On strong leaders and simple stories

Donald TrumpPhoto by iprimages: https://www.flickr.com/photos/iprphoto/

The key to Donald Trump’s appeal is that he presents himself as a strong leader with simple, bold (hoo boy, they’re bold!) solutions to America’s complex problems. Too many immigrants? Build a wall. Frightened of terrorists? Close the door to Muslims. He offers us the comforting notion that these issues are not really so complex after all, if you only know what you’re doing.

The Trump world view is super-easy to grasp because it’s all about dualities: you’re smart or you’re stupid, strong or weak, a winner or a loser – and he, of course, sits atop the pile, the winner of winners, the billionaire businessman, the natural boss. And that’s exactly what his supporters want: someone to take the burden off their shoulders, to reassure and absolve them, to take control and sort things out. I’m developing a tentative hypothesis that, despite all the personal freedom rhetoric, Americans are actually by nature hierarchical, especially eager to defer to their seniors, perhaps as a reaction to their lack of an unelected figurehead. Trump’s supporters, anyway, appear to me just like children, looking up to their strong, confident parent for all the answers. The fact that his answers are not only ill-defined and wildly unworkable but also often grossly offensive, not to mention unconstitutional, and the irony that he, the supposed parent figure, frequently resembles nothing so much as an angry toddler, are apparently lost on them, so seduced are they by the simplicity of his black-and-white, leave-it-to-me narrative.

A number of factors can amplify the appeal of a perceived strong leader, and many of them are in play in the current election campaign. Anxiety about the economy, national security, and demographic and cultural changes, along with doubt about the competence and trustworthiness of the established elite, all go some way towards explaining Trump’s appeal. He has also done an effective job of selling the ‘Make America Great Again’ idea to his relatively aged supporter base, despite the lack of clear evidence that America is any less great now than it ever was – depending, of course, on what on earth you mean by greatness.

But while the rest of us are busy laughing at the Trump supporters and their dumb gullibility, perhaps we should pause for a moment to consider whether we ourselves are immune to the temptations of a strong leader or a simple story. While we may aspire to formulate informed, independent opinions on issues of public importance, aren’t we also ­– not least as the result of limited time – sometimes prone to reductionism, to retreating to our political comfort zones, to trusting relatively blindly in the leaders whose general outlooks we share? During the 2008-9 financial crisis, for example, I’ll admit I largely crossed my fingers and put my faith in Obama.

The current clefts between different factions in the Republican Party have a parallel in the UK Labour Party, where the leftwing leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and his supporters have spent the three months since he was elected in more or less constant conflict with their more centrist colleagues on the opposition benches. When, on December 2nd, Parliament voted on whether to extend airstrikes against Daesh (ISIS) from Iraq into Syria, the Labour Party was unable to come to an official position. According to the leftier elements in my Facebook feed, however, the decision could not have been starker: wage war or keep the peace, kill innocents or spare them. After the vote went in favor of extending airstrikes, the comedian and columnist Frankie Boyle wrote:

“So we decided to stop children drowning on the beaches by killing them in their beds”.

On the whole, I feel quite disengaged from British politics these days, having been out of the country for more than eight years, but I was struck by the tone of what I was seeing on Facebook and elsewhere, and inspired to dig deeper. So I read the entire transcript of the Parliamentary debate – yes, all eleven hours of it (though, unlike the Speaker of the House, who was congratulated at one point for the strength of his bladder, I’ll confess I did take the odd comfort break). By the time I finally reached the end, one thing at least was clear: the decision was not simple. Contrary to what I’d been reading, it was far from a choice between death and life: yes, bombing always risks the loss of innocent lives (though the level of risk was much contested in the debate, given the available technology and nature of the targets), but Daesh are already killing and abusing innocents in the most horrific ways, as are Assad’s forces, as are some of the numerous other groups that oppose them both. Every way you slice it, there’s suffering and death. The question – the much more complicated question – is how to minimize it, in the short and longer term.

The anti-bombing lobby claimed that targeting Daesh in Syria would make British citizens less safe by angering Daesh and inspiring more Muslims to radicalize. Those in favor of the bombing argued that Britain could not get any higher on Daesh’s hit list and that military action was urgently needed to restrict their recruitment capabilities and limit further overseas attacks.

Ultimately, the key disagreement seemed to be about timing: it was pretty clear that some airstrikes would be needed, with or without Britain’s involvement, as part of a multi-faceted strategy to combat Daesh. The anti lobby argued that the other facets of this strategy were not yet far enough advanced to capitalize on any gains made by air; the pro lobby countered that progress was indeed being made, and claimed that ground operations and other efforts would become even more challenging further down the line if Daesh were not quickly contained.

Very occasionally, a political question arises that is genuinely simple: I find it hard, for example, to make a good devil’s advocate case against gay marriage or in favor of free access to guns. But the vast majority of important public questions are just not like that. They’re complex and difficult, and very often depressing or scary or both. It is so much easier, practically and psychologically, to paint our world in black and white, to claim that the right answers are obvious and call our opponents immoral or insane, than to face up to the true, dismaying messiness of most things. But it is not responsible, and it is not honest.

As individual citizens, we need to resist the temptation to buy into oversimplified stories and instead actively challenge ourselves to seek out counter-arguments and subject our first intuitions to sincere stress-tests. I worry that the way the media is evolving is both discouraging us from doing this and making it harder. The Internet and social media call us to sink back into our siloes, only hearing what we want to hear, only talking to those with whom we already broadly agree. TV and radio stations with overt political positions appeal to the same lazy tribal instincts, and in the US, even those that aim for some level of objectivity are beholden to their advertisers and, hence, to viewer ratings. Watching TV here, it would be easy to get the impression that no Presidential candidate other than Trump (who, as my husband has to remind me in my more apocalyptic moments, is only supported by about a third of the quarter of the population who self-identify as likely Republican primary voters) has said or done anything much for several months. We want to watch Trump because he gives us drama and entertainment, and they’re giving us what we want.

If we are to develop informed, evidence-based opinions, we need to incentivize our media to present us with the issues and arguments in a substantive and balanced way. With our daily lives to lead, we can’t be expected to do all the raw research ourselves and so will always need to look to trusted guides to filter and present the information, but we risk losing them if we continue to consume largely lowest-common-denominator fare. Moreover, even with access to reliable sources, we will still always, at least on some questions, have to live with a level of ignorance, for all kinds of reasons, including a lack of expertise or time or access to restricted information. Sometimes, we have no choice but to rely on our leaders to understand the finer detail on our behalf and make the best decisions. That, of course, is why it’s so essential that we elect the truly strong ones ­– the ones with critical capacity and intellectual integrity, not just bold, bombastic conviction – to do the job.



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On our difficult decision to have just one child

Photo by Jon Pinder: https://www.flickr.com/photos/rofanator/

Despite the growing number of single-child families in the western world, my husband and I stand out among our friends and acquaintances for having just one child. For us, it is a choice, and yet we still find ourselves flinching at flip phrases like “one and done”, which seem both to overstate the strength of our conviction and to underestimate the complexity and emotional weight of our decision; probably the hardest decision we’ve yet had to make.

However many children you have, there are always trade-offs. People who choose not to have any – an increasingly vocal group – sometimes resist the suggestion that they’re missing out on something, but of course they are. Having a child is a deeply profound experience that can’t be accessed any other way. Parenthood is life-altering in a way that is literally impossible to explain to anyone who hasn’t been there. Our son, now seven years old, has brought more joy into our lives than we could ever describe, and made us better, kinder, wiser people too.  But I don’t have any trouble understanding the choice not to have children (as a friend of mine once said: “no-one can make a better argument for not having kids than someone with kids”). For sure, non-parents are missing out on something, but so are the rest of us. Children suck up huge amounts of our time and energy, and not just while they’re babies but for years and years, sometimes for the rest of our lives. As parents, we give up all kinds of valuable and meaningful opportunities – for work and career, travel, leisure, learning, relationships – by channeling so many of our resources into our children. There’s always sacrifice.

My husband and I have absolutely no regrets about having our son and no resentment for the sacrifices we’ve made and continue to make in order to raise him the best way we know how. But there’s no tension between those sentiments and the admission that we may not want to make a whole lot more sacrifices for the sake of being parents again, or that we have found being parents seriously tough at times, especially during the first few years. I look at the photos and home movies now and all I can think is how ridiculously cute our boy was as a baby and toddler, and how crazy quickly everything passed, and it makes me want to go back and slow it all down so I can savor every funny little stage (the staggering, the babbling, the utterly single-minded obsession with Eric Carle’s ‘Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?’) more than I did at the time. But if I step back and review my memories honestly, I see all the hard parts too: the relentlessness, the physical demands, the loss of control over my time and movements, the maddening frustrations of dealing with a pre-rational being, the sometimes barely bearable boredom. The tight knot at the cleft of my ribs when, at the end of a full day’s hunger strike, he callously rejected my desperate attempts to get him to eat just one chocolate raisin. The performance anxiety. The constant guilt. All those hours spent at Chuck E motherfucking Cheese. We have simply never reached the point of being ready to commit to going through that again. In the early years it seemed unthinkable that we might have a baby and a toddler together, especially as we’ve never had family close by, and now we’ve left it seven years, and our son is almost civilized at times, and the idea of going back to the start seems just as wild.

Some of our concerns are longer-term and largely related to money. My husband earns well but works in a changing industry where re-structuring is not uncommon and the future is somewhat uncertain. I’ve taken my foot off the career pedal to be around for my son. We live in a city (Atlanta) with a relatively low cost of living but would likely have to move somewhere much more expensive, like London or New York, if my husband lost his job or wanted to change employers. With one child, we could live comfortably in a two-bedroom apartment and probably retain a similar quality of life. It keeps us a bit nimble, and keeps my husband in a relatively strong bargaining position at work.

Then there’s the question of retirement. I sometimes wonder if we’re uniquely paranoid or pessimistic, as it doesn’t seem to have stopped any of our friends from expanding their families, but it’s a significant worry for us. With the world’s population ageing and medical technology advancing all the time, there’s a pressing question about how people are going to be supported in their old age. It already seems certain that government will be able to pay out less and people will have to work longer. Put simply: a second child would imply a radical reduction in our retirement savings. He or she would also, obviously, take half of our assets when we died, meaning our son would get half as much as he currently stands to inherit. We’d like to be able to offer him the same sort of safety net our parents will likely be able to provide for us but, given the shifting economic picture, it’s hard for us to be confident about our capacity to do that for one child, let alone two.

It’s also pertinent to note that the last thing our planet needs is another western consumer. Now, I don’t stand in moral judgement of others for their decisions about family size – being all too aware of the tangle of factors involved, I don’t presume an understanding sufficient to evaluate anyone else’s choice. But, in our personal deliberations, environmental sustainability (which, in case you’re not aware, is about people, not just trees) has been a consideration; a check, if not the biggest one, in the ‘con’ column.

And there are also fears. Knowing how tough we’ve found it raising one healthy child, the prospect of having one with health problems or a disability, or having twins – or more! – or even just having a really physical, active child like some we’ve met feels genuinely daunting. Every pregnancy is a gamble. People have said it’s a gamble we’d be willing to take if we really wanted another child, and perhaps there’s some truth in that, but, again, it’s just too simple. What does “really wanting one” mean? A blind urge that automatically overrides every other concern? I’m just not sure my husband and I ever make decisions that way. As you’ve probably deduced by now, we’re not exactly close-your-eyes-and-jumpers.

And we have fears about not having another one, too. While the notion of a ‘spare’ child as insurance for the loss of the first is clearly much less apposite than it once was, I don’t discard it altogether. Losing my son and at the same time ceasing to be a mother, losing that now central part of my identity, would be uniquely devastating. My husband feels the same way: in one of our many conversations about The Number Two Question, he confessed that, were our son to be diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, he would probably feel a strong instinct to get me pregnant again. So, by sticking with one, we are gambling too. And, while our son is thankfully pretty unlikely to die before us, one of us being left to live widowed for a good number of years with a relatively small family, and therefore perhaps at a greater risk of loneliness, comes with much shorter odds.

There may also, of course, be a cost to denying our son a sibling. We both have good relationships with our sisters and as a result are acutely aware of what makes siblings different from friends: the shared history and family, and the special, unconditional nature of that bond. But of course there are also many people who are not close with their siblings and have negative memories of them, involving conflict, competition, pressure, jealousy, even bullying. You never know what you’re going to get. And, for our part, we quite enjoy not having to play referee, or split into two teams at the weekends, or worry about how we divide up our limited time and attention. I can tell my son as much as I like that he’s my favorite.

Despite their stubborn persistence in our culture, the old stereotypes of only children – that they’re spoiled, selfish, lonely and socially maladjusted – have been repeatedly and conclusively disproven. But raising an only does, I think, present certain (modest) challenges. We have found, for example, that we’ve had to work hard to teach our son to compromise and take his turn, and to convey the message that he’s not always the center of the universe; a message that otherwise could have been sent quite clearly by a sibling. Obviously, we also have to go outside the immediate family to give him social experiences with peers, and are perhaps especially attuned to the need to nurture his relationships with his cousins and friends. We may feel a stronger obligation than other parents to give thought to how we can best protect him from being overly burdened by us in our old age.

For some, the decision about family size is simple and straightforward: plenty of people know from the outset what they want and never waver. For others, like us, it’s harder, and for those who find they don’t have a choice because of biology, finance or other factors, there may be great heartache involved. But, whatever your experience, there’s always sacrifice. There’s always a potential child waiting in the wings, who you’ll always slightly yearn to meet. Our son won’t have a brother or sister. We won’t get to experience the particular pleasures of seeing our children grow up together, or the comfort of knowing that they’ll have each other after we’re gone. But our relationship with our one and only child – our uncontested favorite – will also be different than it would have been if we’d chosen to have another. The road we’re on we might not have taken, and so far it’s a beautiful road.


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Review: Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom

What better way to celebrate your birthday, than a trip to Disney World!?!?! huh? Huh?! HUH?!?!?!? For those that don't know; you can get a free Photo by Scott Smith: https://www.flickr.com/photos/scottrsmith/

Before last Tuesday, I had visited the Magic Kingdom at Disney World in Florida just once, 26 years ago, at the age of 12, in October 1989. My husband had been once before too, also on a family vacation, when he was eight. His parents spotted a bargain fly-drive deal in the newspaper and broke the news to him and his ten-year-old sister just a couple of days before they were due to go. The big announcement came after dinner: “We’re going to Orlando!” The children ran into the bedroom to trade excited whispers about their impending trip to the city where the real-life Disney World was! The actual one! How amazing to be so close to it! It didn’t even cross their minds that they might actually be going to Disney World itself. That was just too much.

To British kids in the late eighties, everything American was the ultimate in cool: Coca-Cola, Michael Jackson, Converse boots, baseball caps, Michael J Fox, Madonna, McDonalds… and, of course, Mickey and Minnie. Going to Disney – Land or World – was by definition ‘the trip of a lifetime’, the kind of vacation you won on a game show or raised money to give to kids with cancer so they could see it before they died. If you got to go to Disney, you were almost certainly the only one in your class (apart from that one who lied about it or possibly genuinely couldn’t tell the difference between truth and fiction), and on return it was sure to earn you playground celebrity status for a good two weeks at least.

Things were a bit different for us in 2015. We’d been living in America for the past eight years and would be returning to the Magic Kingdom as parents with our seven-year-old son, born and raised in the USA. Many of his friends had already been, some of them multiple times, it being just one state away. So, while to him it was not quite the impossibly exotic escapade that once blew his parents’ tiny minds, he’d been keen to go for a while and was excited.

The sustained success of Disney’s parks and resorts is extraordinary by any standards. The Magic Kingdom has consistently topped the rankings of the most popular amusement parks in the world, attracting 19.33m visitors in 2014, with eight of the other nine in the top ten also owned by Disney. This is perhaps especially impressive given the rather breathtaking prices: our day passes to the Magic Kingdom cost more than $100 each. As a point of comparison, we could have traded just one of them for a year’s family membership to the zoo or children’s museum in Atlanta.

The Florida property is much larger than Disneyland in California; apparently Mr. Walt, who actually died before construction on it started in 1967, had become dismayed by some of the other businesses that had opened up around his first park so wanted a bigger lot this time to keep the neighbors at bay. And its scale is indeed awe-inspiring. At 27,258 acres – about the size of San Francisco – it houses four theme parks (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom and Disney Hollywood Studios), 27 resort hotels, nine non-Disney hotels, two water parks, several golf courses, a camping resort, a shopping district and a number of other entertainment venues. And yet, as you drive in, what you mostly see is roads and green spaces. As a riffraff-distancing strategy, it’s pretty watertight.

The transportation from the vast parking lot runs wonderfully smoothly and everything is clean and gleaming (Disney spends $100m a year on maintenance at the Magic Kingdom alone) – or at least it was on September 15th, a date rated by Undercover Tourist as a 2 out of 10 for crowds. The place was by no means deserted (“If this is a two, I wouldn’t like to see a five”  my husband), but we didn’t spend a long time waiting in line. So far, so most magical place on earthTM.

As we began to walk around, what struck me immediately was how little had changed since 1989.  A few rides have come and gone, and there’s an inevitable Starbucks disguised as the ‘Main Street Bakery’, but the bulk of the attractions (which actually number just 34 in total, not counting sideshows, stores and so on) and the overall atmosphere very much matched my memories. That said, of course everything’s different through grown-up eyes. You see the gears and the levers moving (my husband found himself spotting blown lightbulbs in It’s A Small World – just the sort of thing he recalled his father doing 30-odd years before) and, if you’re any sort of cynic – which, admittedly, many of the visitors, especially those who go without kids (some on honeymoon!), probably aren’t – you can’t help looking for tiny cracks in the pristine façade, or the briefest shadow of weariness passing across the face of a ‘cast member’ (Disney’s word for an employee) in split-second lapses between bright sunny smiles.

Though it wouldn’t have bothered me as a twelve-year-old, our guide on the Jungle Cruise – one of the rides I remembered most clearly – rattled off her prepared spiel so quickly and carelessly it was almost inaudible, which, as a thirty-hmph-year-old I was finding irritating until, just before the ride ended, she alluded briefly to the fact that, once we left, she’d be doing exactly the same thing again, every ten minutes for who knows how many hours and days to come. My soul ached for a brief moment, my mind flitting back to the brief but hellish time I spent working as a greeter at a women’s fashion store. My son felt no such empathy, of course, and declared the ride his favorite, especially the two real ducks on the dockside, the only non-robot animals he’d see all day.

While my husband and I were quite happy indulging in a bit of nostalgia, we came away from the Magic Kingdom feeling that it was frozen in time – a theme park of a theme park, if you will. Some of the attractions – the Carousel of Progress, the Hall of Presidents and the super-kitsch and abominably-scripted Walt Disney’s Tiki Room, enjoyable only for the air-conditioning – were created for the 1964-5 World’s Fair, and are really tributes to Disney’s history, in no way designed to pique the interest of a modern kid. The Carousel of Progress is an audio-animatronic presentation in a revolving auditorium, where on taking your seats you are instructed through a speaker that attempting to leave before the end of the 20-minute show will cause the whole thing to malfunction. Thus we were condemned to spend 17 minutes tackling our son as he tried to get up, struggling to explain in manic whispers why – though, yes, it did sound unlikely – him making a quiet exit would ruin things for everyone. I was just glad he was seven and not three.

Now, I must make some disclaimers. My son, whilst more than willing to don a sparkly necklace from time to time, is not a princess fanatic. Nor is he robust enough for rollercoasters. So what may be the main pulls for other families didn’t apply to us – although I note that only a handful of the rides include any significant thrill element, so I’m not sure if that alone would justify the ticket price compared with, say, Six Flags or other high-adrenaline alternatives. Outside of princesses and thrills, most of the attractions at the Magic Kingdom are based on spectacle. And, of course, a 2015 child is much more spoiled in terms of entertainment and sensory stimulation than a 1989 child was. My son enjoyed these rides well enough but the wow factor has inevitably weakened in a world of 3D films and other easily-available multi-media extravaganze, and I rather doubt whether, had we gone on a more crowded day, he would have tolerated standing in line for his fourth or fifth such experience.

Disappointingly, one of the newer rides we were keen to try, Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin, turned out to be a dull shooting game with no instructions, where you sat in a seat with a lever you could use to turn it sharply for an instant crick in your neck. In terms of technology, it felt very unambitious. Also, it was only tangentially related to the Toy Story movies, which prompted the broader question: why don’t they make much more of Disney’s best-loved stories? Some of the rides have no connection with them at all. Where’s Mary Poppins? Or the Lion King (except in Simba parking lot)? The Aladdin ride is just a bunch of magic carpets rotating around a central pole. It feels like a lost opportunity for extra magic.

When we were kids, amusement parks were the anti-museums, places of pure fun where, for once, we could feel protected from any mean grown-ups trying to make us (mandatory eye roll) learn something. That sharp distinction between experiences designed for pleasure and those designed for education has faded over the last 30 years. Many modern museums are highly interactive and child-focused, designed to promote learning through fun, not instead of it. In this context, it was notable that none of the rides at the Magic Kingdom, apart from a couple of the boring, un-kid-friendly ones preserved from the sixties, incorporated any educational element at all. This, too, felt old-fashioned. But perhaps when you’re as resoundingly successful as Disney continues to be, it’s hard to find the motivation to update or innovate.

Overall, my son enjoyed the Magic Kingdom – he’d decided he was going to before he went, and the reality, while less than magical, was pleasing enough that he wasn’t forced to change his position. For him, and I presume many other kids like him, the attraction of Disney was more about the idea of going than the substantive experience of being there, which, in my view, carries more than a whiff of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Naturally, as parents, we want our kids to be happy and are ready to sacrifice for the sake of that goal, but why anyone would choose to spend multiple days there, or go without kids, or with kids too small to appreciate it or put up with waiting in line, is frankly a mystery to me. Maybe those millions of people who do so are able to find fun where I cannot. Or maybe, just like the children, they’ve bought the idea of fun they’ve been sold by the amazing marketers at Disney.



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On money in US politics

Dollar over mouth

If you should ever find yourself in a room of randomly-selected American voters, faced with the daunting task of having to identify two political statements on which you can achieve a broad, cross-partisan consensus (don’t ask why, it’s a hypothetical), you could do worse than start with these: “There’s too much money in politics” and “Politicians are in the pocket of wealthy special interests”. These get trotted out with such frequency that they’ve almost become truisms, or at least that’s how I perceived them, until I thought to stop and ask: what, exactly, is the big deal about big money in politics?

As I alluded to in a previous post, there’s a vast difference between the US and the UK in terms of the sums spent on political campaigns. For example, total spend on the 2012 US presidential and congressional races from all sources was $7 billion, more than 130 times the $53.4 million spent on the 2010 UK general election campaign. Of course, there are some good reasons why US elections cost more: it’s a much larger country, for one thing, which implies a commensurate increase in the cost of advertising and other items in the campaign budget, and, unlike in Britain, TV and radio airtime has to be paid for (in Britain, parties are allocated no more than a handful of political broadcast slots, paid for from public funds). Still, even adjusting for such factors, the difference is stark to say the least, and it’s not just the UK: America dwarfs all other countries in the world when it comes to campaign spending.

In Britain, election spending is tightly restricted by law: no party can spend more than the equivalent of about $30 million (depending on the number of parliamentary seats contested), and all income and expenditure must be meticulously recorded for scrutiny by the electoral authorities. The picture in the US is more complex. Individual citizens are permitted to contribute directly to candidates’ campaigns within certain limits (e.g. currently $2,600 per person per election to a single candidate), although since 2014 there is no cap on the number of candidates to whom they can contribute. Corporations and labor unions are prohibited from making direct contributions at any level, and must instead contribute via Political Action Committees (PACs), which can be set up with limited funds from the treasuries of one or more organizations but must fundraise independently thereafter and can still only spend within tight limits (e.g. $5,000 per election to a single candidate).

This was pretty much the picture until 2010, when the landmark Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United vs. FEC case declared it unconstitutional (specifically, a violation of the First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of speech) to limit corporations or unions from making any level of independent expenditure for political purposes. This led directly to the spawning of the so-called ‘Super PACs’, which are free to raise and spend as much money as they like on electoral activities, so long as they do not co-ordinate directly with candidates’ campaigns. Citizens United also changed the landscape for non-profit 501(c)4 organizations, defined by the IRS as primarily concerned with the promotion of “social welfare”, Planned Parenthood and the National Rifle Association (NRA) being two high-profile examples. Since 2010, these bodies may spend only slightly less freely than Super PACs on independent election-related activities, provided their “primary purpose” is not political advocacy (in practice, this allows them to spend up to about half of their money on it). The key difference between Super PACs and 501(c)4s is that the latter are not required to disclose their donors, which is why spending from these sources is controversial and sometimes referred to as ‘dark money’. The increasing use of both Super PACs and 501(c)4s for funding political campaigns partly explains the sharp growth in expenditure on US elections over recent years, although direct donations from individuals and PACs have increased as well, across the political spectrum.

So, what difference does all this extra money make? The answer, it seems, is that no-one really knows. Analytical studies have produced conflicting results, and even where a correlation between spending and victory has been detected, it’s all but impossible to prove a causal connection because so many different factors can contribute to an election win. Maybe it wasn’t that the money swung the election, but rather that the candidate attracted more money because he or she was more persuasive and therefore on track to win anyway. Or maybe the losing candidate was exposed in a scandal, or made a gaffe in a debate, or maybe it rained on polling day so hardly anyone turned out – all manner of mysterious forces can move people’s votes. And, of course, campaigns make predictions about the way the vote is going and adjust their spending accordingly, which further muddies the waters for the analysts.

Those who feel that too much fuss is made over money in politics sometimes make the case that the amounts spent on elections are actually quite small when considered in the proper perspective: Binyamin Appelbaum of the New York Times, for example, pointed out that, in 2014, Americans spent more on almonds than on selecting their representatives in congress. Surely, the argument goes, if money really swung elections, people would spend much more?

There are examples that both support and challenge this view. In the 2012 presidential election, wealthy donors including the Koch brothers and Karl Rove’s American Crossroads Super PAC spent millions to no avail campaigning for Mitt Romney. But there are also examples of smaller races where a flood of Super PAC money clearly did influence the result. One such case is that of Ami Bera, a Democrat who ran against the Republican incumbent in his congressional district outside Sacramento, CA. Having successfully closed a 30-point deficit to single digits, he was summarily wiped off the map following a $680,000 spend by American Crossroads on one negative TV ad (of questionable accuracy). Bera’s campaign estimated that the average viewer in his district would, at the peak of the assault, have seen it 16 times in a week. The Super PAC didn’t ‘buy’ anyone’s vote as such, but it intervened heavily in a lively, increasingly competitive race, and effectively killed it.

It seems, therefore, that while additional expenditure may not make a difference in very high-money contexts like a presidential race, it can do so in smaller, tightly-contested races, especially where campaign funds are unequal and/or one or more of the candidates is relatively unknown. Advocates of campaign finance reform argue that this is still a serious problem, as it has the potential to deter individuals who might make great candidates for office from entering the race, either because they feel they would struggle to raise the high sums necessary for a decent run (higher since Citizens United because of the need for an anti-Super PAC war chest), or because they find the implied intensive fundraising commitment unappealing, or both. Moreover, it follows that, in a high-money, high-stakes environment, it’s not only election results that can be influenced by Super PACs and the like, but also politicians’ behavior, which in turn affects the choices available to voters. Anecdotal evidence suggests that even the threat of a Super PAC intervention can push a candidate to alter his or her position, for example in cases where Republican candidates appear to have moved to the political right in order to appease a Super PAC threatening to lend support to a more purist conservative candidate in the party primary. There’s even a bespoke term for this: it’s called “getting primaried”. Legal activist Lawrence Lessig has coined another term, “dependence corruption”, to describe the way in which the broader political discourse gets shifted to reflect the interests of wealthy donors, a phenomenon that he considers a fundamental threat to American democracy.

A further argument put forward by advocates of campaign finance reform is that unlimited spending on elections, whether by candidates’ own campaigns or (supposedly) independent groups, threatens democracy because the great majority of the money comes from a small number of wealthy individual donors, who consequently, the argument goes, exert a much greater influence on the political process than their fellow citizens. Research by the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation found that more than 28 per cent of the disclosed money spent on the 2012 election was donated by just 31,385 individuals, a group that would fill less than half the seats in a professional football stadium. And, again, while there is no solid evidence that wealthy donors are literally ‘buying’ congressional votes from politicians, it is clear that their support gives them significant sway. At the very least, it affords them privileged access, often facilitated by professional lobbyists, to put across their point of view. And, more than that: it is almost impossible to dispute seriously the assertion that there are areas of legislation that have been shaped by the long-term disproportionate influence of wealthy special interests, such as the oil and gas industries, pharmaceuticals, or the most powerful unions. Much of the wheeling and dealing takes place behind closed doors in Washington and concerns the nitty gritty of specific clauses in certain bills, far too specialist and detailed for the average citizen to understand, which can make it all feel rather distant from our everyday lives. And yet it should matter to all of us, because the resulting laws affect us all. They affect everything from our healthcare and education to the food we can buy in the grocery store. Surely, if watching The Wire taught us anything, it’s that there’s a dead straight line from even the lowliest street corner to the halls of power.

A 2012 episode of the radio show This American Life entitled ‘Take the Money and Run for Office’ conveys the degree to which fundraising dominates the day-to-day lives of politicians in Washington with comical clarity. It opens with a voicemail message left by a congresswoman for a lobbyist, selling herself as deserving of a donation from his client, sounding for all the world like a professional (if not especially effective) telemarketer. Apparently it’s not uncommon for members of the House and Senate to spend 2-3 hours a day, all around the election cycle, bashing the phones in cramped call centers close to the Capitol. Then there are the fundraisers – breakfasts, lunches, cocktails, dinners, golf games, duck hunts, you name it – which the Sunlight Foundation estimates as numbering more than 20 per day in peak fundraising season. Former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Party’s top fundraiser, estimates that she attended 400 fundraisers in 2011. Based on a six-day working week and 10 vacation days (including public holidays), that works out as 1.3 per day.

Now, clearly, there’s a serious question about whether this is how we want our lawmakers and political candidates to be spending their time. Without these extremely burdensome fundraising commitments, they would presumably have a good deal more time available for, let’s say, representing citizens’ interests, connecting with voters, reading legislation or learning more about policy issues (rather than relying, as they often do, on specialist lobbyists to teach them, from their less-than-neutral point of view). But the most intriguing thing about this state-of-affairs is why the politicians themselves aren’t pushing back on it. Not one of the former or current lawmakers interviewed for This American Life made any effort to pretend that it wasn’t an exhausting, unpleasant chore that they would much rather be without. And yet, to date there has been no significant challenge from within congress to the status quo. It seems as though, however much they hate it, our representatives simply can’t bring themselves to challenge the system that got them hired. In an interview on the radio show Marketplace, Freakonomics author Stephen Dubner summed the situation up: “Campaign fundraising has become an arms race and, as in any arms race, the first casualty is logic”.

And while there are groups outside congress pushing for the reform of political campaign finance, they have so far struggled to gain widespread support; those two sentences I began this piece with are more typically delivered in tones of weary resignation than energized outrage. And as much as I hesitate to deploy the first-choice lazy get-out of the modern politician and blame the media, they do have a role to play in this, insofar as they’re largely silent on the subject. This is easily explained, of course, because highlighting the issue would work directly against their interests: the majority of political campaign funds are spent on advertising, so even reporting on a drive for reform would, for the media companies, be biting the hand that feeds them. But without media support, it’s hard to see how any grassroots campaign could build up a sufficient head of steam to inspire meaningful change. Ultimately, therefore, change may depend on the will of the politicians themselves. It may require them to reach a tipping point and finally move to reclaim their time to spend on better causes. And, who knows, then, maybe, if campaign spending were to be reined in, some donors might decide to spend some of their spare cash on better causes too.

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On the pursuit of something other than happiness

Focus by Allan FosterPhoto: ‘Focus’ by Allan Foster

It’s surprising, in a way, that I’ve never really got into self-help, given that I regularly consider my self to be in need of help and rarely suffer from a surfeit of volunteers spontaneously clamoring to provide it. I’d probably attribute it to a combination of snobbery, suspicion and a slow reading speed: when it takes you three months to finish a novel and you really like reading novels, there has to be a pretty strong incentive to stray into other genres. Also, on the few occasions I have been inspired to reach for something that might be classified a self-help book, mostly in relation to child-rearing, I’ve found them frustratingly inefficient – one or two new ideas among 200 pages of padding and waffle – which has only served to harden my suspicion of the ‘self-help industry’ (the readiness of this term to trip off the tongue being a bit of a clue).

But then, about a year ago, not long after my most recent episode of depression, a close friend with some similar psychological traits and a comparable level of cynicism about purported life-changing phenomena and things in general recommended Dr Russ Harris’ book The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living, and – ta-da – I had finally encountered my first really helpful self-help book.

The title appealed to me immediately. Many years ago, as a student of philosophy, I spent some time flippering about with the question of what constitutes a meaningful or well-spent (or, if you’re Aristotle, ‘virtuous’) life, and to a degree bought into the notion that, insofar as there might be a central purpose to human existence, it probably relates to some kind of understanding or enlightenment rather than happiness as more commonly construed. (For a while, on the wall of my university bedroom, I had pinned with archetypal student pretentiousness a quote torn out of a weekend supplement from the French actress Isabelle Huppert. I can’t bring it up on Google now, but basically it was a very cool, very French rejection of the notion of happiness as the project of life. I remember it ended with the immortal words:  “I prefer being lucid to being fooled”).

Happiness has also long seemed to me a slippery concept: the tighter you try and hold it, the more it seems to escape through your fingers. While we know it relates broadly to positive feelings, the details of its connections to other related, more concrete concepts, such as jubilance, say, or contentment, seem far from clear. In recent years, social researchers have increasingly begun to talk about ‘well-being’ rather than ‘happiness’, and much work has gone into trying to identify the components of well-being (good health, job satisfaction, and so on) in order to measure and compare the extent to which different sectors of society are achieving it, and the ways in which different policy interventions affect this.

In The Happiness Trap, however, Harris contends that our very focus on these concepts, and the idea (explicit or implicit) that achieving a state of perfect happiness or well-being represents the ultimate goal of human life, can actually be counter-productive.  The essence of his argument is that, in order to minimize our psychological pain and discomfort, we actually need to accept negative thoughts and feelings as an unavoidable and integral part of life, rather than viewing them as obstacles blocking our road to happiness. (As an aside: a very similar point was also the theme of the latest Disney Pixar movie, Inside Out).

Now, clearly Harris is not advocating that we just hold up our hands and accept our sorry lots, abandoning all attempts to solve our problems. (Oh, you’re living in terrible pain and grinding poverty? Well sorry about that, but suffering is part of life, you know…). Rather, he says that there are only two logical courses of action when we’re faced with negative thoughts and feelings: take action to remedy them or try to accept them. When the former is not an option, or comes at too high a price, we should aim for the latter. In practice, however, we too often choose a third, illogical and unconstructive path, of avoidance and denial. Harris asks us to consider how many of our actions ostensibly taken in pursuit of happiness were actually motivated by wanting to avoid negative thoughts and emotions. This question was quite eye-opening for me. Looking back, I realized that some of my key decisions had been driven by fear, not of external threats, but of internal ones; by the desire to avoid potential disappointment, embarrassment or other types of psychological discomfort or pain.

Harris contends that, once we accept that some of our negative, uncomfortable thoughts and feelings are an inevitable and normal part of our experience, we can stop struggling against them and expending so much energy on trying to pretend they’re not there. We can stop waiting and hoping for some kind of ‘clean’ state in which doubts, worries, fears and so on have all been eliminated, but instead face up to these thoughts and feelings, see them for what they are, de-mystify them, accept them, make space for them, and act anyway.

I see a parallel to modern attitudes to health, perhaps especially here in the US, where sickness often seems to be received as a shocking personal affront. Might not our tendency to operate under the notion that perfect health is the paradigm and any deviation an aberration in itself cause misery, especially for the millions of people living with long-term, chronic conditions? If we instead accept that it is perfectly common and normal to live without perfect health, it might actually make us feel better about our bad backs and our arthritic knees, not to mention lessening the psychological pain involved in developing a significant health condition, something that’ll come to almost all of us, if we’re lucky enough to live a reasonably long life, eventually.

So, the question follows: if we shouldn’t pursue happiness, what should we pursue?

Harris provides a clear answer: a life lived in accordance with our most deeply-held values. Values are distinct from goals. A goal is a time-limited outcome (‘have a baby’, ‘get a degree’, etc.), while a value is ongoing. Values can come in different forms: a value may, for example, be something for which you have a simple appetite, a good-in-itself from your point-of-view, like love or laughter. A value might also be an attribute that you aspire to possess as a person, such as being open and honest. Whatever the format of your values, what unites them is that they represent the things you really care about; your deepest, truest self.

If we pursue goals that truly align with our most deeply-held values, we can, Harris argues, feel confident and at ease, knowing that our actions are rooted in a genuine, solid underlying rationale. This empowers us to take more risks and to feel less vulnerable to failure: if you go for the promotion and don’t get it, or ask for the date and get knocked back, you might feel disappointed, sad, and so on, but you won’t be burdened by regret or self-doubt – or, crucially, deterred from taking risks and letting yourself be vulnerable again – because you know exactly why you took the shot: it was in line with your most dearly-held, carefully thought-through values. From this perspective, success in life ceases to be a matter of the goals you achieved or didn’t achieve, which – let’s face it – is never completely within your individual control. Instead, success is measured by whether you lived a worthwhile, meaningful life on your own terms, doing what you believed to be right, being who you aspired to be.

The Happiness Trap includes a number of reader exercises, one of which requires you to write a list of your most deeply-held values. I found this task more challenging than it may initially sound: a number of times I wrote something down only to realize, after further thought, that I had captured a goal instead of a value, or that there was actually a deeper, more elemental value underlying the one I’d identified, another level down. It’s an exercise I’d strongly encourage others to try. I’ve re-visited my list often since I first wrote it, to tweak it a little or just use it as a way of centering and focusing, checking I’m vaguely on track. In the hurly burly of everyday life, it’s all too easy to become reactive, led by instincts that may not best serve us while losing our grip on what we really care about and truly value. By focusing in on our values as the guiding principles for our actions and decisions, we may need to accept some pain in life, but we may also find that we ultimately become more fulfilled and more free.


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US election 2016: the primary debates begin!

Primary debatePhoto: CNN Democrat primary debate, 2007 at Saint Anselm College https://www.flickr.com/photos/saintanselm/

It was with unabashed glee that my husband and I sat down last Thursday night to watch the first US Presidential primary debate on Fox News, the news channel that is to news what cheese whiz is to cheese. Not by choice we’ve developed a pickiness about TV as we’ve gotten older, and nowadays political coverage seems to be the only kind of reality programming we can stomach without becoming overwhelmed by a creeping sense of existential emptiness and dark self-loathing.

Debates are also pretty much the only reason we still have cable, apart from the knowledge that our dads would die of disappointment if they couldn’t watch soccer when they come over from England. In fact, there’s a comparison to be made between watching sports and watching debates, inspiring as they do a similar mixture of amusement and pain.

Thursday’s Republican Party debate marked the start of a campaign that will last 16 more months and could end up costing a total of as much as five billion dollars. From a British perspective, these numbers are mind-boggling. The campaign period for a UK general election is six to seven weeks, and spending by candidates and political parties is subject to strict monitoring and restrictions over a period of several months leading up to polling day. For the 2010 UK general election (the latest for which data are available), the spending limit was set at the equivalent of about $45,000 per candidate, meaning that the three major political parties spent around $30m in total on the campaign. It really is a different world.

And, while it might be argued that the current battle for the leadership of the UK Labour Party – fought through the media rather than on the stage – comes somewhere close, neither is there anything in the UK electoral system quite like the Presidential primary debates. In recent years, the UK has adopted the American tradition of televised debates between the party leaders, but there’s never been an opportunity for the British people to see party leadership candidates pit their wits against one another in a public forum.

Perhaps the unfamiliarity explains why I find the debates so ghoulishly compelling. Surely they must qualify as the worst job interview in the world? Not only are you required to answer questions in front of millions of people (24m watched Thursday’s debate) alongside all your rivals, each of whom is actively encouraged to attack you, from interviewers armed with an extensive record of pretty much everything you’ve ever said or done in your professional (and sometimes personal) life – but you have to do it multiple times! It’s a recurring nightmare! Last Thursday’s Republican debate was the first of eleven. And that’s all before the successful candidate even begins fighting the actual election.

In fact, the first debate of this election season (can two years be called a season?) was less a debate than a quick-fire question round in which the three moderators systematically shot a quiver of arrows directly at a series of Achilles’ heels: Bush on dynastic politics, Trump on party commitment, Ben Carson – a neurosurgeon, in case anyone had forgotten in the five seconds since he last told us – on his record of ignorant gaffes: thunk, thunk, thunk. The approach likely reflected the extraordinary size of the current Republican field: 17 declared candidates, the lowest-polling seven of whom were consigned to a secondary debate earlier in the evening, widely referred to as “the kids’ table”.

Some were surprised by the targeted nature of the moderators’ questions given Fox’s political bent, because of course what’s said in the primary debates commonly carries forward to the partisan battle. But in practice the candidate’s first response was rarely challenged by the people from Fox, who were more focused on rattling through the issues, so there was still plenty of scope for the usual avoidance, meaningless waffle, casual untruths and outrageousness.

There were a few back-and-forths and moments of genuine drama. Rand Paul (for those unfamiliar: avowed libertarian and noted filibusterer, scrappy-looking, multi-tone perm) had clearly nominated himself as the man to derail the Trump Train, jumping in at the first opportunity to accuse the bellowing billionaire of buying political influence. Later, he did it again, scoffing at Trump’s support for a single-payer healthcare system in spite of the fact that Trump had said just a few seconds earlier that he didn’t support a single-payer healthcare system. “I don’t think you heard me”, growled The Donald huffily. Scrappy Rand went for Christie’s ankles too (Christie: big fat New Jersey governor, a bit less big and fat than he once was, hugged Obama in a hurricane) on the subject of civil liberties and national security. For my money, Christie came out of the two hours pretty well: articulate, pragmatic and passionate, in rather sharp contrast to Bush v3.0.

So, we’re off. One down, ten to go. Plus six for the Democrats. And then, at the end, the best bit: when we get to see them all scrambling to line up behind the eventual winner, in spite of having all but accused him (or her – there’s one woman in each party race) of being the devil incarnate. Ah ha ha, bygones and all that. All just part of the game.



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Review: Amy


(Photo: ‘Amy Winehouse at Bowery Ballroom 18’ by Daniel Arnold)

Amy Winehouse (1983-2011) often appeared to be a figure out of time: a jazz singer in the age of pop, a young woman – as someone describes her in Asif Kapadia’s moving movie – with an old soul. This documentary about her life is, in contrast, as modern as they come, relying heavily on material recorded on video cameras and mobile phones, dispensing with the usual talking heads in favor of laying audio from interviews over an apparently limitless supply of footage and stills from her short life, as we’re led with sometimes painful patience through her rise to fame and fall into a collection of ultimately fatal addictions.

On one level, the film might be seen as a study of Amy’s face. All the cameras seem to be both fascinated and disoriented by it: those ever-present stripes of eyeliner; that gaggle of teeth in her over-sized smile; the threat of dark down on lip and jaw; the black eyes that every once in a while ignite with delicious, irresistible mischief. It’s a face that asks you what beautiful is and takes the piss out of your answer.

Aside from the look, her extraordinary voice is of course what everyone remembers, but the film also highlights the disarming and distinctive poetry of Amy’s lyrics, snippets of which appear throughout, written in a notebook in her schoolgirl hand, amid crossings-out and doodled hearts. Without contrivance or embellishment, her words alight on truth after rarely-spoken truth about the complexities of being a young woman in the last decade: one minute vulnerable, swaggering the next, heartbroken then cold of heart. (“I couldn’t resist him, his eyes were like yours, his hair was exactly the shade of brown. He’s just not as tall, but I couldn’t tell, it was dark and I was lying down…”).

Biographies are always tricky, bringing with them the nagging suspicion that the view presented could be partial, that certain elements of the story might have been given undue emphasis while others may have been underplayed or forgotten. Kapadia has stressed in interviews that he approached the subject with total objectivity but, however much we trust him, and in spite of the film’s extensive use of primary material, I was left with questions about the completeness of the story. Amy’s father, for example, emerges as one of the clear villains of the piece (alongside her husband, Blake), and has strongly and publicly rejected the film, and while there are elements of his negative portrayal that seem difficult to explain – particularly the episode when he arrives on St Lucia to visit his daughter during her rehabilitation, bringing along a TV crew – one still wonders if the account could, as he alleges, be somewhat unbalanced. The only time we hear Amy talk about his role in her life during her childhood, it’s to say that he was absent and disengaged (he started an affair when she was 18 months old but didn’t leave her mother for another eight years). Yet she clearly acquired her love of jazz partly from him and, for good or ill, they remained very close throughout her life. In sharp contrast, her childhood friends come across as unerringly and selflessly supportive, with no hint of the jealousy or resentment that might naturally arise when one in a group acquires substantial fame, money and success. That could be the simple truth of it, but I felt compelled to wonder.

The movie invites us to reflect on whether there are wider lessons we might learn from Amy’s sad story. Lightning storms of camera flashes and gangs of pot-bellied paparazzi stumbling down alleyways remind us, if we needed reminding, of the unpalatable side of the fame to which, it seems, she never really aspired, and we get a sense of the duller reality of an artist’s life behind the gloss and glamour: singing the same songs again and again, the treadmill of banal interviews (the Dido one is a particular treat), and periods of eerie quiet when you sit and hope for genius to visit and deliver you that next album the execs are baying for. There’s also a handful of clips of TV comedians making jokes at Amy’s expense during the period when her addictions were at their most ferocious, notably Frankie Boyle describing her as resembling “a campaign poster for neglected horses”. If their inclusion is intended to imply that these comedians were somehow complicit in Amy’s fate, I think that’s unfair. In our current celebrity culture, public figures are fair game for this level of mockery and if we don’t like it we, as a society, have a collective responsibility to change it. We can’t put that on the comedians. And individual celebrities do have the option to remove themselves (very largely) from the public eye. It’s not impossible to do. The tragedy for Amy was that those she trusted most, who had by far the greatest power over her actions and decisions, failed to protect her and her privacy, and she, having fallen victim to her own vulnerability to addiction, was not strong enough to make that choice for herself. If there’s a clear lesson we can draw from her life, it’s not, I think, about the media or the burden of fame. It’s about our understanding of and responses to people with mental illness – people for whom the pressures of fame, if they happen to be subjected to them, will likely prove too much. In one chilling moment in the film, we hear Amy’s mother describe the moment when her daughter, aged 15, told her she’d discovered a great new diet, which involved throwing up everything she ate. In spite of the fact that she was already on anti-depressants, both her parents brushed it off as a temporary phase. One can only hope that today, 15 or so years on, they might have dealt with it differently.

Despite these reservations, overall I found the film an impressive piece of work, successful in immersing the viewer in Amy’s world and music. A few days after watching it, the scene that sticks with me the most is a home video shot by a longtime friend, arriving for a vacation in a villa somewhere in the Mediterranean after the release of Amy’s first album. Amy opens the front door and takes her friend on a tour of the house, expertly playing the part of the Spanish housemaid left to her own devices while her lady employer is out. She gets the accent and the airy gestures perfectly, and is as funny as we might have hoped on the basis of her lyrics. (Opening a tiny high cupboard: “That’s where I sleep”. Pointing to a plastic hook in the shower: “That’s where I sleep when I’ve been bad”). Cheekily, she brandishes a small bag of weed at the camera. This was before she really blew up, and she seemed happy.

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Last week in Charleston

Emanuel AME church

I visited Charleston, South Carolina with my husband for a couple of nights in 2008. It’s a refined, slightly prim coastal city with a colorful history, some charming architecture, good restaurants and a busy tourist trade. It was January, fresh and bright. White church spires split an azure sky. We went on a walking tour along streets lined with palmetto trees, ogling the grand houses with their distinctive side piazzas designed to let in the cool breezes coming off the sea. I remember driving back to Georgia, reflecting that there was something about our northern neighbor – and Charleston in particular – that felt more quintessentially Southern than anywhere else I’d been.

It was in the center of this small, historic city that last Wednesday a twenty-one year old man shot dead nine people in their Bible study class. Not in some strange impoverished backwater on the outskirts of the metro area, not in a housing project or a recognized no-go zone, but right there in the heart of the city, three minutes’ walk from the main public library, eight minutes’ walk from the downtown Apple Store.

And so, America grieves again. We contemplate the victims, the tragedy, the loss. We evoke God and healing and hope. And, this time, we talk about race. The victims were African-American and the shooter is a white supremacist, or a white supremacist sympathizer, or a white supremacist wannabe. This is a story about race – and race, of course, is the American story of these past months. Ferguson. Baltimore. It’s all intricately complex, painful and difficult­, but at least we can talk about it. We talk about it endlessly, in fact, and quite rightly so because the problems are real and action is needed. Anyone who thought racism in America was over when Obama made President ate their hat and their touching naïveté a good while ago.

But Charleston was also about something else that we find harder to talk about. Or maybe not harder – maybe just tiring, boring, repetitious, fruitless, frustrating, depressing, divisive, dead-end.

My British friends shake their heads in disbelief. How can they keep on letting this happen? Why aren’t they shouting and screaming about it, demanding something must be done? Do they realize how insane they look to the rest of the world?

My British friends ask: what is it with Americans and guns?

Britain has some of the most stringent gun laws in the world. Handguns are almost completely prohibited, and next to no-one keeps a firearm in their home. Regular police don’t even carry them. To many British people, merely catching sight of a gun would be shocking. A single mass shooting would be – has been, in the form of the 1996 Dunblane massacre that prompted a further tightening of the law – talked about and etched on memories forever.

Yes, Charleston was about racism, and racism is a huge issue for the US, but every country has its racists and its bigots. Every country has its disaffected youth, its mentally ill, its weak and desperate and dispossessed. But, among comparable nations, only America has the guns, in these numbers, with this level of access and public acceptance. And, among wealthy countries with relative political stability, only America has this much murder. The evidence suggests that, if Dylann Roof was the same sort of racist, with the same intensity of anger and hatred, but living in Britain instead of America, the chances of his having murdered nine people would be vastly reduced.

Now, I don’t claim any kind of expertise when it comes to explaining American gun culture. I haven’t done nearly enough reading about it to understand the nuances and complexities and historical explanations. But I have lived for the past eight years in one of the states with the most lenient gun laws in the country, a state that, in 2014, enacted a piece of legislation known as the “guns everywhere law”, which allows firearms to be carried freely in – amongst most other places – government offices, airports, places of worship and school classrooms. On that basis, for what it’s worth, I have a few thoughts on what it is with Americans and guns.

At the risk of stating the obvious, the first thing to say is that not all Americans feel the same way about the issue. There are those who, like my British friends, feel that it’s crazy and shameful and can’t go on, and there are numerous American anti-gun campaign organizations.

But, as we all know, there is an opposite end to that spectrum, where those who love guns with a passion dwell: those who go to shows and accumulate collections; who study and cherish and polish and display; who put pictures of their weapons on Facebook and buy gun owners’ magazines. The motivations for this fervent gun-love, which is not generally regarded as especially niche or eccentric, at least here in the South, seem to be primarily symbolic and sentimental. Some see guns as representing America’s pioneer history, a patriotic symbol of resistance to oppression and anti-authoritarianism. They cite the Second Amendment of the Constitution, which gives citizens the right to bear arms so they need never be tyrannized again. It can be about class and politics too, with an overt love of firearms a defiant gesture against all the big government liberals, a howl for the sanctity of personal freedom, a cry of pride from the rural hunters aimed at the ears of the city-dwelling, soft-skinned educational and professional elites. It’s this distinction, or some version of it – this idea of ‘two Americas’ – that underpins so much of the antagonistic political discourse in this country today. And, it can be personal. The father quietly teaches the son to handle and respect a weapon; the first gun as a rite of passage; hunting trips as a bonding experience enjoyed across a lifetime. Guns as masculinity.

And finally, of course, there are reasons of fear, which have a wider reach: you don’t have to be any sort of gun-lover to want to protect yourself or your family, or to wonder whether, in a country overrun with weapons, providing that protection requires you to take up arms yourself, however reluctantly. Between the enthusiasts and the anti-gun campaigners, there’s a pragmatic space where gun ownership can reasonably seem like a real-world solution to a real-world problem. Personally, I’ve never given it serious consideration, partly, I think, because as a British person it just seems anathema to civilization. I’m fortunate to have the choice to live in a fairly safe neighborhood, and beyond that I’d rather roll the dice and take my chances ­– something which I think Americans maybe find it harder to do. But also I’ve never really followed the logic: if you keep your gun locked away, which you must in order to be safe, what are the chances that, in a real attack situation, things would unfold in such a way that owning it would make any difference? Wayne LaPierre, Executive VP of the National Rifle Association (NRA), famously said: “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun”. Assuming that good guy can get into the right room of the house, remember the combination to his safe, recall the detail of that firearms training session he attended several years ago, and sustain sufficient composure to aim accurately and pull the trigger. Oh, and be the one to do it first. Still, I understand the fear.

So there’s pride and patriotism and family and fear, and what’s really important to understand is that these feelings are all propped up by a whole industry with a vested interest in perpetuating them. The NRA and the gun manufacturers run a fantastically successful PR operation, so powerful that they manage to whitewash almost all the facts and figures, and maintain a grip on public opinion that prevents the kind of widespread outcry that might actually force legislators into making some meaningful change. In an interview earlier this week, President Obama admitted that during the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting, when 20 young children were brutally gunned down in their elementary classrooms and Congress responded by making no changes whatsoever, was the closest he’s come in his two terms to losing his optimism and feeling real disgust. For as long as public support maintains the awesome power of the gun lobby, only relatively minor adjustments – what politicians like to refer to as “common sense gun safety measures”, like universal background checks or tighter restrictions on military-style semi-automatic weapons – seem even theoretically possible. The kind of radical legislation that might bring America anywhere close to a British-style minimal firearms culture feels several worlds away.

Shootings like the one in Charleston last week are not inevitable. They are not natural disasters. They can be stopped, and have been stopped in other countries, by legislation that makes it a whole lot harder for people who are sick or angry or blinded by hate to get their hands on guns. Making it happen in America cannot be impossible, but would, I fear, require a truly profound and pervasive change of hearts and minds. Advocates for gun control would need somehow to roar louder than the behemoth pro-gun lobby to convince people that free access to firearms really does cause more death, and that, whatever their reasons for wanting to hold on to their weapons, the loss of all these innocent lives is too high a price to pay. And that might be the easy part. Statistically, it is highly questionable that owning or carrying a gun makes anyone safer but, in the face of fear, we may need more than statistics. In order to shift public opinion, we would have to persuade individuals that, while they may feel – may, it’s possible, even be – personally safer with a gun than without one, overall we are all less safe with the gun laws that we have in this country, and if we’re any sort of society, if America as an entity really means something after all, that’s what ought to matter to us most. Ultimately, real change on one untouchable subject may depend on confronting another: the individual versus the collective, the question of the greater good. It may, in the end, come down to empathy. And if it turns out that Americans simply don’t have enough, that’ll be one more tragedy.

Photo: Emanuel AME Church, Charleston SC by Howard Arnoff https://www.flickr.com/photos/howardarnoff/

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On needing more words for depression


The word ‘depression’ can mean a whole bunch of different things – too many, in my view.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines depression as “feelings of severe despondency and dejection” and clinical depression as “a mental condition characterized by feelings of severe despondency and dejection, typically also with feelings of inadequacy and guilt, often accompanied by lack of energy and disturbance of appetite and sleep”. Both sound like a day at Disneyland, obviously, but notice that both are also very much umbrella terms: we could be talking anything from the deep sadness that follows, say, a relationship break-up, to years spent semi-catatonic, hardly able to get out of bed. The definitions say nothing about causes, triggers, duration, treatment or numerous other factors that distinguish the multifarious experiences we bundle together under this one big woolly word.

I think we need several words instead of the word depression not just because I’m a stickler for semantic orderliness (though I do totally get hot for some of that) but also because I think the breadth and vagueness of the word can often make being depressed, in whatever sense, even harder and more lonely.

It might help to consider a physical analogy – which, in itself, says quite a bit about where we are on understanding mental health, but hey. Imagine that, instead of the terms ‘asthma’, ‘chronic bronchitis’ and ‘lung cancer’ we had just one overarching term, let’s say ‘chest trouble’. Now imagine you had one of these three conditions – asthma, chronic bronchitis or lung cancer. A doctor could do the appropriate tests, discuss your symptoms in detail with you, identify the precise nature of your ‘chest trouble’, and treat you accordingly. But in normal, everyday conversation, there’d be no easy way, no quick label you could use, to tell someone precisely what you had. That might feel quite disabling, right? It could make it hard to communicate, and lead to misunderstandings and false equivalencies. It might even, by compounding your physical symptoms with feelings of frustration, isolation and confusion, make you feel materially worse. It might actually change the way you experienced your condition.

I’ve been getting treatment for what, in this sad state of lexical paucity, can best be described as ‘episodic depression’ since I was 20, though I’m pretty sure I remember the black dog – or, as a dear and sometimes-depressed friend has coined it, TOLGOD (“The One-Legged Goblin Of Doom”) – lurking around the edges of my peripheral vision back into my teens, perhaps even before. My relationship with SSRI (Prozac family) anti-depressants has been on-off and somewhat uneasy over the past 18 years. I’ve never liked the idea of being dependent on medication, it’s never sat easily with my self-image or control-freakish tendencies, and these drugs are still relatively new and we still don’t really know what the implications of their long-term use might be. Every so often, I’ve come off them just to check on my baseline state. The last time I did this was towards the end of 2013. I’d ended up on an unusually high dose, having experienced additional anxiety when my son was a baby, and started to pick up on some physical signs that caused me concern, including my periods grinding to a halt, so I wanted to clean things out, give my body a chance to reset and see how the land lay. My doctor warned me it wouldn’t be easy, and she wasn’t joking: the first day I reduced my dose was followed by a grim sleepless night of palpitations, hot flushes and lurching nausea, which only confirmed my suspicions about the strength of the stuff. Determined to persevere, I phased them out incrementally, finally stopping altogether by the end of November that year. What followed was a blighted Christmas, and three more bad, exhausting depressive episodes in the space of about ten weeks. In February, I went to my doctor and cried a lot and agreed to go back on the meds.

My doctor – a blessedly calm, pragmatic, Indian-American woman who happens to be just two months older than me – listened patiently and said some wise, illuminating things that, amazingly, after all those years, I’d never heard before. “You’ve got depression. It’s not you, it’s a condition, like high blood pressure – some people just have it and we don’t really know why. You’re unlucky, but there are things that can help”. I explained that I felt profoundly disappointed in myself; that I couldn’t escape the thought that I should be stronger and somehow capable of controlling it. Her very slight smile said: Oh, you Type As, you make me crazy. “You can’t fix a broken mind with a broken mind”, she said.

A depressive episode for me is different from sadness, and it doesn’t stop me getting out of bed. It’s not a matter of magnitude – or not primarily, anyway: while we might say some of the conditions we refer to as ‘depression’ are, in certain ways, worse than others, the main point is that they are just qualitatively different. That’s why, I think, we need different words – at least three, and probably many more.

Here’s my best attempt at describing what a depressive episode feels like for me. (Incidentally, I’ve never been able to pinpoint any triggers, and these days I‘m 99 per cent sure none exist, perhaps apart from shifts in my body chemistry). It starts with a portentously familiar feeling, like that ephemeral sense you sometimes get that you’re coming down with a cold. Sometimes I feel fatigued, like everything is harder work than usual, but it’s subtle, and often I will only realize later, when things have built up, that the feeling was there at all. Over the course of a few days or a couple of weeks, that quiet hum gradually crescendos to a roar, a cacophonic blast of rough, overwhelming emotion. The feelings are panic, fear, despair – and it’s feelings that define it, rather than thoughts, but one of its most insidious features is that it will hook on to certain negative thoughts and insecurities, and inflate them beyond any reasonable size. For example, work is a sensitive issue for me having let my career slide since having a child, but what are normally fairly calm, measured thoughts, mild worries at worst, transform during a depressive episode into Oh my god it’s all gone wrong, I’ve made a terrible mistake that’s completely unfixable, I’m a fundamentally incapable person… It’s very undermining. And there’s this kind of double consciousness that goes with it, too: on one level, I know I’m in the grip of a depressive episode and therefore that I probably shouldn’t pay too much attention to the thoughts running through my head, but at the same time the depression whispers in my ear: This bit is the truth. It’s actually now that you’re seeing clearly. After all, when you think about it, don’t you always end up here?

Once things reach their peak, it typically takes no more than a day or two for me to wear myself out with all the invisible battling – oh, and the weeping, so much weeping, endless and unstoppable, more tears than one pair of eyes ought to be able to produce. Then I enter a recovery phase, when I coddle myself like I’m frail or sick, reducing living to a series of very small, simple components, taking each slowly in turn. One. Foot. In front. Of the other. That’ll last for a week or two. It’s a fair chunk of lost time.

To me, depression feels like whatever it is that anchors me to some kind of equilibrium, some general, fundamental sense that life is under control and things are going to be basically okay, suddenly gets cast adrift, and it’s only by flailing about in the water that I’m able, somehow, eventually, to get it back in the sand.

Inevitably, that account feels inadequate, and I have no idea how much it might resonate with anyone else, but what I do know is that since my doctor helped me gain some clarity about exactly what it is – this thing I’ve got, that I’ve been dragging around with me for most of my life – I’ve taken a leap in learning to accept it and finally found some sort of peace. I’m now on a low dose of Lexapro and it’s been over a year since my last depressive episode. Maybe there’ll come a day when I don’t need the drugs, and maybe there won’t, but for now I’m glad to have stopped resisting what, for now, can help me. A better understanding has been key to that, but a more precise word – one that differentiated my experience from all those other things we call ‘depression’; one that sounded less dull and more violent; one that captured the relative brevity and painful repetition of my episodes, as well as the propensity of my particular condition to be controlled by medication – a word like that might, I think, have got me here more quickly. Crucially, a clearer label would have made it easier to communicate my experience to others, and helped me avoid some of the understandable misunderstandings that at times compounded my pain by making me feel silenced and alone. We use language to connect with one another and interpret our own experience. Better words may help us get better.

Photo: ‘Abstrato’ by Guilherme Yagui https://www.flickr.com/photos/yagui7/


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Review: the end of Mad Men*

Mad Men finale

*includes spoilers

It’s taken me more than a week to put fingers to keyboard about Mad Men’s ending because, for a while, to tell the truth it left me a little speechless.

I wish they hadn’t divided the final season into two. Stringing it out so far past its moment at the peak of the zeitgeist was less than the show deserved, and the break was so long I spent the first part of the concluding seven-episode run scrambling to catch up with where the plot had got to, and then it seemed to be over almost before it began. I never sank back into it, both because it all happened too quickly and also because those final episodes wandered outside of the main Mad Men world: instead of a big indulgent reprise of all our favorite characters and tropes, they gave us Don’s waitress, and Richard, Joan’s cravat-wearing paramour, and a roadtrip to California. Maybe we should have expected it. Unlike advertising, Mad Men never made its money giving us what we want.

My struggle to articulate an overall reaction to the conclusion of this eight-year epic also reflected the fact that the writers opted to forego any kind of final fanfare in favor of several smaller closings, which worked variably for me.

Don’s story culminated with an enigmatic smile while meditating on a cliffside at a hippie retreat, cutting to the seminal 1971 ‘Hilltop’ TV ad for Coca-Cola (“I’d like to give the world a Coke”), created in real life by his fictional employer, McCann Erickson. There’s no consensus about exactly how we were intended to interpret this. My first thought was that Peggy wrote the ad, inspired by Don’s account of his experience (there was a brief clip of her with Stan at the typewriter, looking like she’d just typed something profound), but the prevailing view seems to be that Don wrote the ad on returning to his life in New York, never really changing like he never really changed. Regardless, his ending felt as coy as the curling of his lips. I might rather have left him at that Utah bus stop, having traded his car for vicarious redemption, sitting in the sun and smiling a real, wide smile of something like unencumbered freedom.

If there was one abiding theme of Mad Men, it was surely the illusoriness of fairytales – or, to put it another way: getting real and growing up. In the final episodes, Joan, who had once advised Peggy that if she played her cards right she could nab a rich husband and never have to work again, came to understand the importance of work and career to her own identity and fulfilment, a revelation of self-discovery that, while not without its price, certainly felt like progress. Similarly, occasional villain Pete Campbell, who had always so envied Don’s charisma and devil-may-care attitude, not only identified his mistake in giving up his wife and child, humbling himself to ask their forgiveness, but also appeared to reach an understanding and acceptance of his own place in the world, acknowledging to Peggy that, while people would one day brag of having worked with her, the same was unlikely of him. And yet, he was always good at his job, for which he now reaped the rewards, boarding his Lear jet to Wichita, receding hairline flapping happily in the breeze. Their tearless, touchless goodbye was so wonderfully restrained and real.

Peggy’s own ending was more of a mixed bag. The two-hander between her (on rollerskates) and Roger Sterling in episode 12 felt slightly self-indulgent on the part of the program makers; the closest the show came, I think, to giving us a glimpse through the fourth wall. Her fabulously brazen, Sandy-at-the-end-of-Grease arrival at McCann almost made up for that, and again I might rather have left her at that point, but there was more to come when, in the final episode, she and Stan starred in an unexpected set-piece of pure rom-com fantasy. A fairytale in a tale about the hopelessness of fairytales, I’m afraid it didn’t land for me. In general, I’m not sure I buy the idea of falling in love without knowing about it, and, more to the point, her boss and close friend-or-whatever had just that moment dropped some very heavy hints that he might be about to do himself in. However much Stan might have been right that she needed to cut the cord with Don, now did not quite seem like the time – for detaching or for smooching. For me, it simply didn’t ring true. And I didn’t care much either way about their happy ending.

Much more satisfying was Betty, whose ending was more tangible than most. Facing advanced terminal cancer, her refusal to give in to despair or subject her children to the slow, painful death she’d lived through with her own mother – her gift, as she put it, to know when to move on – almost made it hard to remember the shallow, brittle, desperately aspirational ingénue we met in Season One. Her letter to Sally was full of raw honesty, in its implied respect and awkward affection as well as its unapologetic vanity, and her phonecall with Don, when she called him “honey” and told him, kindly but plainly, that his absence was an essential component of their children’s normality, was almost unbearably sad.

So, all in all, a messy end to Mad Men, perhaps fitting for a show that told us to embrace life’s essential messiness. “You can move past this”, Don counsels Stephanie, wracked with guilt about abandoning her child, “You always can”. No, she tells him, that’s not right. Sometimes we have to stop and deal with stuff. Back on the east coast, Henry asks Betty why she’s continuing with college following her diagnosis. “Why was I ever doing it?”, she replies, a flirty twinkle still in her eye. Because life’s for living, she’s saying, even when it’s going to end. No easy answers, no fairytales. As Matthew Weiner himself might have said: it’s all about the journey. That, Don Draper, legendary peddler of beautiful illusions, is what grown-ups come to know.

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