This year has strongly featured getting out-of-the-blue invitations from people, usually asking me to do something that makes me feel nervous, and quickly accepting.
None more surprising and uncomfortable than being asked to participate in the Clear Lines Festival, which runs from this Thursday 30 July to Sunday. Festivals aren’t only about celebration. They can be collections of events, talks and creative offerings around a particular issue, and for this one this issue is rape and sexual abuse.
I’ve been asked to join a panel discussion entitled “Where have all the good men gone?” The festival wishes to start a conversation about how men can get involved and become part of the solution to sexual violence.
Many men might not be involved in this conversation. In fact, many men might not be involved in many types of conversation at all. Often it’s the actual human interaction (pretty necessary for a conversation) which is totally avoided, and I have noticed this in particular around men and children. Perhaps this sort of disengagement, the fear or shame that causes it and the isolation or numbness that accompanies it, has worked its way so much into normality that it is barely noticed and rarely questioned. This would explain a lot to me…
Not talking about rape would be understandable if you consider that it might be rare for men in our culture to be provided with, or even better provide themselves with, the permission and the courage and the spaces to actually talk about ANYTHING of deep meaning.
Anyway, when I get the urge to wrestle with something, I often find it useful to try and make it rhyme, so here is a spoken word offering that explores what might be behind the question: Where Have All The Men Gone?
My landlords came round the other week to make sure that the house hasn’t been too trashed in the 2 years we’ve been living here. No big issues. Their only observation was that “the garden could do with a bit of attention.”
You know what? They are absolutely right, and I have taken immediate action.
My first step has been to get up every morning before the kids need to wake up and sit silently for half an hour in the garden while the sun rises. This is called by some a ‘sit spot’ and is a practice as important to budding naturalists as breathing, so it seems like a good move. And from here I can pay the garden a lot of attention.
Another step has been to cease mowing the lawn or pulling weeds. The lawn, in addition to tall buttercups, daisies and clover, already now has bugle and bacon-and-eggs and lots of interesting grasses (I assume these are what everyday lawn grass is always struggling to become in between lawnmower slaughterings. What a lovely discovery – grass isn’t just grass, just as people aren’t just people!).
There are rather a lot more butterflies. I am watching the development of blackberry flowers in 24-hour time lapse. I have begun to notice the difference between a blue tit call and a blue tit song, and what juvenile birds look like and what they do with their mums and dads.
And then the pondering starts…
What is the connection between the buttercup and the oak tree? I’m not in a rush to solve such mysteries, but I am very happy to be in the presence of them a bit more.
Where do all the sycamore leaves go when they fall? It certainly isn’t me clearing them up I can tell you. But after a couple of months there’s no trace, I managed to notice last year. I can’t wait until Autumn to start finding out. Whatever happens, I’m sure it’s better going back to the mud than into the brown bin. Perhaps this awful negligence explains why a pretty flower called bistort has sprung up under the sycamore…
The well-kept lawn is surely an aberration. It’s the perfect symbol of our times. Pride taken in the maintenance of a featureless monoculture, with machines and chemicals applied to stop anything daring to peep up its head. The pursuit of heart-shrivelling perfection. The cutting of connections and the banishment of diversity. All carried out with a bored, whingeing resignation, wrestling with a Qualcast when you ought to be (and would rather be) wrestling with the kids in the nodding meadow fescue.
There is such pleasure in allowing in a bit of wildness, especially if I turn up and join in.
I wish for the garden what I wish for my children – not only a chance to make a living but also a chance to express and develop a rich assortment of capabilities, both wild and tame. I want that for me too.
Thank you, my landlords, for some very good advice.
I call this the Freedom Blog, but that doesn’t mean that freedom is always a good thing.
For instance, I often find myself worrying about the crippling dangers of Free Markets. And the Charlie Hebdo thing brought attention to the shadow side of Free Speech.
A good dose of restrictive exclusivity can often be very wise when applied in the right places, and very stupid when not. And in our backwards culture, it should be expected that we get things dreadfully the wrong way round.
When I come across exclusivity, it is normally in the context of creating scarcity, in order to make something appear more valuable and be more demanded. It is linked to luxury and status. It is a important element of making and maintaining a culture of inequality, and selling stuff.
The wise form of exclusivity often means just leaving things alone. Like the gold that indigenous Americans used to leave undisturbed in the ground, until the Modern American turned up, ethnically cleansed the land, and proceeded to tear it up.
Wise exclusivity allows the human species to remain within safe cultural boundaries, to avoid causing destruction. It allows the existence of mystery, which is an essential ingredient for anyone interested in having either a soul or an adventure. And it keeps things held back until the correct time or maturity is reached to uncover it.
Manhood, womanhood, sex, and all the complex paradoxes of the human condition… these used to be carefully guarded by experienced elders and imparted to youngsters at the right time in the right way, so that they did not become lost or destroy themselves.
Because sex without mystery, initiation or guidance can be destructive. When the sacred is fed into the mass market and exclusivity disappears, you get an internet full of freely-available porn that people can use for their instruction and initiation – free of mystery and free of safety.
Someone was describing the 50 Shades of Grey film to me recently. Even at the age of 40, I want to protect myself from seeing this film. It appears to deal with some very powerful symbols and concepts which the mass media, as a channel, cannot handle responsibly. In the absence of careful handling, I can sit there and watch passively, numbly viewing disasters of the modern pysche as normal. And instead of learning valuable lessons, as a consumer of a film I’ll probably just reaffirm dangerous stereotypes about myself and the world around me.
It is so easy to be inadvertently complicit in the real life tragedy of dreadfully confused men and women – simply by turning up or tuning in to the crap that prevails. Perhaps in a similar way with spoiling ballots, it is always worth seriously considering not turning up. Instead, creating some exclusivity. Exploring the underlying issues in a safer, more meaningful way, or waiting for a time when that can be done. And, for those of us who begin to care, creating situations and moments when those lessons, initiations or conversations can safely occur.
The idea of restriction is very unfashionable, and goes against the GDP-sponsored inalienable right to do whatever I goddamn want. But seeing the pain caused by clumsily and carelessly exposing sensitive young people (and uninitiated 40 year old men) to sacred issues through uncaring mass media, all in the name of freedom… surely this should provoke us to re-examine our values.
But where can we learn our values if not from telly and newspapers?
Elders, role models – wherever you are, if you are still alive – time for you to step back up. We need you badly.
Knowing what I now know about the disastrous destiny of the culture I live in, how can I possibly participate in it? Since I need money to survive and am reliant on this system, how can I possibly not participate in it?
Still wrestling with that one.
I am staggered by the number of people I am meeting who are also struggling with this impossible conundrum. There are so many people who want to work to serve and to heal, but find that this aspiration is simply not viable. The only things that are commercially valued are the things that can be priced and grown and produce a reliable return. This state of affairs, where there is utterly essential work to be done and people who want to do it, but an economic system that prevents it, is deeply upsetting, infuriating, insane.
It is a prison, with three formidable security systems: financial restraints which make it almost impossible in practice to escape the system, social restraints where any attempts to escape are met with an aggressive social moral logic deeply interested in everyone remaining incarcerated and competing, and psychological restraints where potential escapees flood themselves with anxious thoughts about how inadequate they are, and give up.
The industrial experiment we are part of is an elephantine failure that most cannot seem to acknowledge. To put the brakes on, to preserve the future instead of growth, would create deeply unstable conditions and much suffering, as many millions have experienced in the last decade (although billions had been suffering for decades already); an easily imaginable, shorter term disaster. To carry compounding the erosion, pollution, species destruction, inequality until something finally collapses is an unimaginable (although now scientifically-backed), longer term catastrophe.
Compound growth (the key ingredient to make our system function) in a finite system is clearly impossible – only a complete idiot would deny this; the idea is actually becoming stagnant with halfhearted overuse. But it’s still no wonder that the over-riding choice is to avoid the short term problem, and keep growing, keep living as usual. In practice, what else can you really do?
But what about those people who wish to find an alternative, a group I would like to include myself in…
I think I need to get clear on what I mean for myself by Work. Addressing it in the sense of jobs or earning a living offers no way out. Or maybe an important piece of work is to accept is that there is currently no visible way out…
A friend of mine described our culture as being in between two stories, an old one that doesn’t work any more, and a new one that we can’t yet see. This is a time of anxiety, uncertainty and confusing paradox. It is a time of struggle, to find way of living and of earning a living that is in line with our intrinsic values – values that are not enshrined in or rewarded by our social, economic, political systems.
Maybe the struggle itself, in its many forms and interpretations, is the Work. Maybe for all those people out there – those who know a toxic turd when they see it, and who yearn for beauty and human-ness, and try their best to avoid lapsing into collective blindness – for those people the challenge of weathering the anxiety and confusion without turning back to the tantalising arms of the sick but familiar old story is the vital work today. Perhaps our work is finding our own active response, finding each other, and finding the endurance to remain standing; this might be the most precious service possible to the new story, which must write itself.
A beautiful struggle through the messy first few chapters of the new story, or at least a dignified ending. In the midst of all the distress, I find this a comforting thought.
I have never cared more about the general election than this time round.
To date, I have only actually voted once. Up until the last general election, I stayed at home, not feeling compelled to join in, but nothing deeper than that. Last elections I did cast a vote, a kind of “anything but those last bastards” kind of vote. I was surprised at the sense of betrayal I immediately felt – self-betrayal at first, like I had just participated in something unsavoury. Then as time progressed, a betrayal of the people and places and beings that suffer directly at the hands of the system I had validated. Staying at home feels too passive to me, so I’m exploring the option of deliberately spoiling my ballot.
“People fought and died so you can vote.” “If you don’t vote, you have no right to complain.” These common comments are part of our conditioning, to heap ridicule and suppression on the disobedient. They serve to create the illusion that not only is the current system the only one that is right, it is the only one there ever can be. So the only question for such people can be how to participate inside the matrix – and so the only question is ‘who do I vote for?’
I saw a McDonalds billboard advert the other week when I went to London: a huge image of a Big Mac, entitled “The gherkin debate”. Mainstream culture does not wish to discuss animal welfare, habitat destruction or obesity. No, we shall focus on the gherkin instead.
In a similar way, the whole political debate is about the surface and never about the roots, about policies and parties rather than about regimes. Self-serving institutions would never allow their existence to be morally challenged – that would make no sense (such challengers would be labelled terrorists). Those in control are just fine with the way things are – accept this or you do not belong. So the debate sticks to the surface, between people who usually seem nice and usually are nice; they as individuals are not the problem.
WW2 soldiers most likely fought against the idea of oppression (unless they were forced by their country to fight and had no choice). I doubt anyone fought for a system (an enduring system, not a particular leader or government) that sells over £12bn in arms to known repressive states. Or one that knowingly accelerates towards known emissions limits. Or one that, by design, enriches its top 5% at the expense of the 95%. This is something to act against daily, regardless of whether a brainwashing voting ritual is entered into every 4 years. Why would I vote for that? Non-participation in something filthy is the most important first step, surely.
Fracking, TTIP, tax evasion, expenses, climate change denial… have you ever looked up for a moment from whatever unsustainable device you’re holding, grabbed a handful of your hair and shouted “Hang on a minute, what the FUCK is going on?” The official debate excludes the most critical conversations – the roots are left outside the realm of discussion, in the same way an organisation excludes “external costs” like pollution and social consequences from its accounting practices. In this way, all are free to believe the system actually works. This orthodoxy is morally outrageous – and increasingly, as the truth becomes more difficult to obscure, so is the act of legitimising the orthodoxy.
The Greens might express a similar outrage, but they are powerless to change it if they choose to act through a system that is deeply conflicted against making fundamental changes. But it’s great that they are giving it a go; each to their own, right? At least they’re trying to get past the gherkin layer.
You can’t vote for change anyway, as the change lies outside the borders of where voting operates. Change lies in the wilderness, on the margins, beyond the current viewpoint. As in stories like Parzival, Jesus, Theseus or Dorothy in Oz, to have any chance of finding the truth, every person must disengage from orthodoxy and the immediate issues of livelihood, acknowledge ignorance, surround oneself with possibility, and return to the community with a more whole vision.
Return to the community. The whole issue of voting-democracy is itself merely scratching the surface. A spoiled ballot is merely symbolic, not any real action. Real action lies away from national orthodoxy. Until recently, the only viable way for humans, and still for every other organism, to live was through subsistence (the way of Enough rather than Growth), and through resilient communities (as being subsistent and alone usually means death), and through the absence of superstructures, apart from the governing laws of nature.
Rather than a grounding, ancient, nature-based ethos, I instead have shopping and business and competitive self-advancement. And while my head is kept looking down, the system I am pressured to vote for and legitimise promotes the National Interest through business deals and arms deals under an insane growth agenda.
Baby steps can only be taken towards a sustainable, subsistence, community-led way of living – or whatever other system real democracy chooses, that does not eat the future. But the first step, surely, is to actively withdraw participation in a system that does.
Sometimes songs can be like snogs. Or buses. Straight on the back of last week’s musical offering I have another.
This one is made in service of and out of love for Forest Row. It is not a sequel to last year’s, simply another outburst. A bit of spoken word, a bit of string quartet, a smattering of drum and a pinch of opera… and admittedly an additional motive attached.
Anyway, you’ll either see the video embedded below, or CLICK HERE
I can now confirm that it is immensely good fun to sing hanging upside down from a tree. It is always nice when dreams come true.
This was done for the Wild Network addressing the issue of nature words being dropped from the Oxford Junior Dictionary, and its link with the wider problem of nature being less and less in childrens’ lives. The Wild Network are running a petition to try and get some of these words put back…
England might get together and look down on France in the 6 Nations rugby. But Northerners in England rarely associate with lightweight southerners. But up north, Yorkshire and Lancashire have a long history of rivalry. West of the Pennines, Manchester might have a low opinion of Liverpool, but that’s nothing compared to what bubbles up when Man Utd and Man City meet. Altringham might look in disgust at Moss Side, but Park Road residents will often think the rest of Altringham is a bit common. Although Mrs Jones in number 5 thinks Mrs Smith next door is a bit ill-bred for Park Road.
Drawing boundaries is often abstract, and also seems to create difference and tension. But the thickest, most guarded boundaries tend to be the ones around nations. I wonder whether the concept of Nation has had its time and needs to take a back seat for the sake of a functioning future.
Aside from their role as culture containers and identity providers, nations are administrative units for management of people and resources. And it really doesn’t look like they are very good ones any more. They seem to get in the way of vital change, which leads me to question the legitimacy of the unit, its leaders and its apparatus.
There’s a lot of worrying stuff in the world today (need I even bother naming a handful?) that requires urgent attention. If anything meaningful is going to be achieved, the vast majority of this attention needs to addressed either at the community level, or at a global level. Or in most cases, both. At either end, nations tend to do more damage than good.
Nations, with slick administrators representing them, pursue the (somehow) morally acceptable “national interest” – abstract competitive dynamics similar to England vs. France in the rugby – which causes great harm. Identifying with a nation creates a highly fragmented view of the world, and a distortion and limitation of responsibility: it stops at this border here, the rest is their responsibility. So often, care for others seems to be eradicated in the pursuit of self / national interest (for example, the UK’s accelerating emissions from its economic expansion which will lead to many deaths in the southern hemisphere… but that is their problem).
And whose interest is the national interest exactly? I’ll leave the capable Russell Brand to lead that debate, but it’s another wobbly leg of my diminishing patriotism.
Nations are usually BIG. 60 million people. Communities don’t seem to work when they get too big. They aren’t communities any more. I even noticed this happen when an office I worked in grew above 10 people. Things get very complex and unmanageable, it turns into an organisation and human-ness evaporated. Trying to treat a nation like a community just invites confusion; they have different ends. So what seems to happen instead is a common identity gets manufactured, a British Brand, and promoted to a bunch of people who have little more in common than that their skin colour used to be the same 100 years ago, or that they live on the same island. Easier to control and administrate, I guess.
Worst of all, the bigger a community gets, the more damage it can do. A village community is limited in what havoc it can wreak. Forest Row lacks the resources (and desire) to develop drone bombers. A nation adopting a monoculture and directing its resources towards its political and economic interests causes catastrophe. 500 violent civilian deaths in Iraq so far this month.
Nature usually provides working examples of how to design things that don’t blow up (apart from volcanoes of course). Nations don’t feature in nature. Diversity does. In a mature rainforest, you can find yourself in a different ecosystem within 10 minutes of walking. It is almost pointless to give the Amazon Rainforest one name as if it’s a single area that can be designated.
The alternative to nations is not articulated or agreed on yet. But for me, a good first move is to withdraw as much support as possible from my nation and its agenda, and pour it into my community. With the aid of the internet, empowered self-reliant communities can cater for gaps in resource or skill, and can find effective ways to collaborate around global issues to address the hideous global damage that nations have achieved to date. And the rest of the time could be spent putting right the hideous local damage that has happened, restoring a better state of being – where humans have a true sense of belonging, and lives influenced by other people who actually care.
A lot of ecology-related words have become highly politically charged – sustainability, environment, climate change etc – to the point where they seem to have lost all power to engage. To restore the words’ meaning and help me understand again, I often find it useful to visit the woods, especially ancient woodland.
Mature ecosystems are mind-blowingly impressive and complex feats of design. Marvel, for example, at the perfect and endless cycle of life and death. One thing’s death provides life for another. Waste is food. Decay and growth rely on each other. There are no piles of rubbish pushed outside the wood, and the beetles have no means to ship it to China. It is healthy and whole. I suppose the ancient woodland achieves ancientness exactly because of this.
Any condition other than zero waste is what “unsustainable” means. That is why spiders do not make loom bands and woodpeckers don’t use power tools. This is why they still exist. Humans, however, have begun taking things like chlorine and hydrocarbons, and mixing them together to make toxic compounds that the earth has never had to deal with before, and we spray it over the ground which is where food comes from. We make rather a lot of nasty waste that no-one can have a use for. We make cars and batteries and convince ourselves this can last.
I ponder this as I drag my overflowing wheelie bin to the edge of my domain for someone else to take it I don’t know where. My wheelie bin violates that basic Law of Waste that disqualifies me from being part of a mature, healthy system; disqualifies my existence past a certain (approaching) deadline. It doesn’t feel this way from my armchair, but Progress has been steadily transforming a highly sophisticated ancient ecosystem into an immature, malfunctioning one.
It feels like we are coming to the end of a degenerative phase of evolution. There’s no exact date at which this phase started – the invention of writing perhaps, or farming, or electricity. Anything that dramatically boosts human productivity and fills wheelie bins, anything that produces waste rather than food, is broken and doomed. Our civilisation has become huge and destructive enough, in an enclosed and finite space, to threaten its own existence. And, belatedly, is provoking increasing numbers of participants to sense its demise.
Sadly, we are not also on the cusp of a regenerative phase, just because climate change is reaching the top of the agenda. Not as long as we think that switching to a hybrid car is the solution, or throwing our batteries into special Hazardous Household Waste bins. If a person achieves the factual insight into what havoc is involved (read this maybe) in manufacturing and then disposing of any type of car – regardless of the driving part – combined with an equally factual but also spiritual insight (which can’t be got from Upworthy I’m afraid) into how the soil, water and air that’s getting filled with waste is the stuff that nurtures all living things, an extension of ourselves, then behaviour in that person would surely change. It is the only thing that can happen when a healthy human has such an insight…
But I do not seem to be healthy – must be all that physical, mental and spiritual waste everywhere – so there is little or no behaviour change… and out rolls my wheelie bin filled with another fortnight’s Progress.
None of this truth is a pretty picture, and maybe that’s why it is so staggeringly ignored. It is natural that this should be the source of huge underlying anxiety for those who seek to deny it, a source of deep despair for those who have just begun to confront it, and a source of profound inspiration and motivation for those who have accepted the truth and are moved to action.
So what can I do, as despair starts to seize me? Funnily enough, despair is a rather important thing, which can be invited in. It reflects a deep forgotten love for life. Once digested, it leads to gratitude and positive action. There is always a scary guardian at the gate…
If I spare the time to stand in the woods and have a real look, or to stand by my wheelie bin a few moments longer and gaze at what I am contributing to my own ecosystem, I might begin to make a few simple connections and actually begin to give a shit. Or at least acknowledge that I am too lost in fear, comfort and powerlessness to do anything, but allow the productive forces of despair to commence their good work on me. Anything will do, anything except numbness and indifference. Anything but a wasted life.
I think I might have just accepted my last call from charities I used to support.
Back when I was earning enough money to pay tax, I also gave quite a lot to charity (not “a lot” in comparison to what I was spending on myself, but enough to make me feel like it was a lot). So I still get calls from these charities. But I found myself asking to be removed from their contact list last week, and I’m trying to properly work out why (besides not having a job).
Perhaps my main concern is my old mistake of seeing financial donations as being enough, and as a justification to carry on doing what I’m doing the rest of the time. Giving money in place of direct action is efficient and organised, but only momentarily thoughtful, and also disconnected from the underlying problem which is kept at a safe distance by automatic electronic monthly standing orders. I guess I no longer want that insulation.
Often it left me disconnected because I was supporting causes on the other side of the world. Often I would neglect smaller actions on my doorstep; small actions can easily be dismissed or left unattempted because they are not large-scale and directly life-saving (they also involve a bit more effort). But increasingly I get the feeling that troubles abroad are caused by a sickness in my own culture at home, a culture which maybe requires the exploitation of poorer cultures in order to thrive. So it’s more comfortable to focus on the distant cultures.
I see much salesmanship in the charity sector these days, and it concerns me and puts me off – charities smell increasingly like corporations to me, so I worry about what might have happened to the underlying principles. The lines between corporate and charity get increasingly blurred… can charities address a problem at its root when the root is also the hand that feeds them? Fundraising specialists call me up and market the terrible things happening and the wonderful work being done. It is not that I don’t think good work is being done on the ground in many cases, or that the fundraiser herself doesn’t care. It just all feels a bit impressively presented and conveniently packaged, like a little blue pill with a smiley face on it, and too many steps removed from reality to allow true compassion to get a look in. Just sympathy and good intentions. Which are good, but not enough. Doesn’t matter! – all I’m being asked for is money.
I can pay NSPCC to stop cruelty to children, and a cleaner to clean my house, a school to educate my kids and an au-pair to play with them, and Amazon or Tesco to deliver my shopping. It’s part of a clever outsourcing model, of institutional solutions. While the elements of my life are carried out by paid representatives, I can focus on getting paid to provide some other specialisation for someone else, like turning wilderness into holiday homes or persuading people to consume more sugar. If all goes well, I need never get paid a visit by my own responsibilities, or give further thought, care or time to the outside world.
But along the way, I contribute towards the creation of long-distance problems… which large charities can get their teeth into… funded by donations I earned causing the problem. From a human perspective, this sounds insane – it’s a model of dependence and therefore lack of freedom, and a fragmented, harmful life. From a business perspective, on the other hand, it sounds like a Healthy Economy. And anything that boosts the economy feels justifiable. But the truth obscured by this disastrous mindset is that I cannot outsource my own responsibility and detachment has no honest justification.
I’m not saying that I think giving money to charity is wrong; that would be stupid. But it’s part of an overall system design that is clever and convenient, but deeply wrong.
So I’d rather practise doing some of the thinking and caring myself, rather than pay an organisation. As an individual, I won’t be saving any lives, I expect. But it feels closer to an alternative that tries not to exploit, poison or impoverish in the first place.