Academia

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Settling in for the long haul

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 05/07/2022 - 3:47pm in

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Academia

A couple of tweets flicked across my screen in the past week or so from people I don’t know asking how, perhaps a year or two in, the knowledge settles across your shoulders that you’re not recovering from long covid and may not ever fully recover, you, well, deal? No surprise; I have thoughts and feelings about this. But, surprise (to me anyway); the series of moments when it seeps into your bones that no one and nothing is coming to rescue you are emotionally just really fucking hard, and I’ve shied away from thinking too much about this period of my life. Partly because I read the tweets from these people who may have this and far worse ahead of them, and I don’t want to make any of it the tiniest, least perceptible bit harder. But also because that time for me was a long interstitial of brain fog and denial, hopes raised and dashed, chasing after a doctor or a programme or sure fire cure of some kind and just being repeatedly floored by disappointment while slowly realising I was no longer, really, a person in the world, a person with friends and fun and any kind of over-arching telos in my life, and partly because I HATE stories that resolve with ‘I just had to get used to it and when I did, things didn’t get better but I felt slightly better about them.’

Reader, I just had to get used to it.

This will be a digressive piece. I come at these things and flit away, a bit like the tweets that flash up from people saying stuff like ‘my parents are starting to believe the doctors and are telling me it’s psychological, I just don’t want to be well, I have literally nowhere else to go.’ I mean, what do you do with that? You can say, well, this is a mass disabling event, there are so many more of you now that even doctors are staying sick and occasionally even saying ‘ok it’s real now even I get it’, so there’s more chance you’ll be believed and hundreds of times more money going into real research than did for the last couple of decades. But that’s not going to help the college student who’s returned home to a stalled life and a support system that seemed encompassing at first, but which is now coldly, methodically, pulling its arms away when the kid doesn’t recover in a socially acceptable period of time. (And that scenario, to be fair, is still the Cadillac of long covid support systems.)

I hid for two years in graduate school, the first year in a wonderful and academically undemanding programme with a tiny, lovely class. I wrote an essay about Walter Benjamin and interactive media that winter, and I remember pulling each sentence rather brutally from the morass of my former abilities and piling them on top of each other. Let’s just say the angel of history made sense to me in a way she had not, before. Minute on minute, I could barely make the letters settle into words, forget about forming sentences or ideas, but day on day it turned out I could do it. It just took a higher threshold of discomfort than I’d previously believed manageable, and about eight times longer. I’m so glad I learnt this. The knowledge that impossibly difficult intellectual tasks can be worked through piecemeal – not in darts and dashes of caffeinated brilliance – was not natural to my temperament, and it’s why I can still do things.

It’s a very bourgeois thing to be able to hide out in grad school. I’m always embarrassed when people remark on how many degrees I have. It put me into financial penury for quite a few years, but it felt worth it to still outwardly look like a person who was moving forward in life, not someone whose clock had stopped in August 1998 when I failed to heal from glandular fever. All that is harder now in Britain, as Tories systematically steam open the institutional creases people like me could fold ourselves into, and dismantle the social welfare that would have held many others as they waited to be well. I started off with moderate M.E. and now, much of the time, I would say it is mild.

(To imagine what that’s like, remember a time you had real, proper flu – not just a heavy cold – and bring yourself back to the first couple of days you were well enough to get out of bed but not to leave your home. How do I conduct what superficially looks like a normal life while counting the sometimes quite vicious opportunity cost of walking the dogs or buying groceries? Peaks, troughs and, especially, habituation. You’d be surprised what you can get used to, until you do.)

So what’s below comes from someone who’s never had severe ME/CFS – the kind where you need to lie in bed with no sensory stimulation at all – and had a decade or less of persistently moderate ME/CFS. It’s about how I habituated, or; how I learnt to lie not with my words but my deeds.

What worked for me was sick-hacks, the ultimate operation of neo-liberalism at the individual level. I’ve written about his before; stuff like only taking stairs when no one I knew would see, always commuting and travelling alone so I could build in sit-downs, turning up half way through group activities so I could stay on the sideline and not move around too much, bathing less frequently and never, ever showering in the morning. But basically the answer is I was sick all the time, sick in a way that’s unimaginable to a well person, because if they felt that bad they’d take time off. When you’re not ever recovering, you don’t take time off. (And you can’t – if I’d confided in employers early on, I’d have been unemployable and would have defaulted on my education loan. Many years in I did confide, and went part-time, and the lifting of that burden of secrecy and expectation was life-changing.) ME/CFS is defined by fatigue that isn’t cured by rest. A bone-deep resistance to rest sets in when you know how much time it demands and how it will never, ever be satisfied. The ultimate sick-hack is just pretending to be well, whatever the personal cost.

I managed from my mid-twenties onward by mercilessly slashing any discretionary activities– namely, hobbies, fitness or a social or romantic life – that took an ounce of energy away from work. By year three I could routinely cosplay a well person for 8 hours of gainful employment a day. There was simply no other way to make it, financially. I found in-between places and ways to live. I’m endlessly fascinated by how, in a massive pinball machine of infinite-seeming possible decisions, we stumble on marginally favourable social affordances. What worked for me was living in a succession of foreign countries where my only role was to work and the only people I knew were through work. It seemed normal to only have work friends, seeing them as little as possible and always leaving after the second drink. What worked was going home on Friday night and literally not seeing another person till I went back to work on Monday morning. Compartmentalising life so each set of people I knew assumed the others I referred to were the ones I was more frequently seeing, in my normal, normal life. Oddly enough, flying constantly and working weird, time zone inappropriate hours for international organisations where it was normal to be mind-altered by exhaustion and occasionally just go dark for a couple of days. That was my pattern by about ten years into it. It’s surprisingly easy to act like a well person and be believed, if you hide literally everything else.

Even now in its third decade, when I think my ME/CFS is objectively milder – though my husband disagrees, and he bears much of its weight – I unconsciously build long periods of nothing into my days and months. I’m self-employed and typically deliver writing work for clients in other countries, who I rarely see in person. I don’t use up energy commuting or participating in the socialising and the administrative and political busy-work of a normal workplace. I charge a day-rate because that’s what’s normal in my industry, but I almost never work a full day, not as most people understand it, anyway. (I recently had a project that required 10-hour days of hard concentration for about six weeks, and it made me sicker than I’ve been in years. This is why I rarely take on new clients with unknown expectations around tempo.) I’m lucky that I have a difficult to replicate skill – writing – and a solid and unusual body of knowledge – technology policy – which mean I can sell my time at a premium and live on part-time earnings. I don’t have a recipe for achieving this that’s not ‘spend a decade and a half pretending to be well while acquiring high-value knowledge, skills and networks’. I’m also married, for a decade now, and if the wheels ever come permanently off my bus, my partner’s income can support us both. (In fact, he wishes I would do a lot less, partly because he loves me and sees the daily distress, and also because it makes me hard to live with. You could say he went into this with his eyes open, but nobody does who doesn’t already have a decade or so of experience with life-changing chronic illness under their belt, either their own or someone else’s.)

I think it’s important to spell this financial and support stuff out, because making enough money to manage, day to day, while working a small number of billable hours is a lot of what helped me drive down my ME/CFS till it was just ‘mild’. And it’s what’s finally made room for me to write longer-form work, albeit that also takes a stupidly long time. With all the luck and privilege I’ve had, I still manage only by ruthlessly organising my life around the constantly shifting lacunae this illness makes as it morphs insidiously each decade I’ve had it.

I swerve most thickening friendships because they come with a requirement to show up. People who live more or less normally get hurt when the thing I managed once or twice – by cutting out something else – turns out not to be something I can or will do regularly. I cut and hack and simplify, and in this way I reduce people’s social expectations of me to be someone who shows up. I sneak off-stage and just let people assume the hours and days they fill with activity are the same for me, but are spent with other people. In fact, I’ll be lying in a darkened room, recovering and trying to find the energy for the next normie cosplay activity. And I love normie cosplay activities! I commit to them wholeheartedly, not least because this illness is fickle and nasty and you may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb. After or sometimes during, I quietly withdraw and go back and lie down in the dark again. I absolutely cannot live with other people, both because my resistance to rest makes much needed sleep so fragile, but also because I am rigidly protective of the knowledge of my limits. I can write this in an essay on the Internet but if you stay in my house for three nights you could easily never guess. It manifests unexpectedly. I currently look quite a bit younger than my age, likely down to spending a couple of decades living in this way. Or, to be more accurate, not-living. That’s an awful lot of festivals and sun holidays and late nights I’ve skipped. I bring it up not as a stealth-boast but as a weird little data-point – living like someone on their late eighties from when you’re twenty-six can make you look ever so slightly different to others your age.

I’m sharing this slightly orthogonal stuff not to request sympathy – poor me! I look younger! – but to illustrate the differences of we who also walk among the well. I have a very good deal. It’s easily fine in many important ways. (See privilege, above.) It’s just another variant of being human, and probably an increasingly common one. For most people who suddenly and then gradually adapt their lives to strange conditions – be it living in the Arctic or under autocracy or just being indeterminately unwell – the smaller, tougher spaces can actually feel ok, much of the time. They have their own rewards. But let’s be clear, we’d all rather just live fully and well, earning each wrinkle and cautionary tale.

I don’t recommend sick-hacks per se, not to the newly chronically ill. They’re a lonely and unreconstructed way to live. So many millennials are ill with long covid and they just wouldn’t even think of hiding it, like it would never occur to them to accept accommodatory BS like the 2nd wave feminism my generation believed would somehow incrementally fix things. Good for them. I’m glad to see them making connections on social media and puzzling it through together. The fact of them and many others doing this means I’m now much more ‘out’ about my limits, something that feels weird and vulnerable and obscurely shaming, but which I have to think is healthier overall.

There’s no steady state. Covid is coming for all of us and each time it’s a roll of the dice. I’ve had it twice now. The first time knocked me out for about six months, and the second time did sharply alien and unpleasant things to my brain. I’m so scared that collectively all our brains are getting fucked, and we won’t be able to sustain concentration in the immersive and demanding story-webs I believe are necessary to keep imagining our large and interlinked society into existence. I worry people like me will succumb to premature dementias as a result of the brain damage we’ve incurred, and there’s nothing we can do about it. And there are so many of us. And all of it just as our institutions are self-destructing and we need amplified and deep-form subjectivity to solve planetary-level hard problems.

When I was nineteen or twenty I had three great, secret fears. One, that I would not be able to have children. That evil thought terrified me and just scoured my heart, because in what felt like a bottomless absence of usable self-knowledge, the only thing I truly knew about myself was I wanted to be a mother. The second fear, after I saw Todd Haynes’ film, Safe, was that I would get some undefinable illness and become socially and psychologically marooned. I kept these fears to myself because as any writer knows you don’t write these things or you write them into existence, but they happened anyway. The third is that my brain will clog with plaque and broken memory, and while I hesitate in the dilemma of needing to end this beautiful life before I’m ready but while I still can, I’ll miss my chance.

I saw a tweet today from a Northern Irish woman, Rebecca Logan, an NHS nurse who got covid in the first wave:

“So this happened yesterday…I had to buy an electric wheelchair. My heart is breaking & I’ve cried for days but I’m suffocated by my lack of control & independence so here I am bravely trying to embrace my new wheels & hopefully getting a bit of that back ???? #TreatLongCovid”

The picture that goes with it shows Rebecca sitting in her new wheelchair in her back garden, wearing a lovely teal-coloured top and leopard print leggings, her arms raised in the V for victory symbol, and her face a Mona Lisa layering of jubilance, resignation, determination and, maybe I’m projecting here, subliminal grief.

Flash-flood of feeling when I saw her. Much of it the joy that spurts unexpectedly from a hard, tiny crack in something once supple, green and whole? I’m so glad Rebecca has her wheelchair and will get outside again. There’ll be stuff she can do that she hasn’t been able, and it will feel fabulous. And in each of those new excursions a mourning and disbelief for the life that went before and that still flows around her in the form of people with shopping bags and evening plans untouched and untroubled by the bony finger of fate.

You know when you’re mourning someone deeply and at some point, perhaps, you have the intuition that you could let some of that pain self-encapsulate and just burp it out in a bubble to float off into the world, carried on winds with names like Sirocco or Chinook that you’ll never feel warming your skin, and you’d be happy for it to see the world, but you can’t let the pain go because then it will be gone? Gone the pain, gone the person. Incurable, stupid, shitty illnesses – ones that lack all the narrative structure and stepping stones of, say, cancer, with its treatments and outcomes, or neurological decline with its zooming towards the inevitable – they both demand and deny the necessary mourning for the person you once were and could have been. There are no protocols and next steps, no month’s mind and anniversaries. You mourn alone as you’re told it’s nothing, you’re just imagining it.

You can’t rush this, and anyway, you don’t always want to. You become a different person, both smaller and bigger. The life you still feel you can almost reach out and touch gradually becomes less vivid, less immediate, until it really does seem like it belongs to someone else, someone who’s gone. You would care about her but she’s no longer here, just by the simple operation of time.

There’s no one moment when you realise what you had was gone and will not be restored. Or, there are many such moments but you go back and forth. (So much of this is both metaphor and heightened instance of other, more general human experiences; that there’s no going back before September 11 or the election of a fascist, that we blew past the exits to the climate and food and inequality crisis decades ago, that at every stage of life we’re mourning what’s no longer possible and trying to accommodate ourselves with all the grace we can muster to what is.)

We sense the other timelines running parallel in the semi-darkness, even if we can’t jump the tracks, the other people we could have been. They never really go away. It’s a punctuated equilibrium of acceptance and denial. I know we’re all supposed to agree that denial is unhealthy (and not, as they say, a river in Egypt), but truly? I think it has its place. Denial gets you through the first few years. Denial lets you believe that kale and ginger smoothie might be the answer, or acupuncture, or the doctor whose waiting list you might just finaigle your way onto, in a world where there aren’t yet answers, therapies or doctors who can do more – and this is the rare and absolute limit – than say ‘I’m sorry. We don’t understand it yet. I believe you. You might recover, or you might not, and I don’t know why. In the meantime, this may help some symptoms.’ Yes, I’m all for denial.

A friend of mine died last Saturday night. A really good friend and neighbour. One of those friendships you’re so grateful for and – one of the joys of middle age – recognise immediately and tend to as something precious and unasked for. I visited twice before I left on a months-long trip, knowing I might not see him again. We talked about that freely, and when I said I hoped he would be there when I come back in three months, he said he sort of hoped so, but also didn’t want to be so sick for so long. He had suffered a lot in the past few years, his world getting smaller in sharp stutters – first walking places went, then public transport, then going somewhere with disabled access in a car, then in the last year walking to the end of the road, leaving the house, leaving his bed. He was grumpy but essentially habituated to that, but when he stopped being able to read and be incredibly well-informed to discuss politics and geo-politics, that’s when he started to feel enough was enough. He still didn’t want to die, though. When I left, the last time, I put my head back around the door to fix his face in my mind. He knew why, of course. I knew that demanded something of him but I took it anyway. As I walked home I realised I’d always carried into his room the unconscious idea that he could still get back what he’d lost, and we could still recreate a very simple but special outing we’d enjoyed three years ago. It wasn’t something I ever said, but it was always in my mind when we talked – the sense of possibility and fun we would yet have. Even as he was less and less able to do anything he loved, our visits (of three of us actually, including his wife) always carried both the memory and hope of enjoyable and stimulating things we did together. And, that’s not a bad thing? To hold contradictory and untested feelings and ideas about things being better than they objectively are, and to bring those into a sickroom and have them inflect our last few conversations. We laughed so much, even that last day. I mean, I didn’t think he would get well, but I always held out hope he could temporarily get better. And in the meantime, until the next outing, we would have the fun we’d always had. But we were still able to say goodbye, and for it to be goodbye.

Now, thousands of miles away, I both believe he is dead and know I will not believe it till I go back to their house in September and he’s not there. I think we manage losses by both believing and not believing them, letting them sink in to varying degrees of acceptance over time, and in between, holding their non-existence near but not inside, like speech bubbles hovering in a cartoon panel. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with any of that.

The same get-to-the-happy-ending drive that causes well people to be impatient with the unwell is perhaps present in our own expectations that we will accept our limitations and lost lives and move on, quickly and for good. But for most people it’s not like that. There are false hopes and false dawns, short remissions and other countervailing forces. And that’s alright, even, I think, necessary.

When I was doing what turned out to be five unsuccessful rounds of IVF (and many more failed embryo transfers) I learnt that the dreaded two-week-wait after transfer and before the pregnancy test could also feel like going on an emotional holiday from my life. It was the indeterminate between-time, when I was both pregnant and not-pregnant. Nothing I did or wanted or said had any bearing on what the result would be – the universe is spectacularly uninterested in my feelings about the fission of certain human cells. So I would count forward the months, imagine the birth, indulge my fantasy of success in any way I wanted. Twins! Why not? It didn’t matter either way, whether I dreamed or not, and the moments were rare when it was possible to do it when the dream just might turn out to be true, so why not enjoy it? As time went on and it became clear the prospects of success had all but vanished, and my health and our finances were being obliterated by it all, those two-week-waits became a silent, one-person festival for me. (In fairness, Ed was deployed for several rounds.) They were the only time I permitted myself unfettered hope. I will always be glad I had them. I still have them, inside. I always will.

So, don’t rush toward acceptance. It’ll come, or it won’t. And maybe you will be one of the ones who gets well. I hope so hard for that. Sit with it. Lie down with it. Or float away on warm, imagined breezes. What else are you going to do with this time, anyway?

Raaberdämmerung

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 04/07/2022 - 7:29pm in

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Academia, Music

Composer and writer Howard Goodall explains how the Deputy Prime Minister's patronising comments about Angela Rayner undermine the Government's own stated principles about the role of music in education and empowerment

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Last week the government unveiled its ‘refreshed’ National Plan for Music Education, after a fairly long period of consultation and deliberation, led by a committee of sector experts chaired by the Conservative peer Baroness Fleet, Veronica Wadley.

Unfortunately, any potential fanfare of its announcement was drowned out by another story relating to music that dominated headlines all week, a story that even made it to (Deputy) Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons.

It began with a repulsively patronising article in the Telegraph (of which Baroness Fleet was previously Deputy Editor, as it happens) penned by Christopher Hope, mocking Angela Rayner MP for attending The Marriage of Figaro at Glyndebourne, with - horror of horrors- a glass of what might have been champagne in her hand.

In the kind of feeble ‘gotcha’ that tabloids were fond of using to lampoon Labour politicians in the 1960s and 70s, Hope suggests that someone born in Stockport, who left her (comprehensive) school at 16 when she became a single mum, would somehow be betraying her working-class roots - or her solidarity with striking railway workers - by the simple act of turning up at an opera house known for its high artistic standards and delightful gardens.

What the article revealed was the kind of snobbery that has become once again tediously commonplace thanks to the Bullingdonisation of Britain, since 2010. Working-class people going to the opera? Whatever next, a person on Universal Credit mistakenly wandering into the Tate? A mop-haired percussionist from Liverpool inadvertently admitted to the Royal Academy of Music?

Yet not one, but two ministers in the Daily Telegraph’s favourite government prefaced the new National Plan for Music Education with worthy ringing phrases such as "..(music) must not be the preserve of the privileged few..’". "In our refreshed plan, which sets out our vision to 2030, we place a renewed emphasis on opportunities for all..."

I agree with these sentiments. Music is for everybody. The subject matter of the most popular operas have one thing in common: with heightened emotion and passionate music, they portray the struggles, tragedies and triumphs of ordinary people.

Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro made an aristocratic audience including the Emperor in Vienna sit through an adaptation of Beaumarchais’ (at that time) banned play which deliberately satirised an out-of-touch ruling elite of bullies, cheats and sexual predators being trounced by the greater wit and guile of the people who worked for them. It could have been written yesterday.

The Telegraph article prompted a backlash. The British people aren’t as bigoted or as blinkered in their assumptions as some Tories think they are. Millions of Britons like the arts. Tickets for gigs or operas or musicals may be a few bob but they’re not so very different in price, sometimes cheaper, than tickets to Premier League matches. People from less-well-off homes do value and participate in music, dance, and theatre, in large numbers.

You’d have thought the Deputy Prime Minister, sun-lounge-fancier Dominic Raab MP, would have the antenna to pick up that the criticism of his opposite number in Parliament going to the opera had not really hit the Culture Wars jackpot Telegraph writer Christopher Hope, the man whose idea the Brexit 50p was, let’s remind ourselves, had hoped it might.

You’d think Raab would have carefully avoided the subject at PMQs. In fact, Raab, distracted by the headlights of the oncoming vehicle, ran head first into it and had another go at Ms Rayner about Figarogate, as if she’d now be reduced to silence by his masterful, Count Almaviva-like putdown. (He is, after all, something of an expert in reducing things - his constituency majority of 28,000 votes in the 2015 General Election cleverly reduced to 2,743 in 2019, for example.)

Perhaps there was a chorus of Telegraph readers out there, cheering on his broken-record repeat of the quip that ‘socialists’ aren’t allowed to sip champagne, visit a beautiful stately home, or listen to Mozart. Perhaps. Social media, on the other hand, was immediately filled with working-class people apologising for their interest in the arts, begging the deputy prime minister’s pardon for straying away from their allotted station in life.

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Speaking as someone who writes musical theatre I could not be happier that a deputy leader of one of our major political parties takes an interest in the arts. Music is one of the things we do really well in Britain, as is often said, including by government ministers when not circumscribing what music certain people are supposed to enjoy.

The thing, though, fellow Brits, is this: the musical ecology is an organic whole. Musicians are musicians, we respect each other’s work in whatever field of music we ply our trade. We don’t, by and large, waste our time with a tribal class war amongst different genres and sub-sections of the art.

So let’s drop the antiquated idea that there’s ‘the peoples’ pop music and ‘the posh folks’ classical music: there’s endeavour, skill, whimsy, love, redemption, excitement, sadness and joy in all music. Musicians of all styles come from all kinds of backgrounds and we make music for all people, whatever the path they’ve taken to get there.

It’s 2022, for heaven’s sake. Mozart, who died in 1791, has got a better handle on all this than Dominic Raab, born in 1974, the year Helen Reddy got to no.1 in the USA with a song about a shy young woman’s journey to freedom and empowerment, Angie Baby.

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How to write a good public philosophy book

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 04/07/2022 - 5:35pm in

As I might have mentioned here before, I am currently working on a book (provisionally) entitled Limitarianism. The Case Against Extreme Wealth. It will be what publishers call a trade book – that is, written for any reader of nonfiction. I’ve been doing this kind of writing (and talks) in Dutch for much longer; this book I write in English. It will be published by Astra House for North-America, and by Allen Lane/Penguin for the UK and the rest of the world (with translations also in Dutch, German, Italian, Spanish, Korean, Japanese and Russian).

As I am also engaged in academic-philosophical debates on limitarianism, it is striking to see what is considered relevant and important in each of those strands of writing. Some pre-occupations by academic philosophers are of little or no importance to the public, such as whether argument A for limitarianism is truly distinct from argument B, or whether limitarianism can be reduced to (a combination of) other distributive principles. For the public the most important question is whether this is an idea that makes sense, and some philosophical preoccupations are about other (more technical) issues. On the other hand, in my experience the public cares a lot about some things that many philosophers find irrelevant, such as what we can learn from the empirical facts (e.g. about the urgency of a problem, or whether a proposed intervention has ever worked in the past), and what a general (or abstract) discussion implies in a concrete context. Academic discussions can be at a level of abstractness that will make you lose most of your readers of nonfiction, even of serious nonfiction.

What else would make a public [political] philosophy book good? Here are my thoughts on this.

  1. Readability. This can be achieved by illustrating general arguments with examples, but also with style, e.g. the choice of words that are used, and the use of an active voice and of short(er) sentences. For example, I have a tendency to use a lot of subclauses in my academic writing, and should take care not to use them too often when writing nonfiction.
  2. Enjoyability. In academic philosophy, writing can be very dense and boring, but if it still entails some novel insights, that won’t be seen as a liability. In trade writing, it’s very important that the writing is enjoyable – after all, reading a book shouldn’t be hard work for the reader; it seems totally fine that it requires some effort, but it is much better if the same insights and arguments can be conveyed in an enjoyable style. Perhaps some jokes can help?

  3. Accessibility. The writing should not assume any specialist background knowledge; you shouldn’t have done an undergraduate degree – not even a minor – in philosophy or related discipline to understand the text. A former publisher of a Dutch publishing house once told me that this was in his experience the biggest problem with academic philosophers writing for a broader audience. I get this, but also think that accessibility comes in degrees, and that a scholar writing a trade book can herself choose for which audience to pitch. Just think about newspapers – they also come in different styles, and some newspapers are clearly more accessible to a much broader group of readers than other newspapers.

  4. Interdisciplinarity. In general, the public doesn’t care about disciplinary boundaries. In academic debates, philosophers will sometimes say that something is an interesting philosophical question, or that another aspect is an economic/sociological/legal etc. question, and hence not relevant for their discussions, or nothing they can or have to say something about. Non-fiction readers are interested in the topic of the book they are reading, and don’t care about disciplinary boundaries. Philosophers (and other academics) need to be willing to develop themselves into interdisciplinary writers if they want to write nonfiction for a broader audience.

I see a couple of challenges for academic philosophers/other scholars from the social sciences and humanities who are writing a trade book.

First, the desiderata of accessibility and enjoyability create a worry that it might force scholars to cut corners, and that rhetoric might take over from truth-seeking. I’ve read a number of nonfiction books, written by academics and non-academics alike, (and on topics on which I know something), which in my judgement crossed the line into dogmatism, rather than just trying to make the best possible argument for a certain proposal/view in a sufficiently nuanced way. If there are objections to what one is arguing for, one should consider and discuss them. Of course, not necessarily all, since some objections are silly or only represent an extreme fringe view.

Second, in academia there is a very strict code that we should not present ideas as if they are ours, if they are in fact someone else’s. (Again, I’ve seen non-academic trade writers to my mind not care enough about this, and I think they should care about it as much as we do). But non-fiction publishers generally prefer that the author of the book can be portraited as someone who has all these really great novel ideas. I think the solution to this challenge is to flag the intellectual shoulders on which one is standing regularly enough in the main text (and hope it doesn’t get edited out), as well as make sure you have the space to write as many footnotes as you want, which will allow you to do all the proper crediting. When I talked to various publishers before signing a contract with Allen Lane and Astra House, I asked all of them about their “footnote policy”, and told them that it is really important for me to have the freedom to write as many footnotes as needed (I should say that almost all of them were totally easy going with this; I should not have had to worry about this).

Third, there is one challenge specific to philosophers who develop arguments for a certain claim. Sometimes, at the level of the structure of the argument, argument A is not different from argument B. But when written in an empirically grounded context, it can be illuminating for the reader to see both argument A and argument B spelled out, for examples because reading them both gives a better sense of the pervasiveness of the phenomenon, or helps to better grasp what argument A/B implies for actions that need to be taken. What is relevant for philosophers, is not always what is seen as relevant by a lay audience. Another variant of this challenge is that many philosophers are pretty obsessed by to what extent the different reasons we have for A are distinct, and which reason is to be preferred in we need to choose for one reason over another. For nonfiction readers, it is often much more important to know that there is/are very strong reasons for A – and whether the listed reasons are distinct is often of no importance at all. Put differently, it is important to ask what the reader cares about when reading the book.

Are there any other desiderata/challenges for non-fiction writing by philosophers and other academics from the social sciences and humanities?

Sunday photoblogging: Montpellier pigeon

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 03/07/2022 - 4:36pm in

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Montpellier Pigeon

Roe vs Wade Open Thread

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 27/06/2022 - 6:23pm in

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I am opening a thread on the Roe vs Wade Supreme Court decision. What will happen next? What should happen next – especially on the legislative side? Where should activists concentrate their efforts? Where are they concentrating their efforts already? What is being organised at grassroot level and which projects look most promising on the short/medium run (i.e. where should one send their money is one has some to send)? Which pieces have you read and think are worth sharing?

I will do my best with moderation but cannot be on it exclusively* all day, so bear with me.

Sunday photoblogging: swift

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 26/06/2022 - 3:44pm in

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I’ve spent many an hour trying to capture the swifts that speed in large numbers through and over the streets of Pézenas in France at this time of year. Alas they are very fast and change direction abruptly, so mostly all I get is blur. But this week I noticed that they sometimes spend a moment in the corner formed by a building opposite.

Swift

Some thoughts about the UK byelections, and beyond

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 24/06/2022 - 10:14pm in

Two byelections took place in England yesterday, Thursday June 23rd 2021; they were both caused by the two respective Conservative MPs resigning in disgrace – in one case, for a sexual assault conviction; in the other, for watching pornography in the House of Commons.

The first of the two was held in Wakefield, a constituency in Yorkshire, in the North of England. Wakefield is part of the so-called historical “Red Wall,” a group of constituencies in the Midlands, the North of England, and North East Wales which reliably elected Labour MPs until the National Elections of 2019, which saw many of them turning to the Conservatives. “Red Wall” constituencies share some salient crucial socio-economic, political, and demographic features (such as the prominence of a mining and industrial past and an overall prevalence of a pro-Brexit vote in the 2016 EU referendum), although each of these runs the risk of leading to simplified and biased overgeneralisations. Peter Mandelson once infamously declared that Labour did not need worry about these constituencies, because their voters had “nowhere else to go.” 2019 proved him wrong, but possibly – if the Wakefield trajectory turns out to be indicative of a wider trend – only briefly: yesterday, Wakefield elected again a Labour MP with a good margin.

The other byelection took place in Tiverton and Honiton, in the county of Devon in the South West of England. This is a very different part of the country. Tiverton and Honiton had been separate constituencies until 2010, but separately or jointly they had been safely in Conservative hands for over a century. Yesterday, a Liberal Democrat was elected, with a very good margin indeed,  and riding the wave of a de facto non-aggression pact with the Labour Party. Tactical voting has always been a feature of UK elections, so many Labour supporters were always going to vote Lib-Dem at this byelection in the hope of ousting the Conservatives – but what happened in Tiverton and Honiton yesterday (and to a lesser extent in Wakefield) went well beyond that. First of all, as pollster Matt Singh wrote on twitter, this was “industrial scale tactical voting;” second of all, whilst the prospects of a proper alliance or even just an electoral coalition among progressive parties in the UK are still miles away, it wouldn’t be totally crazy say that what happened during the campaign leading up to the byelections in both constituencies can be seen as some sort of dress rehearsal.

What will the effects of these two results be? Not Boris Johnson’s resignation, probably. Many would say, however, that this is only a matter of time, and that Johnson is a dead man walking. He recently survived a no-confidence vote, but 41% of his own MPs voted against him. Many traditional Tory voters and Northern backbenchers no longer have faith in him after his handling of the pandemic and the infamous party-gate; whilst many other prominent Tories lament the lack of a genuine, Conservative political line of low-taxation in his government so far. This puts him between a rock and a hard place, with many big names in his party wanting lower taxes and a leaner state whilst the country is in the midst of its strongest economic crisis in decades – with poverty rampant, the cost of living going through the roof, and the strong chance of months of robust industrial dispute in more than one labour sector ahead (more on this below). So yes, at face value the chances of the Conservative Party winning the next election look rather slim at the moment –although Conservative voters in the UK have a very short memory, and many Tory MPs think that ousting Jonson now or very soon, and replacing him with a more presentable PM, might very well revert the tide reasonably swiftly.

Over and above this more straightforward set of considerations, two more issues are worth mentioning. I have already anticipated the first one above. Progressives and keen democrats have been complaining about the UK Party System and its electoral system since, well, both exist. In spite of it, Labour has so far been officially against both a switch to Proportional Representation (or anything resembling it, including at the 2011 referendum) and the idea of an electoral coalition with other progressive forces (such as the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party, and possibly even the Scottish National Party). One wonders whether these byelections might be a turning point in this respect. Many would argue that it has become structurally impossible for Labour to win an election on its own, but one might say that the reverse is also true: there is a clear, and actually pretty robust, structural anti-Tories majority in the country, which needs the right channel to come to the fore – either via a more proportional representative system or a progressive alliance. The former is for the long haul; the latter, however, could in principle happen at the next national election already – either through cooperation and non-belligerent tactics in marginal seats over and above occasional byelections, or even through a declared intention to form an alliance. I am not suggesting this is now likely – but I am saying that this is one of the best possible moments to try this out. What do you think?

Finally, what about Keir Starmer, the leader of the Labour Party? This might seem an odd question to ask, especially to non-UK based readers. What about him, then? He must be doing pretty well, right? The Conservative Party is in shambles; Starmer has championed a much more ethical stance with regard to investigations into possible rule-breaking of COVID restrictions during the pandemic; he consistently gets solid (if not brilliant) marks for his grilling of Johnson at Prime Minister’s Questions; and Labour has just won a byelection. Behind all of this, however, the lack of enthusiasm for Starmer is palpable – it is, many Labour voters and sympathisers complain, not really clear what he stands for. This peaked during the current week, when Starmer fell short of supporting the largest strike of the rail network workforce in decades, and indeed even used the party whip to ask his MPs to stay away from the picket lines (quite a few of them disobeyed). With the rail strikes not being quite as opposed by the general population as many would have expected; the leader of the rail workers union nailing each and every public appearance he has made since the strike was announced; and new industrial action announced or threatened by airline workers, nurses, teachers and possibly (again) academics, Labour needs to take a stand, pronto. The combination of a promising momentum for Labour in principle with a leader that many do not see as up for the task makes one wonder whether the question of leadership might become relevant (more publicly than it has so far) within the Labour Party as well, and not just among Tories.

Please feel free, not just to comment, but also to post interesting pieces on the issues addressed in this blog post. Thanks!

 

Sunday photoblogging: steps, Bristol

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 19/06/2022 - 4:52pm in

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Steps

Why We’re Polarized Part 4: The Last one, about Party Differences

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 15/06/2022 - 8:59pm in

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In the penultimate chapter of Why We’re Polarized, Ezra Klein argues that while the forces of polarization act on both major U.S. political parties, the Democratic party has managed to weather them whereas the Republican party has largely succumbed. That is, Republicans stand out for their growing violation of and downright hostility toward established norms. He multiplies examples to make the case at pp 228-9.

What accounts for the difference? Klein’s answer is that the forces of ideological sorting have made the Democratic party more internally diverse and the Republican party more internally homogenous: “Republicans are overwhelmingly dependent on white voters. Democrats are a coalition of liberal whites, African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians. Republicans are overwhelmingly dependent on Christians. Democrats are a coalition of liberal and nonwhite Christians, Jews, Muslims, New Agers, atheists, Buddhists, and so on. On the fixed versus fluid psychological dimensions…Republicans are overwhelmingly the party of fixed voters. But…Democrats are psychologically sorted only among white voters,” while psychological orientation aligns less with party affiliation among voters of color (230-1).

The upshot is that “Democrats need to go broad in order to win over their party and…they need to reach into right-leaning territory to win power. Republicans can afford to go deep” (231). And that means that Republicans can appeal to voters through appeals to group identity, whereas Democrats must use party platform and policy goals to unify a diverse collection of interest groups.

This underpins a plausible explanation for the asymmetry in the extent of partisanship in media sources: “Because the mainstream media and academia actually aren’t that liberal, because they mostly do put truth-seeking ahead of partisanship, there isn’t that much demand for alternatives. The audience that is sufficiently alienated by mainstream outlets to present a business opportunity is uniformly conservative, and creating a differentiated enough product to appeal to them means creating a product that chooses to cater to conservative identity, rather than a product that routinely confronts it” (239). The consequence is that Democrats rely on a wider variety of news sources that are more beholden to objective facts, and that a greater share of right-leaning news sources positively fuel polarization.

Meanwhile, the electoral system itself differentially affects the ways in which the two parties are polarized: “Our political system is built around geographic units, all of which privilege sparse, rural areas over dense, urban ones. This is most glaringly true in the Senate, where Vermont wields the same power as New York. But it is also true in the House, due to the way that districts are drawn, and in the White House, due to the electoral college, and thus it is also true in the Supreme Court…And power, of course, begets power. Republicans use their majorities to pass partisan gerrymandering plans, pro-corporate campaign finance laws, strict voter ID requirements, and anti-union legislation, and Supreme Court decisions further weaken Democrats’ electoral performance” (241).

How does this restrain polarization on the Democratic side and exacerbate it for Republicans? To win electoral victory, Democrats need to appeal to voters to the right of center. They can and have moved to the left in various ways, but they can’t survive if they abandon outreach to the middle, and indeed to the right-of-middle. Meanwhile, “freed from the need to appeal to the median voter, Republicans have hewed to a more conservative and confrontational path than the country would prefer. They have learned to win power by winning land, rather than by winning hearts and minds” (243).

This description of Republican polarization brings to mind the leaked draft of the Supreme Court opinion that would overturn the right to abortion established by Roe vs. Wade. The opinion would move the legal landscape around abortion well to the right of what the median voter supports; this seems clear despite difficulty interpreting polling data on abortion. Klein’s analysis helps us to understand why this might be less of a threat to Republican electoral prospects than it could easily seem to be.

I think Klein’s analysis also suggests that the liberalizing Democratic position on abortion has been—and will continue to be—more of a threat when it comes to Democratic electoral politics. Some might argue that the liberalizing has been more perceived than real. Maybe it’s been more about rhetoric than platform, for example in the shift away from the “safe, legal, and rare” framing of the party’s position, which casts abortion as something to be regretted even as it’s legally protected, toward a framing of abortion on which ethical misgivings about abortion are tantamount to misogyny. But the electoral consequences are predictable nonetheless: There are parts of the middle and the right-of-middle that Democrats need that they won’t get because of their stance on abortion.

Here again a distinction might be useful. Democrats can and should insist that legal protections and genuine access are two different things. But we can understand access along two different dimensions. The first is material. Here I believe the liberalizing of the Democratic position is called for by principled commitments that Democrats must continue to hold. If access to abortion is an important issue of gender equality, then we should tolerate no class- or race-based obstacles to access. So, for example, Democrats can and should move left by opposing the Hyde Amendment. But the second dimension concerns ease of access to abortion as the pregnancy progresses. This is where I often worry that the rhetoric and the policy endorsements of representatives alienate the center in ways that they can avoid, consistent with their principled commitments to social equality and material fairness. A tiny portion of abortions occur late in pregnancy—it would be even tinier if material access were secured at earlier stages—and these are rare in the absence of extenuating circumstances. Why not be open to states restricting abortions late in pregnancy, then, while insisting on access in extenuating circumstances? Would this not be one way to meet the challenges that have made the Democratic party more resistant than the Republican party to the forces of polarization?

Monday photoblogging: Llandudno

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 13/06/2022 - 4:41pm in

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Llandudno

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