Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Shake It All About

Non-British readers may want to sit this one out. Although, on reflection, as most of you are either American or European, maybe you do need to read on. Listen: in a few short weeks, democracy in Britain will be tested to destruction. Are we IN, or are we OUT? Let The People decide! Worryingly, though, we are talking about the British people here, who widely favour the return of capital punishment, conscription, and the flogging of minors with bundles of birch twigs (no, we're not talking about saunas here). All things which a patrician, out-of-touch political class have superciliously denied us for too long.

Back in 2011 I wrote a post which, among other things, pointed out that playing the piano is impossible. My point was not really that playing the piano is impossible – I have witnessed people doing it and I am convinced they were not fooling me in any way – but that I can't play the piano, and find the basic moves of piano-playing sufficiently baffling as to imagine that one might be tempted to seek explanations of alleged pianistic ability that started from the presumption that nobody else can really play one, either, in the same way one has to presume that illusionists like David Blaine or Derren Brown are not actually possessed of magic powers. In other words, that it is far too easy, and a false kind of democratisation, to set ourselves up as the only true measure of everything; that "the world shrinks when we judge and limit others by our own capacities, and that a lowest common denominator society would be one without the Waldstein sonata". Phew. Much easier to say that playing the piano is impossible, with a suitable nudge and a wink. That's irony, that is.

There is a companion error, also very common and pretty much the other side of the same coin, and one to which the educated and in particular those of a scientistic bent are prone. That is, to mistake the facts of a matter for the thing itself. Let's stick to pianos. To know the principles underlying the mechanism of a piano – how pressing the keys causes the little felt hammers to strike the strings – or how the acoustic properties of different thicknesses and tensions of piano wire relate to differing pitches of notes, and how these notes correspond to the layout of the piano keyboard... None of these will enable you to play the piano. No amount of fact-gathering, hypothesis forming, statistical analysis, or focus-group consensus-building will substitute for sitting in front of the damned thing and learning – or failing to learn – how to play it. It's a difficult, long-term, whole-body-and-mind experience, not usefully broken down into its component parts.

OK, enough about pianos. It's really the competing campaigns over whether or not the United Kingdom should leave the European Community – shortly to be decided in a simple "yes or no" referendum – that have brought all this to mind. Obviously, it makes perfectly good sense to inform oneself of the facts, weigh them one against another, and come to an informed decision. Yes or no? In or out? Sadly, there is no "shake it all about" option*, or indeed any sort of "Yes, but...", which is what I'd like to vote for. It is a huge decision, best made rationally, as all huge decisions should be; I'm sure some similarly cool assay is exactly how you chose your life partner or profession, isn't it? You gathered all the available data in an open-minded way, and measured them against your own weighted criteria, keeping an eye open for prejudice, confirmation bias, statistical outliers, regression to the mean, and all those other enemies of enlightened decision making? Didn't you?

Yeah, right. Now, if we're talking facts, it is certainly a fact that, by inexplicably failing to hitch up with a wealthy heiress, I condemned myself to 30 unnecessary years of wage-slavery. Idiot! If only I had been more fully-informed of the risks then I might have demanded, after a few exploratory dates, that any prospective life-partner open up her family's accounts for inspection. That would have been rational, wouldn't it? No time-wasters! But, incredibly, there never was any such weighing of pros and cons of any kind, no "due diligence", no audit of assets and resources, as was customary in mediaeval dynastic match-making negotiations. We just, you know, did it. So to speak. Foolishly, as is self-evident to the coolly appraising eye of hindsight, I allowed heart to rule over head, and paid the price.

So, talking of heart over head, personally – on balance, all things being equal, this being a Wednesday – I favour staying in the EC. But I couldn't really say why. Other than the fact that I look at the people who want to come out and just know: this is not my tribe. Although, confusingly, I'm pretty sure it was my tribe that used to want to leave, once upon a time. You can tell that Jeremy Corbyn (current leader of the Labour Party, elected in a prank that went too far) is still confused about this, too. After all, who was "right" and who was "wrong" about joining the Euro or the Schengen Agreement? What do "right" and "wrong" even mean in cases like this? I certainly don't know. But if it were up to me to run the "remain in" campaign there is one simple thing I would do. I would make a huge poster showing all the prominent "Brexiters" – Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Ian Duncan Smith, Nigel Farage, George Galloway, the whole sick crew. The caption would be, "REALLY? YOU'RE CHOOSING TO SIDE WITH THESE DINGBATS? ARE YOU SERIOUS??"

Of course, you could try to establish the "facts on the ground", and whether they can be changed by leaving, and what the consequences would be. But facts, in themselves, can be misleading, misunderstood, or manipulated. Facts, piled together, do not make a working model of reality. Have you ever tried to explain to a child how to ride a bike? It doesn't work. There aren't enough "facts" to overcome their fear that it can't be done at all. Like playing the piano, it's impossible! Instead, what it requires is a major leap of faith. But no responsible adult should ever ask a child to take a leap of faith which is not within that child's capabilities, has not been thoroughly prepared for, or adequately safety-tested, or lacks a rescue strategy if it all goes horribly wrong. Obviously, certain facts must be respected. The bike must be the right size. Feet must reach pedals. Kids can't ride through brick walls! These are well-established, solid facts and not opinions, convenient fictions, or helpful white lies. But in a more complex situation like, oh, leaving the EC after 40 years of semi-detached membership, how the hell does anyone establish which "facts" are facts and which are not?

This is the problem with referendums. After centuries of patrician politics, politely masquerading as democracy ("Look, leave all this boring old stuff to us, we'll sort it out for you, though obviously it's your decision in the end. Yes, yes, even conscription, hanging, and the birch!") we, The People, are suddenly being asked to make a life-or-death, black-or-white political choice of enormous complexity. No greys, no process of education, no trial periods, no proofs of principle, no backup strategies, just "Oi, you! Decide! Now!" It's as if two rowing parents were suddenly to turn to their children and demand, "OK, we've got a problem. You decide whether it's serious enough for divorce or not!" In fact, given the decades of barely-suppressed euro-rage simmering within the Conservative Party, that's exactly what it's like.

There is another complication here. The public has changed in recent decades, led by the mass media down two paths which, ultimately, only suit the interests of a small political and financial elite. First, there has been an anti-intellectual infantilization. Slickness of presentation, ease of consumption, surrogate achievements, and superficial charm are now everything: "celebrity culture", in short. Second, although deference to traditional figures of authority has declined – a good thing – there has been no attempt to encourage a corresponding rise in the assumption of responsibility, political or moral, by the general public – bo-ring! Instead, we have seen the cultivation of a complacent inverse snobbery, and a self-centred sense of entitlement shading into grievance. Don't believe me? Put that book down, and watch more mainstream TV. Yes, all those programmes you never watch. And don't forget the adverts! I think you'll find it's really quite a revelation.

Put these two elements together, and you have created a malleable monster: a lazy, fickle, childish electorate, open to manipulation by the promises of smiling charlatans. The irony is that this creature is unpredictable, and won't necessarily vote for the policies or for the smiling charlatans it was supposed to vote for. Enter Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, and a dozen other populist opportunists hoping to exploit an ill-informed, aggrieved populace looking for game-show answers to intractable problems. The political class has let us down: let's give demagoguery a chance! Vote Yes or No NOW, the lines are open! Votes are charged at the standard rate.

Actually, no, the real irony is that so many of these complacent idiots won't even bother to vote. I wonder what's going to be on TV on June 23rd? Anyone willing to bet on a turnout in excess of 60%? Plus, let's be honest: a vote to leave will gratify the left-liberal instinct to be on the losing, oppositional side so much more than a vote to stay within the European Union, an idea so few of us truly believe in, anyway, as currently constituted. How much more satisfying to bleat "I told you so!" from the sidelines for a decade or two!

* To Brits of a certain age, the words "in" and "out" inevitably conjure up a participative group dance known as the Hokey Cokey, performed at weddings and such gatherings. "You put your left [body part] in, your left [body part] out / In, out, in, out, and shake it all about / You do the Hokey Cokey, and you turn around / That's what it's all about!". Hilarity ensues.


Andrew Sharp said...


Your early remarks on the impossibility of piano playing reminded me of the Monty Python sketch taking the piss out of Blue Peter. "Now this is how you play the flute, blow here and move your fingers up and down over the holes"

You'll find that your anti Brexit campaign has been preempted on Facebook with pictures of all the horrible Brexiteers and the simple slogan "do you really want this lot in charge". Unfortunately, it can be easily countered with suitably unflattering photos of the In Crowd.

I heard Chris Patten on the radio the other day. As one Balliol man commenting on another - Boris Johnson - he was clearly not only outraged by, but also deeply ashamed of, the latter's casual relationship with the truth. All that education and all he's learnt is how to try to get his own way.

Wasn't life simpler when the EEC, as then, was just a capitalist club with none of this Social Chapter, workers rights and environmental stuff.

On the emotional side, I've had two trips to the mainland this year - Bruhl in Germany and Brussels - and can't help feeling that this was a civilisation in which I belonged.

Mike C. said...


Johnson worries me, in a post-Trump world... As someone said on TV the other night about Mike Ashley (Sports Direct), we're moving into a post-fact world, where alpha-male bluster and "personality" can override any amount of countering evidence. Bizarrely, I think that someone was Melanie Phillips...

Yes, bastards, with their bloody euro-paternity leave an' that, no wonder Jeremy C. is confused!

Also, yes, go over the channel and you wonder where the litter went... Fascists! Better not bring their clean streets and civilised drinking culture over here!!


Thomas Rink said...

Hmm, if I were British I'd vote for staying 'in'. Not because I'm a huge fan of the current EU (I'm not), but since it seems like the most rational decision. I fear that the dynamics after a Brexit will be unforeseeable and probably lead to undesirable results. This because there is a tangle of interdependencies between the european nations, which makes a plain cause/effect analysis impossible.

Yes, representative democracy is almost kaputt - I agree - and the media may be a joke. But a look over to Poland or Hungary or Spain should show us how precious and vulnerable our system actually is. And don't even get me started about Turkey.

I always feel flattered if I read nice remarks about Germany (thanks, Mr. Andrew Sharp). But if you don't like Farage and Johnson, you probably won't enjoy Petry, von Storch, Höcke and Gauland either.

Best, Thomas

Mike C. said...


The referendum is an unnecessary mess, which will have unpredictable consequences either way (though obviously more so if we vote to leave) which has only come about because of long-standing tensions within the Conservative Party and the perceived threat from UKIP.

The problem is it's a contest between category errors: the "Brexit" people are obsessed by immigration (despite the fact that most immigration is not coming from within the EC, and that "free movement" will inevitably be part any post-exit deal over access to the EC trade zone), the "remain" people are obsessed by the potential damage to the economy. As a consequence, there's no debate to be had...

In case of doubt, I'll be voting for "remain". But, as we used to say when voting Labour, "with no illusions"..


Thomas Rink said...

Mike, do you already know the following joke: An unemployed person, an immigrant and a banker sit around a table, on which are 20 cookies. The banker eats 19 and tells the unemployed person: "Watch the immigrant, he'll take your cookie".

Joking aside - we have an economic crisis which is smouldering for years now. Near east is on fire and we are on the brink of a new Cold War. Let's not forget climate change, too. But immigration and Islam are the end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it, yeah, got it, sure. Don't get me wrong, I don't think that opening the borders for unrestricted immigration was a particularly good idea (but, on the other hand, what would have been the alternative?). But this is something that can be dealt with rather easily. What I don't understand is why the democratic parties try to battle right-wing parties by embracing their political agenda - history has proven over and over that this is will fail, and may harm democracy ...

Best, Thomas

Mike C. said...


Great joke!