Will we die of the populist virus?

Will we die of the populist virus?

A populist virus is with western democracy and we have no vaccine.

The virus is virulent with insidious symptoms that begin with the loss of rhyme and reason flowing seamlessly into early-onset imbecility and then late-stage demagoguery. So far there is no cure for the frat party gone wild.

Unlike the cold and flu virus that mutates away into any number of strains and generates fever, coughs and sore throats enough to put all the men in bed for a week, the populist virus is a dandy thing. It incites bouts of clapping, cheering, and crowdsourced glee at almost anything said by a carrier. As its designation suggests, it goes viral online faster than anything carried by a flea and contaminates all feeds all the time.

Being devoid of content, antibodies have nothing to attach to, making it difficult in the extreme for any would-be medic, not even big pharma has enough resources to find an antidote.

Alistair Campbell, spin doctor and thought machine behind Tony Blair and New Labour from the mid-1990s in the UK, talks about the populist virus and had this to say when considering the choice between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt for the next UK Prime Minister

“I mean, we have gone from figures like Thatcher leading the Tory party to this being the choice. But also, it was the extent to which the really simplistic, populist, fact-free rhetoric was the stuff which was getting the applause. Where even five, 10 years ago, there would have been the absolute howl of ‘How are you going to pay for it? What happens if that doesn’t happen?’

When Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979 I was just about to become a university student. It was a painful time but boy did she get things done. Neo-liberalism was embraced and before anyone really knew what was happening the unions were busted and ordinary folk up and down the UK were buying their terrace house and giving birth to yuppies. Much of this was new and scary and ego-centric but mountains moved.

Likely that the early mutations of the populist virus, the ones with little chance of real success appeared around that time when there were still enough howling to weed them out.

Today we do not have any leaders worthy of the name anywhere except in New Zealand. Consequently, the virus has the freedom to spawn, spread and mess with everyone’s heads so much that people cheer at the detention of women and children in cages at borders.

This is frightening. Not many would look back at the political climate of the UK in the early eighties and lament its strong leadership. At the time it felt like a rape of a socialist ethos, today you would take it in a heartbeat for at least you knew what the leaders were about.

Now we have a virus afflicting normal people with insanity.

Is the populist virus fatal?

Well, we know that populism is doing well and is spreading. Some folk have an innate resistance to it but can still carry it forward to others.

It is pushing evidence and facts to one side as it bends minds away from even the most obvious of conclusions. It means we are running blind into a world that is still adding 8,000 new people per hour and where 3.3 billion souls are getting by on $5.50 per day.

The estimate from the agricultural research community is that by 2030 we need to increase global grain production by over a billion tonnes and meat production by 180 million tonnes, just to get close to the rising demand. That’s 2% per annum food production growth across the board each and every year for a generation. Just because we achieved such a miracle once before in the 1940s and 50s, does not mean we can automatically do it again.

Blindness is not necessarily fatal unless you think you can see. Then you can easily walk out in front of a bus.

The real difficulty with this virus seems to be the antidote. What to take to reduce the effects of imbecility. On this problem, everyone is at a loss, even Jacinta.

Progressives are old and tired and the centre is scurrying to the populist left to express the symptoms of the virus there.

Fringe alternatives are unable to grasp the magnitude of the task for the mainstream – we can’t all live on a mountaintop on goats milk.

The ivory towers are mute and even George Monbiot is struggling to find a whinge.

You know what? I think maybe we will collapse under the weight of this virus or a subsequent mutation of it.

At the very least too many of us will succumb after two terms of Donald, another two of Ivanka, even five minutes of Boris, and become rabid, spreading infection out to the entire world.

But I have a solution…

Get everyone to read The Courage to be Disliked by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga and inoculate ourselves with some Adlerian psychology.

The awareness chasm

The awareness chasm

Take yourself to a glacier in the Alps.

It is a fine spring day and you are descending toward the green pastures in the valley below. The ice is slippery as the sun beats down on it but all is well as your experienced guide has filled everyone on your trek with confidence and humour.

As the smell of the fields reaches your nostrils the guide stops and raises her hand.

In front of you the glacier has inched forward and cracked right across the chosen path. It has opened a bottomless hole toward the earth two meters wide. In the few hours since your party passed this way the glacier just reminded everyone that they are standing on a frozen river.

What happens if you try to cross this chasm?

There are no ropes or ladders or material for a bridge. You will have to jump.

Realistically, only one of two things can happen.

Success or failure, the latter bringing certain pain and likely death.

What to do then? Take the risky leap or walk an unknown distance around the obstacle? Perhaps decide that either option is too scary and staying where you are is the safest choice.

There is something similar hidden in the minds of consumers.

They stand on one side of a mental chasm where the milk and meat come from the fridge in aisle 3. On the other side is what it takes to breed, feed and slaughter the livestock to actually produce the milk and the mince.

The same applies to aisle 1 where the bread is stacked. How it gets there is on the other side of a mental chasm. Most of us eating the smashed avocado on sourdough toast know very little about where the deliciousness came from beyond the Blue Moon cafe on the high street.

Only the glacier analogy is a poor one.

Consumers are not on a trek. They don’t perceive the awareness gap at all and whilst there are supermarkets with produce and checkouts there is no need to even think about it. So long as a proportion of household income allocated to food, usually somewhere around 10 to 15%, is available in their current account, it is easy to tap away and load the SUV with the weekly shop. No questions asked.

Now we should say that these generalisations apply to the billion or so people who are at level 4 in Hans Rosling’s development scale, the people that live on more than $64 per day. The 6.5 billion humans on levels 1, 2 and 3 who must survive on less than this are far more aware. Those on level 1 with less than $1 per day of income, acutely so.

However, most of the money flows via those in level 4 and so the supply chain is designed for them. It is long and complex. It makes it possible for seasonal fruits to be on the shelves in all seasons with only modest price fluctuations.

Supply chains mean the shelves and fridges are well stocked and it means that there is no need to even think that a chasm exists let alone be in a position to have to cross it unaided.

There is a chasm of scale though between the individual consumer and the system of production. Most people on level 4 don’t know it exists but they should.

Why they don’t is both practical and psychological. Most city dwellers have never even been on a farm, let alone understand what it takes to run one. They are consumers not producers and fair dues. It is enough to know how to select the cut of meat, roast it with sliced fennel and serve with a red wine jus.

It is also important to the psyche to know that there is food in the supermarket at all times. No need to worry or hoard produce. Just rock up and tap your card. Sustenance is a base need that seems surprisingly easy to cheat. We are too easily fooled that supply chain to the supermarket will always work. We don’t see a psychological chasm of food insecurity at all any more, even though this was a primal driver for our ancestors and for over half the global population still.

It may be that this psychological chasm of food security has to open up before we realise it is there.

Instead we have an awareness chasm. Only there is no reason for us to cross. It’s just a precipitous gap in the ice that looks dangerous.

Everything we need is on our side so meh, why worry?

Johnny Clegg 1953-2019

Johnny Clegg 1953-2019

In February 1990 Nelson Mandela was released from prison. For me, it meant I could now travel across the border from my home in Botswana to visit the fantastic country of South Africa. I went many times over the next few years often to Sun City in Bophuthatswana.

Beyond my own minuscule protest, I was not really present to the truth of what was happening until on one visit to Sun City I saw Johnny Clegg perform. I knew a little of his music but not much about him other than he was one of the few white musicians to integrate himself fully into black Africa.

Near the middle of the set, he introduced what he said was a new song called ‘The Crossing’ dedicated to his friend Dudu Ndlovu who was assassinated during the apartheid struggle. It talks about how the spirit crosses over, the spirit of a friend.

I am playing it now and cannot control the sobs for this truth cradles the soul.

Many years later when Johnny Clegg came to Australia I went to see him play in Sydney.

Older and wiser, and now very familiar with his music, I realised that this man was pure of heart and soul, his songs and his presence letting the world know of his love for his fellow man and for Africa, a love that we should all embrace.

Johnny Clegg passed away this week of pancreatic cancer at the age of 66.

My tears are in sadness and memory of a musician and a man that helped me understand part of my own journey.

They are also in thanks for his life and his music that blessed this earth.

Are we busier these days?

Are we busier these days?

Are we actually busier than in the past

I’m constantly told that everyone is busy. We have so much to do that there is no time to do anything more. Everyone is busy, busy, busy, full, chockers, not a moment to spare.

Every time somebody asks you to do something, the request will begin “I know you’re busy but…”

Only, is this actually true? Are we actually busier today than we were in the past?

Certainly, we have more distractions these days. Barely a minute goes by without a ping to notify us of a crucial message and it is now compulsory to have at least two internet-compatible devices at your disposal whilst watching Netflix on the big-screen TV.

So yes, there is a lot going on.

But let’s go back a while to our ancestors, maybe 20,000 years before there was any serious agriculture. In these times people were very busy indeed.

Failure to be busy meant starvation for they had to be out looking for food all the time. And they couldn’t be lax, for failure to be vigilant at all times meant that either the predator with large teeth or the tribe with sharp spears threatened your life. There was barely a moment when it was safe to switch off and simply gaze at the stars. Our hunter-gatherer forebears were very busy, they had to be.

Now let’s come forward in time to 100 years before the Industrial Revolution, say around 1650 when Oliver Cromwell was fighting a civil war and Istanbul was the largest city in the world. There was no electricity, no running water, only basic sanitation, and almost all the amenities of life required active business. Agriculture was organised and provided people with food but it also sucked in their labour and, as with the times of hunting and gathering, failure to be busy meant you starved. Folk in the Middle Ages were very busy indeed.

Just 100 years ago during the first World War when vehicles, industry, bullets, and bombs had arrived in the west, people still had a lot to do just to maintain themselves. They had jobs but the low wages meant they had to work all hours just to get enough money to buy food and clothing they needed. They sent their kids to work as soon as they could stand upright and never knew if there would be enough. Even these early beneficiaries of the industrial revolution had things to do.

You could argue that electricity and the myriad of technology that goes with it made many of the time sucking chores of the past fly off into the distance. Today, the average westerner no longer has to spend time scrubbing his clothes by hand, tilling the fields, chopping wood for the fire or raising and slaughtering the goat. But instead, we are busy, busy, busy with…

Well, nothing really.

We are busy working just like all those who went before us and then we are busy entertaining ourselves.

It seems as though we have no time and we are constantly on the go but the reality is that this is a choice. We actually choose to be busy for today we don’t have to be that busy at all.

We could work enough just to live simply.

We could put the devices away and chat or gaze at the stars.

We could spend time doing nothing.

We could… and this is the difference. In the past, people could not.

Get real people

Get real people

I am currently reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany by William L. Shirer, a tome that chronicles the rise and fall of Nazi Germany from the birth of Adolf Hitler in 1889 to the end of World War II in 1945, some 1,200+ pages of sobering reality.

A chronicler that lived through the historical events he recounts has a unique perspective that is close but not necessarily intimate with them. He can be criticised on fact, sequence and detail. There will also be problems when opinion and, in this chronicle, horror at the events inevitably creep in. However, it is a history and one that we should all read for its own sake and because it is highly relevant to our present times.

Halfway through the book, the point at which Hitler has ordered the invasion of Poland, the fateful decision that forced the British and the French to declare war on Germany, there is a matter of fact note of the panzer divisions and the Luftwaffe securing a swift victory over the Polish defences.

There is much to be remembered about that fateful period in September 1939 but there is a footnote in Shirer’s account that resonated deeply when I read it.

He notes that the official records of German casualties were 10,572 killed, 30,322 wounded and 3,400 missing.

Pause for a moment to take in those numbers.

Then recall that this is the army that won in a highly successful and soon to be repeated blitzkrieg. Yet still, tens of thousands of German mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers were devastated with grief, over 50,000 families irrevocably scarred, and this was just the first skirmish.

Unimaginable horrors were inflicted on the Polish people in those first few days of the war and many ever more evil acts followed. It is unimaginable what life became when there were bombs whistling down from the sky and tanks rumbling past your front door.

Do not kid yourself that such fear will never be felt again.

Do not think that we are safe from tyranny and evil.

We are not safe.

We must be vigilant for those German families did not see it coming and neither do we.

Steadily the safeguards that humanity put in place are being eroded. We have politicians that are both gutless and a law unto themselves.

We have media that operate as powerful influencers with lies and deceit.

We face resource shortfalls that will test food and water security for billions of people and we have little idea of how to resolve them.

So we need to wake up.

Recall of vegan foods because they might contain dairy is, seriously, the least of our worries.

Do you bullshit?

Do you bullshit?

“People are social animals and we desire feelings of connection, belonging, and inclusion, so we try to participate when it is critical to build and maintain these relationships. Such situations sometimes require us to talk about things we really know nothing about, and what comes out is bullshit.”

John Petrocelli, a psychologist at Wake Forest University, North Carolina.

Oh my lordy. Isn’t that just the truth.

How many times have you been in a bar with a bunch of blokes and they are full of it? White lies, porkies and scandalous nonsense abound from the time they were in a brothel in Bali to the time they drove it past the fairway bunker on the 8th at the country club.

Bullshit, not even DJ hits it that far.

The problem though, is that we all do it. And we don’t need a skinful before we start harping on about Higgs bozons with quantum excitement or that we once met Agent Smith in the bar at the Sydney opera house.

We are also keen to pass it forward.

Apparently, around 60% of Facebook and Twitter posts are shared without clicking through, meaning that we read just the headline and not the article. Good work people, share the love.

Whilst it might hum a little, most bullshit is fairly harmless. It generates mild benefit to the spreader and an equivalent warm and wet feeling to the recipients, most of whom will have a sensitivity meter reading available. The meter goes off and deflects any further slurries.

This is true for most of the social animal situations John Petrocelli quotes.

Increasingly though the shit is indeed spreading.

There are a number of folk pointing out that more and more people, especially those in the media and in politics, are using bullshit to sell their positions.

The US Kindle store returns over 230 titles for a search on ‘post truth politics’

Post-truth politics, a political culture in which debate is framed largely by appeals to emotion disconnected from the details of policy, and by the repeated assertion of talking points to which factual rebuttals are ignored.

It’s a thing.

And it’s a big thing because if you are a politician and you lie, a miracle happens: people believe you. And if they believe you then it wasn’t a lie, it was the truth.

So do you bullshit?

You do of course. The thing is, do you do it to feel good, be part of the group and spread it harmlessly onto a small fan or do you engage in it to influence, change people’s minds and bend them to your will.

Have a think about it because it actually matters.

Why we are besotted with cute animals

Why we are besotted with cute animals

Gogglebox is a popular TV show in Australia. Turns out that ‘watching people on TV watching TV’ is actually a clever and cheap way to capture the intensity of emotions that the producers of television entertainment have wet dreams about.

It happened this week when we watched people watching a show about a zoo in the UK where a giraffe, pregnant for 14 months, gave birth on film. The 60-kilo youngster entered the world from a great height and lay still on the ground for an eternity.

Was it alive?

Did the fall break its neck?

Was it stillborn?

Oh my god, will it breathe? Breathe, please breathe.

Look! There, there, its nostrils are twitching.

It’s alive. Thank heaven it’s alive. Pass the tissues.

I kid you not. These were the reactions of the Goggleboxers and no doubt most of the viewers who saw the show when it went to air. It’s why the producers made it. They knew there would be a deep reaction and they knew they had gold as soon as the birthing footage was in.

Rather than scurry along with the psychology of the entertainment industry, the healthy thinking idea today is what makes us so attached to animals and to birth in particular.

Consider the giraffe

Back in the day, we ate giraffes. At least we would if we could catch them.

An adult giraffe is hard to pull down with primitive tools and the more manageable youngster has its mother with dinner plate sized hooves to help protect it. Even lions find it hard to kill a giraffe, so no doubt our ancestors did too, but they would have tried. Cuteness did not overcome the desire to eat.

Somewhere along the way cuteness grew or, as seems more likely, hunger withdrew. As soon as we had agriculture and food supply chains then it was much easier to build cuteness into our lives. We even started to keep pets, perhaps in response to our insatiable need for human relationships, especially those between parent and child.

How many lap dogs are obviously surrogate kids that behave themselves?

Cuteness in animals is because they can look like babies. The cutest pets tend to be small, have forward facing eyes, are unconditionally needy, and fluffy or, as in the case of the giraffe on Gogglebox, newborn. Many of these attributes can generate more satisfaction than the real thing and are excellent surrogates for people who either have grown up children or none at all.

This is the key. Animals are just like babies.

Their cuteness is attractive. And it sticks thanks to that unconditionality that all animals have, even the giraffe caged in a zoo. The animal is controlled and cannot hurt us.

As visitors, we can smile, sigh ahh, say a few squishy words, whiff the dung and move on.

In return, it looks at us with those doughy eyes and we think it loves us. Well, it does love its keepers because they bring a regular supply of food.

You can’t go past the unconditional affection from a dog, even the pretend aloofness of a cat. And then they are soft and cuddly, wow.

The reality is we love animals, the cute ones, not the yukky creepy crawly ones. And surely this reality is of little consequence. All it means is that we will have pets, keep animals in zoos and pay money to ensure that the koala can be saved.

We love animals

This love is hard-wired. It is not going away.

These days people would starve before they could knock the baby giraffe on the head and roast its leg. And if they were mad enough to do it, they would go to prison and suffer a slow death by social media.

So we love them. It is a given.

Now let’s think about what that means…

  1. There will be pets, lots of them, just shy of 90 million dogs in the US alone and growing in number by over 1 million per year
  2. We will prefer to protect koalas because you can hold them and their fur is soft but maybe not polar bears so much, and elephants less than bears
  3. It is unlikely that we will ever consider it important to protect insects
  4. We will have to ignore the fact that before we ate its rump, the cow was cute(ish) and that venison was… no, you can’t say it.

Even if you go past the obvious contradictions, we have ourselves a problem.