Falling away

London Mar 15 2008 Stop the War protest AB 8

It is a pretty dire time to be on the centre-left in Britain. The Conservatives won an unexpected outright majority fifteen months ago. Labour was wiped out in Scotland at the hands of the SNP, which, however progressive it seems, is first and foremost about nationalism. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats were reduced to just eight MPs. Continue reading Falling away

Book review: The Wellness Syndrome by Carl Cederström and André Spicer

wellness-955796_1920.jpgFor anyone who has ever harboured doubts about the benefit of wearing a Fitbit or adopting the Paleo diet (where you only eat food eaten by early humans) this is the book for you. Carl Cederström and André Spicer explore the ‘wellness syndrome’. It has become a moral obligation, they argue, to constantly strive towards wellbeing. It is a never-ending task, leading to “anxiety, self-blame and guilt”.

The underlying philosophy of wellness programmes is that the individual has the power to overcome obstacles in their personal and professional life through thinking and acting differently. As examples in the book demonstrate, this is presented as the solution for challenges ranging from dealing with cancer to becoming rich. Continue reading Book review: The Wellness Syndrome by Carl Cederström and André Spicer

Book review: This is London by Ben Judah

UK Border, Heathrow

This article was published on Backbench

The arguments made in the media for and against low-skilled immigration normally come from the well-heeled opinion-forming professions, rather than from immigrants themselves. Thus there is a tendency to romanticise or demonise immigrants and their plight: the benefit scrounger, the job stealer, the self-made chaser of a British version of the American Dream. We rarely hear from those who constitute these supposed categories. The main strength of Ben Judah’s This is London is that it gives them a voice. Each chapter involves meeting one or more immigrant, from all over the world and in all sorts of jobs, from beggars to tube workers to carers. The point hammered home, from the title onwards, is that London is now a city of immigrants (the book tells us in the first few pages that at least 55% of Londoners are not ethnically British and that nearly 40% of Londoners were born abroad). Continue reading Book review: This is London by Ben Judah

Book review: Trigger Warning by Mike Hume

Manifestation Charlie Hebdo Toulouse, 10 janvier 2015 (4)

A shortened version of this article appeared on Backbench

At universities in the States and the UK, those with opinions deemed offensive are banned from speaking, in the name of providing ‘safe spaces’. Language related to trauma has been appropriated by campaigners to police what topics cannot be raised. Instead of university being a place to explore taboos and debate in complete openness, speakers must avoid controversy. In an environment which is supposed to prepare for the real world, a world full of people with reactionary and offensive opinions, students are not taught to deal with attitudes they disagree with: instead they can shut them out.

The aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack represented another backlash against free speech: many implicitly blamed the magazine for bringing the attack upon itself, by publishing cartoons which some found offensive. Instead of championing the right to cause offence, or even using the same standards they would apply to Christianity or an ideology like nationalism, some liberals followed the reasoning of the extremists: that Muslims need to be protected from blasphemous images. In his book “The Fallout: How a Guilty Liberal Lost his Innocence” Andrew Anthony describes certain reactions to the 9/11 attacks. There was “the alternative analysis” for the event; the ‘it’s terrible, but…’ analysis in which the first three words are simply “the decorative part of the equation” before a condemnation of the USA. Fourteen years on, the reaction to the Paris attacks adopted a similar approach, with Western intervention in the Middle East/Islamophobia/Israel/the cartoons at fault. Continue reading Book review: Trigger Warning by Mike Hume

Book review: Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler

Barneveld, Wisconsin - 101109

Nickolas Butler started writing Shotgun Lovesongs racked with loneliness in an uninspiring rented room in a woman’s house away from home. It’s exactly how one of the protagonists of the book, musician Leland Sutton, writes his first album, also called Shotgun Lovesongs. The book and the album also share a key motif: the awe the artist has for where he calls home. Butler grew up in a Wisconsin town called Eau Claire, which in the book is next to the fictional town of Little Wing where Leland (or Lee) and his friends come from, and where most of the action is set. (Incidentally, Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon is from Eau Claire and went to school with Butler, and so is perhaps a template for the character of Lee.) Continue reading Book review: Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler

(Short) book review: Meltdown by Ben Elton

Ben Elton’s 2009 book Meltdown is the story of the rise and fall of a City trader and his rich university friends. It is, as becomes apparent quite early on in the book, a story of the New Labour years from the view of the upper-middle class: the easy money, the convenient ability to earn bucket loads of cash while easing liberal guilt by telling yourself you are doing something which helps others, and the expectation that everything inevitably will continue getting better. Continue reading (Short) book review: Meltdown by Ben Elton

Nudge book review

English: Cigarette pack in Turkey
Nudging in action (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The theory behind Nudge, like the best theories, is based on simple truths and common sense. The decisions people make are not always based on logic, but on bias, temptation, inertia and social influence. Essentially, human frailties mean we don’t always make the best decisions for ourselves, especially when the decisions are tough and complex, when some of the implications are far in the future, when we don’t make them often or when we don’t get clear feedback. Unfortunately these particular circumstances often arise when we have to make big decisions: how (and whether) to save for a pension, for example. In such cases, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein argue, we should be given a ‘nudge’: something which gently guides us towards the recommended course of action without forcing. Continue reading Nudge book review