What Antoinette Tuff has to teach politics

Amid all the commentary about Antoinette Tuff’s successful talking down of a potential school gunman in Georgia, Gary Younge in the Guardian makes two of the best observations I’ve seen about it. First, this:

Politicians cannot legislate to ensure the existence of people such as Tuff. And even if they could it would be unreasonable to expect such heroism from anyone. They can, nonetheless, learn a great deal from her. For her generosity of spirit, capacity to humanise the potential shooter and ability to identify with him through her own vulnerabilities do tell us a great deal about what is lacking in our politics.

Our politics, particularly in an age of terror, austerity and growing inequality, is predicated on the basis that people are basically venal, selfish, dishonest and untrustworthy. The poor are assumed not to be looking for work but cheating on welfare; foreigners are assumed to be taking something from a culture rather than contributing something to it; public sector workers, like Tuff, are assumed not to be devoted to public service but a drain on our taxes. The disabled are assumed to be well. When we look at others, the default position in much of western political culture is not to see ourselves in them but to see a threat.

So Tuff’s courage stands as the most dramatic illustration of the degree to which we are, and can be, so much more impressive than our politics suggests.

And second…

…religion. For it was in and through her faith that Tuff drew the strength to deal with the situation. That is what religion does for many people. It grounds them. It’s the means by which they make sense of the world around them, their place in it and their relationship to others. For many it is the bedrock of their community and identity.

I’m not religious: I’m a lapsed agnostic. I used to not know and then just stopped caring. But I’m a liberal secularist. I believe religion has no role in the state and nobody, including the state, has the right to dictate to women what they should wear.

However, it has become fashionable, particularly among those who think themselves progressive in Europe, to disparage not just faith but the faithful (with particular disdain reserved for Islam) … Leaving aside for a moment where ridiculing the religious leaves the contributions of Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King, Trevor Huddleston, Bruce Kent, Harriet Tubman, Muhammad Ali, Gandhi and Malcolm X: where does it leave Tuff? A sucker or a saviour?

Odd, incidentally, that none of the articles I’ve seen on this have drawn the parallel between Antoinette Tuff and Ingrid Loyau-Kennett, the woman who engaged Woolwich attacker Michael Adebowale.

Labour and Uncle Sam

Should Britain expect more from the Special Relationship with the United States than managed decline? What price should progressives be willing to pay for influence? Latest in our #progressivedilemmas series on conundrums facing the next Labour government. 

“I think we’re fucked” and other reasons not to publish a book

Last night saw the launch at the Science Museum of a new book called Ten Billion, by Stephen Emmott. I’m not sure I can recall another book that’s annoyed me this much.

Emmott is head of computation science at Microsoft Research. He’s smart, and clearly makes full use of his mandate at Microsoft to think about big issues. And his book, as the blurb puts it, is “about the potential consequences of the collective activities of the human population as we continue to grow towards ten billion. Its message is simple: We are in real trouble, are heading for deeper trouble, and are failing to do much about it.”

His analysis, in a nutshell, is that: a massive resource scarcity and climate change crunch is rapidly approaching; we’re kidding ourselves if we think that technology is going to let us off the hook without having to face up to any change in our lifestyles; developed world publics are in no mood to consume less; and since we’re not willing to face up to the questions about fair shares in the context of environmental limits, it’s most unlikely that emerging economies will do so any time soon either.

While he gets some of his data wrong, I agree with the broad thrust of this argument 100%. So why the fury? Because of how he finishes the book. Here’s his conclusion (and I’m quoting verbatim):

“We urgently need to do – and I mean actually do – something radical to avert a global catastrophe. But I don’t think we will.

I think we’re fucked.”

Now, I agree that we’re in for a bumpy ride. I agree that it’s going to take something nonlinear and spectacular to make the transition successfully. And it’s fair enough if Emmott can’t imagine what that might look like; I can’t predict it either.

But the point here is that anyone spinning ‘collapse’ stories like this – and especially anyone who is, like Emmott, an opinion former of considerable influence (as I type, his book is the #1 bestseller on global warming or climate at Amazon) – is creating narrative frames that other people are going to use to make sense of what’s going on, how we get here, and what happens next.

And Emmott’s story is not helpful. It’s toxic.

Stories – myths – are deeply, deeply powerful things. They create our reality as much as they describe it. And the more opinion formers get behind collapse narratives, the more likely these narratives are to become self-fulfilling prophecies, contributing to a mood of despair rather than resolve when shocks open up moments of opportunity.

Thinking that we’re “fucked” is a legitimate intellectual position – but if that is what you genuinely believe, then the responsible course of action is to shut the fuck up about it – and leave the narrative bandwidth to others with something more hopeful to say than you.

What have you got to lose by doing so, if you already think it’s all over? And conversely, what are you adding to public debate if you don’t have the imagination even to admit the possibility of success? Either lead, or get out of the way, as a climate negotiator once put it to the US delegation.

All of which begs the question of what I think a more hopeful narrative would look like, given that I buy Emmott’s analysis of the severity of the situation and the lack of obvious answers. I don’t think there’s a single answer, but I’m personally pretty interested in stuff like this. It’s the transcript of a talk I gave earlier this week, and is a first attempt to put together some thoughts that have been bubbling away for over a year.

The talk was at the annual conference of the very cool Modern Church movement - they were founded in the 19th century to oppose religious fundamentalism from within the church, and these days work on areas like religious pluralism, defence of science, and gender equity. Anyway, work in progress – feedback very welcome.

Exactly

Steve Richards:

For all the specific reasons that explain the destabilising crises that unnerve Prime Ministers, there is one constant factor. No 10 is under-powered. This townhouse, with its tiny units of advisers and officials, cannot cope with the modern demands of leadership. When the then Prime Minister of France Lionel Jospin visited London, he was introduced to Blair’s economic adviser. Jospin asked Blair where the rest of the adviser’s department was. He was told that he had only one economic adviser. Jospin thought he was joking.

There needs to be a big, well-resourced highly political Prime Ministerial department to reflect the responsibilities of a modern Prime Minister. Precisely because of all the weekly crises, Prime Ministers quickly become too weak to establish a proper department, fearful they will look too arrogant. The move can be made only at the beginning, when Prime Ministerial popularity is fleetingly high. The next Prime Minister should announce his plans to appoint political advisers, top officials, and party-based people in a big new department on Day One – before the crises erupt.