perpetual motion machine of unhappiness makes us active collaborators with the system, and she points out that we need to remember that the opposite of more is not less, but enough.

Finally, Temelkuran says that we are all beginning to realise that this time things are serious enough to demand our attention.  It might benefit all of us to realise that systematically forcing the individual to misplace their attention is a hallmark of fascism.  Its unending bizarre spectacles, and the reaction to each of those infinite absurdities, exhausts the individual, finally beating them into an irreversible daze.  Maybe, she says, we need to understand that we are now all in a survival state and there is no room left for anger. 

Her conclusion is that only rightly placed attention can cancel out these distractions while enabling us to focus our gaze on the heart of the problem.  This attention will allow us to see the main arteries of our predicament, identifying how they course through the body politic of our day-to-day lives.  Only by directing our unblinking gaze at the workings of the political machine can we avoid being dazed by the mesmerising yet insignificant representations that we are offered every day. 

Last week, I concluded with George Orwell’s thoughts from ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ that the failures of the masses to see what was being done to them allowed the powers that be a free hand to dominate.  Seventy years later, Telmelkuran essentially makes the same point when she says that attention can enable us to see clearly the questions of our age, weeding out the infuriating spectacles manufactured to keep us busy.  It is only when our attention is intact that we can find the serenity of mind to look around and see those who are in need of genuine solidarity: those who are silently suffering behind their forced smiles – an argument that I certainly found to be a powerful rallying cry.

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