Danger & Deliverance At Eaglesfield School London (’94 to ’99)

Eaglesfield Secondary School
Eaglesfield School’s original building

At some point during my 3rd year of secondary school, our class tutor Mr Roles came into the room with a suspicious glint in his eye and announced that we would be getting a new student. Mr Roles had round hobbit-like features, mousy-coloured hair, and a voice that you couldn’t call quite high-pitched, but sounded like somebody had left an elastic band wrapped around his larynx. He was a decent bloke who rarely unleashed his fury unless circumstances required it.

Mr Roles declared that our new student would fit right into our class; that he was tall and skinny and at about the same academic level as the rest of us. He opened the door to the teacher’s office where the student was supposedly waiting, and produced a plank of wood.

“This is Plank,” Mr Roles said, “and I want everyone to make him feel welcome.”

I laughed out loud, and was the only one that did. Mr Roles seemed happy enough.

The school in question was Eaglesfield in southeast London’s borough of Woolwich—a large five-building secondary school for boys that seemed gargantuan at the time. There was the original two-story classic redbrick building that sat in the middle of the grounds, with pleasant white paint-chipped windows, one of which was smashed during a lesson by a student who decided that his wrist would be the best thing to open it with. This was the most handsome building of the five. It contained classrooms for languages, maths, and art, and the headmaster’s office—Mr McCarthy, a broad and sturdy man who was imposing as his position dictates. He addressed us on our first day like a general addresses his soldiers, and if I were ever called to his office for punishment, I imagined he’d just look at me for five minutes while I withered like candy floss in a stream. I was acutely aware of the location of his office for this reason, and amazed some years later when a fellow student claimed to have remotely hacked into his computer, laughing at the potential wrath of such a commanding fellow. Bullshit in hindsight.

This building is where I had French lessons, run by the most pitiful teacher in the school—Mrs Paterson, or “Edna” to the students after they discovered her first name was Edwina. Choosing teaching as a career was surely the worst decision of her life. She didn’t seem to have a single attribute that makes a good teacher—being engaging, enthusiastic, patient, able to command respect, and most importantly, having the grit to handle 30 little bastards who wanted to make her life hell. When she turned her back to write something on the chalkboard, someone yelled “EDNA!” at the top of their lungs, or made a random noise like “BARP” or “MNEEH” or some other vocal abomination that made her whip around like a furious owl, eyes scanning the room for the culprit she could never find. Or if the boys felt like mixing it up a bit, they’ll scrunch up paper and throw it at her. The poor woman must have been miserable—I hear she cried on more than one occasion. Hopefully it got to the point where she pursued a different career or found a nicer school. Or maybe deep down she really did have the qualities and determination to be a good teacher, and that her reputation at Eaglesfield was like a curse that doomed her every step.

The other large building in the school was perched on a hill about 50 metres away, and was a four-story mass of concrete and glass that towered over the grounds, some nightmare of modernity that threatened to engulf all that was classical and beautiful. This is where I was taught English, Geography, History (three of my favourite subjects), Religious Education, and some other subjects I can’t recall. It’s also where lunch was served, and was home to Mr Roles and Plank, in a top-floor corner classroom with excellent views across the borough of Greenwich. This same classroom is where I was taught geography by Mr Walton, a scrawny and cheerful Yorkshireman who for some reason always had a cut down the middle of his upper lip that looked horribly sore. At the start of every class he’d say “bums on seats fellas, bums on seats,” like a hypnotising incantation that somehow compelled us to sit down. He was a great teacher—friendly, charismatic, and one of the few I remember fondly. In fact, the Geography department seemed to be made up of some of the best Eaglesfield School teachers—a group of three or four men (Mr Roles included) who taught us about countries and cities and volcanoes and earned the respect of every one of us. They congregated in the office where Plank lived—a sacred place that you had to knock to gain entry to. On the same level a few doors down was the office of Mr O’Sullivan, a history teacher and head of our year, who after sending a certain Indian boy there for detention, was unfortunate enough to return and find him masturbating furiously in his chair, as though detention was a real thrill. I suppose porn was a lot harder to come by in those days.

At the other end of this building was an outside staircase and balcony that went up to the first floor, and when it snowed, this was the place where boys went to battle. It was pandemonium. Two battalions of students formed—one who took position on the balcony, and one that took position on the grass opposite. They pelted each other as though their lives depended on it, and it was during such a time that I was hit squarely in the testicles with a gloriously-aimed snowball, which sent me crashing to the ground like a demolished building, with flurries of snowballs continuing to batter me. I haven’t experienced pain like it since—top marks to the boy who threw it. This rear end of the school was also home to the main playground, which being on a hill (like most of the school), sloped steeply upwards, prompting the school’s designers to install 45 degree concrete slopes topped with grabbing bars, which in today’s world, would require a helmet and the signing of a release form to take on. Maybe those designers foresaw the molly-coddling culture that would infect parenting and teaching, and decided to fight against it by showing kids that a broken collarbone isn’t the worst thing in the world. We darted up and down those slopes like Sisyphus himself, bruised and battered, but never defeated.

This building is also where English was taught, another subject for which I have fond memories. One of my teachers was the beguiling Miss Woods—a gorgeous blonde who I assume every straight boy and male teacher daydreamed about. Sometimes, when she had a skirt on, she sat on the cabinets at the front of the class and put her feet on a nearby desk, and every boy put a knuckle in his mouth. I irritated her once because I pointed out a spelling mistake on the chalkboard, an ungodly taboo when dealing with an English teacher, especially when coming from a teenage wretch trying to be a smartarse. I fear our romantic destiny was derailed at that point. This building also contained the formidable Mr Keith—a wiry mathematics teacher with a grey crew-cut who looked like he’d walked straight off a military base. He believed that severity was the best way to command a pupil’s respect, and if it had been ten years earlier, I’ve no doubt he would have taken pleasure in caning us. Though he never taught me, there were stories of him pelting students with chalkboard rubbers if they were caught daydreaming, an action long out of practice in the teaching world, but still considered fair game by this nightmare of a man. His eyes bulged so much that he could probably glare through walls, and if there’s one teacher that people will remember from that school, it’s him. Terror has a knack of staying with you.

The PE (Physical Education) building was connected to this second building and looked different still—a redbrick of a different tone, but with far fewer windows and none of them pleasant. It housed a swimming pool (a rarity for schools in the borough), a basketball court, and the necessary washrooms and classrooms where the men could be separated from the boys. One of the boys in my year had a monumental mishap during a swimming lesson, the front of his pants bulging in a way that didn’t go down well with a class full of semi-naked boys—perhaps the poor lad was daydreaming about Miss Woods? His solution was to jump headfirst into the deep end where his passion could be extinguished.

Adjacent to the PE building were four or five tennis courts, and next to them a mammoth grass field that made up the bottom area of the school’s grounds. This is where hundreds of boys descended for lunch, booting footballs past makeshift goals made of school bags, and launching two-footed tackles at each other without worrying about a referee or VAR.

Eaglesfield’s pool today. Formerly the place of choice to quell an erection.

The PE teachers were three guys who were less like teachers and more like fun uncles. There was Mr Smyrk who I never once saw smirking, Mr Fischer who looked like a Charlton Athletic player called John Robinson, and Mr Haines who wore glasses and looked like a 30-year old Harry Potter. They were blokes in the classic sense of the word—constantly pissing about, digging each other’s ribs, and lovingly shoving you onto a football field covered with winter ice. They were our chaperones when we went to France for a skiing trip in the winter of 1999, and because the legal age of drinking was 16 in that wonderful country, they turned a blind eye to the inevitable boozing that went on. On the final night of our trip, they assembled a mock court where each of us were charged with a crime, and given a punishment for the evening like ten push ups whenever we swore, or not being allowed to talk to girls without our tongues being out. Through our 16-year old eyes, they couldn’t have been any cooler.

The fourth building was nestled between the PE block and the original building, with a footbridge connecting their upper floors. It was dedicated to science. I can’t for the life of me remember what it looked like, but it was probably ugly. We had our GCSE exams in this building, and during the biology exam, our teacher shiftily whispered the correct answer to me *diaphragm*, which I assume was a desperate attempt to save a failing school that closed a few years later. Over in the chemistry lab, a fiendish little shit called Philip decided to douse a chemical in water to see what would happen, and the lab started to fill up with a noxious purple smoke that definitely didn’t belong in the lungs of teenage boys. I’m not sure why, but the substitute teacher kept us trapped inside for five minutes before some of the bigger students got bored and heaved her out of the way.

The science building had two levels, with an open staircase in the middle of the building that had a balcony to drop things onto people’s heads—empty coke bottles, Opal Fruits, chewed Bubbaloos, pencils, backpacks, or whatever else was at hand. Somebody decided to do this with a full bottle of water, and instead of getting an unsuspecting boy, they instead walloped our Scottish chemistry teacher with it, who came into the class ten minutes later, wrote “I am not a victim” on the board, then burst into tears and fled. I felt dreadful despite being a bystander.

I also studied physics in the science building, run by Mr Porter—a stout male teacher with brown hair, a commanding voice, and a knack for explaining his horribly complicated subject. One day, when teaching us about Newton’s forces using a pellet gun and target, my still-good friend Scott looked down the barrel as he was about to shoot, and the look on Mr Porter’s face said “what have I done to deserve this.” When we had our final Physics exam that year, one of the teachers wrote “Fizz-icks (very hard science)” on the whiteboard, which showed the mandatory sense of humour for being a successful teacher at Eaglesfield.

Original building on the left, science behind next to it, PE building at the back, and the other main building on the right.

The fifth and final building was the smallest—a one-story cube of concrete that was home to design and technology (DT—formerly known as woodwork). It was here that we fumbled about with wood and metal and glue and tried not to chop our fingers off with high-powered mechanical equipment. On this topic, one of my classmates got distracted while chiselling a piece of wood with a fixed circular saw, put the tip of his finger into the saw’s side, then screamed like a banshee and flicked his hand about which temporarily turned the room into a Tarantino film set. I can still see the blood splattered across the faces of my classmates, and the look of horror on the teacher’s face as he beheld the flattened tip of the boy’s newly-squared digit. Being a teacher at that school must have felt like trying to educate a flock of insolent sheep who are anxious to run off the nearest cliff. When we weren’t busy maiming ourselves, we’d twist open every available Pritt Stick and launch them into the ceiling. And when there were no more Pritt Sticks, we’d stick our chewing gum onto the end of our pencils and do the same. The room ended up looking like one of Indiana Jones’ temples.

So those were the five buildings of Eaglesfield Secondary School in London (there may have been some other buildings I’ve forgotten), and just a few of the antics that I personally remember. The school was a force to be reckoned with. The borough in which it lived—Woolwich—certainly wasn’t the most dangerous in London, but it was up there. Many of the kids who went to Eaglesfield were from poor homes, where life was tougher than it should have been. I was fortunate enough to come from a stable, comfortable home (thanks mum and dad) which unfortunately doesn’t prepare you for a lion’s den in which a large portion of the kids prowled about with teeth and claws that they’d happily sink into you. So I’d try to make myself as small as possible to avoid being mauled, and while the strategy worked, it also forged bitter resentment towards my bigger, stronger, and more violent peers, especially when they used their dominance to jump the lunch queue and leave me with the saddest jacket potato in England. I guess this is only fair given how well-fed I was at home.

Once, a group of the biggest and roughest scallywags in our year planned a coordinated attack on the local shop. It wasn’t a complicated plan—they just used their collective strength to storm the shop, grabbed as many sweets and drinks as they could, and then left. I went along to watch, and after the last boy came running out the door with a carton of Pepsis, the Indian shop owner appeared in the doorway looking utterly wretched, helpless to stem the attack on his precious supplies. This shameful event was brought up by our year’s head teacher at the next assembly, but I have no idea if anyone got into trouble for it, or whether punishment would have done anything at all to prevent future crime.

So Eaglesfield brimmed with rough and ready bastards, but I had my group of friends to help me through. There were five of us, and the leader was John—a stocky blonde kid who always had too much gel in his hair and kicked a football the way a mule would kick his greatest enemy. I once asked him how he walloped the leather so mightily, and he said “I been playing football since I was three innit.” As the naturally bigger kid, John was the one that everyone in our group wanted to please, as though his bulk could offer us some protection against the torrent of potential violence that surrounded us. He was like a small albino bull that was cute but somehow threatening.

My best friend in the group was Steve. His dad was in the military, so he lived on a military housing estate in the depths of Woolwich, a place that I visited once and never wanted to visit again. He had a broad face and a smile that seemed to wrap around the entire bottom half of his head, and he could jump onto the tall science tables in a single leap, something I assume his dad taught him in some kind of military bonding exercise. When the school arranged a paintball trip for our class, Steve was the one who captured the flag by crawling through the mud undetected, like a WW2 soldier squelching through a boggy French field. I stayed in the safety of a tower and shot anyone who approached him. Steve was a legend—one of the few kids at school who I could really talk to, and I hope that he felt the same way about me. He messaged me a few years after school wanting to catch up, but for some reason we never got around to organising it, and I assume there’s now 15,000 kilometres between us.

Then there was Ricky, a painfully skinny blonde lad who had translucent skin and looked like the ghost of Mr Burns. Ricky and I were never that close, maybe because early in our friendship we agreed to a no-holds barred insult match in which we wrote horrible things about each other and then read them. I remember him welling up at my contribution, and I felt terrible about it but for some reason didn’t apologise. This probably bolstered his conviction when this same group of friends bullied me for about six months straight and suddenly stopped, which felt like a torturer who yells “surprise,” points out the candid cameras, and then gives you a warm hug; a nightmarish alternative universe where Jeremy Beadle is a nasty little bastard with two tiny hands. Those months remain the most miserable of my life, and I wonder what kind of person I’d be today if they’d gone on for longer. But I don’t resent them for it. We were all just stupid kids who didn’t know any better.

Deano was the final friend in our group—a gangly black kid whose teeth looked like they’d been slung into his gums by a medieval catapult. Not a single one of his gnashers had agreed to go in the same direction, and Dean was clearly abashed by these circumstances, sporting braces for years before they finally resigned themselves to two coherent rows. Dean made up for his unfortunate choppers by being an all-round nice guy. He spoke in a soft, polite way that endeared me to him, and when he laughed it was the most tremendous cackle I’ve ever heard that didn’t come from a witch. And fuck me, he could run. Playing It with him was like trying to catch a firework—the boy could change direction in a way that defied physics, leaving you in a cloud of dust that echoed with mocking laughter. He might have made a fine rugby player, and in fact our school had a famous rugby past that had all-but died by the time I arrived there, succumbing to the popularity of football. Dean is the only person in this group that I’m friends with on Facebook, and if by chance he ever stumbles on this, I hope he doesn’t take offence at what I’ve written because he remains a lovely bloke.

Between the five of us, we managed to get through the formidable Eaglesfield School in Woolwich, and on reflection, I have some good memories of the place. Many of the kids who went there give it a bad rap, but it wasn’t that awful a place to get an education. Three-quarters of the teachers seemed to be good at their jobs, and genuinely tried to educate us well, they just happened to be teaching a lot of kids from poor backgrounds, many of them worn down by unfortunate circumstances and rebelling in the only way they knew how. Put those teachers in a school with rich kids, and they’d have been working with putty instead of steel, but they grafted and toiled and kept their sense of humour despite the immensity of the challenge, and for that I salute them.

I made new friends in my final sixth form year at Eaglesfield, and am still close with most of them. The school closed a couple of years after I left, but quickly re-opened its doors as Shooters Hill Sixth Form College—a place that seems to be having more success than its predecessor. It would have been a shame to close a school with such great facilities, and I’m glad that the spirit of Eaglesfield lives on in its classrooms and halls, like a menace waiting for a chance to trip you up in the hallway, bustle you to the back of the lunch queue, or launch a snowball directly at your testicles.

Radical Acceptance | The Power Of Welcoming Pain

radical acceptance
Photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash

Many of us feel we’re not good enough. We suffer from a pervasive sense of inadequacy that compels us to chase after glittering goods, shiny platinum cards, and nods of respect, to dampen the voice that repeatedly declares our deficiency.

It doesn’t work, of course. The unworthiness that we feel is in our bones, and no amount of fame or fortune can expel it. On the contrary, we can spend a lifetime slipping and straining for greatness, and when we examine our soul after finally achieving the thing that should have rocketed us to bliss, are horrified to discover that we feel exactly the same as before. Unworthiness is nourishment for our inner demons. It’s their primary food source, and as they gorge themselves again and again, their bellies expand and their voices rise to a deafening pitch, blocking out all else.

In Tara Brach’s Radical Acceptance, she offers us a solution. Tara is a lifelong Buddhist and therapist, and in her sweeping experience of Buddhism and psychology, believes that the only way for us to escape the “trance of unworthiness” is with a pure and thorough acceptance of our experience—what she calls radical acceptance. For Tara, our emotional pain cannot be healed by striving for more. It’s healed by an unadulterated acceptance of our moment to moment experience.

The idea is rooted in Buddhist philosophy. Sankhara-dukkha is the “basic unsatisfactoriness pervading all existence,” with a sense that things never measure up to our expectations.1 The problem is caused by our desire for something better than our current experience, and this addictive striving for the remarkable blinds us to the incredible richness of the present moment. When we’re able to accept each moment exactly as it is, no matter how painful it may be, we relieve ourselves of unnecessary suffering and become participants in our own lives. We’re no longer frustrated spectators existing solely in our own heads. Or as D.H Lawrence put it, we’ve gone from great uprooted trees with our roots in the air, to planting ourselves in the universe again. In Dante’s Inferno, he expressed the idea in a different way, with the way out of hell lying at its very center. Henry Thoreau wrote “dwell as near as possible to the channel in which your life flows,” and The Beatles wrote “when you find yourself in times of trouble, mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be.” They’re all saying the same thing: embrace every experience with acceptance, and you’ll be free from suffering.

“Radical Acceptance reverses our habit of living at war with experiences that are unfamiliar, frightening, or intense. It is the necessary antidote to years of neglecting ourselves, years of judging and treating ourselves harshly, years of rejecting this moment’s experience. Radical Acceptance is the willingness to experience our life as it is. A moment of Radical Acceptance is a moment of genuine freedom.”

Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance

Fighting painful emotions is like fighting rain clouds—sometimes the sky darkens, and there’s nothing you can about it. Pain isn’t wrong, and reacting to it in this way strengthens our sense of unworthiness, and keeps our life small. As Buddhist Haruki Murakami once said, “pain is inevitable, but suffering optional.”

“Rather than trying to vanquish waves of emotion and rid ourselves of an inherently impure self, we turn around and embrace this life in all its realness—broken, messy, mysterious, and vibrantly alive. By cultivating an unconditional and accepting presence, we are no longer battling against ourselves, keeping our wild and imperfect self in a cage of judgment and mistrust. Instead, we are discovering the freedom of becoming authentic and fully alive.”

Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance

Anyone familiar with Nietzsche’s philosophy will recognise this. It echoes his concept of amor fati—the idea that you should love your fate, whatever it throws at you.

“My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendacity in the face of what is necessary—but love it.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals / Ecce Homo

The concept of radical acceptance can be found in Stoic philosophy too:

“Lead me, O Zeus, and thou, O Destiny.
The way that I am bid by you to go:
To follow I am ready. If I choose not,
I make myself a wretch; and still must follow.”

Epictetus, Enchiridion

You cannot avoid all pain, and by trying to, you’re creating more pain for yourself. This idea has echoed throughout history, with the Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, Jainists, existentialists, stoics, and god knows how many other thinkers coming to the same conclusion. Tara is just one of many proponents, but has written her book with such skill and clarity that it deserves to sit on the same shelf as the greats. And while the point did feel a little laboured by the end of the book, the importance of the message crushes any small criticisms that I have.

“The boundary to what we can accept is the boundary to our freedom.”

Tara Brach,  Radical Acceptance

So how do we practice radical acceptance? There’s two parts—mindfulness, and compassion. We need mindfulness to pause and recognise what we’re feeling from moment to moment, and we need compassion to sympathise with it. It sounds simple, and while most of us want a fix quick for our emotional pain, radical acceptance isn’t something that happens overnight. It takes years of practice through meditation, reflection, and the techniques outlined in the book, which include pausing, naming and saying “yes” to our emotions, listening to our bodies, leaning into fear, widening the lens, offering forgiveness, and having the courage to be vulnerable. But if we commit ourselves wholeheartedly to these practices, the result is a profound sense of peace, contentment, and love.

I’ll admit, I usually find this type of thing a little nauseating. Radical Acceptance was a book filled with this kind of spiritual talk, but because I agree with the author’s message, and the Buddhist philosophy from which it springs, I believed every mushy word. Maybe it’s time we stop listening to the relentless hostility of our internal critic, and start believing that we really are worthy, lovable, and deserving? Maybe it’s time to be brave and face our suffering head on, turn our attention to the vice around our heart, the swell of our throat, and the stiffness in our shoulders. Has ignoring them ever worked? By practising mindfulness and compassion, we learn to recognise and experience everything that arises within us, and rather than labelling them good or bad, we approach them with compassionate friendliness, and allow them to be exactly as they are. It seems a powerful practice with the potential to change our lives dramatically, which sound like the hollow words of a self-improvement guru, but in this instance, might actually work. It offers the prospect of changing from a “bundle of tense muscles defending our existence,” to being able to “walk on, one step at a time,” with a “freedom and peace beyond all imagining.”

“You nights of anguish. Why didn’t I kneel more deeply to accept you,
Inconsolable sisters, and, surrendering, lose myself,
in your loosened hair. How we squander our hours of pain,
How we gaze beyond them into the bitter duration
To see if they have an end. Though they are really
Seasons of us, our winter…”

Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies and The Sonnets to Orpheus

Each chapter of Radical Acceptance ends with one or more guided meditations, which help to practice the techniques suggested throughout the book. Many of them are long and contain multiple instructions, so I found them difficult to follow, but Tara has hundreds of free meditations that can be accessed through her website, or the handy Insight Timer app. I found these to be much more valuable.

“We may spend our lives seeking something that is actually right inside us, and could be found if we would only stop and deepen our attention.”

Tara Brach,  Radical Acceptance

In Radical Acceptance, Tara Brach explores an ancient and powerful idea, expressed by numerous people throughout history—we can forgo suffering, if we accept our moment to moment experience. The book was easy to read, contained priceless practical advice, stories that will probably make you cry, and satisfaction beyond measure.

“Those who will not slip beneath
the still surface on the well of grief
turning downward through its black water
to the place we cannot breath
will never know the source from which we drink,
the secret water, cold and clear,
nor find in the darkness glimmering,
the small round coins,
thrown by those who wished for something else.”

David Whyte, The Well of Grief

References

  1. Duḥkha, Wikipedia

My Impotent Online Brain

Photo by That’s Her Business on Unsplash

While reading something on Wikipedia’s app the other day, I noticed a little box in the top right corner with the number 173 in it. Curious, I clicked on it, and was presented with 173 Wikipedia pages that I’d viewed since installing the app.

I casually flicked through them—Jake LaMotta, the Regency Era, Troy Newman, Somebody Feed Phil—and wondered how much information I could remember from them. I chose the Regency Era and tried to recall its defining characteristic—nope. I tried to remember why Troy Newman was famous enough to have his own Wikipedia page—no chance. As I went through the pages and tried to recall information about them, I realised just how absent my online brain had been while reading the pages, and how little effort I make to remember information on the internet.

Having been an internet user for a quarter of a century, my online brain is no longer just a squelching orb of jello in my head, but also a million miles of copper cable, connecting billions of computers with trillions of ideas. My knowledge has transformed from the physical to the technological, where I no longer need to slip and strain to learn something, but just need to conjure the right keywords. The internet has become an informational crutch, which if swatted away, would send me plummeting into a confused fog with only my paltry knowledge to guide me.

But what’s wrong with using the internet as a transactive extension of my brain? Why bother going through the arduous process of learning something when it can be instantly accessed online? There’s a few good reasons.

First, we need knowledge to think critically. For example, we cannot watch a single documentary on nutrition and expect to be experts. As with most subjects, nutrition has incredible nuance and depth that can only be accessed through sustained focus and a motivation to learn. Unless you put in the hours to learn about the core ideas of nutrition, you can’t confidently claim that saturated fat is the main reason for your jiggly arse. When the internet replaces your brain as the go-to storage method, you no longer have the knowledge to think critically, or the ability to make fruitful judgments. On the critical thinking scale, you’re less Socrates and more Flat Earther.

“Having information stored in your memory is what enables you to think critically.”

Natalie Wexler

Second, we need knowledge to think analytically—to solve problems. This involves identifying the problems themselves, extracting key information from our memories, and developing creative solutions. You can’t identify problems if you can’t recognise them, you can’t extract key information you don’t remember, and you certainly can’t develop a solution to something you have no clue about. You can use the internet for this process, but it’s like wallowing in a puddle instead of plunging into the ocean. Without knowledge, you don’t have the neurological depth to solve problems effectively. The more we rely on the internet for information, the more stupid we become.

Third, we need knowledge to accelerate learning. Learning something new requires the use of your working memory, which can quickly become overwhelmed. But if you already have knowledge of similar subjects, you can pull this information from your long-term memory, reducing the cognitive load on your working memory, and making learning the new thing easier. Someone who has a basic foundation of psychology will be able to learn the ideas of criminology much more quickly, because despite being different fields, the two concepts deal with how people think, feel, and behave. By understanding the core ideas of psychology, the burden on your working memory is lightened, allowing you to absorb and analyse the new information more easily. If you make the internet a permanent informational crutch, you damage your ability to learn.

For me, online reading has become a way to satisfy my idle curiosity, nothing more. When I read a book, I delve into thousands of words that cover a single coherent topic, some of which consolidates in my brain. When I read online, I skim a few articles and cherry-pick the information that seems the most interesting, most of which instantly leaves me.

What a tragic waste of time.

The Marvel of Routine | Paterson Movie

Image from Paterson Movie

Put the word “routine” into a thesaurus, and you’ll be presented with dreary synonyms such as unremarkable, plain, and conventional. You might personally conjure adjectives such as ordinary, monotonous, and tedious, and happen to be someone who considers routine as appealing as a turd baguette.

And yet, routine could also be a synonym for human existence. We’re obliged to repeat the same processes day in day out, whether it’s the repetitive tasks of our job, emptying the infernal dishwasher, or mindlessly scrolling through Netflix like a member of the undead. Often, we complete our routines wishing we were doing something else; that some excitement might snatch us away before our final brain cell dissolves with a sad whimper.

In Jim Jarmusch’s 2016 film Paterson, we witness an unconventional character who thinks and behaves in the opposite way. Paterson is a bus driver in the city of Paterson, New Jersey. He wakes up around 6:15am without the need of an alarm clock, kisses his wife Laura, eats cheerios, walks to work, drives his bus, eats dinner, walks their dog Marvin, has a beer at the local bar, and then goes home to sleep. You may consider Paterson’s existence to be a Sisyphean hell if not for his kindness, his calm demeanour, his enviable relationship with his wife, and the poetry he writes in the quiet moments of the day.

For Paterson, routine isn’t stifling banality to be avoided at all costs, but a wellspring of beauty and creativity. As he quietly eats his cheerios, he picks up a box of blue-tip matches from his kitchen counter, and inspects them closely. Few of us would pay much attention to something as trivial as a box of matches, but as someone who rejects face value, Paterson is able to suffuse them with charm, inspiring a love poem for his wife that talks of “sober and furious and stubbornly ready” matches that are ready to burst into flame, lighting the cigarette of the woman he loves. As he drives his bus, he smiles as school kids talk about the arrest of Hurricane Carter in a Paterson bar, as blue-collar workers reveal their supposed romantic exploits, and as teenagers talk about an Italian anarchist who published his seditious thoughts in his own Paterson paper. As he sits in the same spot at the same bar with the same drink, a fresh round each day, he watches, listens, and chats with the bar’s owner and its patrons, giving every little thing his full attention. He “looks down at his glass and feels glad,” and is only able to do so because of his deliberate absorption in his own life; his embracing of his own routine.

Paterson doesn’t appear to have aspirations of luxurious, far-flung holidays; of rubbing shoulders with dolphins or sea-turtles or celebrities with bulging buttocks. He doesn’t seem troubled by the privacy of his poetry, confined to its “secret notebook” rather than rocketing him to fame. His willingness to engage with his day-to-day experiences provide him with a satiating richness that dispels the need for something “better,” destroying the pervasive idea that life should be grander, more exciting and more spectacular—a dizzying blast of sound, colour, and aroma that fills us until we burst. Far from being a torturous bore, Paterson’s routines are a goldmine of novel curiosities that he can access because he chooses to be fully involved. His unwavering attention gives him perhaps the greatest gift of all—the idea that life isn’t just enough, but more than enough.

Routine forces us to learn. When we go through the same task enough times, it shifts from consciousness to unconsciousness, and becomes entrenched in our long-term memory. We no longer have to think about the necessary steps, allowing us to switch our attention to the world around us, to discover its charms. Like Paterson, we can become absorbed in our city and merge with it—one living, breathing metropolis, exploding with run-of-the-mill spectacle, witnessed by many, but examined by few. 

When routine becomes automatic, our conscious mind is unleashed upon the world; a mental state that we can experience as boredom or fascination, depending on our level of engagement. With the attention dial turned up, routine can be transformed from a pointless and punishing bore to a captivating venture, flush with meaning. Like the Japanese man who inadvertently encourages Paterson to write again after his dog eats his treasured notebook, we might find ourselves saying “a-ha!” at the ordinary and commonplace. And when we regularly recognise beauty in the things that most people would call banal, we too might become poets.

The Wisdom Of Insecurity Book Review | The Futility Of Living For The Future

The Wisdom of Insecurity
Photo by Faye Cornish on Unsplash

When you’re listening to a song, do you skip the middle part because you’re desperate to hear the end? Or when you’re eating a meal, do you wolf it down because you can’t wait to reach the final bite?

Me neither. It’s sacrificing the joy of the experience. Living with the end in mind. But according to British philosopher Alan Watts, this is exactly how many of us live.

In 1951, while Watts was teaching comparative philosophy and psychology in San Francisco, he published a short 150 page book called The Wisdom of Insecurity, which was a distillation of his philosophical views up until that point. As a lifelong lover of Eastern philosophy, Watts’s views are heavily influenced by Taoism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, which he eventually helped to popularise in the west, and which form the essence of his wonderful little book.

According to Watts, many of us fail to live in the present moment. We’re constantly focusing on future goals or ruminating about the past, at the expense of the only thing that actually exists—this moment, right now. When we forgo the present moment to brood on a long-dead past, or an ethereal future that doesn’t yet exist, we miss the splendour of the world in front of us. We live with our eyes closed, our ears and noses blocked, our touch numbed, and our taste dulled. The plans that we obsessively make for ourselves are useless, because when they finally arrive, we’re not experiencing them because we’re busy making new plans. As long as we continue to live inside our own heads, always planning and hoping for something better, we’re mere spectators; sitting in the bleachers while our life is played out in front of us, lacking the courage to join the game.

“Tomorrow and plans for tomorrow can have no significance at all unless you are in full contact with the reality of the present, since it is in the present and only in the present that you live. There is no other reality than present reality, so that, even if one were to live for endless ages, to live for the future would be to miss the point everlastingly.”

Alan Watts

Humanity’s obsession with forward-thinking has cheapened the present moment—the only thing that actually exists. To use another of Watts’s genius analogies: it’s like eating the menu instead of the meal. We obsess over concepts, ideas, and plans that we think will make us happy, while forgoing the very thing that will make us happy: the real world.

“If happiness always depends on something expected in the future, we are chasing a will-o’-the-wisp that ever eludes our grasp, until the future, and ourselves, vanish into the abyss of death.”

Alan Watts

For Watts, our obsession with the future comes from our sense of insecurity. We know that the universe constantly changes; that nothing lasts forever, including ourselves. And it terrifies us. So to gain a morsel of control, and to make our future feel a little more secure, we plan, plan, plan, desperately trying to stifle a truth that we cannot bear to hear: you have little control, and one day, you’re going to die.

It’s futile, of course. And as with many of life’s troubles, the answer is devilishly simple yet difficult in practice—acceptance. You cannot make yourself secure in a world that is based on insecurity and change. So there’s nothing for you to do but accept your inevitable death, and then start paying attention.

“To put is still more plainly: the desire for security and the feeling of insecurity are the same thing. To hold your breath is to lose your breath. A society based on the quest for security is nothing but a breath-retention contest in which everyone is as taut as a drum and as purple as a beet.”

Alan Watts

At its core, The Wisdom of Insecurity is a book about mindfulness, which is a dime a dozen these days. But Watts is a wordsmith of such exceptional class, that when I chance on such a writer, the ubiquity of the subject no longer bores me into a lull, but instead hypnotises me, having been explained with captivating vigour and lucidity. This is the only book that I’ve finished and then restarted immediately. It was that good. 

Watts teaches us about mindfulness in a way that few other people can, and the result is 150-pages of fascinating, funny, and enriching philosophy.

The Dirty Trick Of Hope, And How The Existentialists Saw Through It

Boy looks through gap
Photo by Dmitry Ratushny on Unsplash

A man is wrongfully imprisoned for murder, and as he descends into his cot for the first time, with the clang of steel echoing in his ears, he hopes.

He hopes that his lawyer will be able to get a retrial. He hopes that his wife will remain faithful to him, and that his daughter will forgive him for leaving. He hopes that he won’t get shanked in the prison yard. Closed in by walls on every side, hope becomes his guiding light—his escape from the horror of a new and unjust reality. But does it do him good? 

Camus, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer didn’t think so. For them, hope is a pair of rose-tinted glasses that warp reality into something pleasant, robbing us of the chance to confront our situation honestly. It’s choosing comfortable delusion over agonising truth, with no valuable lessons unearthed; no wisdom gained. It’s a rejection of the present, and because the present is inescapable, with the past and future nothing but concepts in our heads, it’s nothing less than the rejection of life itself.

For Camus, hope is an evasion of the present moment—a powerful desire for a life that we don’t have, but feel entitled to.

“The typical act of eluding, the fatal evasion…is hope. Hope of another life one must ‘deserve’ or trickery of those who live not for life itself but for some great idea that will transcend it, refine it, give it a meaning, and betray it.”

Albert Camus, The Myth Of Sisyphus

Living in hope is living in illusion. We’re choosing far-fetched fantasy over reality, crippling our ability to appreciate the beauty of the present moment, infinite in richness. Even an innocent man lurking in prison can appreciate the beauty of his experience, choosing not to dampen his senses in favour of a better reality, but accepting his situation with courage. Abandoning hope makes it redundant, replaced by a recognition and appreciation of the only thing that can ever exist—this moment, right now.

For Schopenhauer, hope is not only a rejection of life, but also a failure of prediction. We hope for something grander and finer, but like pitiful dopamine-chasing gamblers, fail to grasp the likelihood of it arriving. We roll the dice again and again, chips diminishing, frown lines forming, and optimism vanished.

“Hope is the confusion of the desire for a thing with its probability.”

Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms

As a former life-term prisoner, Erwin James also saw the futility of hope. In the midst of his prison sentence in the UK, when his minimum term was increased to 25 years, his sense of hope was annihilated. But eventually, he saw it with open eyes.

“The truth is that hope for a lifer is exhausting. It stops you sleeping and can drive you insane—much safer to expect nothing and never to be disappointed. You know your crimes, the grief you have caused, the shame and the guilt you live with—and the amends you can never make.”1

Erwin James

That’s where hope often leads: disappointment, followed by disenchantment, bitterness, and a feeling of rancorous injustice, where we’ve been hard done by and want to stamp our feet and scream about how unfair it is. It’s the inevitable downfall of a perspective based on delusion. Like a needle of Afghanistan’s finest brown sugar, it’s lovely at first, but horrible later.

When Zeus took vengeance on Epimetheus by presenting him with Pandora, and she promptly opened the box that unleashed torrents of evil upon the world, one thing remained inside—hope. For this reason, hope was treasured and considered man’s greatest good. But for Nietzsche, this was Zeus’s most abhorrent act, because no matter how much the other evils would torture us, hope is the thing that “prolongs man’s torment,” as we continue hoping for a better future that will never arrive; for an ultimate reward that doesn’t exist. Nietzsche described hope as a “rainbow over the cascading stream of life,” which we’ll ascend happily until the moment it disappears beneath our feet, like an illusory bridge whose passage was never secured.

Nietzsche was a life-affirming pessimist—he had a hopeless world view, but despite this, he urged us to say “yes” to our lives. Greek novelist Nikos Kazantzakis also encourages us to forsake hope, and practice this kind of pessimism:

“We ought, therefore, to choose the most hopeless of world views, and if by chance we are deceiving ourselves and hope does exist, so much the better…in this way man’s soul will not be humiliated, and neither God nor the devil will ever be able to ridicule it by saying that it became intoxicated like a hashish-smoker and fashioned an imaginary paradise out of naiveté and cowardice—in order to cover the abyss. The faith most devoid of hope seemed to me not the truest, perhaps, but surely the most valorous. I considered the metaphysical hope an alluring bait which true men do not condescend to nibble.”

Nikos Nazantzakis

Maybe Red was right all along—hope is a dangerous thing; a precarious rose-tinted path liable to vanish from beneath our feet, leaving us plummeting back to reality. With hope forsaken, our fallacious notions can be swapped for something authentic, which exists not only of peaches and cream and fluffy animals and rainbows, but also sexual rejection, stepping barefoot on lego, and a bank account usually in the red. 

When we muster the courage to leave hope at the door, we step into the role of the hero, and can embrace our immediate experience in all its glory.

References

  1. Erwin James, 2013, Hope for a prison lifer is exhausting, The Guardian

What’s Wrong With Virtue Signalling?

Virtue signalling
Photo by Chinh Le Duc on Unsplash

With the Black Lives Matter movement expanding across the world, its opponents have found a convincing and clever-sounding way to discredit them, by drawing our attention to the real reason for their activism: virtue signalling.

Virtue signalling is the suggestion that someone is doing or saying something to elevate themselves, ascending to a delightful moral pedestal, where they’re better than the foul creatures below. But when opponents of political movements tarnish their targets with the “virtue signalling” brush, it can be cynical and misguided, because as social animals, the perceptions of others will always influence human behaviour.

While the phrase is new, there is nothing new about virtue signalling itself. It may have been amplified in the age of social media, but it’s an ancient instinct, born from evolution. In the early 70s, evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers created the idea of reciprocal altruism,1 which states that selfless behaviour can improve the evolutionary success of an animal, if the animal who benefits from the behaviour returns the favour. In game theory, the idea is known as “tit-for-tat,” and is an optimal strategy until one of the parties refuses to reciprocate. But where would the trust come from in the first place, if not from virtue signalling? Why would we cooperate with somebody who doesn’t reliably signal their virtues, and risk being cheated?

This is not to say that people should pedantically tally up the good and bad deeds of everyone they meet, and ostracise any poor sod who puts a foot wrong. Instead, it’s keeping a rough mental idea of what every person is like, to better understand whether they can be trusted. When people signal their virtues to others, they’re saying “I’m a good person who won’t swindle you.” What’s wrong with that? Reciprocity has been a fundamental motivation for animal behaviour, and it’s even helped to develop our sense of morality. It can be found in courtship, where people advertise traits such as agreeableness, fidelity, and commitment to potential mates,2 through to friendship, where people exhibit kindness and trustworthiness to win friends.

Existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre proposed that certain virtues are social in nature. Imagine you’re the only survivor of an apocalypse, hunkering in a soggy bunker all by yourself. How can you be a kind person? Is it possible to be a kind person with no-one else around? Sartre doesn’t think so, because kindness is a virtue that is other-directed. Fellow French philosophers Albert Camus and François de La Rochefoucauld had similar musings about the social motivation behind our behaviour. Society is a voyeur to our action; even when we do something in secret, we may unconsciously feel shame because we compare our actions with society’s morals. The woman of the 1960s who strives for a career at the expense of her “duties” in the home may feel shame even though she’s acting in her own interests. She feels shame because she judges her acts to the standard of her society, whether right or wrong. Virtue-signalling is a natural behaviour born from our species sociability.

A modern Aristotle, sporting flare jeans and a man bun, would agree. One of his virtues includes “righteous indignation in the face of injury,”3 which matches some of the sentiment we’ve seen during the Black Lives Matter protests. His model of ethical behaviour (virtue ethics) also includes the idea of phronesis, which is using practical wisdom and prudence to act well. Phronesis is built on experience—a person can understand virtues intimately, but without having experienced situations that require their use, won’t know the appropriate time to use them. This was demonstrated by some supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement, who in a show of solidarity on social media, added the hashtag #blacklivesmatter or #BLM to their Blackout Tuesday squares, not realising that the hashtags were created to provide vital information about missing people, helplines, donation sites, and protest movements. The good intention was there, but they ended up muddying the purpose of the hashtags, and weakening their value. They wanted to support the movement, but were missing the experience needed for phronesis.

What about when good intention is absent? Aristotle would deride virtue-signalling if it lacked the intention to back up the virtue. The problem isn’t virtue signalling, it’s acting like a virtuous person merely for the sake of appearances—being high and mighty and then vanishing when real work needs to be done. These are the people who posted their black squares on social media, and then refused to hire someone because of their ethnicity. These are the women who publicly support sexual assault victims, and then privately slut shame them for their choice of clothing. These virtue signallers are moral charlatans, and they damage the reputation of admirable people who say they’re virtuous and then back it up.

Virtue signalling is an important prosocial adaptation—a tool that we use to gauge each other’s trust, friendship, and love. But we must be cautious of airing our morality if we don’t intend to follow through, and if we don’t have the experience to make a difference. Such a moral pedestal has shaky foundations, and when somebody gives it an inevitable bump, everything will come crashing down.

Article written by Lizzie Bestow and Rory Clark

References

  1. Robert L. Trivers, The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism, The University of Chicago Press
  2. Geoffrey F. Miller, 2007, Sexual Selection for Moral Virtues, The University of Chicago Press
  3. https://www.loebclassics.com/view/aristotle-eudemian_ethics/1935/pb_LCL285.193.xml

Lolita Book Review—Sympathising With A Peadophile

Lolita
Lolita Book Review. Photo by Alina Lobanova on Unsplash

Lolita is old enough and infamous enough to be known as a story of unhinged peadophilia. But it’s also a beautiful and depressing love story, with a tortured antagonist who despite his crimes, and due to the skill of the book’s author Vladimir Nabokov, we can eventually empathise with.

The plot focuses on peadophile Humbert Humbert—a handsome, French-born intellectual on the one hand, and unapologetic sexual predator on the other. His double name reflects his double life. He lies so much that you can’t tell front from back, allowing him to disguise his perversion behind a robust facade that few people penetrate. His sociopathic behaviour might be traced back to a sexual experience when he was 13, when he meets his “first love” Annabel—a 12-year old girl who is travelling with her parents. They lust for each other fervently, never quite managing to have sex, but groping and clawing at each other with an intensity that leaves a permanent impression on Humbert. He describes his passion with a cannibalistic “frenzy of mutual possession [that] might have been assuaged only by our actually imbibing and assimilating every particle of each other’s soul and flesh.” Their failure to complete the dirty deed leaves an indelible, unresolved tension in Humbert—an impoverished thirst for early-pubescent girls that carries through to adulthood, which he is forced to lie about.

Humbert loves and hates his lust for early-pubescent “nymphets.” He feels like a round peg trying to squeeze into a square hole, and to douse his hebephilic lust, gets married to a woman who he physically abuses to get his own way. He constantly admits himself to sanatoriums, but finds the doctors ridiculous and uses his intelligence to mislead them. He swings from “ashamed and frightened” to “recklessly optimistic,” craving hedonistic sex with 11 to 14 year-old girls, but living in the wrong country and century. He tries to justify his urges by recounting accepted peadophilia throughout history, but even his vindications are half-hearted and remorseless—he’s a grown man who wants to have sex with children, and there’s nothing to be done about it. He’s an “artist and a madman, with a bubble of hot poison in his loins.” His anguish is illustrated beautifully by Russian-born Nabokov, whose mastery of English is mindblowing. The animalistic language that he uses is both shocking and enthralling, and some sentences are appalling in their vividness. Humbert describes his fantasies as “just winking happy thoughts into a little tiddle cup.” When his lolita Dolores Haze sits next to him on the sofa, he describes it as “squeezing herself in,” and later in the story “gorges on her spicy blood.” Of his failed effort to slay his peadophilic lust by marrying a woman he doesn’t love, Humbert writes:

“But reality soon asserted itself. The bleached curl revealed its melanic root; the down turned to prickles on a shaved skin; the mobile moist mouth, no matter how I stuffed it with love, disclosed ignominiously its resemblance to the corresponding part in a treasured portrait of her toadlike dead mama; and presently, instead of a pale little gutter girl, Humbert Humbert had on his hands a large, puffy, short-legged, big-breasted and practically brainless baba.”

Humbert understands the precariousness of his attachment to Dolores. She’s a hostage who he appeases with countless and expensive bribes, spawning a crippling jealousy that his nymphet will run away with someone else, especially because of her flirtatious nature. She’s a girl who exhibits a “special languorous glow,” and “wags her tiny tail, her whole behind in fact as little bitches do.” The juvenile sensuality of Dolores Haze makes a peadophile and a green-eyed monster of Humbert, who becomes more and more paranoid as the story unfolds. After suspecting her of cheating on him, he traps her in a hotel room, finding nothing but his own lunacy: 

“Wildly, I pursued the shadow of her infidelity; but the scent I travelled upon was so slight as to be practically undistinguishable from a madman’s fancy.”

As I relived Humbert’s most dangerous and prohibited moments, I found myself gripped with a disgusted intrigue, which produced a feeling of tension similar to Humbert’s own. As a tormented sociopath, Humbert is a thrilling character to follow, despite the gruesome nature of his actions. I couldn’t wait to find out how the grotesque corruption unfolded, while also feeling a little ashamed about it, which is testament to Nabokov’s skill as a storyteller. He’s taken one of humanity’s most abhorrent crimes and turned it into a tragic love story, written with an expertise that at times, felt enslaving.

Make no mistake, Humbert loves his lolita to the point of obsession, using every available trick to hunt and possess her—violence, manipulation, blackmail, fear, gaslighting, and everything inbetween. He’s bedeviled by the spirit of Dyonisus, living in a frenzy of impulsive hedonism, disregarding all laws of humanity to occupy his pubescent obsession. But the stark reality remains—Dolores is a 12-year old girl whose initial sexual interest in Humbert dissipates after they first have sex, leaving her disinterested in a relationship with a 30-something male, no matter how suave and handsome. She wants “hamburgers, not humbergers,” but Humbert is a man void of principle, and like the “pale spider” that sits in the middle of its “luminous web,” waiting to trap its victim, he ensnares and dominates her. 

Despite Humbert’s evil, the fallout from the relationship is heartbreaking. Our empathy for the odious rogue is Nabokov’s greatest achievement in the novel. We both detest and symphathise with him, leaving us feeling confused and perhaps a little guilty—how can we feel pity for someone who rapes a 12-year old? What does that say about me? Humbert’s vile actions and fantasies, in which dreams of painting a mural of “a ripple-ringed pool, a last throb, a last dab of color, stinging red, smarting pink, a sign, a wincing child,” is offset by the regret of his “foul lust,” of memories that snarl at him as “limbless monsters of pain,” and the hopelessness of falling in love with a girl who could never love him back. In Humbert, Nabokov illustrates the complexity of humanity—the motley facets in all of us, even those who have sex with children. Like Humbert’s love for Dolores, Lolita felt like a forbidden fruit, breaking the sturdiest of taboos to illuminate the mind of an infatuated, sociopathic peadophile, which is a mind we rarely get to see. 

The writing is gorgeous, the subject hideous, and by the time I closed the book, I knew I’d just finished one of the greatest tragedies ever written.

Republicans Reveal An Ironic Love Of Fake News

Burning paper
Image from Logan Zillmer

A couple of days ago, a video¹ appeared on my Twitter feed of President Trump “trolling” news reporters, by making fun of the fact that social distancing was preventing them from packing into the press room. The guy who posted the tweet and his Republican followers found it hilarious, and I was confused as to why. So I asked.

The conversations that followed were frustrating, hilarious, and in some cases, enlightening. I was called stupid, braindead, naive, deluded, indoctrinated, an idiot, and a sheep. I was also called sinful, humourless, disingenuous, a degenerate, a hater, a troll, a bot, a loser, a snowflake, and a cuck (which I had to Google). One guy said I was Hillaryous. It was a hell of a lot of fun.

When explaining why they found the clip humorous, many of the people I spoke to gave the same reason: the press is a puppet of the Deep State, a mysterious and powerful group of Democrats who are trying to oust Donald Trump. By making fun of them, Trump is exposing them for what they are.

I’d heard of the Deep State conspiracy theory before, but hadn’t looked into it, and given that so many Republicans I spoke to believe the press to be a pawn of this obscure and powerful entity, I thought it would be worth trying to understand why, and to consider the implications.

The term “deep state” is believed to have originated in Turkey, where the government military formed a secret alliance with drug traffickers to wage war against Kurdish rebels¹. It was popularised by former Republican U.S. Congressional aide Mike Lofgren in his 2016 book The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government, which describes a group of highly influential people from government, finance, and industry that governs the United States from outside of the formal political process.

This idea seems plausible, but the theory has been twisted into something different by Trump and his colleagues, who redefined the group as malicious and deceptive Democrats hell-bent on removing him from office. Trump has pushed the narrative constantly since coming to office. At a rally last year, he claimed that “unelected, deep state operatives who defy the voters to push their own secret agendas are truly a threat to democracy itself.” In a White House press briefing a few weeks ago, he referred to the State Department as the “Deep State Department,” to the chagrin of Anthony Fauci². More specifically related to the press, in September 2018 he tweeted that “the Deep State and the Left, and their vehicle, the Fake News Media, are going Crazy – & they don’t know what to do.” 

Fox News and other radical-right political commentators have helped to popularise the Trump-angled conspiracy theory, and in addition to the President’s countless assertions of “fake news” media, it’s easy to see why so many of the Republicans I spoke to believe in the existence of a deep state that wants to remove him from office, with the press being a key component.

What’s alarming about this is that credible media organisations, for all their faults, remain the best place for understanding our world. They’re composed of trained journalists who adhere to strict standards and ethics, with principles such as truth, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness, and public accountability³. I’m not talking about infotainment organisations like Fox News, who despite their name, are incapable of producing anything remotely close to valuable news. I’m talking about news organisations with a proven history of factual, evidence-based reporting, who use credible, cited sources, and base each story on the most critical information for the reader; the newspapers that have been around for centuries, with cabinets full of Pulitzer prizes—The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, the BBC, to name a few. Despite having corporate owners whose business interests don’t always align with those of the journalists themselves, their stellar reputations position them as the most skilled public informers of the Western world.

Trump supporters don’t see them that way, and in their craving to consume news and understand the world around them, they turn to the Internet instead, a place where anyone can create a beautifully-designed professional website and publish their own version of the news. If they’re a half-decent writer, they can even make it sound credible. But these people are missing two key components critical to accurate reporting: journalistic standards, and the affiliation of a reputable news organisation. The Republicans that I talked to on Twitter sent me links to various different websites, which I’ll list in their entirety

  • Breitbart News, a far-right news syndicator which according to Wikipedia, publishes “a number of falsehoods, conspiracy theories, and intentionally misleading stories³.” In 2017, the website’s editor Alex Marlow admitted that the website skews its coverage to protect President Trump⁴.
  • RT, a Russian government-funded television network (formerly called Russia Today).
  • The Western Journal, a conversative news site that is blacklisted by Google and Apple News for its blatant inaccuracy⁸.
  • Human Events, a conservative newspaper and website, which according to owner Raheem Kassam (former editor of Breitbart News), has ambitions to create a MAGAzine⁷. Wikipedia believes the stories to be “generally unreliable” and doesn’t recommend using them as a source in their listings³.
  • The Political Insider, a conservative news website which in 2015, to damage Hilary Clinton’s presidential campaign, published a fake picture of Bill Clinton receiving a massage from a woman⁵. They also base entire stories on quotes from Fox News hosts⁶.
  • Gateway Pundit, a far-right news website whose mission is to “expose the wickedness of the left,” and does so by promoting conspiracy theories.  Wikipedia won’t use the site for sources under any circumstances, stating its history for “publishing hoax articles and reporting conspiracy theories as fact³.”
  • The Daily Wire, a right-wing conservative news site founded by Ben Shapiro, which has a history of failing to verify stories, and taking them out of context⁹. Wikipedia won’t allow sources from the site unless “outside of exceptional circumstances³.”
  • PragerU, a conservative media organisation that creates political, economic, and philosophical videos. The company has a history of conflicts with YouTube, Google, and Facebook over its content. It once posted a climate change denial video that uses a classic data trick to mislead viewers¹⁰.
  • New York Post, a right-wing newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch. Wikipedia cautions against using sources for the paper, preferring “more reliable sources when available³.”

They also provided links from the Daily Kos, Breaking 911, and Powerline, whose credibility was more difficult to confirm.

While the sample of data is too small to be an accurate analysis of a typical Republican’s news sources, the vast majority of Republicans I spoke to provided news sources that were from inaccurate or blatantly misleading media websites, which in their words, could “wake me up” from my debilitating naivety if I gave them a chance. This is disturbing. Our understanding of reality is based on being told the truth, and the small cross-section of Republicans who I spoke to were forming their version of reality from websites that published inaccurate or misleading news, hoaxes, and conspiracy theories. The humour they derived from Trump’s trolling of the press was based on the idea that journalists create nothing but fake news, when almost every single news source they sent me was guilty of doing exactly that. The irony of this would be funny if the implications weren’t so severe—a warped version of reality in which liberals are deluded sheep, the press are the enemy, and Donald Trump is the greatest leader in the history of America. With the free press an undoubtable puppet of a malevolent, Democratic Deep State looking to usurp their beloved President, they get their news from paranoid, right-wing bloggers without the slightest idea of how to be good journalists.

Non-journalists can report the news, but they’re unlikely to report it to the standards of trained journalists who work for reputable media organisations. There’s no question that an article from the New York Times is more trustworthy than an article from Breibart News. It doesn’t matter that the Times is liberal and Breibart conservative—facts are facts. While the Times article may include language sympathetic to liberal ideals, which can influence the reader’s political viewpoint and shift them along the spectrum, it’s still rooted in fact. On the occasion that a reputable newspaper like the Times publishes inaccurate stories (like when reporter Jayson Blair was caught plagiarising), it’s big news because of their stellar reputation. People don’t make a fuss when Breibart News produce inaccurate stories, because they have a history of doing exactly that.

One polite and thoughtful person told me about his mistrust of the press, pointing out that a large majority of the US media is owned by just six corporations, an interesting point if you believe that the media have an underlying agenda pushed by their corporate overlords. This idea is backed by a controversial book from the 80’s called Manufacturing Consent, in which Edward S.Herman and Noam Chomsky describe a media that is part of a wider ideological framework, controlled by elite interests. While Chomsky still holds this position, he laments one of the book’s effects in a 2018 interview with author Matt Taibbi:

“I think one of the unfortunate effects of Manufacturing Consent is that a lot of people who’ve read it say, ‘Well, we can’t trust the media.’ But that’s not exactly what it said. If you want to get information, sure, read the New York Times, but read it with your eyes open. With a critical mind. The Times is full of facts.”

Noam Chomsky

As one of the foremost intellectuals in the world, Chomsky’s position is worryingly close to the traditional, non-Trump-related idea of a controlling Deep State, a group that he prefers to call the “masters of the universe.” A comparison of the conspiracy theory compared to Chomsky and Herman’s position is outside the scope of this article, but if the authors of the book are to be believed, there truly is an elite class who sets an agenda for the press. This doesn’t turn hard-found facts by journalists into lies, but it does have an impact on the stories that they choose to report. For Chomsky, we should still get our facts from credible media companies like The New York Times, but remain skeptical about why the article has been written and chosen by the paper’s editors. Our choice of news remains between credible journalists who report facts, or news websites with a history of deception.

I’m sure there’s plenty of informed Republicans out there who get their news from credible sources, but this wasn’t the case for the people I spoke to on Twitter. They had a deep mistrust of what they call the “mainstream media,” which seemed a convenient way to group every media company together in order to stereotype it, and reinforce their beliefs. For these Republicans, getting a balanced view of the news is impossible because they don’t trust the news in the first place, instead choosing to get their information from shady, dishonest websites. They become trapped in an echo chamber of hateful vitriol, and because of their inherent tribalism and tendency for confirmation bias, escaping seems impossible.

As for Trump himself, pushing the Deep State conspiracy theory is a convenient way to undermine the credibility of a press that exposes his wrongdoing. Every whine of a “deep state” or “fake news” is an attempt to worm away from the uncomfortable facts, and to cast blame when he doesn’t get his way. For his supporters, it strengthens the idea that the press are a malicious and vengeful force of bandits who can’t be trusted. They’d wouldn’t be seen dead reading a copy of The Washington Post.

There’s no firm grip on reality without truth, and in a world where Trump supporters form their opinions from deceitful, inaccurate news, they’re plummeting deeper into dangerous fantasy, where lies are truth, truth are lies, and the rabbit hole is inescapable.

References

  1. The tweet that inspired this article.
  2. Charlie Nash, 2020, Trump Says ‘Deep State Department’ During Press Briefing, Mediaite
  3. Journalism ethics and standards, Wikipedia
  4. Conor Friedersdorf, 2017, Breitbart’s Astonishing Confession, The Atlantic
  5. Brennan Suen, Jared Holt & Tyler Cherry, 2016 Websites Peddling Fake News Still Using Google Ads Nearly A Month After Google Announced Ban, Media Matters
  6. Jack Hadfield, 2020, Laura Ingraham: Trump Should Re-Open Country On May 1st, The Political Insider
  7. Erik Wemple, 2019, Breitbart alum to resuscitate Human Events, The Washington Post
  8. The Western Journal, Wikipedia
  9. The Daily Wire, Wikipedia
  10. Climate Change: What Do Scientists Say?, PragerU

Montaigne: Sometimes, Your Penis Will Let You Down

Montaigne
Image from The School of Life

Our bodies are a marvel. They’re organic powerhouses with trillions of cells undergoing trillions of processes to keep us upright, all without our knowing, and much of the time, without our appreciation. And yet, when something goes awry and fails to work as we intended, we feel a sting of incompetence, as though we’re tyrannical, unfaltering masters over our bodies. We forget about the trillions of unconscious processes that work perfectly, aggrieved at the one thing that didn’t work the way it should have.

Michel de Montaigne was a philosopher unlike any other in history. Born into a wealthy family in the Aquitaine region of south-western France in 1533, he lived his first three years with a peasant family, with the intention of bringing him “closer to the people.” Once back home, his father set out a non-traditional educational plan that would see his son developing Latin as a first language, and learning by games, conversation, and exercises of meditation, which would create a spirit of “liberty and light,” and set him on a path of philosophy originality.

Montagine loved to learn, but hated the stiff and arrogant pedantry found in academia, which was obsessed with traditional philosophy and blinded to all else. For him, philosophy was as much about our everyday lives as it was about “serious” issues of morality, ethics, and virtue. Montaigne was one of the first philosophers to deeply consider topics such as humour, marriage, clothing, cannibals, and shitting. He breaches so many deeply personal and human topics that some people consider him to be the first psychologist. In one of his essays, he even takes on the role of sexual psychologist, when addressing a grave concern that many men experience at least once in their lives: impotence.

For a man, impotence is a bitter failure of control over his body. I can testify to the stinging shame of feeling my erection wilt away like a pathetic pricked balloon, followed by the kind but hated question “are you ok?” No, I’m not ok, I just failed to do one of the main things that defines me as a man. I’m a dysfunctional flop; a flaccid turkey that’s lost its gobble. I’m supposed to be capable of this, without question.

A friend of Montaigne’s felt the same, and wrote to him about it. He told Montaigne that he’d heard of a man who had the dreaded performance problem, and being highly suggestible, was so worried about falling under the same curse that he became impotent himself. He wanted to have sex with his lover, but having been dislodged of the idea that a man’s erection is an infallible fortress, became so agitated that his penis threw itself down and refused to ascend. Montaigne, being fascinated with the everyday issues that make us human, explained that the problem wasn’t a physical weakness or deficit of masculinity, but the misguided and oppressive notion that we have complete control over our bodies. We believe our minds to be all-powerful masters which our enslaved bodies must obey, never questioning our supreme authority, so when our body fails to do what we intend—drop a satsuma into a shopping bag; throw a tennis ball successfully over a fence; maintain an erection—we’re hot with embarrassment, as though the failure is entirely our fault.

For Montaigne, the cure lied in correcting our idea of normality—to remind ourselves that sometimes our bodies will do what the hell they want, despite our intentions. Rather than viewing the sexual mishap as a rare abomination born from a pitiful lack of control, we should recognise it as nothing but a common, unavoidable gaffe, neither serious or calamitous. With this perspective in mind, instead of descending into an oppressive and powerless gloom, Montaigne’s impotent friend spoke openly to his lover about the problem, which as honest talking often does, shrank it into insignificance and never cursed him again.

Another friend of Montaigne’s was about to be married and experience the first night with his new wife, and having been formerly blighted by impotence, was terrified of it happening again on such an important night. Aware that suggestibility was partly responsible for the man’s impotence, Montaigne decided to use it to his advantage, and advised him to do the following:

“As soon as we had left the room he was to withdraw to pass water: he was then to say certain prayers three times and make certain gestures: each time he was to tie round himself the ribbon I had put in his hand and carefully lay the attached medallion over his kidneys, with the figure in the specified position. Having done so, he should draw the ribbon tight so that it could not come undone: then he was to go back and confidently get on with the job, not forgetting to throw my nightshirt over the bed in such a way as to cover them both.”

Michel De Montaigne, The Complete Essays

This fixed the man’s problem, with Montaigne noting that it is “such monkeyings-about that mainly produce results.”

Some Frenchmen weren’t fortunate enough to have Montaigne as a friend. He knew another man who lost his erection with a woman, and believing that the sexual mishap was entirely his fault, scampered home, cut off his penis and sent it to the woman to “atone for his offence.” I assume the consolation was more satisfactory than the sex.

If pride is the severer of penises, humility is what’ll sew them back on. We can be confident captains of our fleshy vessels until a howling wind picks up and blows us off course. Tyrannical mastery over our bodies is a pitiful fantasy born from insecurity; flimsy protection against the frightening reality that you have little control over what happens to you, including what happens with your body. Accepting this fact is courageous, and tempers our frustration when things don’t go as planned, whether it’s missing the first step up to the stage while collecting your university degree, the widening bald patch atop your dome, or watching in horror as your penis shrivels like a sad prune. Such mishaps are neither rare or avoidable among our species, and after listening to our self-pitying woes, Montaigne might have sat back, adjusted his pearly-white ruff, and said “so what? Do you think you’re a god?”