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. 

The first law of politics

From Janan Ganesh in the FT:

More than any profession, politics suffers from the myth of strategy. Its practitioners and pundits tend to attribute electoral success to a compelling “message” or “narrative” backed by a “ground game”, a media “operation” and something to do with the internet. There is almost nothing that cannot be achieved if you politic hard enough, it seems.

This is, of course, a fantasy. The first law of politics is that almost nothing matters. Voters barely notice, much less are they moved by, the events, speeches, tactics, campaigns or even strategies that are ultimately aimed at them. Elections are largely determined by a few fundamentals: the economy, the political cycle, the basic appeal of the party leaders. The role of human agency is not trivial, but it is rarely decisive either.

How the Snowden saga will end

This thoughtful post on Hacking Distributed is a must-read, arguing that the endgame on the Snowden saga will be determined by the relative strength of three forces: military / political (“whose aims are to keep social movements in check”), commerce (“this force vector consists simply of the collective economic interests of companies that fund elections … and points in the direction of making the internet a ‘pay-for-play’ environment”), and the public:

This force vector consists simply of the collective human interests of the people who use the network. It is by far the most powerful force, but has a number of shortcomings: it is slow to awaken, not technically sophisticated, and easy to derail and divide into factions over trivial concerns. But once the giant is awake, absolutely nothing can stand in its path.

What makes the public stand up and take a stance? No one knows. The Arab Spring was precipitated by a street salesman whose cart was taken away by the police, who got so depressed that he decided to put himself on fire, and before we knew it, dictators across many continents were spinning up their chopper blades. The Turkish uprising was precipitated by a couple of trees in a park. Second wave of Brazilian uprisings were over a 10 cent hike. This makes this force terrifying, because when the giant shows signs of awakening, when his eyelids flutter and he’s asking questions trying to get his bearings, it’s too late.

Obama’s big shift on climate messaging

Chris Mooney picks up an interesting point about Obama’s climate change speech last month:

If you watched President Obama’s major speech on climate change, you may have noticed a recurrent phrase: “our children.” The president said the word “children” fifteen separate times in the speech. He also spoke repeatedly about “future generations” and how a sweltering planet imperils them. The threat of climate itself, meanwhile, garnered considerable scientific detail in the speech, replete with references to dangerous and destructive impacts that are already occurring—from rising seas to parched land and torched forests. “I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing,” the president said.

When you stop and think about it for a minute, the messaging change here is pretty extraordinary. After all, four years ago the administration’s central talking point on climate change did not mention climate change. Rather, the idea was that greening our economy would confer a major benefit in the form of a profusion of green jobs. “It’s ironic that the administration, which helped launch ‘don’t talk about climate change, talk about economics and jobs,’ has flipped to ‘let’s talk about climate change and frame it in moral terms,’” says Joe Romm, a former Clinton administration clean energy official and editor of the leading climate blog Climate Progress. Meanwhile, as a Google Trends search shows, interest in “green jobs” peaked early in Obama’s first term and has been declining ever since.

It’ll be interesting to see whether a similar shift starts to become evident in Labour’s climate change messaging here in the UK (let’s not pretend that messages from the ‘greenest government ever’ have any relevance other than a certain bleak amusement value).

I quizzed Ed Balls on this at a Labour dinner last week, and his messaging was still firmly about how climate change could support the economy, both through green jobs and contributing to growth more generally. This was also very much the key message of his Statesman article to coincide with his appearance on a Green Alliance panel on 10 July; coverage here.

But while there’s undoubtedly much that Balls will need to do to get the Treasury to a better place on low carbon investment – see John Ashton‘s excellent speech on this – Labour will be missing a trick if it frames its climate messaging primarily in green economy terms.

For one thing, the ‘green jobs’ story doesn’t altogether stack up, as I argued in this blog post ages ago: “doing anything effective on climate will create both winners and losers – and the losers will tend to be noisier and more visible”, at least in the short term.

More fundamentally, though, messages about safeguarding our kids’ future are simply more resonant. Balls wants Labour’s key message going in to the next election to be “you’ll be better off under Labour”. Fair enough. But as Obama’s new stance emphasises, he should also set out why their kids will be better off under Labour too.

“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.