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Join the dots: Marlon Brando, AGW, the next Olympics, Dan Brown and Wikileaks? (Clue: “What are you afraid of?”…”What do you got?”)

December 6, 2010

As is often the case, my inspiration for this piece comes from a Guardian article by someone called Steve Rose: Are the 2012 Olympics part of a plot to take over the world? It’s vaguely amusing I suppose; I’m really not going to spend much time on it, but the gist is that some pretty strange people believe the whole shebang in East London is a front for – wait for it – a world government to be formed in response to a ‘fake’ alien invasion to be staged during the 2012 Olympics. More layers of paranoia than you could shake an onion at.

I’m reading this after a quick look at another Guardian climate change thread – the same one I commented on yesterday – and after the inevitable depression at the sheer banality of the comments (not to mention the irrationality) it was good to find something that wore it’s stupidity on its sleeve, as it were. But I couldn’t help but notice the connection between the articles, and a theory I have about society that is hard to articulate without appearing elitist in some way: an awful lot of people aren’t very well educated.

* * * * *

Look, I’m as humble as any man who understands mortality should be. Dust to dust: will my name – anything at all about me – be remembered 100 years after my death. A thousand? Of course not. This temporary flash of light is so brief, and so intrinsically unimportant, that to consider myself as anything but a fleeting mirage of sentience hosting a staggeringly limited perception of reality, would be pretty stupid. I refuse to be that daft, or that self-important.

That said, if you don’t understand the journey your life has taken, if you are not prepared to evaluate both the route you took and the number of times you got lost, there is no way of measuring ‘progress’ – however you define it. (For me, it’s a spiritual matter, one of cohesion between my actions, my heart, my head, and anything else that makes me ‘me’. I’ve never liked the notion of talking the talk without walking the walk).

Intelligence and its application through education serve, in my life, a most vital function. When I was young, I existed in a dual state of belligerent confidence and abject terror, alternating between the two with unnervingly predictable unpredictability. I discovered only one way to counter the terrible anxiety of my youth, and that was to educate myself out of it. My fears were dark, formless things that usually turned out to be nothing but shadows, no substance at all. I have observed several things about these states of terror: as guilt must attach itself to a past we cannot change, so anxiety feeds off a future we cannot predict.

A simple example of the discipline I employed to counter anxiety is this; as a young man I would worry a lot about things like paying my bills. After spending days, weeks or even months agonising over the terrible shame, the nameless humiliations and all the other formless things that would no doubt lead inexorably to my public shaming in a debtor’s court,  the loss of my home, my car, my wife, my few valued possessions, the desertion of all my friends…you get the idea…after all that self-inflicted fear, I would look back a year later and think – “hold on a mo…nothing’s actually happened at all. I found the money, paid the phone bill. What the hell was I worrying about?” Five days later, I would be plunged into a new bout of abject terror when the next gas bill landed on the mat.

It doesn’t require too much introspection to see this is a pretty daft state of affairs, a vicious circle of self-inflicted wounds. It is, of course, a habit; a way of thinking that becomes so familiar there is even a certain comfort in it. I’m not going to stray into cod-psychology here, but suffice to say I sorted this out not by seeking therapy, but simply by not bothering to worry so much. It might appear to be irresponsible to shrug and ignore the future, but when you let the future take care of itself, you have more energy and attention to give to the present, and this makes more sense that fretting over issues that cannot yet be resolved. (Later, when I constructed an analytical method of evaluating business performance on the basis of a company having a finite amount of energy, and analysing how that energy was being used or abused, I also realised that personal anxiety can be quite disabling, since the energy I’m using to worry about stuff is energy I can’t use to address the things I’m worrying about).

* * * * *

I’ve always believed that education is something we should pursue all our lives. It’s too easy to claim we don’t have the time, but I’m hard pressed personally to find anything more important than growth: in nature things are either growing or dying – I don’t think there is anything between those two states, any kind of stasis in which there is neither growth nor decay. All the time I’m making the effort to grow, I can foster a sense of rebellion against what I call my one ‘true’ fact; I’m going to die, the only thing I know with absolute certainty. (I feel obliged to say at this point that my one ‘true’ fact is very helpful to me, and not the least bit morbid. I have not found a better way of lifting myself out of anxiety, depression, any moody old nonsense I indulge in from time to time, than to remind myself this is my one go, my one ticket to ride. Asking myself if this is really how I want to experience the roller-coaster – looking inward and feeling bad about it – usually snaps me out of it).

The auto-didactic nature of my life is also a measure of necessity, since my formal education was a fucking waste of time (for the most part, certain exceptions granted). I knew pretty early I was just being fitted to a menial role in the industrial machine, and those paying for my education – commercial interests – would also limit their investment to the barely sufficient. As I’ve written elsewhere on this subject:

When our education is so circumscribed we are, in effect, turned out as damaged goods. Where we could have been made strong, individual, independent, free-thinking, class-free and non-conformist, we are instead turned into headless chickens with the balance of a banana. The historian AJP Taylor wrote: “All change in history, all advance, comes from the non-conformists. If there had been no troublemakers, no dissenters, we should still be living in caves.” This point is obviously lost on those who decide the criteria for state education.

House of Mirrors’ (PDF)

Damaged goods? What kind of damage? The same damage ignorance always causes; fear, superstition, anxiety, violence, hatred, bigotry – you name it, ignorance will be a staunch supporter. If you have an interest in history, you will know that much of it is replete with tales of terrible intolerance, appalling acts. It seems clear to me that much of it is motivated by fear, and the reaction to it that causes people to attempt the truly impossible – to make today just like yesterday. Why else would religions persecute science? Or Republicans? There can be nothing inherently bad about knowledge, nothing evil or inappropriate. Why would we not embrace it wholeheartedly, knowing that the very breath of life is found in understanding, enrichment through exploration? The answer is that we are afraid, and that fear is of the unknown. In human terms, the unknown is Hegel’s ‘the other’ – anyone who is perceived as different from us. In broader terms, the unknown is the relentless flux of the universe around the static position of our awareness, for we exist in a single, perpetual moment.

Here we have two threads inescapably drawn into the shoddiest cloth – bad education and nameless anxieties.  We are not well educated, and we know far less than we ever believe (Dunning-Kruger and all that), unless we get to the satisfying point my father told me about when I was young: when you know enough to realise how little you know, or will ever understand (a good starting point for an education). And our faux-education imbues in us a shallow confidence that turns to anxiety under the slightest duress. Truly, for many of us, the most powerful force working within us is terror.

* * * * *

I’m near the end of this little venture. I dragged Brando into this because, as with growing disbelief I read the ‘Alien Olympics’ article, it reminded me of so many people who believe climate change is a conspiracy of some sort, and indeed all the people world-wide who believe in similar fearful things, hence the paraphrased version of Johnny’s expedient ambivalence: “What are you afraid of?”…“What do you got?”.

It reminded me of 9/11 troofers, who believe their own government conspired to destroy the twin towers, for a dazzling array of reasons and motives. (They have this in common with climate change deniers, who depend on a most bewildering, and deeply inconsistent, range of theories). In fact, the amount of anxiety expressed in daily life rather shocks me. This is from the same article:

In a 2006 poll by Scripps Howard/Ohio University, 36% of Americans agreed that the US government was either involved in the 9/11 attacks or did nothing to stop them. Another poll by Zogby in 2007 put the proportion at 26.4%. Then again, polls this year also found that 18% of Americans believe Barack Obama is a Muslim and 27% believe he was born outside the US. Public credulity seems to be at an all-time high, or reliable information at an all-time low. For the conspiracy hardcore, though, 9/11, the London 7/7 attacks and other terrorist incidents are what’s known as “false flag” operations; hoax attacks designed to advance the conspirators’ agenda, and the London Olympics plot is the next one.

It isn’t just credulity in my opinion. The willingness to embrace the irrational – evidence is the last thing any of these theories have to support them – is a sign of the times, and perhaps of all times. The astounding success of The Da Vinci Code – one of the worst written books I’ve read (part of) in my life – is, I believe, testament to the resonance of its conspiracy-laden plot with the lives and anxieties of the people who bought it in such huge numbers. People like this feel like victims, and are reassured when their victimhood is brought into focus, put in a context of helplessness against an array of forces so terrible, so secret, so well disguised and ruthless in purpose, what chance can any individual have? Surely there is no escape from the forces of evil that seek at every turn to do something bad to me?

What makes things worse is that when you lift your head out of Dan Brown’s fetid little one-plot world, you find you’re up to your neck in something strikingly similar, very real, and disturbingly sinister. There is nothing left to the imagination when you read the Wikileaks files; personally I’m neither shocked nor titillated by the ‘revelations’, since if you read history you will know that there really isn’t anything new in all this, with the exception of how easy it was to load 250,000 secretive documents onto a device the size of a cocktail sausage.

What joins all the dots? The same fear that drove the Inquisition. The same superstition that drowned ‘witches’. The same ignorance that sparks the mob to violence. There is so little difference between the mobs roaming the dark ages, and the fundamentalists roaming the deserts of the Middle East or the ghettos of urban America, it is hard to suggest we are really much better educated than our forebears. It isn’t our fault: we’ve been sold one almighty pup, and that’s the conspiracy – to keep us in the same meek servitude to profit we’ve always been.

 For many around the globe, there is little difference between the feudalism of Shakespeare’s  time and the present day. For the rest of us, in the so-called ‘developed’ world, we may have developed ways to make a profit for our masters, but we really haven’t developed ourselves very much at all – not if we measure that development by our freedom from irrational fears and the self-contained confidence to embrace change that only genuine knowledge can confer.

Look around, see how many people are still superstitious, still locked into an agrarian mind-set 200 years past its sell-by date. If this is progress, it really is very slow indeed. Perhaps we should attempt to speed things up a bit by being a bit more diligent about how we educate ourselves, trusting less in the state to provide us with our independence, for the state never willingly gives away anything of value .

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16 Comments leave one →
  1. Birgit Kvarnstrom permalink
    December 6, 2010 10:53 am

    So now I am a bit confused about what you do want Graham. On other post you look to the crisis of capitalism but here you are rather critical of the state which “never willingly gives away anything of value .” How do you see a different solution? Would this be the so-called “third way” or are you looking for triangulation?

  2. Graham Wayne permalink*
    December 6, 2010 11:02 am

    Morning Birgit – you’re quick off the mark, my dear.

    I’m afraid we’re both a bit confused now then. I don’t understand what connection you see between the two observations – the latest being that our freedoms are always hard-won, and those in power rarely choose to devolve that power willingly. The crisis of capitalism however is a critique of bad management and flawed systems.

  3. Birgit Kvarnstrom permalink
    December 6, 2010 1:15 pm

    Well I try to be up early and also quick on these cold mornings but that is not always so easy!
    Also I was interested on your comment on being fitted to a menial role in an industrial machine by industrial interests. I think this can happen in many countries rather easily which also is rather sad. I did try to understand the education system in the UK when I was younger but for me it was a bit confusing. There was some so-called grammar schools, which I think is like the Swedish gymnasium, but reducing in number, and then also some comprehensive schools and also public schools (which seems actually to be private!). Do you think all of these try to fit peoples for menial and other roles in society? It is my guess that these so called public schools were more for fitting peoples to roles in the old empire but now they must find a different purpose probably trying to keep all the high positions in the society.

  4. Birgit Kvarnstrom permalink
    December 6, 2010 1:24 pm

    Also I did not reply to your earlier comment. For me it is definitely true that our freedoms are hard won. But can we reduce the power of the state without also using some more a market type system? And if capitalism is bad managed and flawed what can we do?

  5. Jack Savage permalink
    December 7, 2010 12:00 am

    Still appealing to Dunning – Kruger…. will you never learn?

  6. Graham Wayne permalink*
    December 7, 2010 8:19 am

    Coming from you Jack, that’s a pretty ironic remark…

  7. Birgit Kvarnstrom permalink
    December 7, 2010 10:37 am

    I think this comment is not so good, Jack. Graham did write an interesting article and this can be a good starting point for discussion.

  8. Graham Wayne permalink*
    December 7, 2010 10:40 am

    I don’t think Jack wants to discuss anything. It’s so much easier to make trite little remarks than actually be constructive, isn’t it?

  9. Graham Wayne permalink*
    December 7, 2010 10:57 am

    Actually, speaking of discussion, I didn’t come back to you on your earlier comments – sorry about that.

    Do you think all of these try to fit peoples for menial and other roles in society?

    In my opinion, it isn’t just about menial roles by any means. The history of education in industrial societies can be traced back to the time when mill owners needed labour, and started to build urban accommodation for them. The influx of agricultural workers supplied the raw materials, but they were a great danger to themselves and the machines they barely understood, so some basic education was needed to make them useful to the mill owners.

    On top of that, as the businesses expanded, the owners needed a new managerial class to run things on a day to day basis – the emergence of a middle-class, ultimately. This too required a standard of literacy and numeracy that only education could supply, so the mill owners built the schools and funded them.

    Of course, that funding only went as far as the requirements of the job, and no further. Even then, the industrialists were shocked and disturbed to discover that education gave rise to collectivism, to unionisation, to demands for emancipation and liberty: when you teach people to read, you cannot also chose their reading material (although many tried).

    Fast forward two centuries, and nothing much has changed. It is still the case that all state funding for education serves one purpose – to fit people to the available jobs. We no longer need so many engineers, steel workers and the like – those jobs went elsewhere – so the curriculum has been changed to produce a new class of call centre workers and keyboard punchers, but the money spent on education is still limited by function, and right now in the UK, funding for our university level education is being ruthlessly cut – a terrible decision for the future, I think.

    You also ask about the various types of school here. Basically, the state education is designed to produce workers, the private system – originally for the sons of the aristocracy and now for the rich and priviledged – was designed to produce the governing class, the mill owners of today. It isn’t fair, but then again, what is?

    And if capitalism is bad managed and flawed what can we do?

    Boy, that’s a hard question. Manage it better, of course. Learn from history, something we’re terrible at doing by all accounts. But mainly, as an individual, I think the key is to find a better way of measuring ourselves than through what we consume. It isn’t capitalism per se I find flawed, but the constant need for ‘more’ that it seems to provoke. Greed isn’t good, and never will be. If we were not so committed as a society to consuming as much as we can as often as we can, perhaps we could construct something a bit more secure, a bit better designed and run. Until then, I don’t think anything except revolution will change things, and revolutions always involve body-bags.

  10. Birgit Kvarnstrom permalink
    December 7, 2010 1:03 pm

    This is a true opinion about the consumption in capitalist society Graham. Also I think we needs to find a way to control it much better but the question is how to do this. That is not so clear to me.

    Then this is also rather interesting when it comes to the education. These public schools seem to educate people for the high positions like this Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg who has gone to Eton and Westminster I hear. But this was not always so because Mrs Thatcher I think did not (well obviously she was a woman so not these two schools!) go to a so called public school but somewhere else. Maybe also there is the racism in education because I have read today that in Oxford they have taken only one black person this year which seems rather low.

  11. December 7, 2010 8:19 pm

    Fear is our worst enemy and yet many politicians and other people forcing us into a direction by making us scared of something.
    I never believed in these strategies but have to remind myself of it on a daily basis as all around me the focus is fear. How many climate sceptical do come with the tactic of ” just an other way of getting us to pay a lot more taxes ” an other ” the communists want us to believe this crap so they can tax us more”
    On the other hand you have the scaring of environmentalists saying ” we must do something or this will be the end of our planet ”
    In our capitalist societies the fear of loosing money or having to pay more money is used time after time to get people on your site of the story.
    In the wikileaks it was told that America used both to get countries on their site on the climate talks in Copenhagen. They were even promising them money or were threaten to give them less money.
    So how can you expect people to make a well informed decision on climate change when these sort of tactics are used.

    Education is a very important aspect but not if it is used to “brainwash” people in a way of thinking.
    It is my opinion that the teaching in this is right and that is wrong does not help our society at all.
    What is right on the moment can be wrong in an other moment of time being it in the past or the present. What is good for one person can not be good for people as we all differ in many ways. Everything has a good and a bad site and we need to deal with both.
    It is my experience that you will be taken more serious when you have a certain education yet disclaiming years of experience. I have dealt with this by backing my observations out of experience with research that has been done by other people who came to the same conclusion.
    Knowledge you can get in many different ways not just sitting in education institutes.

  12. Agent Goldstein permalink
    December 8, 2010 1:30 pm

    Seems to be some rather vague and contradictory thinking here. On the one hand we need to to manage capitalism better but when we manage things like education it seems all we do is run a brainwashing service to benefit the mill owners. Would seem the chances of managing it better are thus somewhat limited. So should we manage it more or less Graham and Birgit?

    Doubt there’s much racism at Oxford. It’s just hard to get into.

  13. Graham Wayne permalink*
    December 8, 2010 1:59 pm

    Well Agent Goldstein, I’d say there was a certain vagueness to be sure, mainly because I’m offering my criticisms as a basis for discussion – this isn’t something I can really be right or wrong about, when you get down to it. Anyway, I’m not sure how credible it would be to suggest solutions, since we’re talking about a pretty big subject here and as I’ve said before, I’m more concerned to discover if I’m asking the right questions. Answers may or may not come later…

    On the one hand we need to to manage capitalism better but when we manage things like education it seems all we do is run a brainwashing service to benefit the mill owners. Would seem the chances of managing it better are thus somewhat limited.

    Can I suggest that these two points are, in fact, connected? The term brainwashing is a bit hyperbolic and inappropriate, because what I wrote was not that we’re indoctrinated, but more like victims of cheapness. And the curious thing – speaking as someone who worked at board level for many years – is that a significant problem employers have is getting staff to appreciate the role they really play in the health and future of a company. The ‘us and them’ mentality – much more prevalent in the UK than in the US, where I worked in the 70s – is part of the collateral damage done by the circumscribed education we receive. When we perceive ourselves as unequal, where we believe we are defined as human beings by class and economic circumstances, this is exactly the route to the victimhood, the resentment and intractability that I wrote about in the article.

    If we educated people to be independent, to be empowered and confident, then the choices we make about career and lifestyle might be taken in a better spirit, and as an expression of freedom instead of coercion.

  14. Birgit Kvarnstrom permalink
    December 8, 2010 3:15 pm

    For me this comment is not so helpful agent Goldstein. Graham has made a good attempt to start a debate not to find a final solution.

  15. Agent Goldstein permalink
    December 8, 2010 5:47 pm

    Well seems a bit like Robinson Crusoe complaining because there’s no-one to make his breakfast for him.

    As for the “If we educated people to be independent…” bit I would say it’s more like “if we educated people at all.” Standards have fallen badly in the UK state sector with loads of chavs that leave school hardly able to read and write, although that doesn’t stop them feeling all too independent, empowered and confident. No wonder Oxford is full of private school people and no blacks.

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