‘Lost Connections’ Review

‘Lost Connections’ written by Johaan Hari made me cry, in the best possible way.

Don’t be put off by a fear this is a self-help manual intended to get you thinking about yourself. It is the opposite. It is a refreshingly accessible overview of key scientific studies highlighting the exaggeration of biological explanations of depression and anxiety originating in chemical imbalances in the brain. The book explains the social, psychological and biological causes – and solutions – to depression and anxiety that hinders the happiness of so many people.

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Being a social scientist and Labour campaigner, the social causes and solutions struck me hardest. To reduce Hari’s message to it’s simplest and most important; depression and anxiety are caused by our disconnection, with the solutions to be found in more connection to each other, to meaningful work, to meaningful values and to the ability to imagine a secure future.

Importantly, Hari does not discount any one explanation – social, psychological or biological:

“They are all real, and none of these three can be described as something as crude as the idea of a chemical imbalance. The social and psychological causes have been ignored for a long time, even though it seems the biological causes don’t even kick in without them.”

The Nine Causes of Depression and Anxiety

Hari’s excellent writing style makes the findings of decades of academic literature absolutely accessible. In his exploration of this he highlights nine social and psychological causes of depression:

  1. Disconnection from meaningful work
  2. Disconnection from other people
  3. Disconnection from meaningful values
  4. Disconnection from childhood trauma
  5. Disconnection from status and respect
  6. Disconnection from the natural world
  7. Disconnection from a hopeful and secure future
  8. and 9. Disconnection from the real role of genes and brain changes

I can’t do justice here to the sheer amount of information he convincingly distills. For readers who follow social science it will be of little surprise Hari interviews Michael Marmott, author of the excellent book ‘The Health Gap‘ and the Marmot Review, the UK government commissioned independent review of health inequalities.  Similarly well-known names include Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, authors of ‘The Spirit Level’. Alongside these I was introduced to fascinating insights from respected professors who dared to ask questions ridiculed by others, who followed their hunches and even surprised themselves with their findings.

Reconnection, Or, a Different Kind of Antidepressant

The final section of the book concentrates on solutions based on the causal evidence presented in the list of nine highlighted above. This is where my political and ideological beliefs reassuring collided with evidence of what works.

  1. Reconnection: to other people
  2. Reconnection: social prescribing
  3. Reconnection: to meaningful work
  4. Reconnection: to meaningful vales
  5. Reconnection: to sympathetic joy and overcoming addiction to the self
  6. Reconnection: acknowledging and overcoming childhood trauma
  7. Reconnection: restoring the future

This book needs to be read by everyone who cares about living in a society that benefits the many, not the few: it’s impossible in this review for me to articulate the inspiration and hope I felt while reading about these solutions. To the amusement of my husband I even sat upright and exclaimed in joy when Hari interviewed Rutger Bregman, author of ‘Utopia for Realists’. Yeah I get the humour to be found in the juxtaposition of getting excited while reading a book about depression. But I am excited, because the changes required are within our grasp.

We are stronger together

We all know this, deep down, don’t we? We are at our strongest, our happiest, our most hopeful and most secure when we are surrounded by, and connected to, others. For some that might be our closest family or friends, for others we might be lucky enough to feel that through our religious, political, geographical community or perhaps those we share interests of identities with.

That’s not what our culture radiates though is it? Our culture bombards us, literally, with messages from a multi-billion dollar advertising industry trying to convince us to think about our own individual ‘needs’ because we are not ‘our best’ – that we’d be so much happier, thinner, sexier and successful if we just buy more and more shit. And that’s before we even consider the power social media can have in making us feel envious and isolated.

We need to consider and challenge our current economical and political system of neoliberal capitalism. It is dangerous, but it is not inevitable. It encourages us to be in competition, rather than cooperation with each other; to believe Thatcher’s damaging proclamation there is ‘no such thing as society’; to believe austerity is necessary even if it leaves people in poverty; to smash trade union rights even if it leaves people insecure. It understands and articulates us as selfish individuals.

This individualisation needs to be overcome. Hari summarises this eloquently:

“This is why we should not – must not – talk about solving depression and anxiety only through individual changes. To tell people that the solution lies solely or primarily in in tweaking your own life would be a denial of so much of what I learned on this journey. Once you understand that depression is to a significant degree a collective problem caused by something that’s gone wrong in our culture, it becomes obvious that the solutions have to be – to a significant degree – collective, too. We have to change the culture so that more people are freed up to change their lives”

Cultural and political change are two sides of the same coin. The people I have been lucky enough to meet in my local Labour party regularly top up my optimism that this can be achieved. Find your people who will help you collectively contribute to the changes we need.

An apology

I will end with an apology for being one of the people spreading the inaccurate story that depression and anxiety is caused by a chemical imbalance. Instinctively, I feel that our disconnection is harmful and I know from my own lived experience that connection is incredibly important to wellbeing.  I have read about the power of Big Pharma, I have studied and reflected on power imbalances – yet it is not until I read Hari’s book that I have joined the dots.

I now realise that as I strive for social justice I must help people find opportunities to be connected. As I continue to campaign for social democracy I will keep in mind the wellbeing of millions of people who will overcome the pain of depression and anxiety as we create a more equal, more connected world.

 

 

‘Utopia for Realists’

I felt intellectually (perhaps ideologically…) hugged by this book. Not only because it shares my belief in human nature and what constitutes equality and fairness, but because it contained reams of evidence to support what a good idea Universal Basic Income (UBI) is. A good idea and an inevitability. A bit like the next Labour government – an inevitability if we just first imagine it, then believe in it and most importantly work bloody hard to make a reality.

If you’d like to hear from the man himself rather than read my take on his book, watch his TED talk:

I can’t recommend more highly reading ‘Utopia for Realists’ (borrow it for free from your local library). Alongside UBI he eloquently argues for open borders, something that I don’t cover here. The main themes that hit me are as follows.

Politics

Rutger refers to our current Western world as ‘The Land of Plenty’, a term that sits well with the ideas shared by Wilkinson and Pickett in ‘The Spirit Level’. Looking purely within our own national borders – we have so much. The UK is the fifth richest country in the world. Yet we still have immense income and wealth inequality, and many people (plenty of them working) in poverty. What’s going wrong?

Politics, is where the finger is pointed. Uninspiring leaders trapped in boring debate:

“Notching up our purchasing power another percentage point, or shaving a couple off our carbon emissions; perhaps a new gadget – that’s about the extent of our vision”

This is something I am really reflecting upon recently. What is politics, and what do we expect from our politicians?

Rutger also spoke to my discomfort with ‘nudge’:

“Nudges are hugely popular with politicians in our modern Land of Plenty, mostly because they cost next to nothing… The nudge epitomises an era in which politics is concerned chiefly with combating symptoms.”

Do you agree with this view of politics? Do our elected representatives concentrate too much time trying to stick plasters over problems rather that being bold, innovative leaders articulating alternative ways of doing things?

Poverty

Rutger is clear on how he feels about universality versus means-testing:

“a system that helps solely the poor only drives a deeper wedge between them and the rest of society”

I am firmly on the side of universality, both because it just ‘feels’ fairer, but also because evidence suggests it leads to a ‘better’ welfare state where more people are protected, more generously, from the negative impacts of ‘the market’. Scandinavian countries are often used to show that their citizens are willing to substantially contribute via taxation to their welfare state as benefits are shared between everyone, not reserved the the ‘undeserving poor’.

Furthermore, Rutger runs through evidence that shows the lunacy of our current welfare conditionally regime (benefit sanctions, ESA assessments etc) by presenting evidence that the giving people living in poverty no-strings cash results in them actually working harder.

“Emerging data from cash transfer programmes, conditional or unconditional, largely dispel the counter arguments that these programmes prevent adults from seeking work or create a dependency culture which perpetuates intergenerational poverty. On the contrary, children—especially girls—from households given cash transfers are more likely to be in education, are in school for longer, and have higher incomes as adults. Immediate effects on local trade are also positive in most cases.” Source

This isn’t the place to talk about the the Poor Law and the evolution of the UK welfare state, but Rutger seems to understand the legacy as he concludes…

“Capitalist of communist, it all boils down to a pointless distinction between two types of poor, and to a major misconception that we almost managed to dispel some forty years ago – the fallacy that a life without poverty is a privilege you have to work for, rather than a right we all deserve.”

Measurement

Do we need to change how we are measuring how well we are doing? This is what I have thought about the most since reading ‘Utopia for Realists’. I’ve googled variations of ‘what is GDP’ in the past and I’ve read all sorts and wondered why it all seemed so very complex, and now I know why:

“When the United Nations published its first standard guideline for figuring GDP in 1953, it totalled just under fifty pages. The most recent edition, issued in 2008, comes in at 722. Though it’s a number bandied out freely in the media, there are few people who really understand how GDP is determined. Even many professional economists have no clue.”

(The final claim in the quote above is taken from a book I have on my bookshelf waiting to read ‘GDP – Brief but Affectionate History‘ written by Diane Coyle. Very excited to read this).

It’s not just GDP that is a highly questionable way to measure the success of our societies however. I agree with Rutger that we need to fundamentally reevaluate value. We need to reject the trope that bankers (for example) need to be paid extravagant wages as that’s the only way to attract ‘the best’. The best at what, making us all poorer?

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So, what can we do? Rutger suggests:

“I’d argue it’s time for  new labour movement. One that fights not only for more jobs and higher wages, but more importantly for work that has intrinsic value.”

It’s not just how we tax different types of work that needs questioning. There is a problem with the type of businesses that are dominating ‘the market’. I’m talking the likes of Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon.

“Whereas in 1964 each of the four largest American companies still had an average workforce of about 430,000 people, by 2011 they employed only a quarter of that number, despite being worth twice as much.”

Compare Kodak, inventor of the digital camera who filed for bankruptcy in 2012. In the late 1980’s it employed 145,000 people. Fast-forward to the modern day and look at Instagram, the app used to share free online mobile phone photographs that was sold to Facebook for $1 billion, and was staffed at that time by 13 people.

“The reality is it takes fewer and fewer people to create a successful business, meaning that when a business succeeds, fewer and fewer people benefit.”

There is a problem that centres around productivity and growth, and politicians focusing on either or both of these as measures of a country’s success are shielding an important truth that concerns the living standards of workers:

“It began around the year 2000, with what two MIT economists called ‘the great decoupling’. “It’s the great paradox of our era” said one. “Productivity is at record levels, innovation has never been faster, and yet at the same time, we have a falling median income and we have fewer jobs.”” Source

Power of ideas

Linked to the problems identified above are how we relate to each other as humans, and who/what is ‘powering’ our culture?

“Whatever we may tell ourselves about freedom of speech, our values are suspiciously close to those touted by precisely the companies that pay for prime-time advertising. If a political party to a religious sect had even a fraction of the influence that the advertising industry has on us and our children, we’d be up in arms. But because it’s the market we remain ‘neutral'”

However, there is hope. Think about the members of Mount Pelerin which included the ‘fathers of neoliberalism’ Hayek and Friedman. They fought hard for their ideas to gain prominence. They were the outliers, the oddities. Let them be an example of the power ideas. While the substance of their ideas have been wildly negative in impact, let the fact they are and were just ideas give us great hope. Let us use them as an example of the utility of embodying the patience and the courage to be utopian.

“Ideas, however outrageous, have changed the world, and they will again. “Indeed,” wrote Keynes, “the world is ruled by little else.””

While being utopian in our thinking may be the first step towards a different future, it’s no good just discussing these ideas in our echo chambers. ‘Thinkers’ are important in helping us imagine alternative paths, but they must be understandable to the average person. Surely one of the lessons from recent political times is being from the ‘middle-class urban elite’ is a barrier. I am worried about the left not learning this lesson well enough:

“If you can’t explain your ideal to a fairly intelligent twelve-year-old, after all, it’s probably your own fault. What we need is a narrative that speaks to millions of ordinary people.”

Rutger is an excellent example of a writer who perfects making his ideas thoroughly accessible. Yet, who outside of the echo chamber I inhabit (people who read contemporary political non-fiction/people active in a local political party) will be reading this? My family members won’t be reading this, or most of my friends. They’re busy living their lives; looking for a new job, squeezing in food shopping around children activities, watching TV.

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‘The Age of Terror’ and the importance of human rights

Last week I attended the 2018 Bristol Law Conference, organised by University of Bristol students. The theme ‘The Age of Terror’ instinctually makes me cringe slightly, but the speakers tempted me to attend.

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This post concentrates on ideas around the principle of proportionality and human rights shared by Dr Cian Murphy and Baroness Shami Chakrabarti.

Surveillance

Dr Cian Murphy started with a bit of poetry and perspective about how numerically small the numbers of terrorism-related deaths in the UK are in contrast to road traffic collisions, for example.

He asked two questions:

  1. What level of risk are we willing to accept, personally as individuals, and politically as a collective society?
  2. What do we expect from our leaders and why?

I’m not sure what level of interference I believe is legitimate in the name of preventing terrorism. I am certainly not in the ‘if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear’ camp. The second question struck a chord as something we should all be asking ourselves more regularly (looking at you tabloid press).

The talk then delved deeper into law, outlining the three requirements of good law.

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Put simply, good law must be have a legal base that is lawful – while striking an acceptable (proportinate) balance between interference with rights on the one hand, and legitimate aims on the other.

The example of the proportionality principle in action shared by Cian may cause Brexit Remainers to face palm. The Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (Dripa) 2014 was successfully challenged as ‘inconsistent with EU law‘ due to failing the proportionality test after being assessed as providing inadequate safeguards. The challenge was brought by Tom Watson MP and David Davis MP. Specifically,

“They said the legislation was incompatible with article eight of the European convention on human rights, the right to respect for private and family life, and articles seven and eight of the EU charter of fundamental rights, respect for private and family life and protection of personal data” (Source)

Yes, that’s right, David Davis MP the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union used the EU charter to fight his case. The EU charter that he recently voted against retaining when we leave the EU. Just let that sink in a moment.

Subsequent legislation colloquially known by the Snoopers Charter, but officially the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 is now under challenge courtesy of Liberty. This may yet be found unlawful. Watch the video below to begin to understand why. The High Court will hear the case in March 2018.

 

Indefinite detention

Baroness Shami Chakrabarti concentrated on similar issues to Dr Cian Murphy, which is probably unsurprising considering she was previously director of Liberty and has written a book I very much would like to read ‘On Liberty’ (apologies to any readers not based near me in Weston-super-Mare. The link is to our library service where it can be reserved for free from any South West library. Support your local library!).

Shami expressed her concern that the virtue signalling of contemporary democratic leaders, rather than practical policy responses, result in increasingly normalised exceptionalism that looks back at the statute book for blurred lines to use in the copying and pasting of legislation.

One example given was the attempt to ‘copy and paste’ immigration policy to indefinitely detain foreign nationals suspected of threatening national security without charge or trial through Part 4 of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001.

This was challenged and held by the House of Lords as incompatible with Article 5 of the European Convention of Human Rights. As with surveillance legislation outlined above, the challenge was upheld due to the principle of proportionality. The majority concluded that Part 4

“did not rationally address the threat to security and was a disproportionate response to that threat.” (Source)

I can understand why some may be unsympathetic to upholding the rights of potential terrorists. Yet we must remember that potential is the operative word. Surely everyone is entitled to know the charges and evidence against them, and a trial to decide whether they are guilty or not? Importantly, the issue of getting the right balance between proportionally and rights is not merely about fairness in terms of the individual, as succinctly summed up by Lord Hoffman

“The real threat to the life of the nation, in the sense of a people living in accordance with its traditional laws and political values, comes not from terrorism but from laws such as these. That is the true measure of what terrorism may achieve. It is for Parliament to decide whether to give the terrorists such a victory.” (Source)

Part 4 of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 was repealed and replaced by control orders, and more recently Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures (TPIMs). However, there remain many concerns about the fairness of safety of these measures, as outlined by Liberty.

Quite separate to the issue of terrorism and national security, immigration policy continues to allow the indefinite detention of people – including minors and pregnant women, which is abhorrent IMO. Please see here and here and here if you want want to learn more about ways to campaign against this.

Final thoughts

Thank goodness for human rights.

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The legislation outlined here were, and are, being challenged because of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Do not Brexit panic. The ECHR is completely separate to the European Union. It is an instrument of the Council of Europe, and enforced by the European Court of Human Rights. It is incorporated into UK law through the Human Rights Act 1998.

OK, you can Brexit panic just a smidgen now as it’s not all quite so rosy or simple. Currently, alongside the Human Rights Act 1998, we are also protected by the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. Last month, 317 MP’s voted against retaining the Charter when we withdraw from the EU. 299 didn’t. You can see how your MP voted here. Spoiler: our Weston-super-Mare MP John Penrose voted against.

What’s the problem with losing the Charter and retaining the Human Rights Act? In a recent Guardian article Trevor Tayleur, an associate professor at the University of Law explained that the Charter offers a more robust defence:

“At present, the main means of protecting human rights in the UK is the Human Rights Act 1998. This incorporates the bulk of the rights and freedoms enshrined in the European convention on human rights into UK law and thereby enables individuals to enforce their convention rights in the UK courts. However, there is a significant limitation to the protection afforded by the HRA because it does not override acts of parliament. In contrast, the protection afforded by the EU charter of fundamental rights is much stronger because where there is a conflict between basic rights contained in the charter and an act of the Westminster parliament, the charter will prevail over the act.”

And… even the Human Rights Act 1998 isn’t safe. The Conservative government have discussed repealing the Human Rights Act and replacing it with a British Bill of Rights. For now, the government have a few other things on their plate and so this has been put on the back burner.

We all need to be alert to when it’s back on the table.

MRes Sustainable Futures

So, I decided to apply for a masters, specifically the MRes Sustainable Futures at the University of Bristol (UoB). While that’s the host university, one of the exciting things about the programme is that it’s one of the  South West Doctoral Training Partnership interdisciplinary pathways that are delivered in partnership with the University of Bath, University of the West of England and University of Exeter. As for mandatory units, they will be taught by my ‘home’ School for Policy Studies at UoB (which makes me feel quite safe and warm!) as well as the Geography department and the Law department. Optional units then include some Politics units, as well as units from the other universities. So, interdisciplinary indeed!

That’s not necessarily an academic career bonus as I’ve heard that not focusing on a specific discipline can be troublesome when wanting to delve into the world of publications for example. But hey, I’ve never studied for career purposes have I? I’ve studied because I want to understand more about this world we inhabit and because I hope I can apply that understanding to improve life for others. It’s constructive guilt really. I’m so fucking privileged compared to many people I know, let alone billions of other humans I share this planet with; if I don’t do something worthwhile with that privilege, well, that would just be selfish. In fact in might be deeper than that. It would suggest life really is just meaningless, and something this beautiful can’t be for nothing.

Anyway, I WAS OFFERED A PLACE ON THE COURSE!

Exciting hey?! Very!

Here’s the personal statement I submitted which makes me cringe! There are a fair few grammatical and structural errors I can now see glaring at me. But it’s honest, and it did the trick!

There are three reasons for my choice to study MRes Sustainable Futures. Firstly, I am driven by the need to understand the complex interactions of society, economics, environment and the governance of all three. Secondly, I am consumed by the desire to apply this understanding by taking practical action. Thirdly, I thoroughly enjoy the research process. Therefore, the MRes provides a platform to develop my research skills while combining my analytical and normative interests.

 

My undergraduate Social Policy BSc was completed at the University of Bristol in 2016. The MRes at Bristol is appealing because it combines the familiarity of a supportive environment via the qualitative and quantitative research skills modules in the School for Policy Studies, with the exposure to the Law, Geography and Politics schools. I am also attracted by the opportunity for collaborative teaching at Bath and Exeter Universities. Understanding and improving sustainable development can only be achieved by embracing the complexity of multiple interdependent systems, and hence my personal growth in this subject can only be strengthened by the complementary interdisciplinary approach offered by this programme.

 

Before, throughout and since graduating I have been searching for a way to make sense of the world we live in. I am appalled by the unequal distribution of wealth within and between countries, the prevalence of extreme poverty and the environmental destruction humans wreak on the planet. This desire to understand is not purely analytical. For example, in an attempt to do something practical with my environmental concerns in particular in 2017 I opened a small whole food shop called Replenish Weston. The aim of the shop (which offers many loose ‘scoops and weigh’ food and cleaning goods) is to reduce unnecessary packaging while increasing access to affordable, ethically produced food. Opening this shop has taught me that I can successfully turn an idea into action, that I enjoy facilitating the positive actions of others and that running a shop is not enough to satisfy my enquiring mind.

 

I am applying for this programme not only to increase my understanding and ability to take action in the short-term but because I am interested in future PhD study. Beyond developing my own understanding, I want to help others make the necessary connections between their actions and the effects of those actions, particularly on the most vulnerable people with whom we share this planet. I want to focus my time on learning how to conceptualise, measure and communicate an understanding of our complex interactions. I see this as the first step towards becoming a facilitator in helping others, whether individuals or organisations, to work towards reducing the harm prevalent across our interdependent world.

 

I apply to the programme with strong academic and research skills evidenced by my First Class Honours and awards given during my undergraduate degree. In 2013/14 I was awarded a Dean’s Prize for Outstanding performance in first year study, and later the Social Policy BSc Third Year prize 2016 for the best dissertation of the year. My research skills were further developed through employment alongside studying in my position as Research & Campaigns Officer at Citizens Advice North Somerset. This role allowed me to understand the meaning and importance of praxis as I combined my theoretical understanding of policy with the direct experience of working with those impacted. A further example of my commitment to praxis is the voluntary work of ‘Refugees Welcome North Somerset’ which I started through the simplicity of a Facebook group in late 2016 after reading about the ‘refugee crisis’ and the (inadequate) response of the EU and UK government. The group was set up in response to the inaction of our local authority to find homes for three families under the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme and a desire to find other local people who shared my interest in ensuring the decision to help was fulfilled. We influenced the local authority through meetings with the relevant officers and community events, and later facilitated pre- and post- arrival support for the families.

 

I am a hard-working, entrepreneurial and compassionate person who is trying to understand the complex world we live in, and how I can play a role in working towards a sustainable future. Currently, I am absorbing information through reading alone and attempting to act when I see an opportunity to do so. I hope to be accepted onto this programme so that I can work with scholars to direct and expand my reading, so that I can discuss and debate ideas to extend my understanding, and so that I can develop my research skills so that I can increase the efficacy of my actions.

Hillbilly Elegy Review

Hillbilly Elegy written by J.D Vance is an interesting story about the life of an individual living in a part of the world I know nothing about, the Appalachian region of the United States of America.

On the front cover of the book is a claim from a critics that the book is “profound… a great insight into Trump and Brexit.” While I have come away with a slightly deeper appreciation of why some people may have voted for Trump in the last presidential election, to suggest the experiences of a self-professed American hillbilly can be translated to our recent British political experience seems a little far-fetched. In fact it seems a little insulting when considering the very personally specific experience Vance shares with us about his Hillbilly identity and culture.

Improbable claims from reviewers aside, the story itself is an interesting and moving portrait of a man who faced a very difficult upbringing yet managed to find a ‘way out’ of the welfare dependency Vance sees around him. The love of his family, and the hard-work of Vance as an individual can only be applauded.

Welfare dependency is described by Vance as an objective fact, the reality of many, and often the fault of the individuals concerned. This is where I start to feel uncomfortable. Not only because the welfare dependency thesis is highly disputed, but because his opinion and experience conflicts with my academic understanding and if I’m really honest, left-wing bias. Am I being arrogant, to consider my own reading (and experience in a different culture and country) may give a more accurate picture of where to draw the line between personal responsibility and the efficacy public policy? Probably not, because I believe in pluralism and it’s interesting to read something that I disagree with, a chance to sharpen my critical analysis.

The source of my discomfort is more tied up with recent political debates around the role of expert knowledge (in itself something I find positive for bringing epistemology for the layman into public discourse) and a concern around the power of implicit ideology. Vance presents as a ‘normal bloke’, someone at the coalface, and that makes me and no doubt others want to truly believe his perspective on the world, not just on his life but as able to explain why so many people in the area he has lived and loves chose to vote for Trump. In terms of Trump specifically, this book did give me an insight into the deep love of country felt by some, and how the ‘make America great again’ campaign could play very nicely into this sentiment. Past that, and in terms of Brexit, nothing more.

Vance is just one man and this is not a political scientist account of voting behaviour. Yes, he has a unique insight I will never have because he is part of a particular group and deeply connected to others in it. Yet, Vance is speaking from a particular position of conservative ideology; he cites Charles Murray without question, a man famous for castigating many people as belonging to an ‘underclass’. This is a highly political view that clouded the entire book for me. This notion of people choosing a ‘lifestyle’ of welfare dependency is highly disputed, not just within academic circles but within UK popular culture, my personal favourite being Charlie Brooker and friends using satire to show just how hateful this view is.

My recommendation would be to enjoy this book as an interesting story about an individual living in a place different to where you live, while being aware that the views espoused about welfare dependency are just that, one mans view.

 

 

 

Pretending to do an MSc

In my quest to work out if I really do want to return to study, I took a trip to the Arts & Social Science library at the University of Bristol this week. My method is simple; to pretend I’m a student to test if I want to enrol as one. That’s possible with thanks to the unit guide library  supplied by the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies.

Thanks is also due to the visitor access that allowed me to pop in, and to the graduate visitor card I have now have which means I can actually borrow books! I’m genuinely excited, and very grateful.

It had been about a year since I last visited the library, as it was about a year ago I decided after the first term that it was not the right time for me to continue the MSc Public Policy.

Rather than study, I made a decision to take more direct control over my working life and ability to ‘make a difference’; I opened a whole-food shop, Replenish Weston.

The shop aims to help local people purchase and consume more ethically by:

  • reducing packaging and food waste by allowing customers to bring their own containers to refill, buying just what they need
  • selling organic and GMO free food
  • selling fairtrade goods
  • buying from worker-owned co-operatives
  • selling only vegan and vegetarian food

Running the shop has allowed me the time to focus on what it is I really strive for in life, and it’s really quite simple; I don’t want my choices to have a negative impact on the living things I share this planet with. I believe that as individuals we are interdependent, but we are not yet equal. I know that many of my choices – the food I eat, the clothes I wear, the energy burnt to power my entertainment – oppresses and exploits people and the planet; but production and trade seems so complex and opaque that it is very difficult to know how to avoid this. I want to understand the complexities that I can’t yet see so that I can live life doing as little harm as possible, and to use the knowledge I gain to help others do the same.

I think studying International Relations or International Security might help.

 

Brain dump

Doesn’t sound very nice, does it? But I think it describes well enough what I need to do in this very first blog post; dump into words why this blog exists.

  1. My internal monologue is whirring faster than usual. By writing down my thoughts about things that pre-occupy my mind (which tend to be the nature of social reality and my agency and responsibility within it), I hope that I can pause and reflect rather than continue in dizzying circles.
  2. Things that interest me don’t necessarily interest those closest to me. By having a space to write down my thoughts it saves those I love from having to listen to me bang on. I mean, I’ll still bang on a bit, just not as often, hopefully!
  3. It’s a record of the learning I plan to do and a place to practice turning my ideas in to something coherent. Perhaps even an online space where I can discuss the ideas I come across with others.

Photo credit: kozemchuk on Foter.com / CC BY